Towards a New Materialist Philosophy of the Car.
1—”WE CAN NO LONGER
BUT WE STILL DO”—
To carry on as before is no longer seen as an option in the so called Anthropocene. “We can no longer” is a sentence characteristic to most ecologically concerned discourses. To the more progressive and – in my interpretation – more fruitful discourses such as those that go by the name of New Materialism, what is understood to be “old” ways of making sense of the world are frequently identified to be problematically entangled with the emergence of the slowly but decidedly dawning climate catastrophe. Thus, they reject the “old” and seek – at times almost obsessively – to formulate what are called “new” concepts of subjectivity and agency that go by buzzwords such as “entanglement”, “immersion”, “co-habitation”, “kinship” or “intra-action”. It is an interesting paradox to note that what is called “old” in these discourses are in fact classically “modern” practices of thinking that by their very etymology carry the aspiration of renewal in their name. Quite paradoxically, New Materialism thus frequently tries to revive modes of reasoning that in many examples (such as indigenous Amerindian philosophies [as purported by Robin Wall Kimmerer (see segment 6 of this paper) –]) predate European Modernity. On top of which, what is today often labeled as “new” tries to at the same time undo what Bruno Latour (2002) demonstrated to be a key trait of any modern thinking practice: that they essentially need to understand themselves as something new that is radically different from the past turned into a “pre-enlightened”, barbarous state of affairs.
In this paper, I want to argue that this problematic conflation with the new can help us understand some of the impediments that keep New Materialist philosophies from unfolding their potentially strong political potential. Because, in spite of all, a feeling of being stuck in what New Materialism (among many others) denote as “old” ways is still predominant and the yet so frequent calls that “we can no longer go on as before” in the face of climate catastrophe seem to quite panically emphasize the fact that we actually seem to – as a larger societal body – be incapable of transforming to something different, more sustainable.
By exemplarily cross-reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass with a tentative New Materialist philosophy of the car, I want to sketch possible analytical strategies out of this predicament. As a fan and proponent of New Materialist discourses, I want to reflect on how New Materialisms might be used as a very potent analytical framework to reflect on the darker and more toxic entanglements with the so called ”old” we seem to be incapable of overcoming. With an exemplary new materialist study of our very toxic entanglements with the car, I will think about the political potential of such conceptual reformulations and their socio-cultural situatedness. As I will argue, the car is not only a machine that produces too much exhaust and air-pollution, but it also is one of the central prostheses that allowed a modern cosmology to become a predominant and hegemonial form of relating to the planet. While driving a car, one commits to a bodily stasis that favors body-mind-dualisms, relegates the environment to a mere machinic and dead “given” and tends to make one interact with same environment according to ocularcentric and logocentric preconceptions. The system of Automobility as “one of the principal socio-technological institutions through which modernity is organized“ (Böhm, Jones, et al. 2006, 3) makes what is often pejoratively labeled as “Cartesianism” a necessary condition for partaking in modern everyday life. New Materialist discourses are right in identifying this modern cosmology pejoratively as something “old” that needs to be overcome. However, many of these discourses fall short of a thorough reflection on how these old ways of relating to the planet have become something almost all human beings have become dependent on in their lives. This neglect of such toxic entganglements to the “old” modernity leads to tendencies of a romantication of the “new” that impedes a more in-depth and critical engagement with how to actually overcome what one no longer wants to think and dwell with.
Segments 2 and 3 of this paper will sketch New Materialisms and their entanglement with Cartesianism by trying to ex negativo characterize them as Anti-Cartesian philosophies. Segments 4 and 5 will proceed to investigate a tendency of a romantic overidentification with the new and Utopian within many New Materialist discourses, preventing them from a more thorough engagement with the toxic entanglements of the now. Segment 6 will deepen this study with a examination of the unreflected role of the car in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. Segment 7 will pursue this thread by tentatively sketching a New Materialist philosophy of the car as a central institution causing such toxic entanglements. Segment 8 will close with outlooks and further discussion points.
2—WHAT ARE NEW
What I call New Materialisms in this paper entails a large array of philosophical (re)conceptualizations of agency and subjectivity that do frequently also go by names such as “Post-Humanism” or (sometimes) “Speculative Realism”. It is important to stress that they do not have one uniform philosophical agenda or orientation and do not go by one easily simplifiable “Ism”. Some are more inspired by non-European indigenous philosophies (for example Haraway 2016; Kimmerer 2015; Rose 2022), while others rather depart from European “philosophies of immanence” such as those of Spinoza, Nietzsche or Deleuze (for example Barad 2007; Bennett 2010; Braidotti 2012). Their differences and divergences matter, because philosophical reasonings that seek to put up with our planetary ecological mess should much less postulate one fixed truth or stance, but much rather enable us to develop tools to – as Erich Hörl and James Burton have it in their introduction to General Ecology – ““sketch general-ecological plateaus [of the Anthropocene]” that allow us to understand “the ensemble of the problem and its conditions” (Hörl and Burton 2017, 22) in its manifold and messy meanderings. It can be said that almost all of them attempt to think with matter as opposed to about matter. Thus, they try to invent forms of reasoning that do not refer to some kind of (Platonist) a-material transcendence, but try to understand thinking and acting as an immanent, earthly practice. While New Materialisms can still be considered to be niche discourses in mainstream culture, they have had a very considerable influence on the art world and related academic fields. In the more privileged bubbles of the human world, many gallery spaces, conferences and performative lectures devote themselves almost inflationary to such “New Materialist” topics such as the agency of fungi (Tsing 2017), lichen (Gilbert et al. 2012; Haraway 2016), plants (Marder 2013; Coccia 2016; Kimmerer 2015), or the microbial alliances that form the conditions of possibility for any conceptual understanding of an “I” (Margulis 1999; Gilbert 2017; Mcfall-Ngai 2017). This hype has interested me in my own thinking practice and my reflection about some short-comings and blind-spots of these discourses are mostly inspired by its unquantifiable reception in the art world. Therefore, I will to a large extent abstain myself from more positively defining New Materialisms by means of citations of some of their most prominent authors. Much rather, I will now attempt to characterize New Materialisms ex negativo as philosophies that attempt to conceptually escape Cartesianism as the key philosophical name for what are considered the “old” modern practises.
As Timothy Morton put it, Descartes “has been the bugbear of ecological thinking ever since” (Morton 2009, 105) and I believe this is still true for its New Materialist versions, especially when they commit exceedingly to “we can not longer” statements that try to differentiate a new from the old. In my view, they (still) express the need for transcending classical modern, anthropocentric “Cartesian” ontologies of a secluded subject as the sole agent in a universe that is otherwise conceived of as dead, cold and passive. This “old” view is sought to be replaced by a New Materialist understanding of acting and mattering as a collective and earthly process that can not be reduced to one single (white, privileged, male, rational, normal, human, etc….) agent. As such, I will introduce three key ingredients of such departures from Cartesianism by way of reference to some of New Materialisms’ most well known authors. The decision of this characterization and the selection of these three traits are – in this paper – of strategic purpose: as I will show in the later segment, it is these key traits of Cartesianism that I see reproduced as a material practice in our everyday usage of the car that is – as I will try to show in my reading of Robin Wall Kimmerer – heavily under-reflected within much New Materialisms. Further, it has to be stated that I am not so much referring to the philosophy of René Descartes, the historical modern rationalist of the 17th century, but to what “Cartesianism” has become understand to be in the centuries of reception that followed. Descartes’ own body of work is much more rich and contradictiory (compare Jörg 2021, 162 ff.) as the “Cartesianism” I am presenting here – a “Cartesianism” that is in itself quite decidedly influenced and produced by New Materialist thinkers and some of their forebearers. Thus, the characterization of New Materialisms are much rather the making-explicit of a self-description by many of its proponents. For the purpose of this paper, I find it helpful to make this Anti-Cartesianism of New Materialisms explicit to then, in the following segments, demonstrate how they reproduce their own propositions and dichotomies and thus render themselves incapable to reflect our modern toxic entanglement with what I understand to be very Cartesian practices that modern everyday life (such as in car use) requires us to commit to. By being “Anti-Cartesian” in denoting it as the old that has to be overcome, many New Materialist discourses are, as I will argue, rendered blind to our vital entanglement with these “old” heritages that have – in the most literal sense – have become concrete (as in asphalt) in our car-centered everyday lives and driving practices.
3—NEW MATERIALISM AS
a) subject = thinking subject
As is well known, the most central move of Cartesianism is to separate body and mind in an – at the time – unprecedentedly radical manner. In his famous cogito ergo sum argument, Descartes (2008 , 17-24), manages to convince himself (and most of his readers for centuries to come) that his “I” consists only of res cogitans (“mental substance”) that is qualitatively differentiated from res extensa (“corporeal substance”). “For since I have now learned that bodies themselves are perceived not, strictly speaking, by the senses or by the imaginative faculty, but by the intellect alone, and that they are not perceived because they are touched or seen, but only because they are understood, I clearly realize [cognosco] that nothing can be perceived by me more easily or more clearly than my own mind.” (Ibid. 34) The mind is, in Descartes’ view, the bearer of certainty and everything else can only be deduced from this primal certainty. What this entails is that human agency and subjectivity is reduced to what Descartes regards as “mental” qualities. Everything bodily is, for Descartes, only something epiphenomenal one does not, strictly speaking, require to attain epistemic certainty. As Braidotti (2012) argued, this ontological move is a central backdrop of any universalist humanism claiming that all human experience is qualitatively the same. Since the bodily, material situatedness of any human being is declared to be irrelevant by such an epistemological move, all human difference in (gendered, racialized, etc.) perspective and privilege is made invisible by a claim to universality by reference to a neutral, outer-worldy sphere of the mind (that is in fact overcoded by phallocentric assumptions and thus privileges white abled men (Irigaray 1985, 180 ff.))
b) environment = given
This radical devaluation of corporeal substance does not stop short of problematic consequences in the so called human realm. In fact, as Carolyn Merchant (1989) shows in her essential study The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, this modern dualism entails a reduction of the entire (material) world to a lifeless machine of dead matter, giving way to environmental exploits sanctioning the emergence of capitalist extraction of fossil fuels and other resources that would have been unthinkable or morally impossible in earlier times. As Michel Serres (2016) put it, the environment is reduced to a mere “given” in modern cosmology. A “given” that the huMAN – the only being considered to have agency and reasonability on this otherwise dead planet – can alter, destroy and change according to his own capitalist desires. In the most radical ways of modern cosmologies, even animals are mere brain-less automata functioning according to a preconceived scheme – a devaluation of animal live that sanctioned industrial capitalist meat and dairy production (Macho 2022). Everything “out there” is understood to just consist of cold atoms moving mechanically through a dead void governed by eternal, unchangeable (Newtonian) laws (Stengers and Prigogine 1986, 11 + 196). There is no agency, no reasonability, no communication, not anything that matters outside the human sphere, be it in animal, plant or material realms. It goes without saying that an epistemology that – in order to work – methodically excludes any bodily matter from mattering cannot be of great help in understanding our problematic influence and relation to the environment but sanctions its ruthless extractivist exploitation (Moore 2015).
c) only lingual and visual
“The given comes from language alone: it comes to us neither from the world nor from our bodies.” (Serres 2016, 202) The last trait of Cartesianism I want to sketch in this brief overview concerns the sensual regime implicit to it. As such, it is the least explicit in Descartes’ work itself, but is much rather the result of a genealogical survey into the origins of modern philosophy that were identified to be ocularcentric and logocentric. It is now well established that classical occidental reasoning favored visual information (Jay 1993, Jonas 1953) while devaluing every other sensual input. This sensual prepossession lead intrinsically to “objectivist” epistemologies that could only think of the world in a logic of solid objects that are clearly separated from the perceiving subject (exactly as the eye can only see things that are distant from it and do not touch it). Thus, an image of the world as an atomistic machine of dead matter that is distinct from a mental “I” having rational insight into its inherent laws would not make sense in an epistemology that would favor – for example – the sense of smell: for one can only smell if one touches, mingles, with its source (Guérer 2002, Serres 2016).
This ocularcentrism is closely linked to the logoentrism that characterizes modern “Cartesian” reasoning: the visual information that, by far, was favored the most was text – to a degree that made the distinction blurry between a thing and the word for it. Thinking that they are the same, one thought that the logical & grammatical relation between the words is the same as the relation of those “things” they stood for (Wittgenstein 2010, §114).
Ex negativo, we can thus summarize the new ecological philosophies of contemporary discourses in a more precise manner: they all seek to undo the strict subject-object divide in which agency is only to be found in a subject secluded from its environment. Thinking, acting, mattering is then no longer understood to be a domain reserved exclusively to (the “mental” parts of) humans. Much rather, such new materialist epistemologies tend to think in what Karen Barad calls “agential cuts” (2007, 140) that momentarily and processually divide an immanent field of various (human and non-human) mattering agents. Thus, the environment is no longer relegated to a mere passive giveness but, on the contrary, plays an active role in the formation of our very own subjectivities that could not be thought without its manifold entanglements in it. Such an understanding of our human subjectivies being irreducibly immanent to the mattering environment requires us to, as Jane Bennett puts it, “devise new procedures, technologies, and regimes of perception that enable us to consult nonhumans more closely[, or to listen and respond more carefully to their outbreaks, objections, testimonies, and propositions]” (2010, 107). Such propositions are often “not expressed in words” and “many members” of this mattering universe are nonlinguistic” (Ibid. 104), requiring us to develop more and different sensual approaches that are either non-textual or use text in a more narrative, poetic way (Haraway 2016).
As should be clear after this short summary, the political scope and potential of such new ontologies can not be over-emphasized, since it does not only help us to understand how the micro-political, affective and sensual basis of our modern capitalist world and its hegemonic forms of relating to it came into being, but does provide us which a rich Utopian and yet concrete imaginary of how other forms of relating (and thus producing) the world can look like.
DREAMING OF UTOPIA
After having sketched a brief summary of what is eco-politically at stake in the “New Materialist” and other recent ecological philosophies, I will now continue with an attempt to problematize a certain latent romanticism I perceive in the orientation and reception of many of the books, artworks and discourses that are associated to this field.
As “romanticism”, I understand the tendency to romanticize entities of so called “Nature” while ignoring one’s own complacency in a regime that neatly separates “Nature” from “Culture”. To put it in a very illustrative example: a classical romantic buys a massive SUV in order to see remote and unspoiled places of nature, while not being able or willing to understand that the very infrastructure needed for the SUV is causing the disappearance of those longed-for places. As Timothy Morton (Morton 2009, 79 ff.) showed, romanticism appeared only among the privileged when industrialization alienated them from their environments. The invention of the concept of “Nature” as opposed to “Culture” is closely related to the body-mind- and subject-object-dualisms characteristic of modern Cartesian epistemologies (Latour 2002; Debaise 2017) and together form its industrial capitalist ideology (Moore 2015). Whereas most “New Materialist” philosophies are aware of the dangers of romanticism and its underlying nature-culture divide, I have the impression that many are still too easily put into the preconceived boxes of being concerned with “nature”, as opposed to culture. They can thus roam about beautiful engagements with a future Utopian natureculture, but are less frequently permitted to reflect on how our culturally made entanglement with our current, modern, fossil-fueled and techno-capitalist life-forms might prevent us from getting there.
To give two illustrative examples of this tendency before expanding my theory with a closer examination of Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, I will point out – rather quickly – Alf Hornborg’s (2017) critique of Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World and Donna Haraway’s Staying with the trouble, who both – according to Hornborg – leave aside a critical engagement with the techno-capitalist material conditions of the now by merely focusing on the “new” and romantisized more-than-human engagements with the planet. In Anna Tsing’s case, this leads to a nostalgic idealization of the entanglements of the matsutake mushroom with the “resurgence of forests after deforestation without considering the extent to which the global distribution of such resurgence is contingent on political economy, […] she does not reflect on how this convergence is related to the comparatively high price of land and labor in the[...] economies” (Hornborg 2017, 63) they take place in. According to Hornborg, she fails to see how the focus on forests and their mushrooms is only permitted by her being situated in the privileged zones of global capitalism – and how the reforestation of the matsutake mushroom is in direct relation to the deforestation in the global south that produces the wealth necessary for such a luxury good to become marketable and a deciding factor for forest restoration. As such, she tends to oversee – or at least oversimplify – the fossil-fueled, extractivist machine culture necessary to extract the capital from what Jason Moore (2015) calls “cheap nature” necessary to allow the cultivation of other ways of relating to the planet for some inhabitants of the wealthier zones.
In the case of Donna Haraway, Hornborg wonders what the material basis of her bio-technological utopia of the Camille stories that end Staying with the trouble is: “It struck me that Haraway does not devote a single word to New Gauley’s [=Camille’s utopian home zone] economy or subsistence base. How does this imagined future community combine super-advanced biotechnology with a lighter pressure on the planet’s resources? How does it feed its inhabitants?” (Hornborg 2017, 68) The Camille stories (and much of Haraway’s book) provide rich imagery of very un-Cartesian ways of relating to our planet in distress, but – according to Hornborg – they fail to give any account of the techno-cultural means necessary for this bio-genetically enhanced mingling and its environmental cost. Does an advanced biotechnology work without large catering industries that require the car and other modern technological artifacts that prolong our carbon-intensive (and very “Cartesian”) lifestyle? Is Haraway’s utopian island of New Gauley perhaps surrounded by a large and ugly network of highway-crossings and a suburban industry and logistics belt in much the same way as contemporary cities are?
Both books inspire us with a beautifully Utopian frame of new and presumably “more ecological” ways of relating to the planet, however, they do fail to coherently account for their embeddedness in a global world-economy and its fossil-fueled machine world. As such, they become easily marketable as utopias the more privileged and educated city dwellers (such as myself) can dream about while biking to the organic supermarket (and being annoyed about the reckless driving behavior of “normal” working people). But they do not provide a political framework of how these utopian forms of relating to the planet can become a program that could sustainably transform the planetary relation of a politically significant number of human and non-human critters to such a New Materialist ontology.
New Materialisms seeks to describe a “new” relation to the planet – one that is no longer characterized by human exception and dominion, but one of multitudinous and non-hierarchical entanglement. While the beauty and eco-political necessity of such “new ontologies” are at hand, many such endeavors lack a serious inquiry into what their relation to the “old” ontologies is1. Have the “old” – e.g. Cartesian – ontologies simply vanished? Where have they gone? And what are the conditions of possibility for such new ontologies to become a widely spread relation to the planet – one that isn’t confided to art galleries, conferences, performances and the like, but could become what could be called the “everyday cosmology” (or “ontology”, in Descola’s (2015) sense) of a politically significant number?
In the upcoming pages, I want to argue that – so called “old” – Cartesianism is still among us. In fact, it is so central to our worldly belonging that it is almost invisible, similar to the proverbial water the fish is not aware of while swimming in it its entire life. The romantic tendency of many New Materialist authors stands in the way of critically engaging with the Cartesianist relation to the modern world that has become the condition of possibility of partaking in modern human society for the very most of humans. We are entangled in manifold ways with the material structures around us. And since these are – for most humans today – anthropogenically made and modified, we cannot assume that they would help us automatically to develop a less anthropocentric relation to the planet. Such a belief would fall into the pitfalls of romanticism. We live in a world made possible by several centuries of a Cartesian hegemony of relating to the planet: they left imprints that in turn make us relate to the planet in an ever more Cartesian way. It would be naive and romanticist to think that we would somewhat automatically relate differently to this planet by merely postulating a different “New Materialist” ontology. In order for this to happen, an active reflection about how our modern way of life makes us relate to the planet in a very particular (and toxic) way and how we could slowly decompose and change this historically grown and materialized relation is needed.
To develop (and then problematize) my argument further, I will proceed with a closer examination of this under-reflected distinction between the “old” and the “new” – and how this plays into the romanticist tendency of some New Materialisms.
5—”NOT AVAILABLE TO
ROMANTICISM OF THE NEW
As I have tried to show, New Materialist philosophies can be ex negativo described by their own latent aspiration to be “Anti-Cartesian” that try to do away with the “old” hegemonic way of reasoning and relating of occidental philosophy. A form of argument characteristic to many New Materialist philosophies can be summarized by the following logical form: “We can no longer think x, but need to think y.” x being the “old” Cartesian world view, while y is the “entangled” New Materialist understanding of worldly becoming. The most prominent example of this tendency might be Karen Barad, whose Meeting the Universe Halfway from 2007 – one of the theoretical pillar stones of New Materialism – is full of sentences such as: “The world is not merely an idea that exists in the human mind. To the contrary, ‘mind’ is a specific material configuration of the world, not necessarily coincident with a brain.” (379) or “What constitutes the human (and the nonhuman) is not a fixed or pregiven notion, but neither is it a free-floating ideality. What is at issue is n o t some ill-defined process by which human-based linguistic practices (materially supported in some unspecified way) manage to produce substantive bodies or bodily substances, but rather the dynamics of intra-activity in its materiality: material apparatuses produce material phenomena through specific causal intra-actions, where ‘material’ is always already material-discursive-that is what it means to matter.” (153)
Sentences of the same no longer x, but y structure can be found in many central New Materialist books such as Braidotti’s The Posthuman (“A new agenda needs to be set, which is no longer that of European or Eurocentric universal, rational subjectivity, but rather a radical transformation of it.” (52)), Bennett’s Vibrant Matter (“The machine model of nature, with its figure of inert matter, is no longer even scientific.” (91)) or Haraway’s Staying with the trouble (“even Western-indebted people can no longer figure themselves as individuals and societies of individuals in human-only histories” (30)) to give just a few more illustrative examples.
The basic assumption of many New Materialist philosophies seems to be that the “old” Cartesianist ontology has “become unavailable to think with, truly no longer thinkable” (5), to put it into Haraway’s almost already proverbial words. However, is this actually true? Or, to rephrase my question with more precision: To whom, in what specific situation, in what specific milieu, are the “old” ways becoming unthinkable? Although Haraway explicitly addresses modern scientific practices, I perceive a latent danger of generalization in such frequently quoted statements in New Materialist discourses. In order to avoid just another flat universalism of one “new” ontology being the true one, it is important to differentiate and look more closely: perhaps while roaming through the American so called “wilderness”, or when thinking about quantum theory, the “old” Cartesianism can be said to be “no longer” unthinkable – and it is mostly in these domains that New Materialist philosophy dwells. However, I want to put it into question if this is equally the case when working as a supermarket cashier, being locked up 9 to 5 in a dull office job or – as I will exemplary show below – when driving around with a car. As I will argue exemplarily in the next chapter, the “Cartesianism” described and vilified by many New Materialists still offers itself as the most accessible cosmology when committing to such essentially modern practices as driving the car.
Furthermore, the repetitive nature of such “no longer x, but y” sentences in many New Materialist discourses raise the question if they would be able to describe their own ontological position without contrasting it from the “old” Cartesian one. Much rather than a neutral, factual statement, such repetitive “no longer x, but y” sentences read almost like a form of prayer2: an expression of the deep desire to become disentangled from this deeply problematic “old” way of understanding our relation to the world. However, to overcome a too simple dualistic scheme of the “old” and “new” that is caused by this negative dependency on “old” Cartesianism, I will argue for a more situated and pluralized analysis of ontologies. I will argue – very much in line with New Materialism – that an onto-epistemological position is never a mere “ideological” postulation, but is always the result of an entanglement with our specific and material embeddedness in an environment. As I will show with a critical reading of Kimmerer and a tentative New Materialist philosophy of the car, many of our anthropogenically modified environments incite us to develop a rather Cartesian relation to the world. If we do not also take into account this dirty and dark materialist influence of our heavily modified landscapes, we will stay gridlocked in this all too simple “old” vs. “new” dualism and thus commit to a dangerous romantization of the “new” and ecologically convincing ontologies that oversees their entanglement in a still very modern world of fossil capitalism.
RIDING THE CAR
In her 2015 book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, US ecologist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer tries to question Western scientific and common sense ideas of plant-life and broaden them with American indigenous knowledges. Being of Potawatomi descent herself, she tells us about the ambivalence between the traditional knowledge of her ancestry and her scientific education and career. She argues that the rigid systematization of “Western science” and our consumerist, urban life-style prevents people from cultivating an attention to the agency and story-telling of the plants themselves, or a feeling for the interdependence and co-influence between our plant-companions and ourselves.
On her about 400 page-long journey, she travels her country and smells the fragrances, musings and growings of sweetgrasses, strawberries and many other vegetal “people” (as they are assumed to be by her ancestors) in order to develop a perhaps more sustainable, fulfilling relation to the plant world that is in and around us.
The book is said to contribute to an “Indigenous New Materialist” (Clary-Lemon 2019) understanding of our vegetal world. Plants are not merely automata without any agency, communication or subjectivity (as the most brute version of “old” modern, occidental epistemologies would have it), but are deeply complex beings and agents that influence us in manifold ways and can not merely be reduced to the “given” world. As such an attempt, it is widely read in the artistic, scientific and activist communities associated to “New Materialism” and inspires many people3.
I have picked this particular publication because in it a certain tendency of romantic focus on the new materialist ontologies while actively blinking out all other forms of relating to the planet is particularity tangible. Kimmerer chose a narrative style for her excursions into the plant world and thus permits us – aside from sometimes brilliant observations of more-than-human-entanglement with the Earth – glimpses into her everyday life and particularly her means of transportation. As any good US-American of the 21st century, she is traveling mostly by car to her sites of cherished plant life. However, while she takes great effort to feel into the narrative modes of worldly relation of her vegetal companions as conveyed to her by her indigenous ancestors, she does not at all account for the effect and influence the car might have on her worldly perception and participation.
As Paul Sutter showed in his 2005 book Driven Wild: how the fight against automobiles launched the modern wilderness movement, our modern notion of free-roaming, “wild” nature that is allowed to “act” by itself has only come into existence because of the simultaneous emergence of the car and the dichotomy between “roadless” nature and sites of human culture it entails and reproduces.
While Kimmerer works carefully and in great detail on how plants are usually perceived and how another, indigenous-inspired perspective might open up a completely different world to us, the car – though frequently used and seemingly indispensable as the material basis of her field work and thus theoretical undertaking – is mostly mentioned in a plain and matter-of-factly way. There is nothing worth mentioning or reflecting in the fact that the “mother, scientist, decorated professor, and enrolled member of the Citizen Potowatomi Nation” (Kimmerer 2015, 391), as Kimmerer describes herself, is enabled by her fossil-fueled companion to visit the manifold plant-sites she is describing in great detail. Thus, Kimmerer’s own entanglement with the ever-growing strips of flat, soil-sealing concrete pavement, death-zones for any animal or plant critter attempting to cross it, that split the so called “natural” ecosystems into ever smaller and smaller entities (thus in itself posing a threat to biodiversity and health of the ecosystems) are almost no part of her reflection.
The indigenous knowledge she is referring to is reactivated in a manner that does not reflect how its own reactivation might be dependent on the modern dichotomy between culture and nature that is, as Sutter shows, largely fostered by the car and its landscape defining infrastructures. I would argue that Kimmerer – a modern citizen of the US – is only able to muse about active plant life because she is (economically, socially, technologically, physically, etc.) able to drive around with her car bringing her to the cherished sites of wilderness – and this very means of transport relegates her, as I will argue, to perceive the nature she is crossing through as a mere “given”. Her means of transport thus reproduces materially the dichotomy between culture and nature she theoretically attempts to overcome.
I will develop this argument further by elaborating on my argument how the car reproduces the “old” and “Cartesian” relation to the world on a very material basis. This will eventually enable me to explain the causes of the latent romanticism in many New Materialist discourses and how to overcome them in order to become more politically potent discourses that refuse their being marginalized to small and fancy privileged art discourses.
7—SKETCHING A “NEW
OF THE CAR
So far I have sketched “New Materialist” ecological philosophies as wanting to be “Anti-Cartesian” and have then proceeded to problematize a certain tendency of romantic labeling of those very philosophies that stands in relation to their one-sided focus of the “new” while failing to coherently analyze how they are actually and very materially entangled with the “old” they seek to overcome. As such, many New Materialist discourses tend to become rather blind to the implications and consequences of our very culturally determined material entanglements with the late capitalist now. This leads to a certain sterilization of their potentially large political potential and frequently reduces those philosophies and their respective outings in artworks, performances, etc. to a spectacle of romanticizing and idealizing the (very marketable) “new” within a privileged art-bubble. The “old” is most often only addressed as a rather obscure and “no longer thinkable” thing – and can thus not be critically understood and analyzed as the material basis for the fossil-fueled capitalist status quo that simply does not go away by urging it to do so.
I will illustrate this point further by sketching some “New Materialist” aspects of the car in the Anthropocene as one – very central – example of the material entanglements our modern society requires of us that are active impediments for the unfolding of some of the more utopian “new” approaches to worldly belonging. As has been argued, the car is by far not a neutral means of transport (Illich 1974; Gorz, André 1973; Ganser 2009; Dennis and Urry 2009; Pearce 2016), but it actively and materially reproduces a certain relation to the planet which has remarkable similarities to the “Cartesian” world-view sketched above (Jörg 2020). To make a “New Materialist” philosophy politically potent, I think it is necessary to also focus on the very toxic material entanglements of the now in order to develop a clearer perspective on how the Utopian elements of “New Materialism” could actually and politically be achieved and fought for outside of the rather restrained bubbles of privileged art-related and academic discourses. This requires that we actively counter this “romanticism of the new” latent in the silent omission of everyday entanglements required by our car-centered hegemonial culture. I will now proceed to develop how the car is actively reproducing the three key elements of Cartesianism I have sketched above and how this has to be regarded as an impediment of the unfolding of alternative, more ecological cosmological approaches such as New Materialisms.
a) the car as a machine
producing the body-mind- dualism
While driving a car, the human body is relegated to almost total immobility. As such, modern mobility is characterized by a specific contradiction: the more mobile one gets with the help of modern machinery, the more immobile the human body does become (Pelz 2002). This creates, as Kristin Ross (Ross 1995, 38–41) has worked out, a separation between the human driver and their respective environment. In the frenzy of navigating at great speed while at the same time being completely still, a separation from one’s own – rather passive – corporeal situatedness from the mind-as-active-navigator results in a feeling of detachment and separation from the environment that is not too different from Descartes’ epistemological decision to separate his mind from the body and its environment. As such, one can argue that the car driver needs to relegate the environment they are driving through to a mere “given” – simply because the speed and mode of transportation doesn’t permit another form of relating to it. To bring this back to the example of Braiding Sweetgrass: While Kimmerer is able to sense after the co-dependency with her vegetal people as passed on by her indigenous ancestors when she has arrived at her chosen places, I doubt this was possible to her while driving there. This, however is a key difference to the indigenous way of life she is attempting to reactivate: while her ancestors’ cosmology was presumably one they were permanently engaged in and thus left its imprints in a completely different language and grammatical structure (Kimmerer 2015, 48-59), the philosophy of “becoming indigenous to place” (205) she is putting forth in her book seems dependent on car-use. This does not entail that her book cannot be a potent update and translation of indigenous knowledges (which must not be understood to be in a state of musealized stasis) into the modern world. However, it has to be noted that as long as “becoming indigenous to place” requires a car to go to these places, an active reproduction of a dichotomy not quite unlike the Cartesian one between nature and culture is entailed as a practical consequence of any cosmology: we might delve on the musings and intra-actions with plants when we are at the cherished sites of wilderness, but in going there we will stay (or need to become) Cartesian in our cosmological relation to the world. The “we can no longer” as a secret mantra of many New Materialist discourses can be understood to be repeated any time Kimmerer is closing her car door: when she is entering her car, she can no longer delve on the “new” materialist implications of plant life in an active and engaged way, and when she – in turn – is leaving her car, she might whisper to herself that she now can no longer reduce the environment to the “old” Cartesian cosmology.
b) The car requiring us to
adhere to the modern
cosmology of the world as a
life-less and “given” machine
If we adhere to modern machinery of transportation, parts of us (in time and space) will require to retain cosmological mind-frames that are very modern and Cartesian in exactly the way “New materialist” philosophies try to undermine. The environment as a “given” is produced by our being entangled with the car and its necessary infrastructure: for most people in their quotidian lives, a paved highway or parking-lot provides much less enticement to feel after non-human agency than in a forest. As such, Cartesianism in the modern world is not just an ontology that can be (and already has been, for many times) academically refuted as the “old”, but it is in itself a material practice that is deeply ingrained in our ways of being and living modern.
As the above mentioned eco-feminist Carolyn Merchant has worked out, a main feature of the modern cosmology formulated by Descartes and others was to relegate nature to a mere life-less machine working according to pre-conceived and determinate laws. Back in the 16th and 17th century, this was mostly an ideological tool that morally permitted a small elite to submit and exploit what was considered “nature” (including “women” and non-white peoples (see also Federici 2004, Moore 2015) sanctioning an unprecedented (internal and external) colonization of human and other life worlds. Today, hardly anybody would argumentatively defend such a crude modern cosmology in academic discourses (that is still mostly comprised of bourgeois elites). However, I would argue this is not so much because this modern cosmology has become obsolete – much rather, it has become so real (as in materialized) in our human-made environments that there is no need to ideologically defend it. As postmodern thinkers such as Herbert Marcuse (1941) or Jean Baudrillard (1978) have worked out, our everyday life is so deeply entangled with modern machinery, that we are prone to consider our own individuality as a part of a larger machinic ensemble or “world machine”. The machinic world view characteristic to modern cosmology is thus no longer the philosophy of a small bourgeois elite acquiring power (as it was in Descartes’ time), but it has much rather become the necessary condition to be able to participate in our modern worlds – we are subtly but effectively seduced4 to relating and forming to the planet in a machinic way by the hegemonial form of capitalist world order. When contemporary scholars today are insisting on the impossibility of going on in the same “old” Cartesian ways, this has also to be understood as a theoretical protest against this materialized Cartesian condition of partaking in modern lifeworlds. We can no longer go on in the same way if we want to avert the worst of climate catastrophes, and yet we are stuck in them in our very material everyday lives. The “old” has to be recognized not only as an antiquated and many times refuted philosophical position, but as a material condition we are all entangled in. To overcome it, the formulation of an alternative “New Materiaist” utopia might be recoginized as the first step away from it – and it is understandable why it is such a hype in many contemporary discourses. However, to effectively walk away from this toxic entanglement with modern capitalism, we need to think about the relation of these utopias to the contemporary world order – and how we can slowly decompose it in order to let these Utopian bubbles expand beyond their privileged zones. Only then will it be able to develop more inclusive, plural and less anthropocentric relations to the world that could somehow become a politically significant new hegemonial culture.
c) The car as an
Most people will know the experience of smelling a car in surprising intensity after returning from a longer hike through a car-free area such as a forest. The smell of a single car is suddenly felt more intensely than that of a whole traffic combustion in everyday urban life. The same goes for the noise produced by cars. What such exceptional experiences can teach us is that we need to unconsciously suppress so much of the sounds and smells that characterize everyday (sub)urban, car-centered life in order to stay “sane” and working. I would argue that the car is a machine that actively reproduced the ocularcentric sensual regime I have sketched as a third element of Cartesianism. This is true for both navigating cars, as well as being surrounded by them. While driving, it is almost entirely visual information we are orienting ourselves with. Smells, tastes or sounds (except the occasional horn) are not trustworthy information at that velocity. Inside or outside: the car is simply too noisy, smelly and fast to allow for a sensual opening towards sounds or smells. Auto-mobility is thus one of the – today very majoritairan – ways of relating to the planet that actively impede us to develop more inclusive and less anthropocentric forms of relating to the planet.
Furthermore, the visual information any car-driver is mainly concerned with is that of textual information. As Marc Augé noted in his study on what he calls “non-places” of “super-modernity” (Augé 1995), on highways and other car-centered infrastructure the actual place tends more and more to be replaced by a textual representation of the same place. “Motorway travel is thus doubly remarkable: it avoids, for functional reasons, all the principal places to which it takes us; and it makes comments on them. […] Of course the fact is that most of those who pass by do not stop; but they may pass by again, every summer or several times a year, so that an abstract space, one they have regular occasion to read rather than see, can become strangely familiar to them over time.” (Ibid., 97)
Modern human life being as car-centered as it currently is thus produces a sensually restrained and mainly textually induced form of relating to the environment that is a central aspect of a Cartesianist separation from the environment as an active and vibrant entity. With the rise of “Automobility” as “one of the principal socio-technological institutions through which modernity is organized“ (Böhm, Jones, et al. 2006, 3) came the rise of a culture that mainly relates to space by means of text and abstract symbols (as in street signs) (Aicher 1984, 63). We can allow ourselves little islands of peace and sensual opening by excursions to zones of so-called “wilderness”, but most modern humans will need auto-mobile machinery to get there. We are thus caught in the dichotomy between the few tranquil spaces called “nature” and the raging noisy and smelly motor-culture surrounding it. Thus, the creation of little bubbles of peace from the majoritarian and very toxic way of relating to the planet is in fact inherent to a system of auto-mobility5 in itself. Extractivist Capitalism would most likely not survive for long without them. To radicalize New Materialist philosophies such as Kimmerers’ and be allowed to follow the musings of plants, stones or animals in a more thorough way, it is not enough to reflect on what can be done, thought and lived differently in these safe zones. It is also required to break with this tendency of marginalization caused by what I called a “romanticism of the new” and devise strategies to not only protect and cherish, but actively produce and expand these other zones in the world6.
8—HOW TO MAKE THE ZONE
“NO LONGER” EXPAND—
In this paper I have tried to work out how a romantisation of the New in New Materialist discourses structurally tends to impede them to more critically and politically engage with the dirty status quo of fossil-fueled capitalism. These blindspots permit galleries, museums, conferences and other privileged cultural outlets to romanticize other and new forms of relating to the planet without ever having to seriously consider the material basis of them becoming attainable outside of privileged bubbles.
There is nothing inherently wrong about such focuses on rather “romantic” aspects of these new ontologies cherished by New Materialist philosophies – in fact, they can inspire hope and orientation to overcome a feeling of hopelessly being stuck in a deadly, capitalist system. However, regarded within the context of a capitalist attention economy there seem to be many agents such as galleries, conferences, publishers, etc. who are more than happy to reproduce these focuses while leaving aside the economic and material factors that stand in the way for such utopias to ever become a real alternative of relating to the planet for most humans. This flip side of the same coin would involve much more controversy and it would be much harder to find financial sponsorship for such a perspective that would – more often than not – entail a quite direct criticism of the status quo of value-production in a techno-capitalist system.
In order for these “New Materialist” utopias to become politically potent, New Materialist philosophies need to critically engage with their latent “new” vs. “old” dichotomy and more critically inquire their multitudinous relations and entanglement to the old. The repetitive insistence on sentences such as “we can no longer x, but need to y” reveals how stuck we all are in the old x – and how necessary a critical new materialist engagement with these dark sides of our late capitalist life worlds is.
As I have tried to show with an exemplary sketch of a “New Materialist philosophy of the car”: the material fossil-fueled regime brought forth over the last century makes us all entangled to a lifestyle that is prone to (in many instances) live a very Cartesian reduction of the environment that is 1) forcing us to separate our mind from the body, 2) reducing the environment to a “given” that is seen as a mere life-less machine and 3) mainly related to by means of textual and visual mediation while repressing other forms of sensual (bodily) relating.
This leads me to conclude that the “old” Cartesianism is no longer a philosophical stance upheld at any serious academic discourse because it is materialized in our very way of engaging with the planet. Cartesianism hasn’t disappeared, it much rather has become so real that we no longer need it in our active, conscious, so called “rational” thinking. It is there, paved into our roads and fortified into the very machines without most of us can’t imagine to lead a modern everyday life.
So when many New Materialist philosophies postulate that the “old” Cartesian relation to the planet has “finally become unavailable to think with, truly no longer thinkable” (Haraway 2016, 5), I think it is necessary to precise this pivotal statement by asking: to whom? And why? Surely, there are bubbles in which this statement can be considered to be true, but as I have tried to argue, these are only a few privileged islands of hope that tend to get marginalized and instrumentalized by an almost unaltered fossil-fueled capitalism that continues undisturbedly to destroy our very livelihoods.
In order to politicize New Materialism against these toxic entanglements, the bubbles and romantizations it frequently produces or falls prey to are not a problem in themselves, but can much rather be regarded as a starting point to go elsewhere. One might, at times, require to commit to these blindspots, to look away from the ugliness of the Status Quo in order to be able to at least conceive of an alternative. New Materialisms did a remarkable job in making these no-longer-modern, messy utopias such a Haraway’s New Gauley tangible and accessible to a larger (culturally interested) audience. However, in committing to such utopias, one should not fully oversee their socio-economic embeddedness in a larger sphere and actively oppose the strategies of capitalist marginalization.
To put this into a car-related illustrative example: the vision of car-free inner cities, as being today proposed in many European cities such as Paris, Brussels, Berlin or Barcelona, surely is a beautiful and yet concrete utopia. However, if these cities’ embeddedness in and dependency on a car- and carbon-based economy is not accounted for, these utopias might quickly turn out to be means of class warfare from above. It will make the lives of a few privileged inner-city dwellers even more rich and fortunate, while the exploitative economy that renders the lives of most earthly critters ever more precarious is not altered.
The utopias do not need to change, but their place in a larger socio-cultural discursive field. The task for politisized New Materialisms is to devise strategies of how its utopias can expand and become a tangible political as well as life-worldly alternative for the many that can help them undo their toxic entanglements with the hegemonic and very destructive capitalist world order.
1 Of course there are also voices within what is largely considered to be New Materialism that are engaged with such more dark and toxic entanglements. Most prominently, Kathryn Yusoff has argued in her book A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2019) that the very possibility of the concept of universalist, European Humanism (and its racist exclusions) has to be understood as a result of a material cultural entanglement with fossil fuels. Furthermore, Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011) is often used as an analytical tool to help understand these negative affective entanglements with lifestyles that are harmful for ours (and others) flourishing.
2 To avoid misunderstanding: I am not a modern, dogmatic atheist and do not mean prayer in a prerogative way. Facing an ecological catastrophe that seems boundless to any rational brain, I do believe it is helpful to develop a spiritual relationship to this crisis that supersedes us all in order to inspire hope and defeat cynicism and giving up. See also Jörg & Lerchbaumer 2022.
3 It is important to note that the “new” in “new materialism” in this case converges with Amerindian knowledge practices that are in fact much older than the “old” Cartesianism. This trait of a reactivation of in fact very old indigenous cosmologies in the context of late-modern Anthropocene discourses is something we encounter frequently in authors cherished by New Materialism, be it Donna Haraway (2015), Ursula LeGuin (2016), Philippe Descola (2015), Deborah Bird Rose (2002) or Deborah Danowksi and Viveiros de Castro (2017). As Alexis Shotwell (2016) argues, “newness” is only an absolute value for neoliberal marketing logic and should much rather be regarded in relation to the context of a discursive landscape. As Shotwell very well puts it when writing about Rodney Bell’s Maori-inspired dance performances: “In this way, he interpellates his audience into a norm new to them. Open normativities may not shift into something new in the world. They may, as in this case, reference Indigenous traditions that are new to dominant and oppressive norms” (Ibid. 160).
4 I therefore believe that the concept of “Seduction”, as most prominently developed by Jean Baudrillard (1991), but also latently reoccurring in other “post-modern” or “post-marxist” theorists such as Guy Debord (2013), can become a very helpful tool to develop such an expanded form of New Materialist reasoning and theory-making.
5 I propose to call this auto-poetic regime of auto-mobility that reproduces its own logics in a very effectiv and dangerous manner as the only perceivable option „Autoregime“ (Jörg 2020)
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