Research

1. The Concept of Matter in the New Materialist Tradition

Rick Dolphijn


In academia, revolutionary and radical ideas are actualized through an engagement with scholars and scholarly traditions of the canonized past. Contemporary generations read, or more often reread older texts, resulting in “new” readings that do not fit the dominant reception of these texts. Also, academics tend to draw in scholars from an unforeseen past, those who come from a different academic canon or who have been somewhat forgotten. It is in the resonances between old and new readings and re-readings that a “new metaphysics” might announce itself. Manuel DeLanda and Rosi Braidotti – independently of one another – first started using “neo-materialism” or “new materialism” in the second half of the 1990s, for a cultural theory that does not privilege the side of culture, but focuses on what Donna Haraway would call “naturecultures” or what Bruno Latour simply referred to as “collectives”. The term proposes a cultural theory that radically rethinks the dualisms so central to our (post-) modern thinking and always starts its analysis from how these oppositions (between nature and culture, matter and mind, the human and the inhuman) are produced in action itself. It thus has a profound interest in the morphology of change and gives special attention to matter (materiality, processes of materialization) as it has been so much neglected by dualist thought.

Today, a new materialism is seen at work throughout the humanities and in particular in the so-called “the new humanities,” think of the digital humanities (think of Jussi Parikka), ecology (think of Jeffrey J Cohen) and studies on neurophysiology (think of Catherine Malabou and Patricia Pisters). These new humanities, as they strongly overlap with science studies, also prove that new materialism is by no means limited to the human sciences (as opposed to the natural sciences), but easily move into many different parts of academia, from quantum physics (think of the work of Karen Barad), to topology (think of Brian Rotman).  But a “new” metaphysics is not restricted to a here and now, nor does it merely project an image of the future for us. It announces what we may call a “new tradition,” which simultaneously gives us a past, a present, and a future. Thus, a new metaphysics does not add something to thought (a series of ideas that wasn’t there, that was left out by others). It rather traverses and thereby rewrites thinking as a whole, leaving nothing untouched, redirecting every possible idea according to its new sense of orientation.

My latest book New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies (with Iris van der Tuin) this “new tradition” was hinted upon. By studying not only those academics that pursue a new materialism today but also the authors they revived a new history of materialism was given rise to. Yet whereas the emphasis in the book was mainly to wave the flag for this new development in contemporary thought, there is still more than enough to be done when it comes to analyzing the new materialist past. Especially since the past years have shown a true revival over several of those illustrious contributors to this history, the need to map this history is more and more urgent. Of course the work of Gilles Deleuze plays a crucial role in this, and the immense attention for his work today shows how many scholars are indeed involved in the questions that come with this tradition. Yet also the renewed attention for Alfred North Whitehead, Gilbert Simondon, Félix Guattari, Jean-Marie Guyau, Jacob von Uexküll, Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hillaire and Félix Ravaisson signal the revival of this alternative history of “matter” and its importance for the contemporary debates. For although some of the authors mentioned have enjoyed attention in other parts of academia (Whitehead in mathematics, von Uexküll and Geoffroy Saint- Hillaire in different areas of biology) it is their joint rereading that gives rise to this new tradition.