In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section New Materialism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews, Introductory Texts, and Anthologies
  • Traversing the Sciences
  • Deleuzian New Materialism
  • Material Ecocriticism and the Nonhuman
  • Aesthetic Studies
  • Literary Studies
  • Intra-materialist Tensions, Delineations, and Critiques

Literary and Critical Theory New Materialism
Susan Yi Sencindiver
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0016


New materialism is an interdisciplinary, theoretical, and politically committed field of inquiry, emerging roughly at the millennium as part of what may be termed the post-constructionist, ontological, or material turn. Spearheaded by thinkers such as Karen Barad, Rosi Braidotti, Elizabeth Grosz, Jane Bennett, Vicki Kirby, and Manuel DeLanda, new materialism has emerged mainly from the front lines of feminism, philosophy, science studies, and cultural theory, yet it cuts across and is cross-fertilized by both the human and natural sciences. The revival of materialist ontologies has been animated by a productive friction with the linguistic turn and social constructionist frameworks in the critical interrogation of their limitations engendered by the prominence given to language, culture, and representation, which has come at the expense of exploring material and somatic realities beyond their ideological articulations and discursive inscriptions. Important as this ideological vigilance has been for unearthing and denaturalizing power relations, and whose abiding urgency new materialism does not forego, the emphasis on discourse has compromised inquiry by circumscribing it to the self-contained sphere of sociocultural mediation, whereby an anthropocentric purview and nature-culture dualism, which constructivists sought to deconstruct, is inadvertently reinscribed. Accordingly, the polycentric inquiries consolidating the heterogeneous scholarly body of new materialism pivot on the primacy of matter as an underexplored question, in which a renewed substantial engagement with the dynamics of materialization and its entangled entailment with discursive practices is pursued, whether these pertain to corporeal life or material phenomena, including inorganic objects, technologies, and nonhuman organisms and processes. Reworking received notions of matter as a uniform, inert substance or a socially constructed fact, new materialism foregrounds novel accounts of its agentic thrust, processual nature, formative impetus, and self-organizing capacities, whereby matter as an active force is not only sculpted by, but also co-productive in conditioning and enabling social worlds and expression, human life and experience. Seeking to move beyond the constructivist-essentialist impasse, new materialism assumes a theoretical position that deems the polarized positions of a postmodernist constructivism and positivist scientific materialism as untenable; instead, it endeavors to account for, in Baradian idiom, the co-constitutive “intra-actions” between meaning and matter, which leave neither materiality nor ideality intact. The works cited in this article impart a sense of the growing mesh of new materialism, whose budding fibers are opening new lines of inquiry mushrooming in and across the fields of the human and social sciences and life and physical sciences as well as the literary, visual, and performance arts.

General Overviews, Introductory Texts, and Anthologies

Given that new materialism is still a relatively new field, only a few general overviews are available; these primarily arise from the social sciences and humanities. The most current and representative anthologies feature prefaces or guides that serve as excellent introductions to the field as a whole. In this respect, Alaimo and Hekman 2008a offers a brief, clear, and provocative presentation of common themes. Coole and Frost 2010a provides an advanced, comprehensive overview that includes a frame of reference covering antecedent, current, and neighboring bodies of work. Whereas Coole and Frost 2010a accentuates the 21st-century sociopolitical backdrop of new materialism, Dolphijn and van der Tuin 2012b punctuates its intellectual genealogy and, in addition, presents a concise account of its distinctive characteristics. Reflecting feminist concerns, the collection in Alaimo and Hekman 2008b takes corporeality and nature as its central themes, and the volume contains key papers in the field. A collection of articles by prominent new materialist thinkers, Coole and Frost 2010b rethinks understandings of and modes of inquiry pertaining to matter and materiality, agency, bioethics, and politics. Bennett and Joyce 2010 also shares this politically informed theoretical commitment, with the palpable effects and material processes of power as its focus. The latter two collections, moreover, include essays that concentrate on the agency of the material within the social field. In addition to contributions by the editors, Dolphijn and van der Tuin 2012a includes accessible interviews with leading contemporary materialist philosophers. Grusin 2015 is an edited collection noteworthy in that it exemplifies the cross-fertilization of new materialist thinking with contiguous disciplines, such as affect theory, new media theory, science and technology studies, speculative realism, and object-oriented ontology.

  • Alaimo, Stacey, and Susan J. Hekman. “Introduction: Emerging Models of Materiality in Feminist Theory.” In Material Feminisms. Edited by Stacey Alaimo and Susan J. Hekman, 1–19. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008a.

    Outlines the limits of linguisticism and social constructionism in its neglect of materiality and concomitant implications for methodology and identifies the new directions in thematic trends and theoretical reorientations within feminist studies toward materiality.

  • Alaimo, Stacey, and Susan J. Hekman, eds. Material Feminisms. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008b.

    Organized into several sections based on topics, such as theory, world, and bodies, the essays collected consider the multifaceted aspects of materiality pertaining chiefly to corporeality, the natural world, and environmental and science studies primarily within, but not apart from, feminist theoretical frameworks.

  • Bennett, Tony, and Patrick Joyce, eds. Material Powers: Cultural Studies, History and the Material Turn. New York: Routledge, 2010.

    This collection gathers essays that explore novel approaches to the concrete operations, forms, and organizations of state and colonial power, governance, and material infrastructures in light of the recent material turn and across a range of diverse disciplinary fields; yet, prominence is given to historical examples.

  • Coole, Diana, and Samantha Frost. “Introducing the New Materialisms.” In New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Edited by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, 1–43. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010a.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822392996-001

    An extensive introduction that contextualizes and situates new materialist philosophies and thinkers within contemporary biopolitical, technological, and environmental developments as well as the global political economy. It delineates the continuities, differences from, and resources in older materialist approaches, traces commonalities shared with adjacent intellectual thought, and addresses the ethical and political challenges for the 21st century consequent upon reconceptualizing materiality.

  • Coole, Diana, and Samantha Frost, eds. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010b.

    This thematically organized edited collection brings together many of the most influential essays in the field, covering a breadth that includes the ontologies, political dimensions, and socioeconomic implications of matter and embodied subjectivities.

  • Dolphijn, Rick, and Iris van der Tuin, eds. New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities, 2012a.

    The volume is divided into two parts. The first features interviews with Rosi Braidotti, Manuel DeLanda, Karen Barad, and Quentin Meillassoux. This interview format provides a way of approaching the thought of these writers through relatively straightforward prose. The second part ties the content of the interviews to an overview of materialist philosophies and intersecting influences and features the authors’ own take on a new materialist understanding of sexual difference and its posthumanist aspects.

  • Dolphijn, Rick, and Iris van der Tuin. “The Transversality of New Materialism.” In New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies. Edited by Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin, 93–113. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanitiesh, 2012b.

    Drawing mainly on the works of Braidotti and DeLanda, the authors map the central facets, concepts, and especially the Continental philosophical pedigree of new materialism. They present new materialism not simply as a backlash against postmodern cultural theory, but carefully delineate their intricate interrelations. Argues a convincing case for the theoretical and methodological purchase of new materialism. Originally published in Women: A Cultural Review 21.2 (2010): 153–171.

  • Grusin, Richard, ed. The Nonhuman Turn. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

    A collection of theoretically sophisticated essays that together provide a useful survey of the braided strands across a variety of disciplines and theoretical orientations engaged with nonhuman turn, which includes a wide-ranging exploration of corporeal, material, affective, ecological, and technological processes, phenomena, and systems. The introduction offers a useful account of the overlapping emergence of these theoretical developments, within which new materialism is situated.

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