Adrian Johnston is one of the most widely followed philosophers writing today. Influenced by Žižek and his readings of German idealism, Johnston’s work has gained many readers among those making the materialist and realist turns in Continental philosophy. A professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque and a faculty member of the Emory Psychoanalytic Institute in Atlanta, Johnston has been publishing at a breathtaking pace: He is the author of Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive (2005), Žižek’s Ontology: A Transcendental Materialist Theory of Subjectivity (2008), Badiou, Žižek, and Political Transformations: The Cadence of Change (2009), all from Northwestern University Press. This year he has published both Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism, Volume One: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy (Northwestern University Press, 2013) and is the co-author, with Catherine Malabou, of Self and Emotional Life: Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Neuroscience (Columbia University Press, 2013). His next book, Adventures in Transcendental Materialism: Dialogues with Contemporary Thinkers, will be released by Edinburgh University Press in early 2014. Johnston’s books are guided by his “transcendental materialism,” which in sum calls for a materialist ontology that nevertheless does not reduce away the gap or figure that is human subjectivity. Johnston argues for retooling Freud and Lacan after the success of the natural sciences in recent decades, but argues that both Freud and Lacan presaged a lot of these successes. Critical of the thinkers of immanence whom he believes, following Hegel, can only give us subjectless substance, Johnston’s work has brought Lacanianism into the 21st century when many wrongly claimed it dead long before the end of the last.
Peter Gratton: Thanks for taking the time to talk about your recent work. Why don’t we start with you giving an overview of what you take to be stakes involved in your trilogy as it is taking shape in the next couple of years?
Adrian Johnston: Thank you for the opportunity of this interview. The single biggest stake of my trilogy Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism is the establishment of the core components of what I call “transcendental materialism.” This is a philosophical framework attempting to combine a rigorously and thoroughly materialist qua anti-idealist ontology (profoundly informed by the empirical, experimental natural sciences) with a robust, non-reductive theory of subjectivity (as itself an autonomous negativity à la Kantian and post-Kantian German idealism). Although crucial aspects of this framework have taken shape through engagements with recent and contemporary figures (especially Žižek [as per my 2008 book Žižek’s Ontology] as well as Lacan, Badiou, and Meillassoux [as per the just-published first volume of the trilogy, The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy]), the questions and issues it addresses are perennial ones for philosophy. More precisely, transcendental materialism is bound up with, loosely speaking, versions of the mind-body and freedom-determinism problems. Of course, as the history of ideas (and history more generally) exhibits, the means by which these perpetually recurring problems are handled have countless interdisciplinary, cultural, ideological, and political ramifications and echoes (about which I will say more later in this interview in response to some of your other questions).
The first volume of Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism unfolds through elaborating immanent critiques of Lacan, Badiou, and Meillassoux in which each of these three is assessed according to his own avowed materialist commitments and standards. This initial volume thereby negatively leads via critique into the positive project of constructing transcendental materialism as a system unto itself in the subsequent second and third volumes of the trilogy (entitled A Weak Nature Alone and Substance Also as Subject respectively). In short, The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy—its title is a nod to Engels’s 1888 Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy, with me putting forward transcendental materialism as, in certain respects, a twenty-first-century extension of the historical/dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels—clears an opening for my system-building efforts in relation to select significant others who I readily acknowledge have shaped this opening and influenced these efforts. Put in overtly Hegelian language, transcendental materialism is preliminarily introduced as a sublation (als Aufhebung) of what I allege to be the inconsistent, self-dialecticizing materialisms of such thinkers as Lacan, Badiou, and Meillassoux. In particular, I see the formalist and anti-naturalist tendencies of these three, with their shared French neo-rationalist leanings, as at odds with true materialism proper (given that the latter, as I argue, integrally must involve empirical, scientific, and naturalist elements).
The second volume, A Weak Nature Alone, lays down the ontological foundations of transcendental materialism already with an eye to its theory of subjectivity (the topic of the third volume). As its title indicates, the one-and-only fundamental being posited by my strictly materialist ontology is that of a “weak nature.” This phrase signals several things. To begin with, “nature” along the lines of the naturalism of the natural sciences, as the factically given spatio-temporal bodies and processes of the physical universe (or universes), is the lone, zero-level baseless base of this ontology. Obviously, this entails a rejection (ultimately on the grounds of Hegelian logic, in my case) of conceptions of ontology constrained by permutations of “ontological difference” à la Heidegger, with the ontic-ontological contrast being, by my estimation, insufficiently dialectical/speculative. Furthermore, however, I argue, buttressed by empirical as well as philosophical justifications, that the nature of a science-informed naturalist ontology need not and, indeed, should not be envisaged (as do so many advocates and denouncers alike of garden-variety scientisms and naturalisms) as a massive totality or seamless whole in which each and every entity and event is exhaustively determined by a foundational set of efficient causes qua iron-clad, inviolable laws of necessary connection. This vision of nature is epitomized by the familiar figure of Laplace’s Demon and could also be labeled, in hybrid Lacanian-Badiouian locution, as the big Other of the One-All of Nature-with-a-capital-N. Instead of such a freedom-prohibiting, subject-squelching “strong” Nature—faithful to Lacan and Žižek here, I maintain that this is yet another non-existent big Other—transcendental materialism portrays nature as “weak” in the sense of it being a detotalized, disunified non-One/not-All of distinct, heterogeneous levels and layers of beings shot through with and riven by a thriving plethora of antagonisms, conflicts, fissures, splits, and the like (as paradigmatically embodied by the “kludge”-like central nervous system of human beings). These intra-natural negativities short-circuit what otherwise would be the heteronomy-enforcing determinism of a single, God-like Nature with its compulsory commandments. In a related vein, I advance, as I believe is requisite for my purposes, arguments against the reductivisms, eliminativisms, and epiphenomenalisms of scientistic—I would go so far as to say “pseudo-scientific”—objections to recognizing the real, efficacious actualities of a multitude of agencies and constellations appearing to resist being collapsed down to the crude bump-and-grind mechanisms of narrow (mis)construals of the natural (especially life) sciences.
To cut a long story short—the second volume of the trilogy tells this story in detail—I depict the weakness of nature (a phrase I trace back to Hegel himself, with his repeated employment of the phrase “Ohnmacht der Natur”) as the root meta-transcendental necessary condition for transcendental subjectivity itself. The latter is a second-order subjective/more-than-objective matrix of possibility conditions immanently arising out of weak nature as a first-order substantial/objective network of possibility conditions. In other words, if nature was not this weak, instead being (overwhelmingly) strong, then the self-determining spontaneity of transcendental subjects could not genetically emerge in and through bottom-up trajectories out of exclusively natural-material substances.
Moreover, A Weak Nature Alone articulates this ontology through a historical narrative inspired by both Žižek and, perhaps surprisingly, the 2002 book Tales of the Mighty Dead by Pittsburgh Analytic neo-Hegelian Robert Brandom. Following Žižek’s employment of Freudian-Lacanian Nachträglichkeit/après-coup, I perceive transcendental materialism as a new development “creating its own past” in the form of a history that explicitly comes into view only retroactively, after the fact of the advent of this newness. Following the Brandom of Tales of the Mighty Dead (these “historical essays in the metaphysics of intentionality,” as per this book’s subtitle, recount the pre-history of Brandom’s “inferentialism”), this retroactively revealed history is so eclectic as to have gone unrecognized before, its connections between diverse thinkers and moments widely distributed across different contexts and traditions previously having been (at least partially) invisible. The motley crew of protagonists in A Weak Nature Alone includes the Hegel principally of his undeservedly neglected and maligned Naturphilosophie; the Engels of the “dialectics of nature” (equally and with equal unfairness rubbished and ignored); the Russian/Soviet partisans (Plekhanov, Lenin, Bukharin, et al) of science-engaged Engelsian dialectical materialism (contra the anti-Engelsianism of post-Lukácsian Western Marxisms running through both the Frankfurt School and Althusserianism); the Lacan of a Lacanian neuro-psychoanalysis (foreshadowed in my portions of Self and Emotional Life as well as already in Time Driven  and Žižek’s Ontology, too); and, Anglo-American Analytic philosophy as represented primarily by John McDowell’s neo-Hegelianism as well as the Stanford School of the philosophy of science (particularly Nancy Cartwright and her “dappled world”).
The manuscript of A Weak Nature Alone is nearing completion. I have just a few shorter portions of it left to write, with outlines already composed for those remaining unwritten segments. Nonetheless, due to a combination of personal and other professional obligations, I probably will not be ready to turn over the finalized version of it to Northwestern University Press until early 2014. This means, assuming Northwestern U.P. does not reject it as unpublishable, that it will not see the light of printed day until sometime around 2015. In the meantime, my Adventures in Transcendental Materialism, forthcoming in 2014, covers closely related terrain. As for the third and final volume of Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism, Substance Also as Subject, I feel it fitting to discuss that in response to your next question.
PG: As you trilogy has been developing, I was wondering if there were particular sticking points you didn’t see coming.
AJ: Whereas A Weak Nature Alone deals with substance (i.e., weak nature) as the meta-transcendental necessary condition of possibility for (transcendental) subjectivity, Substance Also as Subject—obviously, the title of the third volume is taken from the preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit—deals with the transcendental sufficient conditions of possibility for subjects. The “subject” is here the irreducible, ineliminable ensemble of more-than-material structures and dynamics (as reflexive and recursive) immanently transcending the material grounds out of which this subject nonetheless emerges and without which it would not exist at all in the first place. The second and third volumes of the trilogy are divided between an ontology of meta-transcendental substance and a theory of transcendental subjectivity respectively, with the former furnishing the necessary conditions for the latter.
I have yet to get well and truly underway with the writing of the third volume. Right now, Substance Also as Subject consists of a collection of rough notes, lists of likely relevant texts, and a few prototype drafts of sub-sections of what eventually will be the book itself. To start directly responding to your question, some of the “sticking points” are not actual present so much as potential future ones. First of all, I still am toying around indecisively with competing plans for how to organize the third volume. I currently am inclined toward a plan according to which the book would be divided into two major halves, one focused on phylogeny (i.e., the historical genesis of human socio-symbolic configurations) and the other on ontogeny (i.e., the temporally elongated movements of subject formation), with the halves each being divided into three parts reflecting the three fields most important for transcendental materialism as an interdisciplinary theoretical orientation: science, psychoanalysis, and philosophy. However, restricting myself to the two dimensions of phylogeny and ontogeny leaves out the third dimension of non/pre-human natural history. Darwinian evolutionary theory is a hulking presence in the background of my materialist position. But, I suspect it will be too much to try to tackle it directly within the confines of the third volume as a single book. Moreover, with Darwin’s long shadow falling over the biological resources I definitely will be employing no matter what in any final version of Substance Also as Subject, I am not too worried; numerous reverberations of the Darwin-event (to misappropriate some Badiouian phrasing) inevitably will register themselves in this work.
I will need to pause with writing once I finish the second volume and immerse myself in a lot of additional reading in preparation for the third volume. Certain “known unknowns” and, in all likelihood, presently “unknown unknowns,” too (to use some of the categories of Rumsfeld’s epistemology dear to Žižek’s wonderful sense of humor), are sticking points insofar as these loci of my own ignorance will slow me down by forcing me to delay launching into the composition of Substance Also as Subject. I intend to concentrate my yet-to-be-done preparatory research on additional literature in the natural sciences and Analytic philosophy of mind (I already have done the bulk of the psychoanalytic and Continental-philosophical reading crucial to my agenda in the third volume, although I will be spending some time revisiting Simondon’s and Deleuze’s corpuses). Functionalism and emergentism in philosophy of mind and cognitive science will be of special concern to me in these preparations. I am confident that the final third of the trilogy will be much better and more worthwhile for me being patient and allowing myself the time to work through a wider range of pertinent authors and texts. I already have put together the skeleton of the theses of Substance Also as Subject, but I want this last installment of the trilogy to have ample flesh on its bones. Hence, I anticipate that it will not be until 2015 at the earliest that I will begin writing this book in earnest.
Another sticking point for me, appropriately enough, has to do with what philosopher of mind David Chalmers famously dubbed “the hard problem.” To be more precise, I am unsure of whether I can or should (and, if so, exactly how) attempt to grapple specifically with so-called “qualia” (i.e., the phenomena of private, first-person sensory experiences) as they figure in mind-body debates amongst Analytic philosophers. I am tempted to continue hewing to the angle I have adopted to this thus far, sidestepping the issue while remaining cautiously optimistic that the perceptual components of experiences—in line with Kant, Hegel, and McDowell, among others, I consider experience always to involve a complex admixture of percepts and mediating concepts—sooner or later will receive satisfactory bio-physical explanations. Previously, I have justified this sidestepping by emphasizing that the subject at stake in my theory of subjectivity is, to stick with the immediately preceding terms, inextricably intertwined with conceptual mediation (rather than being anchored in perceptual [supposed] immediacy). With reference to Lacan’s psychoanalytic distinction between ego (moi) and subject (sujet) and his distinctive conception of the latter, the perception-consciousness apparatus of the ego is not what preoccupies me, as it arguably does those heavily invested in the squabbles about qualia. Or, put in yet other words, I am more interested in the rapport of active conceptual sapience, instead of passive perceptual sentience, with bio-physical bodies. For me, there is another hard problem: the enigma of how material nature becomes self-sundering, auto-disruptively giving rise to denaturalized “spiritual” (à la Hegelian Geist both subjective and objective as well as both “I” and “We”) beings instantiating and individuating themselves in and through virtual webs of socio-symbolic (quasi-) materials. But, whether a solution to my hard problem depends on a prior solution to Chalmers’s is a question I wish to give additional thought. Again, I will need to reassess these issues after further reading and reflection.
PG: Of course, everyone claims to be a materialist these days. How do you differentiate your work from other dominant materialisms? For example, while it’s clear you think Badiou’s formalism is one dead end for materialism, you also steer away from the “new materialisms” of such people as Jane Bennett.
AJ: As your question already suggests, nowadays the word “materialism” has been rendered almost meaningless through absurd overuse. When formalist metaphysical realisms and spiritualist theologies can and do pass themselves off as militant “materialisms,” merely identifying oneself as a materialist becomes, by itself, an uninformative gesture at best. I maintain that any materialism worthy of the name must be, as the Lacan of the tenth seminar might phrase it, not without (pas sans) its conditioning relationships with matter(s) as the spatio-temporal forces and factors encountered precisely through the a posteriori observations and experiments of Baconian modern scientific method and its post-Baconian variants. The arguments supporting this multi-aspect stipulation, with its greater stresses on the sciences and naturalism, entail disqualifying as genuinely materialist many self-styled materialisms recent and contemporary, particularly those of more rationalist or religious bents.
As you note, I contend that Badiou’s a priori mathematical formalism is fundamentally incompatible with his materialist commitments. This contention is spelled out in the fourth chapter (“What Matter(s) in Ontology: The Hebb-Event and Materialism Split from Within”) of The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy. However, in response to your question, his now-familiar distinction, from the preface to Logics of Worlds, between “democratic materialism” (with its particularist “there are only bodies and languages”) and the “materialist dialectic” (with its universalist addition “except that there are also truths”) is relevant and insightful at this juncture (transcendental materialism converges with key features of Badiou’s materialist dialectic as per his 2006 masterpiece). I agree with the basic gist of this Badiouian distinction, an agreement I clarify and qualify in A Weak Nature Alone. Moreover, his broader point that the ancient conflict throughout the history of philosophy between idealism and materialism (as per the traditional Marxist narrative of Engels, Lenin, and Althusser, among many others) recently has morphed into an intra-materialist antagonistic division is well illustrated by exactly what motivates your very question. That is to say, the ongoing battle for the title/term “materialism” is one of the overdetermined primary sites of “struggle in theory” today.
Your mentions of Jane Bennett and the various “new materialisms” are quite fitting and helpful in this context. The twelfth and final chapter of my forthcoming Adventures in Transcendental Materialism is devoted to articulating criticisms of Bennett’s “vital materialism” (as per her 2010 book Vibrant Matter) and William Connolly’s closely related “immanent naturalism” (as per his 2002 book Neuropolitics and 2011 book A World of Becoming). Due to the initial appearance of uncanny proximity between immanent naturalism especially and transcendental materialism, spelling out the differences separating these two positions that make for a real difference between them as distinct stances proved to be an important and productive exercise at the end of Adventures in Transcendental Materialism. And, the first three chapters of Adventures in Transcendental Materialism set up these later criticisms by revisiting Hegel’s Spinoza critique with an eye to its still-enduring relevance. To be more specific, I view one of the main fault line of current intra-materialist tensions to be that dividing neo-Hegelian materialisms (such as those of myself and Žižek) from neo-Spinozist ones (such as those of Bennett, Connolly, and many other “new materialists”). Basically, reading the first of Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach” as an extension of one of Hegel’s key complaints about Spinoza’s monism (and this whether Marx himself was aware of the connection or not), I portray Bennettian vital materialism and Connollian immanent naturalism as both being “contemplative” materialisms in the sense problematized already in 1845 in Thesis One. Overall, the ongoing debates concerning contemporary materialisms strike me as often echoing the conflicts of the German-speaking intellectual world of the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries—more precisely, the disputes concerning the relations (or lack thereof) between consequently systematic philosophies and philosophies of radical autonomy initially stirred up by Jacobi’s use (and abuse) of Spinoza, with these disputes remaining thereafter central to the development of Kantian and post-Kantian German idealism.
In addition to a German philosophical background from Jacobi through Marx casting its long shadow over today’s clashes and divergences between neo-Spinozist and neo-Hegelian materialisms, a more recent French background far from unrelated to this older German one also inflects the intra-materialist factionalizations of the early twenty-first century. The neo-Spinozism of the majority of new materialists tends to be that of Deleuze. Of course, Žižek, Badiou, and I, by contrast, rely broadly and deeply on Lacan (for instance, Badiou appropriately depicts Lacan as foreshadowing his own efforts to overcome the opposition between asubjective “system” à la Althusser [a self-confessed neo-Spinozist] and subjective “freedom” à la Sartre [an inheritor of a Cartesian-Kantian-Hegelian line of thinking about subjectivity]). Obviously, the reality and place of “the subject” is the big bone of contention between a Spinoza-Deleuze axis and a Hegel-Lacan one.
Not only do I reject the Althusserian/Deleuzian insistence on the inseparability of anti-humanism and anti-subjectivism as based on an illegitimate equivocation between the concept-terms “human being” and “subject”—for a number of reasons, I simply do not think that the structures and phenomena characteristic of what is referred to as “subjectivity” validly can be replaced by monochromatic monisms of non-subjective entities and events all arrayed on a single, flat, uniform field of being. The causally efficacious real abstractions of the structures and dynamics of subjects resist being conjured away through quick and easy reductions, eliminations, fragmentations, dissolutions, dehierarchizations, or deconstructions. For me, the true ultimate test of any and every materialism is whether it can account in a strictly materialist (yet non-reductive) fashion for those phenomena seemingly most resistant to such an account. Merely dismissing these phenomena (first and foremost, those associated with subjectivity) as epiphenomenal relative to a sole ontological foundation (whether as Substance, Being, Otherness, Flesh, Structure, System, Virtuality, Difference, or whatever else) fails this test and creates many more problems than it supposedly solves. Such dismissals are as similarly unsatisfying in my eyes as the contemplative outlooks of Feuerbach and his eighteenth-century French materialist forerunners were in Marx’s.
PG: As you’ve noted one think that you’re quite critical about in recent Continental philosophy is its anti-naturalism, in particular its seeming allergy to discussing the empirical findings of contemporary science. Why do you think that came about?
AJ: The hostility to naturalism and the natural sciences dominating twentieth-century Continental philosophy save for a handful of exceptions—this animus continues to skew the perspectives of most self-professed Continentalists and their allies in the theoretical humanities—unsurprisingly has a complex history behind it. As I see it, its roots trace back to the final years of the Holy Roman Empire. In that time and place, as the context giving rise to Continental philosophy itself as springing primarily from the twin fountainheads of Kant and Hegel, anti-Enlightenment Protestant Pietism becomes a powerful intellectual influence (partly thanks to Jacobi who, well before Heidegger and his disciples, makes the “nihilism” of rational disenchantment a central concern of European philosophers). In particular, German Romanticism and the more Romantic sides of German idealism (especially Hölderlin as well as Schelling at several of the many phases of his Protean philosophical evolution) embrace a Pietism-tinged spiritualist animosity to the Enlightenment’s secular rationality. Of course, these late-eighteenth-century developments are continuations of the antagonism between science and religion that immediately arises with the birth of the former early in the seventeenth century with Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes. Moreover, the Pietist-Romantic backlash against scientific-style Enlightenment reason (and the atheistic consequences it threatens) comes to color the subsequent two centuries of European philosophy; a line of scientific naturalism’s enemies forms from Jacobi on through Schelling (particularly in his later years), Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, and many others, including these figures’ legions of contemporary followers (to this anti-Enlightenment axis, I like to oppose the one I am allied to that includes Hegel, Marx, Engels, Lenin, the later Lukács, Freud, Lacan, Badiou, and Žižek). Not only is it no accident or coincidence that the recent so-called “post-secular turn” initially arose within phenomenological circles—this turn is not even really recent or original, with the late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century origins (i.e., Protestant Pietism and German Romanticism) of phenomenology, existentialism, and their offshoots already having taken such a turn against the secularism of the Enlightenment. As even the most unperceptive observer of our current collective situation knows, we still are fighting on multiple fronts variants of the now four-centuries-old science-versus-religion conflict (however, in a larger historical perspective, four-hundred years is not that long a stretch of time).
Furthermore, the “critical theory” of twentieth-century Western Marxism partially dovetails with the not-so-secular neo-Romanticism of the existentialists and phenomenologists. On the European continent in the twentieth century, anti-naturalism/scientism makes for some very strange bedfellows, implicitly uniting such adversaries as Heidegger (with his warnings about the desacralizations of nihilistic techno-scientific “enframing”) and Adorno-Horkheimer (with their similar warnings about the dystopian nightmare of the “fully administered world” of “instrumental reason”). The 1923 publication of the early Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness opens up a rift between Eastern (i.e., Soviet) and Western Marxisms, with Engels’s dialectical materialist engagements with the natural sciences being a main point of divergence. In line with the Lenin of 1908’s Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, the Soviets stick to the project of extending and enriching Engels’s “dialectics of nature,” whereas, starting with the young Lukács, Western Marxists tend to repudiate Engelsian Naturdialektik, preferring a narrower version of historical (rather than dialectical) materialism whose social constructivist commitments justify an overriding preoccupation with cultural analysis and ideology critique. This anti-Engelsianism marks both the Frankfurt School and Athusserianism alike despite their many other differences. Hence, in twentieth-century European philosophy, hostility to naturalism and the natural sciences spans the full political spectrum from the far Right to the radical Left, cutting across otherwise opposed positions. In the second volume of Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism, A Weak Nature Alone, I both tell this story about Engels’s disputed legacy as well as seek to reactivate the abandoned Soviet option of interfacing historical and dialectical materialisms with the sciences of nature.
Of course, I would be the first to concede that, when parties as far apart as Heideggerians and Adornians end up tacitly agreeing with each other, there most likely is something really there to which they all are responding. In this context, there indeed are countless grave problems plaguing (post-) modern (post-)industrial societies as themselves thoroughly dependent upon scientific knowledge and technological know-how. Conservative neo-Romantics and revolutionary Marxists both are similarly registering and diagnosing intertwined sets of cultural, economic, political, psychical, and social symptoms (although, obviously, their prescribed remedies, if and when proffered, differ dramatically). My fidelity to an Enlightenment-rooted, science-informed atheistic materialism does not uncritically disregard these problems/symptoms despite its contention that the majority of twentieth-century Continental thinkers react to them with misdiagnoses and misprescriptions (I will address the more ideological dimensions of scientism in response to your next question below).
I continue to favor a somewhat classical Marxist perspective on science and technology in two specific senses. First, although I am no partisan of crude pseudo-Marxist economism (whether that of the Second International or Stalin), I think that Marx’s historical materialist critique of political economy is correct to emphasize that, particularly under capitalism, economic forces and factors by and large usually exert more socio-political influence than other aspects of social structures. In line with this, I am certain that infrastructural rather than superstructural determinants are the main drivers of science, technology, and their rapid, steady evolutions and expansions within and across societies. In the words of one of Marx’s criticisms of Hegel, looking for ultimate, final explanations of (capitalist) techno-science/scientism in terms of cultures, philosophies, spirits, worldviews, and the like amounts, when all is said and done, to the vain effort to make history march on its head.
Second, Marx treats machinery in particular (as it figures in processes of industrial mechanization) with true dialectical finesse in ways directly relevant to any consideration of science and technology in relation to larger social dimensions. Although science and technology have been driven along by and become absolutely indispensable to capitalist modernity and late-capitalist post-modernity—admittedly, they thereby contribute greatly to innumerable social ills and injustices—scientific savoir and technological savoir-faire are not inherently by nature properties exclusively of capitalism. For Marx, capitalism’s machines help make possible a post-capitalist socio-economic future (as the Wagnerian Žižek would put it, the wound can be healed only by the spear that smote it). These technical instruments and tools indeed contribute to status quo misery both material and “spiritual.” But, these deplorable negative effects do not emanate from any kinds of asocial, independent essences of science and technology; they produce their consequences and results in relation to the larger, enveloping socio-economic configurations with which they are enmeshed. Marx anticipates that the machinery expropriated by socialism from capitalism will have different infrastructural and superstructural effects once unplugged from a capitalist social structure and plugged into a socialist/communist one. Contra any sort of Romantic neo-Luddite perspective—no thinker is less of a Romantic than Marx—one could say about the machines of capitalist techno-science that the symptom is not the disease and that the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater.
As is quite well known, Continental science-phobic anti-naturalism also is of a piece with the general Continental-Analytic divide sadly still shaping philosophy departments in the English-speaking world in particular. In this intra-philosophical culture war, one mirroring persistent wider frictions between “hard” and “soft” disciplines (i.e., formal and natural sciences versus all other neither-mathematical-nor-scientific fields), a taken-for-granted pact between the warring sides parcels out territories of explanatory jurisdiction such that Analytics typically handle the sciences. Continentalists thus are left the arts and humanities to pit with sneering resentment against Analytics after this philosophical carve-up of the other disciplines outside philosophy. I see no good reason to accept this division of interdisciplinary labor along the established lines of the Continental-Analytic split. In fact, I am absolutely convinced that resources furnished specifically by German idealism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis (orientations considered to be provinces of Continental philosophy) have enormous amounts of potential for philosophical reckonings with the empirical, experimental sciences. I believe that much more can and should be done in bridging the Continental-Analytic rift in relation to the sciences than just importing cherry-picked bits of phenomenology into the discourses of cognitive science and philosophy of mind, which accounts for a lot of the bridge-work done thus far. Deleuzian engagements with the sciences, another type of related bridge-work, too often seem to me to drown out scientific details in the repetitive chanting of the boring old refrain hen kai pan, turning the colorful, multifaceted resources of the sciences into black cows in a moonless Spinozistic night.
What is more, German idealist, Marxist, and psychoanalytic engagements with the sciences of the past several decades—in particular, I am interested in engaging with biology and its branches—arguably shed new light on the distinction between science and scientism (with the latter as extra-scientific misrepresentations of the former). Especially when it comes to the life sciences, as themselves the most immediately relevant of the natural sciences to (materialist) theories of subjectivity, many Continentalists and their fellow travelers throughout the humanities subscribe to some questionable, and sometimes outright false, articles of faith: All philosophers of mind are Churchlandian eliminative materialists; Biology itself supports such eliminativism (or, at least, austerely reductionist frameworks); There is no room in any bio-materialism for such more-than-natural things as properly historical dynamics, socio-symbolic mediators, uniquely human forms of sexuality, unconscious sides of mindedness and like-mindedness, etc.; The sciences and their Analytic advocates promote vulgar determinisms functioning as insidious ideological naturalizations of reigning socio-historical distributions of power.
Not only do these dubious beliefs unfairly ride roughshod over the wide variety of here-pertinent positions in Analytic philosophy—with a gullibility reinforced by a superficial impression of biology that goes no further than a textbook gloss on Watson and Crick (overlaid on top of a sense of the sciences as still basically wedded to the Newtonian Weltanschauung of corpuscular matter in mechanical motion), they accept at face value the most extreme scientistic distortions as representative of the sciences themselves. Although some scientists readily provide grist for the polemical mills of Continental anti-naturalists, suffice it to remark that far from everything scientists say is scientific (including even when they are talking about their own disciplines). By contrast, my simple message is that one does not have to sell one’s soul (in this instance, one’s denaturalized subjectivity) in order to dance with the scientific devil.
Along with Malabou, Žižek, and a few others, I philosophically interpret recent developments related to epigenetics, neuroplasticity, and the like as signaling a “paradigm shift” of sorts intra-scientifically revolutionizing the biological understanding of human beings. And, in good Hegelian-Marxian fashion, I consider immanent critiques almost always to be preferable to external ones. Whether mounted by right-wing neo-Romantics, left-wing critical theorists, or whoever else, assaults on the sciences from a purely non/anti-scientific outside have proven to be ineffective and unconvincing at best (if not intellectually detrimental and/or ideologically dangerous). Instead, a dialectical-speculative reading of contemporary biology’s own logics, as a creative reenactment of the “organics” of Hegel’s Naturphilosophie (especially as per his description in the Phenomenology of “Observing Reason” as culminating in phrenology), yields an image of humanity very different from the one presumed by the majority of Europe-leaning scholars across the humanities as necessarily arising from the empirical sciences of nature. On this note, I have another simple (and, hopefully, encouraging) message for humanists: There is growing scientific support for contesting the scientisms they rightly despise.
This question and the subsequent two cover significantly overlapping areas. In fact, my answer to this question already has bled over into what is asked about in your next one. So, let me turn to it now.
PG: Can you speak further about philosophy or theory’s relation to science? I think the move is dominant today–whatever Continental philosophy is doing–to remake the humanities in the science’s image; this of course is an old story going back a long time in Anglo American philosophy. Thus while you might be right to reread Freud and Lacan with the latest scientific findings in mind, some may worry that’s just a quick step to someone taking an Occam’s razor and getting rid of this humanist discourse in the first place.
AJ: To begin with, and as I already indicated earlier, I am adamant in claiming that the conflict between the anti-naturalism of the prevailing Continentalism of the theoretical humanities and the flat, one-dimensional monist naturalism of certain (but far from all) Analytic philosophers and natural scientists is the wrong battle. The falsity of this struggle is due to an erroneous assumption shared between these two otherwise opposed factions, namely, that the sciences inevitably and invariably furnish nothing but “Occam’s razors” (to employ the phrasing of your question) suited only for brutally slashing to death conceptions of human subjects resisting reduction or elimination. From my perspective, these naturalists are overconfident aggressors not nearly as well-armed as they believe themselves to be. And, the anti-naturalists react to them with unwarranted fear, buying into the delusions of their foes that these enemies really do wield scientifically-solid, subject-slaying weapons. This underconfident reaction thereby lamentably and unpardonably abandons the entirety of the vast terrain of the sciences to the barbarism of the worst species of pseudo-scientific naturalism.
By contrast, I defend a combination of, one, an ontology of a “weak nature” (as I defined this phrase in my response to your first question) epistemologically reflected in the enduring disunity of the branches and sub-branches of the natural sciences (as analyzed by, for example, the Stanford School of the philosophy of science) with, two, a strong version of emergentism (including autonomous subjects arising out of asubjective substances, with the former as irreducible, ineliminable transcendences-in-immanence vis-à-vis the latter). This specific combination, as emblematic of the heart of transcendental materialism in terms of its interlinked ontology and theory of subjectivity, entails philosophically reinterpreting the sciences of nature such that I justifiably can proclaim as regards vulgar scientistic naturalism that, so to speak, the emperor wears no clothes (and does not possess the razor-sharp implements he imagines himself to own as his personal arsenal). Empty-handed adversaries do not deserve to be feared. Moreover, fear of them, as unfounded as their corresponding overconfidence, ought not to shape one’s intellectual strategies and tactics.
Hegelian “concrete universals,” Marxian “real abstractions,” and Lacanian “structures that march in the streets” all similarly can be pressed into the service of arguing against epiphenomenalisms according to which human mindedness and like-mindedness (as both “subjective” and “objective” Spirit [Geist] in Hegel’s senses) can and should be analytically decomposed and dissolved. That is to say, even if the structures, dynamics, and phenomena of singular and collective subjectivities are in some respects illusions, unrealities, virtualities, etc. (for example, instances of “folk psychology” as per Churchlandian eliminative materialism), insofar as these fictions actually steer concrete instances of cognition and comportment, they are causally efficacious. And, hence, they are far from epiphenomenal qua eliminable fantasies (incidentally, one does not have to be a practicing clinical psychoanalyst to be acutely aware of just how influential fantasies are in the lives of flesh-and-blood human beings). In other words, subjects and their (virtual) realities are concrete, real abstractions that not only walk amongst us, but, in essential fashions, indeed are us.
If the epiphenomenalisms of eliminativists, mechanists, reductivists, and crude naturalists are fatally flawed, then any metaphysics (qua systematically integrated epistemology and ontology) aspiring to thorough completeness must take stock of and do justice to the peculiar existences of strongly-emergent subjects and their (inter-)related structures, dynamics, and phenomena. To refer once more to the exact wording of your question, the presupposition that any science-informed philosophical/theoretical apparatus necessarily is involved in an endeavor to “remake the humanities in the sciences’ image” presumes too much, namely, that the various epiphenomenalists are fundamentally correct in assuming that all interdisciplinary relationships involving the natural sciences must be lop-sidedly one-way as flowing exclusively in the thereby-privileged direction of these sciences as the prioritized alpha-and-omega foundational Ur-disciplines. Put differently, only if the epiphenomenalists are basically right should all science-shaped materialisms conform to the standardly accepted generalization having it that any and every such materialism automatically entails transforming the humanities on the basis of the sciences but never vice versa.
Therefore, in connection with the preceding and for reasons I already have spelled out here, my transcendentalism materialism, although admittedly seeking to affect various changes to the subjects of the humanities through bringing them into contact with the sciences, also and at the same time aims reciprocally to bring about changes to the sciences through rendering more-than-natural/substantial subjects absolutely immanent to these sciences’ natural substances. Faced with a materialist theory of irreducible denaturalized subjectivity supported by a science-indebted ontology of weak nature, the sciences, in order to think “substance also as subject,” have to shift away from worldviews grounded upon a strong Nature-with-a-capital-N (i.e., Nature as the One-All of a big Other of subjectless substance both at one with itself as a whole and exhaustively determining each and every one of its parts and sub-parts). This would amount to a profound shift with myriad consequences for any number of scientific research programs, especially the life sciences concerned with human beings. Overall, transcendental materialism facilitates and insists upon two-way, mutually modifying flows of influence between, on the one hand, the natural sciences and, on the other hand, the social sciences and the humanities—and this rather than a misconceived winner-takes-all, zero-sum death match between science and all comers.
Other broad aspects of my conception of the science-philosophy rapport can be highlighted through another reference to Badiou. I am sympathetic to select aspects of his manner of situating philosophy vis-à-vis its extra-philosophical “conditions” (i.e., the “generic procedures” of “truth-production,” with the truths philosophy thinks being generated by “events” outside of it). As is common knowledge, Badiou identifies four such generic procedures: art, love, politics, and science. In the cases of the artistic and political conditions of philosophy, with their specifically artistic and political events and truths, he refuses to formulate a “philosophy of art” or a “political philosophy” as instances of the philosopher arrogantly informing artists or activists what their practices are or ought to be; artists and activists do not need the philosopher to do their thinking for them. Instead, Badiou’s “inaesthetics” and “metapolitics” represent philosophical registrations of properly artistic and political events and truths respectively (unlike traditional philosophy of art and political philosophy as imposing philosophical preconceptions about art and politics onto these extra-philosophical fields). So too for science in Badiouian philosophy: Focusing on the formal science of mathematics, which (as the post-Cantorian trans-finite set theory of Zermelo-Fraenkel plus the axiom of choice) Badiou identifies as itself ontology per se (i.e., the pure-as-non-ontic thinking of “being qua being” [l’être en tant qu’être]), he offers a philosophical interpretation of the Cantor-event and its truth-consequences (up to and including Paul Cohen’s work on the continuum hypothesis) in the form of a “metaontology.” Badiouian metaontology is to science what his inaesthetics and metapolitics are to art and politics respectively.
Badiou and I differ a propos what counts as “science.” Under the influence of Koyré and mid-twentieth-century French neo-rationalist epistemology, he limits it to pure mathematics and perhaps the most thoroughly mathematized dimensions of physics (particularly quantum physics). For him, unlike for me, the phrase “life sciences” is an oxymoron. But, in the spirit, albeit not the letter, of Badiou’s thinking, I also identify science (construed more broadly than Badiou) as a condition of philosophy in the Badiouian sense that it would be presumptuous for me to formulate a “philosophy of science” (perhaps it would be fair to say that I furnish something closer to a “metabiology” or a “metabiological” theory of the subject). I am neither willing nor able to do the scientists’ thinking about their sciences for them, which they already do much better than I could. But, as a committed materialist for whom the empirical, experimental sciences of nature are key conditions for ontology especially, I feel inescapably bound to respond to these disciplines, interpreting and assimilating what, by my best assessments, they disclose that looks to have potentially major and lasting philosophical significance. Moreover, in cases where scientists’ presuppositions and/or posits spill over into the more-than-empirical, extra-scientific terrain of interdisciplinary theoretical speculation (as they inevitably do), philosophy clearly has pivotal roles to play in refining and/or challenging such assumptions and assertions.
PG: I was wondering if you could talk about the political stakes of your trilogy. Your previous work has focused on how to think the event and the possibilities for political change. Has any of that thought been reconsidered given what you’ve been writing recently?
AJ: My earlier labors on politics and the trilogy currently in progress primarily share a profound indebtedness to Marxian historical and dialectical materialisms. Then and now, I consider an important side of transcendental materialism to be what it contributes by way of addressing the questions, problems, concerns, and disputes it inherits from leftist political materialisms beginning with Marx and Engels. As I said at the beginning in response to your first question, I put forward transcendental materialism as, in part, a contemporary permutation of Marxian-Engelsian dialectical materialism.
Before discussing the recent and not-so-recent socio-cultural history behind the political facets of the trilogy itself, I want briefly to sketch in what respects I see transcendental materialism further enriching dialectical materialism in the Marxist tradition. I quickly will list four aspects. One, it seeks to turn the natural sciences generally and the life sciences particularly, themselves economically and ideologically central to late-capitalist globalization, into Trojan horses harboring infrastructural and superstructural implications undermining capitalism from within (for example, such issues as the copyrighting and engineering of plant, animal, and human genomes, private and public health policies, and a teeming plethora of environmental concerns—these issues all are entangled with biological sciences—have become key sites of social struggles). Two, it frontally attacks those specifically scientistic ideologies speciously naturalizing this enshrined socio-economic order (particularly Hobbesian-style visions of “human nature” dressed up in pseudo-biological disguises by capitalism’s apologists). Three, it helps inoculate Marxism against intra-Marxist straying away from dialectical materialism and wandering toward either idealisms (whether covert or overt) or non-dialectical (i.e., pre/anti-Hegelian) materialisms (a range of Western [post-]Marxists allegedly are guilty of this, from the early Lukács of the 1920s to the likes of Colletti). Four, transcendental materialism, in its handling of the pairs nature-society and heteronomy-autonomy, enables fine lines to be navigated between the Scylla of overblown “determinism” (whether as economism, Stalinism, Althusserianism, attentisme, fatalism, etc.) and the Charybdis of equally overblown “freedom” (whether as Blanquism, anarchism, putschism, utopianism, voluntarism, etc.). This fourth aspect is the one most to the fore in my prior critical analyses of the political stakes of the Badiouian event and the Žižekian “act” to which you refer in your question. All four of these political dimensions of transcendental materialism are crucial to the three volumes of Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism.
Panning back from Marxist theory to a wider historical panorama, it seems to me quite uncontroversial to remark that the tensions between science and religion have not gone away after four hundred years since the dawn of the modern secular sciences. Not only do permutations of this conflict between the scientific and the religious run throughout many of the historical times and places covered in my work (such as the France of the French materialists of the mid-to-late eighteenth century, the Europe of the Left/Young Hegelians of the mid-nineteenth century, and the Russia of the Bolsheviks of the early twentieth century)—they still are with us today. Of course, the most familiar, widely disseminated variations on the hackneyed science-versus-religion theme within the mass-media worlds of journalists and politicians are easy for comparatively more sophisticated intellectuals to mock as antiquated, cartoonish, simplistic, uninformed, and so on. Although these variations indeed are bad abstractions in the ways faulted by such criticisms and dismissals, they nonetheless simultaneously are all-too-real abstractions. In other words, even if today’s popular cultural recyclings of clashes between science and religion are ignorant anachronisms, they are, as it were, live anachronisms with legs misguidedly but unfortunately continuing to march on the streets of our present-day times. Like what now appears to be the sadly self-fulfilling prophecy of the awful Huntingtonian “clash of civilizations” (an initial lie that has viciously forced its way into geo-political realities to terrible effect), the widespread clinging to past (mis)conceptions of the scientific in relation to the religious (often involving the Christianity and Islam to which Huntington refers as certain “civilizations”) really has contributed to dragging the contemporary conjuncture backwards. Ideas have tendencies not to remain confined to the imagined inner sanctum of private, isolated minds; they translate and transform themselves into materialized socio-historical actualities with palpable causal efficacy. As Žižek’s theorizing drives home with special power, ideology, despite its name, is far from strictly a matter of the ideational alone.
Recently, Badiou has hypothesized that the renewed luster of timeliness taken on by Marxism is due not (only) to the prophetic quality of many of Marx’s pronouncements: It is not so much that Marx intellectually leapt forward from his mid-nineteenth century into our early twenty-first. Rather, we have socio-economically regressed back to his times, with post-Reagan/Thatcher capitalism being, in many ways, as savage and cruel as that of early industrial England. Even shameless cheerleaders for capitalist globalization, such as the writers for The Economist, readily admit of their own accord that, nowadays, we are living in a new Gilded Age with even greater inequalities than in the old one; the obscene amounts of wealth continuing to be steadily accumulated in the hands of a tiny minority would make even a robber baron blush. Along similar lines, Žižek has taken to arguing that we have regressed further back still, to the Hegel who, before Marx, sheds light on a “rabble” (Pöbel) immanently generated by capitalism but differing, in several important respects, from Marx’s proletariat proper. Žižek’s argument here is that those around the world immiserated and dispossessed by today’s global capitalism tend to be excluded altogether from the formal economic system, instead of being included-as-exploitatively-employed within it (as in the case of the low-skilled factory wage-laborers focused on as paradigmatic in Marx’s analyses).
My friendly supplement to Badiou’s and Žižek’s observations in these veins involves looking at the transition between Hegel and Marx (in addition to Hegel and Marx themselves). That is to say, in a shared Badiouian-Žižekian spirit, I would argue that we also have regressed, in specific fashions, back to the time of the Left/Young Hegelians’ critiques of religion and its political repercussions. Of course, the entanglements of Christianity and post-Napoleonic reaction in the German-speaking world of the 1830s and early 1840s were, in certain non-negligible respects, peculiar to that context. But, from well before the Zeitgeist of Feuerbach et al through our current conjuncture, religious ideas and institutions, in various evolving guises, stubbornly have remained knotted together with numerous things political. In this vein, for Badiou, Žižek, and me, the later Lacan’s critical modifications of Freud’s Enlightenment-style notions about the science-religion rapport are crucial inspirations for our understandings of the present version of entwinements of techno-scientific capitalism with neo-fundamentalist religiosities (I discuss this at several points in The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy). Hence, just as the critique of religion went hand-in-hand with that of existent political circumstances for the Left/Young Hegelians (more so than Marx acknowledges in moving beyond them), so too for me (as well as for Badiou and Žižek): The critique of today’s revived religiosities is inseparable from that of scientisms and capitalism. Moreover, as the immediately preceding already implies, I feel it necessary to amend and qualify the early Marx’s statement, a declaration of his break with the Left/Young Hegelian movement opening the introduction to his 1843/1844 “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” that, “the criticism of religion has been essentially completed.” Put with brutal succinctness, subsequent history since has decompleted it. In the face of new theological and spiritual ghosts proliferating and flourishing all around us, a new critique of religion uniting the heart of Marx’s anticlerical French materialist and Left/Young Hegelian predecessors with the head of Marxist non/post-contemplative materialism (i.e., not the unnuanced scientistic atheism of Dawkins and company) and Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalysis is, at least by my lights, desperately needed.
Finally, given my investments in the life sciences, it would be natural for someone to wonder what I might have to say about the topic of “biopolitics” still so fashionable in Continental philosophy and the theoretical humanities. A propos its initial incarnation in the late Foucault’s formulations, I vehemently disagree with his assertion that the Marxists of Really Existing Socialism in the twentieth century failed to wrestle with what he associates with biopower. An inspiration for France’s nouveaux philosophes, Foucault caricatures Marxism as blinkered by an obsession with traditional state apparatuses and, hence, just as prey as capitalism to the insidious rise of biopolitical paradigms of governmentality. As I argue in A Weak Nature Alone, this totally ignores the intense theoretical and practical experiments at the intersection of politics and the (life) sciences conducted in the first decades of the U.S.S.R.’s existence (its slide into technocratic-bureaucratic dictatorship certainly was not due to a lack of serious reflection upon the rationally planned, mass-scale management of the life of populations demographically conceived). Not only do I contest Foucault’s claims about the radical Left’s past relations (or lack thereof) with biopolitics—unlike him, I also believe that a renewed Marxist confrontation with biopower nowadays is both possible and even preferable to any non-Marxist ones.
As I understand Agamben, his popular updating and extension of the Foucauldian theory of biopolitics involves correcting Foucault’s own habit of sometimes talking as though this new framework for governing simply supersedes the old model of sovereignty. I concur with Agamben’s thesis that biopower (varyingly conceived) functions to modify, rather than replace, sovereign power, being a historical mutation internal to the latter. That said, I have reservations as regards the Agambenian bios-zoē distinction so central to Homo Sacer and many of his other texts. Malabou already is developing problematizations of this distinction on the basis of epigenetics and plasticity à la the life sciences. She is quite right that Foucault and Agamben exhibit little knowledge of biology despite discoursing at length about things “bio-.” While completely agreeing with her about this, I nonetheless feel compelled to reconcile the scientific falsity of the bios-zoē conceptual couplet with what strikes me as an undeniable ring of truth resonating out from Foucault’s and Agamben’s descriptions of biopolitics. My version of such a reconciliation would be that the bios-zoē distinction can remain true as a real abstraction (i.e., a causally efficacious ideological reality) precisely because it is scientifically false at the level of bio-material being. The actual, factual absence of “bare life” as a first-nature zoē unmediated by second-nature bios is precisely what allows the untrue virtual fiction of such a distinction to bed down in the the literal flesh of human bodies and thereby become “true” despite its scientific and ontological falsity (and this through remaking the subject’s body in its own image, with this body being open to such remaking precisely through its lack of zoē as standardly understood). This “true lie” thereby eclipses and effaces the corporeal ground that simultaneously makes it possible and contradicts its specious truth. Or, put differently, its practical-political victory testifies to its theoretical-philosophical defeat, however much or little cold comfort this affords.