Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory by Clare Hemmings (2013, Duke)

Clare Hemmings appraises the discursive currents in inter-disciplinary feminisms over the past decades characterising narratives in terms of either ‘progress’, ‘loss’, or ‘return’. A reminder that what’s framed and what is cut out always sets in chain a set of political and ethical implications, subtle or surging, in motion. Hemmings’ work also shows an innovative approach to discursive research itself, aiming to allow imagination and space for feminist futures to sit alongside critique. This is important because often critique or discursive framing is cast aside in favour of generative or more positive approaches (see Barrett & Bolt 2013 below), however, one approach does not necessarily exclude the other. Social transformative thinking begins where both critique and generative gestures are considered together, or when there is some degree of resistance that is explored between them.

New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies Edited by Rick Dolphijn, Iris Van Der Tuin (2012, Open Humanities Press)

The interview with Rosi Braidotti is most useful in situating the ‘new’ materialism in relation to other currents of thought. Hers is one of the few accounts of this philosophy that fleshes it out fairly in amongst other forms of feminism, without being narky and snide in the process. Braidotti has been around long enough to have seen various theoretical waves rise and fall and so she is able to provide fascinating historical, geographical and contextual details about the emergence of this ‘new’ current. Examples are that the movement emerged out of linguistic focused poststructuralism (the poststructuralism that is often demonised), and that the material and the maternal in psychoanalyst accounts was an issue that Braidotti’s generation oriented themselves around. Braidotti eventually found the feminist focus on the ‘intergenerational break’ (between mothers and daughters) in the context of poststructural psychoanalysis so overwhelming that she “took shelter” in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus.

Braidotti aligns herself with Canguilhem, Foucault and Deleuze, de-emphasising the linguistic domain, but focusing on, “the concrete yet complex materiality of bodies immersed in social relations of power” (2012, 21). The three thinkers mentioned all have a relational matrix that involves materiality and language to greater or lesser extents. I imagine this might be surprising for those who quickly adopt ‘new materiality’ for its anti-discursive stance. While the linguistic paradigm is not centre stage, the acknowledgment of social relations and the effects of power on bodies implies a network where the material is in relation to the social, to discourses, and among bodies.

While both Marxist and poststructuralist notions of materiality are important to her, Braidotti’s philosophy is largely informed by French feminist theories of sexual difference along with other materialist work. Her observation that feminist philosophy is working with, within and across two streams: post-humanism and post-anthropocentrism (2012) will be of interest (and recognisable) to those currently involved in exploring theory-practice relations in the arts and activist configurations.

Artaud: The Screaming Body by Stephen Barber (1999, Creation Books)

Antonin Artaud first used the phrase ‘body without organs’ in his radio play To have Done With The Judgement of God (1947). It is a figure that Deleuze and Guattari take up and develop with great resonance; Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the BwO is a hugely influential one in the humanities. I wanted to better understand Artaud’s connection with his body as it appeared in his own writings, radio recordings and art works. Barber covers many of Artaud’s key pieces of work and his relationships with other artists at the time from within and outside of the Surrealist movement. The section on drawings and paintings is quite riveting, perhaps because the examples are so immediate. The final section on ‘the screaming body’ (which I was very much looking forward to) seemed rushed and jumps around and back and forth between sentences but not in a creative or deliberately performative way. What does come through, however, is Artaud’s uncompromising approach to art, language, voice, body and living; and Barber is able to show this in his description of Artaud’s work.

Feminist Disability Studies Edited by Kim Q Hall (2011, Indiana U.P.)

This volume shows how ‘disability’, like ‘woman’ before it is an unstable and contested category that may be engaged with critically. It is part of a burgeoning body of work around ‘crip theory’ or disability studies that has emerged, particularly in the US. Literature on disability exists in medical sociology and the anthropology of medicine but assesses people with a disability often from a perjorative angle and does not engage a critical framework. Disability, it has been mentioned, is one of the last minority identity markers that has yet to be explored. I’ve mixed feelings about this even if the authors have disabilities of some sort. There is something about the enthusiasm of several of these compendiums on disability, in theory, that reminds me of colonisation — it being one of the last minorities to open up potential new vistas of vacant scholarly ground in English literature and cultural studies. The best of these publications are aware of this and draw reflexively on it. Hall’s book is one of these.

My interest in disability studies is perhaps at the junction of cultural approaches and social theory. I prefer work that will have a social impact as the barriers disabled people face remain high and assumptions about their existence remain ignorant. I don’t discount a literary approach either, for there can be much to learn through these explorations. So the following two essays stood out for me.

The first (Samuels 2011) points out there are no easy methods to analysing disability, a term asked to stretch way too far for a diversity of body-mind experience. For example, to simply exchange ‘disability’ for ‘gender’ in Judith Butler’s work on performativity, although a good idea in theory, does not necessarily work in practice. The other valuable piece in this collection — not only for me, but for feminism — is an essay by Lamp and Cleigh (2011) that traces connections between some of the first white feminists in the US and their active support and promotion of the eugenics movement and tied to nation building and modernity. These practices — patronising, ablist and racist — were [and continue to be] cruelly abusive. It is worrying that these events are tied up in white, liberal feminism’s genesis in one of the most influential countries of the world.

Carnal Knowledge: Towards a ‘New Materialism’ through the Arts Edited by Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt (2013, I.B. Tauris)

Some exciting ideas that could have done with some better editing at the structural and surface level to maintain a tighter position. For example, a range of distinct and complex positions associated with either postmodernism, poststructuralism, the linguistic turn, social constructionism or cultural theory are often quickly conflated and then dismissed very simply. The result of this gesture being repeated throughout the book is that an unnecessary and very obvious binary is set up with battle lines drawn in the sand and it was difficult for this reader to be led in to the space of new materiality. To have such an unacknowledged conceptual binary at the heart of of this book that uses new materialism — where blurring between animal and human, body and word, nano particles and cultural, language and un-thought/becoming — as part of aesthetic exploration, was for me a major stumbling block. (As an alternative, while Judith Butler [1993] provides some starting points,Vicki Kirby [1997] and Mel Chen’s [2012] work complicates the linguistic-material in very interesting ways).

Many of the writers in Carnal Knowledge present their arguments for new materialism in association with the arts with a certain zealousness. The critique was inexact and the advancing of what was new could have been shown with less reactionary language, with less of a feeling of a manifesto. I have just now performed what I accused the book of doing — reducing many arguments to few a simple lines without fairly reproducing or outlining them. I referred to a conceptual stumbling block above that prevented me from wanting to do this because: a) I felt the text needed a good edit and this annoyed me; b) the aligning of Deleuze’s thought with the different arts projects took a domineering tone that made me bristle.

Instead, this amazing sounding book* (Revolution: a Reader, 2012 — the text is free online) perhaps embodies some of the spirit of new materiality and poetics without asserting itself as either ‘new’ or ‘material’. This, from the introduction:

We think that there is no public space that is not an embodied public space. We think that there is not a politics that does not begin in our desiring cells. We think that this corporal surplus, the movement beyond our biographies and our perceived or administrated limits, is the force that makes and changes worlds. One of us uses the word soul to name this surplus, and one of us doesn’t. But what we have learned from our intense performance together is that a common vocabulary is not necessary, and probably not desirable.

And so, it is clear that bodies and spaces are mired in politics. Instead of battling between new and old, between discursive or linguistic and ‘material’, the reader is invited in to perform reading and annotating with the texts that are collated and shared by editors Robertson and Stadler in the reading commons online or alone with a book. I am yet to jump in to this, but it seems such a creative, political, bookish, net event, the kind that throws a pebble in the usual discursive academic forms. I anticipate musical connections. For a super fine and extensive review, see Holly Pester‘s