Assemblage Theory new materialism

new materialist user populations and rhetoric

I sometimes wonder what scholars in the field of rhetoric think new materialism is. [n.b. Don’t expect a comprehensive answer here!] I’d wager that there are maybe dozens but certainly not hundreds of rhetoric scholars who view it in a positive/interested enough way to pursue it. I’d equally wager there are as many, if not more, who have a negative/critical view. And then there are the vast majority who no particular opinion on the matter (and are surely not reading this).

Very few people were using the term new materialism back in the mid-90s when I was in grad school. As it turns out I was engaged in what would become at least part of new materialism in reading Deleuze, DeLanda, Haraway, Latour, and Massumi. These texts represent some but certainly not all of the points of departure toward whatever new materialism is today. I was in my 20s and largely shooting in the dark because I was basically working on my own, following my nose. Obviously the last 25 or so years has seen an expansion of this work in many directions.

As I caveated above, I don’t know what new materialism is, except to say that it is a constellation of many different things that do not form a paradigm or set of principles. Maybe new materialism represents a shared discomfort with postmodernism or cultural studies or cultural materialism (i.e. maybe they are all departing from a common set of conditions, idk). Dolphijn and van der Tuin’s book is as good an effort as I’ve seen to try to encapsulate new materialism and the boldest they are willing to be is to claim their work is “an open cartography of new materialism that radically explores this new tradition in thought, and that aims at including all that it can virtually do.”

In short, who knows?

That said, I think it is possible to describe particular new materialist concepts, and I can articulate my own interest in and deployment of new materialism. I’ll just focus on one here: population thinking. It is not the most widely discussed concept. DeLanda develops this concept from the work of the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr who coined the term in his articulation of evolution and the relationship between individuals and species (and taxonomies more generally). In my upcoming book, I use this concept to discuss specifically the formation and maintenance of “user populations” is digital media ecologies. While population thinking isn’t widely known, it is a key operative part in the concept of flat ontology, which is one of the more widely discussed/tossed about new materialist terms.

I’m not going to define flat ontology here. I’ll just say that if you want to understand it, you should read DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. I believe that’s where the term first appears, and it is really quite central to the larger project of the book (and DeLanda’s philosophical project generally). It’s not a book I generally recommend to graduate students because it’s very challenging. Not only do you probably need to be very conversant in Deleuze, but DeLanda is also not pulling any punches in his discussion of advanced mathematics, biology, and physics. I’ll normally point students toward A New Philosophy of Society, which is shorter and stays in more familiar social-cultural contexts as you might guess. But if you really want to understand what flat ontology is, you’ve probably got to read them both. Of course other people take up the term (e.g. Levi Bryant in Democracy of Objects and Ian Bogost in Alien Phenomenology). In The Rise of Realism, a conversation between DeLanda and Graham Harman, DeLanda says the following:

“Interesting. I never realized that the expression “flat ontology” could be used in such a variety of different senses. I should be more careful when I use it because, as you point out, there are different ways in which one can flatten ontologies. The flattening performed by empiricism, in which only what is directly observable is real, makes scientists refer to the properties of the objects they measure (their temperature or pressure, for example) as “quantities.” Unlike temperature (which is not directly observable), the quantity indicated by a thermometer is an observable, so that is what they commit themselves to ontologically. This clearly impoverishes reality. And moreover, as you say, it builds into an ontology the asymmetry between humans and not-humans, an asymmetry that I also find unacceptable.

“Finally, the very idea of contrasting human thought with dead matter is anathema to me: all matter, as long as we push it far enough away from thermodynamic equilibrium, is active and capable of self-organization. The concept of self-organization has been accepted today by some of Husserl’s disciples (e.g., Evan Thompson) to combat the idea that the brain is just a computer that matches sensory inputs to motor outputs. Populations of neurons in the brain, Thompson (​2010) argues, are capable of organizing themselves spontaneously into larger, coherent groups, that form and dissolve as an embodied agent explores the world. Digital computers, on the other hand, do not display this form of self-organization, hence they make a very poor metaphor for the brain. I agree with all this, but I certainly would not want to make self-organization a capacity of human brains, or even of living creatures (as Thompson and Varela do.) All matter, however non-living, is capable of generating form ​spontaneously, as long as it is pushed far away enough from equilibrium. Brains and living cells push themselves away from equilibrium (by tapping into external reservoirs of energy), and that is important, but all matter is capable of this feat even if it has to be pushed by external forces. I should add that Thompson (and Varela) have been able to create a “naturalized” version of Husserl only because they accept the existence of attractors and other singularities (Petitot et al. ​1999).”

DeLanda, Manuel; Harman, Graham. The Rise of Realism (pp. 87-88). Wiley. Kindle Edition.

So, yes, there are many different ways to flatten. Flattening can be an erasure of differences. An empirical flattening might be an imposition of a particular hierarchy of relations. However, the new materialist concept of flat ontology works in the other direction. Self-organization can occur and hierarchies can be built (we all know this), but they are historical processes not essential relations built into our ontology. Flat ontology really just provides a conceptual starting point for investigating why we have the structures and relations we do in the world.

For me, with user populations, it’s about investigating the digital media processes and relations by which users of different hardware, software, social media platforms, etc. come to be organized in certain ways with particular tendencies and capacities.

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