Is the discursive material? (At last)

LeoCasey at LeoCasey at
Wed Jul 5 21:20:13 MDT 1995

I am having problems with this posting. Let me try one more time.

Justin writes:
I wish... that I could understand where Leo's views do differ from
... (the)  purely idealistic in the technical Marxist sense, taht is,
granting unmoved mover status to ideas.

I don't want to play Alice B. Toklas to Justin's Gertrude Stein, but is this
the right question? Shouldn't the question(s) be: What is the explanatory
power of the framework? What promise does it show for being a productive
framework in terms of further analysis?

Or to put it another way: isn't Justin's question a more sophisticated
variant of the very unproductive and not very interesting question "is the
analysis Marxist?"

Be that as it may, out of respect for Justin's repeated willingness to engage
my argument, let me try to answer the inquiry. (I do hope, however, that the
question of 'materialism/idealism' doesn't become too much of a diversion.)

First, if Justin is following Geras in his critique of Laclau and Mouffe, and
suggesting that materialism rests on the proposition that there is an
independent existence of the object outside of human perception of it, a
position I would call realist, then there are few, including most idealists,
who would deny it. But where does that leave us? The discursive theory of
Laclau and Mouffe claims something quite different -- that the object has no
'being', no 'meaning' outside of the discursive. And being is not existence.

Second, the concept of 'materialism' as it has been traditionally expounded
in Marxism (Justin employs the term without locating his own conception)
makes a great deal of its opposition to idealism. Yet it is questionable just
how far going and  deep that opposition is. As is well-known, on many
occasions Marx explains his relation to Hegel's absolute idealism as one of
inversion -- he sees his corpus as standing Hegel's dialectic and philosophy
of history on its feet. Where in Hegel the spirit is the moving force of
history, in Marx (if we accept his own self-description) it would be matter.
Of course, as we know from the Theses on Feuerbach, Marx saw his materialism
as dynamic -- it understood the object as praxis. Nonetheless, inversion is
hardly a thorough going critique of idealism, for it replicates in many ways
the structure of the idealist philosophy. Insofar as Marx affirms the
Hegelian principle that the "real is the rational, and the rational is the
real" which is precisely what the notion of an immanent logic in history does
(be that logic the spirit or the development of the productive process), he
remains on the ground of idealism. It is only when essentialism in all of its
forms is rejected, when the notion that all being is relational and
contingent is grasped, that the ground of idealism has been left. In this
respect, it is Marxism -- rather than the discursive theory of radical
democracy -- which is open to the charge of idealism.

Third, the context of his complaint seems to suggest that by materialism
Justin means the acceptance of the famous fomula of the Contribution to the
Critique of Political Economy -- "It is not the consciousness of men which
determine their existence, but their social existence which determines their
consciousness." -- and that he finds Laclau and Mouffe and myself wanting on
this count. I would indeed reject this formula, but not because I would
invert it, as Justin implies. Rather, I (and Laclau and Mouffe, if I read
them correctly) reject the categorical separation of the two terms, with
social existence determining consciousness, and with consciousness clearly
exterior and posterior to social existence. The discursive disrupts the
notion of separate consciousness and existence -- there is no being, social
meaning outside of its relational field.

Thus, when I employed the term soul (and did so knowing how it would probably
be misread),  Justin reads an endorsement of the theological concept of the
soul which, as a good Enlightenment thinker out to overcome 'myth', he
abhors. What he doesn't consider is that there may be a different way to
think of the 'soul' in the mediaeval West, as the effects in the individual
subject of an ensemble number of different material practices, such as
rituals, and powers, such as the Church. What he doesn't consider is that the
social in the feudal West may be temporally and spatially organized in ways
which produce a 'soul' effect.

Now, if the terminology 'soul' is just too difficult a leap for those of us
deeply steeped in traditions of atheism, perhaps the same point can be made
with respect to psychoanalysis. The unconscious and the id/ego/superego are
no more tangible, in the narrowly material sense of being an object, than the
'soul'. But serious thinkers in the Marxist tradition as different in their
orientation as Althusser, Fromm, Marcuse and Habermas have all engaged in
serious dialogues with psychoanalysis in its Freudian and Lacanian moments (I
leave aside Wilhelm Reich, whom I find less than serious), have clearly
understood the unconscious and the id/ego/superego as legitimate objects of
analysis, and have seen psychoanalysis as a materialist mode of analysis. It
has only been the most rigid and backward of the old Stalinist and Trotskyist
parties which attacked psychoanalysis as idealist. (And if one wanted to look
at the nature of different branches of psychoanalysis in some more depth, in
its understanding of the unconscious and the ego as relational fields, one
could argue that
it is more materialist than Marxism.)

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