“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Trouble with Materialism

As I walked towards the car I formed a question for the brilliant Adrian Johnston, who's visiting today (isn't that always the way).

How come we can't tell scientists what to do? How come our position as humanists is simply to interpret science?

(Especially if the point is not to interpret the world but to change it.)

Because though he put a lot of Hegelian bells and whistles on it, the final point was: science reports, humanists decide (to parody the jingle of Fox News).

Why? Because in the end, Johnston smuggled ontic prejudices, scientistic factoids, into his argument that was supposedly so ontological.

Exhibit A: neuroplasticity. This may tells us, argued Johnston, that within matter itself is some kind of emergent something-else.

What if it were telling us something different? I don't know exactly what. But doesn't this factoid assume that first there is matter, then there is some strange autopoetic business that goes on within that, ontologically “after” matter?

What if, for instance, it was a function of the fact that THERE IS NO MATTER (devoid of form)? A la object-oriented ontology.


Angie said...

"How come we can't tell scientists what to do? How come our position as humanists is simply to interpret science?"

Yes, (life) sciences need (continental) philosophy, dialectics, etc., whether they admit to it or not.

Here's Donna Haraway being about as Hegelian as one can get:

"the shape and temporality of life on earth are more like a liquid-crystal consortium folding on itself again and again than a well-branched tree. Ordinary identities emerge and are rightly cherished, but they remain always a relational web opening to non-Euclidean pasts, presents, and futures. The ordinary is a multipartner mud-dance issuing from and in entangled species" (Haraway, 32, /When Species Meet/).

Timothy Morton said...

Peter Gratton (alas he has no google-ID (!) wrote to me:

It just so happens this weekend I gave a paper (mentioned on the blog) that mentioned both you (less than I initially though, though, since I spent way too long setting up Malabou to critique her immanentism) and plasticity. I'm with the trace structure (the OOO peeps could use withdrawal) over plasticity. The paper is a bit messy, but you'll see at the end (again, rough, but I think the overall point is clear) I really think it's time for now to retire "world" as a concept. (It operates like nature, I think.)

I know that Johnston is getting plasticity from Malabou, but her not true. To the point of your post: it's bad enough we've become stenographers for science, but it's bad stenography. Plasticity doesnot operate on its own: cochlear implants demonstrate the prosthesis (literally!) for certain forms of plasticity to work (thus my discussion of deconstruction's trace in the paper). When Malabou's book came out a couple of years ago, I dug into a couple of books on brain plasticity and if it sounded in her work too-good-to-be-true, it's because it was.

I'll make a deal with Malabou (I admire Adrian's work, so I won't include him in this): I'll gladly become a stenographer for the sciences when these people stop hitting me over the head with what you call "factoids" taken out of a whole context of concepts.

Robert Jackson said...

Echoing Zizek and Harman (admittedly for different reasons), if you are materialist, you have to admit through and through that almost everything does not exist.

I've pressed a few materialists on this point. But reducibility is nowhere near a good enough reason on its own.