Matter against Materialism: Bruno Latour and the Turn to Objects

Noys, B. (2016) Matter against Materialism: Bruno Latour and the Turn to Objects. In: Theory Matters: The Place of Theory in Literary and Cultural Studies Today. Palgrave Macmillan, London, pp. 81-93. ISBN 978-1-137-47427-8

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Bruno Latour, according to Andrew Barry, has been ‘extraordinarily influential across the social sciences in Britain’ (2011: 36). Latour’s ‘actor-network theory’ (Latour 2005) has, however, only been influential in literary and cultural studies comparatively recently (Latour 2004; Love 2010; Lupton 2011; Lupton 2015). This moment has coincided with and been reinforced by the turn to objects (Harman 2009; Harman 2012), and Latour’s own turn to metaphysical and philosophical questions (Latour 2013). I wish to track and dispute with this turn to Latour by analysing his work as operating by posing matter against materialism. Constant throughout Latour’s work is a suspicion of Marxism and of any ‘reductive’ materialism that would, according to Latour, privilege one dominant form of matter. In place of this Latour calls for an ‘irreduction’ (Latour 1988), which would treat ‘matter’, and ‘objects’, as matters of concern that resist stabilization. Literary studies has extended this point to dispute suspicious readings, which seek some ‘hidden’ explanation, in favour of description and the tracking of ‘objects’. This conforms to the general turn of the humanities towards the historical, conceived of as a site of material density, friction, and resistance. I argue that while this vision may be attractive it occludes the problem raised by Marxian ‘materialism’ concerning the forms of ‘real abstraction’ (Marx 1973; Sohn-Rethel 1978). These are forms of value, incarnated in the commodity-form, that cut across both matter and abstraction. For Marx (2010) the commodity is a ‘sensuous super-sensuous thing’ (innlich-übersinnlich), combining materiality and abstraction. This ‘occult character’ of the commodity is occluded in Latour’s turn to matter, or the recent turn to objects, even when unpacked as a series of relations or a mode of gathering. The desire for the concrete, in the form of matter, in fact composes what Alberto Toscano calls a ‘warm abstraction’ (2008: 58), which misses the force of abstraction. This problem is explored through the analysis and reading of Gordon Lish’s novel Peru (1986). The novel interweaves forms of abstraction and materiality, working between the repetitions of language and the experience of violence, while also engaging with the question of value in literary and economic terms. This intervention troubles the Latourian tendency to reduce abstraction onto a level field of multiple objects, while also suggesting that ‘materialism’ is not simply confined to ‘matter’ or ‘objects’. The result would be a reworked consideration of materialism against matter, which would contest Latour’s ‘matter against materialism’.

Publication Type: Book Sections
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > B Philosophy (General)
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
P Language and Literature > PS American literature
Divisions: Academic Areas > Institute of Arts and Humanities > English and Creative Writing
Depositing User: Benjamin Noys
Date Deposited: 26 Aug 2016 07:54
Last Modified: 04 Aug 2017 09:40

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