Neomaterialism vs New Materialism

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From an interview of Timothy J. LeCain conducted by Claudio de Majo, on the occasion of the book, The Matter of History:

- "* 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 reasons, 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."