The Implications of the New Materialisms for Feminist Epistemology

Frost, S., 2011. The Implications of the New Materialisms for Feminist Epistemology, in: Grasswick, H.E. (Ed.), Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science. Springer Netherlands, Dordrecht, pp. 69–83.

For feminist philosophers and theorists, the body as a living organism is a vexed object, so vexed, in fact, that in philosophical and theoretical work, it is often sidelined, bracketed, or ignored.


[…] in many respects, a scholarly and theoretical focus on the body’s materiality is nothing new: for several decades, feminists have denaturalized both embodiment and material objects, analyzing and specifying the manifold discursive practices through which bodies and matter are constituted as intelligible.

Recently, however, a group of scholars including Fausto-Sterling, Elizabeth Grosz, and Karen Barad have begun to try to include in such analyses the movements, forces, and processes peculiar to matter and biology.

These ‘new materialists’ consider matter or the body not only as they are formed by the forces of language, culture, and politics but also as they are formative. That is, they conceive of matter or the body as having a peculiar and distinctive kind of agency, one that is neither a direct nor an incidental outgrowth of human intentionality but rather one with its own impetus and trajectory.

What they ask is that feminists leaven our analyses of the discursive constitution of embodiment and mate- rial objects with an acknowledgment of the forces, processes, capacities, and resiliencies with which bodies, organisms, and material objects act both independently of and in response to discursive provocations and constraints.

These new materialists […] explore how the forces of matter and the processes of organic life contribute to the play of power or provide elements or modes of resistance to it.


In working against biological essentialism, feminists quite understandably have tended to deny matter or biology any agency at all in shaping social or political relations.

[…] the new materialist work exposes the explanatory narrowness of the models of causation that underwrite feminist efforts at denaturalizing power relations.

In calling for feminists to acknowledge that matter and biology are active in their own right, new materialists push feminists to relinquish the unidirectional model of causation in which either culture or biology is determinative and instead to adopt a model in which causation is conceived as complex, recursive, and multi-linear.

To understand the stakes and the implications of the new materialisms, it is perhaps helpful to distinguish them from other approaches to thinking about matter, most notably the Cartesian account of matter as essentially inert and the historical materialist understanding of matter as transformed and given agency by humans’ labor and cultural practices. In neither of these latter two cases does matter have a distinctive agency of its own.


[Considering feminist critiques of Cartesian dualism]

For new materialists, however, it is not enough to assert the rationality of modernity’s others, to revalue the passions of the body or phenomenological experience. They seek also to challenge the very notion that matter is passive and unthinking, to undo the opposition between reason and passions, and to question the distinction between self and world that positions individuals as separate from yet in relation to the contexts of their actions.

For historical materialists, matter is less inert and more plastic than it is for Cartesian substance dualists.


[…] Marx notes in his analyses of capital, commodities and the social and political relations that emerge through productive activities, the products of labor become constitutive elements of the economic and political structures that direct, constrain, and compel individuals’ behavior.


The agency of matter, here, is an indirect extension and aggregate effect of the productive activities of the humans who work upon it.

Feminist and critical race theorists found in historical materialism an epistemology that can generate critical standpoints from which to analyze the sexual and racial dimensions of the division of labor. In thus appropriating historical materialism, they have articulated forms of oppositional political subjectivity and challenged the entrenchment of gender, racial, and colonial power relations in the institutions and material practices that structure and organize our lives.

Within a broader constructionist view, matter is more completely saturated with power: institutions, objects, and bodies themselves quite literally materialize or incorporate the imperatives that drive power relations. The norms and cultural formations that arise through historical practice not only constrain but also invite us to discipline our behavior, shaping our desires, our physical posture and gestures, and our phenomenological experience of self.


But importantly, such insights into the materialization and embodiment of power remain rooted in the historical materialist sense that the agency of matter is derivative of deliberate human activity.

New materialists aim to counter the figuration of matter as an agent only by virtue of its receptivity to human agency. They try to specify and trace the distinctive agency of matter and biology, elucidate the reciprocal imbrication of flesh, culture, and cognition, investigate the porosity of the body in relation to the environment in which it exists, and map the conditions and technologies that shape, constrain, and enhance the possibilities for knowledge and action.


[criticism 1 of new materialism]

Feminists have argued that there is no ‘matter’ in general, no ‘human body’ in general, nor even ‘women’s bodies’ in general. Rather, there are particular bodies produced or constituted through a complex interplay of racial and sexual economies of power, language and ideology, historically and geographically contested cultural formations, and psychological identifications and resistances.

From this perspective, to talk of matter, biology, or the body in the register of the singular or general is to occlude these manifold and historically specific constituents of objects and embodiment, to obscure or even perpetuate the power relations that both make possible and produce facts, things, and subjectivities.

[criticism 2 of new materialism]

The worry is that in their efforts to consider the peculiar agency of organic or inorganic matter, new materialists might, wittingly or unwittingly, read linguistic, cultural, or political facts and meanings into the material – that they might misrepresent as biological, physiological or natural what is actually social and historical.


[…] feminists have been more comfortable with denaturalizing nature than with what we might call ‘deculturalizing culture’ – or admitting that matter or biology might have a form of agency or force that shapes, enhances, conditions, or delimits the agency of culture.

Yet, this wary reluctance, understandable as it is given historical precedent, is structured by an understanding of causation that binds feminists to the binaries they have otherwise been deconstructing.

[…] feminist epistemologists in the West have generally aligned themselves with arguments that any social or political significance attributed to bodily differences is a social and political construct.

[…] their evident sense of the danger involved in the effort to explore, identify, or specify how different aspects of biology might shape behavior reveals an implicit concern that sexual or racial differences, if specified, might in fact entail particular social policies or political relations.

Fueling this concern is the assumption that causation can only be unilinear and unidirectional: either the one or the other, biology or culture, is the causal agent in social phenomena.

In turning to culture to evade the determinism implicitly associated with the biological body, feminists recapitulate the modern fantasy of freedom, autonomy, and self-determination that they have otherwise so carefully dismantled.


In their effort to denaturalize nature and deculturalize culture, new materialists push feminists to decenter human intentionality and design in the conceptualization of the relationship between nature and culture.


The dynamic interactive processes that constitute organisms, objects, and environments require feminists to develop a theoretical vocabulary for talking about the complexity of causation.

If we are to do justice to the ways in which objects, organisms, and cultural forms and practices emerge and transform through relationships that develop and reconfigure themselves over time, we must adjust the terms we use to capture or represent the multiplicity, the recursivity, and the varied temporality of causes and effects.

[…] the innumerable networks of interdependencies that constitute and shape the interactions between subjects and objects suggests that, methodologically, feminists must think ecologically not only about objects of knowledge but also about individual knowers and their epistemological communities.

Rather, as Jane Bennett explains, ‘to call something ecological is to draw attention to its necessary implication in a network of relations, to mark its persistent tendency to enter into a working system’ that is ‘more or less mobile, more or less transient, more or less conflictual’ (Bennett 2004, 365).

[…] the shift towards thinking in terms of complex causation and interdependencies brings into focus a form of ignorance or a limit to knowledge that challenges the aspiration towards cognitive and practical mastery over the world.


[…] what is at stake in thinking in terms of complexity, interdependence, and ecology broadly construed is epistemological and political humility in the face of the organic and inorganic world: an acknowledgment of the impossibility of full and definitive knowledge and a corollary surrender of the teleological assumption that we might possibly, at some future point, achieve full mastery over ourselves and the world around us.


If feminists can figure out theoretically how to acknowledge the manifold recursive interactions through which nature and culture develop and evolve, if they can learn to account for the dynamism, the temporal breadth, the spatial breadth – the complexity – of organic and inorganic materiality, in short, if they can rethink the terms of causation, they may find they have the conceptual tools to engage and criticize essentialism.

To acknowledge complexity in causation requires a shift from thinking about essentialism in terms of misattribution (‘you’re describing the cause incorrectly’) to thinking in terms of reductionism (‘you’re ascribing causes too narrowly’).