Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Material Becoming

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Material Becoming

Article excerpt

Material Becoming

Dianna Coole and Samantha Frost (eds) New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2010 ISBN: 9780822347538 RRP: US$24.95

William E. Connolly A World of Becoming Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2011 ISBN: 9780822348795 RRP: US$22.95

The field of internet studies, within which I work, investigates how we live with and through our technologies. Questions about how to situate, ethically and ontologically, the intersection of human bodies, biotechnology and communication technologies (software, hardware, algorithms and code) are an increasingly central concern. It seems insufficient to distance the human from the technical or at the very least to not accord seemingly autonomous functionings of code and algorithms, bots and so forth, with some kind of agentic capacity. Thus in internet, new media and media studies more generally, there is a growing interest in questions of materiality, rethinking how we might understand agency and how we think of matter, technologies, bodies and processes and the relationships or spaces between them.

While A World of Becoming by William E. Connolly and the collection, New Materialisms, edited by Dianne Coole and Samantha Frost are not directly concerned with the issues of technology, both books uncover, revitalise and rethink particular historical understandings and theories that recognise the intersection, imbrications and interplay of material-organic and inorganic-bodies and of processes. I will discuss each in part below and then recount some general observations across both books.

New Materialisms opens with an excellent overview of the impetus for, and the current state of play within, new materialism studies. Coole and Frost suggest the impetus for this renewed interest in materialism is prompted partly in reaction to the so-called cultural turn and also as an attempt to introduce some creative and positive responses to the world. This is a world in which biotechnologies, global warming and climate changes, transnational migration of people and information, and the potentialities of science, information and communication technologies require us to consider the relationship between humans, and other living and non- living matter. These developments also call on us to rethink the categories of life, human, bodies, time and space.

Fundamentally, the new materialist approaches reject the understanding of human as a distinct, separate and privileged focus of study that interacts with dead or less capable matter (organic and inorganic). Indeed, the editors suggest, the new materialists argue for a posthuman, post-Cartesian positioning that would reject the understanding of humans as distinct from objects and instead insist on 'describing active processes of materialization of which embodied humans are an integral part, rather than the monotonous repetitions of dead matter from which human subjects are apart'. (8) As against seeing matter as inert, distinct and lacking agency, Coole in her later chapter on Merleau-Ponty asks, 'Yet is it not possible to imagine matter quite differently: as perhaps a lively materiality that is self-transformative and already saturated with the agentic capacities and existential significance that are typically located in a separate, ideal, and subjectivist, realm'? (92)

The editors' positioning of the various chapters in this book and, indeed, new materialist studies itself is rather celebratory-they argue that the new materialists are not negative and critical but rather affirming and constructive with an 'antipathy towards oppositional ways of thinking'. (8) This can be seen, for example, in the chapter by Elizabeth Grosz who advocates an understanding of freedom as capacity for action and calls for an 'open ontology of possibility'; or Pheng Cheah's explication of a non-dialectical, positive, materialism. A more positive and constructive approach is welcomed and indeed necessary if we are to overcome the impasse that seems to permeate leftand right politics and their restricted offering of alternative visions of the future. …

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