New Materialism for a Posthumanist Ethic

One key aspect of the ecological self and what I maintain to be vital elements of newly harmonious human-nature relations is encapsulated by the transdisciplinary theory of ‘new materialism’ (DeLanda, 1996), which rethinks subjectivity and lends primacy to the role played by matter (atoms, molecules, earth processes, etc.) in the agentic, metamorphosing, and self-organizing natural processes which shape humans, cultures, and the structures around us (DeLanda, 1996; Connolly, 2013). The truly transgressive aspect of new materialism is that, by emphasizing the humans are not the only beings or entities that possess agency and generate meaning, and by refuting the postmodern tendencies of ‘dematerializing’ the world into a mere agglomeration of social and linguistic constructions, it deals a further destabilizing blow to anthropocentrism and duality in its various forms (Van der Tuin & Dolphijn, 2010). Rather, new materialism presents a post-Cartesian ontology Braidotti (2000) that involves nonlinear processes of ‘rethinking the embodied structure of human subjectivity’, wherein humans, animals, trees, oceans, social systems, and reality itself are newly understood as varying expressions of agential matter perpetually linked through ‘processes of iterative intra-activity’ (Barad, 2007, pg. 151). Like the ‘ecological self’, new materialism seeks to generate “non-binary object-subject relations” that can bridge the chasm between “cultural constructionism and the materiality of nature and bodies (Iovino, 2012, pg. 76), as well as through its broader deconstruction of antagonistic self-other dualisms. Outdated dualisms give way to configurations that “form complexes both natural and cultural’, wherein human meaning, agency, and materiality are intricately and inextricably interwoven with the agency of purposive earth ‘others’. Alaimo (2012) describes such conceptions of the material interchanges between human and animal bodies, and the broader material world as ‘trans-corporeality’, a posthumanist sense of the human as substantially and perpetually interconnected with the flows of substances and the agencies of environments. Such eco-materialisms (as well as constructs such as the ‘ecological self’) serve to engender the profound realization that ‘the very stuff of ourselves is always- even across vast scales of times and distance- the stuff of an agential, tangled world’ (Alaimo, 2012, pg. 489).

“Conceiving of matter as possessing its own modes of self-transformation, self-organization, and directedness, and thus no longer as simply passive or inert, disturbs the conventional sense that agents are exclusively humans who possess the cognitive abilities, intentionality, and freedom to make autonomous decisions and the corollary position that humans have the right or ability to master nature” (Coole & Frost, 2010, pg. 10)

New materialism’s emphases on the vitality and significance of matter, the porosity of ‘boundaries’, and the notion that reality is constituted by series of complex and intricate interactions between the physical and the social ‘realms’ of existence, have profound implications for how we view ourselves in relation to the world, and particularly, shed new light on the far-reaching impacts generated by certain socioeconomic processes on environmental conditions (Coole & Frost, 2010). Thus, we can see with a newly critical eye how seemingly insignificant daily activities (purchasing plastic water bottles, for instance) characteristic of pro-growth and fossil-fuel-dependent economies lead to an increasingly destabilized climate and thus an ever more compromised global environment (Coole & Frost, 2010). Such are the analyses offered particularly by more critical strands of new materialism (critical materialism) which, like most new materialist ontologies more generally, maintain that ‘society is simultaneously materially real and socially constructed: our material lives are always culturally mediated, but they are not only cultural’ (Coole & Frost, 2010, pg. 27) as strict social constructivists would maintain. Critical materialists purport that ‘it is ideological naïveté to believe that significant social change can be engendered solely by reconstructing subjectivities, discourses, ethics, and identities- that is, without also altering their socioeconomic conditions’- i.e., capitalism, for instance (Coole & Frost, 2010, pg. 25) (Harvey, 2006; York & Clark, 2010). One of the most crucial intellectual endeavors of new critical materialisms is to uncover how global political and socioeconomic structures (global capitalism), and the power relations that flow therefrom, work to shape people, values, ideas, and material forces themselves. Insights yielded from these analytical trends on the enormous ‘macrolevel’ impacts of ‘microlevel’ actions (the two realms are never separable), of the intersecting influences of the social and the biogeophysical, can similarly lead to new moral reconsiderations and heightened sensitivities of our responsibilities towards the wellbeing of the biosphere and its myriad inhabitants.


Iovino (2012) contends that prominent postmodern thinkers such as Deleuze and Guattari, who consider human and more-than-human territories as ‘one and the same essential reality’ (pg. 78), come quite close to the ideas espoused by new materialism. In Deleuze & Guattari’s illuminating essay, Becoming Animal, the contours of the ever-shifting boundaries between ‘self’, world, and ‘other’, primarily animal ‘others’, are explored. However, unlike the more commonplace pleads for harmonious self/other interactions that are often predicated on emphasizing sameness, their focus is not on sameness or identity based on filiation but on alliance and symbiosis between heterogeneities that are associated via complex nonlinear assemblages. Deleuze & Guattari are interested in points at which transformations occur at the permeable interstices between these heterogenous agglomerations or ‘multiplicities’ through the ‘deterritorializing’ effects of anomalous entities. The ‘anomalous’, elucidated by their example of the exceptional whale Moby Dick and his alliance with Captain Ahab, is the ineffable boundary-delineator by its very nature of singularity in relation to the pack or ‘multiplicity’, and it is that with which one forms an alliance when ‘becoming’ other or ‘traversing’ the boundaries between one multiplicity and another. In a particularly insightful passage whose conceptualizations are very much akin to those conjured by the ‘Jewel Net of Indra’ and the classic notion of the ‘web of life’ (Capra, 1997), Deleuze & Guattari ruminate on the elusive concept of the ‘self’ in relation to these innumerable multiplicities of heterogenous yet interdependent parts, which they note are linked by ‘fibers’ that stretch on throughout the galaxy and ‘tie together’ everything from particles on through plants and animals:

“In fact, the self is only a threshold, a door, a becoming between two multiplicities. Each multiplicity is defined by a borderline functioning as Anomalous, but there is a string of borderlines, a continuous line of borderlines (fiber) following which the multiplicity changes. And at each threshold or door, a new pact (alliance)? A fiber stretches from a human to an animal, from a human or animal to molecules, and so on to the imperceptible. Every fiber is a Universe fiber” (2007, pg. 47).

Perhaps what’s most crucial in Deleuze & Guattari’s analysis is their utter dissolution of classical notions of hierarchy that underpin modern and Western thought such as ‘the great chain of being’, emphasizing that: ‘The error we must guard against is to believe that there is a kind of logical order to this string (or ‘fiber’), these crossings or transformations. It is already going too far to postulate an order descending from the animal to the vegetable, then to molecules, to particles” (pg. 47, 2007). As Oppermann (2012) characterizes Deleuze & Guattari’s relational man-nature cosmology, “nature and culture, reality and language, are mutually constituted in a network of rhizomes and thus cannot be dichotomized. They suggest that the model of the rhizome is a better conceptual tool to understand human (social, cultural, political systems) and nonhuman (natural or ecological systems) realities and discourse (narratives, literary and cultural representations) than the hierarchically oriented arborescent models that dominate our thought” (pg. 37). As elucidated before, “each multiplicity is symbiotic; its becoming ties together animals, plants, microorganisms, mad particles, a whole galaxy” (pg. 47, 2007). In other words, all entities exist in relation to one another, relations wherein there are no traces of notions such as superiority or inferiority, where there is no ordering, no clearly delineated or set boundaries. The very ‘boundaries’ that delineate one multiplicity from another are ambiguous, nebulous, and permeable. Rather, there exist ‘fibers’ that cross over and through one another like the threads in a spider’s web. Entities interpermeate one another in perpetual ‘becomings’ or ‘crossings’ between multiplicities through their innumerable interactions. The ‘self’ becomes the ‘other’, which in turn becomes ‘the self’; they are, in essence, co-constitutive forces (Van der Tuin & Dolphijn, 2013).

These musings lead one to a conception of ‘self’ that is radically different from that which we’ve grown accustomed to conceiving of in modern Western societies. The ‘self’ is never an isolated entity but rather always co-constituted by others. Indeed, as Jonathan Balcombe reminds us, “Most of ‘you’ is not you. Some 90 percent of all the cells in our bodies are bacteria”. Trillions of these bacteria reside in our guts alone, helping us to digest our food and maintain our health. Similarly, the oxygen that we inhale has been generated as a byproduct by the photosynthetic activities of autotrophs in the seas and on land. Life is a complex nexus of interactions between the physical-material and the social, between humans and innumerable ‘earth others’; individualism is a myth. Consequently, everything we do generates an imprint in the tangled, agential world in and around us. The more we continue to act as though there are no real consequences to what we do, that all of our follies have easily fashionable solutions that can simply be made effective through human will and agency, the sooner we’ll be made to realize that the earth indeed has a reality and agency of its own, and that matter operates independently of our social constructions.


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