Re: Materialism and Spirituality

The relationship between materialism on the one hand and
Foucault and post-structuralism more generally is quite complex and
important. And there are, of course, many forms of materialist
philosophy. There is, for example, a crude form of historical,
marxist materialism which claims there is a material base which
sets the conditions for reality (i.e, domination), but which also
produces illusionary forms of religion and ideology which hide or
veil this reality. The problem, of course, is that historical
materialism turns out itself to be an 'ideology', incapable of
consistently excluding the factors that it claims need to be
excluded for a truly materialist examination of society (things
such as context, meaning, etc). Its firmest proponents nonetheless
insist this is not the case. But Foucault's inversion of the
relation between words and things, Derridian deconstruction, and
most every pre-postmodernist critique of designative theories of
language, all work against such a materialist understanding.

There is also a philosophical materialism which contends that
there is an underlying material substrate in nature -- such as
Aristotle's formless matter. It is an underlying subject onto
which forms adhere. The problem that arises here involves the
relation between subject and predicate, for Aristotle is quite
clear that subject and predicate must be separable (conceptually if
nothing else -- see Aristotle's critique of Parmenides in Book I,
chapter 3 of the PHYSICS, what probably amounts to the oldest
surviving 'deconstruction' in Western philosophy). Furthermore,
Aristotle defines essence as form, meaning formula, meaning the set
of essential (not accidental) predicates adhering to a subject.
The problem is that essence is not something a subject HAS, but
what the subject IS, but if essence is defined by predication, then
it is other to the subject.

I'm not sure this is making much sense, but the point is that
this underlying materialist subject OUGHT to be bare of all
predicates, but if it is bare of predicates, it amounts to being a
non-being. Epicureanism responds to this problem by stripping
atoms of all qualities except shape and extension, but this really
represents only a minimum of attributes which a material subject
really ought not to have. A philosophical position that believes
in the 'existence' of a material substrate always ends up with this
problem -- that the 'really existing material', if its definition
is pursued rigorously, ends up being non-existent (hence Nietzsche
says that only unimportant ninnies need to believe in atoms

Foucault and post-structuralism more generally ends up
challenging both these materialist positions (and others, of
course, which I can't think of at the moment). And of course, this
produces the common and inane charges that Foucault and the gang
don't believe in 'reality', reduce everything to language, etc.
There are at least two fairly credible responses to these charges
(I'd welcome other possibilities). Which one you attribute to
Foucault probably says alot about how you read him in other

One response is to say that we're not denying that walls exist
and that you can run into them, but rather that there is a
difference between 'essence' and 'existence'. In other words, a
'stone' really exists, but whether it is a 'primitive tool', or a
'weapon', or a 'geological specimen', etc. -- in other words, its
'essence' -- is historically, contextually and linguistically
constituted. There are thus the things 'out there' and the
language through which we constitute them, which is a language of
differences that does not secure itself to a 'really existing'
referent. And the cruel response to anyone who insists this is
nonsense is to challenge them to think without using language.
There is thus brute existence and differential essence.

Another response is to suggest that 'existence', like
language, the psyche, etc., is differential too. This is an
approach certainly adopted by Deleuze, and by Nietzsche too (if you
use a Deleuzian or similar reading of Nietzsche). It involves a
move away from the language of 'material' and towards that of
'force'. For the problem with 'materialism' in general is that it
is incapable of treating entities relationally (i.e., Epicurean
atoms again -- they're solid billiard ball-like things which relate
only to themselves. This is, actually, a somewhat unfair reading,
since Lucretius presents some important ways in which atoms relate
to one another, though he still defines them primarily by their
'hardness'). A Nietzschean/Deleuzian force, on the other hand, is
defined essentially by its difference from other forces (as Derrida
treats language as constituted by differences only -- hence most of
what Derrida says about language can be precariously mapped onto
what Deleuze says about force and energetics, i.e., the same
notions of play and subversion apply). It should be noted at this
point how much modern science itself has made a similar move,
treating atoms as points of force. Physics itself really hasn't
been able to explain where mass 'comes from'.

Anyway, to follow the second path is to open up possibilities
for an 'active materialism' which can be attributed to Foucault,
again depending on how you read him. Foucault, of course, does not
abandon 'materialist' issues -- it would certainly be hard to deny
that the body is 'material'. But Foucualtian bodies are
constituted by various forces which nonetheless encounter
resistance, whose effect is always structurally incomplete, etc.

Regardless of the path chosen, the pre-packaged options given
to Foucault (you are either a materialist or an
idealist/spiritualist) end up being insufficient.

All for now.


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