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The New Materialism: From ‘Why’ and ‘What’ to ‘How.’


“The shift from the ‘why’ and ‘what’ to the ‘how’ implies that the actual objects of knowledge can no longer be things or eternal motions but must be processes, and that the object of science is no longer nature or the universe but the history, the story of the coming into being, of nature or life or the universe….Nature, because it could be known only in processes which human ingenuity, the ingeniousness of homo faber, could repeat and remake in the experiment, became a process, and all particular natural things derived their significance and meaning solely from their function in the over-all process. In the place of the concept of Being we now find the concept of Process. And whereas it is in the nature of Being to appear and thus disclose itself, it is in the nature of Process to remain invisible, to be something whose existence can only be inferred from the presence of certain phenomena.”

-Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Bookending Arendt’s consideration of the human condition “from the vantage point of our newest experiences and our most recent fears” is her invocation of several “events,  ” which she took to be emblematic of the modern world launched by the atomic explosions of the 1940s and the threshold of the modern age that preceded it by several centuries. The event she invokes in the opening pages is the launch of Sputnik in 1957; its companion events are named in the last chapter of the book–the discovery of America, the Reformation, and the invention of the telescope and the development of a new science.


Not once mentioned in The Human Condition, but, as Mary Dietz argued so persuasively in her Turning Operations, palpably present as a “felt absence,” is the event of the Shoah, the “hellish experiment” of the SS concentration camps, which is memorialized today, Yom HaShoah. Reading Arendt’s commentaries on the discovery of the Archimedean point and its application in modern science with the palpably present but textually absent event of the Holocaust in mind sheds new light on the significance of her cautionary tale about the worrying implications of the new techno-science of algorithms and quantum physics and its understanding of nature produced through the experiment.

What happens, she seems to be asking, when the meaning of all “particular things” derives solely from “their function in the over-all process”? If nature in all of its aspects is understood as the inter- (or intra-) related aspects of the overall life process of the universe, does then human existence, as part of nature, become merely one part of that larger process, differing perhaps in degree, but not kind, from any other part?

Recently, “new materialist” philosophers have lauded this so-called “posthumanist” conceptualization of existence, arguing that the anthropocentrism anchoring earlier modern philosophies—Arendt implicitly placed among them?—arbitrarily separates humans from the rest of nature and positions them as masters in charge of the world (universe). By contrast, a diverse range of thinkers such as Jane Bennett, Rosi Braidotti, William Connolly, Diana Coole, and Cary Wolfe have drawn on a variety of philosophical and scientific traditions to re-appropriate and “post-modernize” some form of vitalism. The result is a reformulation of an ontology of process—what Connolly calls “a world of becoming”—as the most accurate way to understand matter’s dynamic and eternal self-unfolding. And, consequentially, it also entails transforming agency from a human capacity of “the will” with its related intentions to a theory of agency of “multiple degrees and sites…flowing from simple natural processes, to human beings and collective social assemblages” with each level and site containing “traces and remnants from the levels from which it evolved,” which “affect [agency’s] operation.” (Connolly, A World Becoming, p. 22, emphasis added). The advantage of a “philosophy/faith of radical immanence or immanent realism,” Connolly argues, is its ability to engage the “human predicament”: “how to negotiate life, without hubris or existential resentment, in a world that is neither providential nor susceptible to consummate mastery. We must explore how to invest existential affirmation in such a world, even as we strive to fend off its worst dangers.”

An implicit ethic of aiming to take better care of the world, “to fold a spirit of presumptive generosity for the diversity of life into your conduct” by not becoming too enamored with human agency resides in this philosophy/faith. In the entanglements she explores between human and non-human materiality—a “heterogeneous monism of vibrant bodies” —one can discern similar ethical concerns in Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. “It seems necessary and impossible to rewrite the default grammar of agency, a grammar that assigns activity to people and passivity to things.”  Conceptualizing nature as “an active becoming, a creative not-quite-human force capable of producing the new” Bennett affirms a “vital materiality [that] congeals into bodies, bodies that seek to persevere or prolong their run,” (p. 118, emphasis in the original) where “bodies” connotes all forms of matter. And she contends that this vital materialism can “enhance the prospects for a more sustainability-oriented public.”  Yet, without some normative criteria for discerning the ways this new materialism can work toward “sustainability,” it is by no means obvious how either a declaration of faith in the “radical character of the (fractious) kinship between the human and the non-human” or having greater “attentiveness to the indispensable foreignness that we are” would lead to a change in political direction toward more gratitude and away from more destructive patterns of production and consumption. The recognition of our vulnerability could just as easily lead to renewed efforts to truncate or even eradicate the “foreignness” within.

Nonetheless, although these and other accounts call for a reconceptualization of concepts of agency and of causality, none pushes as far toward a productivist/performative account of matter and meaning as does Karen Barad’s theory of “agential realism.” Drawing out the implications of Niels Bohr’s quantum mechanics, Barad develops a theory of how “subjects” and “objects” are produced as apparently separable entities by “specific material configurings of the world” which enact “boundaries, properties, and meanings.” And, in her conceptualization, “meaning is not a human-based notion; rather meaning is an ongoing performance of the world in its differential intelligibility…Intelligibility is not an inherent characteristic of humans but a feature of the world in its differential becoming. The world articulates itself differently…[H]uman concepts or experimental practices are not foundational to the nature of phenomena. ” The world is immanently real and matter immanently materializes.


At first glance, this posthumanist understanding of reality seems consistent with Arendt’s own critique of Cartesian dualism and Newtonian physics and her understanding of the implicitly conditioned nature of human existence. “Men are conditioned beings because everything they come into contact with turns immediately into a condition of their existence. The world in which the vita activa spends itself consists of things produced by human activities; but the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers.”  Nonetheless, there is a profound difference between them. For Barad, “world” is not Arendt’s humanly built habitat, the domain of homo faber (which does not necessarily entail mastery of nature, but always involves a certain amount of violence done to nature, even to the point of “degrading nature and the world into mere means, robbing both of their independent dignity.” (H.C., p. 156, emphasis added.) “World” is matter, the physical, ever-changing reality of an inherently active, “larger material configuration of the world and it ongoing open-ended articulation.”  Or is it?

Since this world is made demonstrably real or determinate only through the design of the right experiment to measure the effects of, or marks on, bodies, or “measuring agencies” (such as a photographic plate) made or produced by “measured objects” (such as electrons), the physical nature of this reality becomes an effect of the experiment itself. Despite the fact that Barad insists that “phenomena do not require cognizing minds for their existence” and that technoscientific practices merely manifest “an expression of the objective existence of particular material phenomena” (p. 361), the importance of the well-crafted scientific experiment to establishing the fact of matter looms large.

Why worry about the experiment as the basis for determining the nature of nature, including so-called “human nature? For Arendt, the answer was clear: “The world of the experiment seems always capable of becoming a man-made reality, and this, while it may increase man’s power of making and acting, even of creating a world, far beyond what any previous age dared imagine…unfortunately puts man back once more—and now even more forcefully—into the prison of his own mind, into the limitations of patterns he himself has created…[A] universe construed according to the behavior of nature in the experiment and in accordance with the very principles which man can translate technically into a working reality lacks all possible representation…With the disappearance of the sensually given world, the transcendent world disappears as well, and with it the possibility of transcending the material world in concept and thought.”

The transcendence of representationalism does not trouble Barad, who sees “representation” as a process of reflection or mirroring hopelessly entangled with an outmoded “geometrical optics of externality.”  But for Arendt, appearance matters, and not in the sense that a subject discloses some inner core of being through her speaking and doing, but in the sense that what is given to the senses of perception—and not just to the sense of vision—is the basis for constructing a world in common. The loss of this “sensually given world” found its monstrous enactment in the world of the extermination camps, which Arendt saw as “special laboratories to carry through its experiment in total domination.”

If there is a residual humanism in Arendt’s theorizing it is not the simplistic anthropocentrism, which takes “man as the measure of all things,” a position she implicitly rejects, especially in her critique of instrumentalism. Rather, she insists that “the modes of human cognition [science among them] applicable to things with ‘natural’ qualities, including ourselves to the limited extent that we are specimens of the most highly developed species of organic life, fail us when we raise the question: And who are we?” (H.C., p. 11, emphasis in the original) And then there is the question of responsibility.

We may be unable to control the effects of the actions we set in motion, or, in Barad’s words, “the various ontological entanglements that materiality entails.”


But no undifferentiated assignation of agency to matter, or material sedimentations of the past “ingrained in the body’s becoming”  can release us humans from the differential burden of consciousness and memory that is attached to something we call the practice of judgment. And no appeal to an “ethical call…written into the very matter of all being and becoming”  will settle the question of judgment, of what is to be done. There may be no place to detach ourselves from responsibility, but how to act in the face of it is by no means given by the fact of entanglement itself. What if “everything is possible.”?

-Kathleen B. Jones

Posted on 8 April 2013 | 11:03 am

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