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In the broadest terms, materialism, as Engels puts it, "insist[s] on explaining the world from the world itself" (Dialectics of Nature 7). It is, to put it differently, the unyielding opponent of the otherworldly—of those projects that derive the material world from another world of spirit or that see in the natural world a super-natural force or design. In its most revolutionary tendency in the modern era, materialism is determination by the mode of production. This historical materialism is the antagonist of existing class arrangements because, by revealing the transformative agency of human labor in making history and producing the material world—the social totality—it also reveals the dialectical nature of existing social relations of private property, which inevitably come into conflict with the revolutionary advance of the forces of production. The more the powers of collective labor become effectively organized and efficient at producing the means to meet the material and cultural needs of humanity as a whole, the more intolerable becomes the restrictions placed on this process by the needs of a few to personally profit from it at the expense of the vast majority whose labor produces the wealth. Materialism is therefore a weapon in the historic struggle against private property because it allows people to take part as conscious participants in transforming relations of private ownership, the root of social inequalities. It is for this reason that ontology—the account of the objective constitution of reality, both natural and social—has been central to the project of materialism, for it provides positive knowledge of the objective world as a totality.

Since capitalism's victory in the early modern era over the feudal order (against which the bourgeoisie deployed materialism to challenge the spiritualizations that justified aristocratic rule), bourgeois theorists have waged a protracted war against materialism and ontology in their efforts to naturalize their own class interests and obscure the source of profit in surplus value, which is what maintains class inequality despite bourgeois democracy (equal rights). In place of materialism and the positive knowledge of the world, they have substituted various species of spiritualism that invert the relation of the material and the immaterial, establishing the otherworldly as the basis of reality and, in effect, placing it beyond the reach of human knowledge and transformation. The attack against materialism, in other words, is where the war against socialism—the new world governed by the principle, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!" (Marx Critique of the Gotha Programme 531)—is fought at the level of philosophy.

But today, as the class struggle intensifies under the global contradictions of capital, the fight against materialism increasingly takes place within the very terms of "materialism."

The avid intensity with which materialism is today being appropriated and turned on its head is perhaps nowhere more evident than in Diana Coole and Samantha Frost's collection New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, which has become a new manifesto for cultural theory. Claiming that "the radicalism of the dominant discourses which have flourished under the cultural turn is now more or less exhausted," Coole and Frost insist that the time has come for the return to materialism and the world of matter (3), made possible they suggest by diverse developments in digital technology, the natural sciences, biotechnology, the environment, the economy, health, and climate, for instance.

The "new materialism" energetically deploys such concepts as matter, materiality, objectivity, empirical reality, and ontology; denounces theological explanations of the world; and declares that it is no longer possible to ignore the way in which, as Coole and Frost put it, humans are "embedded in a material world" (34). Yet, what is being termed materialism in the "new materialism" is largely a physicalist notion of matter (an experientialism which it justifies by allying itself with the discourses of natural science and phenomenology) and which is ideologically valuable precisely because it is "a materialism which excludes the historical process" (Marx Capital Vol. 1 494). As in eighteenth century views of the material as a passive and inert substance that "resists" conceptuality, it is a materialism that cannot explain the material world as a dialectical process whose motion may be positively and reliably understood.

At the same time, the new post-historical materialism is elaborated through a ("new") posthumanist ontological framework that seems to offer an understanding of the social as a totality, emphasizing interlocking "webs" of connections between the social and natural world, and the "vital," corporeal "embeddedness" of the human in the nonhuman. That is to say, it offers a notion of "collective life as a complex relational field that emerges in an intercorporeal, intersubjective 'between'" (Dianna Coole 113), in which "phenomena are caught in a multitude of interlocking systems and forces" (Coole and Frost 9).

Such allusions to totality of course have great appeal at a time when the global interconnections of social and natural life can no longer be avoided and when people struggle to understand the conditions to which their lives are ruthlessly subjected. But what is being offered by posthumanist ontology is in fact a theory blocking class understanding of issues in their material totality. It is a theory of "ecology" that empties the social out of the world, reducing it to physical and biological dynamics of local systems. Embeddedness and corporeality are ideological terms: their role is to limit knowledge to local knowledge and especially to the knowledge of experience. They are code words for anti-totality. It is not surprising, then, that the affirmation of individual experience and rejection of objectivity leads the new materialists to embrace spiritualism, the framework of which is rooted in individual beliefs and feelings.

For all its criticisms of religion and metaphysics, in the end "objective existence" according to proponents of new materialism is "only possible because of a certain spectrality" (Cheah 77). In fact, Coole and Frost joyfully affirm the new materialism because its "postdualism" means that there can be "no definitive break between . . . material and spiritual phenomena" (10). Posthumanist ontology, in other words, turns out to be a very familiar spectral ontology—an idealism. Under the guise of a militant anti-theological return to the material world (which is needed to distinguish new materialism from the Right's crude defense of theocracy), the new materialists advocate a subtle "new" reading of the (spiritual) "life" of matter. It returns to "materialist traditions developed prior to modernity" (Coole and Frost 4) to avoid the worldly determination of reality and instead find "fresh applications" (4) of spiritualism. The new materialism, consequently, is not a rejection but an updating of the culturalism that has played an integral role in dismantling the materialist critique of capitalism in the postwar era.

In analyzing some of the central assumptions of "the new materialism" and its historical context, I take as my focus in this essay Coole and Frost's anthology, paying particular attention to the way posthumanist "ontology" and "matter" are theorized in the book's Introduction and the section on "The Force of Materiality," with essays by Jane Bennett, Pheng Cheah, Samantha Frost, and Melissa A. Orlie. Their theorizations of matter and the relation between subject and object, I argue, reflect a deep confusion about, if not a deliberate rewriting of, some of the "fundamental questions" of materialism and thus have profoundly problematic implications for materialism and the struggle for a world organized on the basis of meeting social needs. Although the book's contributors "pluralize" materialisms (4), the resulting eclectic bringing together of many (contradictory) arguments and traditions nevertheless articulates a new (ideo)logic for the era of global austerity.


First, in what ways do the new materialists distinguish themselves from existing theoretical traditions? On the one hand, as I mentioned, proponents of the new materialism express frustration with what Coole and Frost refer to as the "allergy to 'the real'" of earlier textual approaches that has had the effect of discouraging "critical inquirers from the more empirical investigation that material processes and structures require" (6). Taking their cue, therefore, not from the languages of textuality but (following such theorists as Deleuze and Guatari, Bruno Latour and N. Katherine Hayles) from the discourses of the "new" biology (i.e., biogenetics) and the new physics (chaos and systems theories), and often hybridizing them with the (old) phenomenology and vitalism, the new materialists highlight the dynamics of matter at the cellular, molecular, subatomic, and cosmic levels and the way they subtend social relations and constitute the human body. Indeed, they suggest that social relations are best understood on the basis of these physical/biological levels of "matter." "Our existence," Coole and Frost observe,

depends from one moment to the next on myriad micro-organisms and diverse higher species, on our own hazily understood bodily and cellular reactions and on pitiless cosmic motions, on the material artifacts and natural stuff that populate our environment, as well as on socioeconomic structures that produces and reproduce the conditions of our everyday lives. (1)

They thus ask with great urgency, "How could we ignore the power of matter and the ways it materializes in our ordinary experiences or fail to acknowledge the primacy of matter in our theories?" (1). For new materialists, the problem with the "cultural turn" is in part the "constructivist orientation" (4) of its theory, which treats matter as a social construction with no existence or agency independent of humans. I leave aside for now that this reading of "culturalism" is itself a culturalist reading of the cultural turn that obscures its material basis and allows new materialism to construct itself as different; in actually the basis of culturalism is the treatment of ideas and practices as isolated from the material relations of history—an ideological approach that has been and remains the cultural common sense in global capitalism because it deflects attention from the roots of culture in relations of exploitation.

"Constructivist" accounts of matter, new materialist critics argue, are no longer capable of addressing new realities like global climate change, ecological crisis, and growing economic disparities worldwide, not to mention the way new technologies and new scientific discoveries have meant that "unprecedented things are currently being done with and to matter, nature, life, production, and reproduction" through, for instance, biogenetics (4). They suggest that it is now necessary to address the ways in which the material world—the world not just of objects, nature, and the human body, but such phenomena as "the electricity grid, food, and trash" (9)—has an "agency" which has hitherto not been accounted for.

On the other hand, the new materialists "share a common foe in mechanistic or deterministic materialism" (Bennett, "A Vitalist Stopover on the Way to a New Materialism" 48). That is, the "new" materialism differs from classical theories of materialism, since the latter, following Newton, treated nature and matter as set in motion by a divine (external) source. In these mechanical theories of nature, matter's movement does not originate from within but from without and with a clocklike precision that can be observed and measured. Moreover, the Cartesian distinction between subject/object informing mechanical materialisms posits an active human subject capable of knowing/mastering a passive, natural world—a distinction that is increasingly viewed as unethical not to mention regularly subverted by new realities, such as growing frequencies of natural disasters which appear to exceed our ability to understand them. It is on this basis that the new materialists also oppose historical materialism. Historical materialism, the new materialists claim, is equally mechanical since it treats the agency of matter as an effect of its relation to the human subject of labor, and is "deterministic" because it assumes causal relations in the world exist and can be understood—an approach new materialists suggest does not account for matter's autonomous contingency and is incapable of addressing today's increasingly "unpredictable" realities which defy "totality." This is the case not only in the new materialist refurbishments of Derridean textualism, namely Cheah's rejection of the dialectical materialist theory of totality as a "metaphysics of presence" (72) on the basis of which he reads Marxism as "an organismic vitalism" (87); it is also true among the new materialists claiming to defend historical materialism, as is made clear in Jason Edward's suggestion that we can use the Marxist notion of totality provided we re-understand it (after Althusser and Derrida) as "a totality without a center" (286). Which is to say, as an open field of networks in which class is undecidable and indeterminate. This is another way of saying that totality is only advocated by new materialists to the extent that it is turned into a concept without any explanatory power. Consequently, while they return to matters of political economy, the new materialists treat historical materialism's approach to the relation of culture and economics as "dogmatic" and opt instead for an understanding of "the material details of everyday life and broader geopolitical and socioeconomic structures" as a "complex, pluralistic, and relatively open process" (Coole and Frost 7).

Whether they are defending the "immanent generativity" of matter in terms of the new biology (Bennett, Coole and Frost), phenomenology (Frost), deconstructive-Deleuzianism (Cheah) or Nietschean will/drives (Orlie), the writers position themselves in the materialist tradition by more or less explicitly appealing to the discourses of the natural sciences and treating matter's vitality as having an existence and agency independent of the consciousness of the subject or any divine cause, and thus rejecting those "mysticisms derived from animism, religion, or romanticism" (Coole, "The Inertia of Matter and the Generativity of Flesh" 92). They oppose themselves to the more overt religious imaginaries in which "the cosmos [i]s a rank-ordered creation, at the top of which the Designer has placed his most vital creature, man" (Bennett, "A Vitalist Stopover" 60), while they reject "deterministic" (or what they also call "economistic") materialism. The new materialists, therefore, are aligned not with the Marxist tradition of materialism, but the early modern materialists like Spinoza, vitalists like Bergson, and phenomenologists like Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, not to mention revealing a strong affinity for Nietzsche—whose critique of rationality and science undergirds the entire "new materialist" framework.

To what extent, then, is this new defense of materialism and matter a ruthless criticism of the earlier cultural theory it claims to move beyond? To what extent does the new materialism represent a return "to the most fundamental questions about the nature of matter" (3), and to what extent are these fundamental questions displaced? Because its emphasis on "discontinuity" and "indeterminacy" serve to (mis)represent new materialism as "new," in order to begin to answer such questions it will perhaps be useful to note briefly some of the recent theoretical history of contemporary cultural theory before examining the way in which the new materialists understand the relation of the subject to matter and the implications for ontology.


Even prior to the contemporary "material turn," the attack on materialism in the post-war era had to undertake the re-writing of materialism's central concepts, hollowing them out of any connection to the material world of labor. This made "materialism" safe while allowing material contradictions resulting from increased exploitation to develop without any radical challenge from the left. The speculative theory dominated by poststructuralism since the 1960s—post-al theory—emptied the philosophical basis of materialism in part through its critique of essence and identity, which, as Derrida contends, are always "in advance contaminated, that is, preoccupied, inhabited, haunted by [their] other" (Specters of Marx  201), rendering any category—such as capital or labor or the mode of production—continually riven by its opposite and thus subject to an endless chain of significations that can only be arrested by a violent epistemological closure. This is a point emphasized in Pheng Cheah' essay, "Non-Dialectical Materialism" in New Materialisms. In arguing for a materiality of the text, Cheah draws upon Derrida's argument that the project of deconstruction can be understood as "materialist" only to the extent that "matter"—normally equated with logocentric notions of "presence," "thing" and "reality"—is re-understood as "radical alterity" (Positions 64) which treats matter as "the figure of the text in general" insofar as presence "becomes part of a limitless weave of forces or an endless process or movement of referral" that is "arrested" by metaphysical concepts like presence (Cheah 72-3). Presence is always undermined by a lack (absence), and vice versa, rendering such concepts epistemologically unreliable. Such a critique inevitably led to the deconstruction of appeals to empirical reality, and especially to any appeals to a correspondence between language and empirical reality, which was dismissed as a totalizing will to presence (Derrida Grammatology 50), and which has been extraordinarily effective in undermining the theoretical basis of understanding the fundamentally exploitative relation between labor and capital (a binary which, after Derrida, is systematically equated with presentism and shown to deconstruct itself).

Far from a determining basis of reality, then, the material world becomes—on the basis of such rewritings—a concept shot through with difference (radical alterity), in effect dismantling the ("metaphysical") distinctions between presence/absence, material/spiritual, cause/effect, etc.,  on which materialism depends.  In the post-war period, "matter"—that which has an objective existence independent of consciousness—soon came to signify, for instance, the "matter" of textuality (with Derrida and Barthes), the body or the opacity of corporeality (with Butler), and (with the later cultural turn) discourse, which unlike "textuality," refers to a speaking subject, i.e., a subject with a body.  On these terms, if discourse is material there can be no final (authoritative) meaning, such as the "reason" that is taken to be the essence of the subject in the Enlightenment theory of knowledge. Along similar lines, the very question of ontology was denounced as a logocentric will to power and "being" itself was increasingly subject to erasure, following the continental philosophy of the early twentieth century—for instance, phenomenology and existentialism—which bracketed the existence of the objective world on the grounds that it could only be known at the level of its effects on the senses in any case.

In fact, after Derrida, ontology—the "ontology of presence as actual reality and as objectivity"—becomes "hauntology." As Derrida explains, "it is necessary to introduce haunting into the very construction of a concept. Of every concept, beginning with the concepts of being and time. That is what we would be calling here a hauntology" (Specters of Marx 202). On these terms, any effort "to deploy the possibility of dissipating the phantom. . . of bringing this representation back to the world of labour, production, and exchange, so as to reduce it to its conditions," as Marx does in his analysis of the congealed labor hidden in the commodity form, is itself "a conjuration" that ignores the phantom status of objectivity (Specters of Marx 214). Even the culturalism that developed in distinction from textual materialism and that sought to address the more "concrete" practices of "culture" nevertheless took these deconstructive hauntings of essence and identity as their starting point, and, following Derrida, avoided at all costs "bringing back" representation to "the world of labour" and "its conditions," and substituted for it a cultural materialism that focused on the experiential particularities and excessive contingencies of culture as themselves constitutive of reality. Culturalism essentially reduced ontology to non-totalizable "bits" (Gary Hall Culture in Bits).

In the wake of global economic crises of the 21st century, however, even these rewritings of the material are losing their effectiveness. This is made clear in Coole and Frost's comments mentioned above about the limits of the cultural turn (and these comments of course follow a long line of challenges within the last decade, especially by the "new communists," Badiou, Žižek, Hardt and Negri, et. al.).

Today textualism is largely viewed as bankrupt—its emphasis on language found to be too determining and its celebration of free play now revealed as too close to the anti-state mantras of neoliberalism—and culturalism more broadly is seen as having ignored the economic relations that everywhere are erupting through cultural surfaces. It is in this context of shifting common sense that, for instance, Mitt Romney's statement during his 2012 presidential campaign that the economic inequality between Israel and Palestine is the effect of "cultural differences" was widely mocked, and that the anti-Muslim hysteria of the New Atheists generated strong opposition from the new Atheist+ movement which engages cultural differences as relations of inequality. Social theory requires a new basis upon which to spiritualize—with a green aroma—the increasingly evident interconnections and contradictions of the global world. It requires a planetary pantheism. It has found a new theoretical basis in the "posthuman orientation" to ontology (Coole and Frost 7) that is at the center of the new materialism and many other new theoretical trends, such as animal studies, biopolitics, the "spectral turn," and object-oriented philosophy. Yet, as I have begun to suggest, all of the favorite tropes of deconstruction ("undecidability," "indeterminacy," "unpredictability," opposition to the "dogma" of "determination" and "economism") remain firmly entrenched in the new materialist approach to ontology (hence Cheah's poststructuralist essay is prominently placed in the collection), which it has hybridized with the new terminological "currency" of various scientific discourses.


According to theorists like Bennett, Coole, Frost, and Cheah, changes in the understanding of the material world—which they isolate from the social relations of production and attribute to technological and scientific advances (e.g., biogenetics, teletechnologies, nanotech)—have put  in crisis traditional humanist values and with them the humanist model of subjectivity. The new materialists emphasize that the humanist subject informing the classical science of Descartes and Newton posits a false essential (ontological) difference between the subject and the object that situates the human subject as an active agent in relation to its object. This object is assumed to be fundamentally distinct from (rather than "entangled with") the subject, and capable of being known and controlled by the subject. According to posthumanist theory, on the basis of its ontological dualism humanism assumes the possibility of developing objective knowledge of the external world, and, moreover, sees the world of nature as there for humanity's taking, without regard for the environmental consequences. Elaborating on these subject-object relations in her essay "The Inertia of Matter and the Generativity of Flesh," Diana Coole writes that the classical view of matter sees it as "inert" and "essentially passive stuff, set in motion by human agents who use it as a means of survival, modify it as a vehicle of aesthetic expression, and impose subjective meanings upon it"; matter relative to the subject is thus "devoid of agency" (92) in the humanist model.

Repeating the cultural turn's dogma that the most important battles should be fought not against the material relations of exploitation but theoretical "essentialism," Coole's argument suggests that any ontology that posits a difference between subject and object, human and nonhuman, is a deeply "unethical" approach to the world. Such new developments as biogenetics, along with other scientific discoveries and technologies, have thrown the traditional humanist subject even further into crisis.  The "crisis of the subject," new materialists suggest, is a daily reality and not just a textual decentering. They claim it is no longer possible to ignore the way in which humans are "embedded in a material world" in which our actions have (un/intended) and often destructive consequences for the bio and eco spheres, not just the human sphere. Andrew Poe speaks to the new posthumanist theoretical consensus when he writes,  "The subject, it seems, has come to care too much for itself," and he refers to this subject-focus as an "exceptionalism" that denies objects agency (153, 154).

Just as troubling for posthumanist theorists is that the classical (Cartesian, Newtonian) model of subjectivity presumes that it can obtain reliable knowledge, allowing the subject to predict how matter will operate under certain (future) circumstances; it conceives matter as "subject to predictable causal forces" (Coole and Frost 9). Causal forces that allow people to reliably understand the workings of the natural and social world are assumed to be falsely and unethically imposed on the world by the human subject;  whereas "contingency" and randomness—what Cheah refers to the "absolute chance" (83) that is at the core of material existence—are somehow assumed to speak the authentic (e.g., non-imposed, nonmediated) language of being. Because "there is no longer a quantitative relationship between cause and effect," in the words of Coole and Frost (14), the new materialists affirm the "aleatory" nature of all reality (14) by celebrating the "contingent, disparate capacities to structure that emerge haphazardly through corporeal practices" (Coole 102) and rejoice in "the element of unpredictability and indeterminacy in action" (Bennett, "A Vitalist Stopover" 61).

I will address new materialism's theory of "matter" in more detail below. Here, I want to point out that the new posthumanist ontological reorientation treats the crisis of the subject as primarily a crisis of (cultural) values, which are seen as no longer capable of responding to new realities. Theorists, in this context, regularly marshal as evidence "events" which reveal the human subject to be not so much in control of the world as controlled by it:  a subjected subject whose intention is often subverted by the material world—a subject always already at the mercy of "the mismatch between actions, intentions, and consequences" (New Materialisms 16). Or, in the words of Jane Bennett, whose essay in New Materialisms is developed out of her influential book Vibrant Matter (which I therefore also address here), great attention is given to "the capacity of things…to impede or block the will and designs of humans" because these things "act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own" (Vibrant Matter viii). What Bennett calls "thing-power" ("A Vitalist Stopover" 48) closely echoes cultural theory's catastrophe fetish, fed by glorifying ever-more spectacular evidence of the human subject's failure to know the world. Following Nietzsche, rational human agency is taken to be one of the most "mendacious" narratives of history ("On Truth" 42). Indeed, the subject's claim to know is dismissed in posthumanist theory as the effect of a broader field of human "fantasies" (Orlie 120). Of course, what therefore quickly emerges from the "postdualist" ontology is less a hybrid ontology than a reversal that privileges the object as a reified "thing" that mystically eludes understanding. (And at that point it is easy enough to deify the thing as an "other" that "resists" knowing in order to appear "ethical" [cf. Ahmed 254]).

But what posthumanist theorists call the crisis of the subject is itself rooted in material relations—which remain in the background of analysis of even the most ardent enthusiasts of "new materialism." The humanist subject is increasingly seen as outdated not because its human-centeredness is now seen as unethical or even because of new technologies. The new technologies (including biotech and nanotechnologies) and the new approach to ethics are themselves driven by changes in production.

What is obscured by new materialism is the structural crisis reached by capital—due to the falling rate of profit—which has meant, especially in the last decade, a new round of attacks on labor in the effort to increase profits on the one hand and, on the other, the hoarding, on the part of capitalists, of trillions of dollars in capital rather than risk "unprofitable" investment. Any and all previously public programs and resources—from education and health care to water—are rapidly being privatized, at the same time wages are being cut and any remaining unions and worker protections are being eliminated, in a flagrant theft of surplus value. These relations (and not simply "matter" as such) have made everyday life precarious and unpredictable. This is especially the case with health care in the US. The new posthumanist ontology claims to establish an entirely new hybrid notion of the human subject as thoroughly "embedded" in the world and thus unable to know the world in any reliable way. But far from resisting "instrumentalized" approaches to the world, it is itself an instrument of capitalist ideology. The new posthumanist subject has become necessary to naturalize the increasingly unpredictable, crisis-ridden world of global capital. The culture wars over the pets of the 2012 presidential candidates (Romney's Irish setter and Obama's Portuguese Water dog) are telling in this regard. Why these candidates' dogs are made to matter is because they are taken in the popular culture to be signs of the ethical character of their owners (Romney is a monster for tying his Irish setter Seamus' cage to the top of his car and Obama's Portuguese Water dog Bo is "read" in racist ways). And yet the assumption here is that the condition of the workers will somehow be improved if they have "good" bosses who "care" about all creatures and respect the dignity of the weak and unfortunate. As always, ethics deflects attention from underlying causes.

The relations of wage labor today mean not only that working people increasingly struggle to survive while a tiny few own virtually all social and natural resources, but that the material world that is a product of social labor is increasingly an alien world, beyond the producers' control. Under these relations of commodity production, "the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men's own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things" (Marx Capital vol. 1 164-5). The new materialists do not just take the surface of commodity life for granted, they glorify a commodified vision of the material world in which the subject is forever alienated from her labor and learns to embrace this powerlessness relative to the world. This is another way of saying that the increasingly popular theoretical framework within which objects as objects are given a new autonomy and agency independent of their producers, and the (human) subject is itself reduced to the matter of corporeality whose agency is neither based on labor nor rational thinking but the microdynamics and "creative contingency" (Coole and Frost 20) of its biological nature—is the epitome of commodity fetishism. In fact, many of the new materialist writings read as bad parodies of Marx's first chapter of Capital. They glorify the material conditions under which "Their own movement within society has for them [workers] the form of a movement made by things, and these things, far from being under their control, in fact control them" (167-8). Instead of analyzing the historical conditions under which the object has assumed an even more global and powerful subjectivity, while the vast majority of people have been reduced to the "bare life" of objects, the products of social labor (and not the labor that produces them) take the center stage of left theory. Having erased the labor that produces the material world, by the same logic, the new materialism assigns objects and matter an independent, self-transforming agency, or an "inherent exuberance" (Coole 99). What is really an index of profound social alienation resulting from private property relations is turned upside down by the new materialists into a magical sign of the "vitality" of matter and the natural world in which "these things, far from being under [workers'] control, in fact control them" (Marx Capital, 167-68). To put this another way, the new de-centered subject of posthumanist ontology—for whom matter emerges as the site of uncontrollable, unknowable contingency—is the subject of austerity who is expected to bow down to the dictates of capital. It is the insecure subject for whom there will be no social security, the subject for whom daily life is increasingly unpredictable, subject to chance, to the market. Which is to say that the posthumanist ontology imports into "matter" the irrational, apparently lawless dynamics of human life under a global market and then re-situates this market logic as the post-logic of nature and matter itself. This is the double-move by which the new materialists foster the illusion of the inevitability of the world as it is.

In this way, the new materialist ideology obscures the fact that, the more capitalist relations "settle everywhere" around the world, the more socialized production becomes, the more the material foundations are laid for socialism, the wresting of freedom from necessity by the revolutionary collective. Behind the turn to "matter" is the corporate need to divert attention from the growing contradictions between the socialized forces of production—which make it possible to feed, clothe, educate, and provide healthcare for all—and the property relations that ensure social production is privatized in the interests of the few.

While the right-wing of capital produces a vehemently anti-government subject who sees ethics as a ruse of the federal government to give "entitlements" to the "other" and who rejects social programs as "handouts," the new materialist subject is the "caring" left-wing subject of capital for whom ethics paves the way to a "fairer" capitalism (Obama's "compromise" capitalism in which both the rich and the poor are expected to "pay their fair share" to bail out big business and save capitalism). In contrast to the "Say No to Sharing" ethos of reactionary conservatives (aptly captured in Sprint’s commercial of the same title), new materialism essentially offers a more complex version of the corporate argument that, as a Starbucks commercial puts it, our "community would be a better place" "if we cared all of the time the way we care some of the time" (If You Vote"). "Fairness" is the banner of those seeking not to end the relations that produce unfairness, but to continue exploitation on less egregious ("inhumane") terms. Its main goal is to disappear the system of capital that produces a widening gap between exploited and exploiter. But it doesn't just try to convince workers that they should be exploited even more. It insists that they should find it "in themselves" to willingly demand such exploitation as a sign of their ethical commitments—even in the face of brutal cuts to the services they rely on to survive by their caring bosses. "Fairness" is a cover for making the workers pay for the crisis.

To put this another way, while right wing discourse normalizes the heightened competition of capital's private property relations, the new materialism translates the increased socialization of productive forces under capitalism into a "vibrant" force of matter itself ("thing-power") so as to assert the force of "weak thinking" (Vattimo) and the messianic vision of the Left which says goodbye to the working class as the agent of change. It thereby naturalizes (de-historicizes) production, rendering impossible the collective transformation of private property relations that is necessary for freedom from necessity. New materialists like Jane Bennett admit as much. Speaking of the new materialist approach to matter, she writes,

Such a newfound attentiveness to matter and its powers will not solve the problem of human exploitation or oppression, but it can inspire a greater sense of the extent to which all bodies are kin in the sense of inextricably enmeshed in a dense network of relations. And in a knotted world of vibrant matter, to harm one section of the web may very well be to harm oneself. Such an enlightened or expanded notion of self-interest is good for humans. (Bennett Vibrant Matter 13)

New materialism acknowledges that it has little influence (let alone interest) in addressing "exploitation and oppression" and in fact it substitutes for this political project a new ethics of equality through "feeling." But in the name of feeling it in fact manufactures the illusion that a worker's "harming" of one section of the "web" by, for instance, being inattentive to the contingent assemblages of "debris" in a gutter, eating factory-farmed meat, not recycling, or polluting a river with waste water are ultimately the same as a corporation's theft of surplus value, decision to fire workers, cut their benefits, or pollute the environment. It would be more precise to say that this "newfound attentiveness to matter and its powers" is "good" for the specific class interests of the human owners of capital. New materialism is good for the bourgeoisie because it perpetuates the (green) class mythology that "we are all in this together," when in fact class relations ensure that all the sacrifices in support of the common "web" come from the property-less, who have been reduced to the status of things. One can look to what the appointed Emergency Manager of Detroit is proposing to see the new forms in which brutal de-humanization of working people manifests.

Both the right and left subjects of capital, in short, obscure the foundation of the social in labor and production. But, trained to see herself "enmeshed" in multiple "interlocking systems" in which all people, regardless of class, are implicated, and (still) seduced by the culturalist claim that there is no longer any "outside" from which to wage a struggle to end capitalism,  the feeling-green left subject is a more effective subject for the advanced sectors of (transnational) capital. It is attentive to the (unavoidable) interconnectedness of production and consumption, rich and poor, the human and the nonhuman worlds. Yet precisely on this basis it refuses the "binary" thinking and explanatory knowledges that make it possible to understand (and thus transform) the class structures that shape human life.


As I have suggested, arguments that emphasize the hybrid nature of subject-object relations are given pride of place in new materialist analyses because they seem to embody a "postdualist ontology" (Coole 100). In her reading of Merleau-Ponty, for instance, Coole emphasizes the concept of "fold" because it highlights, in Merleau-Ponty's words,  the "reflexivity of the sensible" whereby it becomes "impossible to distinguish between what sees [or touches] and what is seen [or touched]" (as qtd. in Coole 104). From within this ontological framework, one cannot—and, as an ethical subject, should not—determine where nature ends and where the human begins. Ethics is attentive to this very indeterminacy.

However, it is precisely in such arguments that one can begin to discern more clearly the philosophical revisionism that underwrites the new materialist ontology and that ends up turning materialism into aesthetics.

Acknowledging a difference between the subject and object (of knowledge) is in fact central not just to humanism but to materialism. It is even a basic (practical) understanding in the natural sciences and the traditions of science the new materialists claim to support (e.g., Einstein, the new biology, nanotech). In the philosophical tradition of materialism, one of the central questions is: does the world exist independently of the subject and its consciousness, or is the world the product of consciousness—either of the individual (in the case of subjective idealism) or of Spirit, God, etc. (in the case of objective idealism)? In Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, Lenin's exhaustive critique of the "new materialists" of his day who attempted to revise materialism into a new subjective idealism, Lenin explains that "Matter is a philosophical category denoting the objective reality which is given to man by his sensations, and which is copied, photographed and reflected by our sensations, while existing independently of them" (127). Here he emphasizes two important issues. First, for materialism, the world exists independently of the subject and is therefore independent—different—from it. It exists with or without the (human) subject. Second, and at the same time, this does not mean that the subject and object are fundamentally separate, for the material world is "reflected" in the sensations and mind of the subject. This is the case because the human subject is a dialectical product of nature. It has evolved through the practice of labor. Marx in fact calls this the "metabolic" relation of nature and labor. As Lenin shows, "in order really to know an object we must embrace, study, all its sides, all connections and 'mediations." Therefore, "the whole of human experience should enter the full 'definition' of an object as a criterion of the truth and as a practical index of the object's connection with what man requires" (116-17). This is another way of saying that for Lenin, "reflection" is a labor process. It is through the generations of human labor that humans conceptualize the world around them. Both in the sense that, through the dialectical relation of nature and labor, humans create tools and products by which humans meet their needs, and in the sense that the intellectual labor of conceptualization itself depends upon human production. Through these productive practices of labor, under definite social relations, humans have evolved to be able to understand nature in increasingly complex ways. And, as Lenin argues, conceptual, abstract knowledges that go beyond feeling and experience are necessary because "abstraction reflects nature more deeply, truly and completely" (Collected Works vol. 38, 171).

The new materialists accept the first aspect of the basic idea of matter—that it denotes an objective existence—but formally reject the second aspect—that it is "reflected" in the human subject, or that the subject's ideas "correspond" at an abstract level to the objective world. "[T]he illusion of representational correspondence," as Coole puts it in her annotation of Merleau-Ponty's critique of materialism, is "sheer mysticism" (100). But, as Lenin argues, "Acceptance or rejection of the concept matter is a question of the confidence man places in the evidence of his sense-organs, a question of the source of our knowledge, a question which has been asked and debated from the very inception of philosophy" (Lenin 128). New materialists are quite confident that matter exists independently of the subject, but, following the textualist critique of representation, they oppose the idea that the material world is "reflected" in the human subject and they are quick to reject the slightest suggestion that humans have the capacity to reliably know the world, or to comprehend it as a totality. Which is another way of saying that, despite their criticisms of "dualist" ontology, posthumanist theory in effect establishes a fundamental (unbridgeable) gap between the subject and the object that prevents the subject from conceptually understanding the material world. Like the Feuerbachian and Berkeleian speculative materialism that claimed that, while matter exists, the concepts we use to understand it, like order and causality, are only imposed on nature by humans, the new materialists are only "confident" in the sensory experiences of the objective world, and only insofar as their senses affirm (their belief in) the fundamental contingency of the world. Which is why Lenin calls this (experiential) theory of knowledge "fideism" ("faith based" religious obscurantism). It is not therefore a coincidence that new materialists de-center human knowledge, only to re-center human "ethics," which reflects the belief that how humans "feel" (belief, desire, values, etc.) is more important than understanding things as they are in reality. Concepts, new materialists suggest, do not—indeed cannot—reflect objective aspects of matter itself.

It is significant in this context that while new materialists distance themselves from both the "mechanical" approach to matter and to Kant's dualism (Coole 99), in the actual conclusions they draw they are mechanistic Kantians. Kant of course argued that we cannot know the world "in itself," we can only know its effects on the subject. Insofar as the new materialists insist both on the existence of the objective world and on its "non-appropriable" "vitality" and "contingency" they in effect place the "cause" or origin of matter beyond the reach of human understanding (concepts). But as Engels argues, "In mechanics the causes of motion are taken as given and their origin is disregarded, only their effects being taken into account" (Dialectics 55). Mechanical materialism, in other words, is not mechanical for positing determination, as new materialists claim. Rather, it is precisely for putting causality and determination beyond human understanding that certain modes of materialism are mechanical. From this standpoint, far from moving beyond mechanical materialism, the new materialists in fact update it. They banish from the material world a dogmatic Deity, a divine first cause, only to import into the material world a spiritual impulse. Instead of an orthodox (and discredited) religious approach, the new materialists seek to "rediscover" a "certain energy in the pulsation of existence" (Coole 92). Bennett likewise suggests, "This materialism, which eschews the life-matter binary and does not believe in God or spiritual forces, nevertheless also acknowledges the presence of an indeterminate vitality—albeit one that resists confinement to a stable hierarchy—in the world" (Bennett "A Vitalist Stopover" 63). Bennett makes clear here that "vibrant matter" is "vibrant" precisely because it is "indeterminate," because its immanent yet unknowable "agency" exceeds humans' ability to understand its determination(s), since the hierarchies, if they exist, are always changing. The notion of the "contingent" "agency" of matter as the "event" that is both constitutive of the human and beyond human understanding is perhaps best described by Engels in his critique of Georges Cuvier: "In place of a single divine creation, he put a whole series of repeated acts of creation, making the miracle an essential natural agent"; he was thus "revolutionary in phrase and reactionary in substance" (Dialectics of Nature 10). Indeed, miraculous materialism is an apt name for the new materialism outlined by Bennett, Coole and Frost et al. And central to its "reactionary substance" is the positing of experience as the only way to fully appreciate miraculous matter. To experience matter, new materialists suggest, is to encounter matter prior to cognition, which imposes "false" ways of thinking, like conceptualizing matter as reflecting "hierarchies" of determination or "history."

The fantasy of an unmediated experience of matter takes a particularly cynical form in Coole's reading of Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology. On the one hand, she shows that Merleau-Ponty embraces romantics like Shelling for his effort to see the "exuberance" (99) of matter but is critical of the way that this leads to an aesthetic intuitionalism, because it assumes an "identification" between subject and object. In this way, she distances herself and Merleau-Ponty from "romantic" "mysticism" (100). On the other hand, Coole, following Merleau-Ponty, treats Cézanne's impressionism not as an articulation of an historical modality of conceptualizing the world, but as somehow grasping reality itself without mediation. "Cézanne's painting suspends these [reifying linguistic] habits of thought and reveals the basis of inhuman nature upon which man has installed himself" (104). Cézanne's form of painting is a historical development—an abstraction made possible under certain social conditions in the West. But Merleau-Ponty and Coole isolate impressionism from history and treat it as revealing "perception" without abstraction. Having critiqued an earlier form of romantic mysticism, Coole goes on to advance another.

Materialist dialectics of nature, as Engels and Lenin emphasize, seeks to understand nature and the agency of (inanimate) matter in its full complexity. However, rather than assume one does this in the absence of human thinking/culture, it acknowledges that the only way to accurately (comprehensively) understand nature is to develop scientific knowledge of it—which is the result of hundreds of thousands of years of human development (human's dialectical relation to nature). Thus when Coole insists, with regard to Euclid, that "The challenge is to suspend this [Euclid's] culturally fashioned perception in order to uncover the 'vertical' world of 'brute' or 'wild' perception as it emerges" (105), she relapses back into mysticism and erases the profound role of Euclid in arriving at contemporary scientific theories of nature. But there is no Heisenberg or Merleau-Ponty without Descartes and Euclid, all of whom became who they were, and advanced their ideas, at particular stages of sociohistorical development.

If it did not signal such a profound step backward for cultural theory, new materialism's rejection of Marxism for its "illusion" of correspondence between thought and the material world, on the one hand, and, on the other, new materialism's unabashed desire for "unfettered communication with the world" (Coole 99)—i.e., for aesthetic experiences in which it is "impossible to say that nature ends here and that man or expression starts here" (Merleau-Ponty as qtd. in Coole 104)—would simply be laughable. But, as I have suggested, this is a mark of the compromise that the left has made with capital. It has adopted the language of science only insofar as science affirms that the world remains "rippled with hidden recesses, shadows and shade, secrets and anonymity" (Coole 113) and abandons the scientific approach to the social as mode of production. For all its appeal to science, the new materialism is entrenched in a mystifying aestheticism.

Take, for instance, such new materialist statements about capital as the following: "Whatever passes through these economic circuits is redistributed to the material advantage of some rather than others, while entering into systemic relations that outrun the comprehension or intentions of individual actors" (Coole and Frost 30). When it comes to offering cutting-edge explanation of contemporary capitalism, what Coole and Frost's arguments instead reveal is that new materialism aims primarily to observe the effects of "economic circuits"—the increasingly unavoidable social inequalities erupting everywhere on the surfaces of capitalist culture—while suggesting that the deeper-lying causes of these effects are unknowable and "for the most part unpredictable" (29). Instead of departing from mainstream economic mantras, such claims repeat in a left idiom the defenses of the market put forward by such figures as former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan, who in his testimony to the Congressional Oversight Committee for the role he played in the 2008 credit crisis insisted that no one could have predicted the "once-in-a-century credit tsunami" (Lanman and Matthews).

Kant, of course, in discussing the sublime, insisted that one should look at the ocean, not in terms of its causal dynamics but "as the poets do" (Critique of Judgment). That is to say, without attempting to explain it or understand it, but only in terms of how it strikes the senses, or how it appears. The sublime is precisely what Greenspan appeals to when he insists that the economic crisis, like a tsunami, could not have been foreseen. In an exemplary aesthetic gesture, new materialism likewise places the laws of both nature and the social beyond human comprehension and, in effect, produces a subject attentive to inequality and simultaneously convinced that any effort to understand its roots—to grasp a particular instance of inequality in relation to the social totality—will fail, since material reality inevitably "outrun[s] the comprehension" of individuals (Coole and Frost 30). This is precisely the subject needed by capital to look upon the unfolding economic contradictions as instances of the Kantian sublime—and it is no accident that new materialists like Bennett (The Enchantment of Modern Life; Vibrant Matter) and Ian Bogost (Alien Phenomenology), dismiss critique as an unethical effort to find causal relations at work in the material world and call instead for a return to "wonder," or the re-enchantment of the material that celebrates ethical "openness" to unpredictability and surprise as a more authentic approach to materiality.

The aesthetic subject is the subject especially needed in the era of what Naomi Klein calls "shock and awe" capitalism. Today more than ever capital requires a subject whose attentiveness to her senses keeps her diverted from the underlying structure that makes possible the increasingly devastating attacks on social programs. Capital needs a "gated" subject imprisoned in her own experience. To intervene into capitalist relations one should not embrace the experiences that lead one to conclude that reality is inherently unpredictable and resistant to human knowledge and control. Far from reflecting a more "authentic" (human-decentered) approach to reality, this is the market-centered fantasy of a world without regulation. This is, in other words, the "non-human" world refracted through the very property relations that continue to put human and natural life at risk. Not only does this fantasy disappear the deeper-lying relations that structure human experience; the focus on aesthetics of social and natural life also cultivates new consumer subjects who are more inclined to change lifestyle habits and patterns of thinking in line with new green industries but who see anything more than such local changes as arrogant, if not totalitarian: as "feed[ing] human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption" (Bennett, Vibrant Matter ix). Instead of uncritically affirming the experience of uncertainty, one should seek to unearth the social structures that have made material life "indeterminate." They do not originate in some mysterious, universal quality of "life itself" but in the historical relations of human life.

I have suggested that at the core of the aesthetic approach is an experientialism that locates the world of matter in the subject's experience of the objective world, particularly at the level of the body and corporality (because, again, new materialists claim this avoids the dualism and hierarchy of the humanist subject). We are all "kin," Bennett argues, because we all have bodies. By doing so, however, new materialists reject the materialist position that existence is the outside of consciousness and instead inscribe it within experience (the body), as Nietzsche taught. The new materialists thus end up with a blurry romanticism in which the human subject and matter are joined in an exuberant unity, a pan-matterism in which it is impossible to make political priorities based on class consciousness and which installs an activism motivated by the intensity of feeling. Feeling the world needs to change and performing that change in the micro-spaces of the daily becomes more important than knowing how and why it changes due to struggles over global property relations.

Here, it is important to note Melissa Orlie's text "Impersonal Matter" since it goes even further in its denunciation of concepts and history. Orlie reads Nietzsche's will to power as an "impersonal" theory of materialism that eschews the relation between subject and object and, ultimately, substance. Thus her text shows how new materialism brings with it a whole romantic matrix of assumptions in the name of a view of nature "free from culture" and especially the "rigidities" of thought. More specifically, Orlie re-reads Nietzsche to put forward a new objective idealism. "Will to power," she argues, is "an impersonal force within our lives rather than as a personal one that is the property of individuals" (118). On this basis, "what is conveniently called a self is actually a complex of competing drives" (119). For Nietzsche, "mind is body" and thus mind is a "trajectory of matter" (120, 121).

Tellingly, however, she does not explain why we "remain attached to a sovereign conception of subjectivity" (120) except by insisting that we are "positively averse to the experience of impersonality" (120)—which is to repeat precisely what needs to be explained. The implication is that we are just "naturally" opposed to the way we "naturally" are. But this itself is contradictory. It raises the question of why humans became "averse" to the way they naturally are!  The essay skips answering this and instead argues that when confronted with the real fact of impersonal matter we cannot control, we spontaneously create "fantasies" of sovereignty and mastery (121).

Ultimately, Orlie's essay makes very clear that what is at stake is deeper, affirmative experience of what already exists. She suggests that to be "strong" willed is really to accept and immerse oneself in all experience (123-5)—including suffering. At the same time, having a strong will is "not to will"—to "suspend decision" (130). Which is another way of celebrating "regression" (132) to a "sublimated" state of "differentiated unity" which fosters creativity (132-3). This emphasis is of course very similar to Cheah's and Derrida's celebration of "passivity," not to mention Gianni Vattimo's "weak marxism" (see, for instance, Ecce Comu and his Hermeneutic Communism, co-written with Santiago Zabala) and Agamben on "potentiality" (Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy). William E. Connolly's contribution to New Materialisms ("Materialities of Experience") is also significant in this context—namely, its defense of popular culture (Six Feet Under, Waking Life) for its depictions of "action suspended experience" (194) that, as in Merleau-Ponty, helps overcome "resentment" and cultivates a "positive existential attachment" (195) to others. The valorization of the weak is part of the same conceptual move undertaken by Hardt and Negri to establish "love" as the heart of the commons. It is no wonder that for new materialists the "oppositional ways of thinking" associated with "critique" (Coole and Frost 8) must give way to "affirmation" and "positive" thinking (108) as the mark of radicality today.


If the older forms of culturalism (e.g., Derrida, Butler, Hall, etc.) treated matter in terms of language and cultural inscription (what new materialists call "constructivism"), new materialism re-articulates matter in terms of the natural sciences, especially the matter of biology and physics. Both the old and "new" appeals to matter however erase the historical foundation of matter, and put in its place the "matter" of such things as language, the body, cells, particles, light waves, which are all read as resistant to conceptual thought and history-defying. Thus Coole and Frost emphasize that "On entering the realm of subatomic particles one finds an even more quixotic and elusive sense of matter" (Coole and Frost 11). As with the earlier textual/cultural materialism, "matter" here is equated not so much with the philosophical tradition of materialism for which matter has an objective existence independent of the consciousness of the (human) individual, but as that which resists individual comprehension/control. Matter, on these terms, subverts human agency. This is particularly evident in the posthumanist obsession with disaster and what Coole and Frost call the "mismatches" between human intention and practice (16). Such treatment of matter is one-sided in its privileging of what science may not know (now). That is to say, it fetishizes the existing limits of science, which are understood in local, culturalist terms (the God of the gaps apologetics, again).

New materialism places under erasure the historical limits of science that are themselves rooted in the mode of production. It consequently leaves out the social conditions in which such things as language, the body, and subatomic particles become meaningful.

In his critique of the natural sciences, Marx draws attention to this tendency in science to abstract the object of analysis from history. The "weaknesses of the abstract materialism of natural science" stem from the fact that it is "a materialism which excludes the historical process" (Capital 494, note 4). Excluding the historical relations of technology, for instance, means ignoring that "[t]echnology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations" (Capital 493, note 4). Like technology, science reveals the relation of humans to nature, "the direct process of the production of [human] life and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations." Not only are the tools of science produced by labor (under specific class conditions) but the very ability to recognize particular objects and dynamics presupposes a certain stage of development (not just the discourses that Foucault identified, but the structure of labor relations that make scientific discourses possible and that shape the form they take).

To leave out the class relations in which subatomic particles, light waves and microbes, for instance, are (now) conceived of as the basis of the material world not only occludes the exploited labor on which scientific discovery depends under capitalism and bypasses the question of why scientific advances are largely put out of reach of the vast majority of humanity. Leaving out the historical conditions of matter also reifies what Teresa Ebert and Mas'ud Zavarzadeh call the "local modalities of matter." Matter, as they explain in Class in Culture,

is not a sign or any other physical body, nor is it the self-alienated spirit or an intervention to support atheism (George Berkeley). To identify matter with an object, an indivisible atom or any immutable substance/motion, or to equate it with a quanta of light, zero-dimensional point particles, or one-dimensional "strings" ("superstring theory"), is to make the local modalities of matter absolute and to yield to the urge for physicalism and its metaphysical twin (unchanging substance), in bourgeois philosophy and its ontology and epistemology. Matter is objective reality in history—materialism; it is not corporeality—matterism. (41)

The new materialists absolutize the "local modalities of matter" (41) by treating matter as an object. As a consequence, they foster the physicalism that isolates (reifies) objects from the relations which make them possible.

Inquiry into the micro-levels of matter should not become an excuse for theoretical myopia. New developments in biology and genetics are leading to many important new advances, but they are shaped by the contradictions of capitalism. Recent research on the human microbiome is a case in point. The microbiome is the "resident community of microbes" in and outside the human body "helping us to digest food, strengthen our immune systems, and keep dangerous enemy pathogens from invading our tissues and organs" (Mueller et al. 1246). Microbes (including for instance bacteria and viruses) represent trillions of cells living in the human body and they are increasingly being found to play important roles not just in keeping people healthy but in causing or contributing to illness when imbalances occur in the microbiome. Because the microbiome is being potentially linked to such diseases/disorders as cancer, obesity, autism, inflammatory bowel disease, and asthma, further study has the potential to lead to new, integrative understandings of a wide range of diseases and thus also new treatments that can help improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people. In the process, it is certainly the case that older ways of thinking about many other concepts will be undone to develop better, more precise understandings, and new concepts will emerged to analyze new dimensions of biological matter. In this regard, a 2008 Nature editorial, in commenting on the microbiome of the human gut, suggests that microbes "contribute so much to human biology that it is difficult to say where the body ends and the microbes begin — which is why several massive projects have now started up to characterize the human microbiota in its entirety" ("Who Are We?" 563). One example is The Human Microbiome Project, starting in 2007, was "a 5-year, US$115-million effort to study the microbial communities inhabiting several regions of the human body . . . and how those communities influence human health and disease" ("The Human Environment" 689). In fact, studies of the microbiome point to the need for more "ecological" approaches to the understanding of the body, to understand more comprehensively how systems within the body work together (Mueller et al. 1246).

But under capitalism, these developments are driven by the relations of profit and the results will be commodified. And today this commodification takes place on an ever larger scale, as capital's commodity relations become ever more generalized worldwide and the social welfare states are under devistating attack, leading to the privatization of formally nationalized healthcare systems. Privatization is so normalized in mainstream culture in fact that the recent Supreme Court ruling preventing the patenting of human genes was reported by media primarily in terms of what this will mean for private companies and corporate profits (Pollack).

Proponents of new biology, biotech, nanotech,... should be defending the need for social science, which is to say people's science. They should aggressively support new developments in science not because they establish the aesthetic qualities of matter, but because they are made possible by social resources that all people should benefit from. Cultural theory should resist the myopia that legitimates the market and instead boldly seek to relate discoveries and their implications to the social totality. It should re-claim the social basis of privatized science and defend the need for totalizing knowledges that can help guide radical praxis to bring about a world in which people's needs, not profit, shape the priorities of science and medicine.

However the approach taken by new materialists instead more or less mirrors defenders of corporate science, because its focus is on the positive possibilities such developments reflect abstracted from the class relations which necessarily limit science to the dictates of profit.

This becomes clearer upon examining the way an Economist cover story on the microbiome represents new developments. Titled "Microbes Maketh Man," the article heralds the scientific "revolutionaries" who are currently turning the world "inside out" in their study of "what, biologically speaking, a human being is" (9). It notes that while traditional (genetic) thinking about the human body has viewed it as "a collection of 10 trillion cells which are themselves the products of 23,000 genes," the "revolutionaries" argue that "in the nooks and crannies of every human being, and especially in his or her guts, dwells the microbiome: 100 trillion bacteria of several hundred species bearing 3m non-human genes" (9). And, following the wider posthumanist de-centering of the human, the article highlights the role of the (micro) organisms (in this case "bugs" that regulate the human body and thus protect it) on which humans depend. Under a subheading titled "All In This Together," the article articulates a similarly indeterminate view of the human and the nonhuman found in posthumanist theory, emphasizing that "the bugs are neither parasites nor passengers. They are, rather, fully paid-up members of a community" (9) of the human host, which is no longer thought of as an "individual" but an "ecosystem." The article emphasizes the increasing "popularity" of this new scientific view of the human.

However, the "popular" narratives—which are largely structured by posthumanist assumptions—omit that this re-understanding of the human body represents a new advance made possible by labor, within the exploitative structure of wage-labor. Such an omission of course also erases the fact that under different social relations of production, such scientific advances could be used, not to produce profit but to advance human well-being. Popular narratives take for granted that under capitalism such medical treatments will be accessible only to those who can afford them. What makes posthumanist and new materialist theories so popular in fact is that, in the language of "nature" ("biology"), they smooth out the material contradictions of daily life, promote a flexible new notion of the human subject of labor, and create a friction-free cultural imaginary necessary to capital. That is, a world in which all former boundaries breakdown: an inverted world which appears as a constantly changing web of interconnections which we're "all in together" but which is in fact constantly being "re-made" to accumulate more surplus value from workers in more flexible ways, no matter the human or environmental consequences.

What makes new materialism so resonant with the language of The Economist is that both articulate, more or less overtly, corporate science: the commitment to profit from science by producing market based solutions at a price rather than finding solutions that benefit all by connecting science to the historic struggle to end private property relations. As is highlighted by The Economist, new discoveries related to the microbiome point to such "promising" new directions in medicine as "more sophisticated deployment of the humble antibiotic, arguably the pharma industry's most effective invention" (9). It is important to note in this context that the Human Microbiome Project, spearheaded by the National Institutes of Health and a consortium of other researchers, that led to the new discoveries discussed by The Economist and in many other popular culture and theoretical venues, is being backed by powerful "biocapitalists" like Craig J. Venter and the pharmaceutical industry. Just as significant, "bioinformatics" and the production of new technologies to store and analyze the immense amount of meta-data being accumulated by the project are leading to new DNA-sequencing technologies. As one report put it, there is a "race to sequence DNA faster and more cheaply" (Blow 687). This of course is deeply tied to the booming data collecting technology industry, which provides technologies not only for medicine and science but "national security."

Increasingly popular discussion of new levels of matter, like the microbiome, reflects these new developments at the level of the productive forces. Yet, perhaps most telling about The Economist is the way it has to admit that these developments will remain fettered by private property relations, and that, in fact, these developments will be used as band-aids because they are profitable and avoid structural changes needed to address underlying social causes of illness. In "The Human Microbiome," a further development of its lead article, The Economist goes on to represent the study of the microbiome as leading to a potential means of curing malnutrition in the developing world—as if malnutrition was not rooted in the social relations of exploitation but the individual's community of microbes. While the article cannot possibly not reference as a factor the "cultural" issues (72) that are involved in malnutrition (and here again "cultural" is the term under which economic relations disappear), the effect of the article is to focus on world hunger as a "microbial" matter and the way in which privatized medicine will be able to profit from dealing with it in this manner. Like new materialism, the article makes the global social relations of capitalism one of numerous factors that indeterminately contribute to the way things are, so that the way things are appear too "overwhelming" to be addressed except in local terms that never address the capitalist system itself. The privatization of science cannot produce what the hype promises because of its failure to address the underlying causes of health, for example, which lie in the existing class arrangements.

Driven by advances in productive forces in the 21st century, the "matter" of "nature" has become one of the most effective grounds of naturalizing capitalism. Having been re-read in cultural terms as excessive (just as textuality had been), nature is more encompassing—indeed "totalizing"—than textuality or culture, for it extends beyond the "human" world to include nonhuman life. The irony, of course, is that far from reflecting an ethics that de-centers the role of the human, posthumanism and new materialism reflect an even more totalizing colonization of the cultural turn, projecting the romantic culturalist clichés of indeterminacy onto all of human and nonhuman life. This shows that it is not "human" projections (abstract concepts) onto nature that are the real issue; the issue is which abstractions are deemed legitimate and thus win the title of "truthful" and "authentic" ("natural") representations of nature. And what counts as "truthful" under capitalism is never primarily a matter of ideas but rather the class interests ideas serve.


In her defense of vitalists like Bergson and Driesch, Bennett tellingly acknowledges that they "perhaps [...] enjoyed popularity in America [...] because [they were] received as [...] defender[s] of freedom, of a certain open-endedness to life, in the face of a modern science whose pragmatic successes were threatening to confirm definitively the picture of the universe as a godless machine" ("A Vitalist Stopover" 49; my emphasis). But this romantic notion of freedom is exactly what makes the new materialism itself so popular with publishers and in universities today. Following posthumanist theory, it is largely received as a "defender of freedom" from instrumentality. With the corporatization of the universities, which has meant the erosion and marketization of the humanities on the one hand and enormous corporate funding of the sciences on the other, scholars in the humanities are increasingly put under pressure to defend their role in the market. New materialism is one of the ways in which theorists are helping to make the humanities "relevant" by both drawing on new developments in sciences (biogenetics, nanotech, the "new biology," etc.) and by doing this in such a way that the fundamental philosophical questions get blurred over or do not get raised. It thereby provides critics of capitalist life with the "semblance of an agreement with the latest findings of the natural sciences" (Lukács 27) while at the same time ensuring that science is not used to develop understanding of the material interconnections of social life but to reconcile people to the ways in which the world will forever be "rippled with hidden recesses" and "shadows" that defy human calculation. In this way, theorists help to keep the humanities a place where speculative knowledge not only reigns but has clear tie-ins to the corporate sciences (which are violently opposed to dialectics and steeped in positivism). In fact, centers like Arizona State's Global Institute of Sustainability and Tom Cohen's Institute for Critical Climate Change at SUNY-Albany, which like new materialism are part of the "posthumanities," are among the few places where funding is available for the development of the humanities—not so much because they are "interdisciplinary" but because they are marketable. New materialism opens up a new market for cultural theory. It cultivates an entrepreneurial ethos in its emphasis on contingency and non-totalizable difference: the "valorization of freedom or the element of unpredictability and indeterminacy in action" (Bennett 61).

But, as Engels argues, "Freedom does not consist in the dream of independence of natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work toward definite ends" (Anti-Dühring 125). By updating rather than fighting spiritualism, new materialism ends up taking the side of the free market in the great struggle over ownership of social resources. Its growing popularity needs to be understood not as a result of its more "realist" approach but its radical rearguardism that offers subjects "the semblance of total freedom, the illusion of personal autonomy…while maintaining an attitude that continually links them with the reactionary bourgeoisie in their real dealings and renders them absolutely subservient to it" (Lukács 22-3).

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