- New Materialism's Second Phase
Language matters. Discourse matters. Culture matters. There is an important sense in which the only thing that does not seem to matter anymore is matter.—Karen Barad, "Posthumanist Performativity," 2003
Almost twenty years have passed since Karen Barad launched her now widely cited polemic against the dominance of textualism in critical theory. Since then, the slogan of materialism has resonated across the humanities and social sciences, leading ultimately to the emergence and consolidation of a new set of academic agendas. Today, objects matter, affects matter, intensities matter, cyborgs matter, and yes, even matter itself matters. And yet, there is an important sense in which this turn to matter has made other matters not matter that much anymore. As new interests take center stage and old ones fade to the background, it may be pertinent at this point to ask ourselves: Are we missing out on something?
That question is currently being raised by some of the very same scholars who initially incited the move beyond discourse, language, and culture. Within and around the field of new materialism, several key figures now return to topics that one would think were out of date in view of polemics like Barad's. In her latest book, Rosi Braidotti, for instance, explores [End Page 309] the development of "posthuman knowledge"; Elizabeth Grosz examines the ontology of "the incorporeal"; and N. Katherine Hayles similarly grapples with the socalled "cognitive nonconscious."1 For these thinkers, in other words, what matters now is not just matter but knowledge, immateriality, and consciousness. New materialism, it seems, has entered a second phase.
With Jane Bennett's new book Influx and Efflux: Writing Up with Walt Whitman (2020), we can add another key scholar to that list. As the author of Vibrant Matter (2010), Bennett played an important role in making matter matter by laying out the workings of nonhuman assemblages, thing power, and materialist vitalism with charismatic wit and philosophical ingenuity. While her new work certainly extends these insights and interests, however, it also differs significantly by placing what appears to be an anthropocentric concept—subjectivity—at the center of its inquiry. Rather than explicating the liveliness of things, Bennett now asks: "How to bespeak an I alive in a world of vibrant matter? How to write up its efforts and endeavors?" (xii).
To explore these questions, Bennett turns to the writings of Walt Whitman, whose poetry in particular provides attitudes, sensibilities, and visions that fit the purpose of developing a new materialist model of subjectivity. In depicting the lyrical "I" as a partaker of the constant fluctuations in his/her natural environment, Whitman helps Bennett to re-envision the subject, not as that which is subjected to discourse but as that which emerges in between the body's impressions and its expressions, a kind of hovering in the midst of the influx and efflux of the world. Nevertheless, Bennett's main concern with Whitman, I believe, is not just to develop an alternative ontology of the "I" but rather to explore a new materialist virtue ethics of sorts. At least, major parts of the book pivot on the question of character, as she investigates the kinds of subjective disposition we need to develop in order to advance a truly democratic and egalitarian world that recognizes the multitudes of life within as well as outside the human.
To be sure, Whitman provides Bennett with several provocative suggestions for that endeavor. In anonymous newspaper scribbles, Bennett shows, he airs the idea that the right corporeal "posture" and "gait" can influence political and moral character in favorable ways (Chapter 1). He also leads Bennett to see the democratic sensibilities of the "I" as reflections of a larger "sympathy," perceived here as a cosmological attitude manifest in the Earth's acceptance of all its elements and inhabitants (Chapter 2). And he urges us in general, she argues, to postpone "judgment," to suck in impressions and suspend [End Page 310] obstinate opinion making in favor of an open and complaisant kind of "hovering...