Digital Materiality: New Materialism

Bratton's stack mode

Bratton’s stack model

The bottom layer of Benjamin Bratton’s stack model of the Internet is the Earth. Obscure and unfathomable (but not incalculable) like our own bodies, the Earth is the locus of a complex of chemical processes we still rely on every day. The Earth is the wellspring of all wealth that is generated through human labour because we are reproduced through interactions with the stuff of the earth. The Earth in Bratton’s model represents an indefinitely complex material sine qua non of our networked world experience.

Today’s economy is often described as increasingly “immaterial” where the costs of reproduction are “next to nothing”. Anyone who is not ideologically blinkered so as to confuse the quarterly corporate reports data with real processes going on in the world understands the offensiveness of the claims of immateriality. Climate change, institituional racism and sexism , resource wars all testify to the contrary. A new generation of scholars have reacted to address this cynical ideology in a discipline which has come to be labeled new or neo-materilaism[1].

Karen Barad explodes Bratton’s earth with a methodology trained through theoretical physics. In Barad we explore how certainties of material behaviours in classical physics are really probabilities constrained to serve political ends. Very much in the sense of the fashionable notions of Alfred North Whitehead, the properties of materials become available to us only through interactions, In Barad’s Agential Realism, matter is allowed to matter in queer ways which may elude or defy our conventional linguistic epistemologies, reworking or “diffracting” nature/culture distinctions.

“I propose a posthumanist performative approach to understanding technoscientific and other naturalcultural practices that specifically acknowledges and takes account of matter’s dynamism. The move toward performative alternatives to representationalism shifts the focus from questions of correspondence between descriptions and reality to matters of practices, doings, and actions.” [2]

Post-humanism, a prevalent trend in new materialism is not trans-humanism, and does not necessarily refer to the “technical singularity of the fusion of humans and machines” or the “end of humanity as we know it”. Rather, post humanism is a critique, especially of the patriarchal epistemic and event ontological frames which structure Enlightenment humanism Post-humanism repositions humanity as a diffuse natural phenomena ‘entangled’ among, and never entirely dissociable from the great material fluxes of the universe. Technology is not separate from or invented by humanity but already emergent in the relation between ourselves and the world. In Agential Realism, matter works on us and elaborates us as much as we elaborate matter.

“What often appears as separate entities (and separate sets of concerns) with sharp edges does not actually entail a relation of absolute exteriority at all. Like the diffraction patters illuminating the indefinite nature of boundaries – displaying shadows in “light” regions and bright spots in “dark” regions – the relationship of the cultural and the natural is a relation of “exteriority within.” This is not a static relationality but a doing – the enactment of boundaries – that always entails constitutive exclusions and therefore requisite questions of accountability.”[3]

Barad’s new Materialism posits the cartesian cogito as a relation where every thought idea or perception is a product of intra-actions in an entanglement of phenomena, some among which are human being. This approach might help us elaborate what Barad calls an ethico-onto-epistemology (fusing together three commonly distinct philosophical disciplines) where human being entangled in “Natural” proceses does not have the liberty to act independently but always acts relational to an incomprehensible (non-anthropologizable) play of forces. Informed by quantum physics, our classical understanding of our human existence, its extents and taxonomies seem to disintegrate, we enter a queer space of undefinable interplay.

It remains to be seen to what extent cultural forms can be elaborated which cultivate sociabilities appreciative of the radical complementarity in Barad’s queer materialism. Quantum physics information comes to us through a regime of the most intensive rigour and discipline in labour and material forms. New materialism celebrates the an-anthropocentrized understanding generated through arbitrary mechanical actions of scientific instruments and their dominion over materials. Disciplines such as high-energy physics elaborate control over the physical world on the smallest physical scales (which are also the largest). In breaking up conventional understandings of matter, opening out into post-causal, indefinite unconstrained incomplete models, there is the tendency to adopt metaphors and allegories from cosmologies which have been excluded from the discursive space of the “rational age of science”. Ancient intuitions of universal holism are confirmed through mathematical scientific rigour. There is an (infinitely, voluptuously complex) order to things of which human beings (and all they do) are but an infinitesimal and fully integrated figure.

We have at once enormously powerful industries operating and perpetuating conditions of extreme discipline through every rhizomatic tuber of its (re)production chains, and a realm of speculative materiality appropriated to coalsce a new transgressive morality. Potentially emancipatory in Barad’s ethico-onto-epistemology is the delegitimization of conventional domestic, religious, and political socio-cultural forms which have disadvantaged women and minorities throughout history, intrinsic to a dualistic culture/nature models of the world where human interests or needs always take precedence. An-anthropocentrizing our being-in-the-world promises to generate a new environmental holism where illusionary and exploitative borders of individualism melt away to avail an ever-elusive and uncontainable entanglement of experience.

There is a fundamental internal conflict between the disciplinary conditions for the reproduction of cutting-edge scientific information about the physical materials of the universe [4], and the largely indescribable, an-anthropocentrist meta-physics and transgressive post-humanist social agenda it proposes. The former normalizes conventional, nominally patriarchal world of nations, institutions, industry and finance which (re)produce & train the technicians to serve the equipment which (re)generates the material regularity of today. The latter, based on experimental practice, informed by the scientific method, radiates a diffuse, uninhibited, indistinct epistemology which, if acted upon, would disrupt debilitate and undermine the structural underpinnings of prevalent scientific practice through the high-energy physics fintech apparatus which reproduces it. The environmentalist morality of new materialism may work to inhibit the reproduction of the techno-industrial apparatus which provided the onto-epistemological basis for its formulation.



[1] New-materialism has been generating over the last two decades a richly provocative and challenging culture and literature. Though I concentrate in this blog entry on the thought of one of new-materialism’s most prominent thinkers the theoretical physicist Karen Barad, it must be understood that this strain cannot possibly be represented by any one scholar. Myra Hird, Elizabeth Gross, Stacy Aliamo, Cecilia Åsberg and Rosi Braidotti are just a few of the prominent thinkers diffracting and elaborating new materialism .

[2] Barad, Karen. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, p.135

[3] Barad, K. (2003) Posthumanist performativity: toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 28(3), p. 803

[4]  This tension is elaborated more extensively in this essay.