The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past

A “profound and provocative book…” Steven Lubar, Technology and Culture 59 (2018)

My latest book, The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past (Cambridge University Press, 2017), (available here) has two overarching and tightly linked goals, one theoretical and the other empirical. The theoretical goal is to introduce the reader to the recent efflorescence of “new materialist” ideas in a variety of disciplines, and to expand on this to develop a practical and useful neo-materialist theory and method of history.  The empirical goal is to present the results of a three-year NSF-funded comparative study of two severely polluted copper mining regions, one in the United States and the other in Japan, using these very different places to demonstrate the analytical power of my proposed neo-materialist method. Let me explain each in a bit more detail.

Ever since the now nearly three-decades old “cultural turn,” social constructivism and other so-called post-modern theories have occupied the center of the academic solar system, largely banishing its materialist counter-weight to the more distant outer orbits. More recently, though, the rumblings of a materialist revival have been growing steadily louder. The well-known post-colonialist scholar Dipesh Chakrabarty surprised many with his 2009 manifesto, “The Climate of History,” in which he argued that scholars must begin to learn how to “look on human history as part of the history of life . . . on this planet.” Other scholars have begun to organize under the banner of a so-called “new materialism,” an approach which they argue is better informed by contemporary realities like global climate change, revolutionary developments in epigenetic theory, and new scientific insights into the plasticity of minds and brains, to mention but a few.

While arguably the biggest shift in humanistic thinking since the cultural turn it in some ways seeks to replace, I argue that the real promise of a neo-materialist humanism lies not with shifting our emphasis from the cultural to the material, but rather in transcending this analytical divide all together. In this book, I develop a neo-materialist theory of the past which will help historians to move beyond the entrenched modernist assumption that human culture is largely or entirely distinct from matter: that we humans make matter, but it does not make us. A handful of other scholars have begun to make a similar case within their own disciplines. For example, the prominent French anthropologist, Philippe Descola, recently exhorted his colleagues to move “beyond nature and culture” to recognize the inescapable materiality of cultural phenomena. While typically preferring the word “matter” to the hopelessly fraught western concept of “nature,” much of the recent rise in new materialist thinking in other fields has also, if often only implicitly, challenged this divide.

To date, scholars working in archaeology, anthropology, political ecology, and geography have led the way in developing new materialist thought. With a few notable exceptions, historians have yet to play much of a role. This is unfortunate, as neo-materialist theory has much to offer to historians, who have for too long often neglected or underestimated the power of non-human material things and processes to shape the course of history. For their part, though, much neo-materialist thinking to date has suffered from an ironic tendency to focus more on human ideas about matter rather than matter itself. The fine-grained empirical methodologies of history could provide a much-needed injection of concrete material things and events into neo-materialist theorizing.

By fusing empirical historical methods with recent new materialist thinking, this book will develop a new theory and method of the past that should be of value to historians working in a wide variety of fields and to humanists more generally. Specifically, I offer three distinct though interrelated theoretical concepts. First, that historians should abandon the flawed modernist distinction between the natural and human-built spheres as fundamentally unworkable and misleading, and instead embrace the concept of seamlessly unitary “Material Environment.” Second, that what we typically call culture is not an abstract phenomena solely confined to the human brain, but is instead intimately connected to the material world from which it emerges, what I term the inescapable “Matter of Culture.” And third, that given the pivotal role that non-human material things and processes play in creating and constituting human culture, historians should actively pursue the “End of Anthropocentrism” by making non-human organisms and things more central to their narratives.