The Material of Knowledge
A new book just came to my attention, titled The Material of Knowledge, by Susan Hekman. This might be the first publication (as far as I know) which explicitly (and finally, for the encounter can be most fertile) links various forms of ‘new realism’ and ‘new materialism’ with feminist theory. It looks like and important contribution, one which especially realists of Latourian orientation will appreciate. I have just read the introduction (here), and I just wanted to share some passages to give the general flavour of the book.
Hekman’s project is to go beyond the constraints of linguistic construction of reality which postmodernism imposed on both science and technology studies (with various forms of relativism) and feminist theory (with some extreme positions of radical feminism) and envision a way out of this empasse, one (and herein lies the true contribution) focused on the contributions of feminism:
The way forward is a rejection of the binary imposed by the postmodern lnguistic turn, in orderto find a richer explanatory framework
This ‘sea change’ in philosophical thought, according to Hekman, is (or can be) led by feminism, due to its intrinsic interest in dealing with both concrete reality and with bodies and corporeality
The solution cannot be a wholesale rejection of the most important insights exposed by proponents of linguistic constructionism, but it must be a middle way able to integrate these considerations with a focus on the material/nonhuman aspect of reality–without reducing reality to either level
Hekman draws on Latour’s and Haraway’s work as two examples of denounciation of the evils of social constructivism, both in STS and in feminist theory. Especially the latter, according ot Hekman, has suffered from an excessive fascination with social constructivism: Haraway’s career is thus read as exemplifying the ‘dilemma of feminist theory’.
On the one hand the necessity to highlight how the apparent neutrality of techno-scientific practices conceals a substructure of gender discrimination. On the other the necessity to do so without ‘obliterating reality’ -the reality which science aims at studying- and reducing everything to a play of gendered signifiers. What is necessary is to describe a complex world, an hybrid world in Haraway’s term, by considering both the discoursive and the material.
[Reminds me of an interview with Haraway which I read somewhere, where she recalled how once the organizer of a conference where she was supposed to give a keynote speech took her aside and 'confidentially' asked her to clarify if she believed in the existence of reality or not]
Heckman therefore considers a number of areas where such a ‘richer’ theoretical approach is necessary, and where such a tension bewteen language and reality has been most present and where a ‘new settlement’ (Latour’s term in WHNBM) is possible: philosophy of science (where she draws upon Latour and Pickering); [interestingly] analytic philosophy (where she refers to Wittgenstein); a ‘reinterpretation of postmodernism’ (where she reads Deleuze and Foucault [!] as working towards a deconstruction of the language/reality distinction; and finally (and principally) in feminist thought (with Haraway, Bordo and Tuana).
Concluding her introduction, she introduces ‘the social’ as that field which must be explained at the intersection between language and nature
[This seens to me to echo somehow De Landa's considerations in the book object of an ongoing reading group? Not sure, I have not read it yet]
It is interesting to see how new books from different provinces of academia seem to converge on a return to realism: just as Jane Bennett’s book approached the theme of ‘materiality’ from a ‘political science’ starting point, Hekman does so from a background of feminist theory. In object-oriented circles, Haraway has often been mentioned as a potentially important interlocutor (and it will be a real one at an upcoming conference) and it is great to have a book bringing her and feminist philosophy in general in the arena of discussion on ‘new realisms’. I will soon order it!