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Materialism between Critique and Speculation

Materialism between Critique and Speculation
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  Samo Tomšič Contemporary philosophy is marked by a double turn, which is both materialist and speculative. There is a proliferation of new materialisms, which is already a sufficient reason for reserve. In this situation, Slavoj Žižek’s work makes a double exception in regard to the speculative and critical tradition in philosophy. In what follows I would like to situate this exception by returning to the continuity between Hegel, Marx, and Freud, the three key “partners” of Žižek’s work. In doing so I want to circumscribe the kernel of the encounter of Hegel’s “absolute idealism” with what remain the most radical and politically subversive material- ist projects, psychoanalysis and critique of political economy, to which Žižek’s work provides an srcinal contribution precisely by stubbornly insisting on the necessity of a materialist return to Hegel (just as Lacan, in his turn, accomplished a materialist return to Freud).Let me enter the materialist debate by departing from the most dis- cussed representative of today’s speculative- materialist turn, Quentin Meillassoux. One of the propositions of Meillassoux’s manifesto for a renewal of speculative- materialist thinking is the affirmation of specula-tion against critique, a systematic rejection of tradition inaugurated by Kant, whose critical project strived to restrict “groundless” speculation. Today, however, critique and speculation are both banalized. The omni- presence of critical thinking lost its “sharp razor,” making critique in- distinguishable from cynicism. This course is undoubtedly due to the re- 3Materialism between Critique and Speculation  Between Critique and Speculation 59 nouncement of speculation and dialectics. Speculation on the other hand is often presented as the paradigm of thinking, which lost its connection to empiric reality and resides most often in humanities and in financial economy. In addition, did not Kant show that speculative thinking could easily turn into Schwärmerei , a combination of apparent reasoning and affection through enthusiasm, which pushes thinking toward delirium and madness? A step back might be in order here.Kant’s notion of critique responded to the epistemological crisis pro-duced by scientific modernity. The radical shift of philosophical coordi- nates demanded a rethinking of the role of metaphysics. Kant was already in his precritical writings aware of the new tasks that awaited philoso-phy in the universe of modern science. Dreams of a Spirit- Seer Explained through Dreams of Metaphysics , where Kant expressed his philosophical crisis in his confrontation with the Swedish mystic Emmanuel Sweden-borg, situated the new role of metaphysics in the following way: “meta-physics is science of the limits of human reason .”󰀱 Kant’s emphasis on the limits of thinking is, of course, the main target of Meillassoux’s rejection of critique and of its accent on finitude.󰀲 However, the main lesson of Kant’s writing concerns the uncanny closeness of dogmatic metaphysics and Schwärmerei, in which speculation becomes inseparable from illu-sions, dreams, and hallucinations. How should we understand “science” and “limit” in Kant’s rather am- biguous formulation? In other words, does science necessarily restrict thinking? Not necessarily. An alternative reading of Kant’s formulation would be to focus on the deadlock of thinking in the encounter of its limits. Such deadlocks would then have to be turned into an object of science of thinking. Now, metaphysics is science of thinking as think- ing already from Plato and Aristotle onward. However, in the universe of modern science thinking as thinking is understood differently from in the premodern episteme . It is no longer embedded in a harmonious relation of the macrocosmos and the microcosmos but instead mani- fests precisely in the encounter of the limits of thinking, the disruptions, breakdowns, and decentralizations of thinking. Kant’s critical project may have distinguished critique of speculation, but the subsequent his-tory of critique, notably in Hegel, Marx, and Freud, demonstrated that the discussion of the limits of thinking necessitates the critical and   the  60 Samo Tomšičspeculative aspect, inseparability and even equivocity of speculation and critique. This is the kernel of the materialist current that, also according to Žižek, unites the three thinkers.A “science of the limits of reason” is necessary because positive sci-ence does not conceptualize the breakdowns and the decentralizations it produces in thinking. Philosophy, on the other hand, always comprised the thinking of thinking. However, the modern scientific revolution sub-verted precisely the space  of thinking. We can here recall the main theses of Koyré’s epistemology.󰀳 Scientific modernity produced two ground- breaking effects: the abolition of the ancient division of the superlunary sphere, the seat of eternal mathematical truths and of cosmic harmony, and the sublunary sphere of generation and corruption, the seat of con- tingency, where the use of formalization made little sense for the classics. In modern science, on the contrary, mathematics no longer “saves the phenomena,”󰀴 that is, explains the appearances and the observable, but instead formalizes the contingent, thereby abolishing the three corner- stones of ancient episteme: totality, harmony, regularity. The immediate result of this formalization is not so much the “necessity of contingency,” as Meillassoux would want it, but the demonstration of the contingency of necessity, or to put it with Žižek, the incomplete ontological consti- tution of reality, through which reality no less consists, albeit as non- all. This is the kernel of Hume’s problem, which awoke Kant from his “dogmatic sleep.” The second consequence of modern scientific revolu-tion consisted in the abolition of the soul. Here dogmatic metaphysics for the first time encounters the limits of thinking, the immanent split of thinking, which will finally become the object of rigorous examination in Hegel, Marx, and Freud.In this constellation the task of materialism is to explain the link be-tween the discourse and the “limits of reason,” that is, the breakdowns of thinking. In his book on Lacan, Jean- Claude Milner proposed the following definition of materialism: “the greatness of all authentic ma-terialisms is that they are not totalizing. The fact that De rerum natura  and Capital   are unachieved is due to chance and, for this very reason, it follows from a systematic necessity.”󰀵 The sign of materialism, which is not simply a (precritical) materialism of matter or (antispeculative) empiricism, lies in the departure from the non- all. Milner calls this ma-terialist orientation “discursive materialism,” which he introduces in the  Between Critique and Speculation 61following way: “Lacan said that, in order to hit the walls, it is not nec-essary to know the plan of the mansion. Better put: in order to meet the walls where they are it is better not to know the plan, or if we happen to know it, it is better not to stick to it.”󰀶 Discursive materialism discusses its object in relation to other objects, outlining the space that situates them. It thereby constructs the space of thinking. This thinking is again marked by limits, which manifest through the encounter of deadlocks or obstacles that resist thinking within the space of thinking and demon- strate its decentralization. Milner’s formulation suggests that a materi-alist orientation implies a new understanding of the subject: not the sub-ject of cognition but the subject implied by the encounter of the limits of thinking. Should metaphysics become a materialist   science of the limits of reason it has to substitute the subject of cognition with what Lacan called the subject of modern science, the subject of decentralized think-ing, explicitly addressed by both Marx and Freud. The term “discursive materialism” is not without negative connota- tions. Žižek articulated its systematic critique, linking it with what Ba-diou in Logics of Worlds  calls “democratic materialism,” which attributes positive existence exclusively to bodies and language.󰀷 The Materialis-musstreit   in contemporary philosophy concerns the rejection of vulgar materialism and naïve empiricism, which systematically discredit dia-lectical speculation, and the “weak” postmodern version of discursive materialism: The basic premise of discursive materialism was to conceive language itself as a mode of production, and to apply to it Marx’s logic of commodity fetishism. So, in the same way that, for Marx, the sphere of exchange obliterates (renders invisible) its process of production, the linguistic ex-change also obliterates the textual process that engenders meaning: in a spontaneous fetishistic mis- perception, we experience the meaning of a word or act as something that is a direct property of the designated thing or process; that is, we overlook the complex field of discursive practices which produces this meaning. 󰀸This fetishistic relation to language contains an ambiguity. On the one hand it seems to rely on the distinction between the things themselves and the human projection of meaning onto them; on the other hand it can also claim that our “symbolic activity ontologically constitutes the  62 Samo Tomšič very reality to which it ‘refers.’”󰀹 The first version still presupposes a distinction between words and things, situating linguistic production as an excess of meaning over objective qualities. The second one relativizes the externality of reality by reducing it to a performative linguistic effect. However, the suggested homology of Marx and Freud misses their materialist point. Already Marx’s introductory chapter to Capital   leaves no doubt that the main discussion does not concern either the “adequate relation” between values and commodities or the projection of fetishist illusions on commodities themselves, or the constitution of the market as an enclosed and autonomous reality through the relations between values.󰀱󰀰 The true question that occupies Marx is how can the autonomy of value and the transformation of labor into labor- power, which can be correctly understood only through this autonomy, explain the produc- tion of surplus value, which is neither objective nor subjective: it can neither be found in things themselves nor can it be reduced to pure sub- jective illusion or performative effect of exchange. Marx departs from the autonomy of exchange, which constitutes a system of differences. His first thesis is that surplus value can be correctly situated only under the condition that we abstract from use values. However, this abstraction also transforms different forms of concrete labor into “abstract” labor- power, the exceptional commodity, which possesses the capacity to pro- duce other commodities. Marx thereby situates two discursive conse- quences of the autonomy of exchange value, which are material but not empirical; they are both produced through abstraction from use values but are more real than performative effects of symbolic structures. The difference between the Marxian and the postmodern understand- ing of discursive materiality implies two concurrent interpretations of the autonomy of value, in which Lacan famously recognized the antici-pation of the structuralist discovery of the autonomy of the signifier. The postmodern discursive materialism reads this autonomy in a transcen- dental sense: the performative effects and production of meaning remain inside  the symbolic. Surplus value and labor- power, however, go beyond    the symbolic, or better, they highlight the flip side of the autonomy of the symbolic, its encounter with the real within discursive production. Lacan’s homology between Marx and Freud claims something else than postmodern discursive materialism: “ Mehrwert   is Marxlust  , Marx’s sur- plus jouissance.”󰀱󰀱 The inverse is also true: Lustgewinn  (surplus jouis-
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