Explaining the concept and application of new materialisms to feminist sport and fitness

Pam R. Sailors
Philosophy Department, Missouri State University

Holly Thorpe, Julie Brice & Marianne Clark
Feminist New Materialisms, Sport and Fitness: A Lively Entanglement
268 pages, hardcover.
London: Palgrave Macmillan 2020 (New Femininities in Digital, Physical and Sporting Cultures)
ISBN 978-3-030-56580-0

Imagine you are a university student learning a foreign language. You take classes spanning several terms, and you make very good grades, so you truthfully say you have learned the formerly-foreign-to-you language. Filled with confidence, you travel to the country where your new language is spoken only to find yourself well and truly bewildered by the speed and colloquialisms of conversation.

If this hypothetical situation strikes a chord with you, you will have some understanding of how I felt while reading Feminist New Materialisms. All the words made sense, and I had no doubt that the authors used those words correctly and consistently, but I never felt that I was fully grasping the meaning. To be fair, the authors are aware of the difficulty of many of the concepts they employ, stating explicitly, and more than once, their aim of rendering the concepts more accessible to students and academics not already well-versed in the literature. And the structure of the chapters does contribute to this goal, although to what extent will depend on the patience and interests of reader.

As the title reveals, the book proceeds under the theoretical framework of new materialisms. That is, recognizing that all is matter (“old materialism”) but challenging the traditional view of matter, as well as allowing for a variety of distinctive approaches (thus, the plural materialisms). The approach that the authors choose can be summarized in three ideas: (1) lively matter, (2) entangled bodies, and (3) relational politics and vital respondings. The first idea is that matter is not passive or inert, but “agentic, indeterminate, and constantly becoming in unexpected ways” (8). At the same time, there is no privileging of the human matter as possessing more or special agency. The second idea challenges the notion that we can establish clear boundaries between mind and body and the relationships of power exerted among and upon both. Finally, the third idea is that identities emerge from social relations and that bodies are “socially and culturally produced entities, always ‘enmeshed’ in broader material-discursive arrangements” (14). Having laid them out, the authors proceed to bring these three ideas to bear on sport and fitness.

Characterizing this as “methodology without methods,” they discuss intriguing ways to carry out empirical research, including media analysis, interviews, participatory methods, autoethnography, arts-based methods, embodied methods, and transdisciplinary and mixed methods.

Next to the introductory chapter, the second chapter is the most theoretical of the text, as the authors work through the ways new materialist theory can be applied to research projects. Characterizing this as “methodology without methods,” they discuss intriguing ways to carry out empirical research, including media analysis, interviews, participatory methods, autoethnography, arts-based methods, embodied methods, and transdisciplinary and mixed methods. Having set out options, the authors move in chapter three to employ several of them in consideration of objects found in sporting culture, claiming that the material objects are not merely passive items upon which humans confer meaning. Their investigation of the sports bra is remarkably interesting. This chapter and all that follow concludes with a section on “pedagogical possibilities,” in which the authors suggest experiential activities designed for students to enhance their understanding of new materialisms.

Chapter four focuses on health and fitness devices and what new materialisms can reveal about the relationships between humans and technologies. The case study here examines fitness trackers, motherhood, and the discourse between them. Chapter five looks at “the bio-socio-cultural complexities of moving bodies” (24), particularly focusing on the biological conditions of LEA (low energy availability) and RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport), common to elite female athletes. Chapter six works with the concept of apparatus to determine the prospects for transdisciplinary research. This concept, from feminist physicist Karen Barad, captures the notion that the measuring apparatus produces data, rather than merely observes it. As the authors put it, “apparatuses are performative constellations of practices, bodies, and systems of meaning that constitute the boundaries of our research and knowledge production endeavors” (153-4).  The final substantive chapter, seven, considers the environment and the matter (human and otherwise) it contains from a new materialisms perspective. Particular attention is given here to sport and the environment through creative writing about Australian bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic. An epilogue completes the book, with the authors’ experiences of collaboration examined within the framework of new materialist theory.

Overall, the authors refer to an impressive number of feminist scholars and cover a broad expanse of literature. While admirable, this adds to the difficulty of the text for readers not already well-versed in the theoretical area, but clearly shows the depth of the authors’ understanding of and commitment to the potential for fruitful application of new materialisms to feminist sport and fitness. The book will be a good addition to discussions in the area.

Copyright © Pam R. Sailors 2021

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