The Red Critique


"Theory Too Becomes A Material Force": Militant Materialism or Messianic Matterism?

Stephen Tumino


Currently a "material turn" is underway in the humanities away from the dogma of textual immanence and the "materiality of the signifier" (De Man) in the attempt to address the growing inequalities forming in the aftermath of the crisis of global capitalism. And yet, what is taken to be "material" in the new materialisms—whether it be Derrida's "wholly other," or Deleuze's vitalist "immanence," Hardt and Negri's "multitude," or Zizek's "materiality of ideology," Haraway's "affective consubstantiality," or the "autonomy of the nonhuman" (Massumi) and, the "vibrant" (Bennett) "agency of matter" (Bolt, Iovino, Oppermann)—conforms to Derrida's call for a "materiality without materialism and even perhaps without matter" ("Typewriter Ribbon" 281), that is, the material as that which "exceeds" and "resists" the conceptual. What is material for Derrida is the priority of alterity within iteration that displaces explanation of the actual. Derrida makes "matter" and the undoing of "materiality" in its general sense as movement of the "outside" independent of the subject the focus of any inquiry on materialism. It is of course this role of matter as a spectral agency that disrupts and eludes the subject that resonates with the newly dominant formations of posthumanist theory for which, as Gerda Roelvink puts it, "the assertion that the human species is the dominant force shaping our world... fits all too easily with the modernist assumption of human mastery over nature... which has brought about our environmental crisis" (53).[1] However, this posthumanist view of the material as exceeding conceptual mastery is put in question by historical materialist thinkers who read the deconstruction of materialism as a form of "matterism" (Ebert). Matterism ultimately treats matter as that which resists human thinking and control and which, in effect, ends up substituting pan-physicalism for the analysis of the historical conditions shaping the human and nonhuman world under capitalism. For historical materialism, materialism is not matterism; it is not the primacy of matter that is at issue (undoing matter as Derrida does simply confirms its primacy, it does not suspend it). Materialism, on the contrary, is, as Fredric Jameson explains, "the ultimate determination by the mode of production" (The Political Unconscious 45). On such a basis the ethical aura that the spectral agency of the inhuman other has taken on in the posthumanities represents a reification of class interests that benefits the ruling class by occulting the exploitation of labor that is central to capitalism. My argument here is that the classical Marxist theory of the material as the movement of the mode of production has been entirely abandoned in the dominant cultural theory not only because the explanatory knowledge it provides exposes the relations of exploitation on which disaster capitalism depends, but because it reveals these relations to be in the end only transformable by the agency of labor rather than a change in values or a new ethics.

Taking the centrality of Derrida's undoing of materiality as my starting point, I will focus on the question of the materiality of the new materialism in cultural theory, paying especially close attention to the claim offered by Pheng Cheah that Derrida's "nondialectical materialism" offers a more "fundamental" (73) and "systemic" (72) understanding of materialism than "Marx's understanding of material existence" (71) as shaped by labor, which for Marx is the life activity of the human species. According to Cheah, because Marx's dialectical materialism is premised on "labor as a process... whereby given reality... is negated" (71) and "the radical transformation of existing social relations" (71) effected, it exhibits the "subordination of potentiality to actuality" (79) typical of humanism which always conceives matter as "negated through the imposition of a purposive form" (71). Conversely, because Derrida's "nondialectical materialism" makes the material a "weak [messianic] force" (80) that "resists... any purposive or end oriented action... based on rational calculations" (81) it represents a new, more fundamental form of materialism, according to Cheah. At stake in Cheah's opposition of nondialectical to dialectical materialism therefore is the question of the radical today: Is "radical," as according to Marx, to "grasp things by the root" by placing them within "the ensemble of the social relations" (what Lenin called "militant materialism"[2])?  Or is radical now, as according to Derrida, "a materialism without substance: a materialism of the khôra for a despairing 'messianism'" (Specters of Marx 168-9)—that is, a messianic materialism that mystifies the social as a chaotic flux of cause-less arrivals and spectral events that undoes the positive and reliable knowledge of the class totality that workers need for their emancipation from capitalist exploitation?

The interest of Cheah's essay ("Nondialectical Materialism") is in part due to its inclusion in the recent New Materialisms anthology, a text which is symptomatic of the current "turn to materialism" more generally. Its inclusion there would seem to call into question the claim made by the books' editors in the introduction that the "textual approaches associated with the cultural turn are increasingly being deemed inadequate for understanding contemporary society" (Coole and Frost 3) because of their failure in "thinking about matter, materiality, and politics" as shaped by the "contemporary... global political economy" (6). After all, Cheah claims in this essay that Derrida's "figure of the text in general" (73) represents the most "fundamental" (73) and "systemic" (72) understanding of materialism to date and argues against the transformative force of labor or indeed any concept of the material as a force of negation that might lead to theory becoming a guide for social praxis. Certainly, Cheah is quick to distance his defense of Derrida's textual materialism from the taint of De Manian "literariness," arguing that it is a "mistake" to take the "materialist understanding of text as... a self-interiority without an outside" (73). Rather, he understands the textual in Derrida's writings to be a defense of materialism as a "philosophy of the outside" (73) opposed to all "metaphysics" that deny the "force of materiality," which he takes to be "a limitless weave of forces or an endless process or movement of referral" (73) instantiated by our "contemporary technomediated reality" (78). 

And yet the equation of the material with the virtual real shows that what Cheah takes to be material is not the "outside" (the class structure) but rather the "inside" (the cultural superstructure). What is material on this view is how techno-culture reveals the power of a virtually "inappropriable other" over the actual such as to normalize an "experience of an incalculable justice that escapes all rule" (80), or, in other words, a sense of "urgency" that "forces us to act" (80) without reason. For Cheah, the "force of materiality" is "nothing other than the constitutive exposure of (the subject of) power to the other"  (81), which, citing Derrida (Politics of Friendship, 68-9), means "the absolute other in me... that decides on me in me" (80). In other words, the material is an opacity that defies understanding, as in Kant's view of the noumenal thing-in-itself which can only be known at the level of its phenomenal effects in consciousness; however, in Cheah's view, rather than being made available to reason as in Enlightenment thought it can only be experienced from within as an emotional plenitude that eludes analysis or explanation and consequently makes individuals feel weak and vulnerable. Not only does this translate the use of technology under capitalism to increase the rate of accumulation of surplus value into the force of technology itself, to which the subject must learn to willingly submit herself. It also turns the material into the intensity of feeling (weak in the face of an overwhelming and anonymous power) rather than the determination of the cause of this feeling of disempowerment in the social totality. This is significant for two reasons. On the one hand, by treating technology as both inappropriable and as that which forces humans to act (on their beliefs), Cheah of course re-situates the technological non-human not as passive and inert relative to the human but as possessing its own agency and ability to act on and control humans. On the other hand, such an experience with the nonhuman on the part of the human is equated with an unthinking compulsion that is usually disavowed in humanist thought as proper only to animals and machines. It is the sheer affirmation of such an experience of impersonal power that is taken to be the limit of the material in posthumanist discourses and made to seem inherently ethical. Despite differences of idiom, this is the dominant presupposition underlying all of the new materialisms today, which privilege, in the words of Jane Bennett, the material as "an excess that escapes quantification, prediction and control" (Khan 46) and who claim this as the basis of ethical action because it reveals the co-dependency of the human with the non-human and inhuman. What is elided, however, by this affirmative matterism which contests the domination over nature is the question of the function of the ethical to obscure and thus maintain the systemic class inequality inscribed in the daily exploitation of labor, which is what in the end alone explains the capitalist mis-use of nature for profit.

It turns out that what Cheah means by "nondialectical materialism" is a kind of technological determinism in which technology functions not as the social mediation between humans and the natural world under specific historical conditions (class relations) but, rather, aesthetically, as what inscribes bodies with moving experiences that he maintains are to be always ethically affirmed so as to change "the very idea of political organization" (89), especially "in terms of creative labor qua negativity... embodied in the proletariat as a sociohistorical subject" (89). Marx's dialectical materialism of course requires that the apparent singularities of our experience, what Marx calls the "imagined concrete" (Grundrisse 100), be conceptually grasped as "the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse" (101) so as not to be deceived by such appearances into assuming a "chaotic conception of the whole" (100). Cheah, following Derrida, argues for "overturning [organization] as... the central principle of dialectical materialism" (87), because of how it assumes that "the dynamism of matter comes from the activity or process of... ordering things through... relations of interdependence such that they become parts or members of... an integrated or systemic totality" (87). In Derrida's terms, the overturning of "organization" (and therefore dialectical materialism) requires deconstruction of the binary of "organic and... inorganic" ("Typewriter Ribbon" 278) as they represent for him the "two predicates that are most often attributed without hesitation to matter or to the material body" ("Typewriter Ribbon" 278) that "carry an obvious reference... to the possibility of an internal principle that is proper and totalizing" of both, which is "precisely, organization" (278). It is in order to undo the totality of dialectical materialism—which explains why because of the organization of labor under capitalism the proletariat represents a revolutionary class—that Derrida has argued for the necessity of a "machinistic materiality without materialism and even perhaps without matter" or a "new figure of the machine" in which the binary of the organic and inorganic is dehierarchized such that technology will no longer be thought as tools impassively receiving commands in a "state of anesthesia... without affect or auto-affection, like an indifferent automaton" ("Typewriter Ribbon" 277) but would rather "articulate[]... events of a kind that ought to resist any mechanization, any economy of the machine, namely... acts of... faith" (292). Cheah clarifies that what is at stake in Derrida's call for "a certain materiality, which is not necessarily a corporeality [but] a certain technicity" ["Typewriter Ribbon" 136] (77) is the kind of "creative appropriation" (89) of technology found in the writings of Hardt and Negri, which attempt to construct "a sociohistorical subject that replaces the proletariat in contemporary globalization" (89). For Cheah this is the subject open to the "experience of an incalculable justice that escapes all rule" (80) which acts as a "weak [messianic] force" in individuals that defies "any purposive or end-oriented action...based on rational calculations or the projection of an ideal end" (81)—such as the end of class exploitation and the emancipation of the proletariat. The subject is thus reified from its insertion in class relations and taken to be a ghost in the machine or a body without organs that spontaneously resists explanation in terms of a causal material outside. In short, it is the subject as imagined in bourgeois ideology that is required to naturalize the exploitation of the workers as a voluntary act rather than the necessary consequence of the means of production being owned as private property.

Cheah rejects Marx's dialectical materialism premised on the agency of labor by turning labor into a nondialectical trope for "the vital body of the organism" (71) whose agency consists in the negation of matter through "the imposition of purposive form" (71). Implicit here of course is the familiar (De Manian) poststructuralist critique of romantic organicism—an argument which is used to reject such Marxist categories as labor and class for being essentialist and homogenizing, so as to oppose Marxism on epistemological grounds as a "metaphysical... humanism of the hand" (de Fontenay 48, 49), for instance. But the point I want to emphasize here is that labor for Marx is not a "thing," such as the body or the physical activity of individuals. Although Marx makes labor the "essence of man" (Theses on Feuerbach 619) he clarifies that this is not in the sense of "an abstraction inherent in each single individual" (619), as the purposive actor found in Aristotle's writings for example, or the conception of "society as the subject" (The German Ideology 59) found in Hegel, for instance [3]. For Marx, labor is "the ensemble of social relations" (619). It is this that distinguishes humans from animals: 

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence... This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the reproduction of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production. (The German Ideology 37)

Marx contrasts labor with both the purposive concrete activity of individuals (what he calls "work"), the homo-economicus of bourgeois political economy, as well as the animal life-activity required by all species for their immediate physical survival. Cheah's failure to understand Marx's labor theory, which attributes to Marx the very bourgeois ideology he in fact opposes, is not simply a cognitive failure on his part, however, because it represents a mystification of labor as physical "work" that is typical of "the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities" (Marx Capital 164) that Marx's labor theory critiques so as to produce a materialist understanding of the social totality. The fetish of the vital body that negates matter that Cheah attributes to Marx is in actuality the object of Marx's critique of bourgeois political economy, which, as he demonstrates, fails in theory to get beyond the limits imposed by the capitalist mode of production in practice. The fetish of labor as concrete physical work in bourgeois theory is an ideological reflection of the actual reduction of the life-activity of human beings to animal life activity undertaken for mere survival (wage-labor).

Marx of course recognizes that, "the life of the species, both in man and in animals, consists physically in the fact that man (like the animal) lives on organic nature" (Economic Manuscripts 67). This physical life-activity or reproductive activity is what for Marx defines a "species-being". The difference between the life-activity of the human species (labor) from that of other animals, however, is that it produces a surplus over and above what is required for immediate physical existence and in the process transforms the environment, and thereby, not only transforms humanity but also all life on Earth. It is this all-round transformative life activity of the human species that Marx calls "labor" in distinction to "work". Finally, it is because of labor that humans can in turn be distinguished from other animals by their "consciousness":

The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It does not distinguish itself from it. It is its life activity. Man makes his life activity itself the object of his will and of his consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity distinguishes man immediately from animal life activity. (Economic Manuscripts 68)

The "wholly other" that arises out of techno-mediated culture which Cheah thinks constitutes an ethical subjectivity in the daily that disrupts Marx's theory of labor as an organizational basis for social change is simply a mystification of the way human life-activity is dominated by capital and undertaken merely to profit a few over meeting people's all-round needs, including the need to live in a safe and healthy environment. In this way, by only seeing in labor the alienated capitalist form of it (work), Cheah naturalizes the exploitation of labor at the center of capitalism. In doing so he cannot accept the dialectical self-negation of the working class as a class-in-itself—that is required to submit to being exploited in order to live—into a revolutionary class-for-itself—that must of material necessity become conscious of its alienation from its own life-activity and thereby undertakes to emancipate itself from the regime of wage-labor. He therefore mystifies agency as a mysterious movement of the "wholly other" and thus helps maintain bourgeois rule.


As I have already mentioned, the New Materialisms anthology is symptomatic of the class conflicts which are driving the talking about (as an "other") and the untalking (as labor) of materialism today. In their introduction to what they are calling the "new materialisms," Coole and Frost make what they say is a "somewhat arbitrary" (37) division of materialism around three topoi—ontology, agency, and politics—that, they argue, all "converge" on the same fundamental "point" that a more "ethical" (37) theory is needed now that the "textual approaches associated with the cultural turn are increasingly being deemed inadequate for understanding contemporary society" (3). Why cultural theory (which the editors equate with poststructuralism) is "inadequate" for understanding the contemporary is therefore a central question that frames the essays in the book. Yet dividing materialism today by way of the "arbitrary" presumes of course that such divisions over materialism are simply a discursive matter, as if knowledge makes the world, rather than providing a materialist explanation of how all discussions of materialism reflect the ongoing class conflicts over material resources that structure the daily. Such an "immanent" approach to materialism far from being a "new" more "ethical" theory is in fact the dominant cultural theory in transnational capitalism because it suppresses awareness of an "other" materialism that explains the material as the "ultimate determination by the mode of production" (Jameson 45). What the publication of the book thus shows is how culturalist theory is currently being updated by co-opting the language of materialism so as to accommodate itself to capitalism in crisis by marginalizing class consciousness in the knowledge industry.

In New Materialisms theory is said to be inadequate in the contemporary because it is "associated with a cultural turn that privileges language, discourse, culture, and values" (Coole and Frost 3) and fails to "give material factors their due in shaping society and circumscribing human prospects" (3). It seems therefore that what is being proposed is the need for theory to become more reflexive about materiality by investigating the material conditions that shape culture, or as Coole and Frost put it, by "thinking about matter, materiality, and politics" as shaped by the "contemporary context of biopolitics and global political economy" (6). Leaving aside for the moment the supplementing of political economy with biopolitics and the way this treats power as separable from class in the manner of Foucault, when they come to describe these "material factors" that have placed cultural theory in crisis, rather than provide the systemic analysis of the "global political economy" they say is needed what Coole and Frost instead do is list what has become a familiar litany of current events that have been popularized in the writings of Badiou, Zizek, Hardt and Negri among others as "problems of the commons": "issues such as climate change... global capital and population flows, the biotechnological engineering of genetically modified organisms, or the saturation of our intimate and physical lives by digital, wireless, and virtual technologies" (5). In place of a systematic consideration of the contradictions of global capitalism that explains why what appear to be isolated issues (climate change, biogenetics, global inequality,...) are rooted in the law of value that rules the system of capital/wage labor relations, they list a series of cultural disruptions which, like all events, appear as causeless arrivals that elude explanation and that require their own immanent understanding, thus the pluralization of materialism into ontology, agency, and politics that frames the book. It turns out that the "somewhat arbitrary" dispersal of materialism into ontology, agency, and politics announced in the title is meant to address these crises under the assumption that they herald fundamental changes in the material world that cannot be explained in terms of the laws of motion of capitalism to be found in classical Marxism. The effect of giving a list of topics in place of a systemic understanding of capitalism is to segregate the social into localities and block the kind of materialist analysis that the editors themselves argue is above all necessary to address the impasse of the cultural turn.

The translation of the contemporary crisis of capitalism into the "problems of the commons" distracts attention away from a causal understanding of the social totality in terms of the ongoing global class struggles over material resources. Contrary to the "new materialist" doctrine, however, why cultural theory is in crisis is not because of its own purely immanent epistemic blindness toward current events, but because the forces of production have advanced beyond the state capitalism of the 70s (which in cultural theory was regarded as "totalitarian") as well as beyond the deregulated capitalism of the 80s and 90s (which was represented as "radical democracy" in cultural theory), and poststructuralist knowledges no longer have the power to normalize the social relations of global capitalism in crisis. New "materialisms" are thus necessary to reconcile in the cultural imaginary the ways in which the newer forces of production are calling into question the private ownership and control over the social wealth by capital at the expense of the workers, as is demonstrated by the economic crisis which daily exposes the immense accumulation of wealth which is unable to be put to "productive" (i.e. profitable to capitalists) use, while the conditions of life for workers globally deteriorates. The mode this accommodation to the dominant ideology takes is an "affirmative" materialism in defense of the "common" that demonizes sharp conceptualizations of the issues and critique for social change as "unethical". By replacing explanation of the emerging class conflicts with the "ethical" acknowledgement of them contra the blindness of discourse theory, the result is that the failure of capitalism is presented as a "crisis of values" (Braidotti, "The Politics of "Life Itself" 206) that requires spiritual fixes.

In William E. Connolly's essay ("Materialities of Experience") this approach of resignifying the economic crisis as a cultural crisis of values is given its proper religious tone when he argues for the force of "dissonances" in daily life—such as "a stock market crash disrupt[ing] assumptions about the future" or a "terrorist attack [that] folds an implacable desire for revenge in you" (191)—to "disrupt[] conventional habits of perception" (191) and effect a "spiritual awakening" (194) that will "cultivate further strains of attachment to this world and… fend off the seed of abstract resentment" (194). By fetishizing the affective experience of living in the crisis of global capitalism, rather than explain the experience in terms of its underlying cause in property arrangements, what is being opposed to the political economy of capital is an "affective political economy of loss and melancholia at the heart of the subject" (Braidotti 211) that the contributors to The New Materialisms all in their own way propose to heal with the ethos of the commons. It turns out that the supplementing of political economy with biopolitics that Coole and Frost propose in their introduction is a way to say that the "new" materialism uses a Spinozan ethics of embodiment that imprisons the subject in her own experience of the crisis in order to block any understanding of its roots in terms of the systemic contradictions of capitalism.

On such experiential terms, class, rather than being an explanatory "struggle concept" (Mies 37) that lays bare the root conflict over property relations so as to change them, is instead taken to be a feeling of alienation that needs to be overcome by people becoming more ethical. Class is a "resentment" that comes from a sense of "entitlement" in "objectivity" that is held to be impossible (Connolly 195), or it is a "metaphysics" of "opposition" that is inhospitable to the other (Cheah 74), or a "gloomy and pessimistic" (Braidotti 211) "Thanatos-politics" (206) that refuses to accept and "move beyond" (213) the "impossibility of adequate compensation" (213). Even Jason Edwards' essay ("The Materialism of Historical Materialism") which critiques Hardt and Negri for obscuring "the character of contemporary capitalist societies" (297) with "the ontological myth of the multitude" (297) and defends the need "to remember the materialism of historical materialism" (282) for its explanation of how "social production and consumption" (282) or "material life is organized, disrupted, and transformed", (283) says that Marx's "notion of a "class in itself" has to be jettisoned" (295) as an unrealistic fantasy because class is "the experience of lived space" (295). Class, in other words, is a shared feeling in common that is endlessly (re)constituted in the micro-practices of everyday life rather than the exploitation inscribed in the work day. Disconnected from the underlying exploitation of labor by capital inscribed in the material base, class is unavailable as "an agent of social and political transformation" (295), he concludes. It seems that Lenin was right about how under the bourgeois law of value in which science is used to increase profits, accumulate capital, and deepen inequality, "materialism" in Left and "ethical socialist" discourses is equated with "helping the exploiters to replace the old, decayed religious superstitions by new, more odious and vile superstitions" (190) that produce more "ideological slaves of the bourgeoisie" (189).

The refusal to conceptualize the contemporary crisis of capitalism in terms of its base-ic class arrangements by remaining at the level of its surface effects where they appear as "problems of the commons" has the effect of dispersing the social into a series of disruptions that are made into occasions to raise ethical choices in the daily and make the material, as in the pun, seem like what emotionally "matters" to people (beliefs, values, ethics). Thus, even when Coole and Frost articulate what they consider the concrete reasons for their conclusion that cultural theory is outdated the way in which they do so makes the material seem "immaterial", a question of cultural disruptions, shifting knowledge, values, and interpretations, rather than systemic causes rooted in class arrangements. This translation of the material into the immaterial is also clear in the way they displace explanation with description in their account of the cultural turn as due, they claim, to "the exhaustion of once popular materialist approaches... such as... structural Marxism... since the 1970s" (3). In other words, people began turning to "culture" because Marxism was boring. In a similar way, the "new materialism" is "explained" as due to "the eclipse of materialism in recent theory" (3). In other words, a description of a change in ideas (the spectral arrival of the "new") is put in place of a materialist explanation. And yet again when they discuss the "new materialist writing" (13) and rather than inquire into the material conditions that explain why now a vitalist language of "forces, energies, and intensities" that represents the social as "random processes" (13) that resist causal explanations is taken to be the limit text of materialism in the dominant knowledges they instead affirm how these "tropes and rhythms" (13) have consolidated a "new currency" (13) in the humanities that "might reconfigure our models of society and the political" (13). By equating linguistic change with social change they are assuming of course that knowledge makes the social rather than the reverse, as in bourgeois ideology. It seems "odd" then that they say they are opposing the "textual approaches associated with the cultural turn" as "inadequate" (3) when they arrive at the same intellectual and political conclusions as the dominant theory that claims discourse shapes the world. What such an "event"-full reading of the contemporary as constituted by epistemic shifts does is construct the "new" (materialism) as a break with the "past" (culturalism) so as to stage an occasion to revive the old materialism (matterism, vitalism) and make it seem like an ethical alternative that can save capitalism in crisis rather than what it is—an accommodation to the dominant ideology which is everywhere being delegitimated because of the growing inequality caused by the global exploitation of labor by capital.

It is because the new materialisms share the same fundamental assumptions about the material as culturalist theory that the editor's can include Cheah's essay in their book—a text which reiterates the dogma that deconstruction is the most "radical" ("Non-Dialectical Materialism" 72) materialism because it produces a "more fundamental" (73) and "systemic" (72) understanding of materialism than "Marx's understanding of material existence" (71) premised on the "negative dialectic" of "creative labor" (71)—despite their claim that the "cultural turn that privileges language, discourse, culture, and values" (3) has been intellectually and politically delegitimated. Indeed, Cheah's essay exhibits the same defensiveness regarding culturalist theory that Coole and Frost do when they impugn the ethics of the "cultural turn" when he claims that Derrida's "materialism without matter" has nothing to do with "the 'free play' of textual indeterminacy" of literary criticism (73). And yet, the concept of materialism that is being defended in New Materialisms is precisely one that makes the material into an opacity that undoes causal explanation and can only be "interpreted" at the level of signs. The emphasis on interpretation over explanation is then taken as a mark of ethical belonging in the new commons beyond class. What is held in common in the commons, it turns out, is the commitment to "break with the concept of negation" (Cheah 81) by burying ideology critique and thereby show the kind of "hospitality to the other" that is imperative "in order to act in a responsible manner" (81). Critique is "negation" of the commons because it brings to bear the disavowed other of class that critiques bourgeois ideology to open space for revolutionary change. It is this opening to the new—when theory becomes militant by gripping the masses with root knowledge—that the "new materialisms" considers "unethical" because it violates the "real".


The reunderstanding of materialism in the New Materialisms anthology as an "ethical turn" after poststructuralism is hardly a new materialist thinking. What exactly is being called "material" here if its status as material is that it "revalues" what was "devalued" in the past (culturalist) Theory? Furthermore, what is so "ethical" about reinscribing the other-ing of historical materialism? Rather than provide a materialist explanation of why everyone is suddenly a materialist now and so quick to distance themselves from the taint of culturalism, New Materialisms gives a culturalist interpretation of materialism as an ethical turn in the dominant ideas in response to cultural disruptions. Materialism, however, as Cheah cites Derrida in his essay, is always a "philosophy of the outside" (73). By constructing materialism as an "ethical turn" in the dominant knowledges that now recognizes Theory's other(s), Coole and Frost reinscribe the outside in terms of the inside so as to contain what Marx called the "material force" of theory as critique when it "seizes the masses" by "grasp[ing] things by the root" (Reader 60).

Culturalism—the theory that what is material is signs, discourses, values, beliefs—has, contrary to the editors' narrative, been delegitimated not because it is now taken to be unethical for being insufficiently materialist. It is materialist in exactly the same way as the new materialisms are said to be because in place of providing positive and reliable knowledge of the conflict of capital/wage labor relations "outside" discourse it turns materialism in on itself and represents such a move (immanence) as an ethical calling that bears witness to the "other" as that which "exceeds" explanation and disrupts the conceptual. Because the material is an "absolute other" (Cheah 75) that eludes representation and can only be known at the level of its "affects", materialism becomes thick description of the surfaces of culture rather than knowledge of the outside. This immanent approach to materialism reverses cause and effect as in Nietzsche's writings where "cause" is impossible to grasp outside the multiple effects that shape the given. What such a move does, as Teresa Ebert has argued, is maintain the "matterism" of the eighteenth century that equates the material with "thingness" and makes experience the limit of knowing (46-66). Whether this discursive immanentism it is put forward in a Heideggerian language as in Sara Ahmed's essay which argues that "standpoint" determines what "matters", or a Derridean one such as in Cheah's essay in which the material is represented as "the inappropriable other" (80), or as in Elizabeth Grosz's use of Agamben's language of "bare life" as an affirmative "materiality that life and the nonliving share" (142), makes no difference. The New Materialisms returns to the ahistorical eighteenth century "matterism" as a "new" materialism to understand the contemporary crisis of capitalism and its knowledge industries. The claim that this is "new" amounts to the mantra that if matter is no longer considered "passive and inert" but "productive and resilient" (Coole and Frost 7), as in the vitalism of the Spinoza-Nietzsche-Bergson-Deleuze axis, this will "reconfigure our models of society and the political" (13) in "new" ways that are not "determinable" in terms of "cause and effect" (14). What this of course means is that the material is "aleatory" and "immaterial" (14) as it can only be known at the level of its effects. The question is: Is matter, as in the tiresome pun, just what "matters" to people (belief) which changes with cultural changes in values, or, do discourses change with changes in the mode of production of material life? Why is the fundamental assumption in New Materialisms that materialism—in the sense of positive and reliable knowledge "outside" ideology which explains the cultural in terms of class—can no longer be considered explanatory? The "why" here is of course the matter of class.

The argument of the new materialists for turning to the material so as to construct a more ethical theory that promises to change the cultural real turns materialism on its head, to paraphrase Marx on Hegel. Materialism, as Marx explains, always consists of looking "more closely" at how "social being determines consciousness" (Reader 4-5) rather than the other way around, especially at such times when men and women "seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something entirely new" (Reader 595), while forgetting that history is only made "under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past" (595). By making the effectivity of materialism consist of its ethically breaking with culturalism Coole and Frost construct a culturally immanent history of ideas that makes history seem like a series of contingent "events" that elude explanation in terms of class. And yet, the reason why materialism has suddenly become the "new"—if that is to mean more than a marketing gimmick to repackage the same old culturalism in crisis—needs to be explained in relation to class and the new class struggles of transnational capitalism in crisis.

[1] On posthumanism see my, "Animal Matters, Sublime Pets, and Other Posthumanist Stories" (The Red Critique 14).

[2] Lenin argued that a "militant materialism" was above all necessary to counter the way that "the sharp upheavals which modern natural science is undergoing very often gives rise to reactionary philosophical trends" (192) that make "democratic Left or ideologically socialist publicists" (187) as well as "modern scientific critics of religion... ideological slaves of the bourgeoisie" (189) by "openly helping the exploiters to replace the old, decayed religious superstitions by new, more odious and vile superstitions" (190) such as the "unreasonable worship" of "so-called modern democracy" (191), which is "nothing but the freedom to preach whatever is to the advantage of the bourgeoisie" (191). 

[3] "[T]he world-historical co-operation of individuals… will be transformed by this communist revolution into the control and conscious mastery of these powers, which, born of the action of men on one another, have till now overawed and governed men as powers completely alien to them. Now this view can be expressed again in speculative-idealistic, i.e. fantastic, terms as 'self-generation of the species' ('society as the subject'), and thereby the consecutive series of interrelated individuals connected with each other can be conceived as a single individual, which accomplishes the mystery of generating itself. It is clear here that individuals certainly make one another, physically and mentally, but do not make themselves" (Marx and Engels, The German Ideology 59).

Works Cited

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Coole, Diana and Samantha Frost. "Introducing the New Materialisms." New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Ed. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost. Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2010. pp. 1-43. Print.

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THE RED CRITIQUE 15 (Winter/Spring 2014)