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?