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The Terror of Materials: Judith Goldman’s agon and New Materialist Thought

By Joe Milutis.

The death of critical theory has been heralded from many corners for decades, and in some cases the calls are coming from inside the house. One notable example is a recantation delivered by Bruno Latour (almost twenty years ago), bemoaning the ways in which his contributions to the idea of science as a “social construction,” have ushered us, unwittingly, into the post-fact era, where seemingly unassailable scientific realities such as “global warming” and COVID epidemiology are under debate, at best, decried as mere fiction and conspiracy, at worst. Into the breach of this maddening irony have entered a veritably Gothic profusion of new materialist theories poised to rectify this imbalance by skirting or minimalizing the power of “discourse” altogether, since the original sin for all these competing materialist philosophies — new materialism, speculative realism, object-oriented ontology (OOO), actor-network theory — seems to have been the linguistic turn in the humanities (1). Paradoxically, much of this philosophical profusion is textual — albeit gaining power from parapublishing and online transmission — even though it flirts with the noumenal outer-reaches of text’s sense in order to displace the humanities of the “word” with something that looks more like STEM.

Given that literary studies and experimental poetics have their own “materialist” traditions, it is odd that many proponents of the varied new materialisms are either unwilling (in the case of Latour) or ill-equipped (as in the case of object-oriented ontology) to approach literature at all, let alone the materialist legacy of contemporary experimental literature (2). While seeking to counter the (presumed) annihilative, totalizing gestures of the linguistic turn with a more unruly sense of the powers implicit in the unwritten, the question of how writing-itself exists as an object in the world goes unasked (3). The problem for new materialists — generally put — is the humanist disciplinary hubris of totalizing concepts or epistemological top-objects standing in for “real knowledge.” Yet, more extreme versions of new materialism are just as much under the seductive pull of epistemological, annihilative top objects. In fact, some theorists in this realm, who have been taken to task for fascist tendencies (and who thus unfortunately implicate the whole), literalize the annihilative force of totalizing theory itself, such as we see in Nick Land’s accelerationist idea of “capital as a planetary singularity” tied to the “thanatropic regression” of the death drive, or the related Gothic nihilisms of speculative realists such as Negarestani and Brassier (4). In this case, the annihilative top-concept becomes annihilation itself, a deontological sovereignty, both aesthetic and political.

In Judith Goldman’s agon, there is an ironic, performative embrace of such a doubly annihilative top-object, mobilizing the discourse of “weaponization” as her totalizing gesture. But her reading avoids the excesses of speculative anti-humanism and provides a text that is both critical of its own operations and anti-critical in its attempt to conceptually map the violent socius without providing an overarching explanation. One could even say she engages in the paradoxical practice of annihilative poiesis by shaping her text under this totalizing rubric of “weaponization” — not as celebration but as sufferance, while avoiding classicizing or formalizing this dark interpretative gambit as hard theory.

1 ⑉ Fuck poems P lane ⑉ 2 ⑉ as bomb ⑉ 3 ⑉ Weaponized pork or ur
⑉ 4 ⑉ ine Force-feeding to weaponize sustenance ⑉ 5⑉ weaponized
flinch reponse “we ⑉ 6 ⑉ don’t have to train it out of ⑉ 6a ⑉
the body” ⑉ 7 ⑉ “we turn ⑉ 8 ⑉ it into a wea pon” ⑉ . . .
⑉ 6b ⑉ use a magnifying glass t ⑉ 7
⑉ o weaponize the sun Man ⑉ 8 ⑉ as tool-Being as ⑉ 9 ⑉ weapon-
Being Cunning To sh ⑉ ape vio lence in potent ⑉⑉⑉⑉
1 ⑉ ia Bugs Bunny weaponizes a hot barb ⑉ 2⑉ er’s towel A se e-
saw ⑉ 3 ⑉ too ⑉ 3a ⑉ easily weaponized, ⑉ 3b ⑉ banana peel ⑉ 4
⑉ Kool Aid ⑉ 4a ⑉ a set-up operatio ⑉ 4b ⑉ nalize weaponized
windo w, ⑉ 5 ⑉ defenestration ⑉ 5a ⑉ Silent premises of ⑉ 6 ⑉
everyday lif ⑉ 7 ⑉ e weapons possible ⑉ 8 ⑉ pain-platform compa
⑉ 8a ⑉ ratively underpollut ed ⑉ 8b ⑉ spectral arsena ⑉ 9 ⑉ l
linked to its dol lar ⑉ 10 ⑉ ablation ⑉⑉⑉⑉⑉ 1 ⑉ hurt the body
⑉ 2 ⑉ on the bar ⑉ 3 ⑉ s of the cage ⑉ 3a ⑉ but the cage
alread y ⑉ 3b ⑉ a weapon ⑉ 4 ⑉ “we” weapon ⑉ 4a ⑉ ized intimacy
subvoc al ⑉ 5 ⑉ does tear gas (also ⑉ 5a ⑉) weaponize tears ⑉ (5)

The poiesis of weaponization here connects 9/11 to torture to children’s cartoons, but also to the poem itself and the very ways we read it or don’t, what remains an object — line breaks here hypertrophied into breakage everywhere — and what is held together or held hostage by the work of the subvocal. But this breakage, fragmenting the poem into smaller and smaller units, is not merely violence, nor is it just (anti)-formal play; Goldman is explicitly referencing Graham Harman’s notion of tool-being here, and if we consider the metaphor of the “broken tool” in Heidegger, as extended into OOO — that a tool is withdrawn and truly objective when it is unavailable for typical use — these inoperative or differently operative words turned back into objects prevent, or slow down ambient weaponizing in the imperium.

Part conceptual poetry, part critical essay, this work of broken genres literalizes the “paranoiac reading” of all objects ready-to-hand, sh/aped as weapons by compiling this list or “spectral arsenal” that extends across the entire book; but at the same time, by way of critical interventions (and interventions against the seductive force of totalizing critique), she puts the breaks on the logic of weaponization implicit even in her own operations, fraught by their own totalizations and aggressions — “hermeneutics of suspicion” gone wild. If everything can be seen as a weapon, sight (and citation) itself is implicated. So, while articulating this double-bind, she will also try to carve out paths of resistance: “One might thus point up weaponization as spectacle without participating in spectacularity” (6). Accordingly, this unshapely book that eyes the weaponized needs to be full of unreadabilities and broken text and blind spots.

While the image of weaponization allows Goldman to connect everything back to a hallucinatory conspiracy of the world objectified by violence and counter-violence (similar to the way oil works in the pulp theory-fiction of Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia), she unravels the multiple ironies, paradoxes, and misgivings about the ways in which her own poiesis shares features with the “low-level ironizing aggressivity” of a weaponizing socius (7) “where everything — terms, spaces, movements, identities — will be incorporated as violence or will not be at all” (8):

Is weaponizing a bad metaphor? . . . Unlike an analogy, what it discovers is the impropriety of a thing, an overturning of its probability. Weaponizing reckons with unlikeness, contradiction. It discloses an antithetical, improbable “essence.” . . . [M]ight weaponization exert an unrecuperable negativity — one that would destabilize the network that binds it? The object as dissemination, an agonistic detour into bad infinity, agony. The arbitrary, the an-archic. Total phenomenology of aggression (9).

While analogy creates a sense of order and relationality based on creative approximations, the relation here is not “distant and true” (as Pierre Reverdy would describe the poetic image) but rather a bad surrealism of implausible manipulations.

Goldman mines uncomfortable homologies between artistic practices of creative reuse, bricolage and appropriation and forms of unconventional, inventive violence that virally proliferate with the loosening of human rights strictures and the neoliberal extraction of war profits by defense contractors, all of which had their heydays during the Bush years (10). References to theories of appropriation and citation from de Certeau, Place, Butler, Barthes and Derrida are placed in the company of descriptions of torture practices that bend the world to its “abyssal ingenuity” (11). She quotes Elaine Scarry, speaking of prisoners under martial law in the Philippines who “describe being beaten with ‘family-sized soft drink bottles’ or having a hand crushed with a chair” (12).

Goldman ultimately attempts a kind of poetic escape from both this “total phenomenology of aggression” — she includes in her account military attack dolphins, drug-tainted Pixy Stixs, and basketball sneakers fashioned with foot shackles — and her own implicature in the “violence of the letter,” by creating a noumenal philosophy of objects that resists easy re-presentation.

The notion of poetic escape — escape from poetry and escape by way of a poetry newly conceived as object — is alluded to by starting the book with the injunction to “Fuck poems.” This apostrophic expletive is a literal refusal of her own literary endeavor: instead of transparently using poetry as a means of expression, she has opted to “fuck poetry” and instead analyze the many layered “toxic implicatures” of language, tool, and violence. And yet, this opening is consummately literary, a reference to another poem — Amiri Baraka’s “Black Art,” to which Goldman will return towards the end of agon, when she opens the possibility of a black “undercommons” countering an oppressive ambience of post-9/11 state-sponsored violence. Goldman cites Baraka’s poem as an instance of salutary weaponization of poems in order to “[n]egat[e] their status as art.” She continues that “poems should not ornament or represent the world but be as common objects in the world” (13). But the transmutation of common objects into weapons is always a looming possibility turned against the poet and poetry; furthermore, the imposition of the common is here described as another kind of weaponization, even though the common word is not weapon enough. For instance, while Baraka imagines a poem as a type of weapon, he had also reminded his readers elsewhere that “Crackers killed in revolutionary sentences are walking around killing us in the real streets” (14). Such inescapable dynamics of escalating metaphorics of aggressivity within language, connected to the aggressively deployed ruin of metaphorics itself (as a system of finely perceived relations of similitude and difference), make language itself inoperative. Disjunctive agon proliferates everywhere.

As with the work of Jennifer Scappettone, one cannot be consoled, only antagonized in this network of “dislike.” The inescapable reality can neither be creatively or intellectually avoided by way of the anti-realisms of postmodernity (especially its toxic appropriation by the right) nor can it be ameliorated by the truth of poetic particulars. Instead, these writers wage multi-tiered experimental, impractical approaches to immensities that balk language, initiating a process which may annihilate poetry. But to “fuck poetry” paradoxically implies both eros and impotence, not an outright abandonment. I use the word “expletive” in reference to the “fuck” of “fuck poetry” precisely because the word “expletive” has a dual meaning, both a “curse” and a “syllable, word, or phrase inserted to fill a vacancy . . . without adding to the sense” (15). The expletive as phatic, non-sensical language fills a hole with a hole. As with swearing proper, the expletive marks an inability or unwillingness to articulate, and instead autocompletes the void with a word-projectile empty of meaning. An expletive weaponizes silence; it can also eroticize the absence of speech. Like the indeterminate language of the pronoun, the expletive as abstract, non-meaningful, performative content points us towards those characteristics of language that submit neither to the full capture of object-oriented philosophy nor to lapidary poetic materialism.

Do such words, then, mark an “outside” to totalizing weaponization? Part of the epistemological horror of the agon is precisely the way this weaponization has captured not only what is there, but also what is not, in this conceptual cosmos that has definitively broken from the earth. Goldman’s interest in the enthymeme throughout agon — elliptical arguments that depend upon assumption and common sense — rectifies the error of totalizing, objective ontology by turning our attention to the immaterial topos of this dire landscape. For example, she deals with the way in which “dogwhistle” weaponizes knowingness, the ways in which “slurs” operate and how “[e]uphemized speech in high-tension contexts” is intimately tied to racially-based access to “euphemism as linguistic capital” (16). And if “[m]etaphor is a troping of enthymeme” (17), then the poetic language of connection is implicated as well. Focusing on the “unspoken” context of literary work is not necessarily an uncommon move, sharing features with ideological critique and language poetry. Yet part of Goldman’s originality lies in her insight into the ways in which this immaterial, paranoiac context has also been minutely materialized, weaponized, and become real. If we live amidst the buzz of fragmented text and incomplete thought, this “ontological fragmentariness” (18) of internet-age text is not merely completed by the force of common sense, holistic community or even creative misreading. It is not “writerly” in the Barthesian sense where the writerly text elicits other writers, who then complete the indeterminate text in an endless erotic concatenation of signs both public and intimate. Rather, common sense itself has become monstrous: a non-consensual common sense. There is a suffocating, unbearable sense of the material immutability and unequal access to this social immateriality — not-noumenal, but beyond our powers of control enough to seem so. And this aspect of Goldman’s agon, foreclosing the subjective indeterminacy and virtualities inherent to shared language, may make it consummately object-oriented after all. Poetry cannot be a “common object in the world” if there is no common, and the world is continually ending as if on auto-repeat.

In the last few pages of agon, however, Goldman posits an exit, both from the weapon-captured world she has described, and an “exit from critique,” which has been notwithstanding her agonistic tool. Utilizing Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s idea of the “undercommons,” she provides a poetic antidote to what Moten and Harney call “democracy’s false image” (19). This anti-politics, indebted to the long lineage of Gothicism that expresses suspicion for official democracy, is based on an idea of “fugitivity” from democracy rather than critique and participation. In contrast to a commons forged and hardened either by duress or exclusion, Goldman cites Moten and Harney’s non-object-oriented values for those who “surround” rather than enter the common. Motion, becoming, indeterminacy, improvisation, collaboration, anti-representation — more Deleuzean/Latourian new materialist than speculative realist — form the creative style of this refusal: “We owe each other the indeterminate . . . We aren’t responsible for politics. We are the general antagonism to politics looming outside every attempt to politicise . . . We cannot represent ourselves. We can’t be represented” (20).

This “we” seems both positively avowed, without irony, and yet is what is pointedly under interrogation. Regardless of the pragmatically new materialist feel of the fugitive language of the surround, is there a speculative “we” that cannot be available for “us,” that withdraws from its own relationality? (21). Early in the book, Goldman seems to answer “no.” Her gnomic statement “We will never know for sure whether ‘people as such’ are” implies a Kantian inaccessibility of the thing-in-itself “people.” Opting instead for mutual self-imaging rather than the speculative real, she says, “Moreover, if what we think about each other reflects what we are, it is also true that what we are is itself a reflection of what we believe ourselves to be; the image we hold of each other and of all of us together has the uncanny ability to self-corroborate. People treated like wolves tend to become wolf-like[.]” (22). And yet Moten and Harney’s notion of this “we” that “surround[s] democracy’s false image in order to unsettle it” (23) posits a withdrawn communal “we” that does not partake in this imagistic identification. Instead, their broken “we” shares conceptual features with the unfashionable idea of “essence,” as restituted by OOO, which cannot be captured by language, thought, image or perception (24). Moten and Harney posit a black essence that escapes from both political relationality and any type of postmodern performativity that would “refute claims of blackness’s atomic simplicity” (25). As they continue to say in “Blackness and Governance” (not quoted in agon), “blackness. . . must be understood in its ontological difference from black people who are, nevertheless, (under)privileged insofar as they are given (to) an understanding of it” (26).

This metaphysics of blackness sits uneasily in the company of their otherwise flowing metaphorics and word-play in The Undercommons, but in the context of its use in Goldman’s agon, there is a heightening of this negative metaphorics of absolute separatism — not of black culture from white culture, but of blackness from itself. This quixotic position marks a different type of hauntology — not a responsibility to the ghost of a king-father-sovereign, but to the legacy of imposed deontologization that one sees explored, for instance, in M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!. This “we” — in other contexts an imposition of inclusion (with its attendant exclusion) — here marks an impossibility, or, if anything, a futural community, that has a history that extends from Walter Benjamin’s critical Zionism perhaps more than from Amiri Baraka’s Pan-Africanism. “Us” as a thing means it is an assembly, not an assumption, by no means easy, let alone nationalized (27).

One of the fatal errors of speculative realism, however, is that its practitioners consider this “us” an easy out for bad philosophers. If one should be vigilant of top-objects, one should also be wary of sneaky, but no less totalizing, philosophical flubs. Undoubtedly, part of the power of these speculative materialisms is to avoid the impoverishments of the enthymemic “us” or any gated Habermasian enclosure. But with a deft sleight-of-hand the “us” that is examined, constructed or convened is often conflated with an “us” of bland assumption. If something is “merely for us” according to speculative realism, it has been reduced to a product of easy, sloppy, subjectivist thinking. Yet, the formation of an “us” is neither subjective, spontaneous, nor easy; it can be alien, tectonic, cosmic, tentacular. It can ooze. If the essence of relationality escapes relationality itself, that means there is something “real” to relations that cannot be abandoned as merely subjective fantasy and auto-affection. Rather, through the various probes of poetic realism, it can be approximated and forged anew outside the common-common, not despite but because of the agonisms that belie fragile and fugitive commonalities. Or it may continue to ooze in ways that are not ours.

(1) This essay is a slightly revised section from a manuscript called New Gothic Materialisms: Notes on the Speculative Onto-Story. Unfortunately, there is not space in this excerpt to parse out the overlaps and differences between these various schools of thought. Briefly, however, “new materialism” is at times treated as an umbrella term for them all. Yet, one clear difference between what gets called new materialism proper (as closer to Latourian actor-network theory) and speculative realism (affiliated with OOO), is that the former is pragmatist and Deleuzean, whereas the latter is more science-fictional and Heideggerian. It is the difference between an epistemology of networks, translations and assemblages, versus a universe of absolute withdrawal of the object world from the social. Among these theories, Jane Bennett’s animistic materialism and her term “speculative onto-story” for me becomes the suggestive jumping off point for networking new materialist philosophy with contemporary literary experimentation; for Bennett, her encounter with a “dead rat, a plastic cap, a spool of thread” becomes the inspiration for a new type of uncanny perception, based on an aleatory encounter with the noumenal object.

(2) While Latour has been careful to distinguish the work of literary artists from that of social scientists, there have been a few authors who have taken up his insights for a “post-critique” model of literary theory, notably Rita Felski. Practitioners of OOO have been more precipitous in their contributions to the realm of literary theory, but these forays ultimately seem inadequate. Especially noticeable is their lack of attention to possible homologies of OOO with recent developments in the world of experimental writing. Their literary “objects,” particularly in the work of Graham Harman and Timothy Morton, tend to be more conservative choices such as Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth and Lovecraft. (Grant Hamilton does better by, rightly, positing the French Symbolists as crucial to a speculative realist approach, although his literary criticism parts from hard-line OOO in significant ways.) When, for example, object-oriented ontologists have tried to apply their ideas to literature, the unfortunate tendency has been to go back to conservative notions of the “well-wrought poem” from New Critical analysis or return to notions of the “great writer” (as in Harman’s work on Lovecraft and Dante). Perhaps OOO literary theory is part of a pataphysical joke: the authors are quite literally mallarmé [mal armés]—and their ill-equippedness as critics reveals the literary object’s potential and essence, rather than its existence in a field of relations.

(3) Perhaps one good exception to this rule within new materialist philosophy is Rebekah Sheldon’s “Matter and Meaning” in Rhizomes (30), 2016.

(4) Reza Negarestani, “Drafting the Human: Conjectures on Capitalism and Organic Necrocracy” in The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, ed. Graham Harman, et al. (Prahran: re.press, 2011), 184.

(5) Goldman, agon (Brooklyn: The Operating System, 2017), 11-3.

(6) Ibid., 17.

(7) Ibid., 20.

(8) Ibid., 12.

(9) Ibid., 103.

(10) Goldman is invested enough in the poetics of appropriation that she spends a good chunk of the book, perhaps too much of it in fact, trying to untangle the “fatal ambiguations” of conceptual writing. But it is important to point out that conceptual writing is not the direct object of attack with new materialist “anti-conceptualism,” and, in fact, may find affinities with Jane Bennett’s notion (through Adorno) of using the conceptual against the conceptual in order to explore the nonidentity implicit in materiality:

The intellectual practice consists in the attempt to make the very process of conceptualization an explicit object of thought. The goal here is to become more cognizant that conceptualization automatically obscures the inadequacy of its concepts. Adorno believes that critical reflection can expose this cloaking mechanism and that the exposure will intensify the felt presence of nonidentity. The treatment is homeopathic: we must develop a concept of nonidentity to cure the hubris of conceptualization.

See Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke UP, 2010), 14-5.

(11) Ibid., 40.

(12) Ibid., 20.

(13) Ibid., 197.

(14) Amiri Baraka, “Strategy and Tactics of a Pan African Nationalist Party” (Newark: National Involvement, 1972), 13.

(15) “expletive,” Erin McKean, New Oxford American Dictionary, 2005. Mac OSX.

(16) Goldman, agon, 114.

(17) Ibid., 100.

(18) Ibid., 88.

(19) Cited in Ibid., 205. See also Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (NY: Minor Compositions, 2013), 19.

(20) Cited in agon., 205. See also Harney and Moten, 9.

(21) Derrida goes as far as to imply that perhaps the problematics that “we” evidences makes it a philosophically foundational concept, Exhibit A of the point at which all ontology contains a hauntology: “the violence of this communal dissymmetry remains at once extraordinary and, precisely, most common. It is the origin of the common, happening each time we address someone, each time we call them while supposing, that is to say while imposing a ‘we,’ and thus while inscribing the other person into this situation of an at once spectral and patriarchic nursling.” Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1995), trans. Eric Prenowitz (Chicago: U of Chicago P), 41-2.

(22) Goldman, agon, 24.

(23) Cited in Goldman, agon, 205. Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 19.

(24) Their move is bold and counter-intuitive given the history of “racial essentialism” as driving the kind of scientistic discourses that provided rational arguments for racism. It would be important to distinguish between the forms of “bad essentialism” that are the legacy of racist categories, and the “good essentialism” that posits a reality that does not easily enter into the commons. Jack Halberstam’s introduction to The Undercommons in some ways, unwittingly or not, partakes of both by describing the work as “making common cause with the brokenness of being” (4). In many ways, this idea of “brokenness of being” foregrounds the potentially object-oriented aspect of The Undercommons that the authors themselves have disavowed; the only mention Harney and Moten make of OOO is to call out its complicity with capitalist sciences (34). But Halberstam’s statement also potentially partakes of the more racist notion that black essence is ontologically broken-being, and that, correspondingly, the only authentic expression of it is an expression of pain—a notion that we see, for instance, in the racist divisions between expectations towards black and white performers in the history of popular music.

(25) Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 48.

(26) Ibid., 47.

(27) See Elizabeth Grosz, “The Thing,” in Materiality, ed. Petra Lange-Berndt. (Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2015).


Joe Milutis is a writer, media artist and Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Arts and the MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics at the University of Washington-Bothell. Work has appeared in Fence, Triple Canopy, Cabinet, Jacket2, Tagvverk, Gauss PDF, as well as a variety of performance and gallery venues. He is the author of Failure, A Writer’s Life (Zer0 Books, 2013) and Ether: The Nothing That Connects Everything (University of Minnesota Press, 2006). He is currently completing a book project New Gothic Materialism: Notes on the Speculative Onto-Story in addition to an experimental translation of Michael Maier’s alchemical poetry in Atalanta Fugiens.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 24th, 2021.