A Few Don'ts (And Dos) By A Cultural Phenomenologist

Steven Connor

Is Cultural Phenomenology a Materialism?

When I spoke about cultural phenomenology at the Materialisms seminar organised by Andrew Gibson for the Institute for English Studies, I duly set myself to wonder whether cultural phenomenology was a materialism. To be a materialist is always to assert at once the inescapability of what is material in our lives, and its significance, its necessity, its value, its bearing upon us. Materialists assert not just that matter exists, but that matter is all that fundamentally exists. A Platonic tradition asserts the polluting, deluding evil of matter, and the need to clarify and purify philosophical thought by removing it from matter and purging matter from it. Philosophical materialism transfers this charge to idealism, and calls for reduction, clarification and purification exercised not in the name of ideal truth but in the name of material truth. In both cases, there is said to be a truth in what is primary or fundamental, though the primary and the fundamental are only accessible as the result of a purging of some excrescence, corruption or delusion. Materialism means the belief, not only that matter exists, but that its existence has meaning; it is the belief that matter matters. It is the ascription of a meaning and purpose to the material itself. This claim becomes a powerful one from the eighteenth century onwards.

In Marx, materialism denotes at once the emphasis upon the practical, the concrete, the historical, the embodied and the emphasis upon man's capacity for self-production, which is to say, his capacity, starting from material necessity, to produce his freedom from material necessity. In the most heightened, uncompromising form of historical materialism, namely the dialectical materialism of Engels, material reality is said itself to provide the very basis for its own transcendence. The transcendence of the material is written through the material, in so far as materiality is as it were predisposed or programmed to produce its transcendence in the form of man. Such a view is rejected as incoherent by antihegelians of all kinds: whether it be Sartre who declares that `no materialism of any kind can ever explain [freedom]', or Bataille, who rages against the surrealist idealisation of the material world, and declares the need for a purifying baseness.

The most recent inheritor of the Bataillean tradition is Lyotard. `Matter', Lyotard has remarked, `does not go in for dialectic'. The material is not the matrix of being, for Lyotard, it is the form of a question posed, of an epoche. This is why Lyotard asserts what he calls `an immaterialist materialism'. That which could be asserted to be material would already have achieved a permanent and recognisable form; the material for Lyotard is that which is without form. It is the inhuman of the purely, nakedly hic et nunc.

Lyotard borrows from Kant, or at least supposes that he does, the suggestion that it is in aesthetic contemplation that this pure materiality without presupposition is approached. But Lyotard is sensible enough to acknowledge that there is no naked encounter with the timeless, formless manifold that is matter. On earth, at least, matter has always become phenomenal:

For plunging into the pure manifold and letting oneself be carried along by it would allow nothing to appear to consciousness, nor to disappear from it for that matter, appearing not even taking `place'. This place is due to a synthesis, that of apprehension, which as it were hems the edges of the pure flow and makes discontinuous the pure continuum of the flow while making continue the pure discontinuity of its supposed elements. In short, the river needs a bank if it is to flow. An immobile observatory to make the movement apparent. (You see that we have got into phenomenology.)

The material is always the inhuman; it is always the radically other (radically other because only partially other). Where materialism has provided many thinkers with a principle of discipline and restraint (from Aristotle through Bacon and Diderot to Marx and Foucault), Lyotard draws on an alternative tradition that runs from Heraclitus and the presocratics through Nietzsche, Bergson and Michael Serres that sees materiality as a kind of loosening or abeyance of rational discipline.

| Steve Connor | English and Humanities | Birkbeck College |