Posthuman Subjectivities: A Cultural-Historical Activity Theory Critique of New Materialist Philosophy

Alex Levant


In recent years, ‘new materialism’ has emerged as a challenge to both the ‘poststructural generation’ and to Western Marxism. Taking aim at the textual focus of the linguistic turn and the apparent humanism of Marxism, new materialism claims to offer an embodied and posthuman conception of the subject. Rosi Braidotti, who coined the term new materialism, describes it as “a method, a conceptual frame and a political stand, which refuses the linguistic paradigm, stressing instead the concrete yet complex materiality of bodies immersed in social relations of power” (Braidotti, 2012). Additionally, she also stresses, “What is targeted is the implicit Humanism of Marxism, more specifically the humanistic arrogance of continuing to place Man at the centre of world history” (Braidotti 2013, 23).
However, a lesser-known theoretical tradition, Activity Theory (AT), which developed alongside of, but in relative isolation from, Western Marxism, poststructualism, and new materialism, suggests another materialist conception of the subject. Emerging on the margins of the Soviet academe (associated with names such as Leontiev, Ilyenkov, Vygotsky, Meshcheryakov, and others) AT offers a distinctive theory of the subject that is likewise post-Cartesian. Similar to new materialism, AT draws on Spinoza’s monism, however, unlike new materialism, it is rooted in the dialectical tradition.
This paper explores affinities and tensions between AT and new materialism. It argues that similar to new materialism, AT is likewise critical of dualist and essentialist conceptions of the human subject. However, in contrast to new materialism, AT does not return to a monist conception of the subject. Rather, AT invites us to rethink Cartesian dualism not by subjectifying objects, but by recasting subjects and objects as moments embedded in social practices.

Posthumanism - Activity Theory - Soviet philosophy - New Materialism - Anthropocene