Slavoj Žižek wrote a piece last year in Strike magazine (not available online but it is possible to order back copies) which I have only just got round to reading but provides an interesting deconstruction of New Materialist theory. He suggested, perhaps predictably, that Hegelian materialism is superior.
The core of his critique seems to be that New Materialism produces a certain kind of animism by investing something like human subjectivity in the material world. A comparison is made with Tolkien’s “Middle Earth” in which the whole material world (including animals, earth and plants) is invested with subjectivity.
Put (very) briefly New Materialism is a philosophical/theoretical approach which seeks to challenge the characterisation of the material world as inert and through this reconceptualisation challenge the traditional subject/object distinction.
Central to this approach is an anti-humanist decentring of the subject so that rather than human beings taking the central role in the ways in which meaning about the world is constructed humans are seen as “actors” in networks or assemblages with other “non-human actors” which can be technologies, animals, objects, social or political systems. These various actors have specific capacities which collectively make particular things possible (or not).
At the core of Žižek’s critique, as I understand it, is that New Materialists fail in their attempt to undermine the subject/object distinction by reasserting the pre-eminence of the human by rendering the capacities of all things as (deficient) versions of human subjectivity.
Žižek implies that the New Materialist approach makes the mistake of rendering the non human Other as ‘someone “like us” someone we can emphatically “understand”‘. This is because for New Materialists, at least according to Žižek, agency is turned into a social phenomenon because the material world is given subjectivity as a “non-human actor” in a “network” or “assemblage”.
‘Agency thereby becomes a social phenomenon, where the limits of sociality are expanded to include all material bodies participating in the relevant assemblage’ (Žižek, 2014: 12).
For Žižek New Materialism does not take the material world on its own terms but projects subjectivity onto it through a kind of anthropomorphism. The separation between subject and object is thus not overcome because the “vitality” of the material world is the result of our “animistic” attitude towards it rather than qualities which exist within it. Alternatively, for Žižek (2014: 13), ‘[w]hat vibrates in vibrant matter is its immanent life force or its soul (in the precise Aristotlean sense of the active principle immanent to matter), not subjectivity’.
What he offers instead is a ‘properly Hegelian dialectical-materialist overcoming of the transcendental dimension of the gap that separates subject from object’ (Žižek, 2014: 13). The “Other subject” of the non-human world must, therefore, be approached as a genuine other not one who represents a deficient variant of human subjectivity. This would, then, be ‘an encounter with an Other at its purest, with the abyss of Otherness not covered up or facilitated by imaginary identifications which make the Other someone “like us”‘(Žižek, 2014: 13).
I feel that Zizek downplays certain aspects of New Materialism in order to make his point (although in fairness it is a very short piece in which he is not able to conduct an extensive survey). In particular, he does not discuss the focus on the “capacities” of actors within the network in New Materialist thought. This approach suggests to me an attempt to take non-human actors on their own terms; understanding them in terms of the things of which they are capable rather than projecting onto them human subjectivity as such.
I would, however, acknowledge that these capacities are perhaps mostly presented in relation to capacities which make sense to human interests but I can’t immediately see how this can be avoided. Nevertheless, Žižek does highlight a fundamental tension in New Materialist thought, that its transcendence of the subject/object split may not be as successful as they would hope it to be. However, I suggest that this problem can be explained, if not excused, by briefly reflecting on the theoretical emergence of New Materialism.
New Materialist thought emerged, as I understand it, out of a strand of feminist theory which sought to re-insert the body and corporeality into the analysis of gender (notable amongst these being Judith Butler, Rosi Braidotti and Elizabeth Grosz) combined with Actor Network Theory (ANT) (most strongly associated with Bruno Latour) which positioned humans as one actor amongst others who collectively formed a network with particular capacities. Neither of these had the entirely non-human material world as a central concern. Rather, the feminist tradition was, at least initially, specifically concerned with the human body and ANT with human-made technologies.
Human bodies are, in any theorisation, intimately connected with human subjectivity either as subjectivity’s main object, its enabler or something more nuanced. Technologies are of course always produced by humans (usually) for human use and to expand human capacities. While technologies can have unintended capacities and develop in unexpected ways they are intimately connected with humanity and human subjectivity. The rest of the material world is not so well connected to humanity. Although human beings may have had a profound impact on the planet much of the material world is indifferent to us. While I may not agree with the extent of Zizek’s critique of New Materialism as I feel a lot can be gained from it especially in the ethical imperative which it suggests by positioning the non-human world in an assemblage with us, he has highlighted some crucial issues.