In response to my last post, Wherewithal writes:
is it possible that this straining for the material unconscious is a sign that the concept of matter isn’t doing any work for us anymore? Can we continue to theorize about objects and physical systems without recourse to it ? Physics doesn’t seem to have any kind of ultimate matter, or most basic, solid stuff, whether in the form of atoms or some kind of flow. Biological systems make their own elements out of energy and (bio)chemicals. Why not talk about all of this without raising any ultimate concept of matter? There are objects of many different kinds, none more real than any other, whether we’re on the scale of neutrons, chairs, or cells. Its seems like there’s a certain convergence around this kind of materialism without matter in Luhmann, Sloterdijk, and Harman, among others. Heisenberg has been called idealist for his critique of substantialism in Physics and Philosophy, but isn’t he doing something more like physics sans the concept of matter?
In media theory, it’s clear that discursive practices are always bound up with the resistance of things. They can’t get away with just being abstract or conceptual, taking place in some immaterial space of language or thought. And then in feminist theory, there’s been the focus for decades now on how embodiment affects discursive practice.
The idea that matter is a-semiotic and a-conceptual seems to require an immaterial ontological plane, which seems to work against a naturalistic meta-philosophy.
So the three questions would be, isn’t there already a lot of work in the “humanities” that takes resistance of things seriously?
Do we need the concept of matter for a naturalistic philosophy of objects and practices?
Doesn’t the passion for the real of matter and things resinscribe the matter/form distinction in spite of best intentions against hylomorphism, by reaching for an ultimate, most real substance–and then, conversely, doesn’t it make the conceptual or linguistic realm seem all the more immaterial, which it can never really be (especially if we’re avoiding logocentrism)?
Hopefully Wherewithal will say a bit about what he takes matter to be. This issue, of course, is one of the central sites where Harman and I disagree. Harman sees materialism as inherently reductive, whereas I think there’s plenty of room for an irreductive materialism (through theories of emergence). Harman argues that there are immaterial objects and therefore believes, for example, that reincarnation is possible because soul can be separated from body (a consequence that would follow from his defense of substantial forms via Suárez), whereas I reject the notion that there are any immaterial entities. In my view, there are only physical beings.
In his post Wherewithal seems to contrast matter and energy. However, in my view, the two terms are synonyms. All that is required for a position to count as a materialism, in my view, is a commitment to the physical as exhaustive of all being, whatever the physical might turn out to be. However, while I find much of value in Lucretius’s atomism, I do not advocate his conception of matter as being composed of ultimate, impenetrable and indivisible particles. Rather, I think of matter as energy. This is why the concept of entropy is so important to me. Things are both always in a perpetual state of motion, even when they appear to be standing still, they are pervaded by activity, and they must sustain themselves across time to continue existing (they’re perpetually falling apart). Where the physical is abandoned, we’re either moving in the direction of idealism or a theology.
As I argue in this post, following Adorno, the thing to be avoided is the identification of matter with the concept. This, I believe, is the reduction of matter to the concept. The concept, of course, is that which is present to consciousness or intellect. In reducing matter to the concept, we authorize ourselves to ignore the things of the world. This is what Oyama is getting at with her concept of hylephobia and her critique of Dawkins and Dennett for reducing genes to pure information and arguing for the substrate neutrality of these genes. What gets ignored in these moves are all of the processes unfolding at the chemical and environmental level that contribute just as significantly to what the phenotype becomes. Genes become a blueprint that ineluctably unfold according to a plan, such that the developed organism (sic.) is but a copy of this blueprint. The multiple paths and possibilities of development disappear because the genes are seen as already containing all the information for the developed organism. (The lecture I link to in the post is well worth listening to). From a political standpoint, of course, I think we can see why this is such a matter of concern as it is a form of genetic determinism. I see something similar at work in the focus on text and concept in the humanities (especially in philosophy and literary studies). At any rate, hylephobia and logocentrism are synonyms.
In the post, I list a number of disciplines in the humanities that take matter seriously: media studies, science and technology studies, ecotheory, certain strains of feminism and queer theory, etc. These disciplines are led to take matter seriously because of the nature of the object they investigate. Media theory, at its best, necessarily has to contend with material technologies such as fiber optic cables, smart phones, programming platforms, etc. In addition to a focus on meaningful content, it has to look at the contributions that these technologies make to how we relate in the world. Science studies has to– when it’s at its best –look at the contributions made by the entities investigated in the lab as well as the equipment or tools used in these investigations. Certain variants of feminism– especially the new materialist feminisms –increasingly came to pay attention to the body qua body and not simply as a text nor as a lived experience. Likewise, it’s impossible to do ecotheory without attending to interrelationships between physical entities. I also referenced thinkers like Latour, Haraway, Ong, Kittler, and McLuhan. However, it’s important to remember that from a sociological perspective, these disciplines and figures are largely on the periphery of the humanities. By and large, logocentrism– which I’ll here treat rather vulgarly as that orientation that is oriented towards the text and discursive –reigns hegemonic in the humanities. If we treat philosophy and literary theory as the two fields that dominate the humanities, then the former endlessly focuses on the conceptual, while the latter (not surprisingly) focuses on the textual. The material tends to get erased. In philosophy this is inexcusable. In literary theory this makes sense as, after all, it is texts that are being investigated. The problem arises when we make the move to investigating power and why social assemblages take the form they take and we end up referring almost entirely to the order of the signifier and the concept to account for these things.
I think the concept of matter does a great deal of work at the level of concrete analysis if we attend to it. This is already shown in the natural sciences by the work of orientations such as developmental systems theory and epigenetics. Your style of analysis becomes very different. In the humanities it makes quite a difference as well. First, it leads us to be more cautious about how the discursive and signifying exercise power. If we begin from the premise that everything must be physical to be, then we also hold that this must hold true– no matter how strange it sounds –for discursive and signifying formations as well. From this it will follow that in order for a discursive formation to exercise power it must travel throughout a population. The fastest rate at which information can currently travel is 186,282 mps (the speed of light), but generally information travels at a much slower rate depending on whether it is conveyed through speech, writing, telephone, etc. And, of course, it will not travel everywhere. This seems like a trivial point, but it underlines the fact that power is geographical. When we understand that discursive power is geographical, we also understand that it is not enough simply to debunk a particular ideological formation, but we must also determine whether or not that discursive formation is really in a particular population, to what extent, and must determine whether or not our critique is reaching that population.
Here, then, is a serious problem with my beloved Luhmann. Luhmann teaches us a great deal about the semiotic content of social formations, but fails to adequately theorize the material media that render social relations possible. He argues that societies are composed entirely of communications (not people), but does not meaningfully examine the media that allow these communications to take place. What difference did Roman roads make for the Roman empire? What difference do satellites make to economy and warfare, not to mention social control? Does it make a difference when a person or group of people such as those living in a remote region of Alaska are not linked in a communication network? Luhmann teaches us a great deal about codes, distinctions, selective relations to an environment in communication, how social formations reproduce themselves through communications and so on, yet the material dimension of social relations is almost entirely invisible within his sociology. What is missed, therefore, is an entire dimension of power and how power functions. This arises directly from his dismissal of materialism. Clearly it is not a question of abandoning Luhmann. Luhmann is one of my key theorists alongside Deleuze, Lacan, Marx, Latour, Badiou, McLuhan, Lucretius, Andy Clark, and the developmental systems theorists. Rather, it’s a question of recognizing a fundamental blindspot that arises from a certain logocentrism or hylephobia.
On the other hand, adopting a materialist framework means recognizing other forms of power beyond the discursive and semiotic. Our tendency in the humanities is to see ideology, norms, believes, signifiers as the source of power or the ground of social relations. There can be no doubt that these are significant contributors to the form social relations take. This is not in dispute. However, in our hylephobia and logocentrism, we fail to recognize the power exercised by materiality, by the things themselves. Where we do talk about things we treat them as carriers of meaning, not as making differences of their own accord. We fail to recognize the difference that the presence or absence of calories and other forms of energy make in social relations (thermopolitics). We don’t attend enough to the role that the structuration of time through labor and rates of communication play in social relations (chronopolitics). We don’t attend enough to the role played by features of geography and technological infrastructure in social relations (geopolitics). A materialist perspective brings these sources of power into relief, rescuing them from the invisibility that arises from the reasons I outlined in my last post (class position of academics and Heidegger’s observations about the withdrawal of tools when they are functioning), and therefore multiplies our possibilities of both analysis and intervention. Here we can think of Stacy Alaimo’s analysis of our ecological embedment or Latour’s actor-network analyses as models for this sort of analysis. For these reasons, I think that the concept of matter does quite a bit of work. Matter here is not merely conceived as “resistance”– the concept of resistance responds to an epistemological question of when we encounter something other than the discursive and intentional –but rather refers to the investigation of non-discursive contributions to assemblages of all kinds.