The Decline of Materialism in the Name of Matter

27/06/2003, Ray Brassier

in Pli 12 (2001), 33-40.


Perhaps the categories of ‘idealism and ‘materialism are doomed. But in
what name? And if on the basis of an efficacy superior to that of a name,
which? By virtue of which supplement? That of the idea? That of matter?
Instead of condemning them with a religious gesture, lets recall them,
but merely as examples of archaic, quasi-religious belief; lets treat them
as instances of the old faith with a view to establishing the extent to
which they remain derivative interpretations of that real = X which we

Neither their distinction nor their content are defined once and for all,
but filled out and varied as doctrine dictates. Nevertheless, their use
becomes strictly philosophical and autonomous relative to those sciences
and politics with which they maintain relations yet to be determined once
they become considered as immanent or transcendental criteria for
philosophical doctrines and one of them, materialism, becomes raised to
the power of index of itself and of the other, thereby becoming the bearer
of their difference, which is still to say, at this stage, their relation. We are
treating them here as genetic a prioris, materialism relative to idealism,
and both of them together relative to the contents of doctrine. We dont
yet know what a ‘genetic a priori is, but if it is to remain real-andnothing-
but and otherwise-than-synthetic we wont be looking either to
Kant or to Husserl for its concept. Materialisms genetic difference from
idealism is determined at the same time as a real, otherwise-thanmaterialist,
conception of their a priori difference and its power of
genesis. Against the empiricist mistake that consists in imbuing these categories with an ‘immediate content that is in reality already mediated,
it is a question of conceiving of them at once in-themselves and in terms
of that which is more important than them, their relation, as well as in
terms of something more important even than their relation: their absolute
difference. How are we to isolate the latter? In any case, here idealism
and materialism no longer refer back to:

1. Supposedly given objects (Matter and the Idea in the state of quality
and quantity, techno-economic production and ideology). To talk of
matter, to designate either it or the sciences of matter, isnt sufficient in
order to produce a genuinely materialist assertion, or even – which would
only be one of its traits among others – an immanent one. The problem
here is no longer that of a ‘materialist discourse or knowledge of matter,
but of an utterance that would itself be intrinsically material – which, as
anyone will admit, isnt bound to turn that utterance into a thing just
because one would no longer make of it a discourse about a thing.

2. Conceptual significations, ‘idealism and ‘materialism as
conceptual generalities. Such generalities always contain a reference to
qualities given in experience. They are mixtures, combining general traits
of matter, but ones taken from the sciences of nature, with more empirical
traits taken from the perception of nature. These significations constitute
variables that always suppose an immediate or empirical notion of the
real and matter in the name of the particular value that exemplifies them.
They are the staple of pre-structural Marxism.

3. Meanings that are supposedly produced rather than expressed. In
‘structural Marxism, ‘idealism and ‘materialism become categories
devoid of conceptual signification yet still endowed with a differential
meaning produced through the interplay of theoretical and political
positions, and principally characterized by their differential relation, their
combination and determination relative to one another. If the line of
demarcation we seek no longer passes between objects (matter/Idea), or
concepts, or even statements, isnt the immanent criterion concealed
within the materialist or idealist modality? By modality we dont mean, as
Kant did, the relation of knowledge to the subject and to the three types
of condition of possibility (formal, real, necessary), but rather meanings
or the statements relation to differential elements that are themselves
devoid of meaning whilst conditioning it. Difference then becomes
conceived as a power of non-sense within sense, as a genetic power of
sense. But the new problem, the limit of this attempt, becomes: what is a
relative non-sense or difference worth? Considered as differential,
genetic or problematic elements conditioning the contents of doctrine,
‘idealism and ‘materialism no longer refer back to an intuitive figure of the Idea or of matter, or to a concept or essence, nor even to an
ideological phantasm or fiction. But the risk lies in confusing what we
must seek, the essence of ‘materialism and ‘idealism as differential, a
priori, material elements, with the structuralist version of this essence,
which is relative and hence necessarily ideal. Doubtless, we no longer
invest this essence with the empirical properties of things, concepts or
pure forms, but we will be reintroducing ideality into it if we continue to
say, as structuralism does, that ‘materialism and ‘idealism are
differential positions that are relative to one another, or if we continue to
conflate, along with structuralism, Nietzsche, and idealism in general,
Difference with a relation of reciprocal determination between two
positions. These a priori differential elements are characterized neither by
a sensible figure, nor a conceptual element, nor even a phantasmatic or
imaginary irreality. But neither can they be characterized by a supraconceptual
form of ideality, by an ideal nature comprising relation or

As far as such categories are concerned, one distinguishes between
their sense or content as categories on the one hand – these are genuinely
relations, and there is from this point of view a modality proper to
statements as statements – and their differential elements or their
utterance on the other. But this is precisely where the problem lies: are
these elements themselves relative, in the manner in which, for instance,
reciprocally relative positions are, mutually determining each other in a
continuous tendency or becoming – becoming-materialist, becomingidealist,
becoming-revolutionary? Is their scission still a secondary form,
a variant, of their unity? A synthesis of opposites reflecting itself into
itself? The essence of materialism lies in hyletism, in the (structural)
positing or (Nietzschean) affirmation of the continuous, synthetic and
consequently ideal essence proper to these differential a prioris. One gets
an inkling here of the enormous philosophical quid pro quo nourishing
structuralism, as well as the super-structural thinking engendered by
Nietzsche and Heidegger, and which is that of the systems of Difference:
the most immediate (intuitive and conceptual) forms of unity and ideality
are expunged, but neither structuralism nor Nietzscheanism, and the
former far less than the latter, are able to see that unity and ideality are
still conserved by them in the superior form of a pure continuity, of the
Same. The signifier is in no way a heterogeneous sensible matter, it is just
as much a continuity and an ideality, the inscription of a very relative
heterogeneity within a form or a presence (the signifier represents the
subject for another signifier), a materiality rather than a matter, a
synthesis effected as the result of relativity and one that constitutes the differential elements themselves. Similarly, the hyle proper to ‘the will to
power subsumes the real under relations of force that remain ideal and
continuous even in their ‘difference.

We have been deluding ourselves: as far as the processes of ‘structure
(signifying entities are ideal and thus continuous) and of ‘machines
(forces and powers as a-signifying entities, but ideal and continuous
nevertheless) are concerned, there can only ever be a relative materialist
‘overturning of idealism. In the primacy of ‘relations (of production, of
forces, of texts, of power) which we took to be materialism and which
indeed is one in effect, that is to say, an offshoot of idealism, there is only
ever a transfer of difference in and as the Idea, a generalized meta-phor
of multiplicity folded back onto the continuous, a radical modalization of
thought, an ultimate primacy of ideality over the real, of Being over the
entity [létant].

At this point, we find ourselves teetering on the cutting-edge of
contemporary philosophy, perched on the edge of an abyss wherein
everything could be once again lost. How can we not make absolute or
dispersive difference – which is only a program for the time being – into
an ideal or relative entity in the manner in which the different variants of
structure but also Nietzsche, Heidegger, and deconstruction do? How can
we attain a concept of difference that would be real and genetic as well as
a priori and transcendental without re-inscribing it once more, if not
within the sphere of signification, at least within that of ideal sense, in the
pure typos and topos of the Idea. In becoming relative to one another, the
terms of difference lose their absolute or independent character as
empirical entities, but only in order to cede this ‘bad absoluteness to
their relation, which only ceases being relative to its terms by becoming
relative to itself. ‘Materialism and ‘idealism are then no longer only two
positions relative to one another, they form a complex or chiasmus, each
alternately functioning as cut and as continuum, as support and as
relation, for the other. It is this chiasmus, which the hyle supports, that
constitutes ‘real materialism, as if the ‘materialist side or face of the
assemblage, functioning as a continuous point of dispersion for
materialism and idealism, simultaneously inhibited, limited the idealist
side or face, and re-connected, reconstituted a continuous system, an
assemblage that is necessarily idealist precisely insofar as it is an
assemblage. Idealist to the second power, to the nth power. In the systems
of Difference in general, materialism is only idealism raised to the nth
power, to the ‘andth power, infinitely intensified. By elevating, in
viciously circular fashion, ideality to the stage where it becomes autoproductive,
which is to say causa sui (‘the will to power), they use ideality to confirm itself, thereby rendering the genesis of ideality and its
forms impossible. From this point of view, Nietzsche, Heidegger and all
the systems of Difference remain incapable of founding a genuinely
immanent materialism, a becoming-‘material of thought that would no
longer be a becoming-continuous, or difference as a multiplicity beyond
the continuous as such. They do not sufficiently reduce ideality in the
definition of the differential genetic elements (which Nietzsche, for his
part, called ‘active forces and ‘will to power).

In other words, what we have here is merely the superior form of the
old materialisms. In the last instance, it continues to subordinate matter to
the ultimate possible form of the logos (the logos or Idea of matter as
such), rather than subordinating the logos of matter to matter, thereby
engaging a genuinely dispersive becoming-real of ideality instead of a
continuous becoming-ideal of the real. Thus, in order to remain faithful to
its original inspiration and secure a definitive victory over idealism,
materialism should first consent to partially eliminate itself as category
and statement – to subordinate its materialist statements to a process of
utterance that would be material, relative, or hyletic in itself, then stop
conceiving of this utterance as an ideal and relative process. The decline
of materialism in the name of matter, and of matter as hyle in the name of
the real. Neither materialism, nor the amphibology, the limitless fusion of
the real with ideality in the hyle, but a more secret knowing of matter, one
that would no longer employ the luminous paths of the logos…

From the outset, along with the tradition, we posed the problem in
terms that precluded any solution that would not be either viciously
circular or contradictory, which is to say, in terms of the relations
between idealism and materialism. With such a starting point, it becomes
impossible not to render idealism and materialism relative to one another,
not to synthesize them in a continuous and ideal becoming-materialist,
not to subordinate matter once more to its logos, not to remain
frenetically idealist in ones materialism. Perhaps we should proceed
otherwise and place the totality of relations, of their relations, on one
side, that of ideality, and formulate the central thesis we wish to oppose
to Marxism as well as Nietzscheanism thus: idealism and materialism are
reciprocally relative, and both relative to or identical with the real –
whilst the real is not relative to them or distinguishes itself absolutely
from them.

Such ‘relations (of causality, of unilateral or reciprocal
determination) exist, but, such is the paradox of this thesis, whatever their
variable content, even as ‘reciprocal they belong in the last instance only
to the idealist formulation of the problem, they are the only means idealism (and materialism as formulation of the logos of matter) has of
formulating and resolving this problem. But on the other hand,
materialism – or preferably matter, for this would not be true of the
category of matter, or, even more preferably, the real (matter before the
hyle) – does not enter into relation with idealism and materialism. In a
statement, such relations dominate, appropriating materialisms
‘difference from idealism, but in the utterance, to which the statement
must be subordinated, these relations become the secondary aspect of the
assemblage. As utterance, idealism too is also, by virtue of its real
content, without relation to the categories or statements of idealism,
whilst as statement it remains strictly relative to absolute ‘material
assemblages. Moreover, this is the very basis on which idealism is in turn
able to formulate all the above points in terms of objects, statements,
concepts, empirical entities, or, at best, in terms of relations that are either
given or in the process of being produced.
As statement, materialism proceeds in the same fashion, issuing
statements, theses, imperatives and sometimes knowledges about matter
or concerning matter rather than the Idea, thought and their primacy. But
as utterance, materialism remains – by virtue of its own force insofar as a
relation is idealitys work rather than its own – without relation to
idealism or to the categories of matter. It cancels itself as materialism. It
refuses to formulate the problem of immanent criteria in terms of the
modality of statement, unless it be in order to affirm the subordination of
the ideal reciprocal relation between matter and ideality to the real of
difference. To characterize an utterance in terms of a modality or
assemblage is still to reduce it to a statement, it is to sink back into
idealism and its ‘materialist variants. What renders a statement ‘material
– or rather ‘real – and not merely materialist, can be demonstrated
neither in terms of its objects, nor its meaning or signification, nor by its
materiality as statement, that differential materiality or relatively
indivisible and continuous distance relating it to other statements. As far
as a statement is concerned, at least insofar as it is grasped in its essence,
to be ‘materialist is never a question of the manner in which it relates to
other statements, but consists rather in its refusing to enter into a relation,
a becoming or mediating tendency, refusing to allow itself to be inscribed
within the strategy of a reciprocity, the economy of a community, into the
trade between ‘positions, ‘forces, or ‘powers.

All we have provided here are negative indications rather than a
positive elaboration of ‘matter as real of the a priori genetic difference
before the Idea, which is to say, before the form of the a priori as such.
We must simultaneously construct the ‘materialist, or rather real, concept of distinction, difference, or the discernible, and the dispersive
rather than differential, relative or ideal, concept of the real, the better to
uncover a multiplicity that is a priori but not ideal and an a priori that is
real but dispersive. Of course, it will always be possible to interpret and
criticize such an attempt as ‘materialist rather than ‘material: insofar as
‘materialism, or rather ‘matter, the real before the hyle, remains
‘indefinable, non negotiable at least as far as concepts and categories are
concerned, it breaks away and escapes in the face of a triumphant
idealism, as if communication with it became impossible or proceeded by
way of breakages, shatterings, ruptures, a process of continuous
metaphorisation. However, this is still no more than the viewpoint of a
logic or a theory. The issue is not that of a negative materiology versus a
generalized metaphorics. From our point of view, such a materio-logos
continues to maintain the positivity of a logos, and the apparently nonapophantic
effects of a negative discourse on matter continue to inscribe
themselves within this positivity. By the very virtue of its absolutely
immediate essence, ‘matter as pure real beyond the Idea is by definition
that which can never become the object of that knowledge taking the
form of an ideality or horizon of being, or become the object of a
negative and/or affirmative (materio)-logy, whose internal constitution
would be the same as the formers. The self-negation of the logos merely
negates certain forms of knowing: those that remain inscribed within the
logos, those that remain subordinated to the concept, those placing
themselves within the perspective of the Idea. Just as there is a ‘matter
beyond the Idea and beyond the hyle, there is likewise – insofar as we are
beyond the distinction between knowing and the real – a knowing beyond
ideal essence. No rational, ratiocinative or merely logical argument will
be able to overcome the resistance proper to this knowing (perhaps we
should write gnosis?) – a knowing identical to those immediate data
belonging to a transcendental experience (of) the One – through which
we know that even the light of the Idea is still relative, relative to this
gnosis as to an absolute knowing. Materialism still concedes far too much
to idealism, and the gnosis of ‘matter, the otherwise-than-materialist
gnosis of the dispersive real, must be sought beyond materialism and
beyond the hyle. It is a supplement for materialism as such, but a
supplement of matter rather than of materialism, and a supplement of the
real rather than of matter, consonant with a new interpretation of the
‘veritas transcendentalis. Another Kehre? A new turning beyond the
Ideas accomplished form as presence, ‘will to power and ‘Eternal
recurrence, Being? Certainly not a turning … Only the path of the Idea,
of Being, of ontological ideality, knows and tolerates such turnings. We seek a multiplicity beyond essence, one as dis-continuous, as un-
Nietzschean, as possible … one that is immediately given.

* This essay was originally published in François Laruelle, Le Principe de Minorité
(Paris, Aubier Montaigne, 1981). We thank the author and the publisher for allowing us to
print it here in translation.


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