WP 13: Influence

The Influence of Old Materialisms; or, Three Scenes of Self-Regulation

Lenora Hanson

In “Materialities of Experience” William Connelly distinguishes new materialism from mechanical materialism as well as from the idea that “everything is in flux.” In other words, new materialism is neither a deterministic nor a chaotic materialism. Instead, the organizing principle of new materialism is the “oscillat[ion] between periods of relative arrest and periods of heightened imbalance and change.”1 An oceanic style of thought has emerged from the displacement of cause in favor of oscillation indicated here. The language of new materialism, as well as much post-critical writing, displaces the problem of origins and orders in favor of oscillation, vibration, inter-involvement, correspondence, analogy, etc.2 These methods explicitly privilege relationality as an ontological category over accounts of the conditions of possibility that order relations.3 They favor a redistribution of human and nonhuman agencies over causal accounts of agency, performatively enacting that redistribution through extensive lists and network analysis.

But causality continues to haunt new materialist attempts to substitute oscillation for determinism. To be overly simplistic, in such ontologically-concerned accounts, change occurs because the nature of matter tends towards change. What Connolly calls “emergent causality” is indicative of this problem, as it suggests that oscillation is its own cause—that is, that oscillation is both cause and effect of what is always already becoming. Causality becomes a tautological circle here. In an attempt to get away from determinist or transcendental causes, which depend upon a “higher power” outside of matter, new materialism refers us to “the dicey process by which new entities and processes periodically surge into being [triggering] novel patterns of self- organization….”4 New materialism thus ends up in a tropological circle in which causality takes the structure of substitution (that of oscillation, surges, and triggers).

This paradox is, at least in part, produced by a general resistance to Marxian accounts in which determinate causality was already displaced in favor of an overdetermined interrelation between life and activity called production.5 In contrast, new materialist approaches tend to conflate an ontology of the “inter” or the relational with a history of relationality. In the latter, the relational more often than not comes into view as a limit point rather than a continual emergence. Indeed, one way to tell the history of capitalist accumulation is through the dependency of paid labor upon social, affective, and ecological relations through which capital staves off imminent crisis. Another history of the relational would need to include what Rei Terada has recently described, a long history of philosophy hinges on non-essentializing and relational epistemologies that delimit political agency, not through determinate causalities but through the terms of mutual relationality and co-existence that she reads as a logic of racialization.6 This problem of the historical is significant because it provokes a mediation or a fold in the relational, one that demands an account as to how it is—not why it is—that particular kinds of relations exert the force of the causal and agentic (a transcendental force) without recourse to actually-existing determinate causalities or centralized agencies.

Below I take up this fold of the historical through a return to the putative difference Connolly draws between mechanistic materialism and new materialism. In the following scenes, I ask what it would mean if even in mechanistic materialism, causality was always already a matter of distributed relations? That is, what if even the age of mechanical materialism—that materialism of the 18th century—was more concerned with the relational than the agential? Or with the distribution of relations rather than with the matter’s absence of agency? What if agency was only the retroactive effect of relations that were more or less stable, more or less self-regulating, more or less equilibrating? Would the problem then be to redistribute agency, or to attend to those historical constellations of relations of which causality was an effect?

Here I assemble a series of scenes in which 18th century materialism can be seen as a repressed influence on new materialism, specifically in its theorization of vibrating bodies, self-regulating cycles, and nonhuman histories. New materialist repressions of its 18th century variants are immensely useful, however, in that they trace the contours for a more dialectical account of materialism. By engaging that influence more directly, we can understand negation or forgetting, in this case in new materialism, not as an actual erasure but as a repurposing of the debris of the past that can be usefully put into practice for the present.

Scene One: Economies of the Hand

Between 1749 and 1775, an allegory of materialism circulated as follows: A child reacts to an object impressed upon his hand (“The fingers of young children bend upon almost every impression which is made upon the palm of the hand”). After this first reactive desire (“excited by the sight of the favourite play-thing”), the child continues to repeat this motion (“After a sufficient repetition of the motions…reacting to the faint recollection of that first touch”). Gradually, these external sensations become associated with the sound of words the child hears his nurse say (“the sound of the words, grasp, take, hold, &c., the sight of the nurse’s hand in a state of contraction”) giving way to the simultaneous association of reaction, desire, and language (“at last, that idea or state of mind which we may call the will to grasp, is generated”). The culmination of this process is not a willful, voluntary subject, but a subject “secondarily automated,” one habituated into a cycle of socially-accumulated associations that he performs involuntarily.7

This operation is an economic one, a division of labor between organs (hand) and environment (nursery) that runs on an exchange logic. In this model, the will is a product of substitution, the economizing exchange between parts that are unified in the abstraction of time made visual. This visible hand constellates the mechanical and the sensible in 18th century materialism, suspending the body of the child somewhere between Foucault’s taxonomically-crazed Classical episteme and the 18th century. It depicts a body economic, one whose division of labor depends on its spatialization. Broken down into successive units, each instance is equivalent to the next on this highly visualized plane of description. Not just a physiology of the invisible hand, as free trade or the commodification of labor, here an innate equivalence, a natural price of sorts, is born out in a body where no variation affects the whole. Circulating through this scene is the relation between need (“excited by the sight of the favourite play-thing”) and the exchange of association as the play of equivalence, “necessity [is] the measure of equivalences.”8

But the substitutability—of part to whole, from part to part—in the associationism above is not mechanistically determined. It is a movement, a motion, an iteration. It is an oscillation between an arbitrary event (“The fingers of young children bend upon almost every impression which is made upon the palm of the hand”) and habituation (of domestic space, of linguistic signs, of descriptions of self-regulation). Equivalence is the ongoing mediation between the contingent and the historical; like a sign “it is arbitrary…because is totally subject to history.”9 Spatialized in the body, set in the backdrop of the nursery, history is enclosed in a cycle of the self-same—not a sameness predetermined mechanically but one continuously impressed into a motion.

Diderot and d’Alembert,“Pinmaker,” Encyclopédie (1765) They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society… (Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments 250)

For Jordy Rosenberg, such scenes of self-regulation mediated the disappearing profits of capital investment and the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century. The dialectic between the subject and the social tolerates excess, with the faith that cycles of liberal sociability will correct for it: “One senses one’s own processes of cognition and sensation and, in sensing them, senses the social whole.” Thus, excess—or what Rosenberg calls enthusiasm—comes to be the test case of the “ideal of British ‘equal’ exchange in the eighteenth-century labor and commodity markets,” as well as the way to distinguish between those subjects who are and are not self-regulating.10 The scene of the habituated hand above, conjured by the scene of the bourgeois nursery, shows us that mastering enthusiasm—the desire for the object—operates through the sympathy that individual parts have with the social whole. [Never mind that this mastery is supplementary, substituting the nurse for the mother, the nursery for the social, habit for desire.]

But self-regulating economies—of bodies, of things, of capital—did not always appear self-originating. In some instances, this series of substitutions is revealed as an act of force, more visible when scaled up from the domestic space to a map of empire. For instance, Joseph Priestley’s 1769 A New Chart of History orders the history of empire in a linear fashion not because this is how history actually works, but in order to train the eye and the mind to operate in a uniform and balanced manner. The linear, according to Priestley, facilitated understanding while avoiding the potential error of sensory excess. The linear representation of time is a physiological imposition, a disciplining of a kind, in which history creates a cognition that will “flow uniformly, from the beginning to the end…flowing laterally, like a river.”11 [In other words, whether line of empire or assemblage of matter, nursery setting or garbage pile, sympathy is a scene of force.]12

Joseph Priestley, A New Chart of History(1769) A history in which “events hung loosely suspended like so many insect bodies sucked dry” (Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, I2/6)

The nursery scene suddenly appears more like a positing of origins, an act of force inscribed onto the body, than a description of sympathizing, self-regulating habits. But what, exactly, is being ordered here, imposed upon? What, in other words, is being written over, remade palimpsestically?

Something like a memory. In 1749, David Hartley’s Observations of Man puts it the following way:

if a single sensation can leave a perceptible effect, trace, or vestige for a short time, a sufficient repetition of a sensation may leave a perceptible effect of the same kind, but of a more permanent nature; i.e., an idea, which shall recur occasionally, at not long distances of time, from the impression of the corresponding sensation.13

The self-regulating economy of bodies is not originary; equilibrating oscillations are not auto-originating. The “effect, trace, or vestige” is the condition of possibility for the corresponding sensation and its sensible economy. It is the not-yet corresponding, the vestige of an-other sensation. This means that there is scene before sympathy, an exteriority to the enclosed automation of the hand. The trace is the “constitutive exteriority” to what Benjamin described as the “natural process…the cycle of the eternally selfsame” that is bourgeois history.14 A trace is a vestige—what is left over is by definition a wrench, an excess—in the economic representation of the body’s division of labor.

The trace makes correspondence—like history, like automation—a retroactive imposition (of force?).15 Correspondence originates in a singularity that survives, in the temporal rather than the self-same. In this basic blueprint of the associating, economic body, in the first instance there is a singular, spectral event. That non-identity suggests something of a repression, an unconscious in which non-correspondence resides. If correspondence indicates the economic telos of a sensible body, the identity of parts achieved through equilibrium, then the trace escapes elsewhere. These origins are spectral, leaving the trace of another temporality hidden in the body, stored in the “positive unconscious” of the hand.16

The specter of the bourgeois nursery is found in the etymology of theft in the 18th century, which also finds itself imprinted in the hand. Patrick Colquhoun, creator of the first modern police force on the docks of London, referred to theft as pilfering.17 Pilfering, as one etymology dictionary has it, derives from the “palm of the hand.” This same dictionary also has it as meaning “to have signified to peel or skin.” Cant (or slang) dictionaries that promised access to the language of urban criminality catalogued “light fingered” as the term for thieves. And Priestley, the writer of linear history, recommends garnishing the wages of the working poor in order to discipline them into longer working days, concluding this recommendation with the specter of a hand in the act of theft: “[the common people] have no sense of shame in being supported by others, and are too ready to pilfer, though they have not always the courage to take by violence.” A vestige peeled back from the automated hand, this genealogy of pilfering traces an excess to the enforced equilibrium of labor’s division.18

William Hogarth, The Idle Prentice (1747)

Hovering always in the potential state of pilfering (pilfering is a transitive verb and to that extent does not need to take an object, can always remain a specter), these scenes put our hands into a dialectics of sensation rather than a cycle of the sensible self-same. Uncovering an uneven accumulation of “effects, traces, and vestiges” in the palm, at the origin of allegories of correspondence, these hands bring into view differential economies of the body. They distill a memory of bodies that did not go into the grid of the division of labor, of equilibrated bodies, of automated sensibility.

Vibrating bodies are crossed by the pilfering, the idle, the crimanal(ized)—not opposed to each other but in a dialectical relation. Within this trace structure, self-regulating economies of bodies can only be the site of a wish-repression: self-regulation is the repression of its material condition of possibility. It is the wish for what could be harmonious and self-regulating in the body, but that, for now, only represses a history of accumulation on its surface. A self-regulating physiology encases, in the negative form of the depiction above, an impression of the refusal of labor in the hand of a thief.19

Scene Two: Accumulation Impressions

In The Order of Things, Michel Foucault proposes a constitutive asymmetry within the advent of historicity, what he refers to as a “series of accumulations.” This asymmetry was schematized in the knowledge of the living organism: on the one hand there was the “great, mysterious, invisible focal unity” of biological functions and on the other the “biological being [that] becomes regional and autonomous,” making species “totally distinct from one another.” On the level of organic structure, one finds relations of “co-existence, of internal hierarchy, and of dependence.” On the level of species (what Foucault strangely never references as race although the term was used frequently in the very writing Foucault cites) “living beings…must group themselves around nuclei of coherence which are totally distinct from one another.”20 In an 18th century episteme, then, the living emerges as what is common to all and what creates a caesura that divides absolutely. Onto the commonality of biological function was mapped the absolute divisibility of self-enclosed species. Central already to this model, which in many ways provide the initial schema that would later be articulated as biopolitical state racism, is a non-contradiction between the corresponding and the divided.21

Mediating this asymmetry was the equilibrium any living organism was capable of establishing with its environment. A new order of things emerged in which absolute distinction was predicated upon the self-regulating totality of the living and its milieu. The asymmetry that shattered the knowledge of life into the common (comparative anatomy) and the incommensurate (species/race) redistributed hierarchies of the living through the enclosures of equilibrium.

While for the Foucault of Order this mediation of asymmetry and accumulation remains confined to the epistemic, the equilibrating operations of the living he describes provide the coordinates for capital accumulation in its biopolitical and ecological mode. As Alexander Kluge and Oskar Negt suggest, the “crude grasp” of “a capitalist economy fueled by automatism…is devoid of any economic measure or principle.”22 For them, it is because we (humans) have “internalized this principle of self-regulation” that we are the condition of possibility of capital accumulation. The latter sustains itself through the auxotrophic nature of the living and its continual modulation through relations with and dependencies upon others, as “a living being that depends upon specific associations with others because it is not metabolically autonomous.”23

In other words, accumulation spaces out its time through reproduction. We can understand this process through what Jason W. Moore characterizes the law of value ecological terms. There the non-identity between paid (productive) and unpaid (reproductive, social, ecological) labor defers the imminent tendency of the rate of profit to fall in a capitalist economy.24 Reproduction functions as the “constitutive exteriority” to production, the outside or the colonialized frontier that provides an equilibrating force. This outside is continually brought inside, recycled and circulated, for the purposes of stabilizing production, but always in a non-identical relation that unfolds in the space and time of colonialism. Here again asymmetry organizes and distributes the corresponding capacities of the living. Moore’s re-reading of the law of value highlights capital accumulation as a dialecticizing of the self-regulating and the exhausting, the reproductive and the dominating.

In other words, accumulation is the asymmetrical ordering of equilibrium. But what a general analysis of capital accumulation leaves to the side is how this non-identity between the relations of re/production manifest in the real abstraction of racialization. Daniel Nemser usefully describes such a process as the ordering of the “complex assemblages” that emerged in new classificatory systems of the living in the 18th century: “The shift away from ‘things themselves’ to complex assemblages…ma[de] possible a new theory of the human body and specifically of racialized life framed in a global register.”25 The non-identity, or what I called before the asymmetry, of capitalist accumulation is also the accumulations of these differentials in the embodied distribution of race.

Alexander Humboldt and Aime Bonpland, “Tableau Physique” (1802) “Vast submarine fund, in which all cultures, all studies, all proceedings of mind and will, all social uprisings, all struggles are collected in a formless mire…The passional elements of individuals have receded, dimmed. All that remains are the givens of the external world, more or less transformed and digested” (Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project)

Accumulation is not strictly an epistemic phenomenon of historicity, then, but is a sensuous, physiological asymmetry that leaves traces of the cycles impressed into the living. These traces are records of the radical asymmetry inscribed into bodies, what Foucault refers to as the erasure of genealogy as the progress of history, what Marx described as the history of primitive accumulation written letters of blood and fire. The accumulation-through-asymmetry that schematizes living things in the 18th century assumes its concrete form, not as Benjaminian arcades, as commodity fetishes, or as architecture but as ecology, colonies, and race.

The traces impressed by these cycles are also seams in which the knowledge of resistance and revolt, what Kluge and Negt call the obstinacy of history, is distributed. If accumulation is a temporality that is specific to the living, it is because the living holds the time of the past—that it is impressed with the traces of asymmetry. Thus the living is a product of historicity, which is to say of the accrual of the past (what Foucault will later translate into the inscribed body of genealogy). Here the living, rather than the commodity, is “the material in which traces are left especially easily.”26

But these risk disappearing in ontologies of recent post-critical turns that make the equilibrium of the living readily available over a dialectal reading, in which spatialization and transience mediate its immediacy. Such methods suggest that: “present experience and…original event are the same thing. It is as if we share our being with the past (taking the same ontological status) and so receive knowledge about the past (overcoming the problem of epistemology). Ontology and epistemology are fused.”27 History is fused not with the conditions of knowing, but the abstract substance of knowledge. The relation between past and present is flattened out—made absolutely continuous—in order for the past to be made immediately available to “present experience.” In other words, history is made entirely into a matter of thought and its ability to make equivalent, to create correspondence.

But if the above genealogies of correspondence reveal anything, it is that such operations of consciousness are a site of desire, the “wish image” of the “not-yet-existing” (the trace) of a “utopian imagination that need[s] to be interpreted through the material objects in which it [finds] its expression.”28 The wishfulness for sensible, self-organizing bodies to exist in a continuous present, through the fusion of the mental and the historical, the ontological and the epistemological, neglects the difference within accumulation that equips us with a language for understanding how fusion, interdependence, inter-involvement are organized differentially. Locating such bodies within this gap preserves the possibility of memory.

Treating the relational as a history of a “series of accumulations” would mean mining the seams of uneven and irregular production of violence, the disjunctures which allow for the crucial possibility of drawing from histories and relations that had to be erased in a particular ordering of relationality. Ontologies of the immanently fused, the interrelated, the analogous flatten out the trace of that ordering, risking another erasure of the conditions of possibility of what Benjamin called remembrance.29

Scene 3: The Mole and the Dream

And when [the sleeper] wakes and wants to tell of what he dreams, he communicates only boredom…For who would be able at one stroke to turn the lining of time to the outside? Yet to narrate dreams signifies nothing else.30

A 1792 English edition of Buffon’s Natural History gives the following entry:

The Mole has eyes so small, and so concealed, that it can make but little use of feeling. In recompence Nature has supplied it with an ample portion of the sixth sense. Of all animals the mole is the most profusely furnished with generic organs, and of course with the relative sensations…its little paws, with five claws, are very different than other quadrupeds, and nearly resemble the hand of a human being.31

Relatively lacking in those senses that make other animals suited to the immediacy of their surroundings—of the senses that provide instinct—The Mole relies on “relative sensations” and a “sixth sense,” a second nature perhaps, to make his way beneath the accumulated earth.

Incapable of seeing in front or behind him, he shares this constitutive lack—and auxotrophic relations—as well as “the hand” with the human being. This mole-human hand gestures to the mining work that must be done in order to turn the dreamtime/spacetime of accumulation inside out. It is a reminder that we live within and beneath the enclosures of autonomy and self-determination that emerged in the 18th century, but also that “‘the role of bodily processes’” are seams “around which ‘artistic’ architectures gather, like dreams around the frame—work of physiological processes.”32 This hand of the mole-human operates underground because history is not immediately available, because experience is not immanently interrelated. These hands know that pilfering is necessary because the resources for reproduction are not so readily available on the surface.

Long a favored animal of revolutionary thought, for Kluge and Negt the mole is significant not for its lack of sight per se, but because its life underground accumulates a history of traits produced alongside of capital accumulation. Second nature in this sense is not an alienation or a fall, but a store of memory-capacities waiting to be redeemed. The natural history of the Mole is “a secondary, black-market economy, where, isolated from the authority of the ego and capital’s logic of valorization, repressed and derealized traits take on an intransigent life of their own.”33 The obstinacy accrued in the bio-physiological processes constitute a subterranean field of acts and traits within the history of life, labor, language.

The problem, then, is to know how these traits, these seams, these dreams have been/will be organized and mobilized. This knowledge is a genealogical one, which is to say that it appropriates and activates the contingencies of the past in a struggle over the past. In this sense, a dialectical method shares a speculative and retroactive nature with primitive accumulation.34 If primitive accumulation is the mythical remaking of a contingent past into the necessary-present, then, in Marx’s own words, dialectical “research” also “has to appropriate the material in detail…to trace out their inner connection” so that “if the life of the material is reflected back as ideal, then it may appear as if we had before us an a priori construction.”35 The point is not to locate a continuity or sameness with the past, or to make the dead into the present. Indeed, to establish the relations of history on such terms is to enact further erasures, repressions. In Benjamin’s adaptation, the affirmation of a retroactively constructed history activates what has been lost to meet the demands of a contingent present. It is to carefully (Foucault says rigorously) trace materials for memories of what had to be undone for the present to be made, in an act that undoes the ontology of sameness. It is to locate material impressions that have the force of the originary, as the what is not-yet that has left its trace behind us.

The potential of this “as if” was theorized by Benjamin as a kind of psychic architecture—the dream. In Benjamin, accumulation gives way to cycles, too. But these cycles are structured like dreams, encasing traces of pastness in the “originary entwining of nature and history [that] pointed to a duplicitous origin and to originary transience, which not only corroded the assumption of primary substance or arche but also took leave of the metaphysical conception of nature as originary immediacy.”36 No matter how natural, how habitual cycles of accumulation might appear, they are continually disjointed by traces of transience. It is because of this that the material infrastructure of the present entwines destruction and remembrance, a repression and a wish. Dreams provide the connective tissue in which physiology meet infrastructure, where accumulation fails to erase its traces in correspondence.

Not for nothing, then, does the text that gave us the self-regulating body and hand at the beginning also note that “The wildness of our dreams seems to be of singular use to us…For if we were always awake, some accidental associations would be so much cemented by continuance, as that nothing could disjoin them; which would be madness.”37

Dreams are those associations expelled from the waking, self-regulating body. They are the material impressions that accrue within and alongside of it. Manufactured in the daylight, dreams are repressed and archived as nighttime materials, as the trace of differential associations and constitutive exteriorities through which accumulation occurs. Dreams, then, are the material impressions of an incommensurability that accrues between the body and habit, the asymmetry that structures reproduction and productivity. This eighteenth-century distribution of dreams as a madness, or a quasi-outside, generated by the same material process as that of self-regulating association offers a critical rejoinder to what I called above the “wish-repression” of self-organization. It models a self-regulating process that is organized through that which exceeds it (in this case dreams, but in the above scenes we can also say theft and unpaid labor, or the asymmetry of reproduction within capital accumulation). Against the causality of oscillation, dreams remind us that the problem has never been a purely determinate causality, or linear cause and effects, but of an accumulation that constantly fractures such space times. A materialist account of change, or of oscillation, thus requires an understanding not of determinism or linearity, but of the spectral and uneven way in which the future is continually drawn into the past, and the past into the future. Joshua Clover describes this time as the poetics of capital accumulation, as that uncanny “the future anterieur” in which “value ‘is’ not immediately, it only ‘will have been’.” “The task of dialectical analysis,” he continues “is not to discover a new cause elsewhere, but to see moments as both cause and effect, even as the process unfolds temporally.” In other words, we may not need new accounts of causality, but better accounts of how unfolding, one might say oscillation, operates through non-linear fixes. But we can also say that the task of dialectical analysis is to recover those pasts that were necessarily rendered non-causal, those constitutive exteriorities or specious associations of “madness” that have been necessary to that unfolding of accumulation.38 In other words, the task is also to remember that history holds counter-accumulations. Without such a dialectical, which is to say historical, materialism, materialism has neither a past nor future, only a continually oscillating present from which we will never escape.


Lenora Hanson is an assistant professor of English at New York University. Her academic work attends to the history of figuration, political theory, and the life sciences from the late Enlightenment to British Romanticism.