The conference was an absolute success. The quality of the papers and discussions, the broad range of topics which nonetheless converge in so many productive ways, the enthusiasm, the camaraderie, the tone and atmosphere, all simply astounding. I might do a recap post in the next few days, but for now I need to record a thought I had in response to Graham Harman’s wonderful paper. There he fleshed out his antipathy toward materialism as a philosophical doctrine, which in his account falls prey to a correlationist mixture of epistemological and ontological claims. While I broadly concur with the rejection of materialism as Harman characterizes it, I think this characterization misses a certain lineage of the term. When the recordings become available, you’ll be able to hear these problems raised, but here I want to flesh out my point a bit more than the question-answer format would allow.
This lineage is not the same as the one reaching back to the Pre-Socratics, one which Harman sees as generally continuous with contemporary variants of both scientific and ‘post-Marxist’ types. The latter category encompasses thinkers like Zizek, Badiou, and Meillassoux, who all endorse forms of ‘upward reduction’ of objects to their determination relative to thought (even if this is in the depersonalized form of mathematics or the symbolic order). In a sense, the Marxist tradition at large straddles both types: in differing measure it advocates a sort of vulgar scientism or determinism, and a characterization of the everyday in terms of ideological abstraction.
Graham described quite persuasively how this twofold character is rooted in the very earliest Greek philosophy, so I won’t recount it here. Yet there is another lineage that does not fall prey to either tendency, by Graham’s admission, and despite the above described compromised nature of Marxism, this second lineage originates in Marx himself. I’d like to argue that when Marx speaks of materialism, he is using it in this sense, one insulated from the first lineage (this is perhaps why Marx would eventually condemn his own dissertation on atomism as still ‘too bourgeois’).
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.
Now this does not imply that the content of philosophical theory is itself somehow determined according to its material/economic condition. Content is relatively autonomous in the regard, in that one can conceivably formulate the same philosophical position under very different socio-economic circumstances. Material conditions do nonetheless exercise certain constraints upon both philosophical practice and content, and this can be seen both in explicit cases of the prohibition of certain positions, and subtler cases in which a certain constitution of both academic and popular culture renders specific positions unpopular or even unthinkable. This under-determining constraint is classically referred to as determination in the last instance.
This notwithstanding, the material condition does not directly determine the content of theory. Or, to be more precise, while the content of such theories may be in principle explicable by way of some materialistic or naturalistic account, even if we cannot yet provide such an account, such explicability does not amount to justification for one’s commitment to specific theoretical claims. Justification can only be given in normative terms, owing to conformity to the fundamental norms under which any rational discourse is possible. In fact, when, in giving reasons, be it for a theoretical claim or any other activity, one principally refers not to one’s own autonomous assumption of responsibility as a rational subject, but to some heteronomous condition, in other words, when one considers oneself obligated not by virtue of some determination within the discursive space of rational agents, but by virtue of a material fact that, more than simply constraining possible actions, effectively decides ones actions itself, one has fallen prey to ideological obfuscation. Ideology is precisely this sort of misrepresentation of one’s free action as an expression of the agency of an inert material condition. And as a further twist of the knife, this sort of disavowal need not occur explicitly within the space of discourse: one can, for all intents and purposes, claim responsibility for one’s obligations and commitments, while nonetheless betraying the contrary in practice, acting as if one is bound by some purely fantasmatic necessity.
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).
The relation between philosophical practice and material condition is one in which the former is either complicit with and supportive of the latter, or indifferent (which amounts to passive complicity), or in which the former actively contests or challenges the latter to some degree. Materialist philosophy must first of all recognize the nature of its own situation in relation to its material condition, and address the thereby (often incidentally) politically committed character of its practice, no matter how apolitical its theory. (Here we should specify that this politically-inflected character is not unique to philosophical practice, but applies to productive practices writ large, including those of other theoretical disciplines like the sciences.) And secondly, it must evaluate whether or not this commitment ought to be maintained, or if on the other hand a change in practice is warranted.
So materialist philosophy (as opposed to ‘philosophical materialism’) is not itself a philosophical doctrine or position, at least not in the straightforward sense. Yet here we are obliged to indicate the limitations of the Marxian approach: the very distinction between material condition and the conditioned practice is itself a philosophical distinction, and in this regard meta-philosophy does not escape philosophy. It still begs the question of why we should understand the world through the material/practice dyad, a distinction itself produced through a certain practice, specifically a practice of philosophy as offering an authoritative interpretation or understanding of the world, even when it resorts to the meta-level that treats philosophy itself as an object within the world. Attempting to frame this practice in relation to its material condition is problematic for self-evident reasons.
This is clear when we reflect on the amphiboly within Marx’s work of material condition and economic re/production of that condition. In the above, I was speaking as if the two are interchangeable, and indeed, one gets the same impression from Marx himself. Yet the latter is different in kind; it is as much a practice as those constitutive of philosophy, even if it is broader and globally operative. We could even say that philosophical practice is a particular case of the broader economic praxis which generally determines the manner in which material conditions are effective. The difference between economic praxis, or the mode of production, and specific practices such as those of philosophy, is not between two different kinds of practice, but between the generic form of practice (practice here meaning specifically a mode of appropriation and use of material conditions) and a specific practice which must fall within those generic parameters. However philosophical practices make use of their material conditions, they must conform to certain criteria; without going into too much detail, they must treat these conditions as capital, and must either use them in such a manner that their value is continuously expanding, or at the very least, remaining stable. That philosophical practices are extremely difficult to effectively monetize, and hence render profitable, is one of the greatest threats to the discipline. In any case, the relation between generic and specific forms of practice, on the one hand, and generic and specific uses of material conditions, on the other, is something left relatively vague in Marx’s account.
This is where non-philosophy becomes relevant: the Marxian materialist treatment of philosophy becomes caught in the very trap it sought to disarm (that of confusing material conditions with their mode of appropriation; instead of specific modes, however, it confuses materiality in general with the generic mode of appropriation), and so what is required is its radicalization, or the transformation of the treatment of philosophical practice such that it does not simply reproduce this practice at a higher level. What is missing is a rigorous account of the manner in which the material conditions of capitalism are irreducible to their capitalist appropriation, and hence are capable of constituting the material conditions of communism. Hence, we must provide an account of not only materialist approaches to specific practices, but of a generic materialist practice that would disarm the ideological structure of capitalist practice tout court. This would result in a use of the (meta-)philosophical paradigm of materialism that does not reproduce the philosophical pretension of authoritative interpretation, but that no more renders this interpretation relative and indistinct. Rather, it determines this paradigm according to a Real condition that cannot be equated with any particular mode of production, sanctioning no authoritative characterization. Such a practice is already incongruent with capitalism as much as pre-capitalist modes, insofar as both depend upon determinations of propriety or ‘authoritative use’, whereas the non-philosophical transformation initiates a distinctly non-authoritative use without-propriety. Ideological forms of propriety claim an authority derived from their heteronomous determination by their material condition; the non-ideological suspension of propriety submits its authority to its real condition without the expectation of a renewed sense of authority. Autonomy in communism amounts to a non-authoritative submission to one’s real conditions, which in other words entails the recognition that no actions can be legitimately derived from those conditions, and hence all justification refers only to the collective determination of the rational community (not objective circumstances).
This treatment of the relation between Marxian materialism and non-philosophy is extremely provisional, and owes far more to my own hermeneutical hubris than to Laruelle’s treatment of Marxism (Introduction to Non-Marxism), which I’ve only recently started reading. This is why I’ve left it so sketchy. Nonetheless, the core point I want to drive home is that, while it is not itself unproblematic, Marx does offer a very different sense of materialism than the one rightly criticized by Harman, one which has massive consequences for philosophy, and for theoretical activity in general.