I hope Clayton doesn’t mind, but I decided to delay responding to the question he posed after Tuesday’s summary. He asked:
So if Malabou is right, and one wants to affirm plasticity and engage in a new materialism, then does that preclude theology? Or is there at least the possibility of a theological materialism along these lines that forecloses (or does not revert to conceptions of) trace and transcendence?
It seems to me that if there is to be a place for theology in the kind of materialism to which Malabou is commited, it cannot simply be a matter of relocating theology from its traditional confessional context(s) into alternative, secular settings. The easy target here is the stereotypical Popular Culture & Religion crowd, rushing to write the definitive Big Lebowski & Theology book, or perhaps The Gospel According to South Park. These, however, are not the target of my seemingly facile observation.
Rather, my point is to say that any theological materialism that seeks to take Malabou at her word must be willing to question the status, or what I have termed elsewhere, the naming, of its ultimate concern (and, yes, I mean that in the Tillichean vein). In certain radical/secular theological circles, this naming occurs by way of a certain ontological prioritization of difference, or heterogeneity, or sublimity. Clayton may disagree with me strenuously here, but I do not see how this can at all be squared with Malabou’s resistance to transcendence.
Importantly, though, this does not mean she has nothing to offer theology. Indeed, were theology to internalize such a materialism, I think it may very well find an amazing new vitality. At the very least, it would remove a lot of hand-wavy appeal to mystery and pseudo-poetic tautology. (Although, granted, there is also the threat that it loses what distinguishes it, and in the process of gaining life loses that something for which its life has any purpose.)
In my view, such a theological materialism will be concerned less with actually naming the unconditioned — i.e., as the Other, God, the Good, etc. — and the effects this naming has (be they disorienting, edifying, or mystical), and is instead concerned fundamentally with the (ever-evolving, self-organizing) conditions for this naming — i.e., why and how the naming of the unconditioned actually ever occurs at all. This, I think, is the crucial difference we can identify between a theologian and philosopher.
Indeed, perhaps only the latter, the non-theologian, can be truly attuned to the theological promise that materialism might hold: namely, that of a “new creation,” the creation/unfolding of a new existence, one incommensurate with the present order of reality and its existent horizon of expectations. As Malabou notes, and I think correctly, the anti-materialistic theologian cannot at all think change, and thus, by extension, nothing beyond what already is. If this is so, as Malabou makes plain, the world, in all its plasticity, is made new not by even the teleology or phenomenology of the promise or progress, or by any kind of messianism. The world would be made new, rather, through a kind of active ethics inherent to thinking (even if it is resisted by the finality of what passes for thought), and is embodied by the attention paid to that which is unthinkable in (and which emerges from) the thinkable—that which is/those who are constitutively silenced, the count of which there is no count. (In that last bit I’m channeling a bit of Jacques Rancière, whose thinking about aesthetics I find not to be altogether alien from the practical upshot of Malabou’s work on plasticity.)