Why I’m not a Materialist…

It just so happens I did an edit on an article I wrote on Adrian Johnston’s Badiou, Zizek, and Political Transformations today, then turned my attention to reading Malabou’s Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, and then a couple of chapters of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, and each claim to be a materialist. Bennett can lay the easiest claim, since she’s a self-described monist, but Johnston and Malabou are formalists in the strict sense. In fact, Malabou’s whole project centers around her claim that form has been too quickly written off as “metaphysical” by Derrida, Heidegger, et al. And Johnston offers what he calls a “transcendental materialism.” Malabou and Johnston are writing a book together, so maybe they’ll hash out this better, but I think the term is really just a place holder for “I’m not an idealist.” And I just don’t know what explanatory power “materialism” has any more.

Now, of course, there’s a history of a certain “dialectical materialism,” and I think this drives these uses—and in that sense, who isn’t a materialist in thinking that history makes men as much as the inverse? But Johnston isn’t a monist, and certainly, neither is Malabou, who offers what I take to be the clearest formalism of any philosopher writing today. Yes, she discusses brain matter, but always in terms of its “assembling” and mutational qualities, and she’s not offering causal priority to the “matter” itself. It’s not that I’m not open to Malabou stipulating that her notion of “plasticity” exceeds (or transforms!) the form/matter binary, but again, what explanatory power does this begin to offer?

I write this because I think I would reflexively say that I’m a materialist for a couple of years, but what is that saying? What kind of material would we even be talking about? Even if I was the worst physical reductionist, what am I going to peg as the ultimate matter of res? One argument in stuff I’m working on now is that all the “metaphysics of presence” critiques are better understood as arguments against reductivism—taking one particular idea or form and using it as pivot point for the whole of being. Thus, though I haven’t previously particularly liked the world “realism” Graham Harman’s right when he writes somewhere that materialism is a reductionism. That’s not to say I don’t think matter, uh, matters, but an attunement to the matter of materialism means thinking an ecology of things irreducible to one particularized form, which would mean a deflationary move effacing the multivalent reality of things. What am I missing?


    1. I used that to suggest that (a) I don’t think it does anything in terms of their arguments: I don’t see it helping to clarify their systems of thought; (2) priority (what we used to call cause): are they saying that matter is the ultimate cause for all appearances, as well as structures? No, because the point of their work is to point out how “more than” (it’s a formulation both Johnston and Malabou use in different contexts) materiality is at work in their systems of thought. (3) I would like to know what they mean by “matter.” Bennett for example writes that she’s not a “atomistic” philosopher and her work from there I think tries to hash out just what materialist she would be. But others use the term, I think, to suggest that they’re not a vulgar reductionist, and it’s not enough to refuse the materialist history to say what matter it is that matters.

  1. I’m on the same page here, Peter. The term “materialist” has, for me, been stretched beyond all recognition. When Zizek says “the core materialist” thesis is that “the whole is not”, it is not that I have objections to the thesis that the whole is not, but that I haven’t the faintest clue as to what this could possibly have to do with materialism. If anything, this thesis appears to be an epistemological thesis. I recently had a discussion with a supporter of Laclau along these lines. According to him Laclau’s discourse theory is materialist because it has to do with human practices rather than cognition. But I’m sorry, this still doesn’t count as materialism in my book because it’s suturing everything to human activities and how they form the world. Perhaps I’m just too wooden in my understanding of what constitutes materialism, but if it doesn’t pass the “Lucretius test” it’s just not a materialist position in my book. Lucretius is a genuine materialist because he’s making a claim about what being is: atoms and assemblages of atoms. Likewise, Bennett is a genuine materialist because she’s making a claim about the being things regardless of whether or not they’re related to the human. Much of what’s referred to as materialism in continental philosophy is unrecognizable to me as materialism. And here I think you’re right in suggesting (not your word) that the concept of materialism in these circles is more a negative placeholder (articulating what someone is not, i.e., an idealist) than a genuine positive concept. But the vast majority of these positions (Badiou/Zizek/Johnston) strike me as modified idealisms, not materialisms.

    All that said, I don’t have much of a dog in this fight one way or another as my own position is not materialist but realist. In other words, while I certainly hold that there are all sorts of “natural things”, I don’t hold that the domain of natural stuff exhausts the domain of the real. But even the term “realism” it would appear, is losing its value.

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