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A New Materialism? Latest News from History Land

What is the next 'sexy' thing in academic history writing? Where to go after poststructural theory and the linguistic turn? Some claim that it is high time to 'overcome' historians obsession with language. Literary and linguistic/semiotic approaches to human life are insufficient to capture the complex and dynamic interplay of processes of meaning making and material organisation in the past (and present). What we can observe at the moment is a 'turn' to the knowledge produced by natural sciences as well as 'big data'. What about this 'new materialism', praised by some as the new sexy thing in history writing? The lecture and seminar investigates what lies behind it. Is it really that ‘new’ in historiography as some of its proponents claim? How does the current enthusiasm for data and the natural sciences differ from that of Henry Buckle or that of the 1950s/60s French Annales scholars? What does this 'new' materialism tell us about ourselves and our society?



Seminar Readings

Guldi, Jo and Armitage, David, The History Manifesto, Introduction and Chapter 3.

    Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler, 'The History Manifesto: A Critique', American Historical Review, (April 2015).

    Hunt, Lynn, 'The Self and Its History', American Historical Review 119,5 (2014), pp.1576-1586; also read the short Introduction to the special issue: pp. 1492-1498.

    Shyrock, A., and Smail, D. L., Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present (Berkeley, 2011), Part II, Chapter 3. Body, pp. 55-77.


    Seminar/Essay Questions

    What are the value and limitations of 'big data' as a historical methodology?

    Does neuro-history or deep history gets us closer to the question of human experience in history?

    Do you think the concept of ‘deep history’ is convincing?

    Do you agree as Lynn Hunt does that history writing will be 'better' when historians use technologies of the cognitive sciences?

    Why is the 'turn' to cognitive psychology so attractive to historians today?

    Is the new materialism really new? How does our socio-cultural, political and economic context shaped its emergence?


    Further Reading

    Anonymous, ‘The Longue Durée of The History Manifesto,’ Flickering Landscapes (2 February 2015):

    Abulafia, David, ‘Lucky Jim and La Longue Durée,’ Standpoint, 67 (November 2014): (critique of Guldi and Armitage)

    Bennett, Tony, and Joyce, Patrick (eds), Material Powers: Cultural Studies, History and the Material Turn (New York, 2010).

    Berridge, Virginia, 'Review: The History Manifesto,' E-International Relations (18 January 2015):

    Cooter, Roger, ‘Neural Veils and the Will to Historical Critique: Why Historians of Science Need to Take the Neuro-Turn Seriously’, Isis, vol. 105, no. 1 (2014): 145-154 (online). (there are more articles on the values/pitfalls of neurohistory in this volume of Isis, including another one by Smail).

    Cole, Diana, and Frost, Samantha (eds), New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (London, 2010).

    Dolphijn, Rick, and Tuin, Iris van der, New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies (Ann Abor, 2012).

    Guldi, Jo, and Armitage, 'Models will Rule the Data-Driven Future,’ History News Network (6 October 2014):

    Guldi, Jo, and David Armitage, 'Let's Look at the Evidence,' Times Higher Education (2 October 2014): 45-47;

    Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-first Century (2014). An example of history using 'big data'. For critiques, se

    Annales. Histoire et Sciences Sociales, no. 1 (2015), available through electronic library resources. Numerous articles critiquing Piketty's thesis, see Charles Walton, 'Piketty's Provocative Contradiction: Economic Determinism versus Historical Contingency in Capital in the Twenty-first Century', Allegoria, 7

    Amato, J., ‘Review’, Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present, Journal of Social History (2014) 47 (4): 1101-110

    ANT: Important website (maintained only until 2000 by John Law but still very useful)

    Cabrera, Miguel, Postsocial History: An Introduction (Lanham, 2005). (very good overview but does not take into account the influence of the natural sciences on history writing

    Joyce, P., The Social in Question: New Bearings in History and the Social Sciences (London, 2002)

    Kleinberg, Ethan (2016), ‘Just the Facts: the Fantasy of a Historical Science’, History of the Present 6, 1: 87-103.

    Law, J., Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics’ online: (

    Ibid., 'Making a Mess with Method', in William Outhwaite and Stephen P. Turner (eds), The Sage Handbook of Social Science Methodology, Sage: Beverly Hills and London, 2007), pp. 595-606.

    Leys, Ruth (2017), The Ascent of Affect: Geneology and Critique (Chicago, University of Chicago Press. (goes into depth of the problems of using the neurosciences! Excellent book. See also her articles)

    Lemke, Thomas, ‘Varieties of Materialism’, BioSocieties 10 (2015): 250-267.

    Latour, Bruno, ‘Can we get out Materialism Back, Please?’ Isis: Journal of the History of Science in Society 98 (2007): 138-142.

    Maza, Sarah. Thinking About History (forthcoming), Chapter 5 'Causes versus Meanings' (ordered as e-book)

    Paxtron, F., ‘Review’, Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present, The American Historical Review (2013) 118 (1): 151-152.Bridging the MillenniaRenfrew, C., Bridging the Millenia, review of Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present, Amercian Scientist (January, 2012)

    Plamper, Jan, The History of Emotions: An Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2015) -- good for getting an overview on this science mania

    Roodenburg, H., ‘A New Historical Anthropology? A Plea to Take a Fresh Look at Practice Theory’, in: H-Soz-u-Kult, 04.07.2012, (online: (too much art but very interesting essays

    Shaw, D. G., ‘Happy in Our Chains?’ History and Theory 40 (2001)

    Smail, D.L., On Deep History and the Brain (Berkeley, 2008).

    Smith, A.J., ‘Navigating the Social Sciences: A Theory for the Meta-History of Emotions’, review essay of William Reddy, Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions in History and Theory 42 (2003): 82-93.

    Ibid., Smail, D.L. et al., History and the Telescoping of Time: A Disciplinary Forum’, French Historical Studies 34 (2011), 1-55.

    See also: Since 2009 there is a journal devoted to ANT International Journal of Actor-Network Theory and Technological Innovation (IJANTTI) online

    Tallis, Raymond, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity (2014) famous neuroscientists who is very critical about the enterprise of neuroscience and also of its applied versions (such as neurohistory) and it is a hilarious read

    Vidal, Fernando and Francisco Ortega, Being Brains: Making the Cerebral Subject (New York, 2017).