In the introduction New Materialisms – Ontology, Agency, and Politics, another of the recent anthologies on materialism (you can read about some of the other here and here), editors Diana Coole and Samantha Frost discuss the notion of a ‘critical materialism’. Building on social constructionist arguments, they work to integrate the critical approach of post-structuralists analysis of power with a materialists understanding of the irreducibility of the material realm to culture. In their own words:
For critical materialists, society is simultaneously materially real and socially constructed: our material lives are always culturally mediated, but they are not only cultural. As in new materialist ontologies, the challenge here is to give materiality is due while recognizing its plural dimensions and its complex, contingent modes of appearing.
This view, which is echoed in a lot of ANT and post-ANT studies as well as the growing body of work on biopolitics and biopower, is one of the major stakeholders in the new materialist wave (I hesitate to call it a turn, in order to avoid too much academic spin). Materialism thinking, in this perspective, leads to new critical engagements and analysis of the complex functioning of power and structure. A sort of material networkology, so to speak. For the critical materialists, working with a material approach means resharpening the critical tools and applying it to a new topic.
But it seems to me that thinking materially can also lead to a more existential mode of engagement, which works to restructure the role of the researcher in relation to her field of study (somewhat similar to what I wrote about here). This is represented in, amongst others things, the work of Brian Massumi, Jane Bennett (partly), Kathleen Stewart, Graham Harman, Alphonso Lingis and others. Here, thinking materially leads towards, amongst other things, a material embedded and ultimately experiential founded approach to the world.
This faultline – between a critical materialism that has its eyes intently on the material workings of power structures and an existential material that sees materiality as a way to rework the existential back into the investigation of the world – seems to me to be crucial in understanding the new material literature. Which side are you on (and is it a matter of taking sides)?