Part 2 New Materialism and Environmental Forms

New Materialism is a theoretical current associating researchers with diverse domains (actor-network theory, artificial intelligence, biophilosophy, evolutionary theory, feminism, neuroscience, post-humanism, queer theory, quantum physics and Spinozist momism...), preoccupied by relationships of matter and capacities for action shared (or not shared) by a multitude of humans and non-humans. The authors (Braidotti, 2002, van der Tuin & Dolphijn, 2012) refer to new ways of dealing with the issues of power and the structure of matter associated with socio-ecological dynamics and all kinds of ongoing hybridization (Harraway, 2003).

2.1 From historical materialism on…

Historical materialism has focused on the structured quality of materiality - its ability to materialize into economic classes, stratified work patterns, and practices of domination rather than exchanges. Its political strength lies in its ability to expose hidden class wounds, global economic inequality and other unfair flows and sedimentation of capital. Thus, researchers working on the issue of the territorialization of individual and collective action and processes of environmental transformation have much to say about the scale and power relations as well as the deterritorialization processes associated with capitalism (Deleuze, Guattari, 1972).

A second phase of materialism concerns taking into account the human and non-human body and collective practices (Ingold, 2013, Abrahams, 2013). These works highlight the sensitivity of nature and biology to culture and expose how cultural notions and ideals are themselves incorporated entities and therefore materialities that can be reshaped through politics. In this sense, many artistic projects, involving the bodies, invite to reconstruct the idea of the subject and the relations subject-object and nature-culture, thus transforming the situated and incarnated experience into a reflexive process. In line with this evolution, research in the humanities and social sciences gives a more important place to artistic methods and techniques with renewed interdisciplinarity and in situ practices that take the name of research-creations (Blanc, Legrand, in prep).

As a result of historical materialism, New Materialism promotes the elucidation of material collectives and environmental forms as new topos of action. In "Ideology and ideological apparatuses of State (Notes to an investigation)" written in the 1960s (Cheah, 2010), Louis Althusser contends that ideology is not a false consciousness but develops a material existence renewed daily in social practices and the existence of institutions. Ideology is a sum of ideas that structures the existences in society and governs the relations of the people to their environments. In this sense, materialism does not concern only the economic bases of the structures of production, nor even a sensual or material relation, but constantly renewed relations that we maintain with the materials that we produce and that produce us. Researchers committed to redefining new materialities want to understand how landscapes, objects, atoms, etc. (all material elements) are inextricably linked to lifestyles – sometimes without the actors themselves becoming aware of them.

2.2 Three major preoccupations

For us, concerned with the question of the environmental forms and metamorphoses, the relationship with the works resulting from this current was forged around three major preoccupations.

First, our main concern is no longer about things and their definition, but about the environmental forms that will be considered in their sensitive and dynamic dimensions. Secondly, the place given to agencies and intra-agencies also refers to the preoccupations at the root of a reflection on environmental forms. In this sense of agency, ie of an ability to act that takes into account all living beings (and not only human beings), but also things and events according to the powers whereby we recognize that agency is a conceptual expression defined in particular by Gell (1998) who explains (p.13) that "the material part, the material index (the visible, physical thing) authorizes a singular operation of knowledge". This operation of knowledge makes it possible to make causal inferences, or an inference concerning the person or the thing at the origin of it, as well as deductions concerning the events linked or caused and explanatory reasoning. The study of these phenomena makes it possible to analyze individual and collective relational configurations.

Prolonging the reflection on agency and transforming this idea into the conceptual expression of intra-agency, Karen Barad in Meeting the Universe Halfway : quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning (2007), criticizes the tradition of metaphysical individualism, in favour of the exteriority of relations. Instead, the author considers that objects emerge from intra-actions:…the primary ontological unity being phenomena rather than independent objects with inherent boundaries and properties (…). Phenomena are the ontological inseparability of intra-acting agencies, i.e., phenomena are ontological entanglements. (p. 333)

The question of forms thus evoked refers to a conceptual vision of the unprecedented environment: factoring in the sensitive and the intra-acting evolution of environmental forms, temporarily updated and perpetually renewed. This is why environmental forms are not apolitical assemblages of humans and non-humans (as in Actor-Network Theory and its recent developments, Jacobs, 2011), but the material-discursive virtualities of political individuals and collectives, ie, the result of a choice in terms of organizational forms : “object and subject emerge through and as part of the specific nature of material practices that are enacted. (p. 359)” In this sense, environmental forms refer to knowledge and know-how as well as to intentions and natural process. They proceed from the thought of the sensible and the manifest, which leads to rethinking what is to be shared from the natural and constructed environment and the bases of this sharing.

The result of intra-action - as opposed to interaction - is not merely to qualify in terms of materiality, but also forms with potentialities, overlapping meanings and senses (Massumi, 2008 [12]). Consequently, environmental forms inevitably refer to both the material-discursive intertwinings at their origin and to potentialities and evolutions and even metamorphoses.

Thirdly, these environmental forms must be analyzed in their multi-scalar and multidimensional, geographical, sociological, biological, economic and political complexity. This echoes the work of K. Barad on "diffraction", an example of a methodology that consists in reading the phenomena through each other and reading the overlapping scales, rigorously spatialized using a metric that has become insignificant. Authorizing a multiplicity of entries and scales in the analysis of the phenomena, it is a question of recounting how current practices – those of mushroom gatherers who think themselves free while they are subordinated to a form of capitalism (Tsing, 2017), as well as pests and farmers who continue to spread pesticides knowing they are dangerous to their health – are part of multidirectional stories and their emerging qualities. These are the stories of these people and their reasoning, but also those of logics of exploitation, alienation and economic accumulation in which they are inscribed. The dynamic nature of these stories undermines any conception of a decisive socio-economic structure that shapes bodies or subjectivities. Ways of exercizing power must be examined from a variety of intellectual traditions and contexts that highlight time and space (Fox, Alldred, 2015).

The expression of environmental forms is therefore the heir to many theoretical and empirical traditions. In this case, it is necessary to understand the forms as bio-physico-chemical arrangements borrowed from local history and policies as well as from the intentions and know-how of actors and local residents. Whether one speaks of pack ice or of the earth, a shared garden or a landscape, a story about nature or an ode to a flower, all of these environmental forms make sense of what the environment means in terms of non-linguistic semiotics, i.e. significance, and its relational character.

[12] Form is full of all sorts of things that it actually isn’t - and that actually aren’t visible. Basically, it’s full of potential. When we see an object’s shape we are not seeing around to the other side, but what we are seeing, in a real way, is our capacity to see the other side. We’re seeing, in the form of the object, the potential our body holds to walk around, take another look, extend a hand and touch. The form of the object is the way a whole set of active, embodied, potentials appear in present experience: how vision can relay into kinesthesia or the sense of movement, and how kinesthesia can relay into touch. The potential we see in the object is a way our body has of being able to relate to the part of the world it happens to find itself in at this particular life’s moment (Massumi, 2008, p. 4).