New Materialism and/or Who is the agent?

by gunnarphilosophies

Conceptual Composition 14: New Materialisms

Who is the author of a portrait photograph? Traditionally, the credit has been ascribed to the person who holds the camera and pushes the shutter button. However, as anyone who has been on either side of the portrait photograph situation knows, the person being portrayed is often active and contributes to the work that produces the photograph as well – be it through demands on photographic composition, through putting on the right smile or other reasons. Depending on situation, the credit should be more justified were it to be shared between the parties, in varying degrees of course. After all, there could be no portrait photograph without a person to portrait. Furthermore – what about the environment – and the camera equipment? Shouldn’t they be credited too?

Who is the agent? Photograph from Wikipedia

New materialism is a collective name for recent currents and developments within the social sciences and humanities. Within this relatively broad and diverse discourse, new ways of thinking about the role of subjects in relation to material objects in different contexts are raised. A central aspect is the more active role given to the object, or, if you will, “dead” material. It is thus argued that an object, as well as a subject can work as agent in a given situation. In an essay from 2010, new materialist Jane Bennett uses the blackout of the American electric system in 2003 to illustrate this point. In the blackout of the system, many different things were identified to have contributed, some of which were directly related to objects rather than subjects.

Scholars involved with New materialism tend to think about the world as more of a complex and process oriented entity, rather than as a clear and direct action-response based one. Jane Bennett uses the chinese term Shi as a means of illustrating how a situation as such is dependent on “a specific arrangement of things” (p. 35), and how the “dynamic force [emanates] from a spatio-temporal configuration rather than from any particular element within it” (p. 35).

This way of considering the (social) world as consisting of a web of factors can be related towards the natural (and less subject dominated) world and parallels can easily be made to aspects of ecology, natural processes and biodiversity. The new materialist way of approaching the world is applicable on different situations and different fields. For example, in Diana Coole and Samantha Frosts introduction to New Materialisms – ontology, agency, and politics, the authors describe how the currents in New Materialism can be traced to several different fields, and they identify three main branches; ontology, agency and politics.

Returning to the question concerning the credits for the portrait photograph, it would seem that in new materialism, it is possible to find the arguments for ascribing the proper credits to work being done. Credits for a photograph, thus, should include not only the person that pushes the button of the camera. It should include also the portrayed subject. Moreover, it could possibly also include  “dead” objects of the site, including the background setting, as well as equipment, such as the camera.


Photograph taken by (and also partly depicting) the author. Photograph taken by use of a camera telephone

This has been a blog input written on a Laptop computer situated at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Alnarp. The blog was posted on a train bound to Gothenburg (picture). Influences have come mainly from three texts (New Materialisms, Vibrant matter and material complexity) related to the PhD course Philosophies in the research school Resarc. The text was written by gunnarphilosophies.


Jane Bennett, ‘The Agency of Assemblages’, in Vibrant Matter, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010

Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, ‘Introducing the New Materialism’, in Diana Coole and Samantha Frost, eds, New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010

Manuel DeLanda, ‘Material Complexity’ in Neil Leach, David Turnbull, Chris Williams, eds. Digital Tectonics, Wiley-Academy, 2004.