July 2013


Four_Fundamental_States_of_MatterIn response to my last post, Wherewithal writes:

is it possible that this straining for the material unconscious is a sign that the concept of matter isn’t doing any work for us anymore? Can we continue to theorize about objects and physical systems without recourse to it ? Physics doesn’t seem to have any kind of ultimate matter, or most basic, solid stuff, whether in the form of atoms or some kind of flow. Biological systems make their own elements out of energy and (bio)chemicals. Why not talk about all of this without raising any ultimate concept of matter? There are objects of many different kinds, none more real than any other, whether we’re on the scale of neutrons, chairs, or cells. Its seems like there’s a certain convergence around this kind of materialism without matter in Luhmann, Sloterdijk, and Harman, among others. Heisenberg has been called idealist for his critique of substantialism in Physics and Philosophy, but isn’t he doing something more like physics sans the concept of matter?

In media theory, it’s clear that discursive practices are always bound up with the resistance of things. They can’t get away with just being abstract or conceptual, taking place in some immaterial space of language or thought. And then in feminist theory, there’s been the focus for decades now on how embodiment affects discursive practice.

The idea that matter is a-semiotic and a-conceptual seems to require an immaterial ontological plane, which seems to work against a naturalistic meta-philosophy.

So the three questions would be, isn’t there already a lot of work in the “humanities” that takes resistance of things seriously?

Do we need the concept of matter for a naturalistic philosophy of objects and practices?

Doesn’t the passion for the real of matter and things resinscribe the matter/form distinction in spite of best intentions against hylomorphism, by reaching for an ultimate, most real substance–and then, conversely, doesn’t it make the conceptual or linguistic realm seem all the more immaterial, which it can never really be (especially if we’re avoiding logocentrism)?

Hopefully Wherewithal will say a bit about what he takes matter to be.  This issue, of course, is one of the central sites where Harman and I disagree.  Harman sees materialism as inherently reductive, whereas I think there’s plenty of room for an irreductive materialism (through theories of emergence).  Harman argues that there are immaterial objects and therefore believes, for example, that reincarnation is possible because soul can be separated from body (a consequence that would follow from his defense of substantial forms via Suárez), whereas I reject the notion that there are any immaterial entities.  In my view, there are only physical beings.

In his post Wherewithal seems to contrast matter and energy.  However, in my view, the two terms are synonyms.  All that is required for a position to count as a materialism, in my view, is a commitment to the physical as exhaustive of all being, whatever the physical might turn out to be.  However, while I find much of value in Lucretius’s atomism, I do not advocate his conception of matter as being composed of ultimate, impenetrable and indivisible particles.  Rather, I think of matter as energy.  This is why the concept of entropy is so important to me.  Things are both always in a perpetual state of motion, even when they appear to be standing still, they are pervaded by activity, and they must sustain themselves across time to continue existing (they’re perpetually falling apart).  Where the physical is abandoned, we’re either moving in the direction of idealism or a theology.

As I argue in this post, following Adorno, the thing to be avoided is the identification of matter with the concept.  This, I believe, is the reduction of matter to the concept.  The concept, of course, is that which is present to consciousness or intellect.  In reducing matter to the concept, we authorize ourselves to ignore the things of the world.  This is what Oyama is getting at with her concept of hylephobia and her critique of Dawkins and Dennett for reducing genes to pure information and arguing for the substrate neutrality of these genes.  What gets ignored in these moves are all of the processes unfolding at the chemical and environmental level that contribute just as significantly to what the phenotype becomes.  Genes become a blueprint that ineluctably unfold according to a plan, such that the developed organism (sic.) is but a copy of this blueprint.  The multiple paths and possibilities of development disappear because the genes are seen as already containing all the information for the developed organism.  (The lecture I link to in the post is well worth listening to).  From a political standpoint, of course, I think we can see why this is such a matter of concern as it is a form of genetic determinism.  I see something similar at work in the focus on text and concept in the humanities (especially in philosophy and literary studies).  At any rate, hylephobia and logocentrism are synonyms.

read on!

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timagesThese days I’m going through a lot, so I stutter and my thoughts are impressionistic, like a pastiche.  I return to the question.  Why the perpetual forgetting of matter?  Is there perhaps a material unconscious of the world of academic theory that isn’t the unconscious of the signifier?  An unconscious composed of something so close that it is perpetually and necessarily forgotten?  This would not be the Lacanian unconscious that is “structured like a language” (though I’m convinced this exists).  This would not be Leibniz’s unconscious that is composed of tiny perceptions (though I’m convinced too that this exists).  This would not be Jameson’s political unconscious (though I’m convinced this exists as well).  Nor would it be Deleuze and Guattari’s unconscious of desiring-machines and a body without organs, though that too exists.  No, this would be an unconscious that is a priori forgotten because, while serving as a necessary condition of all thought, it is independent of and anterior to any correlation.  It can disrupt correlation and drive– yes, drive –towards conceptual and signifying creation, but it would be that that must be necessarily forgotten and repressed within every framework of thought.  Let us confess that thought is necessarily correlational, even where we don’t yet know what this means.

sociology-6But first sociology.  I take it as an axiom– which is to say, I take it in the modern mathematical sense as a working hypothesis or “rule of the game”, not in the sense of antiquity as a “self-evident truth” (do these exist anymore?) –that philosophy in particular and the humanities more broadly cannot subjectivize or integrate their own sociological and ethnographic conditions of production.  These too are a priori forgotten.  Everywhere us “humanist”– meaning academics working in the humanities –apply sociology and ethnography to everything else without applying it to our own discursive practices.  We authorize ourselves to point out the bad faith of every other practice, their odorous sociological dimension, without looking at our own status as a sociological phenomenon.  Yes, there are exceptions.  As always, it’s a matter of what’s statistically dominant.  So as an axiom, we can begin from the premise that the university, the academy, or intellectual production can only exist in societies where there is a certain distribution of labor.  University knowledge is only possible where there are people other than academics that produce food, that make technologies, that run governments, that build houses and roads, and all the rest.  The university and academic discourse can only exist where time is freed up for a certain sort of labor we know as intellectual labor.

This is not without consequences.  There is a whole sociology and ethnography of academics to be written, one that would be more corrosive than any critique we’ve ever witnessed, one that would call into question a whole series of theoretical assumptions, and that would present a mirror that we don’t want to look into.  Some have already begun to write this critique:  Marx in some moments when critiquing Hegel, Bourdieu in works like Pascalian Meditations and The Logic of Practice, Luhmann in his analysis of the autopoietic closure and production of functional subsystems, Lacan in his analysis of the university discourses.  Other names could be given.  At any rate, to be an academic, regardless of how “Marxist” one might be, is to be a bourgeois subject.  It is to be a subject divorced from a certain mode of production and practice.  It is to be divorced from a mode of practice that engages with things.  As Heidegger argued– and on this he was right, no matter how despicable and tiresome he was in so many other respects –this entails that things become invisible.  When things work, they become extensions of our own body and therefore indiscernible.  As a result, we don’t recognize the contribution that things make and, because our work is primarily concerned with ideas and texts, we are led to see the world as held together by ideas, norms, signs, signifiers, forms, the intelligible.  We are comfortable, even when living in poverty, and thereby do not recognize the infrastructure upon which our comfort relies. Some of this work has been done, but there’s far more to do.

2846682374_59e51cefceWe even end up talking about monstrosities like “discursive practices”.  Why is the idea of “discursive practices” such a monstrosity?  Because the concept of practice involves the notion of the resistance of things.  Oh sure, when we engage in the interpretation of a text there are ways in which it resists our interpretations.  Oh yes, I’m well aware that there are leaky spots in my interpretation of the relationship between Deleuze and Guattari and Lacan.  But this is a very different sort of resistance than we find in a material practice.  Recently as I was putting together chairs for my dining room table I found that they had given me two left legs for one of my chairs.  That was an encounter– to use a Lacanian formulation –with the real.  No amount of interpretation, conceptualization, signification, or hermeneutics could enable me to put that chair together correctly with two left legs.  And for this reason I knew that the chair was real.  In its obstinence, the chair announced itself as real, as something beyond linguistic structuration, conceptualization, “social construction”, discursivity, and all the rest.  In its bruteness, it evaded my conceptual mastery.  There was a way that it would work (if it had a right leg and a left leg) and a way that it wouldn’t work (with two left legs).  While entangled with conceptuality and signification– yes, there was a blueprint and human projected telos (not an ontological telos belonging to the things themselves) –this deadlock was a matter– matter! –of the things themselves, not my conceptuality.  There you have it, a bit of the real.

In Negative Dialectics, Adorno provides us with the structural schema of every possible correlationism or idealism.  There he writes that [ideology]:

…lies in the implict identity of concepts and thing, an identity justified by the world even when a doctrine summarily teaches that consciousness depends on being.  (40)

mimages“Ideology” can here be treated as a synonym for “idealism” or “correlationism”.  Correlationism, idealism, is that philosophical framework that reduces thing to concept, to the intelligible, to what is thought.  Synonyms for concept would be signifier, text, sign, notion, form, essence, etc.  In each of these instances we evoke an identity of thing and concept, where thing is erased and concept reigns supreme.  That moment of resistance disappears and everything becomes the smooth space of the concept, text, sign, signifier, or form.  Everything becomes that which can be domesticated or mastered because thought traffics in the concept.  And where thought traffics in what is itself– concept, signifier, form, essence, sign –is it a surprise that thought finds only itself?  The erasure of matter and nature– though everything is nature, including thought –follows of its own accord.  A priori hylephobia.

Yet as Adorno continues elsewhere in his lectures entitled Metaphysics:  Concept and Problems,

The fact that, just by talking about matter, one endows this matter with form– that is, conceptual form –should not be confused with the meaning of the form itself.  The peculiarity of the concept of hyle, or matter, is that we are using a concept or speaking of a principle which, by its meaning, refers to something which is not a concept or a principle.  We only correctly understand what a concept such as hyle means if we realize that its conceptual meaning refers to something non-conceptual.  (67)

Matter refers to that which is non-conceptual and, I would add, to that which evades and escapes all conceptuality and signification.  Matter is a-semiotic, a-conceptual.  This is quite different, I add, than saying matter is formless.  The suggestion that matter is formless, that it is a liquid stuff awaiting intellectual/conceptual form to form it, is a superficial form of conceptual of thinking that simply treats matter as what conceptuality is not.  To be sure, matter disrupts conceptuality, but it doesn’t follow from that that it is formless.  Rather, it is a-conceptual form that provides a spur to conceptuality in search of its structure; a search that can only proceed, as Adrian Johnston has recently remarked (pdf), empirically (empiricism being anathema to all pure theory and the humanities).

Perhaps, then, it’s possible to carry out an archeology of materialism.  Matter would be found in each and every theory or philosophy where that philosophy encounters a chair with two left legs.  It would lie in those deviant moments of a philosophy where it’s conceptuality stands in ruin in the face of an obstinence that can’t be domesticated in the correlative identity of thing and concept.  For example, in Kant it would be found in that moment of the Prolegomena (and elsewhere in his writings on natural science) where he discusses enantiomorphs, or mirror images where nonetheless two entities can’t be exchanged for one another.  However, while such an archeology be interesting, we would probably do well to spend more time attending to encounters with things like chairs with two left legs and natural disasters, as such an archeology would again plunge us back into endless hermeneutics which, paraphrasing Nietzsche, is “academic, all too academic”.

152Throughout the history of philosophy a marked tendency to erase matter or physicality can be observed.  This starts very early.  It can be seen in Parmenides and his equation of thought and being.  It can be seen in Plato with his bifurcation of being into the world of appearances and the world of forms, treating the world of appearances as nothing but a source of misleading opinion.  It occurs in Aristotle and his treatment of matter (hyle) as a blank and passive stuff awaiting inscription from form or essence.  Later it rears its head in scholastic realism (not to be confused with contemporary realisms), that privilege universals over individuals.  With the advent of modernity, we encounter this erasure of matter in many of the rationalisms (especially Descartes and Leibniz; Spinoza fairs better), and the sense-data empiricisms that “phenomenalize” being.  In 20th century thought, the erasure of matter is found in phenomenology’s subjectivization of philosophy and the linguistic turn.  Even in those positions in political theory that refer to themselves as “materialist”, there’s a marked tendency to erasure materiality <em>per se</em> and replace it with oxymorons like “discursive practices”.

DNA_3Speaking in a very different context, biotheorist Susan Oyama refers to this erasure of matter as “hylephobia”, or a fear of matter.  Speaking in the context of genecentric theories of biological evolution such as those advocated by Dawkins and Dennett, Oyama points out the manner in which genecentric theories of evolution effective erase matter by treating genes as pure information that is both the sole unit of selection and that is indifferent to its material substrate.  As Dennett puts it,

substrate neutrality:  The procedure for long division works equally well with pencil or pen, paper or parchment, neon lights or skywriting, using any symbol system you like.  The power of the procedure is due to its logical structure, not the causal powers of the materials used in the instantiation, just so long as those causal powers permit the prescribed steps to be followed exactly (Darwins Dangerous Idea, 51)

A process is substrate neutral if it is indifferent to the material medium in which it takes place.  This is how the information contained in genes is conceived by genecentric theorists like Dawkins and Dennett.  Issues such as whether or not a particular chemical reaches a cell at a particular point in time, the sorts of chemicals present in the environment, temperature, the presence and absence of light, air pressure, etc., are all irrelevant to selection and development within their framework.  Genes– a term, incidentally, that is notoriously difficult to define in biology, believe it or not –are for them like dynamic Aristotlean essences.  They are blueprints that contain all the information for what the developed organism will be and that unfold ineluctably, inevitably, in whatever material medium they happen to inhabit.  Put differently, material mediums merely carry this genetic information without contributing anything of their own to the formation of the phenotype.

What we have here is a sort of biorationalism or bioidealism.  Once again we get the incorporeal, the ideal, the intelligible, erasing matter (parallel trends can be seen in some versions of physics where all being is reduced to either structure or information).  A similar trend can be seen in philosophy and the humanities more broadly.  Again and again we see a privilege of the discursive, the signifying, the experiential, the textual, the semiotic, over the material.  What I would like to understand is why philosophy and the humanities (and academia more broadly) are pervaded by this strong tendency towards idealism.  I realize that many will object to this characterization, but like a pair of eyeglasses– which, incidentally, are a material agency –I believe this idealism is so omnipresent that it’s difficult for us to even discern.  What is the source of this hylephobia?  What is it that generates this perpetual erasure of matter (even among those that call themselves “materialists” working in Marxist traditions)?  Conversely, I think we can ask what it is about our historical moment that is suddenly bringing matter into relief in an unprecedented ways in variants of thought falling under the title “new materialism” and in some strains of the speculative realisms (I think some other strains of SR are moving in a highly hylephobic direction).  Why is matter today becoming visible in a way that it wasn’t before?  What has changed that makes matter a central site for thought?