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.

16 thoughts on “The Vitality of Vitalism

  1. Very nice post – especially concerning redemption and embodiment. At the risk of appearing as if I am “putting myself over” I’ll link some thoughts I had about the new materialism and “dark vitalism.”

    One critique is that the “dark” neither philosophically clarifies nor adds anything to the currents of vitalism discussed in your post. One might also think about “neo-vitalism” too, however, which does *not* (as I understand it) necessarily take embodiment – material expression – to be problematic but symptomatic. As you say, is there enough significant or sustained difference to warrant the “new” or “neo” prefixes in any of these cases (e.g. “new materialism,” “neo-vitalism,” etc.) Anyhow, I’ll link two posts and subscribe to comments here if anyone is up for discussion. Note that “ruthlessness” in my post is meant to capture that longed for value-neutrality which may be afterall, impossible.

    One final thought: true, Bergson-bashing or the tossing out of elan vital has become fashionable lately, but my argument is that “vitality” sneaks back in in some form or another. This also seems to apply to the dreaded term “experience” (as it has taken on the meaning of referring to *human* referential capacity, rather than what someone like Bergson, Whitehead, or Deleuze may have meant by it). The fear seems to be that there is no negativity in Bergson – whether in life or experience – and with that we get a preserved past – too close for comfort for the atheists, as in too close to an “objective immortality of the past” or consequent nature of the divine life, i.e. Whiteheadian God. The other criticism (from what I’ve read) is that life *is* mechanical, and that the cold reality is that these processes really aren’t warm and fuzzy but simply aimed at biological stasis (stoppage, death drive). All of life *really* seeks fulfillment as to die. But I am not sure that we should attribute death or a negativity fueling life’s arc anymore than we should positive creative addition.

  2. What about the late Simmel? In the last decade of his life, starting with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and ending with his recently translated posthumously published “metaphysical chapters” on the concept of life, he was quite an interesting thinker who went well beyond the neokantian frame of most sociological thought.

  3. Some days ago I had a conversation with Dorothea Olkowski (via Facebook) saying precisely that the so called new materialism is just a form of objectivism (Delanda, as the most prominent), and that Deleuze’s opened the path to understand life itself as the very flow of non-organized life that it materially is: an understanding that comes only through its very event and as a very concrete experience: in Deleuze and Guattari this experience means the very the schizo-break of experimenting the full positive mesh of intensive spatial quantities (an experimentation which consequence leads the body to drain all transcendencies that were embodied as organic synthesis, exposing itself to the absolute perceptibility of the plane: an immanent outside which is immanence itself etc). Of course I am not venting here what she replied to me about this post-deleuzian assertion, but however the emphasis I am making is that matter is something that can be empirically experienced, the main feeling she managed to manifest about this fact was that ‘it was not enough’. The problem is thus to conceive life’s greater epistemology as part of our own life without one denying its excess it implies in our own existence: an absolute rupture.

  4. @all: thx for the replies, very thought provoking. I must put Simmel on my to-read-very-soon list.

    @leon: Your talk of “dark” vitalism reminded me of the great August Weissman’s fundamental distinction between the immortality of the germ plasm and the mortality of the soma, translated into meme and vehicle by Richard Dawkins. “Dark” vitalism seems to go back to the idea that we are hosts to a mindless parasite that uses us for its own purposes. There is a version of the “old vitalism” that recommends to us that we embrace the parasite. It meant embracing somatic death for the sake of the immortal germ plasm. “Dancing on the abyss.” Very heady German romantic stuff. Ernst Juenger as you point out was one of the exponents of this. (Not so much Nietzsche, at least as I read him. But the Juenger folks certainly thought he was on their side.) Futurism and Expressionism is full of this, what they called “pathos.” Today, the pathos is gone and the advocates of “embrace the parasite/meme” see it, as you say, as a sort of cool objectivity, a rejection of the “wam, fuzzy” vitalism of Driesch et al.

    No doubt, vitalism is a divided field, maybe constitutively so. Weissman posited that the divide between soma and germ cells is the result of the emergence of sexual reproduction rather than simple cell division (where the cell is in effect immortal). I think the division between “dark” and “light” vitalisms is about sexual reproduction itself: is it a Fall into the realm of the knowledge of good and evil that can only be overcome by embracing somatic death and the immortal parasite “beyond good and evil” or is it the condition of possibility of a radical responsibility for the Other as such (Levinas, the later Derrida)? Weissman didn’t think that the germ-soma distinction was anything more than an accident of natural selection (sexual reproduction mixes things up so that the result is a little more likely to be able to survive than the results of simple cell splitting). What if, however, it is constitutive of life as such? Then the attempt to get “beyond” it (and “good and evil”) is not vitalism, but a sneak attack by the Machine (as Canguilhem would say) against life. I think we know this deep down, otherwise we would cheer the alien in Alien. Our gut reaction (I mean this literally) is to side with Soma and, as I said in my post, to yearn to redeem it from suffering. That’s why I think Meillassoux’s argument that the ultimate ethical kingdom will only come with the *resurrection of the body* is spot on.

  5. Undoubtedly ‘new materialism’ shares something with ‘vitalism’ but it’s quite a leap to say that they’re the same. The main difference is that vitalism generally posited a something separate from mere matter that animated it, a spark that injected life into what was otherwise inert. This is the total opposite of new materialists who explicitly claim that there is no duality and that animation is simply inherent in matter in general — that form, telos, vitality are not other to matter but emerge within it. In other words, vitalism is a thesis of transcendence which brings something from outside into matter to grant it that which it lacks; ‘new’ materialism is (in most versions) a thesis of immanence, which argues that it has everything it needs within itself.

  6. BR:

    Very interesting. I think I agree with you that vitalism could be understood as a response to a “biological crisis within the human species.” But I wonder what the political content of this response is? Besides Bergson, Conrad-Martius and Plessner, and the others you mention, there is another German who would be interesting to add to the list: Arnold Gehlen – who of course is infamous for his nazism and reactionary politics. I wonder if that says something of the content of the politics that says that consciousness matter. I am of course not implying that it leads to nazism, but the fact still remains that Plessner´s politics was quite conservative for example, that is at least how I read his critique of social radicalism.

    There is a famous anecdote that a pupil once met Jacob Taubes holding Auerbach´s Mimesis in one hand and Gehlens Das Mensch in the other, and Taubes said something schmittian like that Auerbach was his friend and Gehlen his enemy, implying that one had to choose the path of history and critique (Auerbach) or the path of anthropology and biology (Gehlen)… Could it be something problematic in vitalism as a response to the biological crisis you mention? Could it imply a more reactionary or at least conservative politics than the one that Taubes found for example in Auerbach… This of course doesn’t lead to an apology of new materialism, rather the the opposite, but maybe the answer to the crisis you mention lies outside this form of biological and anthropological thought as a whole, namely in history (and biology of course has a history, Schelling knew that).

  7. @ahab: I completely agree that there has been a linkage between vitalism and fascism/nazism, and that the linkage is perhaps (as I mention in my reply to philip) constitutive: the drive to overcome individual death may be construed as a drive to merge with the immortal “race.” So vitalism must be aware of this danger and not succumb to the temptation to hypostatize a life-beyond-death that would be free of at least the memory of the suffering of mortal embodiment. Again, I can do no better than refer to Meillassoux’s reflections about the dangers to be avoided in imagining the resurrection of the dead to be a happy and healthy immortality of the blessed. Canguilhem in *Knowledge of Life* offers a persuasive defense of vitalism against the charge that it is essentially fascistic, by the way.

  8. As for Plessner’s politics: because he wanted to retain a middle course in Weimar between the extremisms of both right and left, he certainly can sound “conservative.” His wife tells the story of how after the war Carl Schmitt telephoned Plessner and said he was in the neighborhood, could he drop by for a conversation. Plessner told his wife to say he wasn’t interested.

  9. BR: Thank you. I have never read Canguilhem but will definitely do it now. (Levinas reflections on hitlerism could maybe be read in the same way?)

    Speaking of the hope of the resurrection of the dead as a sort of implicit anti-fascism, would you say that the importance with that dogma or hope or whatever it is is the fact that it promises the resurrection of the singular person and therefore implies an individualized immortality rather than an objective and collective immortality? And would the radical politics that comes from the fact that consciousness matter (if one can put it that way) effectively be that consciousness is self-consciousness, and therefore the consciousness of autonomy, freedom and individuality (maybe even anarchy)? I have actually written a text about this where I try to argue for something of the like, that is that the question of immortality should not be understood as a democracy of the dead but rather as their free association with the living; the hope of the living and the dead that the perished ones will rise and the living will be changed in that resurrection.

  10. @ahab: You raise important questions. I feel I can’t speak to them in any significant way, but I would say this much, something I think I learned from Meillassoux: the desire for the resurrection of the dead, if it is to be a grounding for ethics, must not be for one’s own immortality or resurrection. It is desired for the sake of the specters that haunt one, for the sake of the demand made upon one by the unfinished lives of those who suffered untimely deaths. Put it like this: So long as there is a place where the old bury the young, the world remains unredeemed.

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