Materialism


Responding to Graham’s talk at Dundee, Reid has a terrific post up discussing the manner in which Marxist materialism differs from reductive materialisms that trace back to the atomism of Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius. In many respects, Reid’s remarks come very close to a number of the central intuitions of OOO and onticology where social and political thought are concerned. These intuitions revolve around hoisting social and political thought from its almost exclusive focus on what I call the semiotic, to take into account other domains of collectives and the role they play in social formations. Thus Reid writes:

Materialism in Marx’s sense is neither a metaphysical nor an epistemological doctrine; it is not a philosophical doctrine or theory in any ordinary sense. Rather, it is a meta-philosophical doctrine about the relation between philosophy and its material conditions of possibility. In this regard, both the content of philosophical discourse and the methodological form of that discourse must be referred to the conditions under which philosophical practice occurs. Material conditions in this regard can begin quite narrowly: philosophy requires various material and institutional supports, from universities and publishing houses down to brains and paper. But these conditions, of course, never exist in isolation, and depend upon a certain mode of production that not only conditions their genesis, but their distribution, maintenance, etc. Ultimately, philosophical practice depends upon a broad economic, political, and social condition that enables it to occur, whatever its function within society may be.

The point here is that we can’t focus on the discursive or ideological alone, but must take into account the role that nonhumans play in the collectives within which we find ourselves. Reid drives this point home a moment later when he writes:

Because philosophy always operates under a specific material condition, materialist philosophy must be attentive to the specificity of its relation to this condition. This relation is not necessarily manifest in theoretical content, but it certainly is in the practice through which this content is produced. For example, as a graduate student at a university, I have a specific relation to the political-economic mode conditioning my philosophical work: I take out loans, I pay tuition, I work, I have limited resources whose use is determined by administrators with whom I have limited contact, etc. The central concern of materialism in this regard is not the content of one’s position, which becomes relatively equivocal, but the practical form of its production. The content would become a concern if it were used to justify a particular practice of philosophy. It is on this basis that Marx so strongly condemns all varieties of philosophical idealism, especially Hegel, which in his eyes amount to an apologetics for idealism about philosophy, or the thesis that the practices conditioning philosophical thought are either no concern for philosophy, or must necessarily be as they are for philosophical activity to proceed (Hegel would advocate a variant of the latter).

There’s a lot more there (some of which I’m not entirely in agreement, but which is nonetheless very good), so read the rest here.

All of this brings to mind a beautiful diagram I came across in David Harvey’s sublime Companion to Marx’s Capital. There Harvey seeks to diagram the relations involved in those collectives that involve humans (it’s also important to recall that there are collectives that don’t involve humans at all). The powerful feature of Harvey’s diagram is that in mapping the interrelations between elements that belong to collectives in which humans participate, he expands that field of relations well beyond an obsessive focus on representation, the semiotic, the ideological, or the linguistic. The domain of representation is one element in these collectives, but only one. In addition representation we get nature, technology, modes of production, social relations, and the reproduction of daily life.

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Ian Bogost weighs in on the question of materialism over at his blog, writing:

Maybe part of the problem is the singularness of materialism. Gratton cites Harman on materialism being reductionist, and this is what I’m getting at too. Rather than seeking to define definitively the nature of matter (a task that inevitably leads to scientific reductionism), or taking material to mean that which mediates or regulates human interactions (which leads to inevitable correlationism), instead we should desire a multitude of materials. True materialism is an aggregate. Or, put differently, “materialism” doesn’t exist, but “materialisms” do.

I get the sense that many people misconstrue object-oriented ontology as a singular material affair, as a reductionism: “everything’s an object.” But instead, proponents of OOO hold that all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally. The funeral pyre is not the same as the aardvark; the porcelatta is not equivalent to the rubgy ball. Not only are neither pair reducible to human encounter, but also neither are reducible to one another. In this respect, McLuhan is a better place to look for materialism than is Marx.

There’s a lot more in the post, so read the rest of it here. Here I think Ian hits the core of the issue. Both materialism and correlationisms are reductive positions. The variations of anti-realism all seek to reduce objects to some human related phenomenon, while the variants of materialism always seek to reduce objects to some identical material “stuff”. What is always missing is a genuine ontological pluralism, a promiscuous or slutty ontology, that allows for a variety of different actants irreducible to one type of being. This is one of the reasons object-oriented ontologists tend to refer to themselves as realists rather than materialists. Here Latour’s essay “Can We Get Our Materialism Back, Please?” is rewarding reading.

Peter Gratton and Graham Harman have a few interesting posts up about how the term “materialism” is used in continental philosophy (here, here, and here). As Peter writes:

It just so happens I did an edit on an article I wrote on Adrian Johnston’s Badiou, Zizek, and Political Transformations today, then turned my attention to reading Malabou’s Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, and then a couple of chapters of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, and each claim to be a materialist. Bennett can lay the easiest claim, since she’s a self-described monist, but Johnston and Malabou are formalists in the strict sense. In fact, Malabou’s whole project centers around her claim that form has been too quickly written off as “metaphysical” by Derrida, Heidegger, et al. And Johnston offers what he calls a “transcendental materialism.” Malabou and Johnston are writing a book together, so maybe they’ll hash out this better, but I think the term is really just a place holder for “I’m not an idealist.” And I just don’t know what explanatory power “materialism” has any more.

I confess that I’m equally baffled by the varied uses of the term “materialism”. Perhaps I’m particularly wooden on this issue, but for me, in order for a position to count as materialist it has to pass what I call “The Lucretius Test”. Lucretius is a genuine materialist because he is making a genuine claim about what exists, regardless of whether it has anything to do with humans, and this stuff is matter. In this respect, Bennett would be a genuine materialist because she is analyzing material things and their powers. Likewise with DeLanda. While they all differ as to what matter is (a proper ontological dispute), there’s no doubt that all of these thinkers pass the Lucretius test.

By contrast, when I turn to Zizek, Badiou, Johnston, and Meillassoux I have a difficult time discerning what is materialist about these orientations of thought. In The Parallex View Zizek claims that the core thesis of materialism is that “the whole is not”. While I don’t find the thesis that the whole is not objectionable, I fail to see what it has to do with materialism or how it might pass the Lucretius Test. These other variants of Marxist thought seem to run something like this: Idealism privileges mind, thought, and reason in the construction of reality. We focus on human practices such as production, discourses, language, etc. in the construction of reality. Therefore idealism consists in a focus on mind and thought while materialism focuses on human practice. However, in my book this conclusion doesn’t follow at all. A position is no less idealist because it focuses on, say, practices of discourse or language games as opposed to categories and cognitions. No, that position is still every bit as idealist because it still has humans constructing reality. Therefore it doesn’t pass the Lucretius Test.

Marx is somewhat off the hook here because he does speak of humans working with nonhuman matter in processes of production. The problem is that the role played by nonhuman and natural things really gets short shrift in Marx. The focus is on how humans transform these matters into something else, not the role these matters themselves play in transforming humans and each other. Here you’d need something like a communism of objects, where humans are among objects, not in a necessary and inexorable relation with all objects. Such positions still privilege the human-world relation, to the detriment of all other relations. “Transcendental materialism”, for example, only makes sense to me if you’re talking about something like DeLanda’s conception of the virtual where attractors haunt actualized objects, regardless of whether or not humans are involved. I don’t see anything like this in Badiou’s transcendental (his transcendental still strikes me as being social in character, and this is borne out by all the examples he uses in Logics of Worlds) or in Johnston’s transcendental which is thoroughly Kantian. By contrast, DeLanda’s attractors have nothing human about them. They’re there in the things themselves. Now Lucretius had all sorts of interesting things to say about the human-world relation, but the key point is that his ontology was, in no way, restricted to that relation. Lucretius had all sorts of interesting things to say about interactions among atoms that have nothing to do with the human, and there’s no sense in which Lucretius requires humans to exist for substantially differentiated and active beings to exist. Thus, while Lucretius is an underminer of objects in Harman’s vocabulary, he certainly is a genuine realist. And moreover, as Graham likes to say, if you only ever find yourself talking about the human-world relation then you’re a correlationist. If your philosophy has nothing significant to say about the relation between a rock and soil, you’re a correlationist. At any rate, it seems to me that we’ve begun to use these terms very loosely.

Today in class we reached the fourth basic principle of Latour’s ontology in Irreductions as depicted by Graham in the first chapter of Prince of Networks. As I formulate it:

The degree of reality possessed by an actant or object is a function of the number of its alliances with other actants.

Latour’s proposed object-oriented ontology differs from both my own and Harman’s in that under his conception objects or actants are defined by their relations. This is evident from this fourth ontological principle. For Latour, the more alliances an actant has the more real it is. Reciprocally, the less alliances an actant has, the less real it is. It seems to me that there are three senses of the term “reality” Latour is evoking:

1) An actant is real insofar as it is resistant to other actants.

2) An actant is real to the degree that it persists and endures through time and space.

3) The reality of an actant is a function of the magnitude and extensiveness of the effects it has on other actants.

According to the first sense of reality, a rock is real insofar as it resists another rock bumping into it. The second sense of reality coincides closely with intuitions we have about existence going all the way back to Plato where, as can be clearly seen in Plato’s divided line, the more fleeting something is the less real it is and the more enduring something is the more real it is. Consequently if simulacra or things like images in ponds are less real than objects, then this is because they cease to exist the minute clouds pass in front of the sun. If mathematical entities and forms are more real for Plato than objects, then this is because objects come-to-be and pass-away, whereas triangles always remain triangles and the Just or the Identical always remains the identical.

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AAAADEskSs8AAAAAAE6XqwOver at the blog err…whateverz. snugglebus I has posted a couple of nice posts on Speculative Realism. Before getting to the actual content of the posts, I’d first like to note that I love it that here in the blogosphere making interesting and thoughtful remarks with names like “snugglebus”. Moving on to the content, snugglebug defends speculative realism against some criticisms by Giuseppe in his second post. As snugglebus writes:

Responding in the comments however, Giuseppe thinks I kind missed the point entirely. As he put it:

what is it that lures intellectuals into the comfort of “reality” in the rather consolidated turn that so many social sciences are experiencing towards some form of “ontology” (another way, very academic indeed, to name the interest in the “real” nature of things)?… I suspect it has something to do with a very precise insecurity and a certain modesty that affects social scientists when they are compared to solid scientists: the former would talk about real, solid, things, the first would just babble away about the sex of angels.

Ok – I’ll take the bait! I’m not an SR scholar, just an interested, but uninvested, spectator, so I might not be the most effective spokesperson, but this will help me start to work out my own thoughts on a group of thinkers who I have been following for a while now.

I think there is a lot more to the success of SR than a reactionary response to the fact that ‘physical’ science is saying ever more concrete things about areas that were once the preserve of social scientists. Just anecdotally SR people (see for example Larval subjects here) seem to be intensely interested in hard science and thinking its consequences (though SR is concerned above all with metaphysics, not philosophy of science). In fact I think it would be more productive to turn Giuseppe’s view on its head: isn’t it actually crude idealism that expresses the insecurity (in a very different, less modest form than Giuseppe meant) of social science? Doesn’t idealism sometimes seem to shut scientific ‘reality’ away, seeing science somewhere between a naïve enterprise at one end of the spectrum (whereas we know that ‘truth’ is a function of consciousness, power, signs etc.), or just a separate field that is at best interesting, but not our concern as social scientists…?

Obviously I cannot speak for all the speculative realists and, in fact, it is impossible to do so as our positions tend to be radically different. For example, beyond a rejection of the centrality of the human, my own thought shares almost nothing in common with that of Brassier’s. Brassier advocates a sort of eliminative materialism that leans heavily on the hard sciences, whereas I advocate a realism. While there is a robust place for the sciences in my ontology, I do not see the sciences as delivering us to “true reality” whereas all the other disciplines investigate things that are epiphenomenal or mere illusions. In this I follow Bruno Latour in his rejection of the nature/culture distinction, the division of the world into two distinct ontological domains– the domain of nature and the domain of the subject –and instead replace this division with collectives of human and non-human actors. This is quite a difference.

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In astronomy the presence of a planet outside our solar system or a black hole is determined not by direct observation, but rather by discrepancies in the movements of other bodies in the neighborhood or vicinity of the planet or black hold. Thus, for example, we do not infer the existence of a black hold by directly observing it– how could we given that its gravitational pull is so great no light can escape from it –but through the acceleration of stars in the course of their orbit. This acceleration indicates the presence of a powerful gravitational force, thereby allowing us to both infer the existence of a black hole at the center of our galaxy and how massive it is. Similarly, in the case of inferring the existence of exo-planets or planets outside of our solar system, we track the wobbles in the orbits of other stars, allowing us to infer the presence of a planet– usually gas giants like Saturn though recently we’ve discovered earthy or rocky planets –and the size of the planet. In short, we here arrive at the presence of an absence through inference from a presence.

In discussions surrounding object-oriented ontology, I sometimes get the sense that the term “realism” is equated with materialism. Thus, over at the excellent but difficult to navigate blog Nothing to Be Done, I today read the following:

I’m still not convinced that the phrase ‘object-oriented realist’ works. It’s the conflation of realism and objects which causes difficulties, Because I do not believe that realism can be extended into these areas. But still I’m looking forward to watching the argument develop.

When faced with a comment such as this, a comment that simply expresses a worry without providing any sort of “why” or reasoning behind that worry, I’m led to wonder why, precisely one has difficulty seeing how an object ontology can be consistent with a realism. Reflecting on this criticism, along with some criticisms that are sometimes leveled at speculative realism in general, the only conclusion I can come to is that realism is being equated with materialism. And here the materialism being equated with realism is not just any realism, but, I suspect (others can correct me if I’m mistaken), are rather contentious, tendentious, and suspect reading of quantum mechanics. The only conclusion I can come to is that if one somehow sees objects and realism as contradictory, then this is because they have drawn certain conclusions from quantum mechanics based on things such as Bell’s Theorem or quantum entanglement that are interpreted as suggesting that there are no objects.

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I’m up far too late, having worked all evening on my talk for the RMMLA. Winding down I came across Anodyne Lite’s terrific post meditating on political change and engagement. Anodyne writes:

Being a materialist, to my way of thinking, has always entailed the belief that some people most definitely have it better than others; that having nicer things, a more comfortable standard of living, access to the latest in medical treatments and technologies, and being born with the privilege afforded to certain classes but routinely denied others (along with the rights that tend to come along with this) certainly does make a difference in life. Being born privileged in the mind of a materialist does make your life qualifiably and quantifiably better than the life of someone else who doesn’t have the benefit of those same privileges. Perhaps the standard unit of measure is not necessarily “happiness”, but “comfort”, in this equation.
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Otherwise, one wonders, what is the point of pushing for revolution (or mutation, or change, whatever you want to call it) at all? If there is nothing necessarily better about having things, having a nicer home, having running water, a comfortable salary, and easy access to medical care, then why buck the system at all? If even the most privileged among us might, after a revolution, end up being just genuinely as sad and depressive as everybody was before, despite being very comfortable, what exactly is supposed to be the point of ushering in a “revolution”? Why bother? If “life sucks, then you die”—even if you’re white, rich, and can get SSRIs and free visits to the shrink on your awesome state-sponsored universal health coverage—should we seriously consider waging war (revolution, whatever) with only the promise of our own unhappiness to extend to others afterward?

Since I don’t add teleological/utopian nonsense to my materialism, I generally refuse to direct all of my thinking toward a future world where our political work will be accomplished, and there will be no need to push for change anymore. I’m sure there will always be a hegemonic superstructure, there will always be something to struggle against, there will always be an apparatus or power structure that needs dismantling and reconfiguring. Things can and they will get better, I’m convinced, even if they will never be perfect or entirely fixed.

Read the rest here.

One of the things I love about Anodyn’s writing on these sorts of issues is that she’s just so damned sensible. I know that “being sensible” is not generally counted as a virtue among leftists, that it’s immediately seen as being ideologically complicit or bowing to “capitalist reason”, but I do think these debates and theories could use a good dose of “sensibility”. I get the sense that what many of us are looking for is something more “sexy”, something “world historical”, something that has the sense of a secularized cosmic struggle and that therefore the “sensible” is systematically excluded because, well, it’s boring and requires attentiveness to concrete details. However, for this very reason the sensible becomes the truly radical because rather than maintaining particular structures in the manner of Hegel’s “beautiful soul“, it offers the possibility of producing real and meaningful changes.

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