Mirage1Materialism 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.

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This article by Clive Hamilton, I think, marks what is at stake in the New Materialisms and some of the Speculative Realisms.  The issue is not some hackneyed attempt to champion the sciences and objectivity over meaning, but to draw attention to the material dimensions of how we dwell and live.  Today, more than ever, we need to reflect on whether the tools of deconstruction, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, Marxist critical theory, and semiotics are adequate to thinking the world we dwell in and how these theoretical orientations might erase the fundamental materiality of existence.  This erasure is so thorough that it’s difficult to even discern when working within these theoretical frames for, after all, one can only see what one can see, and being is here reduced to meaning.  This critical reflection is not undertaken to erase these methodologies– quite the contrary –but to mark their limits, note their blindspots, and develop a theoretical frame capable of both preserving what is vital in these forms of thought and of moving beyond those limitations.  This is what is at stake in the critique of correlationism.  Materiality is not phenomenality, a lived experience, a meaning, nor a text– though it can affect all of these things –but something with its own dynamics and forms of power.  We need a form of theory capable of thinking that and that avoids the urge to treat everything as texts, meanings, and correlates of intentions.

interior-nature-plant-art-design-architecture-living-roomI will be giving a talk entitled “Machine-Oriented Architecture:  Oikos and Ecology” for the Architecture Lecture Series before School of Architecture at Texas A & M on March 9th, at 5:45 PM.  Machine-oriented architecture explores architecture from the standpoint of operations, acts, and movements, treating the building as an entity that functions, distributing the forces of the cosmos and creating interfaces through the formation of membranes– physical and semiotic –between the broader ecology of the outside and the ecology of the inside.  Machine-oriented architecture traces the way in which, through material and semiotic operations, oikos acts on plant, animal, and human bodies, forging, as outputs, various forms of affectivity, life, and interrelations that reflect everything from the living’s relation to the cosmos, to our relations to economy, each other, gender, etc.  As is so often the case with the venues where I’m asked to speak and the themes upon which I’m asked to think, I clearly am not an expert on architecture, nor even a dilettante, so hopefully my audience will find something of value in my thoughts.  I’m truly honored to be given the opportunity to think on such matters, no matter how crudely I do so. Please join us if you’re able.

Despite his greatness in so many other areas, there’s a deep shame in Wittgenstein’s declaration that philosophy is what happens when language goes on holiday.  Far from being a mark of shame from which philosophy should be cured, the proper response is “yes!”  In philosophy, as in the sciences, mathematics, the arts, and poetry, there is an athleticism of language, an inventiveness that challenges and disrupts what the analytics call “ordinary language”.  Philosophy breaks language from its moorings, sending it flying in new trajectories.  In this respect, it is what Deleuze and Guattari called a “minor language” and stuttering.  It’s left handed.  To be sure, philosophy draws on the connotations of ordinary language, but only to send them flying in new and unheard of directions.  When Plato utters “eidos” it becomes something other than mere shape.  When Aristotle utters the term “category”, it becomes something other than an accusation.  When Heidegger utters “Dasein” it comes to mean something other than mere “existence”.  All of these connotations are drawn upon, but they become something quite different.  Maybe this is why the language of philosophy is always a bit grotesque and shares a resemblance to science fiction; even before science or fiction existed.  There is no criticism more shameful in philosophy than the criticism that this is not how people normally use these terms.  Quite right.  And in this philosophy resembles poetry– as Bertrand Russell noted –while also being a sort of mathematics or science.  Philosophy is one way in which ordinary language– which is one form power takes –is made to stutter.  Like the poet, but a poet that has a taste for mathematical demonstration and formalism, good philosophy strives to be tectonic with respect to the plates that compose ordinary language.

Initially the shift to conceiving societies and cultures as ecologies seems slight.  After all, in the traditions of social and political thought, societies have largely been thought both in terms of relations and processes.  If ecology consists not in thinking nature but in thinking beings of any sort in terms of relations, then it would seem that describing culture as an ecology changes nothing.  And in some ways this is true.  All that was there before in social and political thought remains.  It is not so much that something is lost with this move as the domain of entities relevant to culture is significantly expanded.

In Book III of the Ethics, Spinoza resolved to treat the emotions as phenomena of nature and to investigate them accordingly.  Something similar happens when cultures are treated as ecologies.  Thinkers such as Latour have argued that modernity is based on a split between nature and culture.  Nature is one kingdom, with its own laws or principles; and culture is another kingdom with its own laws and principles.  Generally nature is treated as the domain of causality, while culture is treated as the domain of meaning, the sign, or the signifier.  Under this model, investigating nature amounts to investigating causes, while investigating society means investigating meanings.  A wall is thus erected between nature and culture.

Like Spinoza, I want to investigate culture as a phenomena of nature (though as I’ve argued elsewhere and can’t get into here, this means transforming our understanding of nature).  Put a bit differently, in thinking cultures as ecologies I want to think societies in nature.  This doesn’t mean that I want to reduce things such as signs, signifiers, and meanings to biology and neurology like the evolutionary sociologist or something silly like that.  Meaning has its own manner of functioning as meaning; and while dependent on biology so far (perhaps AI’s are on the way that operate with meaning), cannot be explained in terms of biology.  Meaning has to be understood as meaning qua meaning, according to its own principles.

No, understanding culture as in nature means something quite different than giving reductive explanations of all cultural phenomena.  It means breaking down that wall between nature and culture.  Culture isn’t just meaning, but involves all sorts of natural elements as well without which it couldn’t exist as it does.  In other words, ecological conceptions of society are premised on the thesis that there are certain material conditions for the existence of culture.  Here we must take care, for “material conditions” immediately brings to mind Marx and his famous account of production as the ground of society and the forms society takes.  These are, indeed, material phenomena, yet in the ecological conception of society the material conditions of culture are not anything themselves produced by culture; at least initially.  These material conditions include things such as the existence of an atmosphere, fauna and animals of all sorts, energy in the form of calories and of others sorts to power tools, gravity within a certain range, temperature within a certain range, etc.

I am not, of course, saying anything new in pointing all this out.  Other theorists have articulated it as well.  Then again, here I am not interested in saying something new but in saying something true and playing some small role in drawing the attention of others to it.  Cultures, like organisms, I want to say, are material beings that interface with a broader physical world, both drawing matters from that world and releasing matters into the world.  And here I wish to say these material factors exercise a power of their own on the form that social relations take that often goes unspoken in our critical theories.  Yes, meaning is a key component of culture.  Yes meaning is something we need to investigate in our social and political thought.  However, we also need to attend to this broader dimension embodied in technologies of all kinds, infrastructure, features of geography, and the larger natural world in which cultural worlds are embedded in manners similar to Amazon rain forests and coral reefs.

220px-Lead_Photo_For_Category_(mathematics)0-41319275833666325Perhaps “relation” is the wrong word for what is thought in ecological ontology.  There’s something too ghostly, too incorporeal, about relations.  Everything in the entire cosmos could be still and there would still be relations.  Things would be to the left or right or one another, so many miles or light years apart, larger and smaller, and so on.  Yet ecology, above all, thinks beings in interaction and becoming.  While interaction is a form of relation, the concept of interaction captures a certain fleshiness of how beings hang together in ecologies that risks being lost with the signifier “relation”.

Beings in ecologies interact.  This is a mundane and obvious observation, yet maybe one we don’t often pause to think through.  First, even at a distance, there is always a materiality of interactions.  Every interaction requires flesh.  There are no incorporeal or ghostly interactions.  Two entities at a distance might interact.  Indeed, ecology often and primarily thinks interactions between beings at a distance.  The novelty of its thought consists in showing or tracing how two entities that appear to be unrelated– say frogs and cars –in fact affect one another in an assemblage.  Their interaction is not, of course, an immediate one.  It is not a direct touching.  Rather, there is a fleshy or material mediator that passes between them, surmounting time and distance:  the car’s carbon emissions.

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Zizek is offering a course on New Materialism and my Democracy of Objects at Princeton in April.  I think I just entered nervous breakdown territory.  It looks like it’s open to the public, so if you’re in the area, check it out.


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