How can we reconcile “immaterial labour” and the “information economy” with the rise of new materialism? The question seems to be driving towards a concern regarding the politics of new materialism. Is the latter an escape from, or ideological fantasy produced by the former? No one disputes the material consequences of finance capital or the schematizing effects of virtual networks. But what do these material consequences have to do with speculation about the ontologies of object worlds, vibrant matter, and vital assemblages? I want to advance some ideas and artworks that posit the conjoining of new materialism with historical materialism.
To begin, I want to point out two aspects of Lance’s contribution yesterday. First, he gives material form to the global network of the internet through topographical and topological perspectives. Second, he visualizes the internet as a militarized corporate assemblage through associations between American culture and the warring civilization of the Aztecs (and specifically by imagining the iPhone as a slab of obsidian – a totemic object of Tezcatlipoc, god of obsidian, war, and sin). It seems to me that these two strategies are mutually supportive: it is necessary to access a radically different perspective of immaterial cultural activity, in order to see its material effects.
I associate new materialism with two perspectives from which we can discover its political relevance: the geological and the ecological. I also see a kinship between these perspectives (especially as these are elaborated in contemporary art), and Walter Benjamin’s “archaeomodern turn”, as Jacques Rancière describes it. Benjamin stages his variations on Marxist dialectics through a spiraling descent into the phantasmagoria of the Arcades (a procedure that risks a serious loss of orientation and perspective). Looking at objects in their ruined “archaeological” state, the remains of capitalist exchange are radically disidentified from their former lives as spectacular commodities, and instead are repositioned to occasion dreams of emancipation. Thus, while Benjamin drives deeper into the phantasmagoria, commodities become ever more dissociated from their original meaning, at the same time lending themselves to a different kind of dreaming, a discovery of “sleeping” and emancipatory meanings. Benjamin’s endeavor is fraught. Rancière notes that the phantasmagoria is also a Lethe, a river of the dead where, “meaning is produced as the presence of death-in-life and deciphered as the presence of life-in-death…” Here is the connection between Benjamin’s phantasmagoria and the critical terrain that new materialism treads. I am suggesting that new materialism considers, or should consider, the emergence of alien life nested within the death and suffering of the capitalist economy. In so doing, could it occasion an emancipatory dreaming? Only if we take seriously Benjamin’s insistence on a total dissociation with the archaeological object which has been propelled out of meaning by the catastrophe of modernism. It is this perspective that has been dissociated from its imbrication in the phantasmagoria through catastrophe itself, that I think I think warrants further thinking.
I want to give three examples of artworks that could be seen to engage new materialism, but do so precisely by linking the vitality of objects and assemblages to politicized catastrophes; the catastrophes of capitalism, the Anthropocene, and bodily suffering, respectively. To me, these are integral to the Lethe of new materialism.
1) Thomas Hirschhorn’s Jumbo Spoons and Big Cake 2000: the catastrophe of global capitalism
Hirschhorn constructs a “world cake”, a figuration of wealth that is also a limited container from which everyone must draw to survive. It is covered by media images and headlines that together evoke the multitudes who make demands on global resources. The construction is weighted down by chains of buckets, all poised to catch every last crumb and drop, an astute depiction of how an excessive figure such as a luxurious cake inverts to become an image of penury. The cake is attached by spreading foil appendages that connect to twelve altars, each a novelty spoon made out of foil and dedicated to a “failed utopia”: Mies van der Rohe, the 1937 Nazi Degenerate Art Show, Malevich, Rosa Luxembourg, guns, fashion, the moon, Rolex Swiss watches, the Chicago Bulls, Nietzsche, Venice, and China.
Hirschhorn represents global capitalism in an excremental phase, attached to and integrated with monstrous objects. Substance, here, has been penetrated by flexible and enduring industrial materials: aluminum, nylon, adhesives, plastics. These materials are continuous with the machinic heterogenesis of the economy. Matter, bodies, failed utopias, objects are all incorporated into the growth and proliferation of an autopoietic entity.
2) Tara Donovan’s Untitled (Plastic Cups), 2006: the catastrophe of the Anthropocene
Donovan is known for her installations of plastics and Styrofoam objects. This one presents a dissonant image of a snowy topography in which geological strata are composed of thousands of plastic cups. It envision the anthropogenic change of the planet, in a way that at once involves that individual object; the hyperobject of global warming, alongside its strong associations with Arctic landscapes and glacial melt; and the Anthropocene, a geological condition that encompasses both the history of human carbon energy-use, and the perpetuity of its ecological impact into an unknown and lifeless future.
3) Melanie Bonajo’s Furniture Bondage series, 2009: the catastrophe of bodily suffering
New materialism does not necessarily require colossal perspectives of global or planetary assemblages. It implicates the materiality of bodies and subjects, even if we now think of subjectivity as an incorporation of these assemblages. Bonajo describes her household furniture as a “condensation of material energy”. She speculates how long she could live off that energy, and describes how she dreams of burning everything she has - a cathartic fantasy of escaping the capitalist grid. But also, this is a fantasy that invokes a palpable sense of suffering and self-destruction. Could we conjecture that new materialism invokes the drive and the suffering of this fantasy? Consider this image: a woman whose surface morphology is remoulded by a layer of ambiguous substance. She lies on her kitchen counter, on a layer of toilet paper, and decorated by birthday candles and lipsticks. The fridge is conspicuously open, so that we become aware of the food inside. I might read her as a redistributed and feminized version of Hirschhorn’s Big Cake. Bonajo presents an ambivalent scene of a body regulated between capitalist plenitude (she recreates herself as a birthday cake – we can even see the flour on the floor as evidence of this process) and physical powerlessness (she is naked, smothered by “vibrant matter”, lit up, but lying down and caught in an axis of shelving armatures, each placed like a geometric compass, in a play on Leonardo’s Vetruvian Man. Now the measures of the body are restrictive, constraining, precarious.
New materialism may appear to be ahistorical, but it is precisely in its claims to conjuring a heterogeneous earthly condition, that it can find a history with preceding materialisms.