It just so happens I did an edit on an article I wrote on Adrian Johnston’s Badiou, Zizek, and Political Transformations today, then turned my attention to reading Malabou’s Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing, and then a couple of chapters of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, and each claim to be a materialist. Bennett can lay the easiest claim, since she’s a self-described monist, but Johnston and Malabou are formalists in the strict sense. In fact, Malabou’s whole project centers around her claim that form has been too quickly written off as “metaphysical” by Derrida, Heidegger, et al. And Johnston offers what he calls a “transcendental materialism.” Malabou and Johnston are writing a book together, so maybe they’ll hash out this better, but I think the term is really just a place holder for “I’m not an idealist.” And I just don’t know what explanatory power “materialism” has any more.
Now, of course, there’s a history of a certain “dialectical materialism,” and I think this drives these uses—and in that sense, who isn’t a materialist in thinking that history makes men as much as the inverse? But Johnston isn’t a monist, and certainly, neither is Malabou, who offers what I take to be the clearest formalism of any philosopher writing today. Yes, she discusses brain matter, but always in terms of its “assembling” and mutational qualities, and she’s not offering causal priority to the “matter” itself. It’s not that I’m not open to Malabou stipulating that her notion of “plasticity” exceeds (or transforms!) the form/matter binary, but again, what explanatory power does this begin to offer?
I write this because I think I would reflexively say that I’m a materialist for a couple of years, but what is that saying? What kind of material would we even be talking about? Even if I was the worst physical reductionist, what am I going to peg as the ultimate matter of res? One argument in stuff I’m working on now is that all the “metaphysics of presence” critiques are better understood as arguments against reductivism—taking one particular idea or form and using it as pivot point for the whole of being. Thus, though I haven’t previously particularly liked the world “realism” Graham Harman’s right when he writes somewhere that materialism is a reductionism. That’s not to say I don’t think matter, uh, matters, but an attunement to the matter of materialism means thinking an ecology of things irreducible to one particularized form, which would mean a deflationary move effacing the multivalent reality of things. What am I missing?