Peter Gratton and Graham Harman have a few interesting posts up about how the term “materialism” is used in continental philosophy (here, here, and here). As Peter writes:

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.

I confess that I’m equally baffled by the varied uses of the term “materialism”. Perhaps I’m particularly wooden on this issue, but for me, in order for a position to count as materialist it has to pass what I call “The Lucretius Test”. Lucretius is a genuine materialist because he is making a genuine claim about what exists, regardless of whether it has anything to do with humans, and this stuff is matter. In this respect, Bennett would be a genuine materialist because she is analyzing material things and their powers. Likewise with DeLanda. While they all differ as to what matter is (a proper ontological dispute), there’s no doubt that all of these thinkers pass the Lucretius test.

By contrast, when I turn to Zizek, Badiou, Johnston, and Meillassoux I have a difficult time discerning what is materialist about these orientations of thought. In The Parallex View Zizek claims that the core thesis of materialism is that “the whole is not”. While I don’t find the thesis that the whole is not objectionable, I fail to see what it has to do with materialism or how it might pass the Lucretius Test. These other variants of Marxist thought seem to run something like this: Idealism privileges mind, thought, and reason in the construction of reality. We focus on human practices such as production, discourses, language, etc. in the construction of reality. Therefore idealism consists in a focus on mind and thought while materialism focuses on human practice. However, in my book this conclusion doesn’t follow at all. A position is no less idealist because it focuses on, say, practices of discourse or language games as opposed to categories and cognitions. No, that position is still every bit as idealist because it still has humans constructing reality. Therefore it doesn’t pass the Lucretius Test.

Marx is somewhat off the hook here because he does speak of humans working with nonhuman matter in processes of production. The problem is that the role played by nonhuman and natural things really gets short shrift in Marx. The focus is on how humans transform these matters into something else, not the role these matters themselves play in transforming humans and each other. Here you’d need something like a communism of objects, where humans are among objects, not in a necessary and inexorable relation with all objects. Such positions still privilege the human-world relation, to the detriment of all other relations. “Transcendental materialism”, for example, only makes sense to me if you’re talking about something like DeLanda’s conception of the virtual where attractors haunt actualized objects, regardless of whether or not humans are involved. I don’t see anything like this in Badiou’s transcendental (his transcendental still strikes me as being social in character, and this is borne out by all the examples he uses in Logics of Worlds) or in Johnston’s transcendental which is thoroughly Kantian. By contrast, DeLanda’s attractors have nothing human about them. They’re there in the things themselves. Now Lucretius had all sorts of interesting things to say about the human-world relation, but the key point is that his ontology was, in no way, restricted to that relation. Lucretius had all sorts of interesting things to say about interactions among atoms that have nothing to do with the human, and there’s no sense in which Lucretius requires humans to exist for substantially differentiated and active beings to exist. Thus, while Lucretius is an underminer of objects in Harman’s vocabulary, he certainly is a genuine realist. And moreover, as Graham likes to say, if you only ever find yourself talking about the human-world relation then you’re a correlationist. If your philosophy has nothing significant to say about the relation between a rock and soil, you’re a correlationist. At any rate, it seems to me that we’ve begun to use these terms very loosely.

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