diacritics, Volume 38, Numbers 1-2, Spring-Summer 2008, pp. 143-157(Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University PressDOI: 10.1353/dia.0.0050
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diacritics / springsummer 2008 143
NONDIALECTICAL MATERIALISMPHENG CHEAH
I gave this essay the tongue-in-cheek title of nondialectical materialism to counter-pose what one might call the materialisms of Derrida and Deleuze with that of Marx. Marx himself never used the phrase dialectical materialism. It was a phrase first used by Plekhanov to distinguish the Marxist approach to the sociohistorical process, which focuses on human needs and the means and methods of their satisfaction, from the te-leological view of history in Hegelian idealism.1 But the concept was already implicit in the distinction Engels drew between the metaphysical mechanical materialism of the eighteenth century and the modern materialism that arose in the wake of the critique of German idealism. Old materialism looked upon all previous history as a crude heap of irrationality and violence; modern materialism sees in it the process of evolution of hu-manity, and aims at discovering the laws thereof. Hence, modern materialism, Engels wrote in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, is essentially dialectic [Engels 698]. He further distinguished the materialist dialectic from the Hegelian dialectic in terms of its understanding of history as the history of class struggles, where social classes are the products of economic conditions: Hegel had freed history from metaphysicshe had made it dialectic; but his conception of history was essentially idealistic. But now ideal-ism was driven from its last refuge, the philosophy of history; now a materialistic treat-ment of history was propounded, and a method found of explaining mans knowing by his being, instead of, as heretofore, his being by his knowing [Engels 699]. Simply put, the two key features of the materialist dialectic are first, the understanding of nature and history as law-governed processes that can be rationally understood instead of im-mutable metaphysical substances, and, second, the determination of these processes as processes with a material existence that can be explained through empirical science. Regardless of Althussers qualifications concerning how Marx inverts the Hegelian dialectic, the concept of negation as the source of actualization remains a fundamental principle of Marxist materialism.2 The decomposition of immediately present reality into social processes and the imminence of the proletarian revolution as the radical transforma-tion of existing social conditions are premised on Marxs understanding of material exis-
1. By entirely eliminating teleology from social science and explaining the activity of social man by his needs and by the means and methods of satisfying them, prevailing at the given time, dialectical materialism for the first time imparts to this science the strictness of which her sis-terthe science of naturewould often boast over her. It may be said that the science of society is itself becoming a natural science: notre doctrine naturaliste dhistoire, as Labriola justly says [Plekhanov 20]. 2. If the Marxist dialectic is in principle the opposite of the Hegelian dialectic, if it is ra-tional and not mystical-mystified-mystificatory, this radical distinction must be manifest in its es-sence, that is, in its characteristic determinations and structures. To be clear, this means that basic structures of the Hegelian dialectic such as negation, the negation of the negation, the identity of opposites, supersession, the transformation of quantity into quality, contradiction, etc. have for Marx . . . a structure different from the structure they have for Hegel [Althusser 9394].
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tence as something created through the purposive mediation of human corporeal activity as this is historically conditioned. Marx suggested that human beings indirectly produce actual material life when we produce our means of subsistence through labor. Material reality is therefore produced by negativity. This is because Marx defined creative labor as a process of actualization whereby given reality or matter is negated through the imposi-tion of a purposive form. As a result of the complex development of forces of production, each immediately given object and also each individual or social subject comes into being only by being constitutively imbricated in a web of social relations that form a system or totality.3 The template and synecdoche for this system of reciprocally interdependent rela-tions is the vital body of the organism. As I have argued elsewhere, Marxism is irrigated by an ontology of organismic vitalism [Spectral Nationality, ch. 4].. The labor of the negative remains of fundamental importance in the entire tradition of Marxist philosophy even when this power is viewed as primarily manifested no longer in corporeal labor but in the aesthetic sphere, as in the work of the Frankfurt School. Herbert Marcuse expresses this succinctly: art contains the rationality of negation. In its advanced positions, it is the Great Refusalthe protest against that which is . This shadow of negativity also animates the accounts of resistance and dynamism in varieties of social constructionism and theories of performativity. In contradistinction, a nondialectical materialism is a materialism that no longer grants primacy to the work of the negative and, indeed, treats negativity as metaphysical in the same way that dialecti-cal materialism characterized mechanistic materialism and idealism as metaphysical. As we will see below, Derridas delimitation of the metaphysics of presence includes Marxist materialism itself. There are important historical and political reasons for this undialecti-cal turn in materialism. What I wish to do in this essay, however, is to elaborate on some of the key features of nondialectical materialisms break with the concept of negation and some of its implications.
Materialism without Substance (Derrida)
In Specters of Marx (1994), Derrida spoke in passing of his obstinate interest in a ma-terialism without substance: a materialism of the khra for a despairing messianism. [SM 16869]. Although he did not explicitly elaborate on what this materialism would look like, he had in fact already given some sense of it in a 1971 interview. When pressed insistently by two Marxists to specify his position on Marxism, Derrida made a charac-teristically enigmatic but suggestive comment that cautioned against the conflation of de-construction with materialism: It follows that if, and in the extent to which, matter in this general economy designates . . . radical alterity . . . then what I write can be considered materialist. [Positions 64]. His reticence in using the word matter, he added, was not idealist or spiritualist, but instead due to the insistent reinvestment of the term with logocentric values, values associated with those of thing, reality, presence in general, sensible presence, for example, substantial plenitude, content, referent, etc. [P 64]. As long as matter is not defined as absolute exterior or radical heterogeneity, materialism is complicit with idealism. Both fall back on a transcendental signified.
3. On the epigenetic character of labor as it generates an objective dialectical system, see Marx and Engels: individuals certainly make one another, physically and mentally, but they do not make themselves . Cf. Marx: Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited cir-cumstances with which they are directly confronted .
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Realism or sensualismempiricismare modifications of logocentrism. . . . [T]he signifier matter appears to me problematical only at the moment when its reinscription cannot avoid making of it a new fundamental principle which, by means of a theoretical regression, would be reconstituted into a transcen-dental signified. . . . It can always come to reassure a metaphysical materialism. It then becomes an ultimate referent, according to the classical logic implied by the value of referent, or it becomes an objective reality absolutely anterior to any work of the mark, the semantic content of a form of presence which guar-antees the movement of the text in general from the outside. [P 65]
In these tantalizing hints of what a deconstructive materialism might involve, Der-rida suggests that we might understand matter through the figure of the text in general. This figure depicts the opening up or overflowing of any form of presence such that it becomes part of a limitless weave of forces or an endless process or movement of refer-ral. In contradistinction, a metaphysical concept of matter regards materiality either as the endpoint of this movement of referral or as an external presence that sets off and secures this movement. Matter as presence is the arrestation of the text in general. It is important to add here that this movement of referral is not the free play of autoreferentiality. Der-rida immediately undermines such autoreferentiality by emphasizing the importance of materialism as a philosophy of the outside. It is important to understand the text as matter, he emphasizes, so as to prevent us from lapsing into a new idealism of the text as a self-interiority without an outside. For whether it is denigrated as contingent exteriority (as in Hegelian idealism), or celebrated as the actuality of sensuous corporeal existe