Adrian Johnston: A Materialist Theory of the Subject

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of the past and the cause of the future. An intellect which at any given moment knew all of the forces that animate nature and the mutual positions of the beings that compose it, if this intellect were vast enough to submit the data to analysis, could condense into a single formula the movement of the greatest bodies of the universe and that of the lightest atom; for such an intellect nothing could be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

—Pierre Simon Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities

The motto of the age of science might well be: natural philosophers have hitherto sought to understand ‘meanings’; the task is to change them.

–Wilfred Sellers

What would a materialist theory of the subject look like beyond both mechanistic and eliminative materialisms? Well for one thing as Adrian Johnston states it in his new work Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism it “must be able to explain how subjectivity emerges out of materiality – and, correlative to this, how materiality must be configured in and of itself so that such an emergence is a real possibility” (27). Johnston harkens back to an early essay by Mao in which he espouses a view of conflict, contradiction, and movement coming at the internal core of things/objects rather than objects or things being passively moved or changed by external causes. For Mao this was not a rejection of external causation but rather an affirmation that “external causes are the condition of change and internal causes are the basis of change, and that external causes become operative through internal causes” (28).

All of this leads toward a affiliation between psychoanalytical metapsychology and dialectical materialism within many of the strands of contemporary materialisms in constructing a new theory of subjectivity. Johnston tells us that any new materialism will need to understand how the materiality of the human subject is at its core the intersection of a “plethora of incompletely harmonized fragments”; and, second, explain how both internal and external causes interact within this materiality of the human being in such a dialectical fashion. (24)

It is at this point that Johnston sees an affinity between his own current project and the work of Catherine Malabou telling us that her work “brilliantly brings to the fore these very issues through a simultaneous engagement with both dialectical materialism and cognitive neuroscience”(24).

[I must admit that I have as of yet read little of Malabou’s work so cannot comment to much on it, but have had mixed reviews of her work from others in the blogging community so will for the moment just let Johnston have his say and will at some future time comment on the good, the bad, and the ugly of his narrow use of certain traditions and sciences. As I read his work I did not see the litany of neuroscientists pulled out of that specialized field with any depth of confrontation, which for one purporting to use neuroscience within his materialist philosophy seemed to be a strange oversight on his part. But be that was it may I’ll hold off all judgments till my final summation. I’m sure my commenters will have their own say…]

What Johnston sees in her work is an affinity for a conflict ontology based upon the Hegelian, Mao, Lacanian, etc. sense of dialectical materialism as being informed by internal contradictions that need an new materialist explanatory-framework that might accomplish what those masters could not do for themselves: invent the possibility of a new dialectical materialist ontology worthy of the tradition and surpassing its inability to transform its own heritage. As he points out Malabou’s first attack on traditional forms of materialism in the sciences is the notion of ‘genetic determinism’ which seems so widely prevalent in modern literature on the subject. According to Johnston Malabou’s attack centers in on just the opposite, it is not genetic determinism but genetic indetermination (i.e., genes determine human beings not to be entirely determined by genes) and the neural plasticity linked to this indetermination ensure the openness of vectors and logics not anticipated or dictated by the bump-and-grind efficient causality of physical particles alone (29). The point of this is that the neurosciences have of their own accord produced a new materialist conception that is neither is irreducible to either a mechanist/physicalist nor eliminativist materialism, but is instead a conception that poses that the “natural contradicts itself and that thought is the fruit of this contradiction” (32).

In a little chapter entitled ‘A Weak Nature, and Nothing More: The True Formula of a Fully Atheistic Materialism’ Johnston returns to Lacan’s work. Citing his use of the Real as neither Kantian or even aligned with any of that totalized noumenal notions, but is instead what the “sciences enable to be accessed lucidly and rigorously in its truth”(34). As Johnston states it Lacan’s Real allows for a new twist in materialism, it poses an assertion of the “primordial real” of natural matter not as synthesized, but as already always “broken” – with this brokenness, the “self-shattered status of a disharmonious nature devoid of any One-All, being a material condition of possibility for the immanent genesis of subjectivity out of the conflict ridden groundless ground of materiality”(37).

Sometimes when I read sentences such as these I wonder just what the philosopher means by “conflict ridden groundless ground of materiality”. So much is left unsaid here or presupposed as if this little drop out of German Idealist traditions on to Martin Heidegger, etc. This conception of an original finitude documented so well recently by Lee Braver in his new book Groundless Grounds: be philosophers list of books to read in 2014.

What Johnston is actually meaning by this is provided in his summation for any future atheistic materialism: “there is just a weak nature, and nothing more” (37). He continues, saying:

All that exists are heterogeneous ensembles of less-than-fully synthesized material beings, internally conflicted, hodgepodge jumbles of elements-in-tension – and that is it. What appears to be more-than-material (especially subjectivity and everything associated with it) is, ultimately, an index or symptom of the weakness of nature, the Other-less, un-unified ground of being. The apparently more-than-material consist of phenomena flourishing in the nooks and crannies of strife-saturated, underdetermined matrices of materiality, in the cracks, gaps, and splits of these discrepant material strata. (37)

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1. The Tracery of a Pattern
2. Adrian Johnston: A Godless Discipline

1. Johnston, Adrian (2013) Prolegomena To Any Future Materialism – Volume One: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy ( Northwestern University Press)

8 thoughts on “Adrian Johnston: A Materialist Theory of the Subject

  1. There’s always going to be a problem going from a baffling, yet observable, phenomena to the unseen systems that explain those phenomena. It is an empirical fact that we are prone to dupe ourselves when arguing generalities. So the key, generally, is to minimize your metaphysical commitments as much as possible, sticking to mechanisms that promise eventual empirical resolution. This is naturalism, in a broad sense. Most of the interlocutors that Johnston would convince “to force profound changes in a two-way movement” between science and philosophy/psychoanalysis are going to ascribe something like the above.

    It’s not hard to imagine what they’re going to think of quotes like this:

    “All that exists are heterogeneous ensembles of less-than-fully synthesized material beings, internally conflicted, hodgepodge jumbles of elements-in-tension – and that is it. What appears to be more-than-material (especially subjectivity and everything associated with it) is, ultimately, an index or symptom of the weakness of nature, the Other-less, un-unified ground of being. The apparently more-than-material consist of phenomena flourishing in the nooks and crannies of strife-saturated, underdetermined matrices of materiality, in the cracks, gaps, and splits of these discrepant material strata.”

    To force any kind of change, Johnston and his crew need some way to convince naturalists to take the above as somehow compelling, let alone remotely possible. He can make gestures to this or that ‘condition of possibility,’ but he needs to explain what makes his configuration of conditions of possibility anything more than another controversial addition, another metaphysical claim that cannot be adjudicated. Transcendental deductions (hermeneutically construed or otherwise) have never worked before so why should anyone expect them to work now? Meanwhile the information flooding in continues to undermine the very notion of human theoretical competence outside the sciences. If BBT is even half right, the transcendental will itself become an empirical question. It’s hard to convince people bent on studying you!

    The ironic thing is that these are the kind of points Adorno made a long time ago. In his terms, this is Messianism, plain and simple. Think about it: The exception that is us shines up through cracks and gaps in the fabric of an intrinsically contradictory reality.

    You do realize this is the ontological model I use for my fantasy world, one that I designed to be scriptural!

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    • Haha… yea I was thinking of your nihilist fantasy as I saw that long almost German Idealist inversion of words…. one wants almost a pure descriptive language rather than these over the edge terms that say nothing at all really. One wonders what is it that these cracks, splits, gaps hold in them… again are we seeking a god hiding in the shadows, some power of metaphor to suddenly reveal itself at last.

      He does agree that we need to throw out Kant’s noumenal and except that yet, science will actually reveal more and more of this supposed hidden realm quantum fields etc. through its use of intstrumentations rather than by prying it up with words… words only go so far. Yet, we need our stories, too. Good thing about it is that philosophy is not science. At least for me it is the search for wisdom, not truth in the scientific sense that matters. Science will open doors philosophy never will. Philosophy will provide the intellectual acumen and framework for science. Either way we’re all winners if we accept the boundaries of our disciplines and don’t try to lord the one over the other. 🙂

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      • “Either way we’re all winners if we accept the boundaries of our disciplines and don’t try to lord the one over the other.”

        I actually think ‘turf anxiety’ is a primary motive for this text. One way to see the sociocognitive upheaval Johnston and others are attempting to cope with is in terms of discourse delegitimation. So long as the brain remained a black box, the speculative posits you find in Continental circles never need fear arbitration. But now… Science uniformly revolutionizes our prescientific understanding of every domain it colonizes. The gamble that Johnston and other Intentionalists are making is that the growing flood of information will somehow *redeem* traditional conceptuality (theirs in particular) rather than sweep it away. They think, given what seem to them inescapable metacognitive intuitions, that it simply has to turn out this way.

        My prediction is predictably pessimistic. In a profound, institutional sense, the turf war is already over, I think. No one actually involved in the science will bother engaging these kinds of views because they draw no added informatic water, resolve no issues, confirm no hypotheses. The monstrous institutional complex that are the empirical sciences of the human will lumber blindly forward, radicalizing the human by alien degrees, rendering it ever more compliant to commercial interests, and these ontological forays into the problem of cognitive science will be generally regarded as a kind of ultraconservative conceptual atavism. Eckart Tolle with footnotes.

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      • So for you there is no way forward, only the great feeding machine of capitalism and its blind frenzy? No alternative political regime in our future? No way out? No escape? You’ve just let the great gong of the control society break us and produce the final version of our cybernetic future. AI as the goal, androids as the ultimate worker in a hive economy where everything is folded into the inscape of some meshed society without outlet. A planetary civilization of zombies? No thought, no thinkers just blind brains of machines working in the hives of a global vat?

        You are sounding the themes of neoreactionary thought ala’ Nick Land and his cronies over at Outside In Nick of course is clarifying the neoreactionary thought forms and even formulating the new dynasties of the Eastern Front in Singapore: Urban Future (2.1): http://www.ufblog.net/

        He was a philosopher who abandoned this for the life on the lam as reporter of the Eastern Worlds of China and its rising power. Is this the model of the control society of the future? Strange days indeed…

        I admit being an atheist. I admit to being a communist. I admit to struggling against this form of apathetic acceptance of the machine. I will fight the good fight till I die. I may be a living anachronism, a creature of the fallen tribe, a being whose pursuit being Wisdom rather than knowledge seeks to enlighten others rather than darken them into slavery. If our ‘self’ is a social matrix, and illusionary dream, a fitful negativity blinded to its own processes: so be it… it is an illusion that has created great art and civilizations in the past, and will hopefully do so again. I blather, I fumble, I fall into rhetoric… yet, I will not go willingly into that dark night (Dylan Thomas) of machinic intelligence.

        Yet, the sad thing is you’re probably right when you say: “The monstrous institutional complex that are the empirical sciences of the human will lumber blindly forward, radicalizing the human by alien degrees, rendering it ever more compliant to commercial interests, and these ontological forays into the problem of cognitive science will be generally regarded as a kind of ultraconservative conceptual atavism. Eckart Tolle with footnotes.”

        For it is this matrix of “institutions” these false entities that live beyond our codes and are the power centers that control the flow of thoughts, information, and the incessant mind chatter of the hive that will probably through those very unconscious processes that we so willingly hide from ourselves that will fall before the neoreactionary forces of this planetary economy. Dark days indeed… Maybe all that is left is not salvation but the swann songs of humanity. Life boats and hidden centers of learning for this new dark age ahead. Hopefully someone will formulate such a archipelago to channel the frayed boats of humanity across this zone of terror.

        In my darker moments I imagine our machinic progeny quaintly looking back at this time indifferent and knowing, neither smiling nor crying – emotion being one of the non-essential ingredients of this new social machine – but observant – their quantum matrix lit up with a million million bits of information connected to the global hive: meticulous in their unwavering and unsleeping and undying lives wondering just what it must have been like to be human.

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  2. I remember the sense of tingling revelation I had reading Negative Dialectics for the first time decades ago, realizing that deconstruction was simply a negative dialectical ghost, believing that the point of the negative dialectic – making the incomplete nature of identity thinking explicit via it’s immanent collapse into contradiction – actually did evidence, as Adorno so eloquently and relentlessly argued, some Messianic moment, some thought BEYOND the tyranny of the instrumental, a thought that did not collapse back into the metaphysical circuit that so obviously has Johnston trapped.

    Then BBT came. As preposterous as it sounds, I now think I have a good inkling of what those apories that supposedly demonstrate the limits of identity thinking are, that I can frame it in language entirely commensurable with the sciences, that there really is no outside nature as describe by the sciences – that we have been posthuman all along.

    Some kind of dehumanization is inevitable. For me, the time has come to bite the bullet, to give up on the (Messianic) CONTENT of the Continental tradition entire, and to try to see our way through using its TACTICS of liminal conceptualization. I don’t expect to find anything redemptive. Once you cut the metacognitive umbilical you realize there’s no more reason to think noocentrism will be affirmed than biocentrism or geocentrism.

    But I hope. Teleonomy has some serious people interested. There’s some evidence of ‘backward causation’ at the quantum level. My gut tells me this won’t redeem anything, that it’ll simply reveal even more counter-to-intuition vistas. But who knows? Science is crazier than most people realize. And I have a four year old daughter who will actually have to fend the future that I so dread.

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  3. Pingback: Adrian Johnston: Toward a New Materialism | noir realism

  4. Pingback: Life as Perpetual Motion Machine: Adrian Johnston and the Continental Credibility Crisis | Three Pound Brain

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