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Where Are the Posthumans in Posthumanism? Configuring Materialities for Literacy Research and Teaching

Sat, April 29, 2:45 to 4:15pm, Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, Floor: Meeting Room Level, Room 221 C


This poster presentation draws on the literature of science studies (Hess, 1997) to historicize the recent “turns” to ontology, materiality, and posthumanism in literacy studies as part of a larger intellectual and political movement that cuts across disciplines – from feminist theory (Alaimo & Hekman, 2008) and continental philosophy (Harman, 2011) to media studies (Peters, 2015) and ecology (Tsing, 2015). In doing so, it argues that while many of these lineages and upshots share a common interest in unseating human subjectivity as the singular locus of agency, mobility, and knowledge – they are also characterized by important differences in the scale and means through which they configure “materiality.” This presentation takes these discontinuities seriously in order to (1) prevent “materiality” from hardening into an abstract, homogenous category, and (2) highlight how different configurations of “materiality” make possible new paths of inquiry in literacy research and pedagogy. In this way, the presentation attends to the question, “What does a posthuman perspective make possible for literacy theory and practice?”

Drawing on the literature of science studies - an interdisciplinary field interested in parsing “black boxed” scientific practices (Latour, 1987) in order to trace the nonlinear historical processes by which they harden into “facts” (DeLanda, 1997; 2002) – this presentation engages in a sympathetic yet critical reading of Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007), along with other theoretical texts that have found uptake among literacy researchers (e.g. Coole & Frost, 2010; Latour, 2006). While Barad’s emphasis on performativity of matter highlights the contingencies of material relations, her use of the evidence and lexicon of theoretical physics (which she insists should not be understood as metaphor) not only take at face value the assertions of elite professionalized science, but also position her own argument as a universalizing, metaphysical claim (cf. Law & Lien, 2012). I argue that this attempt to use “materiality” to bore down to some bedrock reality elides a range of material configurations that occur across scales, each characterized by its own contingent practices (DeLanda, 2006) – including those aspects of posthuman life that are not easily reduced to particle physics.

The presentation then pivots to explore some alternate configurations of materiality. In doing so, it argues that one of the great promises of posthumanism for literacy research is that it should not bind us to any singular theory of “materiality” – we are not beholden to Barad’s scientism or Latour’s version of non-human agency. Instead, we can configure materiality to bring a new perspective to long-standing inquiries in our field (e.g. problems of agency/determinism, cf. Collin & Street, 2013) – or to pursue new lines of questioning with profound and urgent consequences (e.g. relations between “new literacies” and geo-environmental concerns over climate change and the Anthropocene, cf. Chakrabarty, 2009; Parikka, 2015). In this way, the presentation holds scholarly significance by providing pragmatic pathways forward for theorizing and deploying “materiality” in literacy research, pedagogy, and practice.