Over at Struggle Forever, my friend Jeremy has expressed worries about materialism, instead opting for the broader term “realism”. When I remarked on how I believe my variant of materialism as well as the work of the new materialists can allay these concerns, he responded as follows:

my objection is really only semantic and practical in that, by calling attention to materialism as the basis of your ontology (even though there is much more to your ontology than that), I worry that you’ll cause people to pay attention only to the material aspects of being. To me the descriptor “materialism” is the problem and not so much your approach to it (or any other approach for that matter). “Realism” allows for more flexibility – I can call attention to the reality of an object (how it makes a difference) in terms of its ideal qualities or its material qualities or both, depending on the situation. Whereas, in a materialist ontology (even one like yours), I feel as if one would have to always go back to the material qualities as a ground for all of the ideal consequences of an entity – (why does Popeye make a difference to me? because my neurons fire in a particular way when a pattern of photons bounces of of an image of him and reflects into my eye…). Even though I know your ontology is clearly more nuanced than that, I’m afraid that in practice it would end up being reductionism (substituting the material for the real).

First, it’s important to note that for me there is no distinction between ideas and matter. For me ideas are material things, just as everything else is a material thing. They are material things inscribed in brains, pieces of paper, radio waves, fiber optic cables, computer data bases, and that take time to travel through the void or space. This is what I was trying to get at in my recent post on Lucretius and simulacra. Far from being incorporeal entities, simulacra or atomic entities are diaphanous material entities that must travel from node to node in networks, and this takes time and has limits depending on which medium transmits the simulacra. Societies based on speech (air, breath, sound-waves) will only be able to reach a certain size due to the random variation that snippets of speech enjoy when passed from person to person. Moreover, as theorists such as Walter Ong and his student Marshall McLuhan have noted, the medium of air or sound-waves will tend to favor certain ways of transmitting oral teachings: rhythmic poetry that can be easily stored and repeated in neurological memory. This will have a decisive impact on how these societies develop and what regimes of knowledge are possible for them. It is very difficult, for example, to imagine abstract mathematics, abstract philosophy, universal law, science, and so on developing in an oral culture because of the constraints of material, neurological memory. With simulacra conveyed by writing matters change. Societies become larger because we no longer encounter the “telephone” problem, and new regimes of knowledge emerge because the material features of paper remember for us allowing 1) us to engage in long chains of reasoning that would be impossible for biological neurological reasoning, and 2) allowing us to assign names to abstract entities like the number “1” without this entity referring to any particular entity such as “one cat” and begin to carry out operations on these entities. In each case the material medium of simulacra (speech, writing, the printing press, telegraphs, phones, internet, etc) will have a decisive impact on the form that social assemblages take, the sorts of knowledge possible within these assemblages, and the forms of political action possible within these assemblages. Materialism places these sorts of considerations front and center in a way that realism– that admits the existence of incorporeal entities free of the constraints of material finitude –do not.

read on!

Setting aside the issue of the status of ideas or simulacra, my response to Jeremy’s worries about materialism are two-fold. First, contra Jeremy, I think we should be thinking about things such as neurology, calories, fuels, etc.. Within the humanities and social sciences there is an almost visceral reaction to these sorts of considerations. Yet as I tried to argue above, there are neurological limitations to the information carrying capacity of brains that determine limits of what can be thought and how we can think in an oral culture. These sorts of biological constraints are necessary to understanding why certain social formations take the form they do (especially in an internet culture that has, in so many way, returned to oral culture do to how modern information has been transmitted). Understanding these things is a necessary component to devising political strategies and responding to our current circumstances.

Likewise, consideration of calories and fuel necessary to sustain certain forms of thought and life are necessary to understanding why societies get stratified in the way that the do and in understanding what is possible in these circumstances. Are the calories and fuels available to sustain another form of life and thought? For example, is it that certain segments of the population are just stupid and “duped by ideology”, or is it that energetically their form of life allows for no form of life because they’re worn out and do not have the energy to explore other possibilities? How we answer this question will have a decisive impact on our political strategies. In the first case we’ll spend our time debunking ideologies (which I believe we should do and that we shouldn’t abandon this practice). However, in the second case we’ll work to find ways to make time and calories available to those who have no time and calories. If it turns out that energy or calories play a decisive role in the ability of people to imagine possibilities and alternatives, than the value of ideology critique in producing political change will be highly limited because people simply do not have the time to read the critiques and understand them because they’re so worn out from labor and life. In other words, there are material constraints on revolutionary praxis.

However, this is not all. Consideration of things like calories and available energy do not simply lead us to strategies political intervention differently, they also help us to fight racism and sexism. Mary Wollstonecraft was able to demonstrate that women aren’t intrinsically inferior, but that their lack of opportunity to cultivate themselves coupled with their grueling labor conditions (considerations again of time and calories or energy) contributed to why the women of her time were the way they were. Whatever else you think of Jared Diamond’s ethnography and history, he was able to show that it is not that certain “races” of people are not “naturally” inferior to Eurasians, but that due to the availability of, among other things, calories, they did not have the time or energy to develop their culture in other directions. It’s rather difficult to do such a thing when your central source of calories come from the pulp of kava trees and the production of this food source takes extensive amounts of time and energy. We must never forget that societies take energy and resources, that they require an infrastructure of distribution and production, to sustain themselves and stave off entropic dissolution. This is precisely what materialism foregrounds and what tends to get lost in, above all, idealist orientations (where it’s all norms, beliefs, and ideologies that account for the forms societies take), but also in realisms where the bruteness of material conditions tend to get erased. And here I think philosophers especially, but academics in general, tend towards idealist and realist positions that ignore material conditions because since their own material conditions of enunciation function well, they become invisible and unnoticed. It’s hard to discern materiality unless you’ve been homeless or lived in different cultural conditions where infrastructure doesn’t support you.

Second, however, it seems to me that Jeremy’s only arise if we equate materialism with reduction. The worry seems to be that we will reduce discussions of society, for example, to discussions of neurology and biology. But this only follows if we equate materialism with reductivism. Yet the central thesis of the new materialisms is not that of reductivism, but of emergence. Following thinkers like Roy Bhaskar, Margaret Archer, and Dave Elder-Vass (thank you Craig!), emergence consists in the thesis that emergent entities have powers that cannot be located in the elements on which they are dependent. Emergent entities are both dependent on their parts and have powers or capacities that cannot be found among their parts. The properties of H2O are entirely different than the powers of hydrogen or oxygen. If I throw water on fire it produces a quite different result than if I threw oxygen or hydrogen on fire. Likewise, H2O freezes at different temperatures than hydrogen or oxygen (I owe this example to Elder-Vass and his Causal Power of Social Structures). H2O cannot exist without hydrogen and oxygen and is explained by the powers of hydrogen and oxygen, but in being explained it is not explained away. It’s powers remain unique to that configuration.

What holds for H2O with respect to hydrogen and oxygen holds equally for persons with respect to neurons and genes, as well as social institutions such as governments, revolutionary groups, corporations, etc. These latter entities certainly emerge from persons, but they have irreducible powers in their own right and capacities to do things in the world. They are real, material beings. Moreover, while they emerge from smaller-scale entities like persons, these smaller-scale entities and larger-scale entities can be in conflict with one another. This is the whole point of my meditations on the strange mereology of onticology or materialist-oriented ontology. Far from erasing the myriad actors or actants that populate the world, emergentist materialisms give us back these entities. Just as Latour requested, we “get our materialism back“.

Materialism presents us with a strange ontology in which matter is surprising and creative, where we do not know, as the phallusophers what have it, what being is in advance, where ideas themselves, including fictions, are material realities that travel throughout the world as simulacra, where there is no action at a distance but where every relation or connection must be physically forged, and where we are simultaneously able to explain the formations of superstition and ideology while critiquing them. If it is the true ontological position, then this is not because it determines matter as an idea as Harman would have it, but rather because what matter is is always in question. Materialism, throughout its history, has perpetually captured the radical alterity of matter to the determinations of thought, and has refused every and any gesture that would determine the being of being in advance. No doubt this is why the phallusophers have perpetually had an animosity towards matter: matter is precisely that which refuses armchair philosophizing or the equation of being and thinking called for by Parmenides. The message of materialism has always been that we must make a detour through the world and practice to know the world, and it has always been that knowledge is a becoming of knowledge, not an idea that is given from the beginning. As such, materialism is that which always returns us to the world, a love of the world, and an attendance to how things actually are in the world; thereby abjuring all a prioris of thought.