Carnal Knowledge: Towards a New Materialism Through the Arts
Some years ago, probably in 2008 or so, I remember pitching with another writer a book proposal to a publisher. It would have been a short introduction to “new materialism”, a theoretical wave that argued/s for there to be much more in the world than representations, signifying structures and ideologies — that non-human things exist, independently of us, and that for us to understand matter and embodiment, we need to see it as active, dynamic and stemming from the primacy of relations. Well, the proposal did not get too far. The other reviewer was more or less puzzled about the whole existence of the term, writing that it was just invented for the purposes of the proposal and did not have currency outside in academic debates — in other words, new materialism does not exist (despite the proposal flagging that it is not only Manuel Delanda who had used the term but also Rosi Braidotti, with significant theoretical debates in material feminisms of for instance Grosz and Barad, and of course theoretical ideas since Lawrence Grossberg to the very different ideas of matter and the non-human by Latour and even Kittler!).
Only within months books with “new materialism” in their title, or with allusions to it, like Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, started to come out and even more strongly identify a field and a wave of interest. This theoretical discourse has been recently continued with publications such as New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies. For me, it is important to really understand the multiplicity in debates concerning matter, the real and non-human — something that at times get understood very narrowly and in a very recent context, despite the longer roots of such ideas. Dolphjin and van der Tuin write nicely that “Our proposition is that new materialism is itself a distinctive trend, both in feminist theory and in cultural theory more broadly, and a device or tool for opening up theory formation.” (100)
Another book discussing new materialism – especially in art theory and practice – is now out. Edited by Barbara Bolt and Estelle Barrett Carnal Knowledge: Towads a New Materialism Through the Arts engages with a range of practices and artistic media, from painting to video, film to dance in order to elaborate new vocabularies of materiality. I have not seen the whole book yet, but I myself co-authored a piece on dance — on a fantastic choreography performed by himself, Tero Saarinen: a modulation of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, now called Hunt. The media artist Marita Liulia did the visuals. The piece is explosive. The angle of the text is on dynamics of movement, primacy of relations and biopolitics of dance.