05 May 2014


'New materialisms: Foucault and the Government of Things' by Thomas Lemke in (2014) Theory, Culture & Society comments that
Recently, social and political theory has demonstrated a renewed theoretical interest in matter and materiality. The “new materialism”, as it is sometimes called (see e.g. Hird 2004; Ahmed 2008; Coole and Frost 2010a), does not represent a homogeneous style of thought or a single theoretical position but encompass a plurality of different approaches and disciplinary perspectives, ranging from science and technology studies via feminist theory and political philosophy to geography (Latour and Weibel 2005; Alaimo and Hekman 2008; Bennett 2010; Braun and Whatmore 2010a). The new materialist scholarship shares the conviction that the “linguistic turn” or primarily textual accounts are insufficient for an adequate understanding of the complex and dynamic interplay of meaning and matter. New materialists often stress that the focus on discourse, language and culture not only leads to impoverished theoretical accounts and conceptual flaws but also results in serious political problems and ethical quandaries, as it fails to address central challenges facing contemporary societies, especially economic change and the environmental crisis. 
The new materialism is the result of a double historical and theoretical conjuncture. The 1970s and 1980s were marked by the decline of once popular materialist approaches, especially Marxism, and the rise of poststructuralist and cultural theories. While the latter rendered problematic any direct reference to matter as naïvely representational or naturalistic, new materialists are convinced that the epistemological, ontological and political status of materiality has to be reconsidered and a novel concept of matter is needed. In contrast to older forms of materialism, the call for a new materialism refers to the idea that matter itself is to be conceived as active, forceful and plural rather than passive, inactive and unitary (Bennett 2004: 348-349; Alaimo and Hekman 2008; Colebrook 2008; Coole and Frost 2010b: 3-4). 
The “material turn” criticizes the idea of the natural world and technical artifacts as a mere resource or raw material for technological progress, economic production or social construction. It aims at a new understanding of ontology, epistemology, ethics and politics, to be achieved by overcoming anthropocentrism and humanism, the split between nature and culture, linguistic or discursive idealism, social constructivism, positivism, and naturalism. Central to this movement is the extension of the concept of agency and power to non-human nature, thereby also calling into question conventional understandings of life. 
In this strand of thought Foucault’s work plays an ambiguous role. While he is often mentioned as an influential source and inspiration for materialist scholarship, as his  genealogies problematize any stable concept of the “human” or the “subject”, he is also perceived as one of the most important representatives of discourse theory and the “cultural turn”, which is seen as disputing or negating the relevance of matter. In particular, Foucault’s concept of the body and his insistence on the productivity of power relations serve as positive references in the new materialism (see e.g. Coole and Frost 2010b: 32-33; Barad 2008: 127). His work stresses the materiality of the physical body and focuses on the mundane details of bodily existence and the technologies of power that constitute disciplined and docile bodies. Foucault thus helps to undermine “corporeal fetishism” (Haraway 1997: 143), which takes it for granted that bodies are self-identical, fixed and closed entities; his challenge lies in the way he analyzes the interplay of history and biology by demonstrating how the body in its materiality is affected and modified by power relations.
While many new materialists praise Foucault’s writings for the important insights they offer, his account of the body and power is mostly seen as only partly convincing and in the end unsatisfactory. Even though these scholars do not always explicitly engage with his work, there seems to be a general consensus that Foucault has to be subsumed under the category of social constructivism and anthropocentrism (see e.g. Braun 2008: 668). The charge is that Foucault’s work remains within the “traditional humanist orbit” (Barad 2007: 235), restricting agency to human subjects without taking into consideration the agential properties of non-human forces. 
This article offers a reconsideration – or in more ambitious terms a “diffractive reading” (Barad 2007: 71-94) – of this charge. I will show that contrary to this predominant and rather dismissive assessment, elements of a posthumanist approach may be found in Foucault’s idea of a “government of things”, which he briefly outlines in his lectures on governmentality. This theoretical perspective is informed by elements in Foucault’s writings, but it was never systematically developed there. I argue that while Foucault chose not to directly address the  problem of human and non-human relations, the idea of a “government of things“ addresses most of the critical points new materialists put forward in their reading of his work. Furthermore, it makes it possible to arrive at a relational account of agency and ontology that may open up an avenue for a more materialist account of politics and significantly differs from some problematic tendencies in the new materialism. Thus, the purpose of the following discussion is what Brian Massumi once termed “working from Foucault after Foucault” (2009: 158). 
I will start by presenting KarenBarad’s critical account of Foucault’s work on the body and power. Barad is one of the most influential and important representatives of contemporary materialist scholarship, and her appraisal of Foucault is one of the most elaborate. The second part of the article focusses on the idea of a “government of things”. By stressing the “intrication of men and things” (Foucault 2007: 97), this theoretical project makes it possibleto go beyond the anthropocentric limitations of Foucault’s work. As I will show in the third section, this perspective also suggests an altered understanding of biopolitics. While Foucault’s earlier concept of biopolitics was limited to physical and biological existence, the idea of a “government of things” takes into account the interrelatedness and entanglements of men and things, the natural and the artificial, the physical and the moral. Finally, I argue in the last part of the article that this theoretical perspective helps to clarify conceptual ambiguities and unresolved tensions in new materialist scholarship. It also points to weaknesses and limitations in how studies of governmentality and STS conceptualize politics.
'Heidegger without Man? The Ontological Basis of Lyotard’s Later Antihumanism' by Matthew R. McLennan in (2013) XXI(2) Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy 118-130 argues that
Jean-François Lyotard’s later antihumanism may be plausibly read as a radicalization of Heidegger’s, on the grounds that a) the philosophy of Being as Event or Ereignis forms the ontological basis of Lyotard’s antihumanism, and b) Lyotard reconfigures the place of the human being vis-à-vis the revelation of Being – specifically, denying that humankind is the clearing in which Being reveals itself, and therefore a privileged zone of dispensation. Rather, Being as Ereignis – linguistically cashed out for Lyotard, as phrases – structures the human being completely, denying human mastery of language and thereby decentring human beings as subjects of ethics.
McLennan comments that
In the following, “antihumanism” denotes a rejection of any and alla rejection of any and all systems of thought and discourse wherein a universal concept of the human, i.e. the human as such, forms the conceptual and ethical center of the universe and/or history. It is widely known that Jean-François Lyotard’s “pagan,” “postmodern” and later works are antihumanistic in this sense; less often discussed is the ontological grounding of this antihumanism in something very close to Heidegger’s philosophy of the event, or Ereignis. In what follows, I will reconstruct the mature Lyotard’s antihumanism as a radicalization of Heidegger’s, on the grounds that a) a version of the philosophy of Being as Ereignis forms the ontological basis of Lyotard’s antihumanism, and b) he reconfigures the place of the human being with respect to the revelation of Being. 
An overview of my argument runs as follows. The Heidegger of the “Letter on ‘Humanism’” speaks of Being as Ereignis. The term is usually rendered in English as “event,” but in Heidegger’s particular usage it is an event which gathers Being to itself while clearing it to itself. Put differently, Ereignis would be Being as the revelation of Being to itself qua the thinking of Being by human beings (i.e. the region of itself which is clear to itself). Heidegger’s rendering of Being as Ereignis is antihumanistic inasmuch as it configures human beings as the place of Being qua event, but not as the conceptual/ethical centre of the universe and/or history. Simply put, Being in itself transcends human beings. But Heidegger’s antihumanism cannot be said to be radical or thoroughgoing, inasmuch as it accords human beings an essential role in the thinking of Being and thereby a special kind of destiny and dignity. Lyotard for his part, from at least the pagan writings onwards, writes in terms favourable to Heidegger’s rendering of Being as event. However he radicalizes Heidegger’s antihumanism in denying that human beings have any essential role to play with respect to Being. They are entirely contingent effects of the event, possessing no special destiny or dignity. 
Though Lyotard did not often cite Heidegger directly as a source or inspiration, at least prior to Heidegger et “les juifs,” I believe my interpretation to be highly plausible for three reasons. First, what primary textual evidence there is, most notably in Le Différend, is highly favourable to the argument I will construct. Secondly, Lyotard’s intellectual context was awash in Heideggerian influence, and he undoubtedly imbibed a certain amount of Heideggerianism indirectly, for example via Levinas and Derrida, whose earlier post-Heideggerian philosophy I will briefly discuss. Indeed, as Luc Ferry and Alain Renaut have argued persuasively (if polemically), Lyotard’s generation of radical French philosophers – those whose thought they lump under the label “la pensée 68” – can be broadly characterized by their radicalization of the antihumanisms of several German thinkers (among which Heidegger is certainly counted). Finally, and most importantly, there is a striking structural homology between the antihumanisms of Lyotard and Heidegger, as well as between the ontological-linguistic presuppositions that generate them. In what follows I will favour a reconstruction of the homology in question, noting where, why and to what extent Lyotard and Heidegger differ. By way of support I will bolster my argument with textual and historical-philosophical evidence.