No truth is ever solitary, or particular.Badiou
If you’ve successfully escaped the prison of essentialism and dodged the shenanigans of the nominalists, you should have already realized that you can always be actively engaged in the construction/deconstruction/adjustment of the coordinates of your own experiential horizon. There’s a whole world of big fuckoff abstractions that you can use to do this with – space/time, being/nothing, immanence/transcendence, matter/mind, and the practice of defining and adjusting these conceptual coordinates is called ontology.
While nominalists think that ontology is a dead dog, after nominalism you’ll have realized that any experience whatsoever is actually filtered through ontological coordinates of some kind, and the nominalist escape from this doesn’t really work. Everybody has an ontology! It’s not possible to be a conscious being without one. Being able to consciously change you own ontological coordinates is thus kind of like a superpower.
Change your ontology, change your world.
This an gigantic subject that I can’t really get into much in one little essay. There are tons of ontological edifices out there, and the more of them you absorb the more tools you give yourself to tinker with your ontological coordinates. You can go totally nuts with this, if you like! Not all of them are created equal tho – more recent ontologies are usually more responsive and up-to-date relative to the advancement of the sciences.
I’m going to delineate one (and just one) ontological axis for you now:
Idealisms are those theories that proclaim the priority of mind over matter. The most extreme versions of this will tell you that it is our minds that create reality, or that ‘everything is consciousness’. While this is actually a somewhat rare position to have at an academic level now that neuroscience has initiated the Semantic Apocalypse, idealism is way more insidious than that.
Commodified existence was invented by idealists, and so – it is much easier to be an automatic idealist than not to be. We could say that the structure of commodified existence favors idealism. If you’re a primate and you’re reading this, you’re probably an idealist of some kind even if you’re not aware of it. Idealism, like essentialism and nominalism, is hegemonic – which is to say it is the experience the ruling classes have of themselves, and so also the social default.
An idealist has given himself a reason to never leave the confines of his own mind. He finds his ‘truth’ within himself, and having no more reason to search, stops. Of course, everything ‘inside’ the idealist came from ‘outside’ of him, from history – so the idealist’s ‘inner journey’ is nothing more than solipsistic auto-fellatio. A contingent copy of every other ‘inner journey’ there is.
Allow me to offer you an alternative to this sad fate: materialism! A materialist knows that truth is something that comes to us from outside. For a materialist, the search for truth will not, and can never end.
The idealist may realize that his world horizon is conceptually constructed, but when he does, he then busily starts the project of totally blotting out anything that could ever possibly hurt him. Having decided it is only his internal world that matters or even exists, the idealist prioritizes his own emotional states over all else. The idealist does not want to learn anything more about the external world, because he knows it could disturb his quest for inner purity and peace.
Our materialist knows that her world horizon is conceptually constructed too, but she also knows that the external world is what generated her mind in the first place. Rather than closing herself off from it, she identifies with the universe, opening herself to the suffering and pain of others and beginning a search for truth that never ends. For the materialist, self-knowledge is both self-knowledge and world-knowledge, and world-knowledge is both world-knowledge and self-knowledge. She proves this to herself every day, as her world horizon never ceases to expand.
A materialist is always learning in every moment, from every encounter and every experience. Everything that happens to a materialist is a learning experience, and becomes a part of her.
The idealist looks inward, and then continues to look inward, and so on. As a result, everything external to an idealist’s mind prison asymptotically approaches a projection from within the coordinates of that prison – thus the idealist loses the ability to understand, comprehend or even empathize with others. The idealist is always afraid of his others, because they are necessarily opaque to him. His world horizon is closed in on itself, so the idealist’s mind cannot be changed. He is immune to facticity, immune to rational argumentation, and (imagines he is) immune to ‘external reality’ affecting him.
The materialist will never stop learning, changing or growing. She stares into the Real until it changes, or she does. She is not afraid of pain or suffering, because the materialist knows that this is the cost of knowledge and truth-seeking – the only way to grow as an individual. She cannot ever afford to close herself off to the world, can never take anything for granted. For a materialist, self-preservation and happiness-seeking are a sad waste of a life – for she is on an adventure that will take her beyond herself to the stars and back.
If idealisms are always an enclosure, every materialism starts as a conscious act of shattering that enclosure to find out what is behind it. We could say that any materialism is nothing but this abyssal, free choice – the choice to blast through every idealist wall. Thus, every idealism has always created its own materialism as its dissolution, and every materialism bears the traces of its originating idealism.
Because of this self-propelling creative impetus inherent to any materialism, it should come as no surprise that virtually every new and interesting conceptual edifice from the last two centuries has come from materialist thinkers. Materialists crave the new along with the true, and they also know the two are never far apart.
Let’s get concrete about this: idealists directly ontologize their own shit in a naive (usually pre-Kantian) fashion. Thus, idealists will always see purpose and ‘synchronicity’ in everything that happens. Idealist theories will always be teleological, because idealists are addicted to meaning. They must have meaning, or their mind prisons will collapse.
Thus, the idealist insists! – everything happens for a reason. God has a plan. Law of attraction! Prosperity gospel! Whatever justifies the current state of affairs and his own privilege, the idealist will swallow it whole, no matter how mystificatory or obfuscatory. For the idealist, it is never about the truth, it only about what makes the idealist feel good about himself.
Materialists must follow the truth, and so they must have an ontology that is adequate to the current state of the sciences. Thus, the first axiom of any 21c materialism is – there is no such thing as matter. Everything is contingent, and there is no necessity beneath this except the necessity of contingency itself. Everything is chaos, and there is no order but that which is wrested out of the struggle with the chaotic void. Nothing has ever happened for any reason whatsoever. The laws of the sciences – they could change tomorrow, for there is no necessity or purpose here either.
It is only in this way that we can be free, or to speak of anything like freedom.
We would like to say that we can speak from the other side of idealism, but we cannot honestly say that we have gotten there yet. We have been explodinating our idealist conditioning for many long years now, but we can never suppose that there is not more idealist residue left to discover and dismantle. To be a materialist is to be forever vigilant against the encroachment of idealist complacency, and to know that this process has no end.
Materialism is always like this – we wake up each day and remember the last, only to discover that yesterday we were still insufficiently materialist! What the fuck. And each time this happens it is as if a whole new vista has opened before us.
Materialism cannot offer you inner peace, eternal bliss, or immortality – it has too much self-respect and honesty to dabble with such cheap baubles. However, it will make every day a new adventure, and fill your world horizon with interest. Of this I can assure you.
As for realism? Sure, why not. Knock yourself out. I’ve yet to find one that doesn’t have to draw on the resources of some kind of materialism, but anything that takes our shared planet seriously is better than the alternative.
Would you like to know more?
- Spinoza – Ethics
- Kant – Critique of Pure Reason
- Hegel – Science of Logic
- Meillassoux – After Finitude
- Deleuze – Difference and Repetition
- Harman – Object-Oriented Ontology
- Delanda – Assemblage Theory
- Zizek – Less Than Nothing
- Badiou – Being and Event
- Badiou – Logics of Worlds
- Badiou – Immanence of Truths (no english translation yet)
- Johnston – Prolegomena to any Future Materialism 1
- Johnston – Prolegomena to any Future Materialism 2
- Johnston – Prolegmena to any Future Materialism 3 (when it’s out)