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?

22 thoughts on “Why “materialism”?

  1. I think it tends to be a confluence of two different trends: hangovers from Marxism and the Feuerbachian debates over idealism and materialism, and the way these play themselves out in modern communist thinkers such as Badiou and Zizek (and even Meillassoux’s speculative materialism), and a loose grouping of ‘new’ materialisms inspired by the Deleuzian diaspora and the Latourian alliance. The term has different connotations in both cases, and yet still gets used by some as if it can cover both and potentially more ‘materialisms’.

    Personally, I think the minimal criteria of materialism should be a metaphysical commitment to the importance of the notion of matter. Materialism without matter just seems empty to me. This needn’t be read as a crude form of physicalism either (i.e., in terms of the primacy of physics or reduction to some privileged set of objects of the discourse of physics), but can be read in more subtle and interesting ways. I’ve wrote a bit about this a while ago: http://deontologistics.wordpress.com/2010/03/30/reductionism-and-materialism/

  2. I don’t get what you are trying to get at, here. I think this is one of those posts that would help me if I knew what materialists (or proclaimed materialists) you were thinking of in this post?
    Like, who claims to be the purest and most radical materialist?
    And they would not be a kind of reductive materialism as understood by an analytic philosopher (why would they?) because the term comes from Marx and Feuerbach and all the rest. (Though wow, the wiki article on materialism is certainly skewed toward the reductive analytic reading of this term).
    “Instead, the mark of a contemporary materialism seems to be an emphasis on something like negativity, ontological lack, the priority of difference, etc. ” Again, who are you thinking of? If you go look at something like the people collected in the edited volume New Materialisms and Material Feminisms, there is certainly not a lot going on that they would describe as ontological lack, negativity, (though probably the priority of difference). Their intellectual commitments seem to be rather clear: A certain kind of Deleuzianism, a certain reading of STS figures (particularly Donna Haraway, Isabelle Stengers, and Bruno Latour), and generally an advocacy for acknowledgement of the agency of nonhuman actors/actants, and the political relevance of that acknowledgement.

    The rest of your post continues my confusion. So, my assumption is that you obviously have certain targets in mind, and those are not the ones that jump to my mind when I think about materialism.

  3. Honestly, I find the terms of the discourse–materialism/idealism, immanence/transcendence–frustrating. My sympathies lie with materialism/immanence; however, I’d never use these terms in my writing. It drives me nuts when I hear things like “Derrida was a thinker of transcendence” or “Deleuze is a materialist.” Claims like this are sophomoric. I could point to several places were Derrida verges on materialism and Deleuze on transcendence.

    There have been several versions of materialism throughout the history of philosophy. One might suggest that Aristotle or Ockham were materialiists. Or, perhaps more obviously, that Hobbes and Spinoza were materialists. I’ve heard Kant and Heidegger descibed as materialists (and also as idealists). And where does something like Bergsonian creative evolution fall in? Perhaps this is Adam’s point, namely, that the term “materialism” doesn’t actually do the work we think it does. I’m inclined to think it should be kept to minimal presupposition, that is, that (like the previous commenter said) materialism refers to the privileging of matter. Perhaps slightly disagreeing with Adam, I don’t think a continental notion of materialism is that far off from certain kinds of physicalism in analytic philosophy. In both, matter and physical states are prioritized over mind, spirit, mental states, and the like. One of the main problems for analytic philosophy of mind is the problem of qualia. This, I think, is a problem that continental philosophy already dealt with a long time ago.

    In short, I think we’d accomplish a lot more if we abandoned using the labels “materialsm” and “idealism.”

  4. I think you are right that people like Zizek defend a materialism that functions very much like idealism in that it is always related to notions of negativity, the lack etc… In other words more Hegel than Marx (or, if you want, Marx put with his feet in the air). The philosophically much simpler notion of materialism as “men make their own history but not under the conditions of their own choosing” seems completely absent from those debates these days (Negri is probably the exception to this, since he at least tries to specify the conditions under which we are operating today). But so yes, you are right, I think.

  5. There are two levels at work. First, what you say seems completely reasonable in terms of matter and materialism. Second, I’m posing as someone who is so indoctrinated by the contemporary concept of materialism that the idea of involving matter literally had never occurred to me.

  6. Very good and intelligent post. Another thing that is quite interesting is that many of the materialists are more prone to go back to idealism then to Marx; could it be that they are more interested in that kind of “naturalism” that Marx criticized as a form of one dimesional materialism? (My words not his.) Are they maybe materialists in the way that Feuerbach was a materialist and not in the way Marx was? His materialism is of course a materialism of history, time and social forms rather than of nature or life in general…

  7. I think one of the clearest articulations of this brand of materialism (which I think falls in line with Zizek, Badiou, Meillassoux, etc) is Malabou who says something to the effect of “a reasonable materialism is this, that the natural contradicts itself.” For her (as concerns the brain) this then provides a way to materially ground subjectivity in a way that does not ‘explain away’ freedom/contingency. I find her work a bit more reasonable/subtle than the Zizekian move to basically re-articulate Kant/Fichte/Schelling/Hegel in such a way as to say that they always already were materialists. It also seems that Malabou’s insistence on recent neuro-scientific research is a bit more plausible that Zizek’s forays into popular literature on quantum physics. Another impetus behind this seems to be drawing a clear distinction between a contemporary materialist position and either naturalism or phenomenology, as is seen in Adrian Johnston writing a paper with the title “Naturalism or Anti-Naturalism? No thanks – both are worse!” It seems like that camp is concerned with avoiding the reductionism of naturalism on the one hand, and the non-scientific emphasis on ‘otherness’ or ‘the ineffable’ on the other hand.

    But, as I think you point out, the lingering question always ends up being: precisely what does Zizek/Badiou mean when they talk about ‘matter’?

  8. should have added this, the second part of that Malabou quote is something like “the natural contradicts itself and thought is the product of this contradiction.”

  9. Adam: Yeah, I don’t see categories in the reader I use. Sorry I missed that. Honestly, I forget that Zizek calls himself a materialist. And with him, you are right, a whole host of idealists and proudly anthropocentric thinkers who call themselves materialists. And it seems that those thinkers are more your go to for people calling themselves materialists. Mine tend to be people like Jane Bennett, Donna Haraway, Elizabeth Grosz, etc. And I think you are right (and this gets to what Mark is talking about as well) that a word like materialism that holds together thinkers like Zizek and Adrian Johnston alongside Bennett, Haraway, Grosz, and those alongside thinkers like Antonio Negri, Jason Read, etc. the word doesn’t seem to be doing a lot of good. And those are just the continentalists!

    I’m with Mark that the word might not have a lot of meaning, or at least fights over who really is a materialist seems boring to me. Also, have you had that moment when you were talking about materialism and idealism, and students or non-academics totally heard those words in their normal, everyday meaning? Materialist is someone who is into owning material goods, and an idealist is a dreamer and revolutionary. My students read Nina Power’s One-Dimensional Woman in my Gender and Communication class, and I got a bunch of papers back about how Power didn’t want feminists to be so materialistic, and I was like, “say what?”.

  10. I think looking at who claims to be ‘Idealist’ anymore might reveal more to the dynamics of this current situation; of course, I think that is no one (that I know? Iain Hamilton Grant?) and that is very telling….

  11. Vittorio Hosle and Timothy Sprigge are examples of contemporary philospohers supportive of idealism, albeit rather different froms from one another.

  12. what about- in materialsm, matter matters? And, matter is what matter does- and this is what matters as there is nothing outside matter- idealism and transcendence are therefore matter imagining its outside and expressing it as forms of power

  13. perhaps, very simply, “materialism” has less to do with “idealism” and more to do with opposition to “religion” and “dualism,” which is, in part, how it goes back to Feuerbach and Marx and to their inheritors in the critical tradition.

  14. ‘Materialism’ is a word old and vague enough to mean whatever you want it to mean. One common thread in contemporary usage is that it has a sense of being earthy, practical, grounded, concrete. Thus many like to march under its banner as it makes them seem serious and political (or serious and scientific, or a combination of the two). Unfortunately, many such marchers make little or no effort to do anything more than appropriate the label.

    For the likes of Zizek, matter doesn’t actually *do* anything. It’s a badge of honour but it has no real importance within the conceptual scheme. Zizek’s philosophy is exactly the same whether you include the concept of matter or not. Like Mike suggests above, matter has to matter — a difference that makes no difference is no difference, as the pragmatist mantra goes.

    Zizek’s materialism is idealism in drag. It dresses up as its other but, like drag, the whole show depends upon the act being unconvincing. A man who dresses as a woman *convincingly* isn’t in ‘drag’ as such; it’s only ‘drag’ when the clash of gender identities is obvious, embellished, amplified. Which isn’t to say that Zizek is ‘really’ an idealist as though a drag queen is ‘really’ a man — that’s something too complex to generalise like this. The point is, I think, that the act functions on the basis that it’s unconvincing. That’s where the humour and glamour comes from — from relishing its own contradictory absurdity and making a new, third identity out of *that*.

    But then by making the middle-ground the ground of a third identity one is still trapped between the two opposing sides. This may not matter for drag queens but the terra nullius between idealism and materialism is a fairly useless and barren plain, in my view at least. It really comes back to the fact that matter, for Zizek, really makes no difference to anything.

  15. Here’s a comment from Jean-Luc Nancy on materialism:

    ‘The world springs forth everywhere and in each instant, simultaneously. This is how it comes to appear out of nothing and “is created.”… [I]t is not an effect of some particular operation of production; instead, it is, insofar as it is, as created, as having arisen, come, or grown (cresco, creo); it has always already sprung from all sides, or more exactly, it is itself the springing forth and the coming of the “always already” and the “everywhere.”…[A]ll [things] share originarity and originality; this sharing is itself the origin.
    ‘What is shared is nothing like a unique substance in which each being would participate; what is shared is also what shares, what is structurally constituted by sharing, and what we call “matter.” The ontology of being-with can only be “materialist,” in the sense that “matter” does not designate a substance or a subject (or an antisubject), but literally designates what is divided of itself, what is only as distinct from itself, partes extra partes, originarily impenetrable to the combining and sublimating penetration of a “spirit” [or “mind”], understood as a dimensionless, indivisible point beyond the world. The ontology of being-with is an ontology of bodies, of every body, whether they be inanimate, animate, sentient, speaking, thinking, having weight, and so on. Above all else, “body” really means what is outside, insofar as it is outside, next to, against, nearby, with a(n) (other) body, from body to body, in the dis-position. Not only does a body go from one “self” to an “other,” it is as itself from the very first; it goes from itself to itself; whether made of stone, wood, plastic, or flesh, a body is the sharing of and the departure from self, the departure toward self, the nearby-to-self without which the “self” would not even be “on its own”’ –Jean-Luc Nancy, BEING SINGULAR PLURAL, pp 83-4.

  16. The important part for Marx was not simply “matter” but those human processes that could be analyzed, like exchange of materials, the use of materials, etc. “Material processes” are the foundation of human existence, and can be mostly determinative in the formation of ideology, ontology, etc. Even in Zizek, who sees ideology embedded in material processes, the material processes are still prior. The modes of exchange and production in capitalist material processes become ideology and then become embedded in material processes so as to perpetuate and legitimate said capitalist material processes.

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