Why “materialism”?

I am finding myself increasingly puzzled by the use of the term “materialism” in contemporary continental philosophy. On the one hand, there seems to be a significant drive to claim the name “materialism,” and indeed to claim that one’s own position is the truest and most radical materialism. On the other hand, the positions claiming the term for themselves do not intuitively seem to be best described as “materialism” — certainly they are not the kind of reductive materialism that would be recognizable to an analytic philosopher, for example. Instead, the mark of a contemporary materialism seems to be an emphasis on something like negativity, ontological lack, the priority of difference, etc. And I should hasten to say that all of those conceptual motifs are things that I identify with and find productive for my own thought! Yet I don’t understand why “materialism” is thought to be the best heading under which to gather them.

A possibility that jumps out at me is that it’s a kind of overcompensation, a preemptive defense against charges of idealism that would naturally follow from the fact that many contemporary materialists find their most productive points of reference precisely in German Idealism. If we take the conflict between materialism and idealism to be a perennial one in philosophy, we might have arrived at a moment when materialism is not being asserted over against some alternative idealist position, but within idealism itself. The truest materialist position may be precisely to discover the way in which apparent idealists were always already rigorous materialists.

Another angle of attack: it’s an attempt to reclaim some territory that has been occupied by various thinkers who want to go back behind the Kantian critical move and claim some kind of immediate access to the real (certain Deleuzianisms, a certain Badiou, Speculative Realism, Object-Oriented Ontology, etc.). So again, it’s an attempt to vindicate German Idealism by claiming that, read rightly, Kant, Hegel, et al. already had what contemporary realism is looking for. (“Is not the obstacle that prevents German Idealism from gaining access to the Real the irreducible kernel of the Real itself, etc., etc.?”)

What do you think, dear readers?

The Vitality of Vitalism

Let me put my claim simply: The “new materialism” is neither new nor materialism. It is, in fact, the old vitalism. Now I don’t mean to disparage the new materialism when I say this, or to position myself as some old Wise One who goes around proclaiming that there is nothing new under the sun. What I want to do is actually make a point that the historian of science Georges Canguilhem makes in his book,  Knowledge of Life (Fordham 2008, orig. 1965). He says that vitalism’s great flaw is its “excessive modesty.” Instead of arguing for the “originality of the biological phenomenon” as a sort of “islet” within the larger empire of the inorganic, vitalism should rather situate the “science of matter” within “the activity of the living.” So what I want to say is, let’s call the “new materialism” the “new vitalism.” When someone like Karen Barad says that matter is a “congealing of agency,” she is returning to the vitalist tradition. Everyone knows that Henri Bergson is one of the great theorists of vitalism, but there are others who have been undeservedly forgotten. There is Hans Driesch, a great embryologist who gave up research for  philosophy around 1900 and was one of the very first thinkers to link Husserlian phenomenology to a vitalist philosophy of the organic body (decades before Merleau-Ponty).  There is Helmuth Plessner, another largely forgotten figure who wrote a “philosophical anthropology” that drew on Driesch and phenomenology for an analysis of the fundamental structures of human “positionality.” And there is Hedwig Conrad-Martius, a student of Husserl who did some of the most interesting work in a phenomenological ontology of life.

So, what is my bigger point? That the new materialism is deliberately running away from its vitalist origins and therefore failing to fulfill the mission that Canguilhem held out for vitalism, which was to assert the claim of life against the machine. Canguilhem thought that “knowledge of life” had a political significance that includes but is not limited to disrupting the techno-scientific power that capitalism exploits. He says, and you can hear how Foucault was influenced by him, that vitalism is a knowledge that expresses “life’s permanent distrust of the mechanization of life.” Vitalism is a response to a “biological crisis within the human species.” Vitalism is a knowledge with revolutionary power. The new materialism runs away from this revolutionary power and embraces instead desubjectified agential matter. Barad certainly is in favor of practices that disrupt the capitalist exploitation of human biopower, but there is a danger that she thinks that matter by itself is already revolutionary. What the old vitalism of Driesch, Plessner, Conrad-Martius and Canguilhem knew was that consciousness matters. To say this is not to endorse the idea that humans are the telos of life. It is to say that the knowledge of life (in both the objective and subjective senses of “of”) is not only about unpredictable forms of  “intra-activity” but about how to release life from what Driesch called “the suffering brought on by embodiment,” the suffering of the living conscious being. Driesch spoke about the inherent yearning of all life for redemption. It is one thing to proclaim the agency of matter. It is another thing to seek redemption for the passion of the body.

A Synthetic Manifesto: A Review of Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism

Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey W. Robbins are no strangers to readers of this blog. Both are well established figures within the fields of theology, philosophy and the liminal space between them that sometimes goes by the name secular theology and sometimes Continental philosophy of religion. Both are graduates of the Department of Religion at Syracuse University and Crockett now teaches as an associate professor of Religion at the University of Central Arkansas while Robbins is a professor of Religion and Philosophy at Lebanon Valley College. While their friendship has long been know, expressed in the academic realm through their co-editorship of the Insurrections series with ColumbiaUP, Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism is their first co-written book. The book, published in the new Radical Theologies series published by Palgrave Macmillan, is quite consciously written as a kind of manifesto for the practice and future of radical theology. Now, what this means is dependent of course on the figures who develop it, but by radical theology it is clear that people thinking with religious material outside of a confessional duty as well as those who are more explicitly confessional but still attempting to radicalize their confessional thought beyond any capture by that tradition’s authorities. That is, radical theology cuts a wide-swath and it may be the only form of theology that is truly “big tent” in terms of its actions and not just as a propaganda move. However much such a movement might benefit from a manifesto, the disparate directions and materials with which various radical theologians engage with makes creating such a manifesto difficult and risks sedimenting their works and cutting off these radical theologians from the true, creative source of their power. At times it feels that Crockett and Robbins risk such sedimentation. However, what ultimately saves them from this temptation is their very synthetic approach. This is a book constructed not in the name of Crockett and Robbins, but through a multiplicity of names that are brought together in varying ways and with various levels of success under the standard “The New Materialism”. Read the rest of this entry »

Anger’s Nonidentity / Occasion Against Universality

I recently looked back at Judith Butler’s response to her having been awarded a “prize” for writing in an especially non-commonsensical style. She observes that the recipients—or “targets,” as she aptly redescribes—of such a prize “have been restricted to scholars on the left whose work focuses on topics like sexuality, race, nationalism and the workings of capitalism.” This then raises “a serious question about the relation of language and politics: why are some of the most trenchant social criticisms often expressed through difficult and demanding language?” Read the rest of this entry »

Adrian Johnston talk: “On Deep History and the Brain”

Adrian Johnston gave a talk at the University of Guelph last Friday and I thought the audio might be of interest to some here. The talk is entitled “On Deep History and the Brain” and in it Adrian draws upon Daniel Smail’s book “On Deep History and the Brain”  to critique a certain side of Lacan that denies any inquiry into that which lies beyond the epistemic limitations of our symbolic structures (e.g. Lacan’s ontology of ‘parle-être’, “In the beginning was the Word,” “The Word is the murder of the Thing,” etc.). Adrian links this impetus to bracket the pre-linguistic to a Judeo-Christian “short chronology/sacred history.” In its place, Adrian endorses a “deep history” as the necessary condition for a secularized materialism. I’ll let the audio explain what exactly this entails.

The Q&A might also be of interest to some, as Adrian talks a bit about his interest in revitalizing Hegel’s philosophy of nature, his preference for the Zizekian approach of adopting the form of Christianity in order to displace its basis rather than smuggling Judeo-Christian content into an atheistic outlook, and shares some objections he has to certain tenets of Speculative Realism.

The abstract is here (pdf), the talk here, and the Q&A here.

Dialectical Materialism: The undiscovered country

There has been one constant in my career as a Zizek expositor: no one cares about the parts where I discuss Zizek’s dialectical materialism. This may reflect on my feeble skills, but it also reflects a broader trend — no one seems to take Zizek’s development of dialectical materialism very seriously. Ideology critique, counter-intuitive political claims, remarks on film — that’s what really gets the attention.

To my mind, though, the deeper ontological questions Zizek is getting at with dialectical materialism are by far the most interesting things about him, the area where he is making a serious contribution. His notion of the universe as “non-all” or “non-whole” is very productive, and it’s not just idle speculation — he links it up with the frontiers of modern science. His chapter on cognitive science in Parallax View is a real tour de force (Jameson agrees), but it seems to have been greeted by total silence. Similarly, his discussions of quantum silence are dismissed as bullshit, apparently on an a priori basis, if they’re noticed at all.

What is going on here? Perhaps it’s a mismatch in his audience — the continental or theory crowds aren’t used to taking science seriously, and the analytic types and the scientists themselves aren’t used to taking “postmodern theorists” like Zizek seriously. I fear it’s just going to be Adrian Johnston and me, crying out in the wilderness — or rather, just Adrian Johnston, as I’m not sure my future research agenda has room for more than a few occasional pieces on Zizek.

Call For Papers: Real Objects or Material Subjects?

Michael passes along the following. Please re-post and spread the word.

Real Objects or Material Subjects? A Conference on Continental Metaphysics

March 27th and 28th 2009, University of Dundee, Scotland

Keynote Speakers: Graham Harman (American University, Cairo) and Adrian Johnston (University of New Mexico)

The aim of this conference is to stage a debate between two dominant strands of contemporary continental thought, as represented by the object-oriented realism of Graham Harman, and by the transcendental materialist theory of subjectivity recently proposed by Adrian Johnston.

Along with the debate between Harman and Johnston, we hope to attract papers from both advanced graduate students and early career researchers on related topics.

Suggested topics include:
realism v. materialism, the contemporary relevance of ‘critical realism’, materialist theories of subjectivity, object oriented ontologies, the place of the political in the realism/materialism debate, the persistence of dialectical materialism, recent continental appropriations of eliminative materialism, realism and materialism in contemporary Anglophone philosophy, continental naturalism, the role of the physical sciences in contemporary philosophical materialism, the persistence of religious themes in recent materialist philosophy, the continued importance (or lack thereof) of thinking the ontological in conjunction with the political.

Abstracts of no more than 400 words should be submitted to m.burns@dundee.ac.uk by January 15th, 2010.

Do not hesitate to contact the organizers with any questions.

Posted in Conference announcement, materialism. Comments Off

Theorizing Political Practice (II): On Why the “Democracy to Come” Is Not the Perfection of Liberal Ideology, and May Be Its Cure

(Half way through writing this, I got my hands on Critchley’s Infinitely Demanding.  I was able to incorporate insights from pp.114-123 into this post, but beyond what I have been able to garner from those pages, I have very little sense of Critchley’s argument as such.  Any misrepresentations of his position are simply the result of my ignorance.  On the whole these are a series of reflections spawned by Žižek’s reflections on Critchley’s book.  Nonetheless, I want to be sure to acknowledge my debts.)

As I was saying, before being so oddly interrupted by such a pertinent event: since the form of Milbank’s position requires the content of Žižek’s, and vice versa, the encounter of one with the other signals the terminus of a dialectic.  Each is proven true only in tandem with the other, and that demonstration is likewise their negation.  This is nothing more than a point about the impotence of any revolutionary politics developed out of an Idealist metaphysics (including dialectical materialism), which seeks to achieve a concrete, material realization of an abstract universal (cf. Critchley, 119.)  The prior discussion of Milbank and Žižek is simply illustrative of this more fundamental point.  It is fair, I believe, to claim that the very appearance of these two thinkers signals the apotheosis of Idealist metaphysics inasmuch as each respectively is the concrete, material realization of its dual transcendental and materialist trajectories.    

I suggested at the end of the previous post that this fact signaled a return to Kant – though under erasure – inasmuch as the fundamental rejection of limit functions to constitute socialism as a regulative ideal.  Critchley is keen to note that the concept of “communism” is fundamentally tainted by the Idealist notion of species-being; and, I am here developing his impulse to suggest that, when viewed in light of the mutually assured destruction of the Milbankian and Žižekian positions, their invocations of “socialism” function as a regulative ideal inasmuch as the purpose of “socialism” or “proletarian dictatoriship,” as they invoke the terms, appears to be to ensure that thought itself always remains properly proportionate to itself in its self-representation (Critchley, 118.)  In doing so, the gesture rather ingeniously conceals, beneath that very thought of that proportion, the fact that the concrete actualization of the concept is impossible. 

Read the rest of this entry »

Theorizing Political Practice (I): On the Conditions of Possibility for An Anglo-Slovenian, Theologico-Materialist Syndicate of Socialist Praxis

Word has it that Žižek and Milbank are friends – writing a book together, even. I thought of this while reading the opening paragraph of Žižek’s most recent article:

One of the clearest lessons of the last few decades is that capitalism is indestructible. Marx compared it to a vampire, and one of the salient points of comparison now appears to be that vampires always rise up again after being stabbed to death. Even Mao’s attempt, in the Cultural Revolution, to wipe out the traces of capitalism, ended up in its triumphant return.

The paragraph is nothing unusual. It is the standard prestige of the Žižekian magic trick: first, we have to see the common household politico-economic assumption clearly before he deftly rolls it through his Hegelio-Lacanian fingers, and transforms it into…a common household politico-economic assumption…decked out in a sweet new “$ ◊ α” t-shirt…with weapons! But, beyond this, there was something in the way he admits here that “even Mao’s attempt…ended up” with the “triumphant return” of capitalism that brought Milbank to mind. That is, it specifically brought to mind Milbank’s argument that Žižek’s ontology is inadequate to genuine socialism – revolution, maybe, but not socialism. And, justified or not, I read the subsequent salvo against Critchley with an eye toward gleaning some inkling as to how Žižek might formulate his response. In the process, I formulated a couple of my own observations about the intersection of their work, and a rather unexpected conclusion concerning the “democracy to come” crowd (part II.)

First, it seems to me that Žižek’s work is integral to Milbank’s in one very important respect. It is said that, during his recent appearance at Birkbeck, Milbank expressed his fundamental agreement with the Führerprinzip. Now, this should not have been unexpected, nor is it particularly indebted to Žižek. After all, as this, and the very existence of this, should demonstrate sufficiently, recourse to a leadership principle is simply the conclusion of any argument that begins with “Alasdair McIntyre.” But, it is the genuinely Leftist patina of that affirmation as it issues from Milbank (as opposed to the pompous, Chesterbellocian paranoia it could have become) that distinguishes him even from many of his allies. And this, I cannot help but believe, is due in large measure to the vision of proletarian dictatorship Žižek has been able to articulate via his engagement with Schmitt – a vision that effectively supplies Milbank with the proper concept of the political he needs to compliment his ecclesio-trinitarian ontology of hierarchical anarchy.

Second, there is a very important sense in which Milbank is integral, not so much to the content, but to the fact that Žižek says what he does. Milbank epitomizes everything that captivates Žižek about Fundamentalists, but with none of the perversities. In this way, being allied with Milbank essentially forces his audience to make the necessary passage through the Christian moment, to wrestle with what is worth fighting for there. Milbank is Žižek – the believer. There is a fundamental, theoretical rationale for this: Milbank is the prestige in the dialectical magic act Žižek is making regarding Christianity – the clearest presentation of common household Christianity acting für sich, the subversive kernel of which he wants to present to you an und für sich.

Read the rest of this entry »

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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