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21st century materialism » Introduction


– Null Traces, Real Effects [Nathan Brown]

“21st century materialism”: but if philosophy has no history, and if it has no object?

How could we approach, under the condition of Althusser’s well-known theses, the contemporary condition of materialism? “As philosophy has no object, nothing can happen in it. The nothing of its history simply repeats the nothing of its object.” Nothing can happen. Nothing repeats. These are themselves theses concerning the situation of philosophical materialism. What “happens” in philosophy is a perpetual conflict between opposing tendencies—materialism and idealism—and this conflict amounts to nothing insofar as it endlessly recurs. Philosophy is the “garrulous theatre” of an “eternal null inversion” through which the relation between matter and mind is rearranged. But if there is thus no history of philosophy, there is nevertheless a history in philosophy: “a history of the displacement of the indefinite repetition of a null trace whose effects are real.”

For Althusser, what is perpetually displaced is the line of demarcation between materialism and idealism, an antagonism that constitutes and exhausts the philosophical field. And in the mid-twentieth century conjuncture that he analyzed, what he called partisanship in philosophy, or “the class struggle in theory,” consisted in buttressing materialist philosophy against the hegemonic power of idealism, by which the former was “massively dominated.” Today the balance of power between these two positions has itself undergone an inversion. In the present conjuncture, it might seem that idealism is so massively dominated by materialism that the philosophical field has virtually collapsed into one of its two constitutive tendencies, such that the null trace which carves out a history in philosophy has come to displace itself entirely within the internal articulation of materialist positions. For how many novel projects in continental philosophy openly declare their “idealist” orientation? Even a figure like Badiou, who does not hesitate to affirm his allegiance to a more or less orthodox Platonism, carries out his program under the name of “the materialist dialectic,” and—perhaps more telling—the enemy against which he positions his enterprise is not some imposing contemporary renovation of idealism but rather “democratic materialism.” Even theorists of so-called “immaterial labor” lay claim to a materialist orientation. Today what Althusser called “the emptiness of a distance taken” by the materialist philosopher might seem to mark not so much a distance from idealism as the emptiness of the latter’s oppositional place.

From this perspective, the real effects of the null traces inscribed by novel philosophical projects would be internal to materialism; the “distance” that these open within the conjuncture would be a distance between materialist positions—of which there is no shortage. Thus a history in 21st century materialism would be inscribed between the positions staked out, for example, by Catherine Malabou’s neurological dialectics of plasticity, the Churchlands’ eliminative materialism, Ray Brassier’s nihilist physicalism, the Lacanian transcendental materialism extrapolated from the work of Slavoj Žižek by Adrian Johnston, the Deleuzian transcendental materialism associated with the journal Pli, Bernard Stiegler’s investigations of the mnemotechnics of tertiary memory, Antonio Negri’s Spinozist ontology of constituent power, varieties of biopolitical theory gleaned from Foucault via Giorgio Agamben, the rationalist phenomenology of Alain Badiou’s materialist dialectic, Quentin Meillassoux’s speculative materialism, Reza Negarastani’s petrophilosophical hermetics of “complicity with anonymous materials,” Gabriel Catren’s quantum mechanical speculative physics… And, to name three of our speakers at this weekend’s event: Peter Hallward’s efforts to rethink the conditions of a politically transformative materialism through a theory of dialectical voluntarism; Martin Hägglund’s incipient theory of arche-materiality; Miran Božovič’s excavation and reorientation of materialist mythoi in modern French philosophy.

This profusion of “21st century materialisms” calls our attention to another basic Althusserian precept: that philosophical “tendencies” are precisely tendencies insofar as they are never pure, but always internally divided by factional struggles and infiltrated by elements of their nominal antagonist. Hence the desire to formulate what one might call a generic materialism: one capacious enough to accommodate divergent projects under a single categorical condition, yet robust enough to firmly demarcate the limits of a distinctive philosophical orientation. This is what Lenin attempted a century ago in his 1909 intervention, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, by paring the constitutive criteria of materialism down to a bare minimum. Attempting to drain the “idealist swamp” into which he judged early 20th century physics to have fallen due to the supposed “disappearance of matter” from physical theory, Lenin insisted upon the fundamental compatibility of materialist philosophy with any and all developments in the physical sciences, an accord enabled by a strategic underdetermination of the philosophical category of matter. Citing Engels’ remark that “with each epoch-making discovery in the history of science, [materialism] has been obliged to change its form,” Lenin argues that

the sole ‘property’ of matter with the recognition of which materialism is vitally connected is the property of being objective reality, of existing outside of our cognition….The electron is as inexhaustible as the atom, nature is infinite, but it exists infinitely; and only this categorical, unconditional recognition of its existence beyond the consciousness and sensation of man distinguishes dialectic materialism from relativist agnosticism and idealism.

Whatever its shortcomings, what remains enticing about Lenin’s book is its proposition that materialism may be generic insofar as it is simultaneously dialectical and absolute: dialectical in its acceptance of the mutability of human knowledge and the relativity of any particular “state” of matter; absolute in declaring our capacity to posit the objective reality of matter in-itself; and generic insofar as the primary condition for the adequation of dialectical materialism with absolute objectivity is the rejection of any determinate substance.

As Graham Harman’s work suggests, however, the trouble with such a generic materialism is that it is difficult to differentiate from realism. And this is an urgent problem for our present prehension of the future of philosophy in that it touches upon the asymmetrical relation between speculative materialism and speculative realism.

Thus, if the interventions of Miran Božovič, Martin Hägglund, and Peter Hallward draw lines of demarcation between discrepant orientations within materialist philosophy, Graham Harman’s work suggests that the principle contradiction of the present philosophical field may pass between materialism and realism, the latter of which would thus displace the conjunctural position of idealism.

In all cases, it is the real effects of these traces and displacements—first and foremost their effects upon one another—that is the matter of concern this weekend.