Deviating from the straight line

How does spirit arise out of matter? The dialectical materialist refuses this question – matter and spirit are, if anything, two moments of a dialectical relation, which can perhaps only properly be said to be a relation in being itself. But – and this is the point we made on Monday – ‘being’ is not some form or the act of being: that is a reification of, ultimately, the notion of totality, a notion which must both be affirmed and kept at bay. This will concern us more when we read Eckhart, and his thoughts on analogy.

But the dialectical materialist has something interesting to say about matter and spirit. Marx, in the first chapter of his doctoral dissertation on Epicurus, discusses Epicurus’ well-known thesis that the world was created when the atoms started to decline from the straight line in which they initially are falling down. The collisions and swirls caused by the deviation from the straight line set the world in motion. Marx sees in this idea of deviation a dialectical principle of negation, and in the subsequent collision a negation of negation, and hence an affirmation. The affirmation is the affirmation of resistance. The first moment of formed reality is resistance, which arises out of the negation of the straight line in which the atoms fall, which he conceives of as itself the negation of the individual atoms: for they all fall in a straight line, and to that extent they are indistinguishable. Since there is no transcendent reality against which the atoms can form their resistance and affirm their individual atomic realness, their reality, they have to do so in confrontation with each other. This means that in the deviation and collision the atoms become each other’s other –  a basic figure of recognition and, for Marx here, the origin of immanent subjectivity, of consciousness, and he even says of Geist (spirit).

It is easy to see this early text as an attempt to read Hegelian dialectic into Epicurus’ philosophy taken as an extended metaphor, a parable of the spirit. But Marx intends something else, not a metaphor but an analogy, perhaps. The origin of consciousness is resistance, and resistance is a collision, something material, even if we have to here understand that word not in its customary, metaphysical sense as whatever is the other of form or spirit, but analogically as the moment outside of thought out of which thought arises, the original transgression.

Bloch often quotes Schiller’s lines from Wallenstein: Thoughts live together easily / but hard in space things collide.


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