Retraction re Method, materialism: on terminology

Jonathan Beasley Murray jbmurray at
Mon Aug 1 10:19:32 MDT 1994

I'd like to respond briefly to a couple of Jim Herron's points about
materialism, but more generally about methodology vs. substantive critique.

Perhaps my defences have been raised by the similarity this argument
seems to bear to the argument against "theory" in favour of practice.
Clearly, the classic response to the anti-theoretical is to point out
that all practices are implicitly subtended by some theory or another,
and to deny this is usually politically-motivated (or rather
conservative, pro-status quo) mystification.

Moreover, this raises the question as to what is the "proper" object of
such substantive criticism.  Surely, it is appropriate to analyze the
methodologies implicit in previous theorizations.  Such "metatheoretical"
issues raise the investments and blindspots of the defenders of the
current order (to use slightly over-the-top rhetoric) and clarify our own
understanding of the social world--or at least the bases for such
possible understanding.  Why then should such methodological debate be a
political refusal?

In the case of the discussion of materialism (and as a methodological
example) I suggested that a definition of the term required an
examination of its use in philosophy, rather than confining ourselves to
social theory.  This was not in order to produce a unified science or to
avoid contextual study.  Quite the opposite--rather my suggestion was
based on the understanding that this was a term with a history (as
someone else pointed out, dating back to Spinoza at least), and so with
historical weight and baggage in specific discusive contexts.  Clearly,
for our purposes, Marx's reading of Hegel is a key debate for us to
interpret how materialism has been defined.

In other words, "materialism" is not an abstract concept which can be
applied to a particular field, and defined until we come up with an
answer we happen to like.  Rather, it is a historical contruct with its
own connotations and vicissitudes thereof.  Clearly, I'm suggesting an
approach somewhat like Raymond Williams' in _Keywords_.  You could also
dignify it with the name of a Foucauldian genealogy, and as such is an
acknowledgement that discourse has material effects.  However (and a bit
by the way), I don't happen to regard this approach as particularly
"materialist" itself.

As always, however, I think one of the most interesting questions is to
ask "what's at stake" in a particular vocabulary--this begins to uncover
the political (and material) ramifications of our discourses.  Clearly,
at various times (most recently, perhaps, the History Workshop debates of
the early 70s) there has been a lot at stake in the labels "materialist"
or "idealist."  I don't think this is because of their innate
effectivity--all words and concepts are only provisionally and
contingently effective.

This brings me (tangentially) to the complaint that this list has been
primarily concerned in defining redundant marxist concepts.  In an
inter-disciplinary context, it seems, different fields can still invest
significant weight in concepts worn out in other arenas of (dare I say
it) "discursive struggle."

Finally, and in part as a response to the criticisms of my "Theses on
Marx" I wonder what's at stake in the definition "Marxist"?  Clearly, at
various times, it has been useful for people either to define themselves
or to define others (approvingly or disapprovingly) as Marxists.
Personally, I don't find this particularly useful, either for myself or
for others.  I could try to define Bourdieu as a Marxist, for example,
but who cares?  I choose not to call myself as a Marxist, but who
cares--I'm not about to deny that I've been heavily influenced by a wide
variety of different Marxisms.

Any thoughts, perhaps from a disciplinary (or contextual--in or out of
the academy) perspective?


Jon Beasley-Murray
Department of English and Comp. Lit.
U. of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
jbmurray at


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