Cheah, P.- Non-Dialectical Materialism (Article-2008)

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    PhengCheah

    Non-Dialectical Materialism

    I gave this essay the tongue-in-cheek title of non-dialec

    tical materialism''

    to

    counterpose what one might call the

    materialisms

    of

    Derrida and Deleuze with that

    of

    Marx.

    Marx himself never used the phrase dialectical material

    ism:' It was a phrase first used by Plekhanov to distin

    guish the Marxist approach to the sociohistorical process,

    which focuses on human needs and the means and meth

    ods

    of

    their satisfaction, from the teleological view

    of

    his

    tory in Hegelian idealism.

    But the concept was already

    implicit in the distinction Engels dtew between the meta

    physical mechanical materialism

    of

    the eighteenth century

    and the modem 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; modem materialism sees in it the process

    of

    evolution

    of

    humanity, and aims at discovering the laws

    thereof.'' Hence,

    modem

    materialism:' Engels wrote in

    Socialism:

    Utopian

    and Scientific, is essentially dialec-

    tic:

    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

    metaphysics-

    he

    had

    made

    it

    dia

    lectic;

    but

    his conception

    of

    history was essentially ideal

    istic. But

    now

    idealism was driven from its last refuge, the

    NON-DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM 71

    philosophy

    of

    history; now a materialistic treatment of history was pro

    pounded, and a method found

    of

    explaining man's 'knowing' by his 'be

    ing ,

    instead of, as heretofore, his 'being' by his 'knowing?

    3

    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

    immutable metaphysical substances, and, second,

    the determination

    of

    these processes

    as

    processes with a

    material

    existence

    tha t can be explained through empirical science.

    Regardless

    of

    Althusser's qualifications concerning

    how

    Marx inverts

    the Hegelian dialectic, the concept

    of

    negation

    as

    the source

    of

    actual

    ization remains a fundamental principle

    of

    Marxist materialism.

    4

    The de

    composition

    of

    immediately present reality into social processes and the

    imminence

    of

    the proletarian revolution as the radical transformation of

    existing social conditions are premised

    on

    Marx's understanding

    of

    mate

    rial existence

    as

    something created through the purposive mediation

    of

    human corporeal activity

    as

    this is historically conditioned. Marx sug

    gested tha t human beings indirectly produce actual material life when we

    produce our means

    of

    subsistence through labor. Material reality is there

    fore produced by negativity-'This is because Marx defined creative labor

    as

    a process

    of

    actualization whereby given realiry

    or

    matter

    is

    negated '

    through the imposition

    of

    a purposive formj 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 tha t form a system or

    totality.s The template and synecdoche for this system

    of

    reciprocally in

    terdependent relations

    is

    the

    vital body

    of

    the organism.

    As

    I have argued

    elsewhere, Marxism is irrigated by an ontology

    of

    organismic vitalism.

    6

    The labor of the negative remains

    of

    fundamental importance in the

    entire tradition of Marxist philosophy even when this power is no longer

    viewed

    as

    primarily manifested in corporeal labor

    but

    in the aesthetic

    sphere,

    as

    in thework

    of

    the Frankfurt School. Herbert Marcuse expresses

    this succinctly:

    .Art

    contains the rationality

    of

    negation.

    n

    its advanced

    positions, it is the Great Refusal

    the

    protest against that which is?

    7

    This

    shadow of negativity also animates the accounts of resistance and dyna

    mism in varieties

    of

    social constructionism and theories

    of

    performativity.

    n

    contradistinction, a nondialectical materialism

    is

    a materialism tha t

    no

    \

    longer grants primacy to the work

    of

    the negative and, indeed, treats

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    72 Pheng Cheah

    negativity as metaphysical in the same. way tha t dialectical materialism

    characterized mechanistic materialism and idealism

    as

    metaphysical. s

    we will see below, Derrida's delimitation

    of

    the metaphysics of presence

    includes Marxist materialism itself. There are important historical and

    political reasons for this non-dialectical tnm in materialism.

    What

    I wish

    to do in this

    essay

    however,

    is to

    elaborate

    on

    some

    of

    the key features

    or

    non-dialectical materialism's break with

    the

    concept

    of

    negation and some

    of

    its implications.

    r Materialism without Substance (Derrida)

    In Specters ofMar x (

    1994), Derrida spoke in passing

    of

    his "obstinate

    interest in a materialism without substance: a materialism

    of

    the khi ra for

    a despairing 'messianism? "

    8

    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 characteristically enig

    matic

    but

    suggestive comment that cautioned against the conflation

    of

    deconsrruction 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.'

    9

    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 logocenrric values,

    r

    "values associated with those

    of

    thing, reality, presence in general, sensible

    l

    presence, for example, substantial plenitude, content , referent, etc?' ( 64) .

    s

    long

    as

    matter

    is

    not

    defined

    as

    "absolute exterior

    or

    radical hetero

    geneity;' materialism is complicit with idealism. Bot h fall back

    on

    a ttan-

    scendental signified.

    Realism or

    sensualism

    :empiricism -

    re

    modifications

    of

    logocen

    ttism. . . . [T]he i g n i f i e ~ : m a t t e r ; \ i p p e a r s to me problematical only at

    -

    the moment when its reinscription cannot avoid malting of

    it

    a new

    fundamental pri..nciple

    which _

    by means

    of

    a theoretical regression,

    would be reconstituted i n t o ~ "ttanscendental signified?'l . It can

    always come to reassure a metaphysical materialism. It th;n becomes

    an ultimate referent, according

    to

    the classical logic implied

    by

    the

    value

    of

    referent,

    or

    it becomes an "objective reality'' absolutely "ante-

    NON DIALECTICAL

    MATERIALISM

    73

    rior" to any work of the mark, the semantic content

    of

    a form

    of

    _

    --- - -

    presence which guarantees the movement of the text in general from

    the outside. ( 65)

    In

    these tantalizing hints

    of

    what a deconsrructive materialism might

    involve, Derrida suggests tha t we might understand matter through the

    figure

    of

    the text i n general. This figure depicts the opening up

    or

    over

    flowing of any form of presence such that

    it

    becomes part of a limitless

    weave

    of

    forces

    or

    an endless process

    or

    movement

    of

    referral.

    In

    contta

    distinction, a metaphysical concept

    of

    matter regards materiality either

    as

    the endpoint

    of

    this movement

    of

    referral

    or

    as an external presence that

    sets offand secures this movement. Matter as presence is the arrestation of

    the text i n general. It is important to add here that this movement is not

    the "free play''

    of

    textual indeter