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The Ontological Prison: The Dead End of New Materialisms

Daniel Keil (University of Applied Sciences Frankfurt)

Contradictions: A Journal for Critical Thought I, no. 2 (2017): 41–59

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Keywords: New Materialisms, the ontological turn, Marxism, critical theory

The emergence of the New Materialisms from a critique of the cultural or linguistic turn in social theory and its inability to adequately deal with questions of matter seems to be quite similar to the starting point of historical Materialism. But, in its reformulation of such crucial concepts and relations as subject-object- or nature-culture divisions (or, in that case, non-divisions), as well as its emphasis on the concept of contingent assemblages as an ontology of the emergence of matter and things, it is no longer human praxis which is being highlighted but the event (Ereignis) of materialization of non-human/human assemblages. Thus, it is only the contingency of matter which is leading to changes. Hence, the ontology of New Materialisms is deeply problematic.

Therefore, the paper aims to provide a critique of the main concepts of the New Materialisms by means of Marxian approaches. The theses are, first, that the New Materialisms de-socialize things through de-socializing categories and concepts; second, that they can be assumed to represent more of an “ontological turn” than a “material turn,” which has serious epistemological consequences; and, third, they are mirroring in their negation of the subject the methodological individualism of neoliberal theory because both approaches define a non-society of super-individual processes, a kind of spontaneous order which cannot be controlled by humans. In order to substantiate these assumptions the paper fi rst traces back the main categories of New Materialisms, then takes a deeper look at the subject-object and the nature-culture relation before relating it to neoliberal society. Finally, the ontology of open-endedness and contingency will be criticized as an ontological apologia for what is.

doi: 10.46957/con.2017.2.4

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