Let me put my claim simply: The “new materialism” is neither new nor materialism. It is, in fact, the old vitalism. Now I don’t mean to disparage the new materialism when I say this, or to position myself as some old Wise One who goes around proclaiming that there is nothing new under the sun. What I want to do is actually make a point that the historian of science Georges Canguilhem makes in his book, Knowledge of Life (Fordham 2008, orig. 1965). He says that vitalism’s great flaw is its “excessive modesty.” Instead of arguing for the “originality of the biological phenomenon” as a sort of “islet” within the larger empire of the inorganic, vitalism should rather situate the “science of matter” within “the activity of the living.” So what I want to say is, let’s call the “new materialism” the “new vitalism.” When someone like Karen Barad says that matter is a “congealing of agency,” she is returning to the vitalist tradition. Everyone knows that Henri Bergson is one of the great theorists of vitalism, but there are others who have been undeservedly forgotten. There is Hans Driesch, a great embryologist who gave up research for philosophy around 1900 and was one of the very first thinkers to link Husserlian phenomenology to a vitalist philosophy of the organic body (decades before Merleau-Ponty). There is Helmuth Plessner, another largely forgotten figure who wrote a “philosophical anthropology” that drew on Driesch and phenomenology for an analysis of the fundamental structures of human “positionality.” And there is Hedwig Conrad-Martius, a student of Husserl who did some of the most interesting work in a phenomenological ontology of life.
So, what is my bigger point? That the new materialism is deliberately running away from its vitalist origins and therefore failing to fulfill the mission that Canguilhem held out for vitalism, which was to assert the claim of life against the machine. Canguilhem thought that “knowledge of life” had a political significance that includes but is not limited to disrupting the techno-scientific power that capitalism exploits. He says, and you can hear how Foucault was influenced by him, that vitalism is a knowledge that expresses “life’s permanent distrust of the mechanization of life.” Vitalism is a response to a “biological crisis within the human species.” Vitalism is a knowledge with revolutionary power. The new materialism runs away from this revolutionary power and embraces instead desubjectified agential matter. Barad certainly is in favor of practices that disrupt the capitalist exploitation of human biopower, but there is a danger that she thinks that matter by itself is already revolutionary. What the old vitalism of Driesch, Plessner, Conrad-Martius and Canguilhem knew was that consciousness matters. To say this is not to endorse the idea that humans are the telos of life. It is to say that the knowledge of life (in both the objective and subjective senses of “of”) is not only about unpredictable forms of “intra-activity” but about how to release life from what Driesch called “the suffering brought on by embodiment,” the suffering of the living conscious being. Driesch spoke about the inherent yearning of all life for redemption. It is one thing to proclaim the agency of matter. It is another thing to seek redemption for the passion of the body.