On material thinking

Materiality has been, for me, a way to engage with debates in cultural geography about landscape and the analytical over-emphasis (during the early 2000s) on discourse. The material, then (Hoskins 2007) provided a way for me to outline how our best efforts to control meaning at a historic site in San Francisco were always partial, limited, precarious. It was the material qualities of objects at the site (their size, weight, persistence, vulnerability to decay) that caused trouble and, sometimes, worked against well-crafted workshop-tested histories of race, identity and exclusion. After that, the materiality I dealt with emerged through social-environmental histories of resource extraction and the way important mining sites became woven into national and global industrial histories of progress and development. The material here became a foil for heroic conquest-of-nature narratives illustrating technological ingenuity or the dignity of hard work. And yet present at these sites was also a material rejection and disturbance of the stories being imposed. In the remnants of a hydraulic mining site in California, the agencies of matter, capacities of waste, and forces of toxicity all pushed against interpretive efforts to control and deliver messages about environmental ruin and the need for restraint. In the hills above Blaenavon in South Wales, the materiality of ruin and ecological recovery obscured tensions around class politics and labour solidarity. In South Africa I worked with museums and galleries in Kimberly location of ‘The Big Hole’, the largest, deepest hand-dug diamond mine operated by De Beers since the late 19th Century, to examine how histories of race, and colonial violence are obscured in Kimberley’s post-industrial role as an elite tourist destination, presenting a visitor experience of material absence.

In more recent research, I have explored theories and philosophies of value (Hoskins 2016) looking at the different ways historical value becomes coded into listing and designation schemes in the United States and United Kingdom. Materiality in this context features in terms of atmosphere and affect. Speaking with preservation advocates, planning inspectors and National Park Service leaders in Washington DC, I looked at the way emotions, feelings, and the palpable weight of history of a place, or a building – its ineffable, evanescent properties – are detected and codified in various criteria and scoring sheets used in making decisions about historical significance and designation.

Most recently I’ve been interested in material thinking as it appears and is worked through geo-humanities and geo-aesthetics scholarship, applying insight from emerging debates around non-human agency, dispersed subjectivity, the genealogies of non-life (Povinelli 2016) and planetary thinking (Clarke and Szerszynski 2020) to meteorites and impact craters (Hoskins and Peters 2020) and cultures of weather, specifically, wind (Hoskins 2020).

But I’m cautious about the ethical and political consequences of material thinking as conceived here, and this caution runs against a prevailing rush of intellectual energy embracing relational ontologies and the de-humanizing of thought. My concern is with the domestication of material’s otherness; a worry that the material is more different than we make it out to be in our accounts of culturenatures and earthly vitalism. The material seems to me, in my own work at least, to be doggedly indifferent, oblivious, and fundamentally uncooperative in our attempts to get close to it. The material rejects our embrace and ignores our invitations for mutual solidarity. While noting important contributions such as Jane Bennet’s Vibrant Matter, and the lively process philosophy that emphasises movement, mobility and change and underpins a great deal of contemporary research in the social sciences and humanities, the material can also equally and, perhaps, more appropriately(?), be understood to operate in ways that are not analogous to the human.

Enlivening the material is part of a broader neovitalism, a reification of life as the universal default and political ideal; life as the ‘appropriate’ way things should be and be known. The extension of life and voice into all sorts of geophysical systems like the soil, the weather, the planet, or the cosmos, has been important in shaping our critical social thought and in recognizing the self-organizing capacities of planetary systems but often these framings smuggle back in notions of agency and subjectivity that are surprisingly human-like (Ruddick 2017).

The second problem posed by the material embrace in Euro-Western scholarship is an erasure best explained by an example. The Santa Ana wind is a downslope movement of air that blows intermittently through Greater Los Angeles in October and lasts through winter months. Since the 1880s this wind has been scripted into the landscape through newspaper stories, local weather lore, and crime and romantic fiction, as a mood altering, malevolent, instigator of collective emotional contagion. California chronicler Joan Didion’s famous essay features the Santa Ana wind’s gothic haunting from the Mojave Desert. It is, she writes, ‘a weather of prickly dread’ that puts you close to the edge.

Lots of us might relate to this feeling of being moved by the weather and there’s a huge amount of work on the relationship between weather and health that goes back to classical times. But in the settler colonial context of California, writing about the weather as Didion does so compellingly, also creates what indigenous feminist anthropologist Zoe Todd calls ‘Aer Nullius’ (2016), a term adapted from the notion of terra-nullius – that blank-canvas concept so powerful in legitimating ‘discovery’ of the new world, its settlement and occupation. ‘Aer Nullius’ is atmosphere or weather as a blank canvas, a way of communing with nature that has become so seductive to a white middle class urbanised population. Aer Nullius side-lines previous (and continuing) indigenous presence, forced removal and genocide.

In other words, the material, as nature can appeal because it is ‘pristine’, removed from the complexities of complicities of politics and culture and is therefore liable to be misused to depoliticise, to erase and dodge earlier problematic histories just as ‘The Anthropocene’ a global universalising concept of white environmental concern works to obscure ‘the billion black anthropocenes’ and catastrophes visited on black and indigenous bodies under colonialism and slavery (Yusoff 2019).

And so, while the material, as engaged through an intellectual search for connection, mutual sympathies and political solidarity can lead to a profound refiguring of our place in a more-than-human, post-human world, it can also elide the profound indifference of the material and its refusal to participate or engage in conversation.

Clark, N., & Szerszynski, B. (2020). Planetary social thought: The Anthropocene challenge to the social sciences. John Wiley & Sons.

Didion, J. (2021). Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream. In A Route 66 Companion (pp. 150-152). University of Texas Press.

Hoskins, G. (2007). Materialising memory at Angel Island Immigration Station, San Francisco. Environment and planning a, 39(2), 437-455.

Hoskins, G. (2016). Vagaries of value at California State Parks: towards a geographical axiology. cultural geographies23(2), 301-319.

Hoskins, G., & Peters, K. (2020) Near-earth object geographies: collision heritage and planetary precarity. Society and Space https://www.societyandspace.org/articles/near-earth-object-geographies-collisionheritage-and-planetary-precarity

Hoskins, G. (2020). Making the Santa Ana wind legible: The aeolian production of Los Angeles. In Weather: Spaces, Mobilities and Affects (pp. 130-144). Routledge.

Povinelli, E. A. (2016). Geontologies: A requiem to late liberalism. Duke University Press.

Ruddick, S. M. (2017). Rethinking the subject, reimagining worlds. Dialogues in Human Geography7(2), 119-139.

Todd, Z. (2016). An indigenous feminist’s take on the ontological turn:‘Ontology’is just another word for colonialism. Journal of historical sociology, 29(1), 4-22.

Yusoff, K. (2018). A billion black Anthropocenes or none. U of Minnesota Press.

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