Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Post-Critical Theory: Desire and New Materialism

What to make of the recurring claim that matter "desires" -- articulated perhaps most passionately by Karen Barad: "Matter feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns and remembers." I suppose the real question here is what one might mean by "desire" in this context (or "converse," for that matter). I suggest that these are metaphorical uses of the terms -- matter (except for that which takes the form of human sociality) does not have recourse to language even though it may "communicate" in the archaic sense of a physical transfer (heat can be communicated, so too electrical signals -- even quantum states). Without access to language, matter can no more desire, in a psychoanalytic sense, than it can converse. Surely it can be entangled, embedded, or otherwise caught up in some form of relations with other entities and with itself -- indeed it cannot not be. 

But that is something altogether different from the dimension opened up by language (as might be demonstrated in negative fashion by, for example, by Ian Bogost's dismissal of linguistic forms of production as not being on a par with more properly material ones. For more on this point, see my critique of Alien Phenomenology). This is perhaps where the pendulum swing away from discourse represented by "new materialism" goes a bit too far: in conserving notions like desire while simultaneously setting aside any engagement with the dimension of language (and, consequently, that of the subject).  

This setting aside has ramifications for the fate of critique, as suggested by Barad's vociferous dismissal of critical approaches:  "I am not interested in critique. In my opinion, critique is over-rated, over-emphasized, and over-utilized...Critique is all too often not a deconstructive practice, that is, a practice of reading for the constitutive exclusions of those ideas we can not do without, but a destructive practice meant to dismiss, to turn aside, to put someone or something down." This is a response that reveals much about the stakes of critique in contemporary academic (primarily literary-theoretic) circles. Critique has become a game of one-upsmanship and can have unconstructive rather than deconstructive results. If, once upon a time, the point of critique was to address human suffering, reflexive critique can apparently, exacerbate it -- at least in certain circles. Someone's (or something's?) feelings might get hurt. 

For Bogost, the concern is somewhat different: overly humanistic thinking -- even of the ostensibly critical kind -- can get a tad boring: "Just as eating only oysters becomes gastronomically monotonous, so talking only about human behavior becomes intellectually monotonous.”  

It is hard not to read such observations as registering the level of contemporary academic alienation. I'm worried that these are the types of concern ("I"m bored" or "If you critique my argument, then you're putting me down") that come to the fore when you've lost any urgent sense of the point of what you're doing beyond constructing an argument for argument's sake -- what Adorno might call the wholesale aestheticization of theory. It seems absurd to even say this in the current conjuncture, but what if social theory were, on some level, actually about working toward making the world a better place for humans? OK, that might bore some people who've eaten too many oysters, but presumably they have the luxury not to worry about where the next oyster is coming from, and perhaps the lack of imagination to consider the fate of those who do not. 

It is this alienation that, I think characterizes the critical inertness (or refusal) of what passes for "new" materialism these days. I put "new" in scare quotes, since there is a strong affinity between this versionof materialism and what Zizek describes as "Althusser’s materialist nominalism of exceptions (or'clinamina'): what actually exists are only exceptions, they are all the reality there is. (This is the motif of historicist nominalism endlessly repeated in cultural studies...) However, what nominalism does not see is the Real of a certain impossibility or antagonism which is the virtual cause generating multiple realities." This structuring or generative antagonism -- and for Zizek it is, of course, the constitutive rift of capitalism -- is what falls by the wayside in such materialist nominalisms. One symptom of this loss, is the sidestep away from the register of language and its deadlocks -- and thus, of course, from an engagement with the question of desire. Matter may desire -- in some reconfigured, alinguistic conception of the notion -- but desire does not matter.  

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