4. Why does ‘matter’ matter?

Why does ‘matter’ matter?

Convenors: Tuija Pulkkinen, University of Helsinki & Susanne Lettow, Free University Berlin

Contact: tuija.pulkkinen (at) helsinki.fi

Seminar rooms: TH118 (Parallel session 2 & 3)

Format: Hybrid

This workshop reflects on different ideas on matter, materiality and materialism, as well as their complex genealogies in within feminist thought. What are the meanings and genealogies of ‘materialism’ within the history of philosophy and feminist thought ? What is the difference between Marxist-feminist approaches and the more recent ‘material turn.’ How did, for example, the French ‘materialist feminists’ of in the 1960’s to 1980s re-define ‘historical materialism’? Why did ‘new materialism’ become such a hegemonic field in feminist theory at the turn of the millennium, feminist theory? Why have so many feminist theorists discussed the etymological relation of mater (mother) and material (matter), and what is the relationship of ‘empirical’ and ‘material’? This workshop welcomes presentations from a wide range of work that studies feminist theorists’ texts and ideas, as well as genealogies of concepts and theories that explore the significance of ‘matter’ and ‘materialism’ in and for feminist thought.


Marina Sportelli

Susanne Lettow & Tuija Pulkkinen

Sigrid Schmitz

Fedora Hartmann; Fiona Schrading; Xenia Leitold & Jannis Steinke

Carol A. Taylor & Nikki Fairchild

Hanna Guttorm & Riikka Hohti


Marina Sportelli, University of Toulouse, Autonomous University of Barcelona and University of Coimbra, marinasportelli@virgilio.it

The body-machine in the history of materialism: continuities, differences, and feminist genealogies

This intervention aims to address the problem of the body-machine in the history of materialism. The issue will be taken not only as a fruitful case study to analyze the continuities and the discontinuities between different materialisms, but also to unravel the complex game of mirrors between the contribution of feminist theory to materialist debate and vice-versa. The examination will start by tracing the history of the question in eighteenth-century French materialism, which, for the sake of brevity, will be called classical materialism. Then, historical materialism and the subsequent Marxist feminism that followed it will be investigated and their differences will be scrutinized. To conclude, I will discuss the perspective stemming from the so-called new materialism. As far as classical materialism is concerned, the text will briefly approach the distinction between mechanism and materialism as well as that between mechanistic and vital materialisms. In particular, the question of the body-machine will be deepened through a reading of La Mettrie’s “Man, a Machine”. Then, the paper considers the question within the framework of historical materialism and addresses it in Marx, specifically in the late Marx, taking into consideration the "Fragment on Machines" from the “Grundrisse”. The next part explores Marxist feminism's contribution to the interpretation of historical materialism and the place of the body in it. Finally, I will elaborate on new materialism, a philosophical current still en devenir and whose contours are significantly vague. In an attempt to highlight its main features, this intervention will briefly review the continuities and discontinuities with the two previous materialisms, both at the level of the concept of materialism as well as of the specific question that this text intends to tackle, i.e. the question of the body-machine.

Susanne Lettow, Free University, Berlin, lettow2@zedat.fu-berlin.de & Tuija Pulkkinen, University of Helsinki, tuija.pulkkinen@helsinki.fi

Beyond ‘matter’: rethinking the longue durée of the idealism/materialism distinction

The presentation consists of an exchange of ideas inspired by the chapters in the Palgrave Handbook of German Idealism and Feminist Philosophy which Lettow and Pulkkinen have just finished editing (expected publication date November 1st,  2022.) The volume concentrates on the legacy of German idealism within feminist philosophy, and in this presentation the editors reflect on it from the point of view of idealism/materialism distinction. Pulkkinen will discuss  the trace of Kant and Hegel in feminist thought. She argues that Kant’s legacy of a strong epistemological distinction between speculative ideas and empirical knowledge continues as a trace in the practice of feminist theory, whereas  Hegel’s ontological idealism merely entertains a dialectical ghostly appearance within different ‘material’ feminisms. Lettow will present critical remarks on the present return to ontological understanding of materialism, and discuss the relevance of taking epistemology of meaning and respective subjects into account. The presenters will engage in an exchange with each other’s contributions, with an intention of clarifying the role of the distinction between ideas and matter within the legacy of German idealism in feminist philosophy. Together the presentations will reflect on the long durée of the idealism/materialism distinction within the tradition of feminist thought.

Sigrid Schmitz, Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany, sigrid.schmitz@hu-berlin.de

Matters of Concern in Materialisms

In my paper, I aim to discuss concerns about ‘new’ feminist materialisms, following Barad’s (2007) ethico-onto-epistemology and Donna Haraway’s (1988) material-discursive nodes. At first, I think it is important to discuss the possible mis-readings of these frameworks as a return of a Meta-Ontology via the so called ‘material turn’. Not taking feminist materialisms as a meta-theory, I nevertheless aim to point to their a-priory setting of matter-meaning instead of a solely agency of matter. Related to this point of concern, feminist materialisms have to be challenged according to the question of their political stance (Coole 2013). The call for increased political visibility (Meißner 2013) means to ask precisely, how those theoretical perspectives do/can lead to a legitimization or deconstruction of relations of power, in- and exclusions, violations, and vulnerabilities–following Butler (2004) in that agency and vulnerability are inseparably linked. Closely, the power of Eurocentric and North-Western origins of (older and newer) feminist materialisms have to be a major point of concern. How do they incorporate colonial privileges by defining what should be the equivalent politico-onto-episteme? Even an incorporation of feminist materialisms into the US-termed approach of Postcolonial Feminist STS (Subramaniam et al. 2017) hat to question its stabilizing effect of the center at the costs of the margins. Not at least, another challenge is it to break the onto-epistemological framework down to the empirical analysis of phenomena. Getting into research concerns the question of privileges and standpoints–in my case that of a white, middle-class female scholar with all the privileges of the Global North. Where do I start my analyses? How do I decide where to set my agential cuts in the phenomenal analysis and which components do I cut out? Whose knowledge do I acknowledge? Which political, post-/decolonial impacts do I erase with my analysis?

I aim to apply these considerations to my own research about neuro-posthumanities (Schmitz 2021). Not that I think that these phenomena are most important, but because they provide a foil for a discussion of the aforementioned matters of concern with respect to intra-actions of matter and meaning, boundary breaking potentials of material agency and obstinacy, as well as of the enactment of socio-political and colonial power relations.


Barad, Karen (2007): Meeting the Universe Halfway. Durham/London: Duke University Press.

Butler, Judith. 2004. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London/New York: Verso.

Coole, Diana (2013): Agentic Capacities and Capacious Historical Materialism: Thinking with New Materialisms in the Political Sciences. Millennium - Journal of International Studies 19, doi: 10.1177/0305829813481006

Haraway, Donna (1988): Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies 14, 3, 575-599.

Meißner, Hanna (2013): Feministische Gesellschaftskritik als onto-epistemo-logisches Projekt. In Geschlechter Interferenzen: Wissensformen - Subjektivierungsweisen – Materialisierungen, ed. Corinna Bath, Hanna Meißner, Stephan Trinkaus, and Susanne Völker, 163-208. Münster: LIT.

Schmitz, Sigrid (2021): TechnoBrainBodies-in-Cultures: An Intersectional Case. Frontiers in Sociology, doi: 10.3389/fsoc.2021.651486.

Subramaniam, Banu; Foster, Laura; Harding, Sandra; Roy, Deboleena & TallBear, Kim (2017): Feminism, Postcolonialism, and Technoscience. In Handbook of Science and Technology Studies, ed. Clark Miller, Laurel Smith-Doerr, Ullrike Felt & Rayvon Fouchï, 407-433. Cambridge

Fedora Hartmann, Universität zu Köln, Fiona Schrading, Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Xenia Leitold, Jannis Steinke TU Braunschweig, et al., queer-compost@gmx.de

Compost matters

“Troubling Matters” (Barad 2012, 161), “matters of care” (Puig de la Bellacasa 2017, 7), “matterphorics” (Gandorfer 2020, 13) - matterings of matter are always already a matter of an – as Karan Barad puts it – „ethico-onto-epistemology – the intertwining of ethics, knowing and being“. (Barad 2007, 185) This presentation dives deep into the ethico-onto-epistemological entanglements of mattering by exploring Donna Haraways practice of compost (“we are compost, not post-human”! (Haraway 2016, 55)) as a new way of being in/of a more-than-human world – an ever arising and perishing world, a world of the many, of many worlds, a pluriverse (cf. Escobar 2018), neither pre-emptively set nor definitely determined. Compost turns anthropocentric foundations over and over again that for far too long have determined what matters and what is excluded from mattering – or even if matter matters at all.

The composting move of “turning it over and over again” (Barad 2014, 168) invites us to (re)configure anthropocentric and anthropomorphic concepts of time and space as well as it opens up more response-able modes of knowledge production that call ‘us’ to care in/for/with (cf. Schrader 2015) more than-human worlds. In our presentation we want to discuss composting as a non-innocent reworking of material-semiotic assemblages that insists on the non-erasability of what has irreducibly happened, what cannot be taken back or cut off, and what at the same time does not cease to happen. Composting, then, offers a new materialist practice that affects spacetimematterings themself - not leaving the present behind, overcoming it in order to move forward into a 'better future,' but insisting on the non-givenness of past and future, on the fact that they are at stake - as well as it calls for more response-able modes of queer-feminist knowledge production.


Barad, Karen. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.

Barad, Karen. 2012. On Touching—the Inhuman That Therefore I Am. Differences. 23 (3): 206–223. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10407391-1892943.

Barad, Karen. 2014. Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart, Parallax, 20(3), 168-187, https://doi.org/10.1080/13534645.2014.927623.

Escobar, Arturo. 2018. Designs for the Pluriverse. Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Gandorfer, Daniela. 2020. Matterphorics: On The Laws of Theory. Princeton, N.J. Princeton University. http://arks.princeton.edu/ark:/88435/dsp01pv63g3200.

Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, London: Duke University Press.

Puig de la Bellacasa, María. 2017. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds. Posthumanities. Vol. 41. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Schrader, Astrid. 2015. Abyssal intimacies and temporalities of care: How (not) to care about deformed leaf bugs in the aftermath of Chernobyl. In Social Studies of Science. 2015: 1-26. Exeter: Sage Pub. doi: 10.1177/0306312715603249.

Carol A. Taylor, University of Bath, UK, C.A.Taylor@bath.ac.uk & Nikki Fairchild, University of Portsmouth, UK, nikki.fairchild@port.ac.uk

Institutional Housekeeping and the Mattering of Gendered Politics: Viral Contamination, Un/fit Bodies and Exhaustion

This presentation revisits feminist work on organizational housekeeping in gendered institutions (Acker, 1992) and institutional ethnography (Smith, 1974), and extends this through a posthumanist and feminist materialist theoretical analytical framework (Taylor & Fairchild, 2020). Giving matter its due (Barad, 2007; Bennett, 2010; Haraway, 2016) we reconsider how the gendered politics of institutional housekeeping in Higher Education plays out in differential matterings. The acceleration and intensification of the integration of academic lives with performative, neoliberal logics and capitalist market ideologies, in ongoing pandemic conditions, have required/ produced profound shifts in working practices (Howard et al., 2021). The resulting higher workloads, increased productivity, and greater and quicker responsiveness to students, has accelerated levels of stress. These shifts are differentially distributed along gendered lines: women have suffered disproportionate effects of the pandemic on their research and promotion due to caring responsibilities (King & Fredrickson, 2021). Those best able to exploit these new conditions are predominantly white middle-class men, free from caring constraints. Those who ‘fail’ to navigate these ongoing shifts are those at the intersections of gender, social class, racialization, sexuality and disability, who experience greater levels of precarity, casualisation and lower statuses. This paper is based on research which developed the methodological practice of post-personal autoethnography (Fairchild et al., 2022) which situates the I-in-relation to explore ‘the concrete yet complex materiality of bodies immersed in social relations of power’ (Braidotti, cited in Dolphijn and van der Tuin 2012: 21). The paper addresses the questions:

How do posthumanist and feminist materialist theories help reconceptualise institutional housekeeping?

What matterings emerge when attending to the transcorporeal flows, bodily damages and affective burdens that come with the weight of emotional labour, the damages of self-monitoring, the shame of never being good enough, and the fear of not coping? (Shahjahan, 2019) in institutional housekeeping?

What does it enable methodologically to recast autoethnography as a post-personal (posthuman) research approach to investigate gendered politics of institutional housekeeping, particularly when feminist work is often positioned as peripheral to institutional goals (Taylor & Lahad, 2018).

Hanna Guttorm, University of Helsinki, hanna.guttorm@helsinki.fi & Riikka Hohti Sámi University of Applied Sciences & University of Oulu, riikka.hohti@helsinki.fi

Towards earthly academic activity, the two of us

This sensing-feeling-thinking is about be(com)ing connected with land/earth/soil 

and writing with tiredness(es) with academicities

we have gotten lost in thinking-writing academic papers,

to be read or performed

no matter how our bodies, hearts and bellies feel 

the fact is that we both come from the earth:

we become earth and are earth already: 

dust to dust

composing – decomposing – composting

within these earthy processes and times

we recognise a flashing moment of response-abilities,

responses we do not yet know

by bodily (re-)visiting earth/land/soil 

this inquiry aims to concentrate on this (that) moment

and share those moments with the audience

in a form we do not yet know