New Materialism And Literary Studies

Sophie VlacosSeminar Room 3

New Materialism has been hovering at the peripheries of English Studies for a good many years now and is perhaps best encapsulated by the prevailing doxa of ‘entanglement’; a term that gestures towards a broadly post-dualist, post-Deleuzian conception of cultural and material, human and non-human relations. Key to entanglement’s non-binary relations is the philosophical concept of emergence, whereby material entities and cultural qualities emerge co-productively within a complexity of many relations operating at many levels. For advocates of New Materialism, entanglement and emergence present the cornerstone to a ‘natureculture’ (Barad, 2003) philosophy that is neither idealist nor materialist in a naively or dialectical manner; it signals a stepping-stone to new pathways in critical theory that are, to quote Manuel de Landa ‘neither realist nor social constructivist.’ (deLanda 2006). Moreover, it pronounces itself not so much as a new school of thought in opposition to older schools of thought, so much as an act of re-reading across disciplines.

The purpose of this panel is to interrogate the claims of New Materialism from a distinctly literary perspective, by questioning the critical, creative and ethical implications and potentials of this movement:

Paper One: Critique (Dr Sophie Vlacos)

University of Glasgow

One important criticism levelled at New Materialist theory is that it skips all-too readily from an ontology of entanglement to an ethics of entanglement; to a kind of dispositional openness to the non-human and to difference which, so the argument goes, repeats the solecism of rationalist thinking insofar as it fails to acknowledge any material constraints to accessing non-human nature, or what’s more, to acknowledge the true dominion of the Cartesian nature-culture binary as it continues to exert its logic within social existence (Rekret, 2016). This reservation illuminates a point of literary-philosophical intersection, between New Materialism and the kind of post-rationalist fatigue signalled through the resurgence of Sontag’s literary erotics under the banner of post-critique. This paper will examine the relation between the two energies, the historical tensions they rehearse, and their implications for literary concepts such as form, poiesis and singularity.

Paper Two: Ethics (Dr Lorna Burns)

University of St Andrews

The ethical dimension of New Materialism comes into sharp relief when viewed against contemporary social issues and global challenges – demanding a narrative that encompasses ecology, politics, health, technology and science. The literary text can thus be identified as a site in which human and nonhuman entanglements are narrated and reimagined anew. But to what extent can New Materialism account not merely for what is actively registered, but also for what is repressed; in short, to what extent can the New Materialist’s ontology of non-binary entanglement adequately account for, and prepare us for, an engagement with the ethical other? This paper challenges New Materialism to account for the other and to furnish an ethics in the strong sense of the word.

Paper Three: Imagination, Synaesthesia and Sensorium (Dr Helen Palmer)

Kingston University

This paper interweaves social history, evolutionary biology, musicology, anti-psychiatry, spectrometry and literary theory into a performative interrogation of the literary and creative potentials of New Materialism conceived as a re-evaluation of conventional categorisations and literary parameters.

Fri 2:00 pm - 3:15 pm