The Center for the Humanities at Wesleyan University provides high level academic programming to energize the campus and promotes innovative research and scholarship through our faculty and visiting fellows program. Explore our website to learn more about our Monday night lecture series (6 p.m. in Daniel Family Commons), fellowships, Director’s blog, and the many other exciting endeavors emanating from the Center.
MATTERS THAT MATTER
Matter has long been an issue in the humanities, be it in the language of materialism, of material culture, of substance, or of science. For a long time, idealisms of all stripes have subordinated non-human matter to the ambitions and extensions of human thought. Materialisms, on the contrary, have traditionally seen matter itself as what matters: as what determines the shape and conditions of human life. More recent developments have sought to level down the cosmic hierarchies from theology to humanism by proffering a “flat ontology” wherein all matter “matters” equally. After decades of deconstructive undermining, reliance on the old Cartesian subject seems to finally have given way to a proliferation of often mutually incompatible post-Humanist theories whose desire to generate new forms of inquiry stem from a profound discontents with the Humanities and sciences having cultivated predominantly representational modes of knowledge. We see aspects of this in fields as diverse as material-culture studies, Animal(ity) Studies, Object-Oriented Ontology, commodity histories and various approaches to "things," and in Speculative Realism with its anti-Kantian pathos of knowing the thing-in-itself. Thus new emphases on the significance of substance and thingness -- and even the agency of matter as such -- have emerged across fields and disciplines. Of course, attention is also being drawn to the determination of what exactly matters and how to assess this. To put it simply, current contemporary thought insists that matter be given its due. Arguments within and across theoretical traditions seem to have converged, if only momentarily, on a vague but palpable sense that matter as such should be recognized: recognized as one subject recognizes another. It is not clear, however, whether the numerous articulations of this turn are working in tandem or at cross-purposes, how they can be mapped in relation to one another, or whether any of them manages to escape the subjectivist and hierarchical ontologies they criticize.