Materialism is paradoxical in two ways. I cite these paradoxes not to criticize materialism, but to attempt to circumscribe the material and how it differs from other orientations of thought. First, it defends the thesis that the being of being is material, the physical, and therefore other than thought, but can only do so through thought. Materialism proceeds through concepts, yet attempts to grasp that which is other than the concept. The material is that which is anterior and posterior to the concept, thought, phenomenality, affect, the lived experience of the body, and signification. It is without meaning, beyond all meaning, and certainly outside of all phenomenological givenness. There is, for example, a radical difference between the lived body (the body of phenomenological experience) and the physiological (material) body. The physiological body can, of course, affect the lived body, yet the lived body is no reliable guide to the material or physiological body.
A man suffers from severe anxiety. His thought spins, exploring, in a Heideggerian fashion, the meaning of his existence, his relation to death, the being of being. He thinks these are the sources of his anxiety and goes to a psychoanalyst or an existential therapist. Yet perhaps his anxiety is merely a chemical imbalance. From within experience there’s no way to know, for his material being is exterior to all thought and experience. The relation of meaning to anxiety seems absolutely self-evident. He spends years in therapy. Yet the ground of his anxiety was, in this instance, never in the domain of matter. There’s a strange way in which the material body, that which is closest to us, is more exterior than the greatest exteriority– even the exteriority of the so-called Levinasian Other –such that while we are it it is nonetheless completely opaque.
There is perpetually a mismatch between the material and the given. The material is the most absolute of exteriorities, perpetually receding from any givenness. It is in-apparent; which is to say that it does not appear. We can only infer it. It perpetually exercises itself without showing itself. As a consequence, the material is an ever receding horizon that we model in bits in pieces through inference. None of this is to say that the phenomenological, experiential, and signifying do not affect the material; only that the material is not a mirror of us characterized by meaning.
No doubt it is this absolute exteriority of materiality, this absence more radical than any phenomenological nothing or semiological absence, that leads to the perpetual tendency of idealism and social constructivisms in the humanities. Because no signification, phenomenological experience, or concept can gain traction on the material, because none of these things can present the material, we conclude that there is no material, only ideas or signs or affects. All of being becomes a mirror of us. We make arguments to the effect that because there is no word for blowfish among the Inuit, blowfish don’t exist. All materialism must then navigate this exteriority of matter to thought and give some sort of an account of how thought can know something of that which is not thought and which is never thought.
Aside On A Stupid Argument: One sometimes hears idealists and social constructivists critique realism, saying that it either presupposes a view from nowhere or that we never had a view from nowhere. Yet realism is not claiming to have a view from nowhere, nor has it ever suggested total knowledge (something the idealists cannot, incidentally, claim). All realism claims is to grasp a little bit of the real, to capture something other than the signifier within a net of signifiers.
The second paradox arises from the ontological thesis of materialism: being is material. This is a univocal thesis that is perfectly general, applying to all beings. Yet if that’s the case, how are we to account for the thesis that matter is exterior to thought? For thought is a form of being and therefore is also material. Materialism must account for how material can be exterior to itself in the form of thought, concept, signification, phenomenological experience, affect, and so on. It must account for how it can both be itself, matter, and not be itself. It must account for how it produces mirages of what is within material being, obscuring itself as ground while nonetheless being absolute intimate and proximal.