top of page

Material-discursive practices: 
matter extends beyond the physical and has agency that communicates

Materiality describes objects through their matter rather than focusing on what that matter is. All matter matters and this concept introduces the idea that matter has agency – it builds on the idea that matter ‘speaks’ – it is vibrant, lively, alive – and as stated by Barad (2007), has an “active factor in further materialisations” (p. 66). The activity of matter is termed material-discursive practices, or forces. Material-discursive practices primarily explain how matter makes itself felt – the social, historical, cultural, economic, natural, physical, geopolitical forces, amongst others – that are important in understanding the entangled nature and process of materiality (Barad, 2007). Being aware of and understanding the material-discursive practices that operate in the classroom is imperative to the work of a teacher in more deeply being able to respond to their students and as such, was an integral part of this study.


The process of understanding and (re)conceptualising discursive practices as extending to include materiality requires an understanding that discourse is not just “what is said” (Barad, 2007, p. 146) nor are they “speech acts, linguistic representations, or even linguistic performances, bearing some unspecified relationship to material practices” (Barad, 2007, p. 166). Reconceptualising notions of discourse involving only human conversations and representations is the initial step in reconfiguring an understanding and interpretation of the word ‘discourse’. The ideas of discourse just being human perpetuate humanism and do not fit the conceptual frame where all matter is entangled through the processes of material-discursive practices.


In a similar context, Murris (2016b) utilises the concept of material-discursive forces through her work in early childhood to coin the phrase ‘the posthuman child’. Through this conceptualisation, Murris (2016b) espouses that children are discursive, material, relational and that there is “equality between species and between different members of each species” (p. 193). As such, material-discursive forces work to challenge binaries and dualisms by promoting all matter – both human and nonhuman – as agentic. As such, even knowledge, which most humans hold so dear, cannot be owned or associated solely with the human object. Knowledge is co-constituted through material-discursive practices of humans and nonhumans alike (Taylor, 2016a). In addition, O’Neil (2018) purports that “humans and nonhumans co-constitute new meaning through the iterative material-discursive learning process resulting in a transformation. In other words, human and nonhuman are agentic forces and agency emerges from this highly relational learning process” (p. 376). Through the embodiment and enactment of this conceptualisation of knowledge production as a co-generative process, material-discursive practices help to “unpick (some of) the damages done by colonialist, racist, humanist knowledge practices” and “promise to ‘do knowledge differently’ [by] engaging with the geopolitical materialisation…as an ethical and political imperative” (Taylor, 2020, p. 27).


As Taylor et al. (2020) propose, material-discursive practices promote research that aligns with the posthuman and “shifts the ontological locus of agency from the human and redistributes it within human-nonhuman” (p. 171) entanglements of matter and materiality. In enacting research that embodies this theorising, a different kind of response-ability is called for where participants are considered “beyond the human to include the nonhuman, things and nature” (Taylor et al., 2020, p. 171).


In earlier work, Murris et al. (2018)  propose that “agency is not located in a person, and instead, is attributed to a complex field of forces” (p. 67), namely, material-discursive forces. More recently, Murris (2020b) expands on this idea by proposing that “the human is neither a biological nor an ontological given but a political concept and a material-discursive doing, not a thing” (p. 69, emphasis in original). Here, Murris (2020) emphasises the materiality of bodies as practices (of doings) rather than the traditional focus on objects or mass. As is a tenet of quantum theory, it then makes sense that “darkness is not mere absence, but rather an abundance” (Barad, 2014, p. 171) where even space – which is so frequently considered as an inert background – is agentic with its own material-discursive practices (Menning et al., 2020). As such, material-discursive practices are ‘seen’ to extend beyond the physical materiality of objects and exist regardless of spacetime.

bottom of page