New (Vital) Materialisms


Reviewing my reading notes, I’m not sure what to say about the excellent edited volume, New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics edited by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost. I’m looking at it as a sister, cross-over companion to Material Feminisms edited by Stacy Alaimo and Susan Heckman, about which I posted earlier. The contributors to the collection perform the same swerve away from the postmodern linguistic turn and critical or dialectical materialism to mark out new ways to think about materiality, all of under the signs of Gilles Deleuze and Donna Haraway.

What I now find curious, after having read and since put down the volume for a week or two, is that in reviewing my reading notes, I’m finding very little in specific around which to focus my thoughts. My sense is that has much to do with what is already the general diffusion of a kind of thinking that centers on bodies and vibrant notions of matter, not seen as dead and brute, but rather as latent with life and even agency.

I’m of mixed mind. Much of the literature trades on scientific claims about which humanities scholars enjoy no serious capacity to assess one way or the other. The easiest choice would be to simply defer judgment to biologists, botanists, zoologists, and others who might best be able to judge much of the intellectual posture here. But that would be to mistake what this kind of theoretical literature does, which is to leach from the sciences a more generalizable way to say interesting (hopefully) about this or that topic of interest, in this case bodies and matter.

For those of us in Jewish philosophy, Religion Studies and modern philosophy of religion, this more generalizable way of thinking is especially important given the stakes in some early twentieth century thought that picks up on the vitalist impulse in Nietzsche and Bergson to pursue theological questions. Many of the authors in this volume pick up on the vitalism in a critical way to be sure, but for their own constructive purposes.

What I’m taking away for my own current research purposes is a kind of general thinking drawn from throughout this volume relating to embryology, entelechy, the inorganic, actuality and possibility, potential and freedom, and human being enveloped in and shot through by larger life worlds.

As always I can’t help but wonder if it is a Christian impulse  that accounts for what might be seen as an over-excitedness that troubles this kind of writing. The writers often seem to write as if this time, once and for all, we have really finished off God and metaphysics by overcoming the barrier in thought between consciousness and the vital life of the world.

This conceit runs parallel to the conceit of the old avant-garde discussed by Peter Bürger and others against the bifurcation of art and “life.” About this I’ll write more at another time, but for now I’d register this skepticism. At one, an attempt is made to make sense of why people outside this discourse might be averse to the impersonalism assumed as a given throughout much of this book. The question is answered in a glib way, as if we can write off that intellectual resistance, that residue  of humanism, to ignorance and limited viewpoint. It comes up a lot in the literature. I would resist in particular the elitist assumption that progressive thinkers live more intensely and more aware than other people (cf. pp.120, 209-11).

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to New (Vital) Materialisms

  1. dmf says:

    when Object-Oriented-Ontology started to get some buzz (a related branch of the new materialisms tree) I imagined some newly converted philosophy/sociology/etc undergrad running into a physics/chemistry lab to announce the good news that physical objects/materials have active properties, how disconnected from science does one have to be to get so enthused along such lines? now a more intriguing (tho more wrong-headed) aspect of these movements is those on the panpsychic end (do you know the work of ?) of the spectrum that has some obvious appeal to. cross-over with process minded and newagey theological thinkers.
    my own preference is the pragmatists like Jane Bennett (with her strategic animism) Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway who really are focused not on a new meta-physics but on new experiments in human doings, sciences being among the things that people do, anthropo-logoi if you will.

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