Matter of History

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* Book: Timothy J. LeCain. The Matter of History. Cambridge University Press, 2017


Contextual Quote

“I’ve become increasingly convinced that it is the growing immaterialism of modern society that is generating many of our most destructive political impulses and divisions. As we increasingly move into a digital virtual world, we create an immaterial environment where the abstract starts to seem more real than reality. In the past, our frequent engagement with the materiality of work and play had served to bring us back ‘down to earth’ where our shared human commonalities might bridge political divides. But now our identities are increasingly whatever we wish to pretend they are, and politics has become just another spectator sport that we play on the Internet. This, I would suggest, is the logical outcome of the post-modern cultural turn: an environment where immaterial ideas are everything and material reality is largely irrelevant. Any politics that does not recognise and counter this growing immateriality is, I be-lieve, unlikely to succeed in changing much of anything in the real World.”

- Timothy J. LeCain. [1]


Claudio de Majo:

“Timothy J. LeCain, professor of history at Montana State University in Bozeman, seems to have a clear ideas in this regard: perhaps a bit of both or, if you prefer, none of the above.

His latest book .. describes the interrelations between human culture and what he defines as a vibrant natural material world as a coevolutionary process in which the two poles mutually influence each other. Ac- cording to the author, as ‘natural born humans’, our evolutionary trajectory is embedded in a natural material world in which multiple actors have played an equally impacting role. LeCain adopts several challenging historical examples in order to prove this point.

From the farming experiences of two extremely culturally different areas of the world, American cowboys in Montana and silkworm breeders in Japan have equally benefitted from the social intelligence of other animal species, and their domestication can be considered as multi-species alliance based on mutual interest. Remarkably, in both instances this win-win game was only interrupted by the rise of industrial societies, epitomised by the proliferation of electric net- works, with wires stretching all over the world’s surface within a few decades. However, even a ‘synthetic’ landscape like that created by the industrial revolution presents its own challenging eco-material aspects, thanks to the unique natural characteristics of copper, the component that allowed human beings to extend these energy grids on a global scale. Ultimately, our current high-tech anthropic ‘smart’ spaces are the result of human intelligence and skilfulness, but just as much as the result copper’s resourceful qualities. In this light, it might be more suitable to consider human history as a coevolution- ary process: we are a telluric force that is creating a major ecological impact on planet earth, just as countless environmental forces have influenced our evolutionary trajectory in multiple ways.



Conducted by Claudio de Majo.

* Claudio de Majo: Let’s warm up with a broad question in order to introduce yourself and your research focus. What is neo-materialism and how is it relevant to environmental history?

Timothy J. LeCain:

I think neo-materialism can be understood as a version of some earlier foundational materialist theories updated to incorporate new humanistic and scientific breakthroughs. It owes a lot, of course, to Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory and the so-called ‘flat ontologies’ of Deleuze and Guattari, among others. These thinkers asked us to understand humans and their diverse cultures as emerging from their interactions with an environment of other agents, which could be everything from the copper wires in our walls to the trees in a forest to the cows grazing in a distant pasture. In this emer- gent sense, the cultural is always material, and the material is always cultural. Such a view pushes back against the long-dominant historical approach that framed culture – and the attendant society, politics, etc. – as primarily an abstract, ideational or discursive phenomenon that is clearly separated from the material environment.

This ‘culture mistake’, as I sometimes call it, was based on a mod- ernist anthropocentric worldview that sees humans as exceptional and distinct from the material world around them. Of course, almost everyone admits that humans are mammals who evolved from earlier primates, and that all must depend on a ‘natural’ ecological system just like any other creature. Yet most scholars to this day still understand human culture as largely or entirely separate from that material environment of ecology. Consider that we routinely speak of ‘eco-system’ services for basic human physiological needs like food and water, but we never consider that the emergence of art, music, politics, community and other seemingly ‘human’ phenomena can also be understood as depending on ecosystem services.

While Latour and others meant to escape the culture-matter distinction, in practice even those who embraced his theories of- ten ended up putting all of their emphasis on an abstract concept of culture that seemed relatively unmoored from material things. The emphasis of the past thirty-odd years of academic scholarship was on how human culture or social groups Constructed the material environment, while relatively little weight was given to the ways in which that material environment shaped and sustained humans in the first place.

Despite the field’s foundational basis in materialism, this empha- sis on an immaterial concept of culture even gained some traction in environmental history. Environmental historians had from the start sought to recognise and study the agency of the non-human world. But in the 1990s some scholars increasingly sought to ‘deconstruct’ the material world, seeing even ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’ primarily as human ideas or constructs rather than as material agents in their own right.

There was much of value in this, but it also tended to pull the field away from what had made it unique in the first place: a focus on the historical agency of the non-human environment.

Now the pendulum is beginning to swing back towards the material – but this time, the materialism in question is different. This is where I think neo-materialist theory is so useful: it takes non-human things seriously as creative agents from which the human animal emerges in all its dimensions, biological and cultural. More specifi- cally, it engages with many new scientific insights that have provided a growing empirical basis for understanding human cultures and societies as materially generated, sustained and embedded. Just to give one quick example, the new science of epigenetics tells us that the old nature-vs-nurture debates (which have an obvious parallel with the humanistic matter-vs-culture debate) are wrong. We must understand human physiological and cognitive processes as developmental.

Our genotype does not alone determine our phenotype, but rather environmental cues turn genes off and on during the course of our lives in response to the environment around us. In this very concrete biological sense, the material world enters into our bodies and influences how we think and act. We don’t just live in our environments – in some sense we are our environments. For example, there is now compelling evidence that epigenetic changes in Holo- caust survivors explain the measurably higher rates of anxiety and depression in their children and grandchildren. This phenomenon has been recognised for decades, but prior to the emergence of epigenetic theory it was assumed that the cause was a learned culture of poor parenting that was passed down through several generations.

* CdM: In this regard, which are the works of environmental history that in a way present a neo-materialist perspective, perhaps without explicitly defining it as such?

TL: Neo-materialism is my own neologism, and to date I can’t say it’s widely caught on! I felt compelled to distinguish neo-materialism from the more commonly used ‘new materialism’ because I was frustrated by the lack of materiality in much of the latter, which was often more about human ideas about matter than matter itself. But I also meant for the neo-materialist term to offer a more capa- cious rubric that would include lots of other very materially oriented works that didn’t necessarily self-identify as either neo- or new materialist. Many of these were in my home field of environmental history, which, as I note above, has always had a strong materialist strand, even during the peak of the cultural turn. Here I consider Donald Worster as the godfather of environmental materialism. But in a now legendary 1990 roundtable debate published in the Journal of American History, William Cronon and other scholars challenged Worster’s materialism and argued for greater attention to the then- aborning cultural turn, as well as to the still dominant social history analytical categories of race, class and gender.

By and large Cronon’s side won that debate and, as I said, the field’s centre of gravity shifted from the material to the cultural for a time. However, part of the reason Worster’s materialism couldn’t stand up to the cultural challenge was, I think, because it focused too narrowly on what he termed an ‘agro-ecological’ approach. In his zeal for materialist causalities, Worster went straight to the heart of what is one of the most powerful material realities in human history: how we extract food from the land. I understand the logic of this, as it was probably the best possible example for making the materialist case at that time. Today the situation is very different. For all the rea- sons, both scientific and humanistic, I’ve already noted, we can now begin to explore the materialist basis for many other aspects of hu- man history, including creativity, cognition and thus culture itself. The old 1990 debate hasn’t shifted so much as it’s been transcended.

In part that’s because de facto lots of environmental historians began doing something like this along the way, whatever theory of method that might have embraced.

My own thinking was especially influenced by scholars like

  • Linda Nash (Inescapable Ecologies),
  • Edmund Russell (Evolutionary History),
  • John McNeill (Mosquito Empires)

and even that early defender of the environmental cultural turn,

  • William Cronon (Nature’s Metropolis.)

While they may not appreciate being dragooned into service on this particular ship, I consider these and other works as constituting a broader neo-materialism avant la lettre.


More information

  • Interview: Neo-materialism, Human Evolution and the Future of Environmental History: an Interview with Timothy J. LeCain. Claudio de Majo. Global Environment 13 (2020): 659–673