Title

Needham, Matter, Form, And Us

Document Type

Article

Publication Date

3-1-2019

Published In

Isis

Abstract

Joseph Needham offered a vision of history that united his understanding of the physical world with his interpretation of social process, in which the material, social, and ideal realms were reciprocally constituted. This essay explores Needham’s ideas about matter and form to show how he developed a systematic theory of materialism in his early writings on science and social change. Shifting the ground of discourse in Needham’s project from “science” to “materialism,” the essay brings him into conversation with new materialists to reflect on the ongoing challenges in theorizing the relationship between social and material phenomena. Calling into question an all-encompassing materiality that sacrifices the role of determinate structures and histories in the production of the world, the essay asks: How can we formulate a framework of material/-ity/-ism that does not dispense with or occlude the already embedded politics of culture, social relations of production, and historical contingency?

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