Thursday, January 8, 2015


The new materialism in the environmental humanities reframes the most central ontological and ethical ideas of ecocriticism in ways that have the potential to activate their liberatory potential. By moving beyond both the post-structuralist erasure of the biological body and the sociobiological erasure of the cultural body, new materialism extends the ongoing deconstruction of the human/nature binary and “opens up a mobile space that acknowledges the often unpredictable and unwanted actions of human bodies, nonhuman creatures, ecological systems, chemical agents, and other actors” (Alaimo 2). By conceiving of “matter as possessing its own modes of self-transformation, self-organization, and directedness” Coole and Frost 10), new materialism levels ontological hierarchies. By locating humans in what Timothy Morton calls the “mesh,” where we encounter others as “strange strangers” who are pursuing their own agendas, materialist ecocriticism activates environmental ethics, expanding their range from a narrow focus on conservation and preservation to the active pursuit of global environmental justice conceived in the broadest terms (xx). “What’s New About New Materialism?” will feature three emerging scholars who will propose an alternative genealogy of new materialism, interrogate its startling claims about the agency of objects and substances, and speculate about the meaning of matter in its most seemingly abject form, dust. 

In “Thoreau’s Journal and Other Matters: Toward a Genealogy of Linguistic Materialism,” Kristen Case will describe how Thoreau’s late practices of walking and writing complicate recent thinking about materiality. Barad, Alaimo, de Landa, and Braidotti each present a genealogy of new materialism that defines it as emerging in opposition to the “linguistic turn.” This common origin story seems to affirm a separation of language and matter, even as matter itself is reconceived as fluid and flexible enough to break down all other barriers. In contrast, Thoreau’s mutually defined and constituted daily practices of walking and writing constitute an ongoing act of relation that challenges any positioning of matter and language as fully separable. Thoreau’s late Journal both embodies and reflects upon the complex materiality of writing itself, a question which new materialism has sidelined in order to distance itself from twentieth-century language-centered philosophies. This paper will sketch an alternate genealogy, one that includes the philosophically marginal figures of Lucretius and Thoreau, for a twenty-first century thinking about matter that does not break from but integrates thinking about language as matter.

In “Agency and Alterity in New Materialist Philosophy,” Kathryn Van Wert will argue that, while identity politics have given us a discourse of rights, they have often done little to acknowledge what a tentative, fleeting, material thing the “individual” who claims or contests those rights really is. New materialism, on the other hand, aims to get around the paradox of constructivist approaches that “recente[r] the human subject despite the intention to undermine such claims” (Coole and Frost 26). New materialist philosophies theorize freedom without tethering it either to deterministic or libertarian notions of the human subject; rather, they challenge the forms of subjectivity that foreclose freedom. Consequently, what is most “new” about new materialism is its attention to the role that alterity, absence, and contingency play in our lives. In its post-Cartesian, posthumanist dimensions, new materialism conceptualizes agency as the province of all matter, which rather than living or dying, is always “emergent” or in states of “becoming.”

In “Dust Matters: Reconsidering Dust in New Materialist Philosophy,” Aimee M. Allard will propose that new materialists reconsider the “dust of the earth” as a bridge between the old and new materialism. Despite its omnipresence in nature, in urban and rural locations, and in domestic spaces, this fundamental substance still does not have the same philosophical or scholarly currency as other forms of matter in material studies. Nevertheless, dust resonates with many possibilities for scholars in the environmental humanities, for whom it may be possible to excavate a dialogic framework of dust stretching throughout twentieth and twenty-first century American culture. The environment distilled to the scale of the miniature, dust is the “stuff” of broken down matter. As physicists have demonstrated, the fate of everything in the cosmos—stars, planets, trees, ourselves—is to be reduced to atomic dust. In the 1930s, millions of acres of dust reshaped the nation’s migration patterns, foodways, and economy, the echoes of the Dust Bowl reverberating not only through the Great Plains but across America decades after the environmental cataclysm. Filaments of hair, sloughed-off skin, the carcasses of dust mites, decayed cellulose, and other sediment—dust is not an inert collection of particles but a volatile substance, one that presents a rich area of study in both prior and new materialism far removed from the dustbin.

Lance Newman, whose 2005 article, “Marxism and Ecocriticism” called for a cultural materialist approach to the study of environmental literature, will respond to the work of Case, Van Wert, and Allard. He will observe that new materialism has made a series of important conceptual advances that go a long way toward creating a “practical, politically engaged social theory [that is] devoted to the critical analysis of actual conditions of existence and their inherent inequality” (Coole and Frost 24). The new materialism articulates “a sense of planet” that makes possible “eco-cosmopolitan” membership in global ecosocial community that carries with it ethical obligations across borders of all kinds (Heise xx). However, new materialism sometimes seems to imagine the mesh as a flat space where free agents interact like enlightened liberal individuals. In order to do so, it must elide the materiality of the economic, social, political, and cultural structures that distribute power differentially around the planet. This gap in new materialist theory is symptomatic of the incompleteness of its engagement with prior materialist traditions.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Thoreau’s Journal and Other Matters: Some Writing Toward the Transcorporeality of Writing

In a review essay on the “New Feminist Materialisms” Iris Van der Tuin begins her description of the recent, multidisciplinary “material turn” by noting that it “entail[s] a commentary on the linguistic turn.” [1] And indeed, no introduction to new materialism excludes the suggestion that this critical development is a necessary corrective to an earlier overemphasis on culture and, particularly, on language.

Sara Ahmed has, I think correctly, identified this opposition to “the linguistic turn” as the “founding gesture” of new materialism. [2] To take cite just one example, Karen Barad, to me one of the most compelling theorists of new materialism, opens her discussion of “Posthumanist Performativity” with the assertion that “Language has been granted too much power. The linguistic turn, the semiotic turn, the interpretative turn, the cultural turn: it seems that at every turn lately every ‘thing’ – even materiality – is turned into a matter of language or some other form of cultural representation.” [3] As Ahmed observes, this formulation suggests an opposition between language and matter that seems problematic for a thoroughgoing philosophical materialism, which would presumably claim both language and culture as, themselves, material. Pheng Cheah identifies as implicit in this view “a metaphysical concept of matter” that “regards materiality either as the end point of [the] movement of referral or as an external presence that sets off and secures this movement.” [4]

In this way, the philosophical sense of materialism seems at odds with the most pronounced feature of the new materialisms, the force of their newness, which is often expressed as a desire to “give matter it’s due,” [5] a formulation that seems implicitly to privilege matter over something understood as non-matter which has till now been overemphasized – namely, “culture,” “discourse,” “representation” or “language.” As Ahmed writes, “By turning matter into an object or theoretical category in this way, the new materialism reproduces the binarism between materiality and culture that much work in science studies has helped to challenge. Matter becomes a fetish object, an ‘it’ that we can be for or against.” [6]

Inspired by Lance Newman’s work [7] to think about the relation between new materialist approaches and historical materialism, I want to stay for a moment with Ahmed’s description of new materialist treatments of matter as a kind of “fetishization” and think about the commodity value of newness, the market logic of new and improved that it seems implicitly to reflect. Suppressed in the fetishization of thought is, as Marx suggests, the human relations that underlie and create it. To speak broadly here about a new materialist tendency to repress its indebtedness to the past would be, of course, to reproduce the critical dynamic I’m concerned about, so rather than spend this time (by which I mean both the time of my writing and the time of my speaking to you, both of which are marked out and delimited by a white space of a certain size, a finite number of pages to be filled with a finite number of words)—rather than spend this time critiquing the logic of the “turn,” I wish to perform a sort of reconciliation, which will also be a rethinking of what I mean by the words materiality and materialism, what these words can do or say within the context of a written text responding to a series of other written texts, each of which is similarly relationally embedded.

It is no doubt my own investment in writing as a mode of relation that urges me toward such an effort at reconciliation. I undertake this project out of an admittedly personal, perhaps even sentimental desire to understand critical writing as an exchange more like friendship than like commerce. In the hope of this kind of exchange, I want to ask: Might not the insights of the new materialism, in particular its robust and useful thinking about relationality, be meaningfully be brought to bear on textual matters? And might not such thinking look back as well as forward, or rather prompt us to reconsider the logic by which we designate thought as “new”?

Though I’d like to offer here something like what my abstract promises, some sort of sketch of a genealogy of a linguistic materialism beginning with Lucretius and coming to Thoreau in a
roundabout way via Bergson, the constraints of this paper (now already two pages and at least two minutes in) demand that I only quote these lines from “The Nature of Things” as a way of signaling or standing in for such a possibility:

     So each thing needs its own kind of material to grow.
     Consider that without a certain season of rain, the earth
     Could not put forth her gladdening fruits. Nor could creatures give birth
     Or stay alive deprived of their food. It makes more sense,
     Therefore, to think that many things have common elements,
     As words share letters, rather than assume that anything can
     Exist without them. [8]

Lucretius’s materialism is, of course, everywhere linguistic, is itself a poem, a series of complex reconfigurings and transformations of Epicurean atomistic philosophy into Latin dactylic hexameter and then again, in my Penguin Classics edition, into English rhyming fourteeners. Lucretius draws the analogy between atoms and letters several times in the poem and also performs this principle in several places, for example when he points to the small compositional change required to convert lignis (wood) into ignis (fire). [9] The poem represents, as Julia Kristeva notes, a sort of translinguistic and transcultural bequest, a survey of Greek materialist thought, translated, composed, and transplanted into Roman culture. [10]

With this example of linguistic materiality in mind, I want to think through the way writing as a material practice both mediates and constitutes relation—gives us to one another—in a species of what Stacy Alaimo calls “transcorporeal” exchange.11 My continual starting point for thinking about writing as a mode of relation, the place I begin and begin again, is Thoreau’s Journal, a text so unwieldy in both its volume and its sprawling web of relations to other texts that it seems almost to forbid the objectifying habits of critical analysis. In thinking about the Journal I am guided by Jane Bennett’s description of texts as belonging to “a distributive network of bodies: words on the page, words in the reader’s imagination, sounds of words, sounds and smells in the reading room” [12] and by Vicki Kirby’s explorations of “the body itself as a scene of writing.” [13]


     Jan 15th Pm
     To Fair Haven Pond--and across to RR
     As I passed the S shed at the depot—observed—what I thought at first a tree sparrow on the wood in the shed--a mere roof open at the side—under which several men were at that time employed sawing wood with a horse-power. Looking closer I saw, to //my surprise that it must be a song-sparrow it having the usual marks on its breast & no bright chestnut crown— The snow is 9 or 10 inches deep & it appeared to have taken refuge in this shed where was much bare ground exposed by removing the wood. When I advanced, instead of flying away, it concealed itself in the wood, just as it often dodges behind a wall. [pencil –“V. Jan 22d”]
     What is there in music that it should so stir our deeps? We are all ordinarily in a state of desperation--such is our life-- oft times it drives us to suicide. To how many--perhaps to most--life is barely tolerable & if it were not for the fear of death or of dying, what a multitude would immediately commit suicide—but let us hear a strain of music—We are at once advertised of a life which no man had told us of which no preacher preaches-- Suppose I try to describe faithfully the prospect which a strain of music exhibits to me—The field of my life becomes a boundless plain— glorious to tread--with no death nor disappointment at the end of it. All meanness & trivialness disappear— I become adequate to any deed— No particulars survive this expansion— persons do not survive it. In the light of this strain there is no thou nor I. We are actually lifted above ourselves—
     The tracks of the mice near the head of well-meadow were particularly interesting…The snow was so light that only one distinct track was made by all four of the feet^ 5 or 6 inches apart —but the tail left a very distinct mark
     …Such is the delicacy of the impression on the surface of the lightest snow— where other creatures sink— and night too being the season when these tracks are made--they remind me of a fairy revel. It is almost as good as if the actors were here— I can easily imagine all the rest— hopping is expressed by the tracks themselves— Yet I should like much to see by broad day light a company of these revellers hopping over the snow—... How snug they are somewhere under the snow now, not to be thought of—if it were not for these pretty tracks—and for a week or fortnight even of pretty still weather the tracks will remain to tell of the ^ nocturnal adventures of a tiny mouse—{wo} was not beneath the notice of the Lord. So it was so many thousands of years before Gutenberg invented printing with his types—& so it will be as many thousands of years after his types are forgotten--perchance. —the deer-mouse will be printing in the snow of Well-meadow to be read by a new race of men. … [14]


This journal entry was likely written on the morning of January 16, 1857, so very nearly one hundred and fifty-eight years from the day a few weeks from this writing when I will be delivering this paper. Thoreau’s practice at the time of his writing was to read and write in his attic room in the mornings and walk in the surrounding woods for several hours in the afternoons, his morning writing recording the observations of the previous day’s walk. That both this entry and the next begin with the temporal marker “Pm” suggests that this particular entry conforms to that pattern. Part of my interest in the journal is the way that for Thoreau, the day itself, as a unit, was composed of a series of interrelated material practices that together spanned more than a calendar day. We are all dispersed in this way, of course; my typing these words in my office in Maine projects me forward to an afternoon in early January in Vancouver. But Thoreau’s modes of navigating these intervals were both habitual and precise, a regular practice of constituting himself, of writing himself into (at least) two temporal locations at once.

For simplicity’s sake we can identify walking and writing as the fundamental modes of this practice, but in fact each mode was more complex than this division suggests. Walking entailed the writing of fieldnotes that were later transcribed, and writing involved revisiting these notes and reconstructing the previous day’s walk. It is worth noting that a heavy line appears though the central paragraphs of the manuscript—a mark likely made by HGO Blake, who had inherited the notebooks comprising the journal from Sophia Thoreau, to signify their inclusion in a series of published excerpts that appeared in the decades after Thoreau’s death. [15] The text also bears signs of Thoreau’s own revisiting of the text after the time of writing, a common feature of the journal manuscript. A double line appears next to the surprising appearance of the song sparrow, a migrating bird, in January, which likely marked the passage for inclusion in Thoreau’s lists and charts of seasonal phenomena. A penciled note, “v. [vide] Jan. 22” next to the description of the bird’s behavior invites comparison with a later journal entry about another song sparrow that “took up its quarters in his grist-mill and stayed there all winter.” [16]

The manuscript thus bears the signs not only of his writing, but of the whole “ecology of practices,” to borrow a term from Isabelle Stengers, that constituted his journal-keeping. [17] There is no easy way of delimiting where in these practices the “writing” begins and ends: he wrote what he observed and in anticipation of observing again; the Journal and its related lists and charts were not only records of but also promptings to observation. To read the Journal in the light of these practices is to see it as a tracing of transmissions and crossings, a living record, a participant in an ongoing series of material and temporal exchanges. The particular interest of this entry to me is Thoreau’s concern within it with such questions of transmission and exchange, a concern that traverses the boundaries of both mode (the oral or auditory as against the written or visual) and species.

The shift from the encounter with the song-sparrow to the description of the effect of music seems utterly unmotivated, except by the word “song” and the association of this particular bird with music. Thoreau’s pivot here between the (unheard) birdsong and music is characteristic of his treatment of human-non-human relations and resists characterization as either an anthropomorphization of the animal or a “naturalizing” of the human, but instead suggests a relation that is traversed both ways. The act of identification, the recognition of the bird as a song sparrow, suggests its own history of both ornithological study and habitual neighborly engagement with birds. This simultaneous preservation or recognition of nearness and of irreducible difference is reflected in many of Thoreau’s descriptions of animals, for example in this description, written a few years later, of a bream (a freshwater fish): “In my account of this bream I cannot go a hair’s breadth beyond the mere statement that it exists,-—the miracle of its existence-—my contemporary and neighbor-—yet so different from me! I can only poise my thought there by its side—and try to think like a bream for a moment.” [18] Similarly, the encounter with the song sparrow registers both acquaintanceship—familiarity with its habits and its markings—and the way such identifications and approaches are always incomplete: the sparrow’s presence in January is surprising; it conceals itself when approached.

The undescribed and indescribable music of the second paragraph is recorded only in its effect, which is to obliterate the boundaries of identity. This effect is pictured visually as a field or plain, an open space or expansion that is contracted with particulars, trivialness, and persons particularly I and thou. The synesthetic phrase “in the light of this strain” likewise converts music to a visual phenomenon, but this is a light that prohibits, rather than enabling, identification of the sort that Thoreau engages in in the previous paragraph—which is to say, engaged in the previous day and now perhaps reconsiders, “in the light” of heard or unheard strains of human or more-than-human music. (Are the musings on music also retrospective? Did he think them on his walk, or are they real-time renderings of a thought that presently interrupts a recollection?)

Like the sparrow’s name conjuring his unheard song, the mouse tracks Thoreau observes at the head of the well meadow mark both presence and absence, the “delicacy of the impression on the surface of the lightest snow” a material trace of “the airy lightness in the body that impressed them.” As the unheard birdsong prompts a musing about music, so the textual, but not audible, presence of music prompts an association with printing that is made manifest in a looping back to the observed world, to the experience of the previous day’s walk and the encounter with mouse tracks. The tracks themselves speak to both the completeness of their expression— “hopping is expressed by the tracks themselves” —and to the vanished presence of the mice— “Yet I should like much to see by broad day light a company of these revelers hopping over the snow.” The closing gesture of the paragraph, “So it was so many thousands of years before Gutenberg invented printing with his types—& so it will be as many thousands of years after his types are forgotten—perchance. —the deer-mouse will be printing in the snow of Well-meadow to be read by a new race of men” reverses the idea that written language, and specifically the technology of printing, represents an advance over animal modes of marking and communication and suggests that the human capacity to “read” such markings will require a yet-unattained literacy in the more-than-human.

Thoreau’s thinking about this encounter, at once material and imaginary, inscribed in both kinds of print, traversing past and future, may be usefully thought in terms of Karan Barad’s framework of “agential realism” within which “the primary ontological unit is not independent objects with inherent boundaries and properties but rather phenomena” which “do not merely mark the epistemological inseparability of the observer and observed,” but rather “are the ontological inseparability/entanglement of intraacting agencies.” [19] In Thoreau’s depiction the “new race of men” will be brought into being in relation to its capacity to read mouse-print, that is, in relation to the non-human. But it seems worth noting, too, how text mediates this intra-action, is the matter through which the relation takes shape, both in its “present” and in its future iterations. To trace both the materiality of this journal entry and Thoreau’s engagements with materiality in the entry is to engage language and textuality in ways that do not divorce them from the material but rather attend to the traces left by material practices of writing and reanimated by material practices of transcription, publication, and reading.

While Barad’s ontology of agential realism is helpful in thinking through Thoreau’s relations to the non-human, I want to supplement that thinking with particular attention to language as the principle mode of the intra-action described in this passage. What is most striking to me about Thoreau’s writing and his depiction of writing here is that both are essentially transcorporeal: marks made by the bodies of the mice and travelling by way of electrochemical impulses to Thoreau’s body; marks made by Thoreau’s body travelling by way of various print technologies to my own eye and brain; my hands moving across these quietly clicking white squares to produce this sequence of letters. Here my thinking about Thoreau’s writing and about writing in general, approaches (from the other “side”) Vicky Kirby’s concept of corporeography, which understands the body as a “scene of writing…that both circumscribes and exceeds the conventional divisions of nature and culture…a shifting scene of inscription that both writes and is written.” [20]

In my downloaded digital reproduction of a photocopy of the manuscript of Thoreau’s journal I follow the evidence of his particular bodily movements in writing: the strong lateral slant, and, particularly, the continuity of the line of ink between words—the frequent continuation of the cross of a T, for example, into the downward stroke of the first letter of the next word, as in the words “multitude and” on this manuscript page—are suggestive of both fluidity and rapidity of movement. A small tadpole-shaped ink smudge on the left margin of the right hand page near the words one distinct track has imprinted itself on the facing page, producing a twin tadpole (with a less pronounced tail) on the right margin of the left hand page, suggesting the notebook was shut while the ink was not quite dry. I imagine the pages sticking slightly, for a moment, when he opened them next, perhaps the next day, to record the previous afternoon’s walk. In these gestures, his and mine, across these intervals of time, I come to what feels like a sort of neighborliness with Thoreau, a ghostly kind of friendship. It hardly needs saying that the transfer isn’t perfect: the manuscript speaks also to his absence, the very presence of his journal in the form in which I read it is both an effect and a confirmation of his death. Like the sparrow, he inevitably withdraws when I approach. But so it is in friendship.

-- Kristen Case, University of Maine at Farmington


[1] Iris Van der Tuin, “New Feminist Materialisms,” Women’s Studies International Forum 34, no. 4 (2011): 217.
[2] Sara Ahmed, “Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of
the ‘New Materialism,’ European Journal of Women’s Studies 15, no. 1 (2008): 23-19.
[3] Karen Barad. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2003, vol. 28, no. 3
[4] Pheng Cheah, “Non-Dialectical Materialism,” in New Materialisms. ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 73.
[5] See for example, Diana Coole and Samantha Frost’s introduction to New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics: “We believe it is now timely to reopen the issue of matter and to once again give material factors their due in shaping society and circumscribing human prospects” (33).
[6] Ahmed, “Imaginary Prohibitions,” 35.
[7] Lance Newman, Our Common Dwelling: Henry Thoreau, Transcendentalism, and the Class Politics of Nature. (London: Palgrave, 2005) and “Thoreau’s Materialism and Environmental Justice” in Thoreau at Two-Hundred: Essays and Reassessments. ed. Kevin Van Anglen and Kristen Case, forthcoming, (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2017).
[8] Lucretius, The Nature of Things. trans. A.E. Stallings. (New York: Penguin, 2007), I: 191-98.
[9] Lucretius, The Nature of Things. I:910-914.
[10] Julia Kristeva, Language: The Unknown: An Initiation into Linguistics. trans. Anne M. Menke. (New York: Columbia UP, 1989), 121-4.
[11] Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self. (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2010), 2.
[12] Jane Bennett, “Systems and Things: A Response to Graham Harman and Timothy Morton,” in New Literary History 43, no. 2 (2012), 232.
[13] Vicki Kirby, Telling Flesh: The Substance of the Corporeal. (New York: Routledge, 1997), 56.
[14] Henry David Thoreau, Online Journal Transcript, manuscript volume 22, September 7, 1856-
April 1, 1857. The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. Davidson Library, University of California,
Santa Barbara. Accessed on December 10, 2014. <>.
[15] Walter Harding and Michael Meyer, The New Thoreau Handbook. (New York: NYU Press, 1980), 69.
[16] Henry David Thoreau, Journal IX, ed. Bradford Torrey and Francis Allen. (Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1906), 230.
[17] Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitics I, trans. Robert Bononno (Minneapolis, MN: University of
Minnesota Press, 2010), 42.
[18] Thoreau, Journal IX, 358-9.
[19] Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. (Durham: Duke UP, 2007), 139.
[20] Kirby, Telling Flesh, 61.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Agency and Alterity in New Materialist Philosophy

Why do we need a new materialism, and what makes it new? The short answer may be nothing much, particularly for students of Derrida, Butler, Deleuze, Zizek, and others. In different ways, these writers have been producing what Toril Moi calls “a third way” for theory, “one that steers a course between the Scylla of traditional essentialism and biologism, and the Charybdis of idealist obsession with ‘discourse’ and ‘construction’” (qtd. in Kruks, “Simone de Beauvoir: Engaging Discrepant Materialisms,” 262-3). Simply put, this is the materialist project: our ongoing attempt to provide an account of material being that is dynamic, non-linear, and non-deterministic, without relying on outdated frameworks of selfhood. In their introduction to New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics (2010), Diana Coole and Samantha Frost argue that “materialism’s demise since the 1970s has been an effect of the dominance of analytical normative political theory on the one hand, and of radical constructivism on the other,” approaches often “associated with a cultural turn that privileges language, discourse, culture, and values” (Coole and Frost 3). The essays collected in their volume of recent work in this field try to avoid the paradox of constructivist approaches that “recente[r] the human subject despite the intention to undermine such claims” (26). In other words, as I argue in a review of the volume, “new materialisms attempt to theorize freedom without tethering it either to deterministic or libertarian notions of the human subject. Rather, they insistently challenge the forms of subjectivity that foreclose freedom” (Van Wert 66).

This project is certainly not new; it is at least as old as Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway, who declared in 1925 that she was a “part of people she had never met; being laid out like mist between people she knew best” (Woolf 9). Indeed, for Deleuze and Guattari, whose work has been central to new materialist philosophy, Clarissa is the quintessential “nomadic subject,” one who is always in states of becoming (Van Wert 69). Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies exhibit a new materialist vitalism similar to Woolf’s. In the elegies, composed around the same time as Mrs. Dalloway, the poet cultivates an “animal gaze onto the Open,” which makes the animal a part of what it looks upon (Rilke 55-56). This was Rilke’s effort to avoid holding the natural world at a distance through artistic or philosophical mastery – a process that Maurice Blanchot called “bad interiority” (135). Like Rilke, new materialists “eschew the distinction between organic and inorganic, or animate and inanimate, at the ontological level” (Coole and Frost 9). In the monolithic ontology of new materialism, “‘matter becomes’ rather than . . . ‘is,’” and “there is no definitive break between sentient and nonsentient entities or between material and spiritual phenomena” (Coole and Frost 10). I cite Woolf and Rilke as a reminder that theory often lags behind fiction and poetry in understanding. Nevertheless, new materialism is exciting – and if not strictly new, then at least renewed – for the ways in which it tries to answer a question put to us long ago by writers like Woolf, a question so difficult that we have continually failed to answer it. What becomes of identity politics if we acknowledge what a tentative, fleeting, material thing the self really is? And “what does agency become when it is no longer the expression of a uniquely human or even creaturely will?” (Van Wert 68). What would it mean to catch up with Woolf and Rilke, to trade the ego of Cartesian dualism for an “animal gaze?” What kind of agent would I be if I replaced my sovereign self with Clarissa Dalloway’s fluid intersubjectivity? To put it most simply: is my self the disease or the cure?

Such questions can seem inordinately academic. But the popular press suggests that they are very much on the public’s mind. In an article entitled “Enlightenment’s Evil Twin,” published last month by The Atlantic, Gracie Lofthouse offers a short history of “depersonalization disorder,” a common if episodic experience in which, to quote the article’s subtitle, “the self doesn’t feel real.” In the words of one sufferer, “it’s like I’m too aware of certain larger aspects of reality” (“Enlightenment’s Evil Twin”). Notwithstanding the clinical treatment of depersonalization as a disorder, Lofthouse notes that “romantics” from Keats to Timothy Leary have been trying for centuries to “break free from personality into new realms of consciousness,” and she wonders whether depersonalization might also be a form of enlightenment. “Have you ever played that game,” she asks, “when you repeat a word over and over again until it loses all meaning? It’s called semantic satiation. Like words, can a sense of self be broken down into arbitrary, socially-constructed components?” (“Enlightenment’s Evil Twin”). And furthermore, might depersonalization represent what one psychoanalyst calls “a Dostoyevsky-style illumination – where clarity cannot be distinguished from pain?” (“Enlightenment’s Evil Twin”). Yes; and one might also call it a Steinbeckian illumination; as one of the unnamed victims of the dust bowl asks in The Grapes of Wrath: “How’ll it be not to know what land’s outside the door? How if you wake up in the night and know – and know the willow tree’s not there? Can you live without the willow tree? Well, no, you can’t. The willow tree is you. The pain on that mattress there – that dreadful pain – that’s you” (Steinbeck 89).

Steinbeck’s dispossessed farmer offers a lyrical articulation of one of new materialism’s most crucial insight about selves: the spirit is not, as Jacob von Uexkull argues, “what descends into the body in order to organize it, but . . . what emerges from it” (qtd. in Coole, “The Inertia of Matter,” 103). Emphasizing the aleatory element of this emergent being, Coole argues that “the animal is accordingly conceptualized as a field rather than a machine,” resulting in a “new biological sense of life as a contingent unfurling of possibilities” (103). This sense of the self’s absolute contingency enables new materialism’s powerful critique of all philosophical determinism. But as an account of daily life, it can be hard to swallow. As Lofthouse points out, “people suffering from depersonalization disorder don’t appear at a doctor’s or psychiatrist’s office to explore mysticism, philosophy, or the deep blue sea. They make the appointment because they are in pain” (“Enlightenment’s Evil Twin”).

I would not gainsay the experience of suffering people. But what if “depersonalization” is not the source of pain, but rather a response to the pain of an orderly personhood? What if the pain comes not from losing one’s self, but, as Melissa Orlie argues, from our panicked efforts to avoid losing ourselves? To avoid acknowledging that we are closer to planes than machines? “Compared with a machine,” I argue, “a field is open to contamination, incursion, and the force of otherness. The openness and radical vulnerability of the body-as-field is both the threat and the gift of a materialist ontology; how much it is the latter depends on how brave you are” (Van Wert 70). Orlie explains that “we are positively averse to the experience of impersonality; hostile to the claim that neither the matter of our selves nor that of the world is me or mine, ours or yours. Indeed, most of our mental activity, as well as the content of the dominant ego psychology, is constructed as a defense against experiencing or acknowledging the impersonal forces that compose us” (Orlie 120). According to this theory, the mind is a mechanism “by which the body imagines itself as master of the conditions of its experience but at exactly those moments when the body actually feels the limits of its strength and suffers under these conditions” (123). As I argue in the review, “one of new materialism’s most affirmative elements is its faith that if we open ourselves to the impersonal material forces that ceaslessly compose, recompose, and decompose us, we can achieve a degree of existential joy that otherwise eludes us” (Van Wert 70). Echoing Winnicott’s theory of “unintegration,” a less normative account of depersonalization disorder, Orlie concludes that “to become increasingly awake to all that is, is to wake up to the impersonality of matter which is nature; it is to live with a joyousness that arises only when we are able to cease holding the self together without at the same time falling apart” (126). Or, as Rosi Braidotti puts it most beautifully: “This is just one life, not my life. The life in “me” does not answer to my name: “I” is just passing” (210). Braidotti suggests that the reward for what she calls “nondefensive sublimation” (134), a.k.a. radical acceptance, might be a more joyous being—one for whom the pain of Steinbeck’s narrator and the elation of Woolf’s Clarissa are mingled inextricably.

But if, as Braidotti says, “the ‘I’ is just passing,” then so is agency as we ordinarily define it. New materialism’s newest and most challenging claim is that we derive not only joy from the fleetingness of “I,” but also our ability – however limited – to act. New materialists understand agency as an ongoing relation to alterity and otherness, to that which cannot be mastered. Drawing on Derrida, Pheng Cheah argues that “since the other is that from which time comes, the experience of absolute alterity, however disruptive, must be affirmed because without it, nothing could ever happen [. . .] The experience of alterity is essentially the urgent force of any rational decision and action that cannot be reduced to the mastery or sovereignty of the rational subject [. . .] For if the freedom of the rational subject comes in or as its response to the other, then decision is prompted by and also comes from the other" (78-81). Voicing a similar insight in less abstract terms, Frost argues that we have yet to accept “the complexity of causation and the heteronomy of our actions” (174). In fact, she argues, we are so afraid of acknowledging the inchoate forces that compose us that we erect images of sovereign power to conceal from ourselves the metaphysical limits of our agency. In other words, “my obsession with the sovereign’s mastery over me, however tyrannical, conceals from me the more painful reality that in crucial ways, no one can master my life, least of all me” (Van Wert 70).

So to return to my earlier question: what, if anything, does this mean for identity politics? What will I lose if I acknowledge that self-mastery is a politically beneficial illusion? “Acknowledge” is perhaps not the right word here, since it implies a mainly cerebral activity. Rather, what would be the price of organizing my being not as a defense against materiality, but as an ongoing encounter with alterity? Is the Nietzschean joy of fully material being adequate recompense for the weakening of a politics founded on individual rights? For inevitably, Braidotti argues, a rapprochement with radical alterity will also require us “to look beyond compensatory ethics and a culture of justice that answers pain with money” (Van Wert 70). On what ground will I claim or contest my rights if I reconceive myself as barely an “I,” always in states of becoming, and capable of projecting agency onto my actions only retrospectively? In this sense at least, the blessing of new materialism is also its threat, because “the same indeterminacy that subverts totalizing and oppressive forces also places limits on human ‘agentic efficacy’” (Van Wert 71). As Rey Chow argues, “whereas the very contingency of iteration –– its inherent instability –– represents for Althusser, Zizek, and Girard a potential for instrumentalization by institutions of power such as the church or the state, institutions which typically capitalize on such contingency for the purposes of domination and indoctrination, for [Judith] Butler, precisely the same contingency lends itself to the chance of differentiation . . . and thus to the possibility of subversion” (230).

Is the paradox of iteration a problem for new materialism? Not necessarily. But if we believe that agency is not the province of rational selves but inherent to all matter, we run the risk of political irrelevance. Elizabeth Grosz asserts that “freedom is . . . not primarily a capacity of mind but of body: it is linked to the body’s capacity for movement, and thus its multiple possibilities of action” (152), and moreover, that “indetermination liberates life from the constraints of the present” (153). This is a beautiful claim, but is it always true? Is it sufficiently cognizant of the real-world constraints on material freedom? How, for example, can it be reconciled with the institution of chattel slavery? I suspect that we will answer this question without reverting to facile notions of resistance; but for now, it remains an open question.

Ultimately, the newest – and for me, most exciting – facet of new materialism is its attention to the complex roles that contingency and alterity play in our lives. This is hard to do, particularly if one is limited to theoretical discourse. Alterity is “the other,” the Lacanian “real,” and in some ways very counterintuitive. As Derrida said, “the impossible gives their very movement to desire, action, and decision: it is the very figure of the real. It has its hardness, closeness, and urgency” (qtd. in Cheah 76). In other words, “for materialisms informed by poststructuralism, matter cannot be presence” (Van Wert 68). Yet its absence makes it all the more forceful. And so, when we are not using jargon like “alterity,” we turn to poetry: it is the “pain on that mattress there,” “the animal gaze onto the Open,” and the state of being “laid out like mist” between the people we know best. These are wonderful new materialist claims, even if they are also quite old.

-- Kathryn Van Wert, University of Minnesota Duluth

Works Cited

Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. Trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1989. Print.

Braidotti, Rosi. “The Politics of ‘Life Itself’ and New Ways of Dying.” Coole and Frost 178-200.

Cheah, Pheng. “Non-Dialectical Materialism.” Coole and Frost 70-91.

Chow, Rey. “The Elusive Material: What the Dog Doesn’t Understand.” Coole and Frost 221-233.

Coole, Diana. “The Inertia of Matter and the Generativity of Flesh.” Coole and Frost 92-115.

Coole, Diana and Samantha Frost. “Introducing the New Materialisms.” Coole and Frost 1-46.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1987. Print.

Frost, Samantha. “Fear and the Illusion of Autonomy.” Coole and Frost 158-176.

Grosz, Elizabeth. “Feminism, Materialism, and Freedom.” Coole and Frost 139-157.

Kruks, Sonia. “Simone de Beauvoir: Engaging Discrepant Materialisms.” Coole and Frost 258-280.

Lofthouse, Gracie. “Enlightenment’s Evil Twin.” The Atlantic Monthly Group, December 2014. Web. 5 Jan. 2014.

Coole, Diana, and Samantha Frost, eds. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

Orlie, Melissa A. “Impersonal Matter.” Coole and Frost 116-138.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Duino Elegies. Trans. A. Poulin. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Print.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. New York: Penguin, 1939. Print.

Van Wert, Kathryn. Rev. of New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, eds. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost. Modern Language Studies 43.2 (2014): 66-71. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. London: Harcourt, 1925. Print.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Dust Matters: Reconsidering Dust in New Materialist Philosophy

In his introduction to Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible, Joseph Amato observes that dust has long been “associated with the lowliest things….neither a subject worthy of reflection nor meritorious enough to serve a history of smallness” (4-5). Although we inhabit a world of dust—our feet reconfiguring it with each step, our skin bearing its mark, our lungs inhaling motes of it in every breath—dust connotes the invisible, the ephemeral, matter pulverized into an unrecognizable, and thus unremarkable, form.[1] It seems little wonder, then, that for many materialists, the substance ostensibly does not carry the same philosophical or scholarly weight that other matter does. Over a century ago in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, for instance, Engels traced land’s transformation from a material belonging to the earth to “a commodity to be bought and sold” (203), yet dust is only obliquely implicated in his discourse on soil. Merleau-Ponty does not mention dust in Phenomenology of Perception or in his final manuscript, The Visible and the Invisible, much as we might expect given the latter’s title. More recently, William Cohen and Ryan Johnson do acknowledge “dirt, waste, pollution, abjection, disgust, mess, garbage, rubbish, [and] dust” (ix) in their introduction to Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life, though they consider dust in the larger context of filth studies rather than new materialism—and as a subset of dirt at that. And, in their important 2010 book, New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, Diana Coole and Samantha Frost posit new ways of thinking about materiality in the twenty-first century, yet they, like their materialist predecessors, do not consider dust as part of their “reprisal of materialism” (3). In order to begin the process of addressing this dearth of dust in my talk today, I will first trace dust’s theoretical and material underpinnings in previous and current fields of materialist thought; then move on to a discussion of dust in relation to the environment, history, and different bioregions in North America; and finally, conclude by speculating on the role of dust within twentieth century literature. It is time that we reconsider “the lowliest [of] things” not merely as an inert collection of particles, but a form of matter in its own right, one that links materialist studies of the past to those of the present.

Theoretical and Material Dust

“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?” asks Coole and Frost in their introduction to New Materialisms (1). In seeking a common material thread across the disciplines—from the physical sciences, to the social sciences, to the humanities—we must turn to a substance that undergirds each of them. Dust is that substance, its structure containing flecks of our sloughed off skin; the cellulose castings of plant life; pollen; fungus spores; and the desiccated carcasses of dust mites, bacteria, and other organisms that populate the microenvironment.[2]

As we begin to theorize dust’s place within materialist tradition, we do not reject previous theorists’ work, but rather, enhance their conceptualizations of this unique form of matter. Looking to the past, we find references to dust in materialist analyses of labor practices, hygiene, domestic spaces, and many other areas—yet it is not pursued as a material thread of its own. For instance, Charles Thackrah’s Effects of Arts was one of the first nineteenth century texts to correlate dust as a material cost of labor, his 1832 reading of dust foreshadowing structural Marxism.[3] In Marx’s Capital, Volume I, we locate dust in his critique of deplorable working conditions, factories where “dust and dirt…are disengaged, irritat[ing] the air passages, and giv[ing] rise to cough and difficulty breathing” (500). We find it, too, in Jacques Derrida’s discussion of nature, culture, and language in On Grammatology, where he compares them to an interconnected “mass of roots, soil, and sediments of all sorts” (161)—Derrida’s “sediments,” we might speculate, even encompassing dust.[4]

Another reason for addressing the materiality of dust is its role in microbiology and immunology.[5] Over the past several decades, researchers in these fields have studied the relationship between a lack of beneficial household dust and increased incidences of childhood asthma, while others have hypothesized that our relatively recent obsession with hand sanitizers and anti-bacterial soaps may be contributing not only to respiratory issues but even food allergies. Conversely, too much household dust exacerbates pulmonary disorders, the substance a haven for dust mites, which, after consuming particles of our dead skin, excrete waste up to 20 times per day and produce a new generation every three weeks, according to the Manual of Environmental Microbiology.[6]

Dust is also paramount in recent discoveries in the fields of physics and cosmology. The extraplanetary dust particles found in the comas of comets such as the comet ISON, which passed through the inner solar system a year ago, or embedded in asteroids themselves are up to “fifty percent organic material by weight” (24), according to Hannah Holmes.[7] In their 2011 article in Nature, Sun Kwok and Yong Zang concur, detailing the organic elements present in cosmic dust: aromatic compounds (present in the protein building blocks of all living things), aliphatic compounds (such as methane), and other organic matter (possibly even nucleic acids—the building blocks of DNA). With the successful landing of the European Space Agency’s Philae on the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko ten years after its mission began, scientists continue to learn about cosmic dust and its relationship to our own terrestrial dust.

Environmental, Historical, and Bioregional Dust

Let us turn now to dust’s material role in history and the environment. Dust is found in nature and in our homes, in rural and urban spaces, from the sub-zero heights of the Himalayas to the scalding basin of Death Valley. On this continent alone, we encounter the powdery silica dust of the Great Lakes, the red clay dust of Georgia, the salt dust of Utah’s Flats, the rain-scented dust of the Pacific Northwest, and myriad other dusts. One theorist who sought the dust of this continent was Jean Baudrillard.[8] Conducting research for his book America, Baudrillard traversed the United States from the Great Plains to the Grand Canyon, from New York to California, in search of its material essence: I went in search of…mineral [America]….I sought that upturning of depth that can be seen in the striated spaces, the reliefs of salt and stone, the canyons where the fossil river flows down, the immemorial abyss of slowness that shows itself in erosion and geology" (5). As we observe in this passage , Baudrillard gestures toward the minute particles brought into being through eons of erosion, “America” revealed to him through its material fragments. It is not too far of a leap to imagine the unspoken dust in between the “striated spaces,” particularly where he names salt and other minerals eroded by wind, water, and time. As Baudrillard suggests, we can read the environment through the minutest materials, the past as much recorded in photographs and typeset as it is in the archive we call dust.

The twentieth century was arguably a century of dust, perhaps no more so than the 1930s.[9] During that decades, a mosaic of dust swathed across the seemingly infallible farmland of the Great Plains, revealing dust’s power on an environmental scale not often witnessed outside of volcanic eruptions. In The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, author Timothy Egan describes the exact magnitude of that dust: “At its peak, the Dust Bowl covered one hundred million acres. Dusters swept over the northern prairie as well, but the epicenter was the southern plains. An area the size of Pennsylvania was in ruin and on the run. More than a quarter-million people fled the Dust Bowl in the 1930s” (9).[10] Millions of granules of dust stretching over millions of acres were powerful enough to radically unsettle the geographical contours of the Great Plains, heedless of the manmade borders between states such as Kansas and Oklahoma or the distinction between one family’s farm and their neighbor’s.[11] Dust writ its volatile and relentless power across the face of the continent, featuring prominently in first-person narrative accounts of the decade, in popular songs and films, and in Dorothea Lange’s black and white images of Okies and other migrants searching for a better life in California—her stark photographs haunting us to this day.[12]

Commingled in our historical relationship with dust is an almost subconscious fear of the emptiness and Otherness that often accompanies dusty regions. As J. Douglas Canfield writes in his 2001 book Mavericks on the Border, it is the Borderlands between the United States and Mexico, and between the Great Plains and Northern Plains of Canada, which are most often characterized this way. Canfield argues that these dusty regions exist in the cultural imaginary as void-like spaces “without essence, without essential meaning” (4).[13] Such dustphobic taxonomies run deep in places where dust is an inextricable part of the landscape. We cannot help but wonder if our desire to colonize, cultivate, and transform this corridor of the continent is not driven, at least in part, by our deep-seeded disgust of dust itself—and its seeming lack of materiality. In the Plains, like the Desert Southwest and other dusty regions, dust is everywhere, sticking to our flesh and tornadoing in our minds in what Tom Lynch terms “a continual interfusion of self and environment” (xv).[14] Dust is a material that forces us to recognize our smallness in stark relief next to Nature’s grandeur, its time measured not in decades, like our lifespans, but in epochs. In doing so, we risk confronting what Lynch defines as “nada” (93).

Textual Dust

Whether the nada of desert dust or the cataclysmic dust that once engulfed the Plains, dust not only pervades much of our material history, but the literature written in response to that past. It encompasses Cather’s Nebraska, Fitzgerald’s valley of ashes, Wright’s Chicago, Steinbeck’s Oklahoma, Stegner’s North Dakota, and Kerouac’s and McCarthy’s roads, among so many others. In the novel, dust came to occupy many discursive positions, moving from disgust to more nuanced material categories such as destitution. In the following section, I will briefly sketch dust’s materiality through one such text.

In her 1918 novel My Ántonia, author Willa Cather depicts her titular character’s body through a veil of dust. Dust forms an essential part of Cather’s opus, the writer infusing it throughout her textual geography.[15] In one such scene in the novel, “Ántonia…washed the field dust from [her] hands and face…at the wash-basin by the kitchen door” (99). Ántonia hastens to scrub the field dust off her hands before Jim Burden sees her for the first time since they were children, signaling her shame at the difference between her tanned, dust-covered hands and Jim’s clean, white hands—hands that are not exposed daily to the unyielding sun and elements. This dust marks her status as a laboring woman compared to the whiteness of the upper-middle class and wealthy women that Jim encounters in New York, and the one he eventually marries.[16] In contrast to Ántonia’s relationship to dust, Jim fondly associates the substance with the carefree days of his youth in rural Nebraska, the “dust of the farmyard” (110) that he and Ántonia played in as children carrying a much different connotation for him.

In another scene, Cather details how farm dust clings to Ántonia’s chest, the location of that dust important. Jim observes Ántonia walking in from the field, noting her flesh, “sunburned, sweaty, her dress open at the neck, and her throat and chest dust-plastered” (100). Here, Cather emphasizes how the dust alights on Ántonia’s “chest,” or breasts. The picture the author creates is of an earthy woman, dust and sweat intermingling in her pores.[17] Jim’s gaze eroticizes her body, though for Ántonia, the dust is her reality, the (mate)reality, of her circumstances. This union of dust and flesh reflects how dust was transposed from the land to the skin in twentieth century fiction, imbricating gender and the body in the material.[18]


If we peer closely enough at a handful of dust, we glimpse traces of what Coole and Frost might label its “restlessness and intransigence” (1), a matter containing vestiges of multiple places in its particles. Looking to the past, in ancient Greece, dust was once thought to be the smallest form of matter; from the Latin, the word pollen directly translates to dust. It is evident in Newtonian mechanics; a building block of Marxist thought; inherent to the work of Engels; and, in the present, a font of potential for new materialists. Dust, too, compels scholars in field such as biopolitics, the substance heedless of the arbitrary human constructs of borders; and common to all nations, races, and regions. Dust disrupts each of these, dislocating the notion of a discrete, singular, human subject.

Implying a crossing on a grand scale, dust is the only record that remains of the earliest human migrations, the footprints of our predecessors pressed into solidified sand and dust.[19] Dust is simultaneously the possible source to which all life on earth owes its existence and the eventual fate of everything in the universe, from the cosmic bodies of stars to our own human bodies.[20] Part of our mortality is acknowledging that we will eventually decompose into dust in such a way that the body ceases to be us and instead becomes a new material, one akin to Merleau-Ponty’s explication of the pebble transmuting into sand.[21] As such, we find ourselves compelled to reflect on dust’s role in our own materiality. It is not part of some abstract ontology, but underlies everything, perhaps even consciousness itself.

Given all of this materiality, I will conclude by once more asking why is there such a disregard for dust in materialist theory? Perhaps its omission from early materialist texts that precludes new materialists from considering dust as part of a genealogy of materialism. Whatever the reason, dust is now more than ever emerging as a complex, material phenomenon, the substance refusing a simple classification—it is neither wholly organic nor entirely a byproduct of human industry, not separate from discourses of power, language, and values but embedded within each of these systems. What is at stake here is nothing less than a restructuring of material tradition to encompass dust and other neglected or marginalized forms of matter. In privileging dust, we remove it from the dustbin of history, unearthing alternate ways of perceiving its materiality in relation to the environment, the text, and even the self.

-- Aimee M. Allard, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


[1] Amato argues that “[a]ll matter could be made dust by force, fire, or rot” (20). In other words, everything we know—including ourselves—is merely an earlier incarnation of the matter we call dust.

[2] See Amato, Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible, p. 4.

[3] See Charles Thackrah’s 1832 book, The Effects of Arts, Trades, and Professions, and of Civic States and Habits of Living, on Health and Longevity: With Suggestions for the Removal of Many of the Agents which Produce Disease, and Shorten the Duration of Life. His findings suggested that laborers who were daily exposed to “dusty vapours” had an increased risk of pulmonary disease or early death, an issue that unions would later take up.

[4] See Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak.

[5] According to the 2010 paper “Observed 20th Century Desert Dust Variability: Impact on Climate and Biogeochemistry” in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, the amount of airborne dust worldwide more than doubled during the course of the 20th century.

[6] For a more comprehensive microbiological examination of dust, see the Manual of Environmental Microbiology, edited by Christon J. Hurst.

[7] See The Secret Life of Dust: From the Cosmos to the Kitchen Counter, the Big Consequences of Little Things.

[8] This is Chris Turner’s translation from the original French.

[9] This includes the dust stirred up at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, during the Wright brothers’ historic 1903 flight; the first automobiles carving ruts into dust and dirt roads; dust’s swathe of devastation across the center of the country during the Dust Bowl; mushroom clouds set against a backdrop of desert dust in places like White Sands, New Mexico, during the mid-1940s and the Nevada Test Site in the early 1950s; volcanic dust released into the atmosphere in the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens; dust settling in the aftermath of Oklahoma City just six years before the dust of September 11th.

[10] Donald Worster’s Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s offers an equally compelling account of the Dust Bowl from an environmental history point of view.

[11] In their article “Economics of Dust,” Helen Lloyd, Peter Brimblecombe, and Katy Lithgow explore the social and monetary “costs” of dust.

[12] In his book Dust Bowl Migrants in the American Imagination, Charles Shindo suggests that images of the Dust Bowl were themselves infused with the emotional residue of this historical cataclysm, the regions covered in dust still remembered in our collective imaginations they appeared over 70 years ago (60).

[13] Canfield labels this fear of dust as “the ultimate abject” (192).

[14] Quoted from Xerophilia (2008), p. xv.

[15] Dust is not only central to the setting or titular character in My Ántonia; it is the novel. The pages of the book itself are made from the wood dust of trees, that dust then mixed with water to form pulp. That pulp is then bleached and pressed into the paper that makes up the physical text.

[16] William Cohen concurs, describing how dust, like other “filth represents a cultural location at which the human body, social hierarchy, psychological subjectivity, and material objects converge” (viii).

[17] In her book Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women’s Writing, 1930-1990, Patricia Yaeger offers an interesting reading of dirt and the female body. While Yaegar’s analysis is confined to women writing in the American South—writers such as Alice Walker writer characters who take pleasure in dirt—perhaps Ántonia takes a similar pleasure in dust at times, while detesting it in other moments. Such a reading subverts the notion of dust as disgusting, suggesting that Cather may have infused the material with multifaceted layers of complexity.

[18] In her critical text Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo, anthropologist Mary Douglas examines in much greater detail how dust moved from a physical mark on the skin to part of a cultural concept of disgust. Thus, our visceral response to signs of decay or death because they could contaminate our bodies or lead to illness or death transferred onto objects, sites, and people, which were deemed filthy and Other.

[19] Nicholas Ashton, curator of the British Museum, recently announced that archaeologists discovered 800,000-year old human footprints—the oldest outside Africa—in Happisburgh. See the British Museum blog for images of these footprints:

[20] Gravity’s pull uses dust to shape planets, and, here on earth, wind and water eventually erode even the tallest mountains into dust. Like the mountain and the mite, our fate is no nobler.

[21] As the pebble is eroded by water and wind, at a certain point it ceases to be the same object we call “pebble” and transitions into the substance we call sand (161).

Works Cited

Amato, Joseph A. Dust: A History of the Small and the Invisible. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 2000. Print.

Ashton, Nicholas. “The Earliest Human Footprints outside of Africa.” The British Museum, 7 Feb. 2014. Web. 28 Feb. 2014.

Baudrillard, Jean. Amérique (America). 1988. Trans. Chris Turner. London and New York: Verso, 1988. Print.

Canfield, J. Douglas. Mavericks on the Border. Lexington, KY: Lexington U P, 2001. Print.

Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. 1918. New York: Penguin Classics, 1994. Print.

Cohen, William A., and Ryan Johnson, eds. Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2005. Print.

Coole, Diana, and Samantha Frost, eds. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham, NC and London: Duke U P, 2010. Print.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology (De la grammatologie). 1967. Trans. Gayatri Spivak. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins U P, 1976. Print.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge, 1966. Print.

Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print.

Engels, Friedrich. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. 1884. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972. Print.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. 1925. London: Penguin, 2010. Print.

Holmes, Hannah. The Secret Life of Dust: From the Cosmos to the Kitchen Counter, The Big Consequences of Little Things. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003. Print.

Hurst, Christon, et al., eds. The Manual of Environmental Microbiology. 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: ASM Press, 2003. Print.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. New York: Harper and Row, 2003. Print.

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. 1957. New York: Viking Penguin, 2003. Print.

Kwok, Sun, and Yong Zang. “Mixed Aromatic-Aliphatic Organic Nanoparticles as Carriers of Unidentified Infrared Emission Features.” Nature 479 (7371): 80-83. JSTOR. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.

Lynch, Tom. Xerophilia: Ecocritical Explorations in Southwestern Literature. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech U P, 2008. Print.

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Sunday, January 4, 2015


In the spirit of Raymond Williams, I’d like to indulge in a back-to-basics meditation on usage and history. With any luck, doing so will help us think through what we really mean when we talk about the new materialism.

The word “materialism” has several distinct but related uses.

In philosophical discourse, materialism is opposed to idealism and refers to the ontological position that the world is composed only of matter and its motions. This sense has roots at least as far back as the writings of Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius.

This kind of materialism is often conflated with or accompanied by empiricism, the epistemological position that our ideas about the nature of things are formed exclusively by sensory experience of matter and its motions. Empiricism, of course, also has a long history, especially since it was formalized by Locke and Hume.

In common usage, on the other hand, materialism usually means the tendency to value physical (and sometimes financial) possessions and interests, over and above spiritual, aesthetic, and intellectual experiences and concerns.

Finally, in the context of political theory, especially since Marx, materialism names the belief that structures of economic power, rather than (or in addition to) ideas or ideology, determine (or shape) social being and history.

The common thread here, of course, is a set of familiar binary oppositions: mind and matter, spirit and nature, words and things.

In the last decade or two, in the context of the humanities, and especially the environmental humanities, materialism has been used to signal a turn away from the reductive linguistic determinism that has dominated academic discourse for the last several decades. It is only in this context that it makes any sense at all to call materialism new. 

Now, new materialists, especially in the environmental humanities, state their motivations in remarkably consistent terms. If we adopt a new onto-epistemological position and acknowledge that everything including ourselves is material, we will horizontalize the ethical field in a way that makes new ethical commitments possible. If we think differently about matter, we will act differently toward it. If we acknowledge that we are material beings living in a material world, we will treat our home with care.

In other words, the new materialism reframes the activist theoretical project that has been at the heart of the environmental humanities since the field was invented a few decades ago under the rubric of ecocriticism. In doing so, it has produced a supple new vocabulary that can help us move beyond the fundamentalist ecocritical insistence that nature is real and that’s that and we’d better respect it. By contrast, new materialism it has taken a big step toward addressing Lawrence Buell’s criticism that ecocriticism offers only a thematic emphasis, not an innovative theoretical approach.

At the same time, the new materialism needs to make sure not to carry forward some of the other bad habits that plagued ecocriticism in its earlier stages.

When we imagine ourselves as material beings, as bodily creatures, we need to recognize that we are not solitary individuals moving through the world having solitary intra-actions and making solitary impacts. So, the ethics we envision needs to go beyond the renunciation of things, the practice of doing without commodities like cars, factory-farmed food, conferences that require air travel, and intensive habits of material consumption in general. As Derrick Jensen put it in Orion Magazine a few years ago, we need to “Forget Shorter Showers.”

Also, the social cannot be something that we blithely leave behind as we light out for the territories in search of bodily intra-action with enchanted matter and strange strangers. We need to recognize that the social is more than just a polluted cultural environment, a degraded habitat of language, or an urban wilderness of signs.

In other words, we need to acknowledge that, as bodily beings, we are embedded not only in the non-human or more-than-human environment, but also in social and political environments that are material in fundamentally important ways. We need to think about why our society engages in such materially intensive forms of production in the first place, and we need to think especially hard about what it will take to change it.

In other words, we need a comprehensive, and even intersectional, materialism that integrates the political sense of the term I mentioned earlier. If we keep walking down the trail that leads from the body in the world toward what we used to call ecocentricity, we will eventually come to politics, which is, essentially, the effort to materialize our individual ethical commitments in a collective setting, in a society shaped and driven by powerful material processes, like a capitalist economy and sedimented histories of inequality.

Some new materialists have been blazing the way forward. In The Material of Knowledge, Susan Hekman, has called for a new “ontology of the social” that can help us understand the way we “intra-act with the natural world through labor.” And Susan’s colleague, Stacy Alaimo, has developed the term “trans-corporeality,” which she uses to explore “the interconnections, interchanges, and transits between human bodies and nonhuman natures” such as food and toxins (2). Alaimo calls our attention to important matters like “the proletarian lung” and other bodily effects of our society’s unequal distribution of environmental risks and benefits.

Of course, as Hekman’s title, The Material of Knowledge, reminds us, even as new materialists, we are in the business of studying language and ideas. Of course, there is a lot to say about what it means to say that knowledge is material, but I don’t have time to go there.

For now, what I want to say is that our role as environmental humanists, as environmentally committed scholars, teachers, and curators of language and literary culture, is to engender ways of thinking that can help us change the way that we collectively make and dwell in our socio-environmental habitat.

I’ll conclude by briefly suggesting how the three papers we’ve heard today contribute to that project.

Katie emphasizes the new materialist deconstruction of the self, which is revealed to be a mobile intra-action of substances, processes, and institutions. This is important and unfinished work, since the stable, autonomous, animate, agentic self remains the protagonist of most of our ethical narratives, especially in environmental ethics. Katie asks the crucial question, what would politics look like without the self?

Aimee’s meditation on dust reveals a material substance that is everywhere but rarely seen. Dust is a mixture of cells, spores, mites, shavings, waste, and more. As such, it is simultaneously dead and alive, inert and active, healthful and toxic, human and non-human, bodily and social, self and other, natural and constructed, timeless and historical, universal and terrestrial, blank and inscribed. It is around us, on us, in us, and falling from us. We make it, we are made of it, and of course, we will return to it. Thinking about dust can be good exercise, since it tends to rouse us from sedentary habits of categorical thinking.

Finally, Kristen makes a related point about the need for flexibility and reach when she argues that we should not overcorrect and reproduce “the binarism between materiality and culture.” Instead, she asks us to attend to the relationality between matter and text. Thinking about Thoreau’s practices of writing and walking can help us see that ideas and language materialize during complex material-semiotic intra-actions between embodied minds and their socio-environmental habitats.

-- Lance Newman, Westminster College