Over at Algorithm and Contingency, Robert Jackson has an interesting post up discussing Harman’s object-oriented philosophical critique of materialism. If there is one fundamental point where I’ve disagreed with Harman it’s on his rejection of materialism or physicalism. Where Harman seems to hold that it is possible for non-physical beings to exist (for example souls), I hold that whatever else beings are, they must be material or physical. In the context of Jackson’s post, I was surprised to read the following:
But it doesn’t matter what sort of ‘matter’ is deployed in materialism, its deployment is always against form. For Graham, philosophy has historically managed ‘matter’ into two areas; it is either some ultimate ‘stuff’ or physical ‘structure’ upon which all derivative forms can be broken down, or else, matter lies in the absolute formlessness of primordial emergence, which spits out derivative forms within its endless differentiating movement. Graham calls this second one, the “amorphous reservoir”, of matter, focusing on Bennett’s indeterminate wholeness or a throbbing, pulsating movement of matter-energy. I prefer to call it an invisible framework.
Here Jackson presents two versions of materialism: atomistic materialism such as we find in Democritus and a sort of “hyletic materialism” positing a pure formless stuff out of which individuated or formed entities somehow emerge. If I’ve understood him correctly, both of these materialisms suffer, according to Harman, from undermining objects. For example, under Harman’s reading, atomistic materialism denies the dignity of emergent objects, instead reducing them to their atomistic parts which are then treated as what is “really real”. While the materialism of Inwagen fits this bill, it’s difficult to see how this criticism hits the mark with the atomistic materialism of thinkers such as Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius. Lucretius, for example, is quite clear that relations between atoms are every bit as important as the atoms themselves. In example after example he discusses emergent entities that manifest powers (capacities) and properties only when atoms are arranged in these particular ways. In this regard, far from “undermining” objects, he shows how certain objects are only possible through certain relations. Materialism by and large has never been the thesis that beings just are their parts. Rather, even among the atomists, those parts must be arranged or organized in a particular way. So much for that criticism.
However, what I find most perplexing is Jackson’s thesis that materialism is always deployed against form. This formulation suggests that one is thinking about the relationship between form and matter as a contrast between structure and formlessness. Of course, when formulated in this way the “formalist” wins at the outset because matter is just treated as the absence of form. The “formalist” can then demonstrate the necessity of his position by showing that this formless matter is always necessarily in need of formation, thereby establishing the primacy of form over matter.
It seems to me, however, that the materialist thesis is rather different. Far from materialism being “always deployed against form”, materialism is instead the thesis that matter is always structured matter. If materialism is deployed against anything, it would be against the schema offered by Plato in the Timeaus where it is suggested that, on the one hand, there is a formless material chora, and on the other hand a domain of ideal, incorporeal forms, and that a demiurge is required to mold this formless matter into formed matter. What materialism contests is the incorporeality of form and the formlessness of materiality, instead arguing that all matter is structured matter.
In other words, matter is not some formless stuff awaiting form, but always has an immanent structure proper to it according to the sort of matter that it is. In this regard, the pile of clay that sits before the potter is not formless. Rather, it has a structure or form proper to it that makes it clay rather than iron, grass, or water, and this structure is immanent to its materiality. In other words, form doesn’t come to the matter from without, but, alongside its physicality, is an intrinsic constituent of what the clay is in its materiality. No matter, no form. No form, no matter. It is only an intellectual distinction that allows us to distinguish matter and form. This distinction is not a numerical distinction that exists in being itself.
This form, of course, is plastic. As we all know, the clay can be shaped in all sorts of ways whether through natural forces such as geological pressures giving it a particular shape or through the hands of my six year old daughter. It is probably this plasticity of matter that gives rise to the mistaken notion that matter is somehow formless. We see a lump of clay, see the potter shape the clay into a bird, and then conclude that the pile of clay was formless while the bird is formed. However, the shape that the clay takes is only possible by virtue of the form or structure of clay. There are things that one can do with clay that one cannot do with water, oxygen, wood, or matter. Every material has its own immanent structure that constrains what it can and cannot become. This is what Deleuze has in mind when he speaks of “singularities”. Singularities are neither formless nor shaped, but are a range of constrained potentiality that can take on a variety of different shapes as a function of forces and actions being exercised upon the medium. Structure, in short, is plastic or topological. In a follow up post I’ll explain just why I think materialism is so important; for the moment I have to scoot if I’m going to make it to class in time.