The deluge of publications on the material turn and the new materialism continues. I wrote about two anthologies last week, and now Oxford University Press have a new anthology out, The Oxford Companion to Material Studies. The introductory chapter can be read here. Interestingly, the editors Dan Hicks and Mary C. Beaudry, take a somewhat cautious approach to the idea of a material turn as such. They note the danger that a material turn, if embraced without cautious deliberation and reflexion, “would simply extend, through a rhetorical inversion, the cultural turn of the 1980s.” Thomas and I have argued something similar in an essay entitled “Do Things Talk?” a few years ago (which can be read here). We wrote in that essay that a new materialism would have to work through some fundamental shifts in how the relationship between the subject and the world and between the researcher and the object of study. The editors of the Oxford Companion conclude along similar lines:
The studies collected in this volume lead towards an appreciation not only of the effects of things, but also of things as the effects of material practices (both vernacular and academic). Material culture does not represent a straightforward object of enquiry, simply requiring new vocabularies for interpretation or abstract theorization. Instead, if we take seriously the critique of any a priori distinction between subject and object, then this must also encompass the academic researcher and her object of enquiry.
Ultimately, the editors suggest that it is through a fundamental reworking of the place of the individual in the world that a ‘true’ material turn would come.
When Bruno Latour talks of flat ontologies, these must extend between researcher and object of enquiry, as well as simply between humans and non-humans. Otherwise, we will simply continue to play back and forth across the categories of the cultural and the material: critiquing, collapsing, relating. Imagining that we represent a world, which we can hold at arm’s length, rather than enacting our knowledge of things. It is in this sense—a sense of the radical partiality of our knowledge of the world, which we might celebrate rather than shy away from—that material culture studies will, as Nigel Thrift suggests in his afterword, come of age.