The author of this post is Katerina Kolozova.
The human aspect of nature exists only for social man; for only then does nature exist for him as a bond with man – as his existence for the other and the other’s existence for him – and as the life-element of human reality. Only then does nature exist as the foundation of his own human existence. Only here has what is to him his natural existence become his human existence, and nature become man for him. Thus society is the complete unity of man with nature – the true resurrection of nature – the consistent naturalism of man and the consistent humanism of nature.
The materialistic stance of the capitalist subject – both wage laborer and the capitalist who owns it – is marked by an “anorexic” treatment of the physical. The modernist idea of the “material” is indeed what makes the capitalist subject happy. However, immersing into the material without control, allowing it to devour you through pleasure and pain renders the material meaningless, “mere matter.” Matter matters only when fetishized as money, as a sculpted instead of mere body, as sex which is not organs and fluids but representation, as a home which is not (just) a home but a procedure of stylization of one’s life. If the material does not satisfy the fantasized fetishistic expectations, its immediate, unruly, “primitive” needs are treated as defect and their urgencies are (expected to be) subjected to control by the subject of self-mastery.
Capitalist materialism is about absolute mastery of the mind over the material. Consequently, it presupposes a hierarchy between matter and mind whereby the latter is superior to the former. A materialism of this sort is a contradiction in terms. And indeed, capitalism is not materialistic but quite to the contrary: speculation and abstraction rule the physical in an absolute and despotic way. Just as the laborer’s body is a tortured body in the name of labor abstraction, so is that of the animal in the mass industries and nature as a whole. The cruelty of capitalism consists in the capacity to fully rationalize any suffering of the body as well as the relentless exploitation of all organic life. The absolute rule of humanity and its reason is no different than the rule of Hegel’s “Spirit” whose aim is not only absolute subjugation of Nature but also its destruction in the name of pure reign of the pure spirit. This eschatological vision is elaborated and argued for in the Phenomenology of the Spirit.
Speculation, operations of thought or of the transcendental (Laruelle) are at the heart of technological progress, of contemporary “management” of economy and “governance” of society. Speculation is at the core of political power. However, in order for these workings of thought to have an effect on the reality, it is necessary that they are materialized, executed through or upon the physical. In order for them to be realized, in order for them to become real, they have to create a material, physical effect. In order to realize the vision of a world of an absolute rule of technology and of pure rationalism, an intervention into the organic is required with the purpose of erasing, re-inventing and, finally, substituting the naturally created material with the one which is the product of human appropriation and re-production of matter (both organic and inorganic). The eschatology of technology and of the rational mind of enlightenment consists in a vision of a perfect re-production of nature with the goal of arriving to absolute perfection of nature, one that can be executed by (the human) mind. Within this eschatological vision, mind is understood in conformity with the Cartesian legacy, i.e., as something not only radically detached from but also opposed and hierarchically superior to the organic.
In Marx, the notions of “the physical,” “sensual,” “material” and “the real” are interchangeable. Lacan’s and Laruelle’s positions on the real are similar: the real is the effect or a modality of reality manifested in the form of trauma or tuché (an ancient Greek term, meaning both accident and encounter) that thrusts into and disrupts the “signifying chain.” In short, the real is the exteriority to thought, “the out there” to human subjectivity determined in the last instance by language. It is unruly, it lacks form and meaning. It is the unexpected, “elemental” intervention of “what makes no sense.” Making sense out of its effects is operating with the re-presentation of the real, not with the real itself. Still, the workings of thought can create effects in the real, but as soon as they assume the status of the real they “make no sense,” and are as elemental as the “vulgar real” of nature.
Although nature is a reality that can be technically reproduced and intervened upon, it is the radical exteriority to thought regardless of whether we are dealing with “nature proper” or its synthetic, technological re-production. The pretension of thought to act in the stead of the real and, more specifically, of nature is essentially philosophical and speculative. Invading nature with reason is analogous to mind’s oppressive and exploitative control and subjugation of the bodily, one based on the old Greek, Christian and Cartesian dichotomy and hierarchy. “Nature, the physical” and “the sensuous” (notions Marx invokes in his writing much more often than “matter”) are the real in the last instance since they are determined by their being outside of “what makes sense,” by their being the thrust of tuché into the automaton of signification (the mind).
Thus in order to be a “materialist” in Marx’s sense of the word not a rationalist (and, hence, capitalist) one has to make a metaphysical choice of assigning a different status to the material within the frame of the given dichotomy. Or, following Laruelle, one can dismantle the dichotomy itself as essentially philosophical or abstract and argue for “dualization” whereby thought and the real are seen in their unilaterality, as radically distinct categories.[i] The realist (and materialist) thought, succumbs to the authority of the real rather than the auto-referential universe of philosophy. A materialist-realist thought will not be moved by the pretension to fully subjugate the body, but will rather respond to its effects of resistance, will react to the thrust of “irrationality” into abstraction and rationalism capitalist bourgeois society consists of. The inferior position of the bodily in the body-mind hierarchy is what enables capitalist exploitation of lives in the name of an abstraction.
Nature, the organic and the bodily in particular, as the exteriority par excellence with regard to thought, one manifested as trauma is what realist, materialist and Marxian thought succumbs to in the last instance, rather than to a philosophy or to a political program (which is the same as philosophy). The ambition to surreptitiously replace the unruly reality (of nature) with a speculative universe which pretends to be the real will inevitably be undercut by a thrust of “what makes no sense,” caused “ecological catastrophies” or by the sheer trauma of the lived or of the real as embodied pain. The “out there” that is presumably material is, always already, “nature.” According to Anthony Paul Smith, thought necessarily presupposes nature as its cognitive regulatory and organizational principle:
“The thought can never become unnatural; it is never not a real idea and what is real is natural. Thought can have real effects, but cannot affect the Real; thought can think the unnatural, but it does not do so unnaturally.”[ii]
Nature, says, Anthony Paul Smith is one of “the first names of the real.” The only real “we” (the humans and our subjectivities) encounter is that which comes from the physical world. The most radical form of transcendental transposition of the realm of “the encountered, physical out-there” is the concept of “nature” in its least scientific, least philosophically informed, “radically descriptive” (Laruelle) and commonsensical form, one closest to our sensory experience (Sellars). As any other instance of the transcendental, “nature” too potentially engenders its philosophical re-appropriations. The classical, most authoritative and most enduring philosophical postulation of nature is the one which has produced the hierarchy between the physical (material) and mind (idea) while simultaneously declaring it (the hierarchy) as the foundation of any viable philosophizing on any of the two components of the binary. According to this hierarchy, from Aristotle to Descartes, from the Enlightenment to 21st ideas of science and morals, matter/nature is the inferior term in the hierarchy. Within the frame of this binary, inferiority seems to function as an invitation to exploitation and subjugation. Hence, nowadays we rarely speak of nature, but rather of “natural resources” and of ecology whose primary goal is to provide “sustainability” of these resources. When the authoritative discourses of politics and science refer to nature in the second decade of the 21st century, they invoke a speculative entity which perpetuates exploitation in the name of the absolute speculation – contemporary capitalism. In Non-Philosophical Theories of Nature, Anthony Paul Smith explains this process in the following way:
No, nature is not veiled, but thinking this allows our regional knowledges to think that they can unveil nature, that they can touch and circumscribe nature with thought and thereby either exploit her for our own gain or save her. Our contemporary climate, both in the physical and intellectual sense, is determined by a single force: the neoliberal capitalist ideology that demands everything reduce its value to the quantitative measure of money so that it can produce more of this measure. Nature, though, appears to be purposely deviating from what is accepted as good, proper, or reasonable in capitalist society. Nature itself appears to be refusing to go away, to separate itself off from “culture” and the human person, and insists on inhering to every part of culture and within every human person, and it resists bowing before capitalism’s demand, to be measured as something relative rather than the radical condition for any relative measurement.[iii]
Exploitation and alienation are made possible by the procedure of alienating “nature” through speculation which renders it resource to the goal of “economic growth,” the highest purpose of the totality of activity of the humankind. The goal of communism is establishing complete unity of “man with nature,” argues Marx:
The human aspect of nature exists only for social man; for only then does nature exist for him as a bond with man – as his existence for the other and the other’s existence for him – and as the life-element of human reality. Only then does nature exist as the foundation of his own human existence. Only here has what is to him his natural existence become his human existence, and nature become man for him.[iv]
It is, however, the “human aspect” of nature which “exists only for social man” and not the nature in itself or “per se” one establishes unity with. The human aspect of nature as the one that is lived by “the social man,” in the form of a “bond with men” (Marx).[v] In this sense, nature is not object of scientific thought, but rather material (“physical and sensuous”) existence. Alienation from oneself is alienation from the physical (“natural”) bond with the fellow “social men.” Communism seeks to restore the sense of immediacy, the physicality of this bond, turning abstraction into the ” lived” (Laruelle).
[i] Fraçois Laruelle, Philosophie et non-philosophie (Liege-Bruxelles: Pierre Mardaga 1989),, 93-95
[ii]Anthony Paul Smith, A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 15.
[iv] Karl Marx, Private Property and Communism: Economic Philosophical Manuscripts 1844, available at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/comm.htm, accessed on 21 March 2014