Yale Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies

Volume 5, Issue 2
spring 2015
Editor, Geetanjali Singh Chanda
Managing Editors, Linda Hase & Moe Gardner
Layout Design, Nick Appleby

New Matters and Queer Life

Greta LaFleur


“New Matters and Queer Life,” a conference held at Yale this past January, provided one of this year’s many opportunities for considering questions about the transformation of Queer Studies over the last twenty years. The conference, sponsored by the Program in LGBT Studies, brought together a small group of primarily junior scholars to consider the merits and shortcomings of the way that queer studies, feminist science studies, and critical ethnic studies have taken up “the ontological turn” in the form of the recent development of an intellectual orientation called the new materialism. This new materialism is explored at length in publications such as Diana Coole and Samantha Frost’s edited collection, New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Duke University Press, 2010). The concept might most easily be understood less as a new field or discipline and more as a shift in focus, away from oft-invoked figures (especially in the humanities) like representation and discourse and toward the biological. Drawing from work in critical race theory, biopolitics, phenomenology, feminist science studies, and transgender studies, the new materialism has made a name for itself by exploring the potential and challenges of accounting for the stickiness, or “animacy” as Mel Chen has termed it, of putatively non-living entities, and trying to theorize how the world of supposedly “non-living” objects or matter constitutively shapes the terms in which life itself is understood. The impetus behind the conference was my 2013 reading of Mel Chen’s exciting book, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect,which, alongside Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, is now considered one of the central texts of new materialism. Chen’s Animacies draws on recent debates about sexuality, race, and affect to examine how matter that is considered insensate, immobile, or deathly animates cultural lives.” Like queer theory before it, the new materialism has now achieved a certain disciplinary recognition so the task of  the conference was to consider its promises and the limitations. Our two days of papers and discussion considered both political critiques of and possible new directions for this scholarly orientation.

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