Ontological Struggles: New Materialisms and the Challenge of Impotentiality

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 4:15 PM
Room: Booth 52
Oral Presentation
Luigi PELLIZZONI , University of Trieste, Italy

According to Giorgio Agamben, the most devious operation of power today is not its hold over our potentiality – what we can do – but over our impotentiality – what we can not do. Following this insight the paper interrogates the recent turn in cutting-edge social theory from cultural constructionism to new forms of materialism and naturalism. On one side the emancipatory import of deconstructing traditional accounts of knowledge, reality and subjectivity is questioned for its eventual ineffectiveness against domination and inequality. On the other, cultural constructionism is deemed incapable to account for the materialities emerging from technoscience advancements. Traditional ‘negative’ modes of critique are replaced by ‘affirmative’ orientations which celebrate the dynamic, ‘vital’, ‘agential’, ever-changing character of the organic and inorganic world, and the definitive farewell to any distinction between epistemic and ontological states, substance and information, materiality and virtuality. The puissance of life is increasingly played against the constrictions of pouvoir. The paper analyzes new materialist standpoints, with special reference to feminist and post-Marxist positions, focusing on two problems. First, as if overwhelmed by technoscience’s ‘success’, new accounts of matter and subjectivity rely heavily on the former’s, hardly normatively neutral, images and metaphors. Second, the growing replacement of ‘being’ with ‘doing’ implied in new ontologies, suggests we are confronted with a most accomplished expression of the operational paradigm that underpins Western metaphysics. As a consequence, emancipatory puissance and dominating pouvoir are increasingly blurred in an ontological politics which seems today the ultimate terrain of social struggles – as testified by actual difficulties in distinguishing neoliberal human enhancement programs from new materialisms’ post-humanist pleas. Fighting inequality and domination, it is argued, entails pointing to the opposite direction to much post-humanist imagery, i.e. towards  inoperativeness and impotentiality. The paper discusses the indications provided  in this regard by Agamben and Adorno.