How art can create a new future: Stephen Zepke, Sublime Art

Stephen Zepke's Sublime Art forthcoming in EUP Crosscurrents series

I am delighted to report that Stephen Zepke’s Sublime Art is nearing publication, with the cover now being proofed.

How art can create a new future
Sublime art exceeds the present. It is an undetermined expression that in coming into being creates new universals, new modes of life and new coefficients of freedom.
Stephen Zepke tracks this movement from its beginnings in Kant to its flowering in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. He shows that in the work of Jean-François Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Rancière and finally in the recent philosophy of Speculative Realism the idea of sublime art waxes and wanes, and with it a visionary politics of art that seeks to give it the most creative power possible, the power to overcome our conditions and embrace the unknown.


‘Stephen Zepke is already known as a considerable philosopher of the new. In these pages he expertly navigates the inconsistent legacies of Kantian aesthetics with the goal of regaining the political and philosophical potentialities of sublime art and its role in difficult eruptions of the new. Zepke’s analyses range across a continuum of discomfort attributed to the sublime through exquisitely crafted chapters that counterpoise Lyotard, Deleuze, Derrida and Rancière. This book may have absorbed its subject so well that its readers will be left in tatters.’
Gary Genosko, University of Ontario Institute of Technology


‘A remarkable book that explores the reception of Kant’s theory of the sublime in Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari, Rancière and Derrida, as well as in more recent philosophical movements such as Speculative Realism and Accelerationism. But Zepke is an equally astute observer of the art world, and he simultaneously examines the role that this “sublime aesthetics” has (or has not) played in contemporary artistic production and political struggles. Sublime Art is not only the definitive analysis of the reception of the Kantian sublime, but a visionary manifesto for the aesthetics of the future.’
Daniel W. Smith, Purdue University


Sublime Art is available for pre-order on Amazon here, and a full list of titles in the Crosscurrents series, as well as instructions on how to submit a proposal, can be found here.

A table showing who is part of the new materialism, and an argument as to why it is not a “turn”

I’m currently writing the introduction to The Human Remains, discussing the figure of the human in the new materialism. I thought I would share the table I drew up of all the thinkers identified as part of the new materialism in different monographs and collected volumes. I have excluded individual journal articles from the list below in order to keep it under a page, and the table also excludes occasional references to the term “new materialism” by writers in the list (Catherine Malabou, for example, uses the term on a number of occasions).

Some of these texts employ the “new materialism” tag explicitly, while others have been included because the themes they identify in contemporary thought overlap substantially with at least some of the main concerns of NM. I was inspired by the table drawn up by Joe Hughes in his review of Ian James’s The New French Philosophy for NDPR.

If you think I’ve missed any important entries, let me know and I’ll update the table. It does not attempt to be exhaustive, but it does attempt to include all the main book-length treatments of the new materialism. The full bibliographical references are given below the table.

new materialist thinkers, ordered alphabetically

Bryant, Levi, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, eds. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne:, 2011.

Coole, Diana, and Samantha Frost. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Crockett, Clayton, B. Keith Putt, and Jeffrey W. Robbins. The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014.

Crockett, Clayton, and Jeffrey W. Robbins. Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Dobrin, Sidney I. Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media: Writing Ecology. London: Taylor & Francis, 2011.

Dolphijn, Rick, and Iris van der Tuin. New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press, 2012.

Galloway, Alexander R. Les Nouveaux Réalistes. Paris: Editions Léo Scheer, 2012.

Gratton, Peter. Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Hallward, Peter. “The One and the Other: French Philosophy Today.” Angelaki 8, no. 2 (2003).

James, Ian. The New French Philosophy. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012.

Johnston, Adrian. Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2013.

Mullarkey, John. Post-Continental Philosophy. Transversals. edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson London: Continuum, 2006.

Pfeifer, Geoff. The New Materialism: Althusser, Badiou, and Žižek. London: Routledge, 2015.


Here is a passage from the introduction to The Human Remains, sketching why I think it misleading to refer to the new materialism as a “turn”. The extract jumps in towards the end of a reading of Ian James’s The New French Philosophy:

In the final paragraph of the introduction to The New French Philosophy, James makes a brief but very telling remark: “these philoso­phers seek to renew the way in which they think, to transform the manner in which they come to write philosophy itself” (James 2012: 16). In his conclusion James returns to this idea in order to establish a three-fold chain of influence which accounts for the emergence of the new materialism, a chain which leads from a demand, through a technique, to a philosophy. The new materialism, he argues, has heeded a new demand and generated in response to that demand a new technique or techniques, which have in turn produced the philosophy that we now call “new materialism”. The demand is issued by the real:

it can be argued that a transformation in philosophical practice or technique has occurred in response to the necessity of rethinking the real outside of the linguistic paradigm and in response to the necessity of repo­sitioning of the real itself as immanent to the techniques or technicity of thought. […] The task of thought which these philosophers take up, and the demand of thought to which they respond, is one of thinking material immanence and worldly, shared existence. They do so by way of techniques which affirm themselves as resolutely mate­rial. (James 2012: 187,8)

What I find compelling about James’s analysis at this point is that, with the emergence in French thought of what is coming to be called the “new materialism”, we are dealing not only with a new set of thoughts but with a new way of thinking, not just of new philosophy but at least new “technique”, and perhaps a little more as well. There are parallels to be drawn here with the emergence of “postmodernism”, however unwieldy we consider that term to be.

This is why it is misleading to speak of a “turn to the material”. The genus “turn” comes in two prepositional species: the “turn in” and the “turn to”. Perhaps the classic example of the first variant is the “theological turn in French phenomenology”. He we have a relatively consistent (though contested) theoretical framework, namely phenomenology, deployed to investigate new sets of phenomena, namely theological ones. This “turn” is a relatively modest change, and that is why it has courted such controversy. If the theological phenomenologists were claiming to be doing something completely new, departing radically from phenomenology, then the non-theological phenomenologists would not feel the need to enter the lists against them. This sort of “turn in” is an extension of a way of thinking that already exists. Turns “to” cover much the same ground. A technique of thinking that already exists turns to redirect its critical and analytic gaze onto a new subject matter or a new problem. A cursory Google search turns up “the turn to technology in social studies of science”, “the affective turn in philosophy”, the turn to religion in early modern English studies“ and “the turn to community in the arts”. To describe the new materialism in these terms would misunderstand what it is. As James rightly points out, it is not just that something new is being thought about, but that thinking is happening in a new way, with a new technique and a new style.

I would, however, nuance and develop James’s helpful account in two ways. First, the influence of the demand on the technique and the technique on the philosophy should not be thought to be unidirectional. Secondly, I would question the extent to which we can differentiate between a new demand and a new capacity or predisposition to apprehend and respond to a demand. I want to re-frame James’s new demand as what I will call a new “disposition”. Disposition is to technique as technique is to the content of philosophy.

A philosophical disposition includes, to be sure, a new fundamental set of assumptions about the nature of reality, but it articulates and deploys those assumptions as part of a new way of holding oneself in the world and new style of writing which are just as fundamental as the assumptions that take root in their soil. Such a new disposition informs and engenders not only a new set of concepts and ideas, and not just a new set of philosophical questions, themes, and areas of investigation but also, along with them, new rhythms of language and of engagement with the world, along with a demand for a new way and rhythm of reading.

[…at this point in the introduction I work through the notion of “disposition” systematically. I’ll cut to the concluding paragraph…]

What is captured by evoking a new disposition but missed when we refer merely to a new “turn”, “event” or “technique” is that the change we are witnessing with the rise of the new materialism implies and predisposes not only to a way of thinking and writing but to away of holding oneself in the world, and that this in turn brings forth a new world, where “world” is understood as the objects, concerns and ideas that appear to a particular philosophical disposition, and that appear important. It is not only that certain things appear more important than before (that would be a “turn”), nor that certain things appear simpliciter, in the sense that they are now written about when previously they were not considered at all (that would be an “event”), but that a new way of holding oneself in the world brings forth a new set of concerns, objects and ideas that also in turn form and inform that same emerging disposition.

I then go on in the introduction to relate my notion of “disposition” to ideas from Jean-Luc Nancy and other thinkers.


Next week I plan to press on with re-drafting the first chapter, which deals with Jean-Pierre Changeux and Paul Ricœur’s respective readings of Spinoza in What Makes us Think? and elsewhere.

Interview with Amaleena Damlé about her recently published book The Becoming of the Body

The Becoming of the BodyAmaleena Damlé’s The Becoming of the Body: Contemporary Women’s Writing in French has just been published in Edinburgh University Press’s Crosscurrents series. In an interview with Amaleena I explored some of the issues raised by the book.


CHRIS WATKIN: To paint with very broad brushstrokes as we begin, into which debates is this book intervening and how do you want to reconfigure or challenge the current conversation?

AMALEENA DAMLÉ: The aim of the project, broadly speaking, was to think about the contours of the human body, and the shifting ways that we understand our embodied selves in the contemporary realm. I wanted to illuminate in particular the relationship between the female body and its representation, and to see where contemporary French philosophy and literature intersect in challenging long-held assumptions around the body and gender. Ever since the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s groundbreaking Le Deuxième Sexe, French feminism has been committed to deciphering the social and cultural myths that constitute femininity, and the second wave in particular saw literature as a privileged realm that could unravel ideologies, create empowering forms of female identity, and inscribe the female body in writing. The publication of this book coincides with the emergence of an exciting and welcome rejuvenation of feminism that many are already referring to as a fourth wave, however the book itself looks at those intervening years around the turn of the millennium in France that seemed marked by a greater degree of ambivalence, an ambivalence that gave rise to rather more multi-layered cultural responses to feminist concerns. I wanted to see what was happening there, to think through this ambivalence that appeared to represent a shift away from inscribing the female body in literature in positive images of wholeness and unity towards a certain precariousness regarding the shapes and lines of the body. But I also wanted to relate this to wider concerns and anxieties about the body in the contemporary realm, as we move ever towards a world that appears to view embodiment in terms of surface rather than depth. These challenges to bodily integrity brought me to the philosophy of becoming of Gilles Deleuze, which allowed me to think further through how such visions of corporeality might alter, reconfigure or create conflict with experiences and expressions of gender, sexuality, desire…

CW: The central question, or at least the original question, behind the project, is “what are the limits of the body?” Although this question is not gender specific, you are writing about female authors and on occasion you talk about the “(female) body”, with “female” in parentheses. What is the relationship in the project between the gendered female body and the body as such?

AD: The gendered body is at the heart of the project, and this is certainly a book that seeks specifically to investigate the female body as embodied experience and as representation. Choosing to write about female authors (or authors who identify as female) made sense to me in wanting to trace the development of ‘women’s writing’, to explore further the relationship between a possible feminist politics and writing itself, to draw into focus the very idea of ‘women’s writing’ and how we might engage with and negotiate this term into the twenty-first century. But thinking about the limits of the body involves interrogating the boundaries of gender itself, and in using the “(female) body” with “female” in parentheses, as I do on occasion, I wanted to loosen up the relation a little, and to encourage reflection on what that relation might variously mean, in multiple contexts and situations, and indeed for different people. In a way, the entire book is about opening up that relation, thinking about the female body itself as a critical threshold.

CW: In setting the context for your use of Deleuze you comment that “what has been particularly striking is the range of criticism that strives to read Deleuze ‘with’ or ‘and’ something else.” You later say of The Becoming of the Body that “the book itself aims to participate in a strategy of ‘speaking with, writing with’,” but also that “this book is driven by encounters and interactions and, as such, does not wish to present readings of texts that are resolutely consigned to a particular theoretical grid.” Is The Becoming of the Body “Deleuze with feminism”?

AD: It is, in a sense. Although Deleuzian philosophy initially met with some resistance from feminist thinkers, his work – both alone and in collaboration with Félix Guattari – has since the 1990s been subject to a great deal of feminist reappraisal. Thinkers such as Rosi Braidotti, Claire Colebrook, Elizabeth Grosz, Tamsin Lorraine and Dorothea Olkowski have variously shown that a philosophy of becoming holds great promise for those who conceive of gender in dynamic terms. But there remain aspects that throw up points of contention: blindspots, problematic usage of terminology and, as many have suggested, the advancing of a philosophy that insists so much on dynamism that it arguably becomes difficult to harness as a means of engaging with recognisable forms of politics. So this project is more about staging a set of theoretical dialogues between Deleuze and feminism, rather than reading literature through a rigidly Deleuzian frame. You might perhaps say that it is Deleuze with feminism with literary criticism: in my exploration of the female body, I wanted to consider anew the relationship between Deleuze and feminism, but also to investigate how literary approaches may themselves, in opening out questions about the relation between art and life, advance such debates, make space for political engagement and set Deleuzian philosophy on a new political trajectory.

CW: In the chapter on Deleuze you call becoming-woman “the key to all becomings”. In what way?

AD: This is an important question. The claim that becoming-woman is ‘the key to all becomings’ is Deleuze and Guattari’s rather than mine, and in many ways it is this assertion that feminists have found most difficult to reconcile in their work. For Deleuze and Guattari becoming is always about becoming-minoritarian, about opening oneself up to a minoritarian position through the experience of being other than oneself. To suggest that ‘becoming-woman’ might be the key to a series of becoming-minoritarian raises significant concerns, since it privileges the idea as a minority figure while failing to account for the position from which one becomes: becoming-woman will certainly mean something different depending on whether, and the extent to which, one identifies as a man or a woman. Further, Deleuze and Guattari argue that there can be no concept of ‘becoming-man’, because man occupies a dominant, majoritarian position, but in disallowing this possibility they would seem perhaps to reiterate further a binary gender politics, rather than to open out the spectrum of a thousand tiny sexes that they speak of elsewhere. I return to the notion of becoming-woman at various points in the book, and try to see in my readings of literature if different approaches to such a concept might offer a more helpful perspective for a feminist politics.  

CW: You devote a chapter each to the work of Amélie Nothomb, Ananda Devi, Marie Darrieusecq and Nina Bouraoui. What led you to choose these authors in particular? I am thinking of the way you take care not to present them as a new “wave”, though at one point you do talk about them in a way that critiques some existing positions: “they move beyond the cultural resignification called for by the second wave, and through the discursive iterations of gender signalled by queer theorists such as Judith Butler, to the transformation and the very material redistribution, the unmaking and remaking of female corporeality.” If not a movement or a school, are these four writers nevertheless developing or critiquing the existing landscape in significant new ways?

AD: These authors do develop debates around the female body in significant new ways, but certainly they have not consciously assembled as a movement, nor have I envisioned reading their works together in order to set out a coherent collective set of arguments or principles. In choosing a literary corpus, I wanted to draw together authors for whom the idea of bodily transformation was resonant, but who also appeared to be elaborating on this idea of material distribution in diverse ways that would allow me to advance and to critique various elements of it. I was also aware of wanting to bring together different francophone voices in order to look at articulations of the female body across a range of cultural contexts. So while the notion of bodily transformation – or becoming – runs through the work, it takes on plural forms and contexts, each inviting a different set of feminist questions and each lending a different nuance to the conversation between Deleuze and feminism: in Nothomb’s work I look at the relations between hunger, sensation, art, beauty and illness that the anorexic body negotiates; in Devi’s writing I consider abject forms of metamorphosis but also the vital transformation of affective sexuality; the chapter on Darrieussecq explores the relationship between metamorphosis and gender parody, and extends debates around simulation to consider the slippage between mind and body in posthuman consciousness; finally in Bouraoui’s work I examine the nomadic experience of the body in its dislocated relation to space, and reflect on desire and sexuality too in nomadic, aleatory terms. These multiple, intersecting avenues also allow me to engage with different elements of Deleuzian philosophy, from the Body without Organs and desire, forms of becoming otherwise (-animal, -woman, -imperceptible…), to nomadism, smooth space and the any-space-whatever, and to experiment with these notions within feminist and queer frames.


CW: As you point out, Nothomb’s work has been accused of reinforcing a traditional myth of female Beauty and an “anorexic aesthetic”. In reading this aesthetic in terms of a Body without Organs, how are you positioning your own reading in relation to the political stakes raised by these critiques?

AD: The idea that an “anorexic aesthetic’ underpins Nothomb’s work stems from the fact that her heroines are almost always impossibly thin. Their slight, child-like bodies are described in terms of an incomparable, ethereal beauty, suggesting an overvalorisation of thinness that plays into the problematic discourse of idealised and infantilised femininity. Since Nothomb has openly discussed her own anorexia as a teenager, as well as that of her sister, there has been an understandable tendency to associate this biographical experience with the aesthetic configuration of female characters across her work. But I think that critics tend to disregard the multiple meanings that thinness in fact acquires beyond patriarchal beauty myths, and this is what I try to draw out in my exploration of Nothomb’s autobiographical/autofictional works. I am less concerned with the ‘anorexic aesthetic’, then, than with seeing how we might understand Nothomb’s writing of hunger and restraint as being at once embedded in complex webs of conflictual desires and corporeal practices, and at the same time, in the making of a Body without Organs, straining against the weight of these multifarious meanings. In other words, I’m interested in the body’s struggle with signification, in the attempt to turn corporeality inside out and to blur the lines that pattern its surface, between beauty and politics, frailty and strength, defiance and compliance, desire and restraint, erasure and exposure… The Body without Organs might be read as a form of a micro-politics, a dismantling of the body that lays bare and confounds the multiple codes that signify, construct and constrain corporeality. The aim here is not to valorise anorexia as an experience, nor indeed as a political strategy, but to think through the layers of meaning that accumulate on the anorexic body as a means of reflecting further on the relationship between the female body and its representation.

CW: You set your reading of Darrieussecq alongside the sort of critique undertaken by Andrew Asibong when he identifies a mulier sacra neglected in Agamben’s account of the homo sacer. Can you give us a hint of how Darrieussecq works for you not just as a site for identifying Deleuzian tropes but as a critique of Deleuze’s blindspots.

AD: Of the four authors studied in the book, Darrieussecq’s work perhaps pulses most vibrantly with Deleuzian possibilities. Her writing, particularly in her first text, Truismes, one of the works I analyse here, might also be regarded as being the closest to an unequivocally feminist position. So there unfolds a particularly vivid dialogue, I think, in the relation of Deleuzian philosophy to a feminist politics in this chapter. Darrieussecq’s story of a young woman who turns into a sow in Truismes is a highly stylised depiction of gendered metamorphosis. It reorients Deleuzian becoming in fascinating ways, entwining notions of becoming-animal and becoming-woman to suggest a parodic mode of becoming that illuminates and critiques, as you say, Deleuze’s blindspots and lack of attention to gender, while going even further in mobilising such a philosophy in deconstructing categories and myths of femininity. Similarly, though her careful consideration of consciousness in a later text, Bref séjour chez les vivants, echoes in many ways the Deleuzian mind as a porous site of connections, Darrieussecq attends to the material embodiment of thought in a manner that elaborates on the torsion between consciousness and world at the very site of the female body. Her writing thus opens up a fluid space for gendered becoming in particularly erudite and politically empowering forms.

CW: When you evoke Deleuzian nomadism in relation to Bouraoui you underline her personal story – she is half French and half Algerian – and suggest that “the experience of nomadism most often occurs in individuals who are essentially always already deterritorialised.” In your discussion of Devi you rightly point out that the experiences of her protagonists that lead to their becoming-animal are extreme in their violence. Is the experience of the body as nomadic or as becoming-animal to be considered exceptional and, if it is, how do these exceptional cases relate to the rest of us. Is that where literature comes in?

AD: Many of the articulations of becoming evoked in the book are indeed extreme in their violence (abject metamorphosis in Devi; anorexia in Nothomb), or exceptional in terms of the particularity of cultural frameworks (hyper-patriarchal Indo-Mauritian and Indian worlds in Devi; French-Algerian conflict and entanglement in Bouraoui). Some might be said to be exceptional in that they verge on the fantastical (metamorphosis in Devi and Darrieussecq), but I think in all cases across these francophone literatures, there is clear resonance with the broad spectrum of lived, female experience. I think it is at this intersection – between what is familiar and what is possible – that literature comes in. Deleuze would emphasise that art itself is a form of becoming that reaches beyond its own terms and enfolds the virtual rather than representing the actual as such, unraveling the organisation of thought and allowing life in its fullest sense to be grasped. Writing can be seen as a process, then, that traverses the ‘liveable’ and the ‘lived’. I wanted to explore difficult, extreme or exceptional figurations of becoming in order to attend to that primary question ‘what are the limits of the body?’ Literature allows for greater experiment with the contours of corporeality, greater possibilities for questioning material boundaries as a means of interrogating our own assumptions and experiences of the gendered body.    

CW: It is always a danger that the commerce between the philosophical and the literary is one-way traffic, with the literature exemplifying and/or confirming the philosophy’s assumptions or prior positions. I am very glad to say that this is absolutely not what is happening in The Becoming of the Body. At the end of this impressive trajectory weaving Deleuze in and out of these four writers, what are your reflections on what – to beg the question and to short-circuit an ongoing debate and one of the main concerns of the Crosscurrents series – we could call the “relation between” the philosophical and the literary?

AD: I wanted the book to stage a genuine dialogue between philosophy and literature, and also to explore the ways that both may inspire in the act of reading a sense of ungrounding. Discussion of the relation between the philosophical and the literary, as you say, tends always to come back to some sort of privileging of the one over the other, establishing some sense of hierarchy, and though Deleuze does much to stress the idea of counterpoint in his theorisations of that relation, his own readings of literature do – not always, but often – return to, exemplify and rehearse a routine set of his own philosophical frames. I have been fascinated instead by what may emerge between Deleuzian philosophy, feminism and literature in points of friction and resistance as much as in modes of contact. In this way, the writing of the book has allowed me to view the philosophical and the literary as allied – in Deleuzian and feminist terms – in interlacing concept and affect in a contrapuntal capacity, as a means of unfurling the vitality of experience and unleashing thought from the fixed associations and tired patterns of our minds.