Redefining Materialism

The predominant philosophical struggle occurs today within materialism, between democratic and dialectical materialism—and what characterizes dialectical materialism is precisely that it incorporates the idealist legacy, against vulgar democratic materialism in all its guises, from scientist naturalism to the post-Deleuzian assertion of spiritualized “vibrant” matter. Dialectical materialism is, first, a materialism without matter, without the metaphysical notion of matter as a full substantial entity—in dialectical materialism, matter “disappears” in a set of purely formal relations. Second, despite being materialism without matter, it is not idealism without an idea—it is a materialism with an Idea, an assertion of the eternal Idea outside the space of idealism. In contrast to idealism, whose problem is how to explain temporal finite reality if our starting point is the eternal order of Ideas, materialism’s problem is how to explain the rise of an eternal Idea out of the activity of people caught in a finite historical situation.1

As Adrian Johnston – a close reader of Zizek’s work, suggests: “I would suggest reading this assertion alongside Žižek’s thesis, central to Absolute Recoil, that “the only way to be a true materialist today is to push idealism to its limit.” In this instance, the only way to be a true Marxist historical and dialectical materialist today is to push Hegelian absolute idealism to its limit.”2

Against the Platonic notion of an eternal realm of Ideas, Zizek harbors the notion of Ideas arising out of a very real and concrete event and interaction between actual material participants (i.e., rather than Ideas as possibles to be realized, he portrays Ideas as the production of actuals). Against non-dialectical forms of scientific naturalism (i.e., democratic materialism in his parlance) dialectical materialism enters the maelstrom of Idealist thought and pushes it from within till it becomes its opposite much like the ancient I Ching pushes through the cycles and poles of male/female in a veritable enantiodramia.

  1. Zizek, Slavoj. Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (p. 73). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
  2.  Johnston, Adrian. A New German Idealism: Hegel, Žižek, and Dialectical Materialism. (p. 134)  Columbia University Press; Reprint edition (September 3, 2019)

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