Friday 2 February 2018

Why the Latest Trendy Theory in Classics is Crypto-Reactionary

Official Gospel of 'New Materialism'
I’m at Northwestern Uni, Illinois, where I’ve been asked to address the Latest Trendy Thing Classics has borrowed from other disciplines: ‘New Materialism’. New Materialism says inanimate things have agency. Humans oppress things. The trendiest New Materialist, Jane Bennett, wants ‘to counter the narcissistic reflex of human language and thought.’ She thinks Matter needs to be discussed without thinking (yawn!) about ‘human labour and the socioeconomic entities made by men and women using raw materials’.

Prof. Bennett, Johns Hopkins Pol. Sci.
Old Materialists like me are obsolete narcissists, cosmic imperialists who oppress inorganic elements, minerals, liquids, and gases as well as organic flora and fauna. Bennett goes directly for the jugular of Marxism-influenced thought: ‘Is there a form of theory that can acknowledge a certain ‘thing-power’, that is, the irreducibility of objects to the human meanings or agendas they also embody?’

Please. The idea that academia been too focused on thinking about labour is preposterous. Only a scholar working in a country like the USA, where only about 20% of the workforce is engaged in agriculture or industry, the other 80% operating at a more or less extreme degree of alienation from the processes of material production, could possibly hold such an opinion. But try claiming that we are too focused on labour and the socio-economy to a citizen of Zambia or of Burundi, where the percentage of the workforce labouring in agriculture or industry is 96%. Globally, 40% of the workforce still works in farming, often at subsistence level in grinding poverty. Every year sees an increase in the number of humans involved in industrial labour.

New Materialists are Virtue Signallers who argue that they occupy higher moral ground than the rest of us anthropocentric narcissists. But Classicists—Be Warned! Ancient society, in terms of its relations of production, was far more similar to modern Burundi than to the UK or USA. If we are to understand the role of materials and objects in a play written in 458 BCE in Athens, then we would be well advised to ask how those materials were thought about in that society by—er, humans—as well as their ‘vitality’ or ‘thing-power’.  

The purple dye used to make the carpet which Aeschylus' Agamemnon tramples in his display of inter-class insensitivity crystallises millions of hours' labour, long before any weaving began. To obtain the amount needed to dye the TRIM of a SINGLE robe, 12,000 shellfish had to be culled alive and the vein containing the purplish mucus extracted and processed. The Phoenicians' most famous export was literally worth more than it weight in gold.

The Labour Theory of Value was not actually invented by Marx and Engels, but developed by them from the classical economics of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, who sought to understand how commodities acquired prices relative to one another in early industrial capitalism.  No other theory has ever explained so satisfactorily the relationship between value of commodities and income distribution across classes.

When it comes to pre-industrial societies, the sheer scale of the man- and woman-hours needed to keep up the supply of commodities produced relationships between humans and humans (slavery) and material objects unimaginably different to our own. I, for one, will not be abandoning all the advantages of thinking about how ‘things’ crystallise human labour, at least when considering classical, pre-industrial society, by jettisoning it in favour of the allegedly ‘radical’ (i.e. dehumanised) ontology of matter which the New Materialists are trumpeting.

[This is a summary of an article soon to appear in Melissa Mueller & Mario Telò (eds.) The Materialities of Greek Tragedy. Bloomsbury].


  1. Good read; another is Sarah Bond,
    "Purple, Indigo, And The Slave Labor That Produced Expensive Dyes"

  2. Apart from the craziness of the theory I really enjoyed the contruction of your argument dismissing it. Thanks.