Who We Are
Materia is a DLCL Focal (formerly Working) Unit on anthropodecentric thinking. Since 2014, the group has served as a platform for graduate and faculty research. Our meetings combine reading discussion, student presentations, and guest speakers. Regular workshop meetings include participants from ILAC and Comp Lit (the pillars of the group), as well as from English, MTL, German, Anthropology, and Music, among others. We collaborate with several other groups on campus and correspond with similar projects in the Bay Area and elsewhere. Cognate courses, as well as completed and ongoing dissertation projects, speak to the continuing impact of the group.
There have been thirty-three workshops and an international conference to date. The former average twenty-five participants; the latter had over seventy. We look forward to continuing serving as a vibrant space for the research of faculty and students from Stanford, the Bay Area, and beyond.
Héctor Hoyos and Ximena Briceño
Sofía Silva and João G. Viana
Graduate Student Coordinators
We would like you to know a little about our history.
In our sixth year of activities, we hosted reading discussions and lectures on the general theme of “Life and Transmission.” With this theme, we intended to think critically about the pandemic—a crisis where the interaction of humans and nonhumans is laid bare—while looking beyond the conjuncture. One goal for the year’s series was to develop a common vocabulary around such topics as “virality,” “toxicity,” “contagion,” “extimacy,” and “biopower,” among others. All our meetings were held online with an average attendance of twenty-five participants.
The Fall quarter started off with a discussion on Money & War led by PhD Candidates Colin Drumm (History of Consciousness, UC Santa Cruz) and Harleen Kaur Bagga (Art History, Stanford). In his talk, Drumm discussed monetary politics and the limitations of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), shedding light on continuities and discontinuities between Mediterranean antiquity, early modern England, and contemporary world finances. Kaur Bagga also interrogated the relationship between contemporary and early modern frameworks. Her presentation examined Peter Snayers’ (1592-1666) topographic-analytical battle paintings from an anthropodecentric perspective. The second meeting of the Fall quarter featured a double lecture by Professors Timothy Campbell (Romance Studies, Cornell) and María del Rosario Acosta López (Hispanic Studies, UC Riverside). Both talks were carried out under the common theme of “Impolitical Critiques & Decolonial Grammars.” Campbell drew upon an earlier moment of Italian Thought, referred to as “the impolitical,” in order to contest the hegemony of what he called “the biopolitical reflection.” He elucidated the impolitical possibilities for biopolitics in order to avoid turning politics into a constant quarrel over the status of life. In turn, Acosta López engaged in a self-critical reflection on the limits and decolonial potential of her former project “grammars of listening.” She examined the extent to which said project holds under the scope of a decolonial look, and proposed two possible strategies for a “decolonization of listening;” namely, the invention of history and the resistance of memory.
Building upon the connection between the materialization of memory and the representation of history, the first discussion of the Winter quarter focused on the convening theme “Light, Matter, Meat, and Flesh.” The discussion was led by graduate students Fabián Mosquera (Hispanic Languages and Literatures, Pittsburgh) and Valeria Meiller (Spanish and Portuguese, Georgetown), who discussed their ongoing research and prompted a lively conversation among participants. In his talk, Mosquera reviewed the historically anthropocentric reading of Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Saint Matthew to contend that the film articulates a meta-cinematographic community—composed of a cloud of fireflies, a “synagogue of the iconoclast”—whose affective and poetic materiality prevails over the ruins of sociopolitical devastation. From an equally anthropodecentric viewpoint, Meiller examined the slaughterhouses built by the Argentine architect Francisco Salamone in the 1930s as spaces that hold valuable answers to how the meat industry helped shape a nation known worldwide for its meat production and steak culture. To close off the quarter, we organized a double lecture with Professors Gisela Heffes (Rice University) and Prof. Arndt Niebisch (University of Vienna). The event, titled “Uncontained Toxicity,” stood as a unique opportunity to put in conversation different departments (Latin American Studies and German Studies), as well as multiple disciplines (from Media Studies to Literary Criticism, History, Ecocriticism, Cultural Studies, and Cybernetics). In her talk, Heffes addressed the recurrence of toxicity in contemporary narratives of Argentina as a discourse of mutation and inoculation that appeals to a toxic semiotic while rendering bodies and spaces phantasmagoric specters. In turn, Niebisch revisited William S. Burroughs’s notion of the “word virus” and discussed how Burroughs subversive media guerilla is taken up by posthuman agents in social media networks.
Following our Fall and Winter conversations, the Spring quarter started off with a lecture by Professor Sybille Krämer (Aesthetics and Culture of Digital Media, Leuphana University) and a response by Hank Gerba (Art History, Stanford). Prof. Krämer’s lecture addressed women’s forgotten contributions to digital literacy and operative writing, from the 800 CE to contemporary techno-feminist movements in both the East and the West. In his response, Gerba posed enriching questions on the hidden layers of contemporary computing and provided insightful examples of women’s contributions to technology throughout modern history. Also in the Spring quarter, we featured presentations by graduate students Jameelah Morris (Anthropology, Stanford) and Reagan Ross (Communication, Stanford), whose works center on historical memory, the continuities of slavery and colonization, and Black activism. The capstone event of the year featured Professor Jennifer French (Spanish, Williams College), who will addressed the Spanish-Paraguayan anarchist Rafael Barrett’s anthropodecentric writings in conversation with Professor Javier Uriarte (Stony Brook University).
For previous years, including talks by Donna Haraway, Ericka Beckman, Eric Santner, and other distinguished speakers, see our Event archive.
We had an exciting line-up of reading sessions and guest speakers joining us on 2019-2020. Our theme of the year was “Information & Form.”
The Fall quarter started off with a reading discussion focused on new extractivisms – a phenomenon that encompasses natural resource exploitation, data mining, and transnational finance operations. Addressing this complex topic in our first meeting allowed the materia community to reflect on contemporary issues, from political and environmental conflicts at a global scale to personal privacy. The second meeting of the Fall quarter entailed a double lecture with Professors Tom McEnaney (UC Berkeley) and Micah Donohue (Eeastern New Mexico University). Both talks were carried out under the common theme of Borders & Technology. In this context, Professor Donohue explored the concept of “virtual literature” through his readings of interconnected texts by three authors: Jorge Luis Borges, José Saramago, and Ursula K. Le Guin. In turn, Professor McEnaney focused on interactions among art, architecture, activism, and digital infrastructure in contemporary Havana.
Building on the connection between online infrastructures and social relations, the first reading discussion of the Winter focused on Secrecy & Virtuality. The discussion was led by graduate students Juan Esteban Plaza (ILAC) and Jason Beckman (EALC), who discussed their ongoing research and prompted a lively conversation, covering from political conspiracies in 20th-century Latin America to the problem of empathy in literature and VR frameworks. To close the quarter, we organized a double lecture with Professors Chad Wellmon (University of Virginia) and Justin Read (University at Buffalo). The event, entitled Asynchronous Avant-gardes, stood as a unique opportunity to put in conversation different departments (German Studies and Spanish and Portuguese), as well as multiple disciplines (from Media Studies to Literary Theory, History, Cultural Studies, and Cybernetics). In his talk, Chad Wellmon traced a cross-disciplinary history of search, from 18th century Germany to Google, culminating in a critique of contemporary techno-utopianism. Departing from a dystopian assessment of the state of the art of technology, Justin Read read Mexican novelist Yuri Herrera through the lens of theorist Vilém Flusser.
For this Spring quarter, a two-day event and a reading discussion were planned. The event, entitled Matter, Sentience, and Agency and scheduled for March 30th-31st, encompassed a distinguished lecture by Professor Jane Bennett (Johns Hopkins University) and a talk by Professor Reza Negarestani (The New Centre for Research & Practice), followed by an interdisciplinary roundtable composed of Stanford faculty. The organization of this initiative involved a truly collaborative and interdisciplinary effort, made possible by co-sponsorships from the Stanford Humanities Center, the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences, the Department of History, the Department of Philosophy, the Department of English, and the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. This initiative was suspended due to COVID-19. The authorization of our main sponsors to hold on to their funding for the upcoming academic and fiscal year allows us to project the realization of this event in 2020-2021.
The second meeting programmed for the Spring quarter entails a reading discussion led by Professor Angela Rios (Anthropology) and graduate student and former materia coordinator Daniel Hernández (ILAC). Under the title Ethnographic Devices, this gathering is set to take place on May 11th and will be the first materia event to be carried out entirely online.
Oct 7: Reading Session: New Extractivisms
Nov 4: Borders & Technology double-lecture with Tom McEnaney (UC Berkeley) And Micah Donohue (ENMU)
Jan 27: Secrecy & Virtuality discussion led by Juan Esteban Plaza (ILAC, Stanford) and Jason Beckman (EALC, Stanford).
Feb 24: Asynchronous avant-gardes double-lecture with Chad Wellmon (UVA) and Justin Read (University at Buffalo)
March 30: Distinguished lecture by Jane Bennett (Johns Hopkins University) [cancelled due to COVID-19]
March 31: Intelligence & Spirit talk by Reza Negarestani (The New Centre for Research & Practice) in conversation with Stanford Faculty [postponed due to COVID-19]
May 11: Post-naturalist Fictions led by Daniel Hernández (Stanford University) and Sebastián Figueroa (University of Pennsylvania)
Power and the Non-Human
The main theme of the third year was “Power and the Non-Human.” We took our cues, among other sources, from the rich discussion of the New York city blackout of 1977 in Jane Bennett, the quasi-novelization of the Cuban history of tobacco and sugar in Fernando Ortiz, and the multifarious elucidations of the technosocial in Bruno Latour. Rather than thinking of politics as an exclusively human phenomenon, as if the social order were not also maintained by nonhuman actants, we will engage with materiality both in its cultural representation and as a condition of possibility for research in the humanities. The events of the year all tackled this problem, from different angles.
materia has established a discursive space on campus for sustained intellectual exchange across departments. Our regular participants come from ILAC and Comp Lit (the pillars of the group), as well as from English, MTL, German, Anthropology, and Music. Faculty, graduate students, visiting scholars, and undergraduates are among them; the more numerously represented group is grads. Our Latin Americanist-centered, inclusive approach has proven felicitous: a combination of theory, fiction, and other cultural products from the region and from elsewhere enriches our reflections. One aspect to highlight is the integration of preparatory readings into our proceedings. Either as background for talks and discussion or as the main conversation topic, they provide continuity and build-up across our meetings.
Oct 2: Readings: Lamborghini’s Tadeys, Vieira’s “Sermão de Santo António aos Peixes,” and Eagleton’s Materialism (excerpts).
Nov 13, with the Environmental Humanities Project: Orlando Bentancor, Barnard College and Laurie Palmer, UC Santa Cruz
Jan 22: Zac Zimmer, UC Santa Cruz and Monica VanBladel, Stanford University
Feb 26: Marisol de la Cadena, UC Davis
Apr 16: Chloe Rutter-Jensen, Universidad de los Andes and Patricia Valderrama, Stanford University
May 14: Bill Brown, University of Chicago
PIGOTT HALL (BLDG. 260), RM. 216
Since Fall Quarter 2014, materia has hold twelve workshops and a conference to date. The former averaged twenty-five participants; the latter had over seventy. During the first year, the group discussed–and coined– the notion of “post-anthropocentric” as an umbrella term that sets in conversation a host of otherwise divisive trends. This is in itself a major contribution of the group; as the cultural or linguistic turns before it, the post-anthropocentric has the potential of generating entire bodies of research. Regarding the theme of animality and ecocriticism, ILAC Lecturer Ximena Briceño and graduate coordinator Monica VanBladel guided a discussion on reading selections by Jacques Derrida and Donna Haraway, who gave a keynote at last year’s conference. We also had Professor Gabriel Giorgi from New York University presenting his most recent book and sharing his views on literary depictions of animals as expression of biopolitical entanglements, as opposed to political allegories. Finally, we read Pope Francis latest encyclical in the light of Philip Drake’s theory of politics within Animal Studies, followed by a lecture by Professor Dierdra Reber, from Emory, who presented her work on Animal Commune-ism and empathy. Part of our discussions have agreed that a focus on animality need not be at odds with an object-centric orientation, as our conversations have revolved around the organic/in-organic divide and its literary emplotment.
On the subject of value and political economy in the anthropocene, Professor Eric Santner, from the University of Chicago, proposed a new interpretation of Marx’s theory of value as one concerned with the afterlife of political theology in secular modernity. During her lecture, DLCL alumna Ericka Beckman, then an Associate Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, currently at UPenn, compared depictions of land (tierra) in the work of Chilean writer José Donoso and in that of the Mexican Juan Rulfo. Beckman focused on land as property bound by space and time (unlike financial assets) and showed how writers imagine a “rural hell” of peasant dispossession. Both discussions questioned the role of economy, value, and property in a space without the human as a center.
Regarding the idea of post-humanities, Anna Castillo, PhD Candidate in ILAC, presented on her dissertation. Castillo examined the potential effects of new technologies’ ever-intensifying intrusion into everyday sexual intimacy and its presence in Latin American contemporary literature. Previously, Professor Andrew Brown, from Washington University in St. Louis, had surveyed renderings of the posthuman in Latin American fiction as an instrument for navigating complex political and social realities. Per his account, the trope of “Latin American cyborg subjectivity” processes the experience of dictatorship and problematizes neoliberalism. In a similar vein, Distinguished Professor Francine Masiello, from UC Berkeley, examined how. under authoritarian regimes of the 1970s and 80s, a focus on the “bare life” conditions of the detained and disappeared triggered a wide conversation in the arts regarding ways to represent the body in relation to sensory perception. She mainly focused on how the visual and essayistic works of Chilean Guillermo Núñez and Brazilian Nuno Ramos register a crisis of experience.
Finally, we held other events regarding interdisciplinary approaches to material culture, including connections with art and philosophy. Professor Craig Epplin, from Portland State U., shared his work on dérive in the installations of the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs in Mexico and Panama. In such works, movement across space, Epplin showed, is not only about human perambulation, but about revealing the embeddedness of life-forms in a space that is both naturally and socially constituted. Further on, the lecture of NYU Professor Jacques Lezra claimed that philosophy’s unsatisfiable “need” for “individuals” is a useful definition of its “materialism”—a materialism that variously-oriented contemporary philosophies disavow rather than joyously assume. Diverse interdisciplinary paths have nourished the group to produce multiple approaches to post-anthropocentrism, as well as to stimulate varied research interests in participants.
Post-Anthropocentrism at Stanford: A State of the Question was the title of our Spring 2016 conference. In addition to Donna Haraway, the conference featured Professors Mads Rosendhal Thomsen (Aarhus University) and Rachel Price (Princeton University). Thomsen surveyed the post-human in fiction, while Price discussed oil and sugar as actants in art. DLCL graduate students Monica VanBladel and Patricia Valderrama, as well as David Stentiford and Vicky Googasian from MTL and English, shared their research on animality and non-heroic resistance, cadaveric materiality, the possibility of post-anthropocentric characters, and post-anthropogenic makings, respectively. Professors Ewa Domanska (Adam Mickiewics University at Poznan and Anthropology, Stanford) and Zephyr Frank (History, Stanford) served as discussants and participated in the rich discussions of these panels, which lead the way to the keynote. Haraway’s presentation was an exposé on her latest monograph, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016), which came out two months after our conference. In the spirit of vigorous intellectual exchange that characterizes our group, all participants, including Professor Rodolfo Dirzo (Biology, Stanford), engaged in a closing roundtable.