Materialism without Matter? Some Thoughts on the Notion of Materiality in Science and Technology Studies

Johannes Beetz (University of Warwick)

31st May 2017, 4-6pm

417 Muirhead Tower


Abstract: Materialism and questions revolving around the role of material instances in social processes are currently experiencing a remarkable revival in the Social Sciences and Humanities. Besides the New Materialism of authors such as Jane Bennett and the agential realism of Karen Barad, the heterogeneous transdisciplinary field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) has played an important part in this development.

But what does ‘materiality’ refer to in the different strands of STS? And maybe more importantly: Do these approaches really constitute a (new) non-reductionist materialism, and if so, what is so new about it?

The paper will mainly be concerned with Latour’s actor-network theory and approaches in its vicinity – such as John Law’s material semiotics. Probably best known for their methodological suspension of such dichotomies as human/non-human, subject/object, material/immaterial, and the inclusion of non-human actors in the descriptions of processes of technological innovation, discovery, and knowledge production, they have gained considerable influence in STS over the past decades.

The aim of this talk is to present some shared notions of materiality and their ontological underpinnings in the field of Science and Technology Studies and provide a materialist critique of contemporary research in this field. While a certain focus on processes of materialisation and the notion of relational materialism might qualify STS approaches as what Etienne Balibar calls a ‘materialism without matter’, the accusation that they posit matter (or materiality) against materialism should not be dismissed prematurely. I propose a return to some older (dialectical, historical) materialisms to evaluate the critical potential of current STS scholarship.




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