What is Transcendental Materialism? pt1

20Apr11

There are at least two strains of transcendental materialism:

1-Psychoanalytic/Zizekian

2-Deleuzo-Guattarian/Land

3-And then the question becomes whether Iain Hamilton Grant is a different strain altogether or not

1-The first strain has been laid out by Adrian Johnston – which centers on a theory of the material for the more than material, the subject as escaping the bounds of its material genesis. This theory asserts that the division between soma and psyche is false and that the transcendental arrives immanently (xxiii-xxiv, Zizek’s Ontology). While transcendental materialism appears in Johnston’s work primarily as theory of the subject there are instances where it is applied more broadly.

“Transcendental materialism posits, in short, a self sundering material Grund internally producing what (subsequently) transcends it.” (Zizeks Ontology, 61). The discussion always turns back to the ontogenesis of the subject (this is, admittedly, Johnston and Zizek’s interest after all). Towards the end of the text Johnston continues:

“The transcendental materialist theory of the subject is materialist insofar as it maintains that this thus generated ideal subjectivity thereafter achieves independence from the ground of its material sources and thereby starts to function as a set of possibility conditions for forms of reality irreducible to explanatory discourses allied to traditional versions of materialism.” (Zizek’s Ontology, 275).

While the one way and immanent explosion of the transcendent from the material is perfectly Schellingian, this emergence is always ideal, in terms for the subject, such as the grasp of language. Since Zizek’s Hegelian move is to make the noumenal/phenomenal split within the phenomenal itself the generation from the non-material is transcendent in so far as it transcends the non-material, making the non-material merely the pre-ideal.

This is particularly evident in Zizek’s reading of Schelling as he reduces Schelling’s project to tracing the pre-subjective (as opposed to viewing nature or the noumenal as extra-subjective). Johnston does a good job of drawing out how Schelling turns the Kantian critique against Kant in that Kant does not account for the non-empirical arrival of the empirical realm (Zizek’s Ontology, 73-74). Yet, following Zizek, these reigme of the non-empirical is transformed into the pre-symbolic. Furthermore, the imprint of the real on the ideal is (Zizek argues following the early and late Schelling) experienced as raw sensation (Zizek’s Ontology, 76).

Zizek effectively re-Kantianizes Schelling reorienting Schelling as a more self-critical Kant – the critical project turned against itself as ontologically aware critique.

This extension of critique and the empirical registering of the non-empirical as raw sense brings transcendental materialism into the space of Deleuze and Guattari as well as Nick Land.

To be continued…

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2 Responses to “What is Transcendental Materialism? pt1”

  1. 1 Carlos Jimenez

    I dont have much of a background in German Idealism outside of Kantian Critique as basic Hegelian (primary Lacanian) performativity (what I understand as onto-genesis).

    Materialism is a loaded term and it seems that there is a certain paradox in the notion of a transcendental subject that can know at the same time that it would claim to be grounded in matter, which is always certainly the case. In other words, I think that structure is inherently material, or at the very least is that which delimits certain parameters of intelligibility known as ontology as enabling the epistemological domain of possibilities. The problem with this word “materialism” then is not whether or not matter is in fact material (as even ideology is in some capacity material or at least has material consequences, i.e. effects and affects bodies) but what version may generate the best viable material circumstances with regard to Others as socially constituted beings. It is an ethical question at its most fundamental.

    On this point I believe Merleau-Ponty in my opinion gives a fairly simple yet powerful account of matter in its becoming (perhaps more in line with the Deleuzean account of subjectivity) in the privliging of perception as practical as opposed to the possibility of abstracting meaning/form from an enabling set of material conditions. This is the fundemental distinction between matter as effect and matter as a transcendental reduction (abstraction) into form. This is of course the more Foucauldian understanding of ontology on the point that the transcendental (knowing) seems relegated to the morphological trajectory of its own determinate circumstances: in Foucault’s account, matter is always a question of material-discursive effects which collapses the difference between ideology and materiality which derives from Merleau-Ponty. It seems then that what is being called transcendental materialism cannot be extracted from jouissance: this is in my understanding the fundamental Zizekian move by which jouissance (identity/form/concept) is this paradoxical double movement (retroactive performativity, the subject producing its own enabling conditions thought he retroactive ascription of meaning) by which the “slip of signification s the transcendentally enabling condition of formal ontology at the same time that it allows for the re-signification of those conditions into new historical forms. And if I can be a little more clear on this point, the Hegelian-Lacanian notion of the performative seems, as an ethical relation to the other, always bound to jouissance which is theological and transcendental only on the point that the subject is in fact taken as a knowing subject beyond the immediacy of presenting matter in perception, which would amount to this notion of re-presentation (Merleau-Ponty’s distinction between the notion of primary expression or practical act of “speaking” and the retroactive movement that is said “to speak” of this intial generative moment that would seem to translate into Lacanian jouissance in contrast to Derridean differance).

    So materialism as I understand it is perhaps reducible to yet another school, namely the Foucauldian/Derridean/Deleuzean(minus Guatarri)/Benjaminian that is perhaps best represented to the version of psychoanalysis of which Judith Butler is the greatest exponent and which seeks to reformulate Kantian critique in terms of a negative dialectic. There is then it seems only two fundamental versions of materialism and each is thoroughly immersed in psychoanalysis: that of Butler (negative dialectics) and that of Hegelian-Lacanian critique (transcendental/dialectical materialism), although i am unfamiliar with the work of grant. But names are very unimportant so lets not dwell on that matter since it is counter-productive and does not matter.

    A few words on this negative dialectical/effective history as opposed to a theory of meaning as transcendental: In the former’s understanding of truth, truth does not depart from what is given in experience in its very motion, which echo’s Foucault’s notion that the truth does not set you free: this means that what is unseen (that is, “beyond” form and into the slip and play of content as differance/jouissance) is not affirmed through a particular equation but rather is always understood to be within the vicinity of form but never given outside of the practical engagment with a given content (i.e. one cannot “know” that there is a back of a lamp without engaging in it; it s not a question of geometry and abstractions, but of labouring and engagement). This notion of vicinity entails that the assemblage of embeddedness is not in itself already given (it is not transcendentally secured) to an intellectual syntheses which would posit the hidden element as a possible perception. This notion of possibility (as opposed to the presenting effect of perception) is that which would already be embedded within the juridical/ontological trajectory that supposes a certain existence in geometrical terms, that is, in terms of its formal parameters that allow for a transcendental knowledge by means of a strictly intellectual deduction: In Merleau-Ponty’s words, “It is not through an intellectual synthesis which would freely posit the total object that I am led from what is given to what is not actually given: that I am given, together with the cisible sides of the object, the novisible sides as well. It is rather a kind of practical synthesis: I can touch the lamp, and not only the side turned towad me but also the other side; I have only to extend my hand and hold it (14).

    In short, I would include this negative dialectical version of the subject as another possibility for materialism. I use Merleau-Ponty simply for illustrative purposes as this fundamental distinction between the dialectical synthesis of an effect into a transcendental form (Zizek’s project of retroaction as a necessary and enabling condition of materiality) to the post-structuralist understanding of matter as the refusal to articulate meaning (against the transcendental strain) that would recast Kantian critique not as a way “into” enlightenment but as a perpetually enabled and reactivated “way out” that would be the work of critique as the refusal of form while working within structure itself.


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