A space for discussion of the materialist turn in the humanities.

What's New About the New Materialism(s)

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    A Special Session at the 2015 MLA Convention in Vancouver, BC

    The new materialism in the environmental humanities reframes the most central ontological and ethical ideas of ecocriticism in ways that have the potential to activate their liberatory potential. By moving beyond both the post-structuralist erasure of the biological body and the sociobiological erasure of the cultural body, new materialism extends the ongoing deconstruction of the human/nature binary and “opens up a mobile space that acknowledges the often unpredictable and unwanted actions of human bodies, nonhuman creatures, ecological systems, chemical agents, and other actors” (Alaimo 2). By conceiving of “matter as possessing its own modes of self-transformation, self-organization, and directedness” Coole and Frost 10), new materialism levels ontological hierarchies. By locating humans in what Timothy Morton calls the “mesh,” where we encounter others as “strange strangers” who are pursuing their own agendas, materialist ecocriticism activates environmental ethics, expanding their range from a narrow focus on conservation and preservation to the active pursuit of global environmental justice conceived in the broadest terms (xx). “What’s New About New Materialism?” will feature three emerging scholars who will propose an alternative genealogy of new materialism, interrogate its startling claims about the agency of objects and substances, and speculate about the meaning of matter in its most seemingly abject form, dust.

    In “Thoreau’s Journal and Other Matters: Toward a Genealogy of Linguistic Materialism,” Kristen Case will describe how Thoreau’s late practices of walking and writing complicate recent thinking about materiality. Barad, Alaimo, de Landa, and Braidotti each present a genealogy of new materialism that defines it as emerging in opposition to the “linguistic turn.” This common origin story seems to affirm a separation of language and matter, even as matter itself is reconceived as fluid and flexible enough to break down all other barriers. In contrast, Thoreau’s mutually defined and constituted daily practices of walking and writing constitute an ongoing act of relation that challenges any positioning of matter and language as fully separable. Thoreau’s late Journal both embodies and reflects upon the complex materiality of writing itself, a question which new materialism has sidelined in order to distance itself from twentieth-century language-centered philosophies. This paper will sketch an alternate genealogy, one that includes the philosophically marginal figures of Lucretius and Thoreau, for a twenty-first century thinking about matter that does not break from but integrates thinking about language as matter.

    In “Agency and Alterity in New Materialist Philosophy,” Kathryn Van Wert will argue that, while identity politics have given us a discourse of rights, they have often done little to acknowledge what a tentative, fleeting, material thing the “individual” who claims or contests those rights really is. New materialism, on the other hand, aims to get around the paradox of constructivist approaches that “recente[r] the human subject despite the intention to undermine such claims” (Coole and Frost 26). New materialist philosophies theorize freedom without tethering it either to deterministic or libertarian notions of the human subject; rather, they challenge the forms of subjectivity that foreclose freedom. Consequently, what is most “new” about new materialism is its attention to the role that alterity, absence, and contingency play in our lives. In its post-Cartesian, posthumanist dimensions, new materialism conceptualizes agency as the province of all matter, which rather than living or dying, is always “emergent” or in states of “becoming.”

    In “Dust Matters: Reconsidering Dust in New Materialist Philosophy,” Aimee M. Allard will propose that new materialists reconsider the “dust of the earth” as a bridge between the old and new materialism. Despite its omnipresence in nature, in urban and rural locations, and in domestic spaces, this fundamental substance still does not have the same philosophical or scholarly currency as other forms of matter in material studies. Nevertheless, dust resonates with many possibilities for scholars in the environmental humanities, for whom it may be possible to excavate a dialogic framework of dust stretching throughout twentieth and twenty-first century American culture. The environment distilled to the scale of the miniature, dust is the “stuff” of broken down matter. As physicists have demonstrated, the fate of everything in the cosmos—stars, planets, trees, ourselves—is to be reduced to atomic dust. In the 1930s, millions of acres of dust reshaped the nation’s migration patterns, foodways, and economy, the echoes of the Dust Bowl reverberating not only through the Great Plains but across America decades after the environmental cataclysm. Filaments of hair, sloughed-off skin, the carcasses of dust mites, decayed cellulose, and other sediment—dust is not an inert collection of particles but a volatile substance, one that presents a rich area of study in both prior and new materialism far removed from the dustbin.

    Lance Newman, whose 2005 article, “Marxism and Ecocriticism” called for a cultural materialist approach to the study of environmental literature, will respond to the work of Case, Van Wert, and Allard. He will observe that new materialism has made a series of important conceptual advances that go a long way toward creating a “practical, politically engaged social theory [that is] devoted to the critical analysis of actual conditions of existence and their inherent inequality” (Coole and Frost 24). The new materialism articulates “a sense of planet” that makes possible “eco-cosmopolitan” membership in global ecosocial community that carries with it ethical obligations across borders of all kinds (Heise xx). However, new materialism sometimes seems to  imagine the mesh as a flat space where free agents interact like enlightened liberal individuals. In order to do so, it must elide the materiality of the economic, social, political, and cultural structures that distribute power differentially around the planet. This gap in new materialist theory is symptomatic of the incompleteness of its engagement with prior materialist traditions.


    Aimee M. Allard is a PhD candidate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she studies 20th and 21st-century American literature. Her dissertation project, “The Mad Anatomy of the Asylum: Visceral, Neural, and Reproductive Architectures in American Literature,” examines somatic motifs in novels and memoirs set within mental hospitals. Allard’s additional research interests include material and place studies, particularly in relation to the Great Plains; women’s and gender studies; and the body.

    Kristen Case is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Maine at Farmington. She has published articles on Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost, and Ezra Pound and is the author of American Pragmatism and Poetic Practice: Crosscurrents from Emerson to Susan Howe (Camden House, 2011). She is the editor of The Concord Saunterer: A Journal of Thoreau Studies and co-editor of Thoreau at Two-Hundred: Essays and Reassessments, forthcoming from Cambridge UP. She also directs Thoreau’s Kalendar: A Digital Archive of the Phenological Manuscripts of Henry David Thoreau.

    Lance Newman is Associate Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and Professor of English and Environmental Studies at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. He is the author of Our Common Dwelling: Henry Thoreau, Transcendentalism, and the Class Politics of Nature (Palgrave, 2005) and editor of The Grand Canyon Reader (University of California Press, 2011). Newman is co-editor with Joel Pace and Chris Koenig-Woodyard of Transatlantic Romanticism: An Anthology of British, American, and Canadian Literature, 1767-1867 (Longman, 2006), Sullen Fires Across the Atlantic: Essays in Transatlantic Romanticism (Romantic Circles, 2006), Transatlantic Romanticism, a special double issue of Romanticism on the Net 38-39 (May-August 2005). He is also co-editor with William Cain and Hilary Wyss of the second edition of American Literature (Penguin Academics, 2012).

    Kathryn Van Wert is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in 2012, and her research focuses on twentieth-century Anglo-American literature and transatlantic modernism. Most recently, her article “The Early Life of Septimus Smith” appeared in the Journal of Modern Literature, and a portion of her current research project on new materialist philosophy in modern literature will appear in the Winter 2014 issue of Modern Language Studies.

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