You might be interested to know of a special issue of Angelaki just published entitled ‘Immanent materialisms: speculation and critique’. Co-edited by Patrice Haynes and Charlie Blake, it comprises papers from, and inspired by the theme of, the Association for Continental Philosophy of Religion‘s 2009 conference ‘Towards a Philosophy of Life’.
The issue includes work by AUFS regulars Anthony Paul Smith [the first 50 of you can download my article for free using this token, but please only use if you don’t have library access – APS] and Joshua Ramey, plus a host of others, many of whom will be familiar to readers of this blog: John Ó Maoilearca, Jim Urpeth, Colby Heath Dickinson, Frank Ruda, Michael Burns [again, first 50 of you can download this using this token – APS], Alastair Morgan, Patrice Haynes and Benjamin Noys.
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?
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.
Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey W. Robbins are no strangers to readers of this blog. Both are well established figures within the fields of theology, philosophy and the liminal space between them that sometimes goes by the name secular theology and sometimes Continental philosophy of religion. Both are graduates of the Department of Religion at Syracuse University and Crockett now teaches as an associate professor of Religion at the University of Central Arkansas while Robbins is a professor of Religion and Philosophy at Lebanon Valley College. While their friendship has long been know, expressed in the academic realm through their co-editorship of the Insurrections series with ColumbiaUP, Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism is their first co-written book. The book, published in the new Radical Theologies series published by Palgrave Macmillan, is quite consciously written as a kind of manifesto for the practice and future of radical theology. Now, what this means is dependent of course on the figures who develop it, but by radical theology it is clear that people thinking with religious material outside of a confessional duty as well as those who are more explicitly confessional but still attempting to radicalize their confessional thought beyond any capture by that tradition’s authorities. That is, radical theology cuts a wide-swath and it may be the only form of theology that is truly “big tent” in terms of its actions and not just as a propaganda move. However much such a movement might benefit from a manifesto, the disparate directions and materials with which various radical theologians engage with makes creating such a manifesto difficult and risks sedimenting their works and cutting off these radical theologians from the true, creative source of their power. At times it feels that Crockett and Robbins risk such sedimentation. However, what ultimately saves them from this temptation is their very synthetic approach. This is a book constructed not in the name of Crockett and Robbins, but through a multiplicity of names that are brought together in varying ways and with various levels of success under the standard “The New Materialism”. Continue reading “A Synthetic Manifesto: A Review of Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism“
I recently looked back at Judith Butler’s response to her having been awarded a “prize” for writing in an especially non-commonsensical style. She observes that the recipients—or “targets,” as she aptly redescribes—of such a prize “have been restricted to scholars on the left whose work focuses on topics like sexuality, race, nationalism and the workings of capitalism.” This then raises “a serious question about the relation of language and politics: why are some of the most trenchant social criticisms often expressed through difficult and demanding language?” Continue reading “Anger’s Nonidentity / Occasion Against Universality”
Adrian Johnston gave a talk at the University of Guelph last Friday and I thought the audio might be of interest to some here. The talk is entitled “On Deep History and the Brain” and in it Adrian draws upon Daniel Smail’s book “On Deep History and the Brain” to critique a certain side of Lacan that denies any inquiry into that which lies beyond the epistemic limitations of our symbolic structures (e.g. Lacan’s ontology of ‘parle-être’, “In the beginning was the Word,” “The Word is the murder of the Thing,” etc.). Adrian links this impetus to bracket the pre-linguistic to a Judeo-Christian “short chronology/sacred history.” In its place, Adrian endorses a “deep history” as the necessary condition for a secularized materialism. I’ll let the audio explain what exactly this entails.
The Q&A might also be of interest to some, as Adrian talks a bit about his interest in revitalizing Hegel’s philosophy of nature, his preference for the Zizekian approach of adopting the form of Christianity in order to displace its basis rather than smuggling Judeo-Christian content into an atheistic outlook, and shares some objections he has to certain tenets of Speculative Realism.
The abstract is here (pdf), the talk here, and the Q&A here.
There has been one constant in my career as a Zizek expositor: no one cares about the parts where I discuss Zizek’s dialectical materialism. This may reflect on my feeble skills, but it also reflects a broader trend — no one seems to take Zizek’s development of dialectical materialism very seriously. Ideology critique, counter-intuitive political claims, remarks on film — that’s what really gets the attention.
To my mind, though, the deeper ontological questions Zizek is getting at with dialectical materialism are by far the most interesting things about him, the area where he is making a serious contribution. His notion of the universe as “non-all” or “non-whole” is very productive, and it’s not just idle speculation — he links it up with the frontiers of modern science. His chapter on cognitive science in Parallax View is a real tour de force (Jameson agrees), but it seems to have been greeted by total silence. Similarly, his discussions of quantum silence are dismissed as bullshit, apparently on an a priori basis, if they’re noticed at all.
What is going on here? Perhaps it’s a mismatch in his audience — the continental or theory crowds aren’t used to taking science seriously, and the analytic types and the scientists themselves aren’t used to taking “postmodern theorists” like Zizek seriously. I fear it’s just going to be Adrian Johnston and me, crying out in the wilderness — or rather, just Adrian Johnston, as I’m not sure my future research agenda has room for more than a few occasional pieces on Zizek.