A “New Tradition” in Thought
Chapter 5 (“The Transversality of New Materialism”) focuses on three ways in which new materialism can be called “transversal.” So far we have seen that new materialism is a cultural theory that does not privilege matter over meaning or culture over nature. It explores a monist perspective, devoid of the dualisms that have dominated the humanities (and sciences) until today, by giving special attention to matter, which has been so neglected by dualist thought. Cartesian dualism, after all, has favored mind. As concerns feminist literary theory in the deconstructive paradigm, for instance, it has been noted that:
It is this kind of scholarship, according to Jonathan Culler, but also according to DeLanda (as seen in the interview above) that attempts to provoke a shift in thought, but which continues the dominant scholarly mode of thinking. And whereas this act of reclaiming thought has been important for feminism, it has not spurred a revolution in thought (as we will explain in Chapters 5 and 7). New materialism wants to set such a revolution in motion, and for this reason it has a renewed interest in philosophical monism or in the philosophy of immanence. New materialism, as a transversally new intellectual orientation, works through the transcendental and humanist (dualist) traditions that haunt cultural theory, and finds itself transversally on the brink of both the modern and the post-postmodern eras. The transcendental and humanist traditions, despite being manifold, are consistently predicated on dualist structures. New materialists open up the paradoxes inherent in those traditions by creating concepts that traverse the fluxes of matter and mind, body and soul, nature and culture, and opens up active theory formation. The three transversalities discussed in Chapter 5 concern disciplinarity, paradigms, and the spatiotemporality of theory—that is, the cartographical methodology introduced in the interview with Braidotti.
Chapter 6 (“Pushing Dualism to an Extreme”) discusses the way in which new materialism constitutes a philosophy of difference or immanence by working through or “traversing” the dualisms that form the backbone of modernist thought. This chapter dives immediately into the epistemological or even methodological dimension of new materialism itself as displayed by the interviewees in Part One. Continuing the transversal ideas of Lyotard, Deleuze, and Bruno Latour about the temporality of theory formation, new materialists have set themselves to a rewriting of all possible and impossible forms of emancipation. This rewriting exercise involves a movement in thought that, in the words of Henri Bergson ( 2004, 236), can be termed “push[ing] dualism to an extreme.” By this movement, Deleuze ( 1994, 45) has stated that “difference is pushed to the limit,” that is to say, “difference” is “shown differing” (ibid., 68; emphasis in original). The chapter addresses the new materialist ways in which modernity’s dualisms (structured by a negative relation between terms) are traversed, and how a new conceptualization of difference (structured by an affirmative relation) comes to be constituted along the way. This conceptualization of difference leaves behind all prioritizations (implicitly) involved in modern dualist thinking, since a difference structured by affirmation does not work with predetermined relations (e.g. between mind and body) nor does it involve a counter-hierarchy between terms. The chapter makes explicit the methodology of the current-day rise of non-dualist thought, both in terms of its non-classificatory mode of (Deleuzian) thinking, and in terms of the theory of the time of thought thus effectuated (Lyotard’s notion of “rewriting modernity” is not a postmodernism). We conclude by demonstrating how this new materialism traverses the sexual dualisms that structure modernist feminist thinking, anticipating the next chapter that includes a re-reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex ( 2010), mainly through the work of Elizabeth Grosz. This short demonstration forms the bridge to Chapter 7.
The seventh chapter (“Sexual Differing”) envisions a new way of mapping the relations between the sexes by moving beyond sex, sexual difference, and gender. Instead of the epistemological groundwork for a new conceptualization of difference, this chapter is interested in new materialism’s ontology of difference itself. In the dominant reception of the work of de Beauvoir, finding its apotheosis in the work of Butler, feminists overthrow sex and sexual difference in favor of gender. What we propose in a new materialist spirit is that gender, with which a revolution in thought was intended, did not produce the desired effect. Theorists of gender position themselves in dualistic opposition to theorists of sexual difference, and end up re-affirming sexual difference in its narrowest definition (the biological essentialism of sex). All forms of identity politics, as shown in the interviews summarized by the Culler citation above, involve dualism, and need to be opened up and set in motion. Counter-intuitively, a true revolution in thought does not consist of the dualistic overthrow of a seemingly outdated framework. Similar to Deleuze’s rejection of Otherness that runs through a great deal of the new materialist work, we show how a revolution in thought entails the affirmation of the thinking process—that is, a practical philosophy. This chapter in line with the preceding chapter, proposes the setting up of a new materialist theory of sexual difference as a practical philosophy in which concept and creation are considered as intertwined. Re-reading de Beauvoir affirmatively, a sexual differing can be made apparent that has an eye for the material (“sex”) and the discursive (“gender”) in their mutual entanglement, thus shifting identity politics and biological essentialism in favor of a performative ontology, as well as the dominant conceptualization of a “revolution in thought.” In the practical philosophical process, then, the present comes about as creating the past and the future: de Beauvoir (the past) is being re-read (the present), while working towards the future of feminist thought. Through our so-called case study on sex, gender, and sexual difference, we show how the new materialism is a practical philosophy that makes way for thinking metamorphoses regarding—along with sex—“race,” class, and the other so-called axes of social difference.
Finally, in the eighth chapter (“The End of (Wo)Man”), we engage most directly with new materialism’s new metaphysics by discussing its post-humanism or a-humanism. We start from the work of Foucault, on whose work all interviewees took a position. When Foucault in The Order of Things ([1966/1970] 1994) announced that man was only a recent invention, he added a permanent question mark to the humanist and modernist traditions that had dominated European thought for over two centuries. In his recently published accompanying dissertation Introduction to Kant’s Anthropology (2008, submitted in 1961) he gives us an even more thorough perspective on how anthropocentrism has shaped our (dualist) thinking, and how it has actually distorted our strategies of studying the real. His views can definitely be considered the opening statements of new materialism, especially because Foucault in his later work has shown in so many ways how bodies (think of prisons, for instance) and the words within which they are enveloped (think of “delinquency”) act only in entanglement with one another, and that the human being acts within the actualization and realization of these discursive forces. Recently, Meillassoux’s After Finitude ( 2008) proposed another re-reading of Kant that suggests that Foucault has not pushed things far enough (as Meillassoux explained in his interview).
Not even referring to Foucault in his book, Meillassoux’s interests in ancestrality proposes us to think the real without it first being represented in the human mind, which, according to Meillassoux, is still the common practice in what is called post–critical theory (which probably includes Foucault). Meillassoux, continuing themes found in the early writings of Alain Badiou, together with other speculative thinkers such as Ray Brassier and Graham Harman, thus intends to fulfill Kant’s Copernican revolution of the mind by proposing a radical anti-anthropocentrism, which refuses to see truth only in how it can possibly appear to the human mind. Instead, he proposes an understanding of truth (or nature) through mathematics. We will show how Meillassoux’s speculative materialism differs from the positions of other prominent contemporary materialists such as Barad and DeLanda. These authors, though also inspired by the natural sciences, emphasize that phenomena reveal themselves from their relations. However, we will also demonstrate how a coherence can be created between these new materialists that, after having worked through humanism and the different differences it gave rise to, asks how much (wo)man we need at all. Without intending to come to a fixed conclusion, we can see that the different developments in new materialist thinking leave us with many questions in both the sciences and the humanities on the role of the human being in the morphogenesis of the real. This book, together with the new materialist scholars it interviews and discusses, wishes to provide a methodological opening for these ontological questions.
The “new” in new materialism is not a term that accepts or continues a classificatory historiography of (academic) thinking that necessarily comes with a hierarchy or any kind of a priori logic. New materialism affirms that such hierachized specialization creates “minds in a groove” whereas “there is no groove of abstractions which is adequate for the comprehension of human life” (Whitehead  1997, 197). New materialism does not intend to add yet another specialized epistemology to the tree of academic knowledge production (Deleuze and Guattari  1987, 5). As such, it is thus not necessarily opposed to the crude or Historical/Marxist materialist tradition. It is not necessarily different from any other materialist, pragmatic or monist tradition either, since it carefully “works through” all these traditions in order to avoid, along with the trap of antagonism, the trap of anachronism (Lyotard  1991, 26–7) or of “a retrograde movement” (Bergson  2007, 11). New materialism says “yes, and” to all of these intellectual traditions, traversing them all, creating strings of thought that, in turn, create a remarkably powerful and fresh “rhythm” in academia today (Simondon  1980).
New materialism’s metaphysics follows from an interdisciplinary development in thought, whose backbone is a strong interest in Continental philosophy. Yet it seems to have no difficulty in opening up these thoughts to Anglo-American thought, and actually makes their intermingling productive. Yet this is nothing “new.” There are many examples in which Continental and Anglo-American thought have been moving in similar directions, as scholars were consciously or unconsciously inspired by a radical thought they felt to be present beneath what was known. After all, just like Alfred North Whitehead’s plea for “wandering” through and beyond grooves (Whitehead  1997, 207), Lyotard’s “working through” is “a working attached to a thought of what is constitutively hidden from us in the event and in the meaning of the event” (Lyotard  1991, 26). Or in the words of Bergson, “As though the thing and the idea of the thing, its reality and its possibility, were not created at one stroke when a truly new form, invented by art or nature is concerned!” (Bergson  2007, 11). Good ideas are never bothered by space or time. From Bergson to Whitehead and Lyotard, from Louis Hjelmslev to Benedict Spinoza, from Foucault to British Cultural Studies, and from quantum physics to contemporary feminist theory—time and again, new thoughts travel easily and have always already announced themselves when the conditions are right (De Boever et al. 2009).
One could even claim that the break between Continental and Anglo-American thought, or the divide between the sciences and the humanities as C.P. Snow ( 1965) expressed it in his famous 1950 essay “The Two Cultures,” were not so much states that were noticed, but were actually prompted by philosophers of science themselves. Snow’s taxonomy created and eventually overcoded this radical distinction he claimed to have merely observed (cf. Kirby 2008a). Such major Historiographies, to speak again with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, are not so much critiqued by new materialism. Instead, they are being read in their relations to the minor historiographies which often result in the appearance of alternative new trajectories. It is in this sense that the “materialism” of new materialism is also not exclusive. It is not embraced in opposition to transcendental thinking, but instead re-reads metaphysics as a whole from a “natureculture” perspective, as science studies would call it (Latour  1993, Haraway 2003). The new materialist practice of reading as re-reading, together with the readings proposed by new materialist scholars, perform its new metaphysics.
New materialism wants to do justice to the “material-semiotic,” or “material-discursive” character of all events, as Donna Haraway (1988, 595) and Karen Barad (2003, 810) would call it. It is interested in actualizing a metaphysics that fully affirms the active role played by matter in “receiving” a form (cf. Simondon 2009, 4). Working through Cartesian or modernist dualisms, new materialism has set itself to practice the Spinozist dictum that the mind is always already an idea of the body, while the body is the object of the mind (Spinoza  2001, E2P21, Schol.). In terms of artworks, for instance, a new materialist perspective would be interested in finding out how the form of content (the material condition of the artwork) and the form of expression (the sensations as they come about) are being produced in one another, how series of statements are actualized, and how pleats of matter are realized in the real (Deleuze and Guattari  1987, 89; cf. Bolt and Barrett eds. forthcoming). In this way, new materialism is different from most post-Kantian studies of art, since in these studies, the material and discursive dimensions are treated separately. After a short description of the materials used following a “crude materialism,” the contemporary scholar influenced by the so-called “linguistic turn” proceeds to deconstruct its messages. New materialism allows for the study of the two dimensions in their entanglement: the experience of a piece of art is made up of matter and meaning. The material dimension creates and gives form to the discursive, and vice versa. Similar to what happens with the artwork, new materialism sets itself to rewriting events that are usually only of interest to natural scientists. Here it becomes apparent that a new materialist take on “nature” will be shown to be transposable to the study of “culture” and vice versa, notwithstanding the fact that these transpositions are not unilinear. After all, “transposition” is at work in music as well as genetics (Braidotti 2006, 5).
Thinking in such a way reveals to us a “[…] new form of materialist philosophy in which raw matter-energy through a variety of self-organizing processes and an intense power of morphogenesis, generates all the structures that surround us” (DeLanda 1996, n.p.). Studying these metamorphoses as they happen through the formation of content and expression, that is, through the entanglement of materiality and meaning in the widest sense of the word, new materialist thinking allows us to write such a metamorphosis not by excluding parts of it beforehand, but by at least being open to the process in its full manifestation. We need this new materialism because, whether it concerns earthquakes, art, social revolutions, or simply thinking, the material and the discursive are only taken apart in the authoritative gesture of the scholar or by the common-sensical thinker; while in the event, in life itself, the two seeming layers are by all means indiscernible. New materialism wants to move away from the authoritative scholarly attitude and from everyday utilitarian common sense, and wants to engross itself in what is “ontologically prior” (Massumi 2002, 66).
As an important but poorly defined force in contemporary academia, new materialism stands in need of conceptualization, and this second part of the book provides it. We bring together important scholars and texts that have contributed to the new materialism, and by showing the coherence in their (implicit) dialogue, by demonstrating their joint movements, we allow for a natureculture metaphysics of the ontologically prior to be actualized. But we do not map this new tradition from a distance. In this book, we add to new materialism as much as we perform a new engagement with canonical and minor academic literatures. In keeping with new materialism’s interdisciplinarity, our mapping shows us how new materialist accounts are similar to certain (empirical) tendencies in accounting for nature on the one hand and cognitive accounts of culture and nature on the other.