Floods destroy livelihoods and leave huge amounts of mud behind. Heat waves are drying up the soil, and even farmers in East Friesland are worried about growing vegetables in the future. More and more people are making concrete experiences with the climate crisis. It has long since ceased to be a future scenario.
It cannot be wrong that not only the natural sciences but also the humanities are reacting to this global upheaval. Changing situations require a change in thinking. Philosophers, literary scholars, sociologists, and historians are now more and more trying to adapt intellectually to climate change. Catherine Hobby and Thomas Lemke provide the most important direction in this direction in the new introduction to Junius titled “New Materials”.
From the point of view of the neo-materialists, one reads there, the Anthropocene is long gone. We are already in the middle of a posthuman era, where humans no longer have much to say. Submission to nature was once considered a sign of human civilization. Now the barbaric side of this project is manifesting itself in its consequences. If you want to understand all this, you have to think about the relationship between man and nature. In this context, the neo-materialists speak of a network of human and non-human nodes.
Not all neo-materialists explicitly choose climate change as a starting point for their considerations. Jane Bennett, one of the most famous representatives of this school of thought, talks about the blackouts that collapsed various infrastructures in North America in 2003 and paralyzed daily life in entire regions. This event aims to prove the power of things.
Even if it’s hard to compare local power outages to the global climate crisis, we can learn similar things from both cases. You can only understand the crises of our social lives if you look at the bigger picture. There is not a single evil that can cause a blackout. And frayed chimneys in industrialized societies alone don’t explain climate change. One-dimensional causal chains don’t get you too far here. In the complex interaction between humans and nature, the distinction between human and non-human active forces has become meaningless. At least that is what almost all neo-materialists claim.
But how new is it really here? In order to understand climate change, the history of industrialization must be traced. The best way to learn how to do this is from Marks. Its economic analyzes already assume reciprocal conditions. For him, it was always about a relationship between nature and humans that was in no way linear, but rather dialectical. In Marx’s materialism, social reality is understood as the influence of dynamics that remain hidden in everyday life. For this reason it was necessary not to consider social phenomena merely as a fact, but to analyze them. Only then can we see how oppression and force work.
Ancient materialism already knew that societies depended on nature
Obviously, Hoppe and Lemke are not unfamiliar with this. At the end of each chapter, the moral or political dimension of the positions at hand is problematic. Unfortunately, there are hardly any good answers. In the end, only the father of historical materialism was given the word. Once again, it is emphasized how important it is not only to interpret the world, but also to change it. Since the authors had said almost nothing about the history of materialism by then, this comes as a bit of a surprise. But it is not surprising. Many pages have already been filled with ancient materialism about the fact that societies are tied to, if not dependent on, matter or nature.
It seems that the separation from Marxism is not worth the effort on the part of the new materialists. Despite the adoption of the name, the history of physical theories is a blind spot. The divergence gesture in the adjective “new” appears to be directed primarily against post-structuralist attitudes. But post-structuralism opens at least as many different perspectives as neo-materialism.
It is common for thinkers as diverse as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault to practice questioning structures believed to be safe. Of course, this criticism no longer necessarily leads to socialism for them. But here, too, the point is to expose what naturally appears to be a social construct. Post-structuralists can do nothing about the fact that the Accidental Philosophers, who are free and energetic, derive the freely floating sign of the signifier. It’s a misunderstanding.
The climate crisis seems to have sealed the end of post-structuralism
However, this misunderstanding is currently fueling the desire for more realism. You don’t want to have to decipher the world like text anymore. In the face of monstrous natural disasters, it neither seems appropriate nor useful to ask how individual phenomena are socially constructed. Matthes & Seitz’s volume “Literary Theory after 2001” is based on this observation. The introduction speaks of “the desire for ‘greater hand strength.'” The single quotes, however, indicate that it is not entirely clear what this should consist of.
As the reading of individual chapters shows, it is primarily a matter of concrete methods. The volume’s editors state that their subject, Literary Studies, lacks direction. Confusion can be productive, but it doesn’t have to be. At best, a reorientation of oneself in thinking leads to new insights. Especially when things are as serious as “Post-2001 Literary Theory”.
The volume is the result of a two-year reading session by students who took up current theoretical texts. Contributions are devoted to the central core concepts of literary debates. There is a chapter on authorship, in form, but also in less obvious things related to literature such as bodies or borders. It is not pretended that an overview or even an assessment of the theories that have just been written is actually possible. Instead, the “present in literary theory in a proto-constellation” is presented.
Talking about social construction does not negate the existence of nature
The editors consider the question of what materiality today could mean worth entering into six pages. Summarizes new physical problems. As this pertains to literary theories, the authors ask themselves what specific contribution this trend can make to dealing with literary texts. The authors note that literary studies are in danger of immersing themselves in the “metaphysical and quasi-complex pantheism of living matter”. This danger exists not only for linguists among the new materialists.
By the way, post-structuralist thinkers knew this. To accuse them of seeing only social structures everywhere and nothing tangible at all is an intellectual short circuit. On the contrary, speaking of social construction is intended primarily to show that not everything that appears natural is also natural. Anyone who questions naturalization does not in any way deny the existence of nature.
For example, if you look closely, you can see that not all women care about kindness. So it can be concluded that defining femininity as tender care is a social construct. Anyone realizing this in any way denies the existence of caring women. Nor does he deny that the study of behavior is one of the tasks of biology.
The closing words are given to old Marxism
But all this is only visible if you look closely. You can also specify whether you are analyzing reality in terms of its composition. If you don’t, you can just stand before things in amazement. This is what happens to those neo-materialists who call their theory of object ontology. Hoppe and Lemke do not hide their skepticism about this theory. Unfortunately, “it has nothing to do with physical social reality.” This does not look promising.
Anyone looking for an intellectual orientation should read Literary Theory after 2001. Anyone wishing to continue reading afterwards should take an introduction to “new materialism”. But be careful! This book should be read to the end. Otherwise, the reader will not find out what the criticism of the author couple indicates. It has already been revealed: the closing words of old Marxism have been put in their mouths. Fortunately, the current theory is still embedded in its historical context. Being durable is better than being durable. This can also be learned from the elderly, who still cheerfully call out: Dating, Dating!
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