The following is a comment I offered on a panel of excellent papers titled, "Knowing, Shaping, and Making Environments: Material Histories," at the annual meeting of the American Society for Environmental History in Chicago, 29 March-1 April, 2017.
I thought it might be most useful for me to take a few minutes to provide a bit of context on and critique of this new materialism and raise what I hope is a provocative question. I’m very interested these days in the question of “creativity,” a province that humans have long thought of as uniquely their own. But in reading these four insightful papers, I wanted to ask our authors: To what degree might it be intellectually and analytically useful to think of environmental objects like sand, wetlands, fossils, and even environmental carcinogens, as creative entities?
To better understand this somewhat odd question, a quick overview of the new materialism might be useful. One of the heavy weights thus far has come from the merging of environmental history with science and technology studies, particularly with Latourian Actor Network Theory, and I suspect that influence is the most central one in the papers today. But there are many other veins in a wide variety of disciplines. In political ecology we have Jane Bennett’s “vibrant matter”; in critical feminist theory there is Karen Barad’s influential “speculative realism”; in philosophy Graham Harman proposes his “Object Oriented Ontology” and Timothy Morton has his “hyperobjects”; among the archaeologists, Bjørnar Olsen mounts a “defense of things,” with which Ian Hodder says we are inextricably “entangled”; and then the anthropologist Daniel Miller simply tells us to pay more attention to our “Stuff.” Meanwhile, ships flying under other flags converge on similar waters, as post-humanism, the new fascination with “affect theory,” and most obviously the so-called “turn to the non-human,” all seem to betoken a more material and less anthropocentric view of the world and its history.
I could go on. But it is surely some measure of the constrictions imposed by the earlier post-modern cultural turn that it has today been met with such an explosion of scholars who now argue that we lost sight of some very important things along the way, which is to say, the multitude of biotic and abiotic things with which we humans share the planet. Non-human things matter.
Or do they? Because if you were to survey this efflorescence of recent materialist thinking, you’d discover that, despite all the talk about things, objects, and matter, sometimes there are surpassingly few if any actual animals, vegetables, or minerals to be found. As the philosopher Graham Harman recently put it, today “materialism has become a terme d’art which has little to do with anything material. Materialism has come to mean simply that something is historical, socially constructed, involves cultural practices, and is contingent.”
Now why should this be? In part it surely suggests just how difficult it is to escape the powerful pull of anthropocentrism. Even when we deliberately set out to talk about other things, it is all too easy to lapse back into a more familiar and comfortable space where we talk mostly about ourselves. But Harman also blames the tendency of many new materialist thinkers to focus solely on the ways in which objects act, particularly in relation to humans—it is, for example, Actor Network Theory—rather than on the equally rich and enduring properties of the thing or object in and of itself. “An object must exist in order to act,” Harman not unreasonably asserts—it does not “act in order to exist.” Instead, Harman asks us to consider the possibility that the things around us contain hidden multitudes, and their potential is never fully expressed nor exhausted by its inter-actions with humans. That things are—and this is my word not Harman’s—fundamentally and irrepressibly creative, in ways that are both good and bad for humans.
And so that is a rather long way around to actually having something of a comment on the fine papers in this session today. In all four, I’m happy to see that the things at hand are genuinely and empirically there—their matter really does matter. But still, I wondered if our authors might at times overestimate human creativity at the price of underestimating the creativity of the things or objects that they analyze. Because if Harman is right—as I suspect much recent scientific evidence suggests he is—then environmental objects hold creative potentials that humans tap into and marshal more than they create. Which leads to an interesting thought: might it be that humans are creative not in themselves, but because their material environment is creative? That perhaps shifting sand dunes and rivers can create both process and historical geomorphologists, and more variations yet, because none of these merely human concepts or theories will every fully capture the rich creativity of sands and rivers themselves; or that the patent inadequacies of the term “environmental carcinogen” might have stemmed in part from the modernist human refusal to accept that the environment they wished to see as fixed and static, was in truth dynamic and inventive; or that in revealing the mutability of the American attitudes towards wetlands, perhaps we need also to recognize the mutability and adaptability of the wetland organisms themselves, that can spark different actions and imaginaries that are never wholly human; and finally, that while the dinosaur in the natural history museum is certainly a chimerical product of human ingenuity, might some of that ingenuity also literally reside in the pregnant potential of the fossil itself as its emerges from its matrix in the hands of the expectant preparer? You see where I’m going with this. The question I’m suggesting then is this: Where does the spark of creativity and historical change really dwell? In the human mind, or in the rich fecundity of the things around us which had, after all, created that human mind in the first place?