Friday, 24 May 2013


In 2000, Michael Carter gave a seminar organised by IMA and UQ, Brisbane, on what he calls "imaginary materials". This seminar, with its contributions from academics such as Rex Butler and John Macarthur, was a response to Carter's earlier book, Putting a face on things: studies in imaginary materials (Power Publications, Sydney, 1997). The seminar was also published: Imaginary materials: a seminar with Michael Carter, ed. John Macarthur, 2000, IMA Publishing, Brisbane.
(Both publications -- in particular the seminar -- are now rather difficult to find).

Both publications address ideas about things, material, matter, that impact on the emergence of New Materialism. In the seminar, Mick discusses in some detail Terry Eagleton's 1990 work, The ideology of the aesthetic (Blackwell, Oxford -- and, yes, there has to be ideology if it's Eagleton!), so now follows a rather long quote, from Carter (p.16):

     "One of the themes that surfaces throughout Eagleton's thesis is the observation that aesthetics, as it has been construed within the tradition of Western philosophy, is drawn towards, and fascinated by, the ambiguity (even confusion) which surrounds human artefacts, and in particular the manner in which they complicate the line separating the animate from the inanimate. Eagleton refers to this ambiguity as 'a peculiar positionality', a positionality in which the work of art, as the paradigmatic instance of the artefact, is though of as ' a kind of subject'. What he seems to mean by this is that the work of art (and by implications made objects in general), by nature of their 'peculiar positionality', are regarded as manifesting certain of the properties normally associated with the ethical person.
   The morally virtuous individual lives within the grace and symmetry of an artefact. (Eagleton, 1990, p.34)
   "What is intriguing here is that he appears not to notice that, in this statement, the directionality of the metaphor is not quite as he might have intended and appears to be moving in a direction opposite to that which his argument requires. In fact, in the above quotation it is the human subject who is being figured in tems of the beautiful object and not vice versa. This meant that [for Carter}, it was impossible to make an alternative reading of that phrase 'peculiar positionality'. That is, as well as imbuing, or appearing to imbue, the artefact with elements of consciousness (the subject), consciousness may also be configured as if it were possessed of the grace, charm and order of the object. Do not those three terms, grace, charm and order apply with just as much legitimacy to the world of made objects as they do to the psychological dispositions of the subject? In the ocntext of the present argument what is more important to note is the way in which the author recognises that, within the very materiality of worked objects, it is their aspiration to a form of ideality that marks them off from their surrounds.
   Within the dense welter of our material life ...  certain objects stand out in a sort of perfection dimly akin to reason, and these are known as beautiful. A kind of ideality seems to inform their sensuous existence from within. (Eagleton 1990, p.17)
   "Again Eagleton uses a human category, that faculty of the subject called reason, to provide both an orginary point for, and standard of comparison between, the objects of our material life. The exceptional ones, the beautiful ones, are thosewhich appear to approach our condition and which appear to manifest our characteristics. Thus it is that Eagleton's text locates the origins of the aesthetic within the sentient, perceiving corporeal subject and not as a particular way of organising the material world and its appearance".

Carter goes on to locate links between the aesthetic and the imaginary, by way of the device of Eagleton's 'peculiar positionality'. It boils down -- in extremely simple terms-- to a transformation of nature (rather than the 'improvement' so beloved by Kantians and even neo-Kantians) 'into a condition where it becomes something in which it is possible to see ourselves'. (Carter 2000, p.21). This is Carter's 'imaginary alignment', a 'realistic illusion whose humility os preferable to the illusion of realism'. 

How close this is removed from a Kantian/humanist position could be debated. Is a re-positioning enough to call up the idea of a New Materialist ecology? Does Eagleton have a stake in maintaining the position of the work of art, the idea of beauty, and the stratification of society inherent in both these thing? How 'material' is the 'artefact' for Eagleton and Carter? Is Carter putting up an important consideration in naming the imaginary as an element that might need to be brought very strongly into play in evoking vibrant matter?

Wednesday, 8 May 2013


OK, OK ... you don't want to spend a bomb on books about stuff that will be out of fashion before sundown, or that don't have an index, etc etc. Here is the best freebie around on new materialism: Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin's New materialism: interviews and cartographies (2012), available through Open Humanities Press/ MPublishing, Ann Arbor.  The nitty gritty for arts practitioners (and thinkers) is on p.91, where discussion commences, 'In terms of artworks ...'. Surely a core statement for further exploration...