Neomaterialist Design

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Michael Fisch on Neomaterialism:

"Viewed through Oxman’s work, biomimetic praxis is better described as a kind of inspiration that gives rise to a novel technical culture of nature. As such, innovative design is not something out there to be found in nature but rather something that emerges through inspirational technics of interaction with material nature. Biomimicry, in this regard, shares an ontological focus with what has been labeled “neo” or “new” materialism, which treats matter as animated. While building on traditional materialism, the “neo” of neomaterialism denotes a post-vitalist proposition whereby what animates matter is explained through theoretical physics rather than attributed to a spirit or essence.

At the same time, neomaterialism wants to move beyond the social constructivist under-standing of matter offered by Marx as well as think in non-dialectics terms that, in opposition to conventional historical materialism, allow for an emergence without the presupposition of a negative force. But at its core, neomaterialism is an ethical project that develops an alternative conceptual premise to civil liberal society that is founded on the valorization of reason and the agency of the autonomous rational subject who organizes nature into civilization (Coole and Frost 2010, 66).In pursuing this goal, neomaterialism recognizes that material things are active participants in the creation of order in the world. Neomaterialism thus echoes Latour’s call in actor–network theory (ANT) for the recognition of non-human agency. But neomaterialism also aims to go beyond Latour’s thesis, specifically by articulating an inherent ethics of material entanglements.

The neomaterialist argument is thus that matter displays self-organizing emergent properties that tend toward increasingly complex configurations and ecologies. As such, it demands that we acknowledge that human beings are merely participants in rather than masters over a complex ontological entanglement from which emerges a shared design for (human and nonhuman) lived reality. In other words, the argument is that there is a force of design irreducible to human intellectual reason. Design is understood rather as a system of organization that emerges from material itself. Ingold captures something of this approach when he suggests that materialism calls “for an alternative account of building, as a process of working with materials and not just doing to them, and of bringing form into being rather than merely translating from the virtual to the actual” (2011, 10).Design derived through human reason, according to this approach, appears as second-rate artifice in comparison to the complex self-organizing system that emerges from human and nonhuman interaction. This has important ramifications for thinking about ethics and social organization. Where liberal philosophy stakes its investment in the formation of social life con-tingent on an autonomous subject and rational mind, neomaterialism imagines the possibility for an inclusive social order in the absence of rational design. At stake is the idea of a nonnormative yet coherent ethical framework that is not the product of human design. It derives instead from a relational ecology of human and nonhuman actors. Yet neomaterialism ultimately falters in developing this point. While positing the important idea that matter is an active force in the creation of worlds and experience, it does not transform this idea into a system of ethics beyond suggesting that we need to pay attention to matter and the complexity of relations forming the world—thus falling back on an ANT model. Neomaterialism, as articulated by thinkers like Coole and Frost (2010), Ingold (2011), and Bennett(2010), stops short of realizing the radical implications of its insistence on form and matter as co-emergent phenomena. Not only does this insistence devalue the inflated Western philosophical currency of reason while making ethics a matter immanent to lived relations in and with the environment (rather than principles abstracted outside it), it also circumvents dualisms of nature and culture, organisms and machines."