It’s worth noting that talking of objects, spaces, grounds, paths, and institutions does not, in and of itself, make for a materialism. In the case of objects, it depends on how you talk about objects. If you’re approaching objects phenomenologically as correlates of intentionality, you’re not talking about objects qua objects, or objects in their independent being. You’re talking about phenomenality or meaning for us. There’s no reason to suppose that objects as they are given to us phenomenologically are like objects as they are in-themselves. The intentional being of a chair as given to me in my lived experience is quite different than what a chair is as a material being. Maybe this can be seen more clearly with currency. Suppose all human beings were to suddenly become extinct in a catastrophe. Would money remain? It seems hard to say so. Paper with ink on it would remain, but these entities would no longer have value. The value of money is something that can only arise as a correlate of a phenomenological intention and a symbolic system. It is not something that resides in the material being of the currency. Phenomenological and semiotic analysis can get us at the being of money as money, but it cannot get us at its material being.
This is also why the lived or experienced body described by phenomenology does not get us at the material body. How I experience my body is quite different than what my material body is. I cannot experience electro-chemical processes that take place in my brain, my body metabolizing energy and pumping blood, my cells producing cancer, and so on. This point is quite clear in cases of phantom limbs and eating disorders. The person with the eating disorder experiences their lived body as the image in the mirror. By contrast, the emaciated and starved body is the material body. It is quite possible for there to be a disconnect between the material and the phenomenological body. Indeed, most of our material body is never given in phenomenological experience at all.
Spinoza makes the point nicely in the Ethics. As he writes, “[t]he human mind does not know the human body itself, nor does it know that it exists, expcept through ideas of affections by which the body is affected” (II, 19). In the appendix to Part I, he notes remarks that,
It will be sufficient here if I take as a foundation what everyone must acknowledge: that all men are born ignorant of the causes of things, and that they all want to seek their own advantage, and are conscious of this appetite. From these assumptions, it follows, first, that men think themselves free, because they are conscious of their volitions and their appetite, and do not think, even in their dreams, of the causes by which they are disposed to wanting and willing, because they are ignorant of those causes.”
Spinoza here is speaking of the difference between the phenomenological and material body. We know nothing of the material body through lived experience, but only experience our phenomenological body. Consider Heidegger’s analysis of anxiety. At the level of lived experience, I encounter anxiety in terms of meaning– or more properly the flight of all meaning –and have an encounter with my “being-towards-death”. This is my phenomenological experience. However, it could be that my anxiety has nothing to do with something as grand as meaning and being-towards-death at all; but rather that I’m suffering from a vitamin B and D deficiency that produces this conscious affect. Of course, I cannot experience vitamin B and D deficiencies, but only their effects. This is why I can wonder whether my being-towards-death is what occasions my anxiety or whether it’s a chemical imbalance that I then mistakenly give meaning. I’m willing to say that sometimes it’s the former and at other times it’s the latter.
The same goes for phenomenological talk of the worlds, paths, and spaces. The world of phenomenology is not a material world, but is, as Heidegger puts it, “…the relational totality of…signifying we call ‘significance’. This is what makes up the structure of the world” (Being and Time, 120). This is a purely human affair. It is a matter of the symbolic, not the real. Descartes was closer to understanding what the material world is than Heidegger. Likewise, when we talk of lived space and paths, we’re not talking about material space, but rather the space of intentional and embodied experience described so nicely by Merleau-Ponty and Ed Casey in Getting Back Into Place. We’re talking about “near-structures” and “far-structures” and, following Heidegger’s wonderful example, how the glasses that sit on our nose are more remote than the computer screen I now gaze upon. These belong to the domain of the “imaginary” or lived experience, not materiality.
The same goes for the analysis of institutions. Institutions aren’t material entities, but are symbolic entities. While they’re often housed in buildings that require bricks, glass, mortar, copper wiring, electricity, and so on, these material beings are not what we’re referring to when we refer to an institution. Proof of this lies in the fact that we can move institutions to other buildings without changing their being and in the fact that buildings can decay while the institution remains as robust as it ever was. Institutions are, rather, composed of symbolic entities such as norms, missions, laws, roles, and so on. Institutional analysis is analysis in the symbolic, not the material.
Again, the point of borromean critical theory is not to exclude phenomenological or semiotic analysis. The phenomenological, semiotic, and the material are intertwined with one another in our world. However, of these three orders, I believe that the material has received short shrift and that current dominant usages of the term are unrecognizable. Things are changing and there are exceptions to this. The work of theorists such as Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, Isabelle Stengers, Karen Barad, Stacy Alaimo, and Jane Bennett among others has all gone far in raising attentiveness to genuine materiality. The same is true of media theorists such as Kittler, Ong, and McLuhan. Catherine Malabou is notable in this connection with her work on neurology. That said, critical theory has been overwhelmingly dominated by a focus on the phenomenological and the semiotic. Making a little room for the material doesn’t hurt anything, but merely opens new vistas for understanding the mechanisms of power and devising strategies for resistance. Nothing about this diminishes phenomenological or semiotic modes of analysis or leads to their erasure.