These 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.
But 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.
We 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)
“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”.