The uses of materialism

After the first session Nicky sent me some comments, I responded and then she responded. That is where we are now.  Comments welcome.


Nicola Sayers: When you talk about materialism, I get the sense that what you value in the term (and what Bloch values in the term) is primarily opposed to the fixity of Idealism.


Johan Siebers: Yes, but it is not the case that I reject all fixity, or that in the becoming that is matter there is not some sense of identity, or ‘rest’ – this is core aspect of the utopian in fact, Bloch calls it arrival. Cf Dante on hope in the Divina Commedia: it is not the case that in heaven, when we enjoy the beatific vision, we no longer hope. But it is a kind of hope that is already with what it hopes for, and yet continues to be hope, perhaps a kind of reflective celebration, a heart burning with happiness, which as such is ‘in movement’ even though it is not consumed by the fire (and then its inverse in hell of course).


NS: You seem to pit matter against form, and see matter as that which is outside of thought (not-thought), is individual, imperfect, and always becoming (i.e. carnate) and form, by contrast, as universal, perfect, and that which already is (real/has being). 


JS: Well, this is how I explained what I see as the basic idea of classical metaphysics (by which I mean the Plato-Aristotle-Aquinas tradition, roughly). I then said that Aristotle sees it this way as a critique of pre-socratic thought, and that by performing this critique the concept of ‘matter’ becomes available to do something else: to think, or name, the outside of thought for thought itself.


NS: What is being resisted, or disrupted, with this understanding of materialism, is that in claiming thought as that which is most real the Idealists do not allow for any real freedom, or the emergence of anything genuinely new.


JS: True, that is my claim. But of course others have said this too.


NS: Whether Platonic Ideas, which are already complete and completely Real, or the Hegelian Geist, which is yet to come in completeness but its realization is arguably in some sense pre-determined, the liberatory potential that you feel in materialism has to do with freedom, and possibility, against already static and ‘true’ ideas (which you might call Ideology, in so far as they claim universal truth-status which they do not deserve.)


JS: The ideological dimension is important. I think I equate idealism with reification (Verdinglichung). A non-reified understanding of form would see form as part of matter, or as borne out by matter.


NS: it’s not fixity you are resisting but reification. Which I suppose is similar in my head to a kind of fixity – I struggle really to understand the difference, except in that you don’t even want to reify the concept of ‘fixity’ (but then is the concept of ‘materialism’ not being similarly reified? Unless it is intended only to have a particular historically situated meaning?) It still feels like a resistance to any kind of ideological certainty, or surety – in other words anything other than the speculative/dialectical process? (On another note – just as form is borne out by matter, isn’t matter also borne out by form?)


NS: The ‘something’s missing’ (lack, or as zizek says the gap, the stain, the irresolvable hole within reality itself) is only outside ‘reality’ if ‘reality’ is identified with Ideas (i.e. perceived reality)


JS: I would not accept this equation. For the classical philosophers ideas are forms, not (only) perceptions. The lack is indeed part of the real, and it is for example what makes ‘ perception’, understood ontologically as a distance that is also in some sense traversed, possible in the first place. The lack is the origin of subjectivity.


NS: It is a hole in our seemingly fixed ‘reality’, but a reaching out towards the really Real (which is always necessarily only becoming.) 


NS: In the book you sent me the other day (The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism), I felt that they were using the term speculative materialism in a slightly different way.


JS: Yes.


NS: They seem to identify materialism more with Realism, and with the possibility of asking (and answering?) ontological questions about reality itself, independent of human thought.


NS: If the materialism you describe aims to disrupt Idealism –


JS: to put it in dramatic terms, I see idealism as the original sin of the mind, complete with its ‘felix culpa’,


NS: -the materialism they describe seems to be targeted at disrupting postmodernism (the focus on discourse, text, culture, consciousness, power etc. that typifies the linguistic turn.) Both ‘materialisms’ (yours and theirs) are concerned with that which is not-thought, but the motive seems to be quite different. If yours opposes the fixity of permanent ideas (as in some way ideological or oppressive), theirs opposes the exhaustion and pointlessness of getting stuck in permanent critique of linguistics (only able to highlight and contour the limits of our thought) that has dominated recent philosophy. Your enemy is traditional idealism (an ontological claim that all that ultimately exists is mind/thought/spirit), and their enemy is correlationism (Meillassoux) (an epistemological claim that all we have access to is the correlation between thinking and being, so we can only concern ourselves with this.) 


JS: Yes in a way that is true. But I see the aspects of postmodernism that are to be rejected as forms of idealism. For me postmodernism is idealism: but now the fixedness presents itself as ‘difference’. I think it is naive, in the face of this, to just claim that you can go and talk about reality itself again, as philosophers, and ignore the problem of the relation between idealism and realism/materialism. That leads to idealism coming in through the back door as it were, as you can clearly see in Harman with his theory of the vicarious body, which he needs but which amounts to a reinvention of the platonic transcendent now localised inaccessibly within each object (another unreflected term in many of these authors) instead of in a heaven of ideas. And it is also abundantly clear in Meillassoux, whose position is a kind of reification, treating as real, of a logical argument: he moves on the – Hegelian – equation of being with logic and I think is therefore in the end unable to resist the ‘ideologification’ of his position. You can see this in his superficial understanding of ideology, which he calls pseudo-rationality: something is presented as natural, reasonable, necessary, but in fact is not. This is not untrue, but the point of the question of ideology why this happens in the first place, and also why the ones who present something as being thus natural, reasonable, necessary, don’t see what they are doing. As Marx already said about ideology ‘they know not what they are doing’.


NS: They are, ultimately, rejecting Kant (and his influence on philosophy and in bringing about a postmodern/linguistic turn  – I can never know reality in itself), and what they want is epistemological, to be able to know and talk about reality itself. You are, ultimately, rejecting Hegel (or Plato) (and, it seems, not so much their influence on philosophy, which is of course huge, but more the aspect of our experienced ‘reality’ that they are concerned with, and the unduly influence that thought/Ideology/unfree/fixed/Big Other still has in determining human behaviour and thought) In plain terms, you want us to be free to liberate ourselves from oppressive ideas and structures (and create the genuinely new), and they want us to be free from the petty squibbles and trapped-ness of postmodernism and to be able to once again turn towards bigger questions about reality itself. 


JS: Yes, but in order to create the genuinely new you also have to free yourself of those quibbles so you can turn to the big questions again – and turning towards the big questions means, in my view, coming to see that the point of philosophy is not to interpret but to change the world.


NS: This seems to be very central – in your view is Idealism, as well as being guilty of reification, also guilty of turning philosophy purely into interpretation? To articulating the thought, instead of changing the praxis?


JS: In that sense there lingers a postmodern trait even in the new realists, they are happy to remain contemplative, very happen even, for they reject not only the linguistic turn but also the political dimension of philosophy.


NS: Yes, I definitely agree with this. Although, are they happy with it, or just stuck in it? I think a lot of what ‘metamodernism’ (and the other theories of this name) are trying to get at is a longing to move beyond contemplative/linguistic stuck-ness. How successful they are is another question, but it doesn’t feel as if they are ‘very happy’ to remain contemplative. I think more that there is a longing for move beyond it, but they don’t know how. As you say, above (in criticism of Latour et al) – its naïve to just start talking about ‘reality’ again, so what are you to do? What options are there? We can’t go back, like before ‘the fall’ (before postmodernism, or perhaps even before Kant, and Freud!), but don’t know how to go forward. I also think e.g. Zizek, if he is to be counted among the new realists/materialists, appears to want very much to bring about actual and political change (again, his success or otherwise is questionable). One other question – at a very basic level – are speculative theorists any more successful in using philosophy to change the world? Or is it just a way of saying that philosophy should change the world, but still within the larger cultural ethos of inaction?


JS: They are content to revel in the dark ontology of everything that has a name, and can in that sense by criticised for a reifying stance themselves, now extended to brands and film/comic book characters, the products of late capitalism –well that is a bit of an exaggeration, but you see what I mean. I also do not want to reject Kant, but as Whitehead, see his philosophy as ‘a distorted version of what should have been his main topic’. In that sense I do accept Hegel’s critique of Kant.


NS: Thirdly, there seems also to be within this group of ‘materialists’ the object-oriented ontology of Latour/Harman et al, which again has a slightly different concern. Theirs is almost a pan-psychism (and not in some ways dissimilar to Teilhard). What they want is to reject the primacy which has been accorded to human thought/intention, and to assign agency in some way to all objects (not just human). It’s a kind of anthodecentrism, which, yes, rejects the Kantian trap (they don’t even seem to concern themselves with whether we can or can’t know anything about things-in-themselves, but rather they just go on to describe a new kind of ontology in which all objects – human and other – act on each other in different ways. 


JS: I also subscribe to such a version of panpsychism, everything is alive.


NS: My first question, then, is whether I have understood what you (and these other two types of speculative materialism that I’ve identified) are, very broadly, getting at!


JS: I think it is not quite correct to put the whole burden on ‘becoming’ vs ‘fixed’. In between the two lies the not-yet. In an ontology of the not-yet both ‘form ‘ and ‘matter’ are redefined in such a way that they are no longer exclusively each other’s other,


NS: Yes – this I see! But if both ‘form’ and ‘matter’ are being dialectically and never-ceasingly redefined, then why prioritize the name of ‘matter’? Isn’t it a mutual relation?


JS: but also not, as in Aristotle, that the form of matter (the soul!) is already defined, and just has to actualise itself. Becoming versus fixity as a rigid (!) distinction has to be loosened up itself, so that the two sides can be seen to interpenetrate each other. This is the form of the speculative proposition.


NS: My second question is about your own identification with materialism as ‘the only, or best, philosophy.’ I suppose (and I’m being very basic here) what I identify with in Bloch is the transformative power that a reaching out from Subject-Object, from Self-World, from Here-Not-Yet entails (i.e. the genuinely utopian, in his view.) To my mind, this offers a kind of ethics which is along the Edward Said/Paul Tillich/Emmanuel Levinas tradition in that it reaches towards the Other, or towards reality, and in doing so necessarily destabilizes the cartesian subject/ego.


JS: I said that somewhat provocatively to indicate that ‘philosophical truth’ has to perform the kind of reflection with respect to its own status that I tried to highlight by talking about the meaning of the concept of matter.


NS: Again, I totally see that philosophical truth has to always reflect on and dialectically renew its own status. I suppose the bit which still confuses me is why matter is the sole locus for this to happen (more on this below)


NS: I also, as you know, identify with the sense I get in him that the universe itself has some kind of agency (in the Aristotelian/Teilhardian/Whiteheadean and perhaps also Latourean way – not to mention mystics such as Blake and others) and that for us to be utopian/transformed/alive/meaningful requires engagement with the question that the universe asks of us, and we of it. In some sense, I like all three of the aspects I’ve identified with the 3 materialisms (your liberatory potential, the possibility of asking bigger questions than postmodernism allows, and the putting back of human thought in a larger and alive cosmic structure) but I don’t, for some reason, instinctively identify with the term ‘materialism.’


JS: The term is a problem and I don’t think it is necessary. But you have to say something (and that is not a trite or trivial point). But if someone were to say – why do you need that term at all?- then I don’t really have a good answer – someone, a Kantian, who also did not like the term, asked me that in Bochum over the summer. I felt I would have said the same thing not too long ago, was glad I was no longer in that place, but not quite sure how I had moved on. For a long time I rejected the term because of these familiar objections to it. I remember even writing down exactly this point in my thesis, in a short footnote discussion of Galen Strawson’s ‘ monism’, saying that it doesn’t matter whether you call his position (panpsychism) materialist or idealist. But have warmed more and more to the term as I began to see it more as a deliberately provocative term, a rhetorical operation almost to get out of a particular view of philosophy as being concerned with ‘getting it right’ with respect to positions one might entertain with respect to the relation between thought and reality; in our context also as a way to avoid the unholy alliance between idealism and the linguistic turn. You have to be able to say “I am talking about the real world”, about things themselves apart from how we think about them, and the word for that, more than ‘realism’ is ‘materialism’. It connotes localisation, concreteness, historical determinedness, things that matter. And: materialism, matter, materia connotes the maternal, the giving-birth of forms, matter as the womb of form, which is how Bloch hears the term.  So the term ‘matter‘ is better to indicate an orientation towards the world, which includes the level of the unnameable, that which escapes conceptualisation, than the term ‘reality’ or ‘ realism’. The word, when heard in that way, is alive and is a way of talking about something that I find can hardly be said in other words. But I don’t think you have to use the term. Why do you feel a resistance towards it? That is an interesting question I think.


NS: Good question! I suppose that what is important to me in all you have said is (a) real existential freedom – as Bloch says, the fist! and (b) the need to, as you say, not reify certain ideas – i.e. to remain in a dialectical state. But I suppose that I think that real freedom requires thought. Not in the limiting sense of a pre-defined linguistic structure or Big Other – but new thought. As Hegel says, consciousness breaking out of its own limitations. Dying a death at its own hands. But it’s still thought which enables this kind of freedom. It doesn’t really resonate with me that it is in that which is not-thought, or outside of thought, that real freedom lies. Outside of the Big Other, yes. Outside of fixed ideologies, yes. But not outside of all thought. Outside of all thought brings to mind, to me, a kind of pre-conscious baby state. Or a Buddhist Nirvana. But I see the freedom required to take up with a fist the challenge or question the universe poses to us, as more conscious – and harder – than this. And as such, it still requires thought – only new thought. Agency, or Subjectivity, needs to break free of itself but that feels a bit different to me from freedom residing entirely in the lack, or in that which is outside of thought. That’s the first reason. I think Hegel is only problematic if you perceive him as saying that the eventual realization of Geist is inevitable, and as such taking away the force of human responsibility. But it isn’t problematic, to me, that it is in the realm of thought or consciousness that emancipation becomes possible.

The second reason I feel resistant to the term materialism, I suppose, is that it seems in some sense to reside with ‘object’ rather than ‘subject’. (Perhaps this is mistaken of me). What I like, instinctively, about the term Idealism though – is that it prioritizes spirit/Geist/consciousness/subjectivity/agency/intention. Since I, too, am somewhat of a pan-psychist (if not quite in thinking everything in the universe is conscious, certainly in thinking that there is agency and intention in the universe) then Idealism seems somehow to capture the sense of everything (not inevitably! And in a multitude of possible manifestations!) becoming conscious. And the things that I like about speculative materialism (in any of the three ways I defined it) are mostly captured in the ‘speculative’ more than in the concept of ‘matter’. I see that you use it to orient towards the unnameable or that which escapes conceptualisation (a very mystical idea, which I see the power in) – but I also see the value in new forms of conceptualisation, or new namings. So perhaps it isn’t a resistance to materialism, so much as a resistance to prioritizing materialism over idealism, when – in a truly dialectic movement – both seem like they would be involved in an ongoing interplay?


Where I most see the value in being beyond-thought is in the move against postmodernism, so not being stuck simply in linguistic structures. But this is more to me about Realism than materialism – about wanting to talk about the Real – but the real is, I believe (and perhaps it is ultimately a faith, maybe Kant was right!) conscious, or at least has the capacity to be so, and a place where freedom resides – and this is also a kind of thought.


NS: It seems to me that these other questions are as much to do with fixity as they are to do with the divide between thought and being (to bring materialism/Idealism back to its most basic.) In your version of materialism, I don’t see that Idealism (identity between thought and being) necessarily implies fixity.


JS: Neither do I. I don’t think, as I said, that fixity is the real problem. That is almost a reified version of the the real problem or point. As I find much process philosophy to become shallow when all they have to say is, ‘oh, let’s be more dynamical’. No! Remember the opening of Geist der Utopie, we have to become life’s fist: strong, fixed, but also moving, changing things, transgressing, alive. My materialism is not for nothing a dialectical materialism. Process and determination, as Whitehead calls it ‘decision’, go hand in hand.


NS: Thought can, after all, evolve?


JS: Dialectic.


NS: And if I understood the Zizek chapter that you asked us to read, it seemed to me that he was defending Hegel against the idea that everything in his system is pre-determined, and actually saying that for Hegel it wasn’t predetermined. So if you can be Idealist and also allow for potentiality, then doesn’t the idea of matter lose some of its provocative power?  


JS: I don’t think Zizek is right. I do think the opposition between idealism and materialism can and must itself be sublated (but not in the way in which analytical philosophy and postmodernism have done this, by saying the opposition does not reflect a genuine philosophical question). Hegel is also much more of a realist/materialist than is often thought, that is true and Bloch as highlighted it a long time ago already.


NS: My third question was just about the idea that matter is the locus of possibility, and form is the locus of actuality. Again, I see how this is the case according to a pre-defined Idealist philosophy which posits form as ‘that which is real.’ But on another level, I think matter is that which is actual (the material world is already and is always changing and becoming). And Ideas or thoughts, can be both actual or possible. I see the distinction between that which is possible and that which is actual as a crucial one, but don’t really understand why only matter is possible and thought/form is actual – to me it seems as though both thought and matter can be both possible or actual. 


JS: Aristotle sees it this way. Matter is always being-in-potency, form, the formed, is being-in-act or actuality (energeia). Of course thoughts can be possible, and often it is by thinking a possibility first that we can later come to make it a reality. That is perhaps more a case of imagination.


JS: So I don’t think the word ‘matter’ or ‘materialism’ is necessary, but I use it for a particular purpose.



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