Against Idealism Too: A Response to Critics

David Hawkes


The idols of the heathen are silver and gold, the work of men's hands.
They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not;
They have ears, but they hear not; neither is there any breath in their mouths.
They that make them are like unto them: so is every one that trusteth in them.
                                                                                   (Psalm 135:15-18)


1. A Note on the Soul

     1. To judge by their responses to my essay 'Against Materialism in Literary Theory,' my critics will already be recoiling in dismay at this deplorably 'religious' epigraph. Just about the only matter on which these respondents agree is their stern disapproval of such 'religious' vocabulary. To many of them, such terminology simply signals the end of serious discussion. It reveals, they assume, some residual, semi-conscious adherence to the dictates of irrational faith or, even worse, it betrays a covert proselytizing agenda. My use of the word 'soul' causes particular consternation. Christopher Kendrick remarks that: '[r]ead on its own, this seems a religious affirmation (or anyway to move in that direction),' before concluding that '"soul" is functioning as a figure for "subjecthood" or "agency."' Bryan Reynolds and Adam Bryx are less cautious, going so far as to describe my use of the word 'soul' as 'eloquent testimony to the almost instinctual hold that religious assumptions currently exert on [Hawkes.]'

     2. I wish time allowed for speculation as to what Bryx and Reynolds may mean by the term 'religious' here. Since it does not, I hope it will suffice to reassure them that I neither practice nor profess any organized religion. Whatever they intend by the word, its conventional meaning is not applicable here. Of course 'soul' is not necessarily a 'religious' term at all. It is not even incompatible with materialism.1 I think Michael Booth may be forgetting this when he offers 'mind' as a more respectably secular alternative:

'Soul' . . . is inseparable from religious discourses, and though I admired Hawkes's essay, I felt it taking an ill-advised swerve toward morasses of religious disputation in ending its second section with the question 'Is it true that human beings have no soul?' (21). Isn't the question of whether human beings have a mind a sufficiently pressing one in its own right? . . . This important work is not best served by casual semantic slippage between 'mind' and 'soul.'

Like all of these responses, Booth's essay is incisive and instructive in most respects, and his description of 'conceptual blending' sounds potentially productive.2 Most of his criticisms of my article are well taken; he is a sensitive and perceptive reader, and he notes several problems with my argument that I'm happy to acknowledge. In the above paragraph, however, I believe he makes an error. 'Soul' is not a synonym for 'mind.' It carries several particular connotations that I specifically wanted to address. Although no absolute generalizations are possible with such capacious concepts, the 'soul' usually includes the notion of essence (logos). It is thus to be distinguished from, and defined in opposition to, 'appearance.' The soul is what something really is, as opposed to what it appears to be. Hence its disappearance in postmodernist theory (and in postmodern experience), where the distinction between essence and appearance no longer holds. The soul also generally involves the concept of purpose (telos). The soul is that for the sake of which, and thus by means of which, any entity exists. Once again, such teleological concepts are incompatible with postmodernist theory or experience, which deny the existence of such ultimate purposes or intentions. My essay connected the death of the soul to a more general, popular, monist materialism, which I called the 'default position' of the postmodern West.

     3. The Aristotelian understanding of soul as logos and telos can be applied to any living thing, and the soul is in fact the principle of life itself. The mind is an entirely different concept. The predominant understanding of 'mind' descends from Augustine's mens, which he uses as the Latin version of the Greek nous. These terms equate 'mind' with reason, which is the highest element within the soul. It is not, however, identical with the soul, which also comprises emotional and appetitive elements. Furthermore animals and plants have souls according to Aristotle, but they do not possess nous. The notion of mind does not necessarily posit a distinction between appearance and reality, nor does it presuppose an aim or purpose. Clearly then, 'soul' and 'mind' are separate entities in the mainstream Western tradition.

     4. Thus I chose my terms advisedly. I wanted to connect anti-essentialism, which obviates belief in the soul, with the development and success of monistic materialism -- another route to skepticism regarding the soul -- among the Western middle- and upper-classes. Today, most educated Western people have arrived at the conviction that they simply have no soul: no essence, no purpose. This has become the 'default position' in Western society as a whole, and even people who may identify themselves as 'religious' to opinion pollsters often live, in practice, on the assumption that they are identical with their bodies. This is a recent way of conceiving of the self; both anti-essentialism and widespread monist materialism are postmodern phenomena, far more popular today than they have ever been before. There must therefore be some powerful inducement at work, specific to today's Western society, that leads masses of people to believe that they are purely physical creatures with no essence, purpose or coherent core of identity.

     5. The main thesis my essay advanced was that this materialism is part of late capitalist ideology. The postmodern economic system of market exchange, wage labor and the autonomous reproduction of capital forcefully encourages human beings to conceive of themselves as commodities -- for the very good reason that they have in fact become commodities, selling themselves for money on a daily basis. We must therefore apply the effects of commodification to the human subject, to our selves, because we have (almost) all become commodities in fact. The primary effect of commodification is objectification. A commodity per se is the object of exchange, and it is to be treated as a thing, an inanimate object, for the purposes of exchange. A thing becomes a commodity through a process of abstraction, by which it is rendered equivalent to every other thing for the purposes of exchange. When this process of abstraction is applied to human beings, we arrive at the proletarian as easily as at the slave. In the words of David Graeber:

. . . slaves remain marketable commodities that can be sold again and again. Once purchased, they are entirely at the orders of their employers. In this sense they represent precisely what Marx called 'abstract labor': what one buys when one buys a slave is the sheer capacity to work, which is also what an employer acquires when he hires a laborer. It's of course this relation of command that causes free people in most societies to see wage labor as analogous to slavery, and hence to try as much as possible to avoid it.3

The connection between materialism and the commodification of the self, whether by wage labor or slavery, is ancient. It is typifies both the Greek and Hebrew traditions. Both Testaments of the Christian Bible connect slavery with carnality: 'I am carnal, sold under sin' as Paul puts it in Romans 7:14. Carnality was the subjective manifestation of objective slavery. Translated into such a philosophical vocabulary, my epigraph from Psalm 135 tells us that the fetishization of representation brings about psychological carnality. Those who worship idols come to resemble them, insofar as they are inanimate, soulless. As Marx described this situation in 1843: 'Money is the estranged essence of man's work and man's existence, and this alien essence dominates him and he worships it.'4


2. Labor-Power and Life

     6. It may seem anachronistic to read such ancient texts as the Bible alongside Marx, let alone to apply them to the hyper-real psychology of the twenty-first century. And yet the modern philosophical critique of capital, never more timely than today, can trace its direct lineage back through Baudrillard, Lukacs, Marx, Feuerbach and Hegel to Lutheran exegetical methods. The Reformation emerged out of protests against commodified human activity, the worship of 'the works of mens' hands.' The idea that the Sacrament was an opus operatum, a 'finished work' effected by the priest, made the priest's labor valuable and saleable on the market, so that priestly labor was commodified. It was also fetishized, and ascribed a magical salvationary efficacy. Secular labor was fetishized too, in the form of indulgences: paper certificates representing a determinate amount of penitential labor, which were sold on the market and fetishistically endowed with redemptive power.5 The Reformation is the historical root, via Hegel and Feuerbach, of Marx's theories of alienation and commodification, and we cannot understand those theories if we fail to take account of their theological roots. Marx himself frequently drew attention to the continuity between Luther's thought and his own:

To this enlightened political economy, which has discovered -- within private property -- the subjective essence -- of wealth, the adherents of the monetary and mercantile system, who look upon private property as an objective substance confronting men, seem therefore to be fetishists, Catholics. Engels was therefore right to call Adam Smith the Luther of Political Economy. (3.290)

By superstitiously shying away from 'religious' words and concepts, several of my respondents seem to have lost sight of this indispensible, and still strikingly pertinent, element of the Western critical heritage. It is easy, today, to forget that Marx's concept of 'labor-power' is the direct descendent of Feuerbach's 'species-being,' which was in turn conceived as an objective manifestation of Hegel's Geist. 'Labor-power' plays the same role in Marx's thought that the essence, the soul, of humanity plays in such earlier versions of the dialectic. Feuerbach himself delineates this heritage very clearly:

This philosophy has for its principle, not the Substance of Spinoza, not the ego of Kant and Fichte, not the Absolute Identity of Schelling, not the Absolute Mind of Hegel, in short, no abstract, merely conceptional being, but a real being, the true Ens realissimum -- man; its principle, therefore, is in the highest degree positive and real. It generates thought from the opposite of thought, from Matter, from existence, from the senses; it has relation to its object first through the senses, i.e., passively, before defining it in thought.6

The difference from today's 'eliminativist' materialism is clear. Feuerbach claims that thought is the product of matter, which he calls the 'opposite' of thought. But thought nevertheless has an objective, independent existence for Feuerbach. For an eliminativist, in contrast, thought is not the 'opposite' of matter but identical to it: in other words, thought has ceased to exist altogether. On the one hand, Feuerbach differentiates his thought from its idealist predecessors here, claiming that his concept of 'man' is a radical departure from previous thought. And yet, in dialectical fashion, this principle of 'man' is identical in role and function to its philosophical forbears, and especially to Hegel's Geist. As Georg Lukacs explained in 1923:

God, the soul, etc. . . . are nothing but mythological expressions to denote the unified subject or, alternatively, the unified object of the totality of the objects of knowledge considered as perfect (and wholly known).7 (115)

Marx's 'labor-power,' which refers to human life considered en masse, is the modern manifestation of the collective human essence or soul. Feuerbach provided the bridge between Marx's labor-power and Hegel's Geist. As he put it almost a century earlier: 'I do nothing more to religion -- and to speculative philosophy and theology also -- than to open its eyes, or rather to turn its gaze from the internal towards the external.' (xi) For him, 'man' means man conceived in the abstract, man in general, which he calls 'species-being.' And it was this concept of 'species-being' that Marx translated into his notion of 'labor-power,' the ultimate source and true referent of all value. Labor-power is thus not a materialist concept, because it consists in a mental act of abstraction imposed upon material acts of labor. Labor-power is the conceptualization of labor, and concepts are not material but ideal. The labor-power that is incarnated in money, and which rules the world thereby, has no material existence whatsoever. As Marx explains in Capital:

Because all commodities, as values, are objectified human labour, and therefore in themselves commensurable, their values can be communally measured in one and the same specific commodity, and this commodity can be converted into the common measure of their values, that is into money. Money as a measure of value is the necessary form of appearance of the measure of value which is immanent in commodities, namely labour-time.8

Where there is an appearance, of course, there must also be an essence; and the essence of a human being is his soul. It may seem provocative to deny that Marx was a materialist, and yet both history and logic point to that conclusion. His most explicit declarations of allegiance to the materialist method were made in the midst of fierce, polemical debate with his 'idealist' opponents, the Young Hegelians. Some of the passages in The German Ideology in particular, which are often cited in support of materialism, are best regarded as over-emphatic rhetoric. Many of the texts in which Marx distances himself from materialism, such as the Grundrisse and the 1844 Manuscripts were not published until well into the twentieth century, by which time the materialist version of Marx had calcified into dogma. When tactics demanded, however, Marx was quite capable of inveighing against 'materialism.' He could do this because his own theory was neither idealist nor materialist, but dialectical:

The chief defect of all previous materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that things [Gegenstaende], reality, sensuousness are conceived only in the form of the object, or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism the active side was set forth abstractly by idealism -- which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such. . . . The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator must himself be educated. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. (5:3)

The theory of alienation, in any of its forms, assumes the existence of an originally autonomous subject that has undergone this ethically deleterious objectification. It is therefore incompatible with eliminativist materialism, which does not recognize the autonomous existence of the subject. When we understand that what is alienated as capital is nothing less than the essence, the soul, of the human race as such, the mythological antecedents (and implications) of this theory are brought into clearer focus. As another example, consider the 'immiserization thesis' whereby, as Marx puts it: 'The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces.' This thesis has often puzzled critics, since it is dramatically counter-intuitive and manifestly refuted by the merest glance at history. In reality, the material wealth of proletarians has generally increased along with the profitability of capital. But the immiserization thesis makes perfect sense if we remember that Marx is referring not to material but to spiritual poverty. Since the worker is alienating his very soul in the creation of value, the more value is created, the more alien his soul becomes, and it is in this sense alone that he becomes 'poorer.' Once again, Marx's logic is predicated on the existence of an autonomous subject that is, but should not be, objectified in alien form.

     7. It was this philosophical heritage that illuminated the gyrations of Geist within the dry political economy of Smith and Ricardo. The intellectual milieu of the Young Hegelians, in which Marx came to maturity, was replete with such post-theological concepts. Moses Hess's The Essence of Money is typical, as it probes the spiritual implications of the labor theory of value:

Money is human value expressed in figures; it is the mark of our slavery, the indelible brand of our servitude. Money is the congealed blood and sweat of the miserable wretches who bring to market their inalienable property, their most personal capacity, their life-activity itself, to barter it for a caput mortuum, a so-called capital and to consume cannibalistically their own fat. And all of us, we are these miserable wretches! . . . Yes, we must constantly alienate (veräussen) our essence, our life, our own free life-activity, in order to eke out our miserable existence.9

It was also this heritage that gave Marx the impetus to surpass such early political economists as Smith and Ricardo, who taught labor theories of value dependent on the individual acts of labor employed in the manufacture of a commodity. Marx, in contrast, insisted that only an act of mental abstraction imposed upon such individual acts of labor could enable a large-scale, exchange-based economy to function. Financial value, in capitalist societies, is not the representative of the acts performed as labor, but of human life as a whole -- the German term translated as 'species being' (Gattungswesen). This is the collective purpose and essence, the logos and telos, the soul, of humanity. Value is the dialectical opposite, not merely of labor-power, but of life itself. We cannot grasp the ethical implications of that fact unless we understand its history, and that leaves us no choice but to take flight into the misty realm of 'religion.'


3. Hyper-reality and the New Atheism

     8. It is clear that idolatry -- traditionally the sin from which all others flow -- involves the attribution of subjective agency to an object. Perhaps it is less immediately obvious that it also involves the translation of subjects into objective entities. But this must logically be so, for the concepts 'subject' and 'object' define each other, so that the transformation of object into subject necessarily, simultaneously and to the same degree involves the converse. Thus in this essay's epigraph the Psalmist declares that, just as idols are depicted as having artificial life, so the idolaters resemble the idols insofar as they are inanimate objects rather than active subjects. Both sides of the relation undergo a rupture between essence and appearance. The idols appear dead but are actually living, while their worshippers look alive but are in reality dead.

     9. According to Augustine's canonical gloss of this passage: 'there is a likeness to these idols expressed not in their flesh but in their inner man.'10 Paul develops such passages into a detailed diagnosis of the 'flesh' (sarx). This term does not designate the body, but rather those habits of mind that are oriented towards the body, the psychological condition produced by a reversal of the ethical hierarchy between body and mind: those mental practices generally described as 'carnality.' A 'fleshly' mind is 'carnal,' in the Biblical sense, and 'objectified' (or perhaps 'reified') in the philosophical: it elevates the demands of the body over its own needs and interests. As with other aspects of the law, Paul constructs a specific, topical antitype to fit the old dispensation's legalistic prohibition of idolatry. He identifies idolatry with the sin of 'covetousness,' and he describes them both as manifestations of worldliness or carnality:

Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (Colossians 3:5)

The role played by covetousness as the interior manifestation of idolatry has become axiomatic, even a rhetorical cliché. As a result it is easy to forget the careful logic behind it. Paul repeats the equation of avarice with idolatry at Ephesians 5:5:

For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.

The idea that the worship of God and Mammon are mutually exclusive (and thus also mutually definitive) is basic to all three monotheistic religions, as well as to all logocentric philosophy. To worship God is to acknowledge the logos as the ultimate source of value and significance. To adore Mammon is to fetishize the sign, to replace essence with appearance, to degrade the medium of representation into an object of representation. The true nature and functions of representation are thus eroded, and signs are fetishically regarded as significant and valuable in themselves, rather than as symbols of something else's value. A sign without a referent is no sign at all. When there are only signs, there are no signs, and we find ourselves in the situation that Jean Baudrillard and other postmodernists call 'hyper-reality.'11

     10. It is easy to trace the triumph of hyper-reality in the field we call 'economics.' In the Aristotelian vocabulary that dominated 'economic' debate for two millennia, to profit by trade was to impose an artificial and illusory 'exchange-value' upon a natural, inherent 'use-value,' thus occluding divinely created nature (phusis) by the man-made 'second nature' known as 'custom' (nomos).12 As with liturgical idolatry, this led to a concentration on appearance rather than essence, a focus on material rather than final causes, and, in sum, to a conviction that the data available to the senses constitute 'reality.' The economic power of exchange-value thus systematically replaces reality with representation, displacing nature with custom, and constructing a widespread false consciousness: a magical, man-made, fetishistic view of the world. To adopt a 'materialist' methodology in this context is to abdicate resistance to such tendencies in advance.

     11. That, in a nutshell, was my main argument. Brilliant as they are in other respects, none of my respondents has much to say about the influence of capital on subjectivity, although that influence is surely profound and obviously of importance to our discipline. Nor indeed do many other commentators in the field of literary criticism. The death of the soul (whether as an object of experience or a conceptual reality) is a significant historical phenomenon which scholars in the humanities ought to be well-placed to describe and evaluate. Why aren't we doing so?

     12. If we don't, others certainly will, for there is a palpable hunger for this debate. Consider the gleeful public reaction to the recent spate of books expounding the 'new atheism.' Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and their imitators were certainly heavily promoted by the media, and it would be naïve to ignore the pertinence to their success of the simultaneous Western military campaigns against opponents perceived to be religious fanatics -- wars which Hitchens was of course deeply involved in promoting. But this was more than propaganda. The 'new atheism' also seems to have struck a genuinely resonant chord, albeit in the kind of middle-class, middlebrow market sector which would not typically take an interest in complicated theological debate. Indeed Dawkins proudly boasts that he takes no interest in such matters himself: 'most of us happily disavow fairies, astrology and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, without first immersing ourselves in books of Pastafarian theology etc.' He imagines his scornful response to a future critic:

I know you don't believe in an old bearded man sitting on a cloud, so let's not waste any more time on that. I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.13

But Dawkins has misunderstood his putative opponent's point. When people say that they don't believe in an idea of God as an old bearded man sitting on a cloud, they don't mean that they have some superior image of God -- in the shape of Brittany Spears, perhaps, or Bugs Bunny. Their point is rather a general one concerning the nature of deity. They mean that the metaphors and images used to conceive God must be regarded as figurative. They must not be taken literally. By missing this point, Dawkins confirms that he is above all a literalist. If something has no literal existence, it is for Dawkins non-existent. By this standard, Homer is just as vulnerable to Dawkins's 'attack' as the Bible. Indeed any fictional discourse can be attacked thus, as can almost any pre-twentieth century school of philosophy. This is another excellent example of the dialectical 'interpenetration of opposites,' for Dawkins shares with his ostensible opponents, the religious fundamentalists, a profound ethical commitment to literalist hermeneutics.

     13. In fact this shared characteristic may turn out to be more important than their superficial differences. A moment's glance at the literature or media of the past clearly shows how our hermeneutic abilities have been sharply eroded over the last century or so. Any method of reading beyond a narrow literalism is now effectively a specialist skill, beyond the reach even of many otherwise well-educated people. Literalism involves an exclusive concentration on a text's surface meaning; literalists believe that what a text appears to say is what it actually says. It is a form of carnality, as Paul make clear in the course of his exhaustive welding together of legalism and objectification: 'For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.' (Romans 7:14). Legalism is literalism, and according to the letter of the law, we are all condemned to death: 'the letter killeth,' as Paul concisely puts it. Sixteen centuries later, John Milton could casually allude to 'the letter-bound servility of the canon doctors'14 and expect his readers immediately to grasp the conceptual link between slavery and literalist hermeneutics.

     14. The Christian scriptures effectively guard against literalism in their own interpretation when they present Jesus of Nazareth as teaching primarily through extended metaphors, conceits, tropes and parables. Indeed, He often emphasizes that His purpose in doing so is to separate His audience into those who are capable of a correct, figurative or 'spiritual' understanding of His words, and those who remain mired in a narrow, 'fleshly' literalism: 'He who has ears, let him hear.'15 So the rise of literalism as the 'default' mode of hermeneutics among the general population is as good an explanation as any for the decline of religion in the Western world. But in that case the further question arises: what has caused this predominance of literalism? It has obvious affinities with the empiricist assumption that appearance is reality, and also with the identification of human beings with their bodies, their appearances. Are all these phenomena best evaluated as parts of a single process? If so, how should we evaluate the process itself? Such were the questions which animated me in the composition of my essay. Now let us see what answers they provoked.


4. Against Idealism

     15. Before finally turning to the individual responses, however, I must dispose of one more illusion that appears common to all of them. I am not an idealist. Perhaps I gave a misleading impression when I observed that the possibility of an idealist historicism was inconceivable to most of today's literary critics. But my intention was to remark upon the bizarre yet widespread assumption that historicism is materialist by definition, and to show that many of the theoretical advances ascribed to materialism are in fact the products of historicism, which can theoretically be idealist as well as materialist. I was not recommending an idealist critical practice, however, for I regard idealism and materialism as equally mistaken, as mistaken for the same reasons, and as mistaken in the same manner. Indeed, I deny that idealism and materialism are opposite modes of thought at all. I see them as different manifestations of an identical intellectual error: reductionism, by which I mean the tendency to reduce a mutually definitive binary opposition to one of its poles.

     16. Monism of any sort is undialectical. Dialectics argues that, in the act of identifying anything as conceptually existent, we automatically bring something other than that thing into conceptual existence. We conceptualize things by their relation to what they are not, with reference to their 'other.' Identity is relational, not essential, so that such concepts as 'ideas' and 'matter' must be understood via their relation to each other. The apparent opposites interpenetrate, each side of the polarity bringing the other into conceptual being. One could not exist, in human consciousness, without the other. That is the core of my case against materialism, and it can be used with equal effect against idealism. I directed my criticism against materialism only because that is reductionism's currently orthodox form.

     17. Christopher Kendrick wisely perceives the pertinence of this issue. He begins his essay by considering what Lenin meant by his assertion that '"[i]ntelligent idealism is closer to intelligent materialism than is unintelligent materialism.'" It is an important question. Although Kendrick does not arrive at the same conclusion, I think that what Lenin means by 'intelligent' is 'dialectical.' It is the dialectical nature of Marx's thought that represents his advance on the past, not any alleged materialist departure from the idealist tradition. Although he elsewhere sometimes lapses into crude materialist causality, Lenin is here making the point that dialectics is incompatible with reductionist determinism. The greatest early Marxist thinkers often insist on this point, as when Georg Lukacs dismisses materialism determinism as an 'inverted Platonism.' In spite of the penetrating intelligence his essay displays throughout, however, Kendrick's commitment to materialism seems to bar his way to this interpretation of Lenin's dictum.

     18. It is well known that after Marx's death, Engels warned his followers against too dogmatic a materialist interpretation of his and Marx's work:

According to the materialist conception of history the determining element in history is ultimately the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. . . . The economic system is the basis, but the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the combatants also exercise their influence upon the course of historical struggles, and in many cases may preponderate in determining their form.16

Yet Engels still fails to acknowledge the theoretical objection that society must be conceived as a totality, and its division into 'areas' or 'spheres' as artificial and historically contingent, so that it makes no sense to think of one such 'sphere' as determining the others. He thus left the door open for the vulgar materialist interpretation of Marxism that was eventually endorsed by Lenin (who also established the false notion that Marx had referred to his method as 'dialectical materialism'), that was enforced throughout the world of institutional Communism by Stalin and his successors, and that, via Althusser and Foucault, has remained the dominant philosophical strain among Leftist literary scholars to this day.

     19. Today's materialism is strongest where it has traditionally been weakest: in departments of literature. Despite the enormous variety among their own opinions, to which my essay drew attention, a huge proportion of currently active literary critics would endorse Raymond Williams, the father of 'cultural materialism,' when he referred to the 'absolutely founding presumption of materialism' that informed his work.17 Meanwhile however, scientists no longer view the physical world as 'material,' but as consisting of sub-atomic particles that are not material things so much as empty potentialities. From their perspective, the distinction between matter and ideas is thus evaporating, and we are left with an undifferentiated mass of what Noam Chomsky calls 'stuff.' Some stuff may be denser, or more energetic, or more dependent on the human body for its existence than other stuff, but everything in the universe is qualitatively unified. In significant rhetorical contrast to their humanist colleagues, many scientists now prefer to be known as 'physicalists' rather than 'materialists.'

     20. The commonsense conception of matter still follows the definition offered by the eighteenth-century philosophe, the Baron d'Holbach: 'matter is what acts in one way or another on our senses.'18 The scientific recognition of material phenomena that are imperceptible to the senses greatly complicated such ideas of matter. If the basic components of sub-atomic physics are not immediately perceptible, then the world as we experience it with our senses is very different from the world as it 'really' is. The images that scientists construct of such phenomena are then human inventions, brought into being by other human inventions such as the microscope. Human beings create images of the data they analyze, and so the relation between the human mind and what it observes is seen to be two-way, or dialectical, as opposed to 'unidirectional.' The invention of the microscope brought home in very concrete form an ancient philosophical truth: we can see only what we have made. If we forget this, imagining that what we see is not produced by us, fancying that we can escape the constrictions of our situation, we elevate the works of men's hands to the status of nature. We commit idolatry.

     21. Once again, my point is that this mode of thought operates throughout the totality of life, affecting not only physics but also psychology, philosophy, aesthetics, economics and personal relations. It is clear that capitalism has, over the past four centuries, completely transformed the entire human and natural world to an extent inconceivable to any previous civilization. How has this been possible? Only by means of a comprehensive and unprecedented inversion, a mundus inversus, a reversal in the relation between the human subject and its objective circumstances. The system of wage labor and usury brings about an objectification of the subject, which is also a subjectification of the object. This system enlists previously objective forces such as representation as subjective agents, with productive, perfomative power. And due to the dialectical nature of their relation, the subjectification of the object also entails the objectification of the subject: 'those who make them are like unto them.'

     22. As we have seen, any exchange-based economy creates value out of difference, imposing artificial exchange-values upon the inherent use-values of objects, instituting the rule of signs over things. But postmodern capitalism goes much further, by removing ancient restrictions on 'usury,' thus allowing exchange-value to reproduce autonomously, without any human intervention. As John Holloway has recently observed: 'The separation of subject and object (the dehumanisation of the subject) is taken to new lengths by the extension of command-through-money.'19 Having achieved the capacity to reproduce, a distinguishing characteristic of life, exchange-value has become a subjective agent, with its own, independent needs, desires and aspirations. As the economy grows ever more financial and credit-based, the unceasing growth in the autonomous power of nominal exchange-value elevates the sign, the representation, the external appearance, to the status of the real.

     23. In a market society (that is, a society in which market-oriented assumption predominate in every 'aspect' of life), exchange-value determines the process of production quite as much as that of exchange. The very physical appearances that form the basis of the empiricist's study are themselves determined by the process of exchange. Matters as basic as whether a particular chair is blue or grey are decided in accordance with market research, with all its attendant assumptions about human subjectivity. Above all, human beings themselves are conceived as commodities. We therefore treat ourselves as we treat other commodities, and all the effects that are brought to bear on other commodities are also brought to bear on us. The same mental assumptions that make exchange-value possible in general also demand that we think of ourselves as mere appearances, outsides, bodies, brains. Entirely subjective concepts like 'character,' 'goodwill' or 'confidence' acquire precisely determinate, objective, 'economic' functions and values.

     24. The effect of this quantification on the quality of human life was predictable enough, as capitalism's objective effects are experienced at an individual, subjective level by society's members. Adam Smith notoriously begins The Wealth of Nations by extolling the most miniscule division of labor, eagerly anticipating the era when millions of people will do nothing but manufacture pin-heads all the working day. Such reasoning has produced today's mass alienation, in which the vast majority of people actively dislike their working life. In fact most people's working day is spent eagerly looking forward to five o'clock, so that the masses of humanity constantly wish for their lives to be over as quickly as possible. Life turns against itself, it wishes to become its opposite.

     25. It is often said that popular culture's fascination with the power of alienated labor is expressed in the vogue for zombie and vampire fiction. Anthropologists tell us that such zombie myths arise with and comment on the slave trade.20 In such mythology, human life rises up against itself in monstrous, externalized, unnatural form and, as generally happens in human societies, this mythology expresses a profound set of truths. Here we must restrict the discussion to the relationship between alienation and objectification, which receives its historical manifestation in the institution of slavery. To be the object of exchange is to be deprived of subjective agency, and throughout history slavery has been characterized as a condition of objectification. All commodities are objects of exchange. One of the reasons for today's widespread popular materialism is surely the fact that in capitalist society, slavery becomes virtually universal. When everybody is enslaved, the habits of mind traditionally equated with slavery -- sensuality, avarice, superstition, literalism -- will naturally become ubiquitous. How far away are we from such a situation today?


5. Universal Slavery

     25. As Marx predicted, the proletariat has become the universal class in postmodern capitalism. The vast majority of people in capitalist societies live by selling their time, their lives, their selves, on a daily basis: they are proletarians. According to Aristotle's canonical description, proletarians are piecemeal slaves. It is true that they sell their labor by the hour, not by the lifetime, and they may even experience this as a voluntary bargain. Yet Aristotle defines slavery as human activity directed towards an end that is not proper to the actor but to another. The slave's actions are not carried out for the purpose of benefit to the slave, but for that of the master. The telos of the slave's life -- and therefore his logos, his essence -- is a part, a property of someone other than himself. By this definition wage labor is piecemeal slavery. We are forcefully reminded of this whenever we are told that 'our time is not our own' while at work, or asked to pursue a particular course of behavior 'on our own time.' Marx follows the mainstream philosophical tradition in his causal relation between slavery and objectification:

If then our mutual thraldom to the object at the beginning of the process is now seen to be in reality the relationship between master and slave, that is merely the crude and frank expression of our essential relationship. Our mutual value is for us the value of our mutual relationships. Hence for us man himself is mutually of no value.21

As we would expect, the psychological tendencies traditionally considered characteristically servile have become universal along with slavery itself. Pre-eminent among these is materialism. In his discussion of Stanley Cavell, Malcolm Bull reminds us that slaves were frequently conceived as soulless beings: 'Cavell coins the term soul-blindness to refer to the failure to acknowledge humans as humans. One form of soul-blindness that Cavell considers is the possibility that slave-owners are soul-blind when it comes to their slaves'. . . .22 The subjective experience of the slave and the proletarian was held to be identical, insofar as both spent their working lives under the immediate direction and supervision of somebody else. The resulting habits of deference and obedience, the lack of independent initiative or volition, and above all the literally soul-destroying devotion of one's own, proper activity to the alien purposes of the person who has purchased it for money. Thus David Graeber concludes that:

. . . capitalism, or at least industrial capitalism, has far more in common with, and is historically more closely linked with, chattel slavery than most of us had ever imagined. . . . Clearly, 'wage labor' (as opposed to, say, fees for professional services) involves a degree of subordination: a laborer has to be to some degree at the command of his or her employer. This is exactly why, through most of history, free men and women tended to avoid it. . . . (61, 67)

Aristotle connects slavery to materialism according to the following logic. The proper end (telos) of a human being is to cultivate the soul. The human body is a means to this end. However a slave does not pursue the natural human telos of cultivating his soul, but rather serves the external, alien purposes of his master. In this sense the slave ceased to be fully human, and was regarded as a commodity, an object, a thing. Furthermore, in the natural state of things the body is conceived as the slave of the soul, for its purpose is to serve the soul's ends. If human beings direct their activity to serving the ends of the body, as for example in the irrational pursuit of pleasure, they are reversing this natural relation, and effectively enslaving themselves. In analogous fashion, the slave's life-activity, his subjective essence, is directed towards serving the alien purposes of his master. He therefore undergoes a corresponding internal alienation, reverses the proper relations of means to ends, and begins to live for the purposes of the body. As a result, it was often said that internal slavery involves the subjection of reason, the natural 'master' of the soul, to appetite (which ought to be reason's 'slave').

     26. This is the ancient logic connecting materialism and sensuality to slavery. Its longevity is doubtless linked to its ideological utility. The theory of 'natural slavery' depends on the assumption that some people are naturally suited to servitude. Such people can be identified by the materialist cast to their thoughts. Natural slaves are driven by purely material desires, and respond to purely material incentives. This was the reason why corporal punishment was limited to slaves; hence Shakespeare's Prospero emphasizes Caliban's servility by calling him one whom 'stripes may move, not kindness.' It was at least arguably just for natural slaves to be legal slaves, and empirically there is no reason to doubt that there was considerable convergence between the two categories. It was often said, for example, that only a natural slave would allow himself to be legally enslaved.

     27. Logically, however, the natural and the legal slave are quite distinct. Slavery certainly produces a servile subject-position, but it is not necessarily occupied by a servile subject. In The Souls of Black Folks, W.E.B. Dubois provides a compelling analysis of the effect of commodification on subjectivity, arguing that slavery inevitably introduces a breach between the outer and the inner self, a kind of systematic disjunction between appearance and essence. The commodification of anything introduces a split between its inherent qualities and its quantitative exchange-value. In the case of a human commodity, whether the life of a slave or the forty hours per week of a 'free' proletarian, an external, objective identity is superimposed upon the subjective self, with significant, generally malign, psychological consequences.

     28. Today, the condition that Dubois, like other thinkers reaching back to and including Aristotle, identified as 'slavery' has becomes virtually universal in a system of virtually universal wage labor. The psychological effects that Aristotle associated with slavery have spread along with its economic form. They can be summarized in a single phrase: the objectification of the subjective. Marx describes how capitalism inevitably produces a reified subject-position:

Inasmuch as this process establishes reified labor as what is simultaneously the non-reification of the laborer, as the reification of a subjectivity opposed to the laborer, as the property of someone else's will, capital is necessarily also a capitalist. The idea of some socialists, that we need capital but not capitalists, is completely false. The concept of capital implies that the objective conditions of labor -- and these are its own product -- acquire a personality as against labor, or what amounts to the same thing, that they are established as the property of a personality other than the worker's. The concept of capital implies the capitalist.23

Yet 'the capitalist' is not necessarily a human being. In fact, 'the capitalist,' like 'the proletarian' is best conceived as a subject-position ineluctably produced by the system of wage labor. Capitalism constantly throws up idols in the form of reified subjectivity, objectified labor-power that has acquired autonomous agency. It forces us to acknowledge the objective reality of these fetishes, thus inducing in us the illusion that material things have independent agency. Capitalism turns us into materialists. The rise of Baconian natural science, which depends on the same materialist assumptions, was part of the same epochal transformation in the relation between human beings and their objective environments as the rise of capital. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that the only natural scientist to respond to my essay at length seems to have received it more sympathetically than my humanist colleagues. Let us now turn to his response in detail.


6. Materialism in the Natural Sciences

     29. I read John Sutton and Evelyn Tribble's fascinating essay with mounting pleasure and interest. It was intriguing to consider that natural scientists may be more receptive to the anti-materialist case than scholars from the humanities. Not that Sutton and Tribble are anything other than unimpeachably materialist, of course (and Tribble is a humanist), but their differences from my position seem less fundamental than those between most of my literary materialist colleagues and myself. Some of those differences are purely terminological. I've mentioned the case of 'reductionism' above. I use the term in a sense derived from dialectical philosophy, to mean the illegitimate identification of a mutually definitive binary opposition with one of its poles. I believe that Sutton and Tribble use it in the sense derived from natural science, to mean the analysis of a whole by means of its constitutive parts. In my usage reductionism is inevitably mistaken, in theirs it can be a benign and necessary methodological tool. As a result, we talk past each other on the subject of reductionism, and on a few other related subjects too. This kind of dialogue is most useful in eliminating such minor misunderstandings.

     30. A more substantive difference emerges from the prominence and significance I attribute to 'ruthless,' 'eliminative' or monist materialism. This is the view, associated with thinkers like Daniel Dennett and the Churchlands, that all non-material elements of psychology must be dismissed as primitive 'folk wisdom,' roughly on a par with the tooth fairy or, to use one of the eliminativists' favorite mocking surrogates for God, the 'Flying Spaghetti Monster.' Sutton and Tribble join me in deploring this extremist tendency, but they deny that it is anything like as popular or influential as I suggest. To me, this seems to be a function of our disciplinary provenance. 'Ruthless' reductionism may not be as deeply entrenched in the natural sciences as it was a century ago, but among literary critics, eliminativist materialism continues to reign as a virtually unchallenged set of axioms. I'd also point to the commercial success of books like Dawkins's The God Delusion and Hitchens's God Is Not Great as evidence that the general Western public finds the crudest form of eliminativist materialism to be an accurate and convincing account of the human condition. That is a historically anomalous, indeed a completely unprecedented state of affairs, and it demands explanation.

     31. I would argue that eliminative materialism is the terminus of materialism as a whole, in both logical and historical senses. I believe that all materialism naturally inclines towards the reductionist, and that the twentieth-century blooming of monist materialism as the default position among the Western intelligentsia reflects this tendency. The instinctive assumption of educated Westerners that they have no soul is a development with no obvious or easy explanation, but it is surely the culmination of tendencies long resident within materialist thought. Sutton and Tribble have thus understood my position correctly when they note that 'Hawkes sees materialism as necessarily reductive . . . on his picture, eliminative materialism is materialism's natural and supreme form.' I would of course say the same about idealism.

     32. Sutton and Tribble assert that 'these [eliminativist] views are marginal in the cognitive sciences as a whole, despite the disproportionate media attention they sometimes get in our neurocentric age.' But the fact that they get disproportionate media attention is the point. Why do they get such attention, marginal as they are in the academy? Who wants them to get such attention? What interests are served by giving it to them? Above all, given the alleged marginality of such views, in what sense can ours be called a 'neurocentric age?' In short, I'd argue that the man on the Clapham omnibus is an instinctive ruthless eliminative materialist, in spite of the gentler, refined qualifications drawn up by specialists in their laboratories. As the success of Dawkins and Hitchens shows, it is the crude advocates of reductionist materialism who echo the Zeitgeist, and not their subtler colleagues.

     33. In any case, Sutton and Tribble generously concede that this should not be an insuperable barrier to our mutual comprehension: 'there are . . . "ruthless reductionists" in philosophy and cognitive neuroscience who claim that remembering and thinking are in fact not really psychological processes at all, but only neural processes. If Hawkes restricted his critical attention to these views, we would have no quarrel.' I'm happy to accept this restriction, with the proviso that the cultural impact of reductionism is often so subtle as to evade our conscious awareness. Indeed Sutton and Tribble are perhaps not entirely free of its influence themselves. They declare, for example, that 'simply labeling a position as "materialist" is in a contemporary context to solve little: all the interesting issues depend on what form of materialism one develops and defends.' Here they are quite explicitly starting from the assumption that materialism is the only valid philosophical approach, and that its basic tenets cannot seriously be challenged by anybody wishing to participate in the debate. This is eloquent testimony to the profundity with which materialism is engrained in the mindset of the Western intelligentsia.

     34. Sutton and Tribble's advocacy for their own preferred methods, such as functionalism and the 'new mechanism,' is certainly intriguing. I'm not sure, however, that such approaches could escape charges of reductionism from my perspective, as they still sound ontologically monist in the accounts given here. Furthermore, despite their admirable perspicuity on most issues, Sutton and Tribble have misread my position on a couple of points. It's surely unfair to claim that I take 'the soul, subjectivity, ideas, the mind, qualia, consciousness, and the self as . . . unchallengeable realities.' I don't believe in any unchallengeable realities; I'm well aware that such categories are successfully challenged all the time; that is why they change with history and social context. In fact, I'm not sure how any reader could get a different impression -- unless it is due to the presupposition that anyone who believes in the existence of such non-material categories must necessarily be an ahistorical essentialist. That would be another illegitimate, automatic, reflexive identification of 'idealism' with 'essentialism.' It is a similar sleight-of-hand to the one which equates 'materialism' with 'historicism,' and also to that which elides the possibility of idealist historicism. Indeed, I think that such sleights-of-hand account for a large proportion of materialism's current popularity. Theoretical advances achieved by historicist methods have been falsely claimed by materialism.

     35. Nor is it quite accurate to say that I consider materialists to be 'merchants of vanishing' who would conjure the human subject out of existence. Materialists do not always deny the existence of the subject (although many of them do), but they do necessarily claim that the subject is either exclusively or at least essentially material. Since subjectivity is logically and historically defined by distinguishing it from its material circumstances, to claim that the subject is material is to deny that it exists qua subject. The entity formerly known as 'subject' may continue to exist, in the materialist perspective, but it has lost its previously defining characteristic. It has been transformed into its dialectical antithesis. Materialists may not be 'merchants of vanishing,' then, but they are certainly traffickers in transformation.


7. Materialism in the Humanities

     36. The humanists who responded to my essay were ranged more solidly behind the materialist cause. In his invigorating and challenging essay, Christopher Kendrick performs a similar gesture to Sutton and Tribble when he tells us that 'it is a materialist axiom . . . that everything is situational.' Yet there is no reason why an idealist should not also regard everything as situational. Once again, materialism gets the credit for insights that were actually achieved by a quite different methodology. Kendrick's approach is characteristic of today's materialism in several other ways. Following Althusser, who happily declared that 'ideas have disappeared as such,' Kendrick claims that ideas are 'not just materially imbedded, but material themselves in a sense.' The last phrase is an interesting qualification, but we never quite learn in what 'sense' ideas can actually be 'material themselves.' Since ideas and matter form a mutually definitive binary, it is hard to see how one pole could be transformed into its opposite while still remaining itself. If the subject is an object, it is not a subject. If ideas are material, they are not ideas. Nevertheless, I'm grateful for Kendrick's reply; it was useful and informative, and I learned much from it.

     37. William Flesch's stimulating response provides another series of illuminating observations, and I think most of them quite compatible with my own conclusions. Our major difference does not concern his interpretation of my work, but mine of his. Flesch claims that I have wrongly described him as an evolutionary theorist, whereas in fact his work criticizes and refutes the central tenets of the evolutionary approach. While I still think my errors were understandable, I'm perfectly happy to concede this point. I'm committed enough to intentionalism to accept that, except in rare and extreme cases, the author is the person best-placed to explain the meanings of his words. In fact I believe that the putative 'death of the author' was among the strangest and most pernicious intellectual consequences of the death of the soul. There seems to me no reason why a single, unified, guiding intelligent purpose should not be discernible within a text, nor do I see any reason to deny that purpose its due authority over the text's meaning.

     38. Up to this point, then, I have no quarrel with Flesch. I am confused, however, when he takes me to task for using economic concepts such as 'colonialism' in an essay that protests against materialism. Flesch finds a contradiction here, and the fact that he does so reflects a characteristically modern misconception concerning the economy. For it is only a contradiction to employ economic determinism in an argument against materialism if one assumes that the economy is material. In that case, Flesh would be justified in charging that I had used a materialist argument against materialism, and I would be guilty of a logical contradiction.

    39. But the economy is not 'material.' It is a concept, invented in the eighteenth century as a way of exempting the self-seeking amorality of market behavior from the ethical norms applicable in the rest of life. In the age of mass production it was plausible, though still erroneous, to assume that this 'economy' was in some vague, undefined sense a 'material' phenomenon. In a consumer society, however, where the subjective preferences of consumers are more important in driving the economy than material production, and where the moods and vagaries of the purely psychological, non-material systems of representation known as 'money' manipulate the fates of nations with the same careless frivolity as the Homeric gods, the idea that the economy is a 'material' thing no longer seems tenable. Economic determinists can no longer be materialists when the economy is no longer material.

     40. Flesch makes a couple of other unwarranted assumptions elsewhere in his piece. He informs us that:

. . . there can be no rational doubt about the basic truth of the Darwinian theory of evolution (more particularly, no doubt about the basic truth of the modern synthesis of Darwinian ideas and genetics). I assume Hawkes doesn't doubt the truth of Darwinian evolution either. . . . The only real question is its relevance to thought about such things as knowledge, subjectivity, and being -- well, really, its relevance to thought.

Darwinism is certainly relevant to discussion about philosophy, literature and so on, but only as an example of the disastrous results of trying to graft the methods of the natural sciences onto debates within the humanities. It is worth pausing a while over the figure of Darwin, for his name has become a kind of materialist shibboleth, dividing the advanced intellectuals from the backwoodsmen in the public mind. Several of my respondents invoke him in support of their case, while others join me in suspicion of 'evolutionary criticism.' Christopher Kendrick is among the later group. He provides a concise summary of the current condition of evolutionary criticism. He also concurs with my observations concerning the ubiquity of sociobiology throughout popular culture, gloomily noting that 'we would seem doomed in the next few years to seeing more and more human traits and indeed behaviors located in certain spots of the brain, and correlated to genetic makeups.'

     41. Despite our agreement here, however, Kendrick does not draw the same connections as I do between the spread of pop-Darwinism and the ideological imperatives of market capitalism. This leads me to suspect that its status as shibboleth may have obscured the complicity of Darwinism with capitalism, just as it prevents us from acknowledging the extent to which today's evolutionary theory has moved beyond Darwin. The astonishingly high percentage of people who believe that Darwin 'invented' or 'discovered' the theory of evolution is eloquent testimony to the ideological utility of his account. William Flesch seems to endorse it when he claims 'there can be no rational doubt about the basic truth of the Darwinian theory of evolution.' I agree that any rational thinker must accept the fact of evolution itself. But I was very surprised by Flesch's assumption that I share his unquestioning faith in Darwin's explanations for evolution. There is of course no reason why Flesch should be familiar with my ouevre, but I have often made it clear, in print, that I regard Darwinism as a product of its historical era, as reflecting the ideological imperatives of market capitalism, and as having been superseded by later evolutionary theorists whose versions are more finely attuned to the ideological demands of our own day.

     42. Ten years ago, reviewing Stephen J. Gould's last and greatest work The Structure of Evolutionary Theory for The Nation, I argued that Gould was effectively announcing his own departure from Darwinism in this comprehensive summary of his own accumulated conclusions.24 There comes a point when enough new data incompatible with Darwin has been discovered that we can begin speaking of 'post-Darwinian' evolutionary theory. In the estimation of many, that tipping point was reached around 1980, with the confirmation of the 'K-T event:' the comet impact that caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. Such events are incompatible with Darwin's gradualist, unidirectional, monocausal theory. They are especially problematic for the points at which that theory corresponds with the demands of market capitalism, such as its location of causality at the level of the competitive behavior of individual organisms. As Gould recognized, they ultimately, cumulatively demand a thoroughgoing revision of Darwin's version of evolutionary theory.

     43. There are, to be fair, plausible reasons to claim Darwin for the Left. Christopher Kendrick makes this point well, noting that 'historical materialism was introduced as the social-historical equivalent, particularly, of Darwin's supra-historical biological materialism, and presented its rewriting of human history in terms of class struggle as analogous to Darwin's rewriting of the evolution of species in terms of natural selection.' We should also recall, however, that part of Darwin's achievement was to naturalize market behavior, by asserting that competition between individual organisms was the sole force driving evolution. To this day we hear him constantly invoked to rationalize greed and avarice in all their forms. Indeed Darwin was perfectly open about the economic inspiration behind his theory:

In October 1838, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic inquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on, from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result would be the formation of a new species.25

So there can be little doubt that Darwinism rationalizes, and is partly based on, capitalist economics. That ought to make anti-capitalists wary of Darwinism. However Darwinism is not the only available theory of evolution. The earliest version of that theory dates to Anaximander, and various kinds of evolutionary theory have been advanced and debated for millennia. Darwin's The Origin of Species was a response to one such theory: William Paley's Natural Theology. Contrary to the popular impression, the major difference between them does not concern Darwin's greater empirical rigor or respect for the fossil record. In fact Paley and Darwin read the same empirical data to opposite conclusions. For Paley, the fossil record points unambiguously to the design of a creator; for Darwin it locates causality at the micrological level of competition between organisms (and later, for Darwin's followers, between genes). The difference between them does not concern empirical evidence but the nature of causality. To find out what something is, Paley asks what is its purpose, its telos. For Darwin the only knowable causes are material. Darwinism is, in other words, the product of a materialist methodology, rather than the result of any empirical breakthrough or discovery.

     44. Flesch also invokes Richard Dawkins's pseudo-Darwinian concept of 'memes.' He has the impression that I 'equate them with the theory of mirror neurons,' which I don't, but Flesh is right to note that 'memes are better thought of as ideas.' The point however is that these 'ideas' behave exactly like genes. 'Memes' are subjective ideas treated as what they are not: as objective things. Indeed, we could imagine no more ringing endorsement of materialism than this loss of the ability to imagine ideas as behaving differently from things. 'Memes' do not confront each other in rational debate, as ideas have normally been conceived as doing, but rather engage in some phantasmagoric parody of the Darwinian struggle for competitive advantage at the genomic level. This is materialist determinism in its purest form, as causality is reduced to the smallest possible factor. Its widespread appeal makes it impossible to dismiss, but to me this seems an impoverished and myopic theory, best regarded as the postmodern version of phrenology -- another discipline in which the ruthless imperatives of materialism perceptibly over-rode the plaintive protests of common sense.


8. Supercalifragilisticexpialidociousism

     45. Mention of common sense brings us at last to Adam Bryx and Bryan Reynolds' scintillating piece of work. While perhaps not a typical example of materialist criticism, I'd argue that like the 'eliminativist' variety, it represents the logical and historical culmination of certain tendencies inherent in materialist methodology when applied to aesthetic matters. Readers who are unfamiliar with the field may be startled or even frightened by the opening sentence of Bryx and Reynolds' piece. It brightly announces that: 'Adam & Bryan invent the word "viscerallectric" (visceral-intellect-electric) to materialize the radically embodied, mindful, and intense experiences of implosive immanence that pass the threshold from event to eventualization.' Does this happy declaration lack a certain rigor?, the innocent reader may wonder. Do literary theorists really go about just inventing words and making them mean whatever they want them to?

     46. Of course they do, they always have, and there's no reason why they shouldn't. Reynolds' work has always excelled in this regard, and his prose revels gleefully in the theatrical qualities of philosophical language. In fact he often seems to be engaged in a conscious, concerted effort to break down the stylistic and conceptual boundaries separating theatrical from critical discourses. That project is clearly reflected in essays such as this one, in which various characters take the stage and address the audience from their own unique perspective. It is also evident in Reynolds' own dramatic works, which often introduce his theoretical concepts like 'transversality' onto the stage in the form of quasi-allegorical figures. This is an admirably ambitious and theoretically intriguing project, odd as it may look to outsiders. The article's conclusion may be particularly troubling for neophytes:

Achieved, albeit briefly, through Adam & Bryan's intersubjective transversality with the subject matters of this essay combined with other matters of assimilation, such as in zoozspace, their meditation on the topics of the soul and body, thought and affect, virtuality, fabulation, and actuality in immanent correspondence precipitated an implosion: the visceral, the intellectual, and the electric fervor of desire eventualized in a monist ecstasy fantasized by but rarely generated by philosophical investigation: "viscerallectrictude." Adam & Bryan experienced a remarkable event with significant historical duration. This is the how, why, where, and when the viscerallectrics emerged as, within, and through them. Simply put, Adam & Bryan offer the viscerallectric as a concept by which to account for the collapse, however manifested, of the apparent polarizations between the ideal and material, a kind of interpenetration of opposites.

Generous as it undoubtedly is, I must regretfully decline that offer. The unremitting recourse to neologism is not necessarily a problem, assuming that the essay is written in the spirit of Edward Lear. As self-parodic humor it succeeds brilliantly (that '[s]imply put' is delicious). But there is more to the essay than that. Bryx and Reynolds clearly feel that their writing style is perpetrated in the service of a serious idea. They believe that such a style accords with their brand of philosophical materialism, and they may well be right. For concealed amid the tomfoolery is a serious, symptomatic philosophical and aesthetic project. The ludic form in which it is advanced is of course an integral part of the argument itself, and the playful, theatrical manner of its presentation should not obscure its significance.

     47. It is therefore the more regrettable that their claims are made among some seriously misleading assertions about my own work. We are told that: '"Hawkes subscribes to the "doctrine known as the interpenetration of opposites" -- wherein the dichotomy between ideas and matter is immutable. . . .' In reality, the doctrine known as the interpenetration of opposites asserts the reverse: that the dichotomy between ideas and matter is infinitely malleable. In similar fashion it is suggested (admittedly by 'zoo,' the least astute of the various characters who populate the essay) that I 'might fear that all the mysterious stuff that can make life and humanities research exciting . . . might be explained convincingly by scientists.' In reality I am entirely untroubled by that highly unlikely prospect. It is further alleged that I claim 'that any humanities-based analysis of the relative merits of materialism ought to proceed through the lens of the theological.' In reality I make no such claim, and indeed am at a loss as to how anyone could imagine that I do (unless perhaps any mention of the word 'soul' is deemed necessarily theological).

     48. The essay's cacophony of disparate voices temporarily converges to proclaim 'we disagree with Hawkes that productive and informative discussions of materialism's benefits for cultural studies must invariably focus on questions concerning the existence of the soul' (in reality I make no such assertion), and that 'we disagree with Hawkes' assessment of religion's benign influence on today's global politics' (in reality I make no such assessment). Bryx and Reynolds generously offer consolation for my purported fears and anxieties, recommending to me such texts as Andrew Newberg's Why God Won't Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief and Dimitris Papadopoulos' essay, 'Activist Materialism.' The former is an attempt to explain religious belief by reference to the physical structure of the brain, and thus a perfect example of everything I am protesting against. The latter apparently offers 'a strategy whereby political materialist activism rejuvenates the revolutionary capacity of desire through both resistance and mobility.' Thanks, but neither seems likely to cheer me up very much.

     49. Perhaps it seems that I am disconsolate at the egregious misrepresentations and misunderstandings that this essay has inflicted upon me. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am simply unfamiliar with either James Taylor or the comedy troupes known as the 'Utrecht School of New Materialism' and 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail,' and regrettably time does not allow me to make their acquaintance at present, so I must pass over the rest of the essay in silence. I do however look forward to discussing its merits with the authors over the genial cups of an academic night-sitting. Indeed the essay's title leads me to suspect that this is the context for which it was intended.

     50. Bryx and Reynolds are by no means unusual in their ludic approach to the death of the soul. Lay readers may be surprised that so serious a subject should meet with such a light-hearted response, but those familiar with third-millennium literary criticism will be nodding in resigned recognition. Quite a few of us write like this. This is not so much because the death of the soul is considered unimportant as it is due to the sense that there is not very much to be done about it. And from a materialist perspective this is undoubtedly the case. Although the responses to my essay are both inventive and scholarly, none of them offer much in the way of explanation for what is surely a remarkable ideological event: the demise of belief, among educated Westerners, in either the soul, or even its secularized surrogates such as the subject or the self. If that is not cause for serious concern, we are surely justified in asking why not. Why not?



Go to this issue's index.




1 In the long Aristotelian tradition of hylomorphism, the soul is the form and the purpose (logos, telos) of a human being, but it is nevertheless immanent in the body. Because of this it has been argued, albeit wrongly in my opinion, that Aristotle believed that the soul died along with the body, and on this basis a materialist understanding of the soul becomes possible.

2 As an aside, Booth asks me to clarify one of my positions: 'Hawkes notes that "In the first half of the twentieth century, literary studies was still dominated by post-Romantic individualists, who luxuriated in the subjective affect and emotions generated by the text, but the materialists have long routed such feeble opposition" (14). How he feels about the rout and the feeble opposition is not entirely clear to me in this sentence, though the force of the article as a whole would seem to be towards questioning assumptions that drove the rout. Is the opposition implied to have been feeble and wrong, or feeble but right?' I'm happy to give the simple answer: I support the routers. My purpose was to acknowledge the virtuous roles that materialism can and often has played in philosophical, political and literary history.

3 David Graeber, 'Transformation of Slavery Turning Modes of Production Inside Out: Or, Why Capitalism Is a Transformation of Slavery,' Critique of Anthropology 26 (1) (March, 2006): 61-85 (61, 67).

4 Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich, Collected Works (New York: International Publishers), 1975, 3:172. Unless otherwise specified, subsequent references to Marx will be to this edition.

5 See David Hawkes, Ideology (London: Routledge, 2003), 28-38.

6 Feuerbach, Ludwig, The Essence of Christianity trans. George Eliot (New York: Harper Brother), 1957, xxxv. Subsequent references will be to this edition.

7 Lukacs, Georg, History and Class-consciousness trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press), 1971, 115.

8 Marx, Karl, Capital Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin), 1992, 188.

9 Hess, Moses, The Essence of Money trans. Adam Buick, Rheinische Jarhrbücher zur gesellschaftlichen Reform, Darmstadt, 1845, retrieved from: <> March 13, 2012.

10 Cit. David Hawkes, Idols of the Marketplace: Idolatry and Commodity Fetishism in English Literature, 1850-1680 (New York: Palgrave), 2001, 55. The forthcoming discussion draws heavily on that book, and also on my Ideology (2003).

11 See in particular Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects trans. James Benedict (London: Verson, 2006) and Symbolic Exchange and Death trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (London: Sage Publications), 1993.

12 'Every possession has a double use. Both of these uses belong to it as such, but not in the same way, the one being proper and that other not proper to the thing. It the case of footwear, for example, one can wear it or one can exchange it.' (Aristotle, Politics trans Carnes Lord (U. of Chicago P., 1984 (1257al, 7-10).

13 Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York: Houghton Mifflin), 2006, 57.

14 Cit. Hawkes (2001), 185.

15 Matthew 13:9; Mark 4:9; Luke 8:8.

16 Cit. Hawkes (2003), 105.

17 Raymond Williams, cit. Christopher Prendergast (ed.), Cultural Materialism: On Raymond Williams (U of Minneasota P, 1995), 9 (ed's intro).

18 Cit. Cyril Smith, Marx at the Millenium, (London: Pluto), 1996, 42.

19 John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today (Pluto: 2002), 202.

20 See for example Rosalind Shaw, Memories of the Slave Trade: Ritual and the Historical Imagination in Sierra Leone (U of Chicago P), 2002.

21 Marx, Karl, Comments on James Mill in Karl Marx: A Reader ed. Jon Elster (Cambridge UP), 1986, 34.

22 Bull, Malcolm, Seeing Things Hidden: Apocalypse, Vision and Totality London: Verso), 1999, 204.

23 Retrieved from: <> March 13, 2012.

24 Hawkes, David, 'The Evolution of Darwinism,' The Nation (6/10/2002) pp. 29-34.

25 Monroe W. Strickberger, Evolution (London: Jones and Bartlett, 2000), 26.



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