The development of the concept of practice in European thought can be described as a struggle to overcome a still pervasive amalgam of humanism, representationalism and metaphysical individualism. Various attempts have been made to break free from the basic and asymmetrical distinction between theory and practice, subordinating the latter by implementing the former. Yet, in most cases, these efforts are more of a suspension than a new beginning, a dissociation from a core, struggling to leave its gravity while orbiting around the declining centre.
Recent approaches in the succession of the overcoming and/or destruction of metaphysics by thinkers like Heidegger, Nietzsche or Freud unwillingly cling to what they try to overcome. Indirectly, veiled and distorted, a century old legacy is still at work. Even the approaches of Michel Foucault or Judith Butler as well as Pierre Bourdieu's practice theory, which I highlight as examples in the following paragraphs, still show traces of representationalism from the age-old humanist tradition.
Foucault's concepts of dispositif, discourse-practices and genealogy, profoundly reshaped how we think of the relation between knowledge and power. The human body, its disparate motions and affections, are formed and normalised, shaped according to codes and surveyed by various means of registration and observation: in hospitals, sanatoriums, or penal institutions an identifiable subject is produced which can be put to use (Foucault, 1977). Instead of being purely externally constituted and totally dominated, the individual actively participates in its own creation. This becomes central in Foucault's late work that focuses on self-practices, like writing letters and journals in a specific manner, or confessing one's sins towards an authority (Foucault, 2005). Subjectivity appears, accordingly, as a practical folding of power (Deleuze, 1988). When struggling to find a source for subversive ways of fashioning oneself, Foucault reaches an impasse. Trying to find a foundation for a critical theory of the subject beyond genealogy, Foucault only hints to a vague but potent external of power and knowledge (Foucault, 1966). In his late works on the technologies of the self, he mentions a crucial mode of ethical experience that is not shaped and defined by codices, laws and orders, containing the potential of self transformation (Foucault, 1990; Butler, 2004). In short, Foucault prevents himself from creating an explicit theory of matter. He is doing so for good reasons perhaps, but nevertheless fails to lead us out of this dilemma.
Judith Butler's work fruitfully transferred performativity from theories of speech act to cultural and social practices. She highlighted that the relevance of feminist theory is rooted in a critical understanding of matter that does not revert to assumptions of pre-discursive substances. Yet, as Karen Barad argues, Butler does not succeed in rethinking materiality as an active part of the process of materialisation (Butler, 1993; Barad, 2007). Butler's approach is only focused on the human body, not on bodies in general and hence, like Foucault, is still oriented towards the binary divide of nature vs. culture.
Arguably one of the strongest attempts in explicitly reversing the hierarchy of theory and practice can be found in Pierre Bourdieu's concept of habitus. Generating principle, structured, and structuring structure at once, the habitus is acquired under the individual's objective circumstances (culture, class, education, family, etc.) and enables the individual to master social situations by causally producing and selecting possible choices. Habitus is realized in various shared practices. It is embodied past, effective in the present, and striving to establish itself in the future. Hence it reproduces the conditions under which it was formed (Bourdieu, 1990, p.52). Bourdieu's theory of practice marks a turning point in sociology since it emphasizes both the interrelatedness of the individual to its environment and its shaping potential on perception and decision making. Still, some have claimed that his theory only transfers desires and interests that motivationally guide individual acts to the next social level: in grounding habitus inextricably in social fields and classes, it finally becomes the embodiment of class struggle (Schatzki, 1997,p.289), individuals become unconsciously guided by inner calculations and the revealing of these relations becomes the social scientist's main task (Boltanski, Honneth, Celikates, 2014, p.562).
More recently, with the work of Karen Barad (amongst other contemporary scholars), a new stream of post-humanist thinkers of practice have finally left the orbit mentioned above. Following Foucault and Butler, while enabling new readings of their work on subjectivization (Vogelmann, 2012), Barad offers a diffractive reading of Niels Bohr's philosophy of quantum physics that finally bursts the orbit around the rational individual and its internal representation of the world. Her account on performativity and practice not only catalyses the need to reconfigure theories of science, but also attempts to be useful to feminist theory. Barad proposes a vocabulary of practices, doings, and actions in order to prevent the recycling of tropes of optics and reflection – metaphors that have a long and problematic history in the foundation of objectivity which presents itself as unsituated knowledge but can be revealed as a "conquering gaze from nowhere" (Haraway, 1998, p. 677). Instead of postulating a distant, cut off outside world that is (more or less successfully) reflected in language as pictures and images (i.e. mental representations), Barad's aim is to acknowledge the dynamic powers of matter beyond or apart from its representation.
Her agential realistic account does not start with any kind of cut, but thinks of cuts and separations as the effect of various practices, which do not necessarily involve human beings as agents. In reference to the work of Bohr, Barad considers phenomena as primary ontological units. These units are composed of numerous elements that are, in turn, separated by the enactment of practices and apparatuses (e.g., observed and observer). In other words, there are no relata before the relation; an agential cut is put into place by what Barad calls an intra-action, creating an "exteriority-within-phenomena" (Barad, 2007, p.140). In its complexity and creativity, matter constantly produces ever changing differentiations — observer and observed, human and non-human, idea and reality or thing versus thing as singular entities — that can be analysed or measured in isolation. Thus, phenomena "are the ontological inseparability/entanglement, of intra-acting agencies." (Barad, 2007, p.139).
In this regard, Barad often speaks of apparatuses, that is, of neither "mere observing instruments" (Barad 2007: 140) nor "merely laboratory setups" (Barad, 2007, p. 146). She understands apparatuses as dynamic configurations, which produce specific phenomena with specific qualities: apparatuses are practices. Barad's foundation of a post-humanist process ontology is best exemplified by her reading of physical experiments, such as, for instance, the Stern-Gerlach experiment of 1922 (Barad, 2007).
As material-discursive practices, apparatuses are the material condition of the possibilities and impossibilities of materialisation. They are themselves open-ended phenomena and "dynamically reconstituted as part of the ongoing intra-activity of the world" (Barad, 2007, p.146). Matter, accordingly, is not considered as a stable substance – "not a thing but a doing, a congealing of agency" (Barad, 2007, p.151). Finally, Barad does not say "that human practices have no role to play; we just have to be clear about the nature of that role." (Barad, 2007, p. 171). This role, in short, is not predefined, but a highly relational one: always entangled with practices and phenomena that are material and discursive at the same time. Consequently, Barad not only describes here own project as onto-epistemo-logy (since practices of knowledge and practices of being can never be separated), but also emphasizes the need for ethico-onto-epistemo-logy, which takes the interweaving of ethics, knowledge and being seriously.
Synonyms: process, enactment, doing, praxis, routine
Antonyms: subject-object dichotomy, representation, humanism
Hypernyms: ontology, post-humanism
Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the Universe halfway: quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Boltanski, L., Honneth, A., Celikates R. (2014). Sociology of Critique or Critical Theory? Luc Boltanksi and Axel Honneth in Conversation with Robn Celikates. In: S. Sisen & B. Turner (Eds.), The Spirit of Luc Boltanski: Essays on the 'Pragmatic Scociology of Critique'. London: Anthem Press. pp. 561-590.
Bourdieu, P. (1990). The Logic of Practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of "sex". New York: Routledge.
Butler, J. (2004) What is Critique? An Essay on Foucault's Virtue. In: S. Salih (ed.) The Judith Butler Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 302—22.
Deleuze, G. (1988). Foucault. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Foucault, M. (1966). La pensée du dehors. in: Critique (229), 523-546.
Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and Punish. New York: Pantheon.
Foucault, M. (1990). Qu'est-ce que la critique? [critique et Aufklärung]. In: Bulletin de la Société de Philosophie (LXXXIV), pp. 35-63.
Foucault, M. (2005). The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France 1981-1982. Hampshire: Picador.
Haraway, D. (1998). The Persistence of Vision. In: N. Mirzoeff (ed.) The Visual Culture Reader, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 677-684.
Schatzki, T. (1997). Practices and Actions. A Wittgensteinian Critique of Bourdieu and Giddens. In: Philosophy of the Social Sciences (27.3), pp. 283-308.
Vogelmann, F. (2012). Foucaults Praktiken. In: Coincidentia. Zeitschrift für europäische Geistesgeschichte (3.2), pp. 275-299.
COST Action IS1307 New Materialism: Networking European Scholarship on 'How Matter Comes to Matter'.
Here you will find background material, current activities, calls for papers, working group information, and project outputs.
With the changing of societies on local, national and international scales owing to economic, ecological, political and technological developments and crises, a reorganized academic landscape can be observed to be emerging. Scholarship strives to become increasingly interdisciplinary in order to grasp and examine the unfolding complexity of ongoing ecological, socio-cultural and politico-economic changes. Additionally, academics forge... Read more or find out Who's Who
Information relating to activities undertaken, including conferences, training schools, short-term scientific missions, and annual meetings, are archived here.
Working Groups focus on four key areas of research
Working Group One
Genealogies of New Materialisms; examines and intervenes in canonization processes by compiling a web-based bibliography, coordinating the OST 068/13 8 EN... Read more
Working Group Two
New Materialisms on the Crossroads of the Natural and Human Sciences; seeks to develop new materialisms at the boundaries of the human and natural sciences. The group focuses on how European new materialisms can rework the ‘Two Cultures' gap... Read more
Working Group Three
New Materialisms Embracing the Creative Arts; brings together European researchers, artists, museum professionals, and other activists with a keen interest in the material... Read more
Working Group Four
New Materialisms Tackling Economical and Identity – Political Crises and Organizational Experiments... Read more
The Almanac comprises contributions from members of working groups, and participants in related activities, delineating key terms, more esoteric neologisms, and short provocations. Read more
New Materialism —
Networking European Scholarship on 'How matter comes to matter’
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