An experiment with truth and beauty in cultural studies
I’ve just come back from Sciences Po in Paris, where I had the chance to study Bruno Latour’s new book, Enquête sur les modes d’existence: une anthropologie des modernes [An inquiry into the modes of existence: an anthropology of the moderns] (2012a). In the context of our CSAA conference this year where “things” have taken a decidedly “material turn”, I was arrested by the curious oxymoron, “the idealism of materialism”: “old-fashioned words”, says Latour (2012a, 106), that are “the principle feature of the anthropology [of the Moderns]” and “the first result of this inquiry, the one that controls all the others”. What does he mean by this “idealism of materialism”?
Those familiar with Latour’s earlier work (1993, 2005) might guess that this is a critique of a singular materialism or material world, akin to the singularity of “nature” set off against the plurality of cultures. For the cultural studies tradition, multiculturalism or cultural pluralism has been the happy hunting ground where we have celebrated relativism, marginality and diversity. But now we are paying the price for failing to ecologise, for leaving Nature intact. We failed to realise that there is no such thing, and that to take seriously the deconstruction of the nature-culture opposition is to see diversity not just “in” the domain of cultures, but also across “naturecultures” where non-human beings and things also play a part.
So, of course, materialism is a culturally specific concept. It only exists in those countries that use words like matérialisme, materialismo, or Materialismus. And this is despite the seemingly universal understanding of what “matter” is in the hard sciences (everything is made of atoms, sure, but in what domains does this really “matter”?) or what Madonna meant when she sang about the material world. There are worlds in which “matter”, as defined by Physics, is not institutionalised, and where Madonna songs are not on the market. So if the West has invented materialism as part of its Modern culture, we should understand it in its specificity, not in its potential universalism. It is this invention of materialism that Latour calls anidealism of materialism.
Stephen Muecke is Professor of Writing at the University of New South Wales, Australia. Recent books include Butcher Joe(dOCUMENTA 13: 100 Notizen-100 Gedanken, English/German, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, 2011); and with Max Pam, photographer, Contingency in Madagascar (Intellect Books, 2012).