Materialism and Desire

Reading through my review of Hallward I make a somewhat strange claim at the end of my paper. I think it is a position that can be defended, but I recognize its strangeness and even hoped it would be polemically weird. I claim that Bergson’s philosophy deepens materialism and that Deleuze’s philosophy has the potential to do the same for us today.

Again, I stand by this as completely defensible, even though I’m not going to defend that today. We’re talking about a very serious academic paper there and one I don’t know if I’ll ever write. That’s because after writing that review, partly as an attempt to defend Deleuze from the charge of Hallward’s ‘Mystical theologian!’, I had to wonder – why do I want Deleuze to be a materialist? Why do I want to be a materialist? My desire to be materialist is completely and utterly reactionary. Growing up as I did in my formative years as the child of an evangelical minister I formed a critique of the experience as being a denial of the material reality. Not all the interesting or creative, but there is certainly truth that evangelical Christianity tends to privilege the after life over and against the body. So the answer it seemed to me was materialism. Lets focus on the material and everything will be better.

Now I’m not so convinced. Obviously there is material. Obviously! – and anything that obvious is also quite boring in and of itself. I wonder what will come after this desire to be materialist. I wonder if I can find a more active desire in this attempt to move beyond materialism as such. One hopes I don’t simply start talking about angels and demons pushing around atoms, but I am more and more comfortable with being called a spiritualist if such a term is qualified. A kind of spirit as past. I’m thinking mostly of the way materials are constructed through time and the kind of ‘energy’ or ‘power’ or ‘sense’ that passes or manifests through them. Staring at a wall one is of course struck simply by its existence, but when one reflects on all the energy that went into that wall being there, at this time, I can’t help but think this is important.

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21 Responses to “Materialism and Desire”

  1. dominicfox Says:

    The crux of materialism in evangelical preaching tends to be “the flesh”, which Paul commonly presents as tied to oppression and identity, the regio dissimilitudinis of worldly existence. It is in the flesh that we are oppressed and suffer (or oppress others and cause suffering), in the flesh that we are Greeks or Jews. But the “glorious” body that supplants / transfigures the flesh is not immaterial – it’s not a sort of Star-Trekky sublimation into a Being of Pure Energy – so perhaps what’s at stake here is two kinds of materialism (as in Badiou’s split between “democratic materialism” and the “materialist dialectic”, for example)…

  2. Sam C Says:

    Sorry to be slow here, but I’m not clear what ‘materialist’ means in this context.

  3. Anthony Paul Smith Says:


    You’re not being slow as that’s kind of my point. There is something right now that is desirable about being a materialist, but, at least for me, there seems to be a real lack of knowing what materialism is. Why do we desire it? Etc.


    I’m sure it is two kinds of materialism. Still I don’t want to talk about this through Badiou’s scheme because he is, as he often is, too polemical to really move from opinion to philosophy.

  4. Alex Says:

    Weirdly, I have beem thinking mucht the same thing recently – am I a materialist at all (for example, I am certainly not into any thing that could be accused of scietism, in philosophy of mind, I am not an eliminative materialist or somesuch), and what kind of materialist am I (weird theological one).

    As for the whole Paul thing, though this may be the thought in evangelical circles, I think NT Wright and most New Perspective On Paul people seem to take it that Paul believed in a bodily and fleshy resurrection – a new Adam, a new heaven and a new earth.

  5. Alex Says:

    I should have put (weird theological one – perhaps???) – no certainties at all here!

  6. Adam Says:

    A great essay could be written analyzing Badiou’s work as a form of gossip.

  7. Adam Says:

    When I was in high school, I was initially predisposed to try the fundamentalist pose. But when we actually learned about evolution, I found it to be hugely convincing — and way more interesting than creationism. By contrast, I find reductive materialism to be incredibly dull, whereas Zizek’s dialectical materialism (the form of materialism I’m most familiar with) was fascinating to me from the very beginning.

    With reductive materialism, there’s always this negative affect — a weird kind of asceticism. In the “explanations” at the back of Phenomenology of Spirit, Findlay says that you don’t necessarily need to apply Hegel’s “Unhappy Consciousness” only to the religious subject. The other example he uses is basically the reductive materialist, and I am more and more convinced that that analysis is really right.

  8. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    I was somewhat lucky. Having a father who was a doctrinaire atheist and falling in love with nerdy science stuff very young (it’s really strange that I went the humanities route when I look back) I never felt any desire to be a creationist tout court. This was actually very hard on a Sunday School teacher of mine who also taught freshman science at the high school. I was very insistent that there was no reason to believe the creation story meant seven literal days and from there it was only a matter of time until you decide the Genesis story has very little to do with the creation of the universe.

    I wonder if right now I’m trying to navigate some middle path between my two parents. Jesus, I hope not.

  9. Alex Says:

    As this seems to have taken a person bent, and I have been thinking about this lately, here is my take.

    Being from the UK and not having not come from a fundamentalist background, I didn’t need to desire materialism as some kind of an escape from my religious upbringing. Indeed, coming from a politically liberal, intellectual Catholic background, (which I am very glad of mostly) I have never really seen studying science (which of course, does not neccesarily logically entail materialism) as the enemy of religious faith – indeed, it was actively encouraged from an early age.

    Like you Anthony, its strange to think I have gone the humanities route, when I was a total science nerd for most of my secondary school years, though I became less interested towards the end and if it were not for meeting someone who essentially convinced me that I should persue more artistic ends (at the time poetry) I would have gone to university to study computer science.Interestingly or not, I recall one day at a Catholic primary school being sat down with the progress of evolution on one side and the story of Genesis on the other and my teacher saying it was strange that they tallied up. It never went beyond this kind of thing, eg Genesis was true in a exacting scientific sense etc. Its odd that this kind of stuff was a total and utter non-issue for me.

    So the conclusion of this short and boring story about my life is that I have never seen materialism as desirable or undesirable, particularly, though I have been generally inclined to a qualified version of non-materialism.

  10. Thomas Bridges Says:

    Anothony: great reflections. I will add a one, if I may.

    Fundamentalism is an extreme perversion of Christian faith. From the start of Christianity, there has been materialism of one sort or another. In the Apostles creed the resurrection fo the body is confessed, as well as in all later creeds. Irenaeus argues vigorously against the Valentinians that God in-carnated, and that flesh was not an accidental emanation, but a creation out of nothing. Jutsin Martyr before that argues for an ethic in light of the resurrection of the body in ‘On the Resurrection of the Body’: he says that if a doctor realizes a patient will die, the patient is allowd to eat, drink and be merry, for tommorrow he will die. But if the patient’s body has a future, the doctor gives him disciplines and ways to care for the body. So Justin says, analogously, since human bodies have a future (in the resurrection), bodies are to be treated as if they have a future. I really think the fathers need to be probed more for a dialectical (-ish; I am not sure if this is the right term) materialist ethics. What is amazing is fathers whom value martyrdom and the afterlife, but never let this turn into dualism.

  11. Alex Says:

    Thomas – if you head over to my blog you will see the abstract for the paper I am giving on Bataille and the incarnation. It would be really interesting, after what you have just said, if you could recommend me some specific texts on this incarnational materialism thing, in either ancient or modern forms – particularly where it never slips into a dualism.

    My e-mail is awgandrews [at ]

  12. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    ‘What is amazing is fathers whom value martyrdom and the afterlife, but never let this turn into dualism.’

    Really though? Seems like a dualism is necessary if you are going to posit a soul. But of course none of us wants to be dualists either. Why is that?

  13. Thomas Bridges Says:

    ‘Really though? Seems like a dualism is necessary if you are going to posit a soul.’

    Really? Yes. But you can posit a soul and not be a dualist, at least in the sense that I mean. That is why I said I was not sure of using the right term. Irenaeus, Origen, Clement, Justin Martyr, Ignatius and others from the early church posited a soul and taught what I am calling a ‘materialist theology.’ What I mean by that is that they think that material matters, as opposed to pointing to the realm of spirit as the sole emphasis of thought. Origen, Gregory of Nazianzus (and some others, but I am not sure which right now) even taught that Angels had corporeal form, that only God (the Father) was pure spirit (many also later follow this teaching). As some scholars would say, they taught that you cannot experience God without material. For the Fathers, the human was the unity of the ‘world of the mind’ and the ‘world of the senses’ (material); Gregory of Nyssa especially fits this thought. So what I am saying is that for the Fathers the human is a unique unity between spirit and matter, and that is why you can have a non-dualism (in the proper sense). If you want to call this a dualism, you can, but it never means that one realm will be obliberated (as fundies might want us to think) nor that they are ever opposed.

    Alex, I will read the draft and e-mail you tomorrow with some text recommendations. Right now I am at a friend’s house.

  14. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Dualism doesn’t always mean that one substance is obliterated. It used to just mean that there were two distinct substances that had independent reality (in some variant). Bergson was a dualist whose thought collapsed in a monism. etc.

    I’m not arguing that there is theology that doesn’t denigrate the material, but is it really a materialist thought? That’s my question here. Why do we want to say it is. Materialism to most people means that everything happens at the level of the material and anything like spirit is just epiphenomena of material processes. Like the notion love is reducible to chemicals in the brain. There are more and less sophisticated versions of this, in that some people would say ‘love is just x’ and others would say ‘love is this, but it doesn’t change its value’.

  15. Sam C Says:

    A tentative distinction between three senses of ‘materialism’:

    1) anti-materialists(1) think that there is a realm of spirit which is distinct from and vastly more valuable and fundamental than the realm of matter. Materialists(1) deny this. They think that spirit subordinate to matter (or, as Anthony says, an epiphenomenon of matter).

    2) Materialists(2) make a claim about what exists, not about priority or value: they think there’s only matter (and energy). That is, they’re one kind of anti-dualist.

    3) Materialists(3) are the materialist theologians Thomas Bridges describes. If I’ve understood him, they think that spirit and matter both exist – they’re dualists in the sense that they’re opposed to materialism(2). But they deny both sides of the materialism(1)/anti-materialism(1) contrast. Matter and spirit are different, equally valuable, and unified in human being*.

    I’m just thinking aloud here, but does this three-way split help? Worries about materialism can be worries about relative value, about what exists, or about human embodiment.

    *Descartes occasionally sounds like this, e.g. when he says he’s not in his body in the way a pilot is in his ship. This may not be accidental.

  16. JD Says:

    I do think that someone like Tertullian is a genuine, non-dualistic theological materialist. For him, there are just different types of bodies made out of the same type of stuff any materialist would deem to be real. There are not two substances, and the emphasis is placed on the material (he doesn’t call it that, but it has the same meaning as a non-reductive materialism.)

  17. Thomas Bridges Says:


    Agreed. But that is the point I am trying to make with other Fathers. Many of them explicitly say that angels, the ‘heavenly realms,’ etc. all are a substance. I have not read much Tertullian, so help me if you are saying something more with him than I am with Origen and Nazianzus. For those two, they say that God is pure Spirit, and it is their way of distinguishing the Creator from the created. For them the soul is a substance, as it is for Aristotle.

    Sam and Anthony, I think Sam’s types can be workable. My point is that material is never subordinated or done away with, nor is it ever separable from some type of ‘pure spirit.’ if you want to call that dualism, fine. But it is far from Valentinianism/Gnosticism, which claims that matter is less desirable, because it comes from an emanation, and it is distinct from Platonic thought (though I think there may be some exceptions in Neo-Platonism).

    ‘Why do we want to say a theology is materialist?’ Maybe because too much theology is not this-life affirming, or offers resources for this world. There are too many backward eschatologies, with wrong ideas about material. Instead of ‘spirit’ breaking into and animating material, spirit inhabits material like a ‘ghost in the machine’ (Descartes) until it is released via death.

    I am of course not advocating a pure materialism, nor claiming the Fathers do.

  18. Anthony Paul Smith Says:


    One of the things I’m trying to get to here is the notion that we tend to think of certain ‘doctrines’ or whatever as bad and others as good. I want to be a materialist because that’s good. I don’t want to be a dualist because that’s bad. As the post says I wanted to be a materialist for the same reasons you outline, but I’ve come to the point where I don’t want to fight with people over what materialism is.

  19. JD Says:

    Thomas, I was just speaking of what I know to be true of Tertullian. I do think that there is a real tendency in Origen and the Cappadocians (contrary to popular tendencies to read them a pro-body) to actually undermine the real value and potentiality of matter. That is, they want to be freed from the greater dependence that corresponds to its greater degree of passivity. You get this in Nyssa’s discussion of the resurrected body as completely active. This, of course, is not intended to undermine its more fundamental dependence on God, but it does serve to inaugurate a drive for the realization of something of a liberation from materiality as such. This is one of those places where the differences b/t East and West get much more complicated than is usually acknowledged, because, while the West will tend to emphasize the limitations and the “sinfulness” of the body and invoke a fulfillment in the “afterlife,” the East will emphasize the goodness of the body so as to secure the means of overcoming it, precisely in its materiality. It seems to me that in terms of a non-dualistic theological materialism, the strand of thinking that is more “pessimistic,” flowing out of North Africa, is ultimately more useful for thinking through the real potentiality of materiality as such. I think this is one of those weird places where the virtues of the East’s “ontological” approach to sin and deification is counter-intuitively destructive, while the West’s “moral” approach to deification is counter-intuitively much more helpful.

    I guess all of this comes down the fact that I have been reading a lot of people saying how great the Cappacodians are on the body for so long, but I cannot for the life of me really see it. Every time I read them, I always come away with the feeling that materiality is something to be overcome, not actually affirmed as such. And, for all Augustine’s complaints about “nightly emissions” and the like, the fact that he links that “sin” to the will and consistently affirms that the body is good, you never get the sense that there is something to be overcome in matter itself. You can also see this in the way they discuss sex in Eden: Nyssa excludes it, and Augustine affirms it.

  20. Thomas Bridges Says:


    I suppose it may boil down to how you read them. Regarding Augustine and Nyssa on sex/bodies, sounds like the paper Dave Dunn wrote for AAR last fall (maybe his work is what you had in mind). I remember him pointing out how they cross paths; Nyssa, whom starts with a higher view of [fallen] human sexuality, ends up with a lower view, and vice-versa with Augustine.

    To be honest, I am more familiar with the Eastern Fathers than the Western, so maybe you are right; but I stand by my claim that they don’t oppose mater and spirit, even if they have a hierarchy (and matter is never really done away with; Origen insist over and over on the resurrection of the body). Maybe you could say matter is something to be overpowered, rather than overcome. That might even be too strong! But if the West is more useful than the East, that is great.

    Anthony, sorry for taking things outside the trajectory of your post. This stuff is just interesting to me.

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