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18 Spirits That Matter: Pathways toward a Rematerialization of Religion and Spirituality

Serenella Iovino Indiana University Press ePub

Kate Rigby

IN ENTITLING MY contribution to this postscript “Spirits That Matter” (with thanks to the editors for their inspired suggestion), my intention is not to oppose something immaterial called “spirit” to the materiality of “the body,” as might be implied for those readers who hear in this phrase an allusion to Judith Butler’s influential Bodies That Matter. On the contrary: my implied divergence from Butler moves, rather (in company with other new materialists), in the direction of a more thoroughgoing materialism than that which is entailed in Butler’s discursive constructivism. As Karen Barad has observed, Butler’s model of discursive performativity accords too much power to the word and does not allow sufficiently for the contribution of nonhuman agency to the world’s becoming (“Posthumanist” 122–28). The kind of materialism that I wish to advance here, however, is one that diverges from the secularism of both Butler and Barad, in that it affords an opening toward questions, and practices, of ecomaterialist religion and (for want of a better term) “spirituality.”

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2 Limits of Agency: Notes on the Material Turn from a Systems-Theoretical Perspective

Serenella Iovino Indiana University Press ePub

Hannes Bergthaller

If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared, if some event of which we can at the moment do no more than sense the possibility—without knowing either what its form will be or what it promises—were to cause them to crumble, as the ground of classical thought did, at the end of the eighteenth century, then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.

—Michel Foucault, The Order of Things

The buck stops here!

—Harry Truman

If one had to choose an epigraph for the new materialisms, one could do worse than settle for the closing lines of The Order of Things. The new materialist thought takes as a given the “crumbling” of the conceptual foundations of modern humanism that Foucault anticipated; its intellectual project is a redescription of the world that dissolves the singular figure of the human subject, distinguished by unique properties (soul, reason, mind, free will, or intentionality), into the dense web of material relations in which all beings are enmeshed. This move cuts two ways. On the one hand, the new materialists point out that human beings are far less sovereign than the humanist tradition would have us believe; on the other, they insist that matter is much more than the inert res extensa of old-style materialism, that it is endowed with many of the same qualities that were formerly seen as exclusive to human beings: complex self-organization, reflexivity, consciousness, and the capacity to act spontaneously, that is, in a manner not reducible to external determination. This insight can be summed up by saying that matter has agency. Agency, the new materialists argue, is emergent and distributed—that is, it is not the property of concrete, isolable entities, but manifests itself only as distributed throughout the networks in which these entities are embedded.

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16 Source of Life: Avatar, Amazonia, and an Ecology of Selves

Serenella Iovino Indiana University Press ePub

Joni Adamson

All the trees have spirits, they look, they listen . . .

—Juan Carlos Galeano, The Trees Have Mothers

If I had an agent, I am sure he would advise me to sue James Cameron over his latest blockbuster since Avatar should really be called Pandora’s Hope!

—Bruno Latour, “An Attempt at a Compositionist Manifesto”

AT THE END of the eighteenth century, German intellectual and scientist Alexander von Humboldt traveled to the Amazon. Later, back in Europe, the publication of his five-volume Cosmos would influence a generation of thinkers on several continents. Today, his work still resonates strongly among scholars who are studying “the material interactions of bodies and natures” (Iovino and Oppermann, “Material” 77). According to Laura Dassow Walls, who describes the impact of his journey on both the sciences and the aesthetics of the Americas in her book A Passage to Cosmos, Humboldt considered “nature” as “a planetary interactive causal network operating across multiple scale levels, temporal and spatial” (11). His views were inspired by interactions with the indigenous peoples he met and later, back in Europe, by his friendships with key figures hailing from Latin America such as Simón Bolívar.1 Humboldt’s views on liberty, the immorality of slavery, and the intelligence and agency2 of indigenous peoples acted powerfully on Bolívar’s political vision.

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4 Natural Play, Natural Metaphor, and Natural Stories: Biosemiotic Realism

Serenella Iovino Indiana University Press ePub

Wendy Wheeler

It seems a strange thing, when one comes to ponder over it, that a sign should leave its interpreter to supply a part of its meaning; but the explanation of the phenomenon lies in the fact that the entire universe,—not merely the universe of existents, but all that wider universe, embracing the universe of existents as a part, the universe which we are all accustomed to refer to as “the truth,”—that all this universe is perfused with signs, if it is not composed exclusively of signs.

—Charles Sanders Peirce, “The Basis of Pragmaticism in the Normative
Sciences”

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs . . . because we have a prior commitment . . . to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but . . . that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations. . . . Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

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11 Excremental Ecocriticism and the Global Sanitation Crisis

Serenella Iovino Indiana University Press ePub

Dana Phillips

It’s not leaking. It’s overflowing.

—Homer Simpson, The Simpsons Movie

NEW MATERIALISTS ARE fond of lists. Consider, as a first example, the beginning of Myra Hird’s 2009 review essay on “material feminism”: “Trans-corporeality. Entanglement. Meeting-with. Matter. Nonhuman. Causality. Intra-action. Disclosure. Agential realism.” Each of the terms on this list names a concept central to the “emerging field” Hird is preparing to survey (329). Most of them have come to occupy an equally important position in the discourse of new materialist theory broadly speaking, which draws on material feminism but also taps additional sources, such as phenomenology and the philosophy of science, for ideas.

Some new materialist list makers are evidently less categorically minded than Hird seems to have been when writing her trend-spotting essay. Their lists go beyond generalities to identify the particular “matters” (that is, both things and the multifarious circumstances in which things are embroiled, are effected, and produce effects) that new materialists find striking—and illustrative of the theoretical claims they wish to make about trans-corporeality, intra-action, agential realism, and the like. For instance, political philosopher Jane Bennett writes, “Worms, or electricity, or various gadgets, or fats, or metals, or stem cells are actants, or what Darwin calls ‘small agencies,’ that, when in the right confederation with other physical and physiological bodies, can make big things happen” (Vibrant 94). Bennett devotes all or part of a chapter of her 2010 book, Vibrant Matter, to each of the items she identifies, in the sentence I have quoted, as a member of some “confederation” or another. Such instances of the material and such confederations, she argues, should be seen as “vibrant, vital, energetic, lively, quivering, vibratory, evanescent, and effluescent” (112). Here Bennett pays her debt to the phenomenological tradition by adding a clutch of modifiers of the kind phenomenologists like to use to the inventory of new materialist vocabulary.

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