Thursday, March 7, 2013
Theses on Materialism and Ontology, the intro text for SAIC's thesis publication
I. Materialism as a whole is a question of the present. This is meant in two senses that are intimately related. On the one hand we may ask, “what does it mean to be in the present?” This is a question of time. On the other hand we are confronted in experience with that which is present to us. This, conversely, is a question of space. From the traditional Kantian perspective time is the internal quantitative limit of the subject. Change is the substantive quality of time, in the sense that the subject can account for time only through an internal register of change. It follows that we are nothing more than a formal series of changes predicated by the I, or ego, a multitude immanent to the I in the form of memory. Space, on the other hand, is the ideal external limit. It is a given multitude; given in the sense that the external is made present for us. These presumptions have determined our common sense perspective on space and time for much of modernity. The two concepts represent formal epistemological limits through which experience coheres as a whole. Nonetheless, it begs the question, are time and space necessarily bifurcated and independent?
II. The history of materialism occurs in two great moments: first as empiricism and second as physics. Through empiricism, reality is no longer imagined as the relationship between substantive matter and immaterial Idea. As such time and space are the loci of aesthetic sense. Time is the serial presentation of space in the present. Under these conditions of thought, it is no longer sensible to demarcate the two categories. We do not experience the present as that which has occurred already, as the tip of a given multitude, projecting into an ideal future—a future that is the past plus its potential. Nor is space an independent general limit of a multitude of objects. Instead the past and future converge in a concrete now-time. With physics the sensory-aesthetic character of spacetime was proven to coincide with scientific models. Time becomes a dimension of space, by which the behavior of time modulates with the scale of space. Depending on the velocity of an object and its relative position to the observer the effect of time transforms. We are now faced with a complex revolution in thought, “what is the character of this now-time?”
III. In general, philosophical reason has been supplemented by science. This is unsurprising given both the explanatory power of its propositions and total integration of its objective realization as technology. The resultant ideological perspective is scientism, which defines the belief that there is no useful way of thinking outside of science. It is important to realize that a meaningful method of materialism is not the same as scientism. At bottom a rigorous empiricism treats any given fact as a tendency of the present, which is open to change and revision. In this way science and scientism are at odds. The history of philosophy contains a latent tradition of materialism, that remains unrealized. Specifically in the work of three philosophers, Spinoza, Whitehead and Deleuze, we find a description of spacetime in ontological, rather than epistemological terms. What is evident in their work is that it is unnecessary to treat the limits of scientific knowledge as analogous to the limits of actuality. More radically, it is unnecessary to equate human knowledge with truth. The image of reality as a totality of facts is supplanted by reality as a field of problems.
IV. It is essential that philosophy take up the problematic character of the present. As Deleuze describes, we are not faced with a representative totality of facts, but rather a multiplicity of sense, stated as a problem. Thus the breaks between scientific fact are not the limit of thought, but instead the spacetime of thought, in itself. For Spinoza the real is simultaneously a universal whole and an infinitely modular set of parts. Any proposition should be read through this lens. That which is present to us is both an image and a concrete organization of matter. Our problems have a degree of reference to an organization of matter, and a potential sensibility as an image. For instance we may describe a problem of military violence. The problem both references an actual state of affairs and an image of its potential characteristics. The image of reality then has a probabilistic relation to the state of matter. Where a problem articulated in the present may create an image that appears impossible given the present organization of matter, in time it may actualize itself over and against the possibility of the present. Only when thought is taken up as a means to create the impossible out of its own image can we begin to face reality. Materialism is a way to both initiate and master the crisis of our present, of our now-time. But we must act decisively, for our participation in reality is dependent upon our being as matter, a problem as of yet unforeclosed, yet imaginable as such.