The title of this post, of course, is a reference to Zizek’s analysis of Stalin’s pronouncements about socialists in The Sublime Object of Ideology. For Stalin, of course, the socialist is made of a special sort of “stuff” because the New Man contains within him a sublime object in excess of all being. If the materialist, by contrast, is made of a special sort of stuff, then this is because s/he (and who can define the materialist’s sex?) contains no sublime object. For the materialist there is no self, no I, in excess of his material being. Because of this, the materialist understands the true nature of commitment because each moment, for the materialist, is characterized by the irreversibility of time’s arrow.
The dualist can rest content in the reassuring thought that they are a subject, a substance, a hypokeimenon, that exists in excess of any thoughts or encounters they might undergo. For a substance is that which exists in and through itself. A subject thus has thoughts, has encounters, while nonetheless remaining the same. And for this reason, the dualist can harbor the belief that he maintains a comfortable distance from each and all of his thoughts encounters, remaining him-self while regarding these thoughts. There is, in short, a sublime object– as Hume so nicely argued -at the heart of the dualists self-regard. The dualist is forever unable to say what he is as a substance or as a hypokeimenon, but he rests content in the thought that despite whatever he might think, feel, or encounter, he remains the same.
The materialist, by contrast, has no such comfort. Because the materialist begins from the premise that she is her brain, she recognizes the essential plasticity (to borrow Malabou’s word) of her being. The materialist understands that each moment of her being is an event that leaves a trace in her neural functioning. In other words, the neural system is not governed by the distinction between “hardware” and “software”, where hardware is what is enduring and unchanging, while software is the various patterns that emerge. No. The neural system is a plastic system in which each encounter activates certain neurons, forming new network pathways and electro-chemical dispositions, such that for each moment we are both forming ourselves and being formed. The materialist will, of course, agree, that we are self-referential or self-reflexive networks that can rebound upon ourselves, effecting, paradoxically enough, our own pathways. But what the materialist will always remember is time’s arrow, that each state is irreversible, that each state is superject forming, that each state is among the grounds of the succeeding state.
Mark Wahlberg’s character, Dirk Diggler, in Boogie Nights, captures this essence of time’s arrow well when he fantasies about opening the top of his skull and scrubbing his brain. He knows that what he has seen, what he has done, what he has thought, felt, and encountered in this profound film about family values– perhaps the most profound film about family values made since this whole theme of the so-called Culture Wars(tm) emerged –is irreversible and characterized by the trace without escape. And so it is for all of us. Each novel that we read, each show that we watch, each film that we encounter, each discussion that we have, each encounter that we have, each thought that we have, rebounds on the plasticity of our brains forming networks, forming dispositions, that are irreversible and inescapable and that become launching points for the next round of neurological events in our thought process. To read a book is not to entertain a thought, to have a thought, or to pass the time, but is to undergo a materially irreversible event that is pattern forming, network forming, electricity and chemistry forming in a way that may indeed produce ripples throughout all subsequent neurological events in a cascade of consequences much like a stone lobbed into a pond producing ripples.
For this reason, it would not be idle speculation to extend Dawkins notion of the “extended genotype, where genes escape the constraints of the organism forming networks that select amongst themselves apart from the vehicle of the body, proposing the hypothesis of an extended neuro-type. For in this irreversible network and system forming process of time’s arrow, the networks formed need not only be in my own gray matter, but can additionally be thought as co-ordinate networks that are formed between brains in repeated encounters that produce shared dispositions. My sister and I think the same thoughts, get the impulse to call one another at the same time, go through the same rhythms and cycles of elation and demoralization not because we are psychically linked, but because we formed a neural network, haunted by the same dispositions to respond to certain stimuli populating our media saturated environment, but also because our neural patterns come to unfold according to regulated cycles in a shared auto-poietic machine.
If, then, the materialist understands the true nature of commitment, then this is because the materialist understands that every encounter is characterized by time’s arrow and the irreversibility of that encounter. The materialist does not understand the meaning of the phrase “entertain a thought” because the materialist understands that thought is something, that leaves a trace, moulding the plasticity of the brain. Consequentially, in understanding this, any encounter the materialist submits to undergo such as the reading of a book or a discussion with another person is understood, a priori, as an irreversible, self-changing event. To throw oneself into an encounter with the other, to read a book, to watch a film, to eat a new food, etc., is thus, for the materialist an act of suicide. Yet it is an act of suicide borne of love, not destruction, or a willingness to enter into becoming and self-destitution for the sake of that encounter and the network that it might produce.