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  • Steamy
  • Jeffrey T. Nealon (bio)

Let me begin with a blurb written by Rita Felski, author of The Limits of Critique, for Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter, arguably post-critique's most successful venture: "This manifesto for a new materialism is an invigorating breath of fresh air. Jane Bennett's eloquent tribute to the vitality and volatility of things is just what we need to revive the humanities and to redraw the boundaries of political thought."1

If we survey what's happened in and around the humanities since 2010, when Bennett's book was published and new materialist post-critique debuted as the Terry Gross-style "fresh air" destined "to revive the humanities," we'd have to admit the obvious: rather than post-critique being the god that could save us now, the new paradigm that would sweep to dominance and make us relevant again, we've instead been vexed to nightmare by budget and tenure-line job cuts, disappearing students, and a number of self-inflicted Twitter wounds too numerous to elaborate. But I'm more interested here in the nomenclature of critical "steam"—insofar as, from its inception in Bruno Latour all the way to this journal issue, the steam metaphor is based on very recognizable marketing logic, or "next big thing" thinking: in short, the "Steam or No Steam?" gameshow format (as in, "affect studies—steam or no steam?") reinforces the sense that Kuhnian paradigm shifts (or less generously, neoliberal innovations in the product line) are the fuel for the engine of disciplinary progress, and more specifically that the entire academic enterprise is driven by steamy new scholarly publication protocols and their concomitant acronyms: ANT, OOO, various other OMGs, WTFs, and shiny innovative modes of adjectival reading (as in post-critical, distant, reparative, descriptive, surface, distracted, hyper, and so on). All this emphasis on critical "steam" (as newness or hotness) reinforces the sense that such heavyweight paradigm bouts are the central powering mechanisms of a discipline.

So just let me say right out of the gate: from my point of view, it's not this or that theoretical paradigm that has run out of steam, but rather it's the very act of chasing the "next big thing" within critical paradigms that has run out of steam. Or it may be that, when it comes to thinking about theory and what makes it tick, chasing the next big idea was never anything other than a big ole Cleveland Steamer. [End Page 537]

In any case, it seems clear that new materialism or post-critical realism is fashionable in theory today largely because its arch-nemesis social constructionism has run aground; there are just no new articles, books or dissertations to be written about the social construction of x or y. And to many jaundiced post-critical eyes, it looks like those social-construction years were tragically hubristic as well, with the tenets of the linguistic turn harboring a secret investment in what turns out to be an earth-destroying humanism. As Jane Bennett writes in "Systems and Things: On Vital Materialism and Object-Oriented Philosophy," almost all of these recent post-critical models "share a critique of linguistic and social constructivism" and thereby "see the nonhuman turn as a response to an overconfidence about human power that was embedded in the postmodernism of the 1980s and 1990s" (Bennett 2015, 227). As an aside here, one might note that critique in the modern, Kantian sense is grounded in a severely austere humility concerning the power of human logos, not a celebration of its unbounded powers to know everything—the one point of agreement that made postmodernism and Kant such unlikely bedfellows. As Theodor Adorno insists, "The crucial feature of the Kantian work…is that it is guided by the conviction that reason is denied the right to stray into the realm of the Absolute. … The power of the Critique of Pure Reason resides not so much in responses to the so-called metaphysical questions as in its highly heroic and stoical refusal to respond to these questions in the first place" (Adorno 2001, 6-7). In fact, it completely escapes me how turning back toward realist metaphysical...


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