Over at New Apps there’s been an epic discussion about constructivism and materialism. Over the course of the discussion there’s been a lot of talk about Foucault, developmental systems theory, discursive practices, and materialism. It all started with an offhand remark by Catarina Dutilh Novaes about social constructivism. I asked what exactly is meant by social constructivism and suggested, as I have in the past, that we should just talk about constructivism. What’s the difference? Social constructivism places all the onus of construction on signs, signifiers, narratives, norms, categories, discursive practices (i.e., all that pertains to the human). Constructivism simpliciter includes all of this, but also includes nonhuman entities such as tools, microbes, weather events, materials like wood and metal, animals, etc., etc., etc.
One of the things I’ve found striking in this discussion is the tendency for people to call themselves “materialists” so long as they are committed to the claim that discursive practices are material. I guess the idea is that idealism focuses on ideas and thought, whereas materialism focuses on practices. I’m all for focusing on practices and I agree that they’re material, but I don’t think this is sufficient for claiming the title of “materialism”. I even had one respondent claim that discursive practices literally bring entities into existence. In other words, for this person no entities existed prior to discursive practices and no entities will exist after discursive practices. Wow! I fail to see how such a position can, in any possible universe, be called a materialism. Rather, to qualify as materialist I believe a position must be reject anthropocentrism and be posthumanist. The rejection of anthropocentrism refuses to grant humans any privileged place in assemblages. Humans are certainly important to humans and clearly we’ll be talking about humans quite a bit when we do social and political theory, but they enjoy no ontological privilege. The world or being exists apart from humans, existed before humans, and will exist after humans.
A posthumanist position is a position that refuses to make claims like “discursive practices bring beings into being.” Humans certainly perturb entities in all sorts of ways. Sometimes they even invent entities as in the case of technologies, social institutions, and the creation of new atomic elements in the lab. However, this is a far cry from the claim that humans bring all other beings into being through their discursive practices. A posthumanist orientation treats humans as one more interactant among a variety of other nonhuman interactants such as animals, atoms, quarks, stars, meteors, various material substances, microbes, etc., etc., etc. Humans are participants among other participants, not godlike entities upon which everything else depends and which bring everything else into existence.
For me construction takes place everywhere in the universe, regardless of whether or not humans are involved. The fox and the hare busily constructed one another and continue to construct one another over the course of evolutionary history. There’s nothing discursive about this process. Stars are busily constructing all sorts of heavier atomic elements. Moreover, construction works reciprocally. Just as human norms and categories construct other humans and entities in the world in all sorts of ways, all sorts of other entities such as the bubonic plague, Hurricane Katrina, the H1N1 virus, cows, the foods we eat, etc., are busily constructing humans in all sorts of ways. Construction is a general ontological feature of the world, not a feature restricted to the “social”.