In response to my last post, some good discussion has emerged as to just what materialism is and when we can identify a genuine materialism. The tradition of materialism I claim arises out of Democritus, the Greek Epicureans, Lucretius, and thinkers such as Diderot. Where the version of materialism we get in Contemporary continental theory seems to equate materialism with a focus on practices and institutions, this materialism focuses on the existence of physical beings independent of humans (minerals, plants, nervous systems, fiber optic cables, particles, animals, features of geography, and so on). I think it’s hard to deny that what’s generally called “materialism” today is really a form of discursivism. The debate surrounding idealism and materialism as it arose between Hegel and Marx was a debate between conceptuality and practices. It was the question “do ideas/concepts structure social reality (Hegel) or do practices structure social reality?” In Marx’s own work, we can still glimpse something like robust materialism. In his work, it makes sense to call a focus on practices “materialist” because in practice, after all, we’re talking about biological bodies working on non-human material stuffs, and Marx has exquisite analyses of calories required for work, the physical properties of technologies, the features of natural geography, and so on. The problem is that much of this largely gets erased as this theoretical trajectory develops in the Althusserian and Frankfurt school versions of Marxism. Ideology and discursivity begin to take center stage, and we increasingly seem to lose the materiality of matter. Matter becomes largely conceived as a vehicle for human meanings and significations. In other words, we’re back to Hegel and Marx gets turned upside down. Given that the Marxist heritage is largely preserved in the humanities, this isn’t a surprise as those working in the humanities largely work with texts and meanings. As a consequence, just as the cobbler is likely to see all other things in the world in terms of footwear, those working in the humanities have a tendency to comprehend everything in the world in terms of meaning and text.
What I’m trying to do with borromean critical theory is open a space for thinking materiality as materiality that doesn’t physical beings to being mere carriers of signification, while also preserving what we’ve discovered through phenomenology and semiotics. The imaginary now corresponds to the domain of descriptive phenomenological analysis, the symbolic the domain of semiotic analysis, while the real corresponds to materiality in the sense of physicality. The real, taken for itself, therefore doesn’t correspond to “practices”, but rather biological processes, physiology, mountain ranges, weather patterns, the behavior of particles, the properties of minerals and metals, animals, the chemical features of foods and air, and so on.
However, it’s not simply a question of opening a circle where we note the existence of nonhuman things that would exist without us rather than refusing to reduce these entities to vehicles for signification or noematic correlates of phenomenological experience. In social assemblages the three orders are intertwined. Part of understanding that the domains of the symbolic and imaginary are intertwined with the the circle of the real consists in understanding that we have to reconceptualize our understanding of the symbolic and imaginary in light of the real. For example, if the symbolic is necessarily intertwined with the real or materiality, this entails that we have to develop a materialist understanding of the symbolic. We can’t any longer treat signifiers as diaphanous entities that are everywhere and nowhere. No, we have to remember that like any other entity that exists in the material world, signifiers have to obey the laws of physics. This means that they must be physically transported from person to person, group to group, institution to institution in order to proliferate throughout the social sphere. This requires that signifiers require physical mediums of transportation: sound-waves for speech (you can’t speak in a vacuum), bits of paper for text, fiber optic cables, servers, satellites, and so on. Certainly different mediums of transport are going to make a difference as to what kinds of societies are possible and we should attend to this, no? Similarly, like good disease epidemiologists, shouldn’t we attend to where ideologies are geographically? Because of how they’ve been transported, won’t ideologies be among some populations and not others?
Similarly, taking materialism seriously means that we can’t afford to ignore neurology and cognitive science. Different mediums of transmission will interact with nervous systems in different ways and we should be attentive to that. If– as thinkers such as McLuhan, Ong, and Havlock have taught us –societies based on speech tend towards the mythological, rhyme, and cyclical repetitions in their transfer of cultural knowledge, isn’t this because cognitively and neurologically information structured in this way has the right rhythm and pattern to be neurologically and cognitively retained where only speech is available. Matters change once you get writing and paper, because now the paper can itself retain the information. We no longer require meat-memory to retain information. New things also become possible with written inscription and different writing systems (“III” and “3” both signify the same thing, but it’s difficult to imagine complex mathematics using Roman numerals). What are the cognitive and neurological challenges in a society such as ours where we are saturated with information and where the act of reading can no longer be careful and leisurely because we are compelled to act and respond quickly?
Taking materialism seriously means attending to our understanding of the symbolic and imaginary are transformed as a result of what we learn about the real. It means that we can no longer fully divorce these realms from one another, but have to attend to how they’re entangled. And, of course, our idea of materiality is also transformed as a result of our understanding of the symbolic and the imaginary or the semiotic and the phenomenological. Of course, at this point in history, I also feel that we need to attend a bit more to materiality than to the symbolic and imaginary. For decades cultural analysis has been dominated by semiotics and phenomenology. It doesn’t hurt to spend a little time bringing technology, physics, geography, neurology, biology, and so on a bit to the forefront given what little attention they’ve received in our circles. Moreover, as we live in the midst of global catastrophe wrought by climate change, it doesn’t hurt to attend to the fact that all experience and semiotic activity requires work, burns energy, and produces waste. Finally, it doesn’t hurt to explore the ways in which time structuration during the working day, fatigue, and so on are political forms of power in addition to ideologies. Don’t many oppressive power relations sustain themselves simply because people are too tired to do anything else, because their time is so structured that they’re left with little time to become aware of the mechanisms of power structuring their life, and because they’re dependent on certain institutions like corporations for the calories and fuels they need to live and run their lives?