Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal cords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. […] What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not?
Jackson’s thought experiment is designed to refute physicalism or the thesis that mind is a material thing. The idea is that Mary, the brilliant neuroscientist, knows everything there is to know about the mechanics of vision and neurology. However, she has arrived at this knowledge in a black and white television monitor, in a black and white room, and presumably only sees her own body somehow in black and white. Based on the thought experiment, Jackson invites us to ponder whether Mary learns anything new when she leaves the room and sees color for the first time. Since Mary knows everything there is to know about vision and neurology, it would seem to follow that she also knows what it is like for something to be red. Right? However, we can’t help but think that when Mary leaves the room she learns something new or that her discursive understanding of color vision doesn’t generate the experience of redness. If this is true, Jackson contends, then there is something that falls outside our scientific and physicalist understanding of consciousness.
Jackson’s thought experiment has generated a tremendous amount of controversy (and a huge literature), and it seems to me, at least, that it is deeply problematic and almost sophistical. Whenever I reflect on the thought experiment, I feel as if a trick has been played on me, that there is some sort of fundamental confusion at work here. I’ll set all that aside, however. We can adapt the form of the thought experiment– not its content pertaining to issues of consciousness –and instead use a variation of the thought experiment to think about the mysteriousness of matter. The paradox of matter is that no matter how much we know about it, we still seem unable to say or think what it is. In other words, there’s a way in which everything we say about matter fails to get at what it is.
All of us are acquainted with matter. In a lot of ways it is the most familiar thing in the world. We experience the resistance of walls, the pain of a rock or bowling ball falling on our foot, the failure of hallucinations to satiate our hunger, the swoon of drunkenness from alcohol and other drugs and so on, the fatigue of our bodies when we run out of energy, the pull of gravity on our bodies, and so on. We experience the materiality of matter all the time and in every aspect of our lives. Saying just what this materiality or physicality is proves more difficult.
Aristotle, in his own way, already articulated this issue. Among other things, Aristotle distinguishes between material and formal causes. The material cause is what the thing is made of (iron, gold, stone, glass, ice, etc.). The formal cause is the shape or pattern of the thing. Thus the material cause of a ball is rubber, while the formal cause is its sphericity. Aristotle’s distinction between form and matter is perfectly reasonable and was probably intended to just be heuristic. The rubber of the ball can take on many different forms or shapes. For example, it could be formed into a car mat. Likewise, sphericity can occur in a variety of different matters: glass globes, wood, rock, metal, etc.
The problem with Aristotle’s distinction is that it gives the impression that there is one thing, form, and another thing matter. Now what we know when we know anything– I think, maybe I’m wrong –is the pattern or form of a thing. This is what I carry with me in my thought or intellect. After all, the form or pattern of something is something that can exist in a variety of different media, including thought. For instance, my knowledge of circles consists in knowing the equation for circles, the form or pattern, not what that pattern might happen to be embodied in. This distinction, that began as merely heuristic, then leads us to the view that purely formless matter must exist. But since all we ever know is form, matter becomes deeply mysterious.
So since we never encounter formless matter, we then conclude that there is no formless matter. We recognize that the rubber of the ball can take on many different shapes or patterns, but that it nonetheless has a form or structure of its own. Yet here we encounter another problem. While there is no formless matter– glass, iron, stone, wood, etc. all have a structure that can nonetheless be formed in many ways –knowledge of the form of matter nonetheless fails to deliver the thing itself. In other words, we get a situation similar to the one that Frank Jackson describes with Mary: I can know everything there is to know about the structure (form) of matter, but still when I think the chemical formula of glass, my thought of the pattern of glass still doesn’t produce glass. With Graham Harman– who has been a staunch critic of materialism –we can say that the materiality of matter, its “thisness” is necessarily withdrawn. No matter how well I know the chemistry of pizza– its form or pattern –my thinking of that form or pattern still fails to produce a pizza that will satisfy my hunger (as an aside, why the hell do I have to go to New York to get such pizza? Why can’t they make it everywhere? There’s a deep mystery here.).
This is the problem with those neo-materialisms we find in thinkers such as Badiou and Meillassoux (and also Ladyman and Ross). They are right to talk about the pattern or formal structure of matter, but nonetheless they miss something important about the materiality of matter: that no matter how hard we think that pattern or formal structure, we still can’t make it happen through thought. The problem with these neo-realisms is that they tend to reduce matter to its iterable formal pattern, missing that there’s still something irreducible about matter, that we must await it. No matter how well I know the chemical equation of that New York pizza, my thinking of that equation can’t make it happen or appear. There’s something about the materiality of matter that isn’t captured in that knowledge of form.
Far from being merely a negative consequence, I think this feature of matter gives us the key to introducing it into our critical theory. Before getting into that, a digression is first necessary. When I recently began discussing these issues a friend of mine on facebook worried that I was claiming that we should abandon the humanities and that instead we should grant the natural sciences hegemony in our discourses. My response to this is two-fold: First, what’s wrong with the natural sciences? There’s a marked tendency in the humanities to reject mathematics and the natural sciences. We see this, for example, in Heidegger’s claim that “mathematics does not think” (a claim that Badiou has demonstrated to be ridiculous), and in his characterization of the natural sciences as “enframing”. I believe that these views are irresponsible (especially in the face of climate change, the energy crisis, and evolution denialism), and that they are more the result of a phobia and institutional pressures we face in academia from cutbacks, as opposed to anything to do with a serious engagement with the natural sciences. Indeed, I suspect that these claims arise more out of a desire to assert the hegemony of our form of knowledge and methodologies, our will to power, rather than anything rational or reasonable. Second, the point in recognizing the materiality of matter lies not in suddenly adopting the discourses of the natural sciences, but rather in recognizing the role played by that that is not of the order of meaning, the signifier, the concept, or discourse, in the world around us. It’s not the call for us suddenly to become natural scientists and concede, for example, the interpretation of literature to neuroscientists.
What, then, does making room for materiality mean? I have suggested that matter is that which somehow eludes all discursivity, signification, or thought. We can think the pattern, structure, or form of matter, but that thought does not deliver it. Paradoxically, it is Kant who helps us to think the materiality of matter. Kant distinguished between “spontaneity” and “receptivity”. Spontaneity refers to the domain of the concept, of thought, the signifier, or meaning. If these things are characterized by spontaneity, it’s because they can be brought to mind whenever we wish. A thing doesn’t have to be present for us to think through the Pythagorean theorem. I can think that theorem whenever I like. I can do this with poems, meanings, signifiers, and so on. All of these things, in their own way, belong to the domain of spontaneity.
By contrast, “receptivity” refers to the domain of what must be encountered to take place. No matter how much I think about baba ghanoush, I cannot produce the taste of baba ghanoush in my mouth, much less its nutritional effects. No, I must actually encounter baba ghanoush for these things to take place. There must be material encounters– regardless of how well I understand the chemistry and cultural semiotics of baba ghanoush –for this relation to take place. There is no spontaneity here, only receptivity. I can’t make it happen in thought. There is a thisness that eludes my power and control that can only arise from an encounter for affects to take place.
These are trite and obvious observations, but nonetheless ripe with profound consequences. Thinking materiality means thinking that which eludes spontaneity or what eludes discursivity. For critical theory and the humanities, it means thinking that which eludes meaning, signification, conceptuality, form, pattern, or spontaneity. It means thinking that which can only result from an encounter between entities.
This entails thinking our own being in a very different sense. First, it means thinking the agency of bio-chemical reactions in our bodies that are not the result of operations of our consciousness and that aren’t conscious such as how alcohol, vitamins, brain chemistry, different diets affect us. We experience the effects of these things, but not the processes themselves; nor are we in control of these processes. Similarly, it means an analysis of infrastructure– in the literal sense of inscription systems (voice, writing, satellite, telegraph, etc), highways, available foods, shipping routes, available jobs in an area, the rate at which information can travel given a medium and whether it can travel to a particular area at all, foods available, fuels available, and so on –as well as energetic requirements in the form of calories available and fuels available. It means attending to the sorts of energy required to sustain certain practices and certain forms of life and social assemblages (what energy is required to sustain internet culture, for example?). It requires attending to how time is structured for biological and laboring bodies. Is your average person immune to your ultra-radical Marxist critique of neoliberalism because they’re duped by ideology (a set of discursive beliefs and a structure of signification), or because they work twelve hours a day, take care of children, feed themselves, do chores, leaving little to no cognitive energy or time for attending to anything else and lacking any realistic alternative for the energetic requirements of their lives? In other words, have you, the academic, the critical theorist, the professor, analyzed your own temporal structure, the privilege it grants you in terms of time and energy, and how it leads you to discursive explanations of power? Above all, a materialist perspective emphasizes the manner in which we’re embodied and ecologically embedded or dependent on all sorts of practices.
In my opinion, very little of what we call “materialism” deserves to be called materialism. “Materialism” is a sort of meaningless nom-du-pere that all critical theorists must adopt and claim, without taking it seriously. Indeed, since Gramsci’s cultural Marxism, the early Frankfurt school (before the abomination of Habermas who’s the equivalent of the “new French philosophers), and the Althusserians, we’ve witnessed nothing but the gradual erasure of materialism. Instead, we’ve seen the concerted attempt to reduce the materiality of matter to the spontaneous or the order of the idea, meaning, the signifier, text, discursivity, and so on. Yet mathematical equations and signifiers have never themselves produced ecological disasters, and no one has ever starved to death from lack being able to think the Pythagorean equation. There is a withdrawal and thisness to matter that is irreducible to the spontaneity of discursivity and signification. To be a materialist is to think that irreducibility and its importance to understanding power.