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What is New Materialism-Opening words from the event

As promised, please find below the opening words to the recent New Materialisms and Digital Culture-event by Milla Tiainen and me. The event was filled with great talks by a range of scholars with differing disciplinary backgrounds, and ended up with the dance/technology-performance Triggered (composed by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Tom Hall and Richard Hoadley, choreography by Jane Turner). In the midst of the text, images (taken by Tim Regan) from the performance and the conference. A warm thank you to all speakers, performers and our great audience in both parts of the day!

NEW MATERIALISMS AND DIGITAL CULTURE
Anglia Ruskin University
CoDE: Cultures of the Digital Economy –research institute and Dept. of ECFM, convened by Milla Tiainen and Jussi Parikka
21-22 of June, 2010
Milla Tiainen and Jussi Parikka

Opening words: What is New Materialism?

I

As stated in the programme we’d like to begin by just briefly engaging with one of the key components, or actants, of the symposium’s setup: the concept of “new materialism.” The purpose of this is definitely not to identify a stable referent for that term so much as to point towards some of the problems it arguably connects with. Whereas I will in few words consider the concept’s broader resonances across current cultural, social and feminist theory, Jussi will subsequently comment on ‘new materialist’ modes of questioning in conjunction with digital media culture.

Aptly, there are three books forthcoming soon whose respective titles include the concept “new materialism”—while it in each case links with varying further concepts and associated planes. “New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics”, to be published by Duke, features such writers as Rosi Braidotti, Sara Ahmed and Jane Bennett; the essay collection “Carnal Knowledge: Towards a New Materialism through the Arts” is edited by Barbara Bolt and Estelle Barrett and involves contributions by Australian and European scholars including a chapter by Jussi and myself; and two of the speakers of this symposium, Iris van der Tuin and Rick Dolphijn, are currently working on a book on philosophy of science that is entitled “New Materialism” and will come out later this year. Thus, as these particular ‘capturings’ of ongoing research for their part evidence, the concept of new materialism is increasingly partaking in the flows of language and thought of specific areas of cultural and critical thought; its “rhythms of arrival and departure”, to borrow Brian Massumi’s expression (Parables for the Virtual 2002, 20), as well as connections with various other concepts are becoming growingly regular and rich in intensity within these flows. A momentum of at least some intensive magnitude is gathering round “new materialism.” Or, perhaps better put, the concept is being utilized so as to try and couch such a momentum which is unravelling transversally across fields of inquiry whilst at the same time displaying a notable degree of consistency in terms of the implicated topics of concern.

What, then, are the problems that would lend “new materialism” its meaning or usefulness? Evidently, the precise configurations of sense and effect that the concept invokes are singular to its every usage along with being more generally in the making within the debates involving it. At its broadest, nonetheless, new materialism can be said to concern a series of questions and potentialities that revolve round the idea of active, agential and morphogenetic; self-differing and affective-affected matter. Indeed, this summary would probably be endorsed by most proponents and sceptics of new materialisms alike. To be sure, this ideational assemblage or its part-problems have also already inspired incisive critique from prolific scholars. These critics remain unconvinced about both ‘new materialism’s attempts to reconfigure the persistent dichotomies of nature/culture, body/thought, concrete/abstract etc. and the allegedly dubious politics of the category of the ‘new’ in the concept of new materialism. To paraphrase one prominent critic, Sarah Ahmed (it will be interesting to see what her contribution to the New Materialisms essay collection looks like!), the new materialist conceptions of dynamic human and non-human materialities that acquire shapes, operate and differentiate also beyond human perception and discursive representational systems are, at least within feminist new materialisms, in danger of positing matter as an it-like fetish object precisely because of their insistence on its ontological distinctiveness (Ahmed, “Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the ‘New Materialism’” 2008, 35). This fetishizing is moreover enabled, according to Ahmed, by strategic amnesia regarding the previous rich engagements with biology, the body and matter that were carried out within science and technology studies and other areas of human and social sciences (again her focus lies mainly in feminist genealogies). Ahmed therefore concludes that despite intentions to the contrary many new materialist gestures actually solidify rather than ‘fluidify’ the boundaries between nature/culture and matter/signification. At the same time these projects’ declarations of the newness of their endeavours conveniently conjure up an image of theorists who embark “on a heroic and lonely struggle” (32) against the collective non- or anti-materialism of former cultural and social-theoretical stances.

Now unhinging and confounding habitual dual oppositions remains undoubtedly a challenge for any ‘new materialist’ (as well as a theoretically differently oriented) project. Yet in order to end my part of these opening words I would like to point out three aspects that go some way in responding to the criticisms Ahmed presents—along with hopefully resonating with the talks of today.
Hence:
1) First of all, one of the signalling features that cuts across the heterogeneous projects we would like to propose as new materialist is their sustained commitment to developing models of immanent and continuously emergent relationality. Through insisting on the felt reality of relations for instance in the wake of William James, on the irreducibility of the in-betweens to the connecting terms, and on the intensive topological spaces of co-affectivity these models, we would argue, provide some of the most effective means on offer at the moment for thinking past the traditional rigid dualisms of nature/culture, subject/object and so on and for articulating the intuited processual co-substantiality of these facets.
2) Secondly and connectedly, the notion of the outside or virtual, which within new materialist undertakings relates or overlaps with such more specific concepts as affect, potential and variation, certainly diminishes the risk of ending up with a re-essentialized and reified conception of matter.
3) Thirdly and finally, we would like to think that the newness in the ‘new materialism’ refers less to a discrete stage let alone a point of culmination on a teleological line of theoretical understanding than to a multiplicity of attempts to live with newly composed problems whilst refreshing the vocabularies of cultural, artistic and feminist theory with “conceptual infusions” (Massumi 2002, 4) from hitherto overlooked or presently rediscovered sources.

II

In the context of digital media culture, the notion of “materiality” occupies a curious position in itself. As observed by Bill Brown in his entry for the recent Critical Terms for Media Studies (Chicago UP, 2010), our understanding of the media historical modernity has been infiltrated early on with the idea of “abstraction” — abstraction as a driving force (as with standardization of techniques, processes, and messaging) and an effect (represented in forms of power, subjectivities, cultural practices) of modernity. Recognized by a range of different writers from Karl Marx to Debord and Baudrillard, such a process has been influential in forcing us to rethink not materiality but dematerialisation as crucial to understanding the birth of technical media culture. Regimes of value, and regimes of technical media share the same impact on “things” – homogenisation, standardisation, and ease of communication/commodification in a joint tune with each other are in this perspective, and a perspective that branded critical theory for a long time, crucial aspects in any analysis of media culture’s relation to materiality.

Hence, the move from the critical evaluation of emergence of capitalist media culture seemed to flow surprisingly seamlessly as part of the more technology-oriented discourse concerning “immateriality” of the digital in the 1980s and 1990s. Here, in a new context, materiality was deemed as an obsolescent index of media development overcome by effective modes of coding, manipulating and transferring information across networks that become par excellence the object of desire of policies as much cultural discourses.

Yet, the recent years of media theory introduced an increasingly differing elaboration of how we should understand the notion of “medium” in this context. Instead of being only something that in a Kantian manner prevents access to the world of the real or material, or things (Brown, p.51) the medium itself becomes a material assemblage in the hands of a wave of German media theorists, who have develop a unique approach to media materialism, and hence new materialist notions of the world. Here the world is not reduced to symbolic, signifying structures, or representations, but is seen for such writers as Friedrich Kittler (and more recent theorists such as Wolfgang Ernst in a bit differing tone under media archaeology) as a network of concrete, material, physical and physiological apparatuses and their interconnections, that in a Foucauldian manner govern whatever can be uttered and signified. This brand of German media theory came out as an alternative exactly to the Marxist as well as hermeneutic contexts of theory dominating German discussions in the 1960s-1980s, and carved out a specific interest to the coupling of the human sensorium with the non-human worlds of modern technical media. In this insight, and ones shared by writers such as Jonathan Crary, on the one hand, the birth of modern media culture owed to the meticulous measuring of the human sensorium in various physiological settings and extending to experimental psychology labs in the late 19th and early 20th century. On the other hand, modern technical media showed such wavelengths, speeds, vibrations and other physical characteristics in itself that it escaped any phenomenological analysis, and hence tapped into a material world unknown per se to humans.

Without wanting to sound too reductionistic, I believe this is one of the key directions where media theory more recently has developed its own enthusiasm concerning a new more material understanding of media. Naturally filtered into new contexts, and transforming the way it works, such directions have however inspired also in the Anglo-American world new directions, new interests in material constellations of “platforms, interfaces, data standards, file formats, operating systems, versions and distributions of code, patches, ports and so forth”, to paraphrase Matthew Kirschenbaum. Naturally, post-representational approaches are present in a wide range of work and other thinkers, from the Deleuze-inspired cinematic philosophies of Steven Shaviro to sociological ideas of Nigel Thrift, the new materialist mappings of subhuman bodies such as blobs by Luciana Parisi to the politically tuned analyses of network culture of Tiziana Terranova — and the range of theories and theorists we are able to enjoy today.

Indeed, if I would be forced to summarize the intimate link between the analytical perspectives that go under the general umbrella term New Materialism and media theory and digital culture, it would have to do with at least three directions
1) The seemingly immaterial is embedded in wide material networks; information is informed by the existence of material networks, practices, and various entanglements, that expand both to the materiality of political economy of ownership, access and use, but also to the material assemblages which govern the way we are in media milieus.
2) Yet, technical media is also defined by non-object based materialities, which makes it slightly more difficult to conceptualise. As a regime of electromagnetic fields, of pulsations, electricity, and such fields as software, technical media and digital culture escape the language of solids.
3) The intimate connection between the dynamic human/animal body and media tech, which since the 19th century and for example experimental psychology labs has now extended to the various design practices in HCI and such that tap into the physiological thresholds of the human being in novel ways – hence the interest in affect, emotion, non-conscious and somatic levels of the human body, and emergence of various forms of interfacing, whether from the consumer tech of Kinect-gaming body-in-movement-meets-Xbox interface to still very aspirational Brain-2-Brain, B-2-B, networking and such. Its here that the knowledge about the kinetic, dynamic, and relational body feeds into understanding the moving-situatedness of us in mobile network cultures.

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  1. March 21, 2011 at 10:21 am

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