Closely kinned with the concepts of ‘nature’ and ‘object’ is ‘matter’. In Aristotle’s Metaphysics, matter was one of the four ‘causes’ inherent to any object, together with form, efficient and final causes. In Aristotle’s formulation however, the material cause is linked to the passive and feminine, whereas efficient and formal causes were associated with the male principle (Merchant, 1980: 11-16). This gendered view of matter was espoused by Plato and his followers, where Ideas were thought to be masculine, and the phenomenal earthly world of nature and matter were considered feminine (ibid.: 10). However, since Antiquity and up until early modernity, world-views in which matter was thought to be dynamic and androgynous were present in Europe. From ancient gnostics and Stoics up to the medieval alchemists and vitalists, this ‘minor’ tradition regarded matter as active and permeated by life (ibid.: 19-29). It is only in the 17th century, and with the affirmation of modern physics, that matter was turned into an inert and inanimate object. Mechanistic philosophy established that the world is made of particles in motion, but motion was assumed as an impetus external to the particles, a thesis which was given its most elaborate articulation in Isaac Newton’s physics. Even then, one of the key scientists and philosophers of the period, Gottfried Leibniz held that “all matter must be full of animated, or at least living, substances” (in Merchant, 1980: 283). His contemporary, Spinoza believed that matter possessed innate will to power, striving, or conatus (Deleuze, 1990).
Eventually, the mechanistic understanding of the body overcame vitalist understandings and Descartes turned the body into ‘brute matter’ “that the unfettered will can now contemplate as the object of its domination” (Federici, 2004: 139). This devolution of the body into the (feminine) realm of matter created a 17th century “conflict between Reason and the Passions of the Body” (ibid.: 134), where women were aligned with Passions, a classification that was used to justify witch-hunts. The intersection of lower classes, passions, and magic (organistic world-views of materiality, space and time), as Federici explains, turned into a death sentence for hundreds of thousands of witches, a large majority of which women (2004). Moreover, this inferiorisation of the body allowed for its mechanisation, creating a class of “body-proletariat” (ibid.: 151) and the conditions for ‘primitive accumulation’ or transition to capitalism. Mechanistic science or the idea of matter as inert prevailed in mainstream Western thought until the early 20th century, when, in line with the advances primarily in physics, it was challenged by Henri Bergson’s vitalism and Alfred North Whitehead’s process philosophy. However, the deep-seated stigma of matter will take longer to unsettle.
Most systematically, matter has been reanimated from its modern inertness in recent feminist philosophies. Genealogies of this re-emergence are rhizomatic, and feminist posthumanist philosopher Rosi Braidotti classifies these approaches under ‘matter-realism’, ‘radical neomaterialism’, or ‘posthuman feminism’ (2011: 163). These positions are closely related to the ‘post-anthropocentric’ or ‘material turn’, of which perhaps most vibrant expression are ‘new materialisms’ (Coole & Frost, 2010). One of the forerunners of this philosophical shift is the nomadic vitalism of Deleuze & Guattari (1987, 1994). The bridge with new materialisms is to be found in the work of Rosi Braidotti and Manuel De Landa, who coined the concept of “generative matter” (1997). For Braidotti and De Landa, matter is an ‘active principle’ in and for itself, a position that they derive from Spinoza, who claimed that “mind is the idea of the body, making the body necessarily the object of the mind” (Tuin & Dolphijn, 2012: 95). In Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett develops motifs from Spinoza and DG into the figure of ‘thing-power’, “the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle” (2010: 6).
Across the differences in approach, new materialists can be said to share Karen Barad’s call to give “matter its due”, to investigate “how matter comes to matter” (2003, 2007). A key feature of new materialisms is anti-dualism, and a focus on immanent corporeality, as Rosi Braidotti stresses with her ‘bodily’ or ‘carnal’ materialism (2006). At the root of Braidotti’s feminist matter-realism is gendered ‘mater’ (mother in Latin):
it is the primary matter and the foundation stone, whose silent presence installs the master in his monologic phallogocentric mode. The feminism of sexual difference argues that women have borne both materially and symbolically the costs of the masculine privilege of autonomous self-definition: they have been physically and symbolically dispossessed of a place from whence to speak. (Braidotti, 2002: 23)
Matter, and its entanglement with nature, are here re-appropriated into a new alliance, with significant implications for ecological thought. Through the work of Elizabeth Grosz and others, recent feminist materialisms rework the logic of dualism individuated by ecofeminisms from the standpoint of philosophy of difference, thereby avoiding possible essentialisms that emerged in early ecofeminism. Through their affiliation with post-structuralism, identity gives way to multiplicity and peformativity. An adjacent, and related area of research, is ‘affect theory’ which emphasises the materiality of the body through pre-conscious and extra-discursive asignifying processes of the body (O’Sullivan, 2001; Gregg & Seigworth, 2010; Massumi, 2015)1. Another feature of new materialisms that is of great relevance to ecosophy is their transversal or ‘diffractive’ methodologies that work across the binaries of modern dualisms, as well as disciplines, often bridging the gap between humanities and hard sciences (Tuin & Dolphijn, 2012)2. Transversality, anti-dualism, and matter-realism of new materialism shape a distinctly ecological ethos.
In philosophy, I believe that it is in the new materialist orbit that major innovations in ecological thought are currently taking place. As Diana Coole and Samantha Frost put it, “foregrounding material factors and reconfiguring our very understanding of matter are prerequisites for any plausible account of coexistence and its conditions in the twenty-first century” (2010: 2). Through radical re-conceptualisations of materiality and corporeality, new materialisms revitalise some of the impasses of the ecological thought of the last century (e.g. holism, organicism, etc.). Stacy Alaimo (2010) postulates a ‘transcorporeality’ of humans and nonhumans, which affords novel perspectives on issues of environmental justice. Nancy Tuana works out an ‘interactionist’ ontology to assert the “the viscous porosity of the categories ‘natural’, ‘human-made’, ‘social’, ‘biological’” (2008: 189). In her article ‘Viscous porosity: Witnessing Katrina’, Tuana reads environmental injustices in the case of the hurricane that hit New Orleans in 2005 through ‘viscous porosity’ between human and nonhuman agencies (2008). New materialist approaches are one of the driving forces behind the burgeoning ‘environmental humanities’, a field of study
by which fundamental concerns within the humanities—such as, “meaning, value, responsibility and purpose” (Rose et al. 2012, 1)—can be brought to bear on questions of the environment through the deployment of humanities modes of enquiry. (Neimanis, Åsberg & Hedrén, 2015: 69)
Environmental humanities, through their materialist outlook, bring together issues of social and environmental justice within the context of climate change. By espousing posthumanist understandings of the body, environmental humanities rework issues of environmental justice as permeating both human and extra-human bodies (e.g., Neimanis & Walker, 2014).
A distinctive feature of new materialisms of especial significance to this work is its critique of representationalism. This implies critical revaluations of the perceived primacy that was afforded to discourse and language in the critical theory of the late 20th century, in favour of a ‘double vision’ that looks at material and discursive entanglements3. Ontological distinctions between data and object, discourse and reality, fact and value, map and territory, are key postulates of modern rationalist epistemology. In her sweeping critique of representationalism Donna Haraway posits that “bodies as objects of knowledge are material-semiotic generative nodes” (1991: 200). ‘Material-discursive entanglement’ is a key conceptual figure in Karen Barad’s posthumanist agential realism (see 2.1.2.). Entanglements of the materialities and discourses put in crisis various representational protocols that have been historically established in order to police the “leaky distinctions” (Haraway, 1991: 151-2) between the two supposedly distinct realms. In the modern outlook, a question such as “can nature speak for itself?” is, strictly speaking, unresolvable if not unthinkable. Through performative neomaterialist ontologies, this and other related questions can be radically re(con)figured.
Aligned with new materialist and posthumanist orientations, a growing number of curatorial and artistic practices over the last decade have attempts to give matter ‘its due’. What is meant by this is that matter, the other-than-human, is recognised as an agent unto itself, sometimes even the protagonist of the artwork. There have been several publications that explicitly work on imagining new materialist methodologies for visual arts (Barrett & Bolt, 2013; Barrett & Bolt, 2014), as well as provide new materialist readings of artistic practices (Tiainen, Kontturi & Hongisto, 2015). In this section, I will focus on reading artistic practices that, in my view, have a (new) materialist orientation, some of which openly engage with philosophical currents, but not necessarily so.
One of the privileged pathways by which matter has surged into the foreground of artistic practice is via digital media. Concurrently with an important stream of research dealing with materiality of media and infrastructures (e.g. Mattern, 2013; Easterling, 2014), artists have looked behind the screen into hardware. Medium becomes agent, in a materialist translation of McLuhan’s statement ‘medium is the message’. Martin Howse, Ryan Jordan and Jonathan Kemp’s arts-research project The Crystal World (2011-2) is an important early work of media materiality, an exploration into the transformative possibilities of minerals concealed inside the computer case4. In a similar fashion, Revital Cohen and Tuur van Baalen, in H / AlCuTaAu (2014), “construct” “an artificial ore” by mining discarded computers5. Graham Harwood and Matsuko Yokokoji (YoHa) disclose the entanglements of histories of labour and environment through the creation of alternative computing machines6. These artists intervene into the material bodies of information technologies and make novel assemblages of components, sometimes functional machines, but crucially new chemical/conceptual agglomerates. Jussi Parikka and Garnet Hertz describe this art methodology as ‘media archaeology’, a resurgence of geological elementality through and against apparatuses of capitalism, to become ‘zombie media’ that “do not die” (in Parikka, 2015: 165-77).
Artist film is an important medium for telling stories of matter. A certain matter-realist approach of a recent wave of film-making can be encapsulated in Otolith Group’s remarkable description of their film Anathema (2011), which “re-imagines the microscopic behaviour of liquid crystals undergoing turbulence as a sentient entity that possesses fingertips and eyes enthralled by the LCD touch-screens of communicative capitalism” (Otolith Group, 2012). The film-based works of the Otolith Group have been merging documentary form, fiction and speculation to summon futurist post-colonial and post-capitalist imageries7. Ursula Biemann follows the elements as they circulate across various networks and planes of meaning, representing various points of view, some of which are decidedly nonhuman8. Biemann’s is a quest for a posthumanist vocabulary both in form and trans-disciplinary methodology, as her works blend science, philosophy, geopolitics and social documentary, grounding the process with a deep attention to site-specificity and nonhuman bodies. Biemann presents a perhaps unique convergence of new materialist and posthumanist philosophies with environmentally and politically-engaged art. Artists working with a similar ethos are, among others, Tuomas A. Laitinen9, Hanna Husberg10 and Amie Siegel11.
This strand of film/research-making marks the passage into a post-environmental perspective in which naturalcultural entanglements run so deep that is impossible to simply ‘document’ them with traditional media. To achieve this deep description, these artists implement hybrids of social critique and free-form speculation and futurism, molecular-elemental imagery with poetic texts attuned to the language of recent ecocriticism or new materialism. The end results are multi-sensory poems in which extra-human bodies are agential protagonists co-constituting human stories. Differently to environmentalist documentary films, artist films or video essays in a matter-realist register move through and sometimes even beyond objective facts to dramatise the present and imagine alter- or counter-narratives, either in utopian or dystopian direction. These works are powerful nonmodern stories that contribute to renewing the language of ecological art with posthumanist visions and vocabularies.
Forensic Architecture is a trans-disciplinary research group initiated by Eyal Weizman, working on issues of social justice by producing new legal evidence through the procedures of forensics, scientific methods to make “objects address the forum”, to make them objective ‘testimonies’ of injustice (Weizman, 2010: 11)12. World of Matter is an “international media, art and research platform that investigates contemporary resource ecologies” (Biemann, Mörtenböck & Mooshammer, 2013: 76). The group proposes to bring the question of resources into the aesthetic-philosophical discourse, in order to “de-familiarise understanding of natural resources, taken not as discrete entities but rather in terms of complex human and non-human ecologies” (ibid.: 78). In the position statement of the group and in individual works, there is a shared effort to take matter seriously while at the same time not losing sight of environmental justice. This situatedness invokes a meeting of politically-engaged art and ecological art. Among the works of the World of Matter group, the above mentioned Ursula Biemann’s Egyptian Chemistry, Paulo Tavares’s Non-human Rights, compellingly interweave dimensions of social and environmental justice.
A number of recent shows and events have to various degrees centred matter and decentred the human in the process13. These recent projects follow in the wake of several important precedents. A pivotal role in establishing a materialist-oriented curatorial practice was played by Bruno Latour, with a trilogy of co-curated shows at ZKM, Karlsuhe14. From a consonant intellectual milieu emerged a multi-part research-exhibition Animism (2010-12). Curated by Anselm Franke, Animism traces how the concept of animation has troubled the boundary-making project of modernity:
The exhibition is conceived as a topography of the ‘middle ground’ that opens up if we suspend the division between the ‘Great Divides’ of modernity. The works of art in the exhibition are like ‘crossings’, as they pass from one side of the abyss to the other, from object to subject, from one ‘subject position’ to the next, or from one ontological register to another. They ‘map’ what happens if the iron cages of subject and object are broken open. (2012)
A number of works on display, spanning from 1900 to the present day, reveal the nonmodern lines of inquiry that existed in parallel to the mainstream of modernism15. dOCUMENTA(13), curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, had a stated emphasis on naturalcultural practices and recent currents in neomaterialist and speculative philosophies. Beyond these topics, the above shows share a research characteristic in that they are platforms or ‘assemblies’ of objects and humans (Latour, 2005b), accompanied by wide-ranging events programmes and ample catalogues with scholarly and artistic contributions. Rarely have philosophy, science studies, and humanities been in closer dialogue with visual arts, breaching the established modern divisions of labour.
The exhibitions and projects outlined in this section place emphasis on the mattering power of matter, how it becomes a gravity pull for social practices around it. These practices are of similar affiliation with the above mentioned object-oriented art-philosophy interactions. However, there are significant ethico-political differences among the artists and thinkers. In any case, these object- and matter-centred works represent an important move towards accounting for the boundary-making projects of modernity, which is an imperative for a posthuman eco-aesthetics.
In this section, I have focused more on research and audio-visual modes of negotiating materiality. In line with materialist feminisms, the key site of naturalcultural hybridisation is the body itself. Meeting bodies radically other is the topic of the following section.
- Affect is one of the central concepts in Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy, and this very special understanding will permeate the analytical framework in Part II.
- Disciplinary transversality of new materialisms furthers the traditions of sociologies of science, such as Actor Network Theory (e.g., Law & Hassard, 1999; Latour, 2006), and science studies of Andrew Pickering, Isabelle Stengers and others. Key work in this sense is Donna Haraway’s genre-defying critical epistemology of science (1989, 1991, 1997).
- With ‘perceived reading’ I am referring to the reductive synthesis of post-structuralist thought. It is popular to quote Derrida on saying that “there is no outside of text”, in order to dismiss this tradition as absurd or idealist. Arguably, some of the insights of postmodernists, as in works of Jean Baudrillard on simulation seem to be quite at odds with a materialist or ecological purview (see Andermatt Conley, 1997). On a deeper level, however, post-structuralist philosophies of difference are key for the development of new materialisms. Karen Barad (2007), for example, develops her materialistic philosophy through a critical and creative engagement with the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, both commonly considered linguistic constructionists. Susan Hekman maps important materialist aspects in Foucault and even in the linguistic luminary Wittgenstein (2010). Vicki Kirby rewrites the very idea of language by extending Jacques Derrida’s grammatology to embrace nature (2010).
- The project was part of Jonathan Kemp’s PhD The Crystal World: Executing a new media materialism (2013). The project consisted of a number of workshops in which the participants were first invited to recover minerals and metals from hardware (ibid.: 67). After that, the materials were used to create ”re-crystallisation” ”in novel arrays” (ibid.). Finally, these newly crystallised structures and components were to be “re-purpose[d] and embedd[ed]…within wider geological and geophysical systems” (ibid.). These complex operations were set up in motion in order to ‘liberate’ the crystals from “the digital crystallisation of the flesh by capital [which] limits futures to the point of exhaustion” (ibid.: 56). This is a blend of art and technology in search of genuinely posthuman molecular alliances, something that I will pursue in my own project mineralizacija (see 3.6.d.).
- In the catalogue text for another artificial ore, B / NdAlTaAu (2015), Cohen and van Baalen lay emphasis on the history of capitalist circulation of materials: “Mined out of soil, designed in the United States, made in China, destroyed in England” (in Samman & Ondreička, 2015: 59).
- In their Tantalum Memorial (2008), YoHa with Richard Wright, create an electromagnetic telephone exchange which rings the members of a Congolese diaspora telephony network and asks them to record a message. The project brings forth the ‘Coltan Wars’ that took place in Congo since 1998, killing hundreds of thousands, and centred around the key commodity of IT communications, the coltan ore. Aluminium (2009) is a graphic book and film about the social history of aluminium. Coal Fired Computers (2010), in collaboration with Jean Demars, is a computer powered by a steam engine revealing reliance of contemporary high-tech on obsolete energy sources such as coal. One is reminded of Steve McQueen’s Caribs’ Leap / Western Deep (2002) video installation which interweaves a colonial history of the local Carib resistance to French colonists in Grenada in 1651, and the 3-km long descent into the Tautona gold mine in South Africa.
- The Otolith Group’s themes vary widely, but some productions have a strong environmental focus. Radiant (2012) follows the invisible traces of post-Fukushima nuclear fallout. Medium Earth (2013) intertwines the earthquake prone geology of California with the unconscious of persons who believe they can predict earthquakes.
- Biemann’s earlier works were investigations into global geographies of capital, with emphasis on commodities and migrants flows. In recent works, Biemann interweaves multiple strata – political, scientific, philosophical – to create documentary realities with speculative and sometimes science-fiction atmosphere. Egyptian Chemistry (2012) follows the waters of the Nile, in a mesh-up of scientific interviews, field measurements, and philosophical musings. The project, as presented on the online platform of World of Matter, features a number of videos and an expansive research archive. Deep Weather (2013) starts with aerial imagery of tar sands oil fields in Alberta, Canada, to then move to Bangladesh, where it follows local inhabitants building flood defences. The voice-over speaks in semi-whispering time in first-person, representing the Earth. Forest Law (2014), in collaboration with researcher Paulo Tavares, follows several legal cases that indigenous populations of the Ecuadorian Amazon have raised against oil and mining companies.
- Following the material circulation of copper across the globe, Laitinen’s four-channel video installation Conductor (2014-15) traces the flows of copper across the globe creating a complex environment of sound and vision. Powder of Sympathy (with Jenna Sutela, 2015), examines the mythical and chemical characteristics of copper, thereby adding mental dimensions to the material story of the element.
- anna Husberg’s films delve into the thick of matter to unravel elemental cosmologies, combining site-specific film-making with poetic-scientific texts. Her recent focus is on the atmosphere (In the Vast Ocean of Air, 2016), water, salt and cynanobacteria, or blue-green algae in (Being With, 2015). Husberg situates molecular-material stories into the current geopolitical contexts and contestations, thereby looking at complex matters from both social and extra-human perspectives.
- In Quarry (2015), Amie Siegel traces the transformation of marble stone from the moment of its mining to its architectural coolness adorning Manhattan luxury condos. Siegel’s focus is on the speculation or economic value-production process, but the conductor of the story is not discourse of advertisement or language, but shining surfaces of marble itself. The viewer can feel the violence of extraction, and remain captivated by the beauty of the material silently absorbing histories of social labour and the Earth when immobilised in high-end design furniture.
- The activities of this group are primarily concerned with the issues of international war crimes and social justice, but they have also performed environmental justice research projects: Nobil Ahmed’s investigation on environmental poisonings by arsenic, Godofredo Pereira’s inquiry into the water contamination caused by a copper mining operation in Chile. Adrian Lahoud develops a ‘forensic climatology’ to analyse two cases of genocide in Sahel, trying to support the case of the Sudanese diplomat Lumumba Di-Aping who accused the developed nations of climate genocide at the COP meeting in 2009. The website of the project is a rich source of documentation, as well as the publication (2014) and the exhibition at HKW, Berlin (2014).
- Among many others, the recent Tate Modern display Materials and Objects (2016) which shows contemporary art of the last hundred years by reading the materials they are made of. Rare Earth (2015) brings together researchers and practitioners around the topic of rare earth elements. Sonic Acts festival at Amsterdam has dedicated 2015 edition to Geological Imagination, gathering a core group of thinkers and artists to try to represent the Anthropocene. Matter Fictions (2016) maps out the past, present and future ecologies of human-matter relations under the following headings: “Decolonisation of the Sign”, “Out of the Grid”, “Molecular & Territories” and “Recoding the Earth”.
- Iconoclash (2002) examined the crisis of representation in arts, thereby inaugurating some of the key new materialist topics in the arts. Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (2005b) tackled the issue of representation with emphasis on politics and science. Importantly, one of the goals of the show was to introduce non-Western conceptions of representation. The project has continued with another large show dedicated to imagining strategies to ”recalibrate our detectors, our instruments, to feel anew where we are and where we might wish to go” — Reset Modernity! (2016).
- Among other projects, Jimmie Durham’s Museum of Stones (2011/12) neatly displays ordinarily looking stones into a standard museum display case. However, stones are lying on bread cutters and look like pieces of bread. Organic turns into inorganic. Assembly: Animism (2011) by Agency is an archival collection of judiciary cases in which things are vortexes around which disputes concerning copyright, authorship, and agency are resolved. Law as a boundary-making practice of what acts and what does not matter.