Response to David Hawkes

Christopher Kendrick


     1. David Hawkes' chapter reminded me of the sentence from Lenin, certainly not the least materialist of the major Marxist thinkers, that Fredric Jameson used as a headnote to Marxism and Form: "Intelligent idealism is closer to intelligent materialism than is unintelligent materialism." Lenin had in mind Hegel's dialectical idealism, Marxism, and eighteenth-century mechanical materialisms, respectively. But the generalizing form of the sentence, as is the way with aphorisms, raises questions of context in pinning things down. The terms "intelligent" and "unintelligent" open the materialism-idealism dichotomy up usefully; but what is the mark of intelligence if it's more important, on its own, than whether you "believe" in ideas or matter? Etymologically (to take the English as an original text in its own right by now), "intelligent" means "binding or holding things together". Should we content ourselves with striving for intelligent criticism? It sounds like going back to Leavis and Lionel Trilling. Said-ian "worldliness", though, seems not so different from "intelligence" (even if it was different cultures that were to be held together above all, rather than matter and ideas), and many found and find it amenable. Still, intelligence on its own doesn't seem theoretically sufficient; or rather, it pre-empts theory. Indeed, "intelligent materialism", weighed on the tongue, has a somewhat suspicious ring. For an intelligent materialism will be in the first place one that appreciates the significance and power of ideas, and understands that they are, not just materially imbedded, but material themselves in a sense. But too much such intelligence can imperil materialism's consequence, which traditionally, and certainly in its Leninist version, depends on its including at least a moment of Brechtian "crude thinking", in which reference is made to plain and stupid facts. Formulas have been devised to calibrate the materialist deployment of intelligence; but the fact is that the co-ordination of material and ideal moments of determinacy will, and should, depend on context. It is a materialist axiom, indeed, that everything is situational. So, though Lenin is clearly assuming the superiority of intelligent materialism to intelligent idealism in the quoted sentence, the qualification "in general" is also understood. There might be situations or periods in which there is not a lot to choose, practically speaking, between idealism and materialism. There might even be situations or periods in which a healthy dose of Hegelianism, say, is just the tonic needed -- in which idealism in fact has a political and/or cognitive edge. I want to read David Hawkes as contending that both these latter situations obtain in the present period.

     2. They are general positions with which I have some sympathy, though I do not agree with Hawkes' specific articulation of them. In truth, I am not sure whether Hawkes engages in strategic exaggeration, or actually means what he says, in two key, and quite striking, formulations.

     3. The first comes at the end of section two, where Hawkes resumes his discussion of three current kinds of materialism: object-oriented critics, who "neglect subjectivity in favor of analyzing the representation of physical things" (I'd note that his discussion of object-oriented critics was more generous than this sounds); evolutionary critics who view subjectivity as an "advantageous adaptation"; and cognitive critics who take subjectivity to be an effect of information patterns. "Any evaluation of materialism's benefit for literary analysis must therefore focus on this core shared assumption. Is it true that human beings have no soul?"

     4. Read on its own, this seems a religious affirmation (or anyway to move in that direction). Given the absence, however, of other such references, I gather that "soul" is functioning as a figure for "subjecthood" or "agency". But if that is the case, one still wants some specification of what agency means; and I suspect that if Hawkes were to offer this he would say something like "Do human beings really have so little choice as these critics suppose?" For none of the kinds of materialist criticism he has described can be said to deny choice; they only circumscribe it, perhaps, more narrowly than "common sense" does.

     5. Hawkes' exaggeration is pretty clearly a response to what he himself characterizes as an encroachment of hard into soft sciences, especially of a certain Darwinism and of information theory into cultural and literary criticism. But it seems worth noting that this is the way materialisms in the human sciences have tended to present themselves -- as encroachments: and that they have meant to figure initially as scandalous, soul-killing determinisms to a healthy portion of their reading publics. From their beginnings, roughly speaking with the separation of the Book of Nature from that of revelation, the physical sciences were materialist in the sense of taking as their object "how nature works", and accordingly of constructing a system of second causes independent of divine intervention. Modern social materialisms emerge when natural causes are no longer second causes, and with the increasing prestige of physical science and its separation from the social; if proclaimed such, they typically intend to introduce a new second nature, a new system of determinacy, into society, and to shake in their boots or expensive footwear those citizen-subjects most content and confident in the old second nature they thought they knew. Certainly 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. Psychoanalysis is the other materialist field that comes to mind, its discovery of the second nature of the unconscious situated by Freud as for the time being ancillary to biological and medical science. Both these materialisms threatened people's self-conceptions and sense of their own powers: not many capitalists, for example, want to or will think of themselves as playing the role of exploiters in what is an exploitative system, and not many mentally healthy people really want to think of their personal skills and traits as symptoms. But neither of course meant to reduce subjects' freedom; rather both subscribed to the notion that awareness of how one is determined might help one to be free (though in Marxism of course, freedom is a social and political category, and will require group action; nor was Freudian analysis operable by the individual). So if one responds to new versions of materialism in the human sciences by recoiling at the restriction of agency, it's worth pausing to ask whether one's attitude is not partly at least the result of resistance to the new second nature being disclosed and the challenge it poses.

     6. Pausing and considering, though, leads one to wonder what the new second nature is (or what they are), and whether Hawkes' materialisms actually constitute explanatory systems or something more like a set of thematics. The species that Hawkes casts as most dangerous and pervasive, evolutionary biology, has the greatest pretension to being such a system. Yet, though 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, these spots and makeups will be the physical bases of phenomena that remain subject to a social explanation; and evolutionary biology as such, given its object (species-change) and the relative stability of homo sapiens, will remain an explanatory terminology in abeyance, a master code waiting for a catastrophe to happen.

     7. In the meantime one can distinguish between two kinds of evolutionary criticism, the social Darwinian and the speculative. In the social Darwinian sort, the terms "adaptation" and "evolution" usurp on Darwin's key term, natural selection; and categories of will enter history in the form of perseverance or shrewdness or bravery genes. The stories told may be more or less compelling, but, since Darwinian selection has precisely nothing to do with will -- or individual will, at any rate -- they have nothing to do in fact with evolutionary biology.

     8. In the second, speculative sort, natural selection is understood and respected for what it is, and then, in the dearth of cultural evidence, an original species culture is posited and re-discovered down through the ages. William Flesch's Comeuppance, knowledge of whose existence I owe to Hawkes, is a winning version of this sort, and I take it something of a sally against the enemy camp from within, since evolutionary biologists tend to cast alpha-maleness and all the other unsavory characteristics of patriarchal class societies as aboriginal techniques of survival. No, Flesch says, it stands to reason that the people who survived must have worked together, so cooperative genes were selected for, and more than that, genes for fables in which sharers win and asocial individuals receive comeuppance -- genes for narrative re-enforcement and realism -- are selected for as well. An interesting formal feature of such evolutionary-biological critical readings is that really deep-historical, or rather pre-historical, motives are presented as invigorating and freezing ("species-izing") modern narrative and social conventions. It turns out that the cooperative ethic is most adequately exemplified, in Flesch's practical fourth chapter, by nineteenth-century novels (or so it seems to me): Flesch could contend, though he doesn't, that what Poulantzas usefully called the isolation-effect of fully emergent capitalism (metaphysical individualism, one might gloss it) enables the recrudescence of an aboriginal ethic in its relative purity: so many a-social individuals to punish! But the general suggestion I want to make is that neither speculative nor social Darwinian versions of evolutionary-biological criticism ought to induce a sober materialist-minded critic to revoke those materialist inclinations of which he's possessed. A more appropriate response would be to ask what idealistic criticism would look like, if these are materialist.

     9. As for Hawkes' other two kinds of materialist criticism, they may truly be materialist, but not in a particularly dispiriting way. The essential point to make about "object-oriented criticism" is that its assumptions are generally social-constructivist, even if less politically so than cultural-studies constructivism used to be. The sort that has dealt with modern culture -- "thing theory" it's sometimes called -- is centrally concerned with what exchange value does, not just to and within the sphere of consumption, but in lived space generally, and might be seen as a return to and attempt to enrich Marxist reification theory. The better early-modern object criticism seems unobjectionably historicist, concerned at a general level with the quality of status symbols in a society still largely functioning in terms of status, or in which the economic consolidation of social classes is still in course (cf. Jones and Stallybrass); insofar as this criticism tends to focus on object ensembles it moves in the direction of the construction of social space, a field which also keeps social relations, and hence subjectivity, in view (but cf. on this Crystal Bartolovich's excellent review of Peter Stallybrass in the first issue of Early Modern Culture). It would be surprising, of course, if the passion for Renaissance clothing -- all those ruffs and laces and pouches in their fussy difference and splendor -- did not include whatever sort of attraction it is that brings the Pyramids and the Eiffel Tower in tacky miniature to Las Vegas; but this does not distract in the better studies.

     10. Meanwhile, if antiquarian passions are genuinely alive again anywhere in early modern criticism today, it's in the loose set of interests (editing, history of the book, publication history) now called "textual studies", surely more important than Hawkes makes it out to be and not to be classed as a category of object studies, and which has clearly been called into being by the modern emergence of "the media" and their ongoing electronic transformation. Here a large and crudely material part of the story is the big book companies' need for new editions, an equivalent if lesser presence to that of big pharm in biology departments: one tires of having the myth of integral authorship exploded yet again, by people with a vested interest in doing so, in the introductions to new editions for which there is not always a need. Still, even if textual studies materialism is largely empiricist in kind, it is rich, and has indelibly changed the going understanding of early-modern publishing, which is very much to do with economic and political agency (cf. Loewenstein), if not of a strictly soulful sort. One is reminded here of the recent work bolstering and fleshing out Momigliano's case for the importance of antiquarianism to the development of modern historiography (cf. Miller and Pocock).

     11. Hawkes seems to me to exaggerate the current importance in early modern and in literary criticism generally of the biological-cognitive, information-theory people. One will doubtless soon see studies comparing what the brain does when one watches tragedy and comedy, if one has not already, and it might be said or implied that the difference in synaptic responses is the difference between the genres. But such claims are not eliminatively materialistic for doing away with subjectivity or the spirit. They are not materialist at all, for they simply deny signification or semantics. To put this another way: there is no such thing as pure information or a pure story; information, stories, always consist in relations between chains of signifiers and signifieds, and this involves forms, genres, conventions, which are themselves interpretive and solicit interpretation.

     12. I'll conclude my response to Hawkes' first striking statement with the observation that all three of his materialist strands of criticism seem to testify to the ideological impact of what I'll inadequately call computerization, and as it seems to me the remarkably firm emplacement in the collective consciousness of a cluster of figures drawn therefrom. This cluster includes the reference to communication of all sorts as programming or coding or signaling, and, closely allied therewith, the metaphorics of the net and of quick-communication (texting, messaging, posting, and so on). It includes the figure of the net search, with its presupposition of the web as an expanding databank, and of the primacy of sheer signifying bits ("hits"). And it very much includes the opposition between hardware and software, between what is hard wired on the one hand and variously programmable on the other. One wants to say that this figurative cluster has become cultural commonsense in contemporary capitalist societies. As such it constructs a social space in which the subject/object opposition seems diminished, or negated -- in which the spirit, or ideas, present themselves as imbedded, but matter or objects as prefashioned to signify (when you call alpha-male behavior hard-wired, for example, that leaves it feeling less solid than if it is called instinctual). The figurative clump also brings with it a pragmatic theoretical attitude, in which understanding takes the form of connection-making ability, of skill rather than comprehension. That these figurative habits are clearly symptomatic doesn't of course mean that they are not real and based in reality, that they don't know a moment of truth. It does mean that a theory or criticism that means to be more than symptomatic will need to distance itself from their spontaneous pragmatism somehow, will need to be reflective. If what Hawkes means by idealism is the desire to achieve concepts rather than programs, I am with him.

     13. Hawkes' second key and striking formulation comes in the last paragraph, as the culmination of some pages making the case that evolutionary biologism is the dominant mode of understanding, hence the materialism that matters, in capitalism today. "There seems no doubt," he says, "that materialism, in its twenty-first-century manifestations, is the ideological form of capitalism. It may be possible to be both a materialist and a political progressive, if identity politics are regarded as progressive causes, as I think they should be. Materialism is not, however, compatible with anti-capitalism. On the contrary, materialism is capitalism in philosophical form."

     14. One need not disagree with Hawkes' assessment of the ideological salience of biologism in the U.S. today, or of the various dangers attendant on the rapid development of genetics, for example, to find this statement seriously misleading. It would be equally accurate (i.e., equally misleading) to say that capitalism makes for idealism. Think of Warren Buffet's recent summons to the super-rich to give back, or of Bill Gates' mission to defeat malaria by applying business acumen -- both things we must be thankful for, I suppose, but the latter of which would be likelier of accomplishment if defeating malaria depended on keeping out the competition.

     15. The nub of the issue concerns the quality of the capitalist commodity as an object, and accordingly the nature of the market. A commodity is not a simple thing: to be a commodity, a thing must have a social use, but as a commodity its use is to be exchanged, it is exchange value. And exchange value is a real abstraction, which is not so different from saying that it is an idea. Hawkes would know the passage I have in mind as well as I do.

A commodity appears, at first sight, an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. . . . It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will. (Marx, 164)

     16. The point I'd make is that, though Marx indulges a literary flourish, he means it. Commodities' abstraction, we might say, determines the fantasm of free-floating value, which brackets labor and exploitation and impels the idea, not to say the religion -- or perhaps today the sacred program -- of the value-generating market. No system of production has been so effective as capitalism at delivering material goods, and I suppose it does no harm to speak of it as materialistic in this sense -- one may even call it grossly materialistic in tendency, since as self-accumulating value it knows not when to stop. But by its very structure it necessarily determines its own misrecognition as creation of value through exchange, and in this basic respect it determines its own version of idealism. That at least is one main Marxist vantage on the matter. Which isn't to say all idealisms are capitalist, of course, or that idealist campaigns against capitalism couldn't be mounted, and to good effect. But they won't understand what they are doing if they consider their idealism to be intrinsically anti-capitalist.

     17. So Hawkes simplifies, and misrepresents, capitalism in the above formulation. I would submit finally that by the same token he misrepresents and simplifies materialism, in the formulation as throughout his essay. I will simplify a bit myself now, and say that he privileges mechanical materialisms ancient and modern over the more realist and naturalist tradition of aleatory materialism (Althusser).

     18. The chief point of this latter materialism, whose auctor is usually allowed to be Epicurus, is that it places the emergence of life and life-abilities (especially human faculties) within a contingently developing nature, and so liberates humans at a stroke from creating and controlling gods and their priestly stand-ins in this world: Epicurean matter (atoms falling, and swerving into configuration, in void) was the basis for human collaboration with nature; the core principle of configurations-in-motion, of permanent transience, was the condition of freedom. (One could come away from Hawkes' history of materialism, in his first section, with the idea that Epicurus was pre-Socratic, whereas he of course returned to atomism, after and very much against Plato and Aristotle; and it should be noted that he was atheist only in the sense of disbelieving that god(s) created the world, or wanted human praise or sacrifice: to think this of gods, he held, was to demean them, but it was easy to understand priests wanting ceaseless tribute -- and so on, in the line of thought that especially made Epicurus anathema to the Church.) One may speak of Epicurus' materialism, preserved, vivified, and traditionalized by Lucretius' great poem, being revived in the Renaissance, and, as reworked especially by Gassendi and Spinoza, descending through what Jonathan Israel calls the Radical Enlightenment into the nineteenth century, where Epicurus' swerve into new configuration informed the socially conservative Darwin's theory of selection about as profoundly as it did those social configurations-in-motion called modes of production by the socially radical Marx, who of course wrote his dissertation on ancient atomisms (Democritus and Epicurus), and who at times later spoke of his inversion of Hegel's dialectic as Epicurean, insofar as it involved working wholly within the order of nature's ceaseless emergence and appearance. Nor does the tradition end there: on the biological side it has been prominently represented by those (e.g., Ernst Mayr, Richard Lewontin, Stephen Jay Gould) who have defended the Darwin of natural selection, the Epicurean Darwin we might say, against his own mostly late lapses into social Darwinism and design. On the Marxist side, Althusser in his late book might especially be referring to the twentieth century when he characterizes the tradition of aleatory materialism, the philosophy subtending Marxism, as an underground affair. Still, figures such as William Morris and Raymond Williams never lost sight of Marx's situation of modes of production in relations of exchange with nature; Adorno's Minima Moralia certainly included a prominent Epicurean strain. More recently, Mary Mellor's Feminism and Ecology (1997) is based in a materialist-naturalist Marxism; and John Bellamy Foster's Marx's Ecology (2000), on which I am largely depending here, develops a remarkably powerful case for Marx and Engels as consciously refounding Epicureanism as ecological materialism.

     19. I should not conclude without returning to and revising what I said before about natural selection being a master code waiting for a catastrophe to happen. It's true that the great times of species mutation tend to coincide with major environmental change, and that the theory proves itself especially in such periods. But Darwin held -- too firmly, according to the later Darwinians I've just cited -- that Nature does not move by leaps. His rule was descent with minor modifications; natural selection doesn't wait on catastrophe, but is happening all the time. In this respect, selection comprises a rule analogous to the axiom of ultimate economic determination in Marxism, Althusser's long instance of the economic, which, as he famously said, never comes -- by which he meant that it is in evidence all the time, but never purely or discretely. And like the axiom of economic determinacy, selection commits one to the study -- necessarily approximative but assured enough -- of the interaction between levels, between the perpetually fleeting, quasi-geological rule of descent with minor modifications, on the one hand, and, on the other, the natural environment understood now as always already shaped by human agency, by the cumulative work of the tool-making animal par excellence. Gould calls this interaction "gene-culture co-evolution", and sees biological work that speaks simply of the genetic programming of characteristics as retreating to one kind or another of mechanical materialism (which means, in turn, that human agency will be introduced in explicitly or implicitly idealist form). Perhaps the most striking point Foster makes about Marx is that, in an early, basic and never rescinded, stage of his economic study, he cast capitalist agriculture as alienating human production from nature in a radically new way, essentially making gene (or nature)-culture co-evolution difficult or impossible, not so much to see, as to respect and plan by. The question as to how the associated producers should arrange tools and labor so as to feed themselves healthily and in a sustainable way -- this basic, still pressing question -- is transformed into abstract issues of supply and demand, and production thus conditioned on profitability. Marx speaks of the exchange system, of capitalism, as introducing a rift into the metabolism between nature and the human. This theory of "metabolic rift" -- whose dire sound ought not to put one off, but to resonate, today -- casts capitalism as alienating nature by in a sense de-materializing it. The capitalist refashioning of agriculture delivered and delivers goods, but its abstraction removes people from the natural environment in which human freedom is to be worked out, if at all.

     20. Epicurean materialism has not, to my knowledge, inspired a spate of recent literary criticism. There has been a revival of interest in the Lucretian revival, the best example of which is Jonathan Goldberg's splendid book. And one might see recent work in early modern scientific culture as aligned with this tradition: I think, for example, of books by Lorraine Daston, Karen Edwards, and Joanna Picciotto. Hawkes underestimates the amount of intelligent materialist criticism being written lately. But there could be a lot more; and Epicurean materialism, or ecological Marxism, seems as timely a general framework for criticism as any.



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Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. Philosophy of the Encounter. London: Verso, 2006.

Daston, Lorraine, and Peter Gallison. Objectivity. Cambridge: Zone Books, 2007.

Flesch, William. Comeuppance: Costly Signalling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2007.

Foster, John Bellamy. Marx's Ecology: materialism and nature. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.

Edwards, Karen. Milton and the Natural World: Science and Poetry in Paradise Lost. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999.

Goldberg, Jonathan. The Seeds of Things: Theorizing Sexuality and Materiality in Renaissance Representations. New York: Fordham UP, 2009.

Israel, Jonathan L. The Radical Englightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002.

Jones, Ann Rosalind, and Peter Stallybrass. Renaissance Clothing and the Materials of Memory. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001.

Loewenstein, Joseph. The Author's Due: Printing and the Pre-history of Copyright. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 2002.

Marx, Karl. Capital. Volume One, trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

Mellor, Mary. Feminism and Ecology. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997.

Miller, Peter N. Peiresc's Europe: Learning and Virtue in the Seventeenth Century. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000.

Picciotto, Joanna. Labors of Innocence in Early Modern England. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2010.

Pocock, J.G.A. Barbarism and Religion, Vols 1-5. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999- 2011.

Wilson, Catherine. Epicureanism at the Origins of Modernity. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2008.



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Content copyright © 2012 Christopher Kendrick.