Pedagogical Matters

New Materialisms and Curriculum Studies

by Nathan Snaza (Volume editor) Debbie Sonu (Volume editor) Sarah E. Truman (Volume editor) Zofia Zaliwska (Volume editor)
©2016 Textbook 214 Pages
Series: Counterpoints, Volume 501


This edited collection takes up the wild and sudden surge of new materialisms in the field of curriculum studies. New materialisms shift away from the strong focus on discourse associated with the linguistic or cultural turn in theory and toward recent work in the physical and biological sciences; in doing so, they posit ontologies of becoming that re-configure our sense of what a human person is and how that person relates to the more-than-human ecologies in which it is nested. Ignited by an urgency to disrupt the dangers of anthropocentrism and systems of domination in the work of curriculum and pedagogy, this book builds upon the axiom that agency is not a uniquely human capacity but something inherent in all matter. This collection blurs the boundaries of human and non-human, animate and inanimate, to focus on webs of interrelations. Each chapter explores these questions while attending to the ethical, aesthetic, and political tasks of education—both in and out of school contexts. It is essential reading for anyone interested in feminist, queer, anti-racist, ecological, and posthumanist theories and practices of education.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Preface: Entanglement
  • Introduction: Re-attuning to the Materiality of Education
  • Chapter One: Curriculum for New Material, New Empirical Inquiry
  • Chapter Two: Playgrounds as Sites of Radical Encounters: Mapping Material, Affective, Spatial, and Pedagogical Collisions
  • Chapter Three: Borders, Bodies, and the Politics of Attention
  • Chapter Four: Matter, Movement, and Memory
  • Chapter Five: Meditating with Bees: Weather Bodies and a Pedagogy of Movement
  • Chapter Six: The Sound of Silence: The Material Consequences of Scholarship
  • Chapter Seven: Intratextual Entanglements: Emergent Pedagogies and the Productive Potential of Texts
  • Chapter Eight: The Zombie in the Room: Using Popular Culture as an Apparatus
  • Chapter Nine: Moving-Back-Through: A Matter of Research
  • Chapter Ten: Life at Large: New Materialisms for a (Re)new(ing) Curriculum of Social Studies Education
  • Chapter Eleven: A Matter of Power
  • Chapter Twelve: Multiple Materiality Across Distributed Social Media
  • Chapter Thirteen: Moving Toward Practices that Matter
  • Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

← vi | vii →



The fossilized remains of “prehistoric” creatures made all of this possible, but not without the intervention of a host of agents—“natural,” human, corporate, chemical, mechanical, technical, bureaucratic, and governmental. The appearance of these machines called “computers,” which cannot run without the electrical supply whose emergence required hundreds of millions of years, is similarly complex. Add the internet and various software, and we’re already talking about a “mangle” (to use Andrew Pickering’s phrase) that would take as many words to explain as our contract with Peter Lang allows in total. And we haven’t mentioned yet the primate bodies of the book’s editors and contributors, bodies that have been habituated to schools for decades, bodies that thrive only in relation to so many nonhuman agencies that an additional book would be required to enumerate them: architectural agents, foods (a category so vast and complex it boggles the imagination), oxygen, the microorganisms who become with us, our intra-human social and sexual networks, our cross-species attachments, our quasi-individual natural-cultural-artificial environments.

We need to start there, with a world that is so very, very much wider than a merely “human” one. This book is radically, materially dependent on the agency of matter in unfathomable ways. In a very important sense, to speak of ourselves as editors or academics or even as discrete human persons only makes sense as a habit, a habit that might actually stand in the way of reckoning with what new materialist discourse offers us to think. We will still thank a number of human persons ← vii | viii → and institutions, and we do it out of habit, but not without recognizing, up front, that what really makes this book, and indeed ourselves, possible cannot be easily named, may have no proper (or even common) name. And yet, we cannot but offer up our greatest thanks.

Our gratitude also extends to the scholars whose names do not appear in the table of contents who were very much with us as this project took shape: Peter Appelbaum, Michelle Bae-Dimitriadis, Jake Burdick, Hannah Dockrill, and Patti Lather. We want to thank those institutions who supported this work by putting conference panels on their schedules: the Bergamo Conference for Curriculum Theory and Classroom Practice, Division B of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), and the Critical Issues in Curriculum and Cultural Studies special interest group of the AERA.

We would like to thank Shirley Steinberg for including this collection in the Counterpoints series and our editorial contacts at Peter Lang: Chris Myers and Bernadette Shade. We want to thank Dan Black of Landland for his incredible cover art.

← viii | ix →





I—and, of course, the authors presented here—have been thinking a lot about things lately. I’ve just moved across country, so the stacks of boxes, books, unidentifiable kitchen tools, and keepsakes keep intruding into my life, my home, my office. Also, my new position is at a Catholic institution where the iconography sometimes startles me, the stately architecture feels both very different from what I’m used to and right and good at the same time. The built space is one thing, but not insignificant are the old, varied trees that fill the campus—oaks of various types, redbud, sycamore, holly, maple, white pine—and I’m reminded of an urban planner who said to me once that “mature growth gives a community its character.” It’s not hard to see how ideas like “home” and “university” are deeply personal constructions and only a half step is needed to see them as deeply social constructions, sedimented with all types of cultural meaning—contested and contradictory though they may be. But the step further is what is asked of us in the new materialisms, to consider these spaces as filled with things; here things have agency or “thing-power” as Jane Bennett (2010) would call it, we are asked to hear “the call of things.” But what is most important in this rethinking is not to think of parts of the larger whole of meaning making but rather to consider the ways in which the human and the nonhuman are entangled or, following Karen Barad (2007), that “there is less an assemblage of agents than there is an entangled state of agencies” (p. 23). One can see (it is hoped) that implications lie here for notions of intention and causation and their attendant concepts of measurement and objectivity but, ← ix | x → perhaps more poignantly, we are forced to consider “the inescapable entanglement of matters of being, knowing, and doing, of ontology, epistemology, and ethics” (Barad, p. 3).

As Coole and Frost (2010) offer: “As human beings we inhabit an ineluctably material world. We live our everyday lives surrounded by, immersed in, matter” and further,

our existence depends from one moment to the next on myriad micro-organisms and diverse higher species, on our own hazily understood bodily and cellular reactions and on pitiless cosmic motions, on the material artifacts and natural stuff that populate our environment, as well as on socioeconomic structures that produce and reproduce the conditions of our everyday lives. In light of this massive materiality, how could we be anything other than materialist? How could we ignore the power of matter and ways it materializes in our ordinary experiences or fail to acknowledge the primacy of matter in our theories? (p. 1)

The emergent field of new materialisms represents an attempt by a diverse range of theorists to turn the attention back to the material and put subjectivity/positionality under “radical reappraisal” in the hopes of pushing further the conception of self/affect/place in relation. Building from advancements in ecological understanding, quantum physics, and posthumanism—both in its anti-anthropocentric and cyborg subjectivity trajectories—these thinkers suggest a return to “the most fundamental questions about the nature of matter and the place of embodied humans within a material world” (p. 3). This rethinking of matter itself—much like redefining space and place—holds profound implications in such central concepts as agency, identity, and the political. This relationality pushes one to consider that “matter becomes” rather than “matter is” (p. 10)—a push as quantum physics calls one to think of science as the study of process as opposed to state (see Barad, 2007). These “choreographies of becoming” then involve “objects forming and emerging within relational fields, bodies composing their natural environment in ways that are corporeally meaningful for them” (Coole & Frost, 2010, p. 10).

The challenge of new materialisms (much like curriculum theorizing—I’m thinking here of Janet Miller, Patti Lather, Bill Pinar, Walter Gershon, and others) lies in the attempt to think through an educational theorizing of becoming and, as Barad notes, “an ethics that is not predicated on externality but rather entanglement” (Dolphijn & van der Tuin, 2012, p. 50). As a point of departure, educative spaces are considered in terms “beyond the merely discursive” (Helfenbein, 2012, p. 103), material in effect/affect, and both constitutive of and constituted by the bodies that spend time there. I should note at this point that this phrase of mine “beyond the merely discursive” has been more controversial than anything else I’ve said in my work (and that’s why I keep saying it), but it seems to me that scholars like Braidotti suggest that this tension between the discursive and the material is precisely the impetus for taking this turn to new materialisms. Exploring the ← x | xi → implications for both educational and curriculum theorizing embodies the hopes of “bringing biopolitics, critical geopolitics, and political economy together with genealogies and phenomenologies of everyday life” (Coole & Frost, 2010, p. 28). As a continuation of “the interdisciplinary study of the educational experience” (Pinar, 2004, p. 2), the spaces/places in which we find teaching, learning, and curriculum are reconsidered as in-relation, as always already entangled in ways that privilege both the material and the ethical.

Coole and Frost (2010) suggest three themes or currents running through this work:

First… an ontological reorientation that is resonant with, and to some extent informed by, developments in natural science: an orientation that is posthumanist in the sense that it conceives of matter itself as lively or as exhibiting agency. The second theme entails consideration of a raft of biopolitical and bioethical issues concerning the status of life and of the human. Third, new materialism scholarship testifies to a critical and nondogmatic reengagement with political economy, where the nature of, and relationship between, the material details of everyday life and broader geopolitical and socioeconomic structures is being explored afresh. (p. 7)

Here we see the coming together of a set of theoretical commitments fundamentally re/thought, reimagined: ontology and agency; the biopolitical/bioethical; and a reengagement with political economy, all conceived as always already entangled.

A first thought in connecting this work to curriculum theory brought me back to Madeleine Grumet and the storied 1995 piece “Scholae Personae: Masks of Meaning.” In it, Grumet considers the identity of a teacher, the personal and the political, the public and private; but she does so by beginning with a non-human object: a green robe. She writes of the ways in which she is entangled with this object and, although perhaps without using this precise language, speaks to its agency—its ability to act upon her. The robe is for writing, conversation with students, words on words, knowledge in the making. She describes,

It can go in the washing machine and dryer, its synthetic fleece indestructible, but it works best when slightly soiled, worn with unwashed hair, a flannel nightgown, clogs, and Gerald’s grey socks … It is my robe, it has my smell … When I think about it I remember my body … It is a green cocoon. After a while words fly out of it. (p. 37)

Again, Coole and Frost (2010) draw from Foucault in emphasizing that “these micro- and macromodalities (the everyday and the structural) are mutually interdependent” (p. 33). It is the relation between—notably not the space in-between—but the between-ness that matters. Or, as Sarah Ahmed offers, “The object is not reducable to itself, which means it does not ‘have’ an ‘itself’ that is apart from contact with others” (2010, p. 243). This is true for Grumet’s robe and Grumet herself. We consider then that, again following Ahmed, “While bodies do things, things might also ‘do bodies’” (p. 245). ← xi | xii →

Important for me has been the repeated insistence on the work of new materialisms an ethical project, a set of reconceptualizations that not only have ethical considerations but, in fact, provide generative openings for new ethical approaches. Braidotti (2010) offers that:

a postanthropocentric approach to the analysis of “life itself” as a way of broadening the sense of community … at the heart of this project lies an ethics that respects vulnerability while actively constructing social horizons of hope. (pp. 206–207)

Bennett (2010) further suggests that an “understanding of agency as distributive and confederate thus reinvokes the need to detach ethics from moralism and to produce guides to action appropriate to a world of vital, crosscutting forces” (p. 38). Here these authors directly resonate with my own search for a way of thinking ontology in ways that relate to ethics and, for me in particular, the notion of “ethical spaces” or my term “spaces of possibility” and what that might mean for curriculum theorizing. Taking agency to be distributive and “life itself” as a set of relations—porous, active, and acted upon always already—suggests the Foucauldian mutually constitutive micro- and macro-analysis; this is what I’ve called elsewhere “thinking through scale” (Helfenbein, 2010).

I find it compelling to reconsider “life itself” as a point of departure. Ahmed offers: “What passes through history is not only the work done by generations but the ‘sedimentation’ of that work as the condition of arrival for future generations” (p. 241). Place, too, as a concept that foregrounds the material, can be considered as sedimented—not only with meaning (the more typical discussion of place, in the autobiographical or the cultural) but also with matter, matter that matters. This points us to possibility as Grosz (2010) suggests, “The universe has this expansive possibility, the possibility of being otherwise not because life recognizes it as such but because life can exist only because of the simultaneity of the past with the present that matter affords it” (p. 151).

In closing, I think the work collected here suggests that the Reconceptualist project of curriculum theorizing lives on. By this I mean that the intent of those heady days of taking new theoretical work and challenging the field of curriculum to wrestle with what it might mean for our work is alive and well or, in other words, vital. Where this evolving work might take us in educational theory is only being hinted at; but, we begin. New materialist scholarship is filled with phrases that feel right at home in curriculum theory, at Bergamo, in JCT. Two to leave you with:

“Life opens the universe to becoming more than it is” (Grosz, 2010, p. 151).

“Life as difference at work” (Braidotti, 2010, p. 215).

We are entangled: always have been but still seeking the ways in which we might talk about those entanglements, the ethics of what that might mean personally and politically, and the agency we seem to find easy to ignore. My hope ← xii | xiii → is that we find the thing (or the “thing-power”) that allows for the “words to fly out of it.”


Ahmed, S. (2010). Orientations matter. In D. Coole & S. Frost (Eds.), New materialisms: Ontology, agency, and politics (pp. 234–257). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: Quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Bennett, J. (2010). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Braidotti, R. (2010). The politics of “life itself” and new ways of dying. In D. Coole & S. Frost (Eds.), New materialisms: Ontology, agency, and politics (pp. 201–220). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Coole, D., & Frost, S. (2010). Introducing the new materialisms. In D. Coole & S. Frost (Eds.), New materialisms: Ontology, agency, and politics (pp. 1–47). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
education cultural turn anthropocentrism pedagogy posthumanism new materialism curriculum studies
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XXXIV, 214 pp.

Biographical notes

Nathan Snaza (Volume editor) Debbie Sonu (Volume editor) Sarah E. Truman (Volume editor) Zofia Zaliwska (Volume editor)

Nathan Snaza holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Minnesota and teaches literature, educational foundations, and cultural theory at the University of Richmond. Debbie Sonu holds an EdD from Teachers College, Columbia University, and is an Assistant Professor of Curriculum and Teaching at Hunter College, CUNY. Sarah E. Truman is a doctoral candidate in Curriculum Studies and in Book History and Print Culture at the University of Toronto. Zofia Zaliwska is a doctoral candidate in Curriculum Studies and Teacher Development at the University of Toronto.


Title: Pedagogical Matters