New Materialism, Politics and Design Cultures in the Humanities

Workshop organized by Dr. Javier Gimeno Martínez and Joana Ozorio de Almeida Meroz

Date: Wednesday April 11, 2018
Time: 10:00-13:00
Place: Lecture theater HG-10A33, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

The humanities has recently undergone a paradigm shift in its turn to ‘new materialism’. New materialism (also called the ‘material turn’) is a heterogeneous field without a singular and consistent genealogy. However, it is usually understood to have developed in opposition to the social constructivist discourse that has dominated the humanities: the idea that humans and nonhumans are categorically distinct and that the former controls the constitution of reality regardless of any material substrate it may have. In contrast, new materialism entails an understanding of reality as inherently hybrid, which is to say, as cutting across entrenched dichotomies between culture and nature. This new materialist perspective has had profound implications for humanities’ understanding of politics not as delimited to a specific domain of human activity but as a complex and scattered reality where power is thoroughly distributed between different entities. How can the humanities, by engaging with this new materialist understanding of politics, be relevant to urgent societal and scientific questions today?


10:00-10.10 Introduction by Javier Gimeno-Martínez and Joana Ozorio de Almeida Meroz

10.10-10.30 Jeremy Aynsley (University of Brighton, UK)

The Cultural Representation of Graphic Design in East and West Germany, 1949 – 1970.

The historiography of German graphic design indicates a tendency towards a firm and established separation between respective accounts of developments in East and West Germany. As is well known, the ‘triumph’ of modern design at the Ulm Hochschule für Gestaltung and other design schools is seen as the culmination of the legacies of Bauhaus functionalism and Modernism in the Federal Republic of Germany. By contrast, histories of graphic design in the German Democratic Republic have tended to stress the role played by publicity and advertising in forming a distinctive visual and material culture, while overlooking the criteria by which much ‘western’ design has most often been judged. Such conventions in historical writing and exhibition inevitably have reinforced interpretations based on division and difference between the two Germanys.

The paper will address this imbalance in design historical interpretation. It will first seek to understand how these contrasting perceptions of the value of design arose from distinct intellectual and interpretative traditions, both pre- and post- unification.  It will then compare similar or parallel structures, organisations and designs, to offer reflections on the cultural repercussions for designers’ identities and the place of the materiality of design in this.

10.30-10.50 Penny Sparke (Kingston University, UK)

Nature and Culture: A New Unity

This short paper will provide an overview of the work that I have been undertaking for some time on the subject of plants in interior spaces. The work, which is historical in nature, focuses on the shifting relationships between nature and culture, as represented by indoor plants and flowers, from the Victorian era, through architectural and design modernism, through late modernism and into the era of environmentalism. The main thesis is that, in spite of the extensive presence of plants and flowers in inside spaces through the middle years of the twentieth century, the rich and complex relationship between inside nature and culture that had been part of middle-class Victorian domesticity was, at least, partially lost within modernism/late modernism when plants and flowers were used in a more limited way. The emphasis at that time was primarily on their aesthetic role and their capacity to disguise commercialism. With the rise of environmentalism, what at first looked like the possibility of a return to the multivalent richness of the nineteenth-century interaction between nature and culture was subverted by an emphasis on a narrow scientific approach towards the effects on humans of plants and flowers inside.

10.50-11.10 Guy Julier (Aalto University, Finland)

Disciplining the Neoliberal Subject with Neoliberal Objects

To talk of ‘design culture’ is to talk of a specific, material turn that is linked to changes in the socio-technical arrangements of capitalist territories. To be historically and geographically specific, I argue that this turn took place in the West in the mid-1980s. Many neoliberalisation roll-outs around the world have since followed. Such processes are normally expressed in terms of macro-scale of political economy. However, I want to focus on the role of design in producing particular dispositions that are part of this process. As such, the materiality of politics comes closer into view.

11.10-11.30 Discussion

11.30-11.45 Coffee Break

11.45-13.00 Pressing issues regarding New Materialism, Politics and Design Cultures in the Humanities. Avenues for further research.

Registration: There is no workshop fee, but registration is mandatory

Registration deadline: April 9, 2018

Please register via:

Email: Liza Kerlen,