New Materialisms

Fall 2007

Co-organized by Samantha Frost, Melissa Orlie, and Michael Rothberg
All meetings from 8:00-10:00 pm at the IPRH, 805 W. Pennsylvania, Urbana

The Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory sponsors a criticism seminar each semester for interested faculty and graduate students. This non-credit seminar features discussion of theoretical readings introduced by a changing cast of guest experts.

All Monday sessions will take place on Mondays, 8-10 pm at the IPRH (805 W. Pennsylvania).  Preliminary schedule of dates and topics is below.  All the readings for the seminar will be posted on Library Electronic Reserves.  Please stay tuned for more information and detailed description.

First Meeting: September 18, 2006

What does it mean to conceive of bodies in terms of their materiality rather than in terms of signs?

For the past decade or so, scholars and readers in a range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary arenas have been gripped by the body, by the fact that people have bodies and that embodiment is socially, politically, and culturally meaningful. Especially after the publication of Judith Butler’s influential Gender Trouble (1990), the notion that bodies are something that must be taken into account philosophically, politically, and culturally has become a commonplace. Importantly, what has bound the numerous and varied studies of the body together has been their focus on the body as an object of representation. Scholars have traced how gender, race, sexuality, class, nation, and/or culture are inscribed or imposed upon bodies, or are produced and taken up by bodies. In addition, they have explored the role that such inscriptions and impositions and their attendant identifications have played in social, cultural, historical, and political developments.

The “new materialisms” explored in this seminar institute a shift away from thinking about bodies, materiality, and matter primarily in terms of signification, discourse, intelligibility, and recognition. The shift is inaugurated by the query: What is this matter–what are these bodies–that can be shaped, informed, and moved by the power of representation, by language, or by the social-symbolic? And as the challenge to assumptions about the totalizing effects of the linguistic or the social gains momentum, another question comes to the fore: How does the very materiality of embodiment, the physiology of the organismic body, call on us to reimagine subjectivity or reconceptualize the work of culture, ethics, and politics? If we take the matter of the body as primary in our analyses, what new ways of attending to the specificity of particular bodies as raced, gendered, or sexualized are required or called into being?

“New materialists” work within and between an emerging (salvaged) alternative philosophical tradition and developments in science studies, communications, psychoanalysis, neuroscience, anthropology, cultural studies, racial/gender studies to examine afresh questions about subjectivity, agency, and politics. Some scholars confront humanistic wariness about the dangers of essentialism or determinism and venture to reconceptualize the interactions between nature and culture by elaborating upon research about the biological and physiological processes that either resist or transform the social. Others explore how our understandings of inter-subjectivity, power, and ethics might be transformed by research showing that intellectual and emotional processes are not qualitatively distinct phenomena. Still others point out that a recognition of the very matter of embodiment, a turn to the entire panoply of senses through which we engage the world, or an acknowledgment of the materiality of affect calls into question both the category of the individual as well as the self-identity of the subject by dissolving the boundaries of the self. This unsettling of the notion of the self as enclosed in/by the body demands, in turn, that we rethink such basic issues as the nature of matter, of life, and of consciousness, the nature of force, of time, and of causality, as well as the workings of power, identity, and culture.


Provisional reading list for "New Materialisms"

Session 1: 9/18: Rethinking Matter

Jane Bennett, "The Force of Things: Steps Toward an Ecology of Matter" Political Theory Vol.32, No.3 (June 2004).

Brian Massumi, "Introduction," "The Political Economy of Belonging and the Logic of Relaion," and "Chaos in the ‘total field’ of vision" in Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Duke UP, 2002)

Session 2: 10/9: Agency and Affect

Diana Coole, "Rethinking Agency: A Phenomenological Approach to Embodiment and Agentic Capacities" Political Studies (2005)

Teresa Brennan, "Introduction," "Transmission in groups," and "The new paradigm" in The Transmission of Affect (Cornell University Press, 2004)

Session 3: 10/23: Violence and the Incorporeal
With guest Eleanor Kaufman, Comparative Literature, UCLA

Eleanor Kaufman, “‘To Cut Too Deeply and Not Enough’: Violence and the Incorporeal,” parallax 9:1 (2003), 14-27.

Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” in Reflections (Schocken)

Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense (pp. 1-11)

Session 4: 11/13: Life, Time, and Politics

Elizabeth Grosz, "Introduction: to the untimely," "Darwinian matters: Life, force, and change," and "Biological difference" in The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely (Duke University Press, 2004).

Pheng Cheah, "The rationality of life: on the organismic metaphor of the social and political body," "Revolutions that take place in the head: Marx and the national question in socialist decolonization," and "Epilogue. Spectral nationality: The living-on of the postcolonial nation in globalization" in Spectral Nationality: Passages of Freedom from Kant to the Postcolonial Literatures of Liberation (Columbia UP, 2003)

Session 5: 12/11: Materialism and Pluralism

William Connolly, "The Body/Brain/Culture Network," "The Color of Perception," "Nature, Affect, Thinking..." in Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed (University of Minnesota Press, 2002)

William Connolly, "Prelude" and "Pluralism and Relativism" in Pluralism (Duke University Press, 2005)

For further information, to be included on the seminar mailing list, or to suggest topics for future Criticism Seminars please contact the Unit's director, Michael Rothberg