Responding to Graham’s talk at Dundee, Reid has a terrific post up discussing the manner in which Marxist materialism differs from reductive materialisms that trace back to the atomism of Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius. In many respects, Reid’s remarks come very close to a number of the central intuitions of OOO and onticology where social and political thought are concerned. These intuitions revolve around hoisting social and political thought from its almost exclusive focus on what I call the semiotic, to take into account other domains of collectives and the role they play in social formations. Thus Reid writes:
Materialism in Marx’s sense is neither a metaphysical nor an epistemological doctrine; it is not a philosophical doctrine or theory in any ordinary sense. Rather, it is a meta-philosophical doctrine about the relation between philosophy and its material conditions of possibility. In this regard, both the content of philosophical discourse and the methodological form of that discourse must be referred to the conditions under which philosophical practice occurs. Material conditions in this regard can begin quite narrowly: philosophy requires various material and institutional supports, from universities and publishing houses down to brains and paper. But these conditions, of course, never exist in isolation, and depend upon a certain mode of production that not only conditions their genesis, but their distribution, maintenance, etc. Ultimately, philosophical practice depends upon a broad economic, political, and social condition that enables it to occur, whatever its function within society may be.
The point here is that we can’t focus on the discursive or ideological alone, but must take into account the role that nonhumans play in the collectives within which we find ourselves. Reid drives this point home a moment later when he writes:
Because philosophy always operates under a specific material condition, materialist philosophy must be attentive to the specificity of its relation to this condition. This relation is not necessarily manifest in theoretical content, but it certainly is in the practice through which this content is produced. For example, as a graduate student at a university, I have a specific relation to the political-economic mode conditioning my philosophical work: I take out loans, I pay tuition, I work, I have limited resources whose use is determined by administrators with whom I have limited contact, etc. The central concern of materialism in this regard is not the content of one’s position, which becomes relatively equivocal, but the practical form of its production. The content would become a concern if it were used to justify a particular practice of philosophy. It is on this basis that Marx so strongly condemns all varieties of philosophical idealism, especially Hegel, which in his eyes amount to an apologetics for idealism about philosophy, or the thesis that the practices conditioning philosophical thought are either no concern for philosophy, or must necessarily be as they are for philosophical activity to proceed (Hegel would advocate a variant of the latter).
There’s a lot more there (some of which I’m not entirely in agreement, but which is nonetheless very good), so read the rest here.
All of this brings to mind a beautiful diagram I came across in David Harvey’s sublime Companion to Marx’s Capital. There Harvey seeks to diagram the relations involved in those collectives that involve humans (it’s also important to recall that there are collectives that don’t involve humans at all). The powerful feature of Harvey’s diagram is that in mapping the interrelations between elements that belong to collectives in which humans participate, he expands that field of relations well beyond an obsessive focus on representation, the semiotic, the ideological, or the linguistic. The domain of representation is one element in these collectives, but only one. In addition representation we get nature, technology, modes of production, social relations, and the reproduction of daily life.
If this is important, then this is because Continental social and political theory has focused almost obsessively on the domain of representation for the last few decades. Whether we’re talking about Adorno and his focus on the culture machine, or thinkers like Zizek, Badiou, Ranciere, and Laclau, the question of politics gets restricted to questions of representation or ideological in the domain of language and signs. As a consequence, these other five elements become almost entirely invisible and social and political engagement comes to be conceived as an engagement with representation. And here I think this is an effect of commodity fetishism and the rise of the new communications technologies, where the non-semiotic becomes invisible and we experience the world as composed of representations alone.
While it is certainly true that representation plays an important role in capitalist collectives– especially inn the reproduction of daily life –overall I think that role is somewhat minor compared to the role played by the other five domains. Capitalist relations function quite well in the absence of ideological apologetics and are congenial to a wide variety of ideological formations to continue in their functioning. And a big reason for this is that the sorts of dynamics that generate capitalist social relations are not simply of an ideological nature. We can imagine, for example, a capitalist that is passionately devoted to Marxist thought and that deplores the system within which he finds himself that nonetheless obeys all the dynamics of capitalism in the pursuit and production of surplus-value. And the reason for this is not that he’s being dishonest with himself, but rather that the immanent relations of production characterizing a capitalist system require him to produce surplus-value, modernize technologically, cut costs of production, etc., if his company is to maintain itself and continue to exist. Such a capitalist knows very well what’s going on, but finds himself caught in the midst of a forced decision like the sort described by Lacan: Your money or your life! If he doesn’t obey these dynamics not only he, but all of his employees lose their subsistence. This is not a matter of ideology, but of immanent relations in the social field.
The consequence here is that modes of social and political analysis that focus on the representational alone are very likely to be completely impotent with respect to the possibility of producing any change. Here I find myself disagreeing with Reid (if I’m reading him right). He pitches the problem of capitalism as one of ideology. Ideology is certainly part of the problem, but a very minor one in the grand scheme of things. Rather, the more significant issues are to be located at the level of the means of production, technology, and the relations to nature; all of which require careful analysis of the role played by nonhuman actors in human collectives.
The critic that places all his eggs in the basket will find himself encountering two problems: First, he will wonder why nothing changes despite the fact that he’s revealed the insidious ideology at the root of contemporary social relations. And here the reason nothing changes is that because many of the relations– indeed the lion’s share of relations –organizing contemporary social relations are not of a representational nature at all. Second, the critic that focuses on representation alone will, as Reid nicely points out, become blind to the conditions of their own representations, failing to see the manner in which these are imbricated with reigning relations of production. This can have massive detrimental theoretical consequences as I argued in a recent post.
Yet another attractive feature of Harvey’s diagram is that the six domains he outlines here are more or less autonomous from one another. Often we get a picture of Marx where the base determines the superstructure. While the base certainly affords and constrains the superstructure, things are far more complex than this. Each of these domains interpenetrate yet develop at different rhythms and in different ways. Thus, for example, when you get electricity and the electric light in the domain of technology, this impacts modes of production, social relations, and representation. The working day becomes longer, you get new groupings of people afforded by the possibility of lighting at night, and the nature of representation undergoes shifts as a result of being able to read and write late into the evening. The point here is that change can come from many domains beyond the domain of representation. We cripple our thought if we focus on representation alone to the detriment of these other spheres.