Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Interrogating the Founding Gestures of the New Materialism

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Interrogating the Founding Gestures of the New Materialism

Article excerpt

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In this article, I engage with the specifics of what Sara Ahmed refers to as 'the founding gestures of "the new materialism"'.1 With this phrase, Ahmed draws attention to the fact that much new materialist rhetoric is founded on a specific understanding of cultural theory's past as having been negligent of the matter of materiality. Moreover, she argues that sentences in which such an understanding of the past of cultural theory are articulated 'are repeated without illustration or contextualization', which, she observes, results in 'the "routinization" of the gesture of pointing towards the anti-biologism or constructionism of others'.2 Ahmed's critique speaks directly to the heart of the matter, namely, that the gesture of pointing to the alleged anti-biologism and constructionism of others (and here 'others' refers to an unidentified group of scholars who, importantly, associate with 'postmodernism' and 'poststructuralism') is rarely elaborated.3 One consequence of this lack of engagement is that much new materialist rhetoric appears to rely on a misinterpretation, if not misunderstanding, of postmodern and poststructuralist thought. An engagement with the postmodern critique of language as constitutive and the poststructuralist critique of pure self-presence, I wish to argue in this article, does not warrant such founding gestures to be repeated so uncritically. Moreover, an engagement with cultural theory's past renders the situation much more complicated than many who associate with new materialism currently suggest. In what follows, then, I discuss a small selection of texts to juxtapose the past that is invoked in the repetition of this founding gesture with a more nuanced reading of that past.

At the outset of my discussion, I want to make clear that my critical interrogation does not aim to prescribe how to read 'postmodern', 'poststructuralist' or 'new materialist' texts correctly (if that is even possible). Nor do I aim to resolve the debate between poststructuralist and new materialist approaches to the matter of materiality. I want to emphasise, then, that this article is not about choosing sides in this debate. What specifically interests me here is that the founding gesture used (recycled, and thus continuously reinforced) by many so-called 'new materialists' emphatically dismisses postmodernism and poststructuralism for being relativist and anti-realist without, as Ahmed so poignantly observes, any illustration or contextualisation. I also want to make clear that by homing in on a very specific debate between poststructuralism and new materialism-a debate that deals with the status and meaning of language, referentiality and representation-I do not wish to reduce the ethico-political concerns of new materialism to this debate. Nonetheless, as this debate (in)forms new materialism's founding gestures, and thus lies at the core of this movement, calling attention to its problematic nature is urgent and crucial for the further development of new materialism as a politico-philosophical tradition, as well as our understanding of cultural theory's past.

In what follows, by carefully unpacking some claims about postmodernism and poststructuralism made in the broadly 'new materialist' field, I wish to accentuate the proximity and potential usefulness of the former ways of thinking for those who wish to contribute to contemporary debates about materiality.4 To do this, I first turn to the ways in which cultural theory's past with all its shortcomings has been per/conceived in some texts that are associated with new materialism. I will do so in a schematic way that highlights some of the most commonly articulated criticisms with regard to the alleged neglect of matter and materiality in postmodernism, poststructuralism and other associated but crucially not differentiated positions, such as the discursive turn and linguistic constructionism. After identifying these common threads in the 'founding gestures of the new materialism', I suggest how these gestures can be nuanced and (re)configured. …

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