Reviewed by Sergio Valverde
Greeks gave the body two meanings, soma (σωμα), the living body, and sarx (σαρξ) the flesh. The Gospels speak of Jesus breaking his body for the salvation of the flesh. Spirit (πνεῦμα) on the other hand designates always non-human beings, the “holy spirit” (πνεύματος ἁγίου), “spirit of God” (to πνευμα θεου), or “unclean spirits” (πνευματα ακαθαστον), or simply the spirit (to πνεῦμα). Saint Paul taught soma was the body of resurrection “for the Lord,” and sarx the flesh that sins and dies. Hence sarcophagus as a synonym for coffin, that which eats (φαγεῖν) the corpse or the flesh.
Eagleton’s Materialism begins with soma. He revisits four key Western thinkers (Aquinas, Marx, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein) to “examine modes of human creatureliness true of all human bodies.” All four thought our bodily nature sets how we think. They not only honored the body; they wrote using the body so to speak. Marx makes the blood boil. Nietzsche shocks. Wittgenstein dramatizes. Aquinas was often found in rapture. They attended cadence, rhythm, and rhetoric, experimented with genres, urged to think contrarily. Eagleton discovers their shared aims regardless of time and politics. That they were materialists who appreciated the body did not of course turn them all into Bolsheviks. Nietzsche would’ve loved to crush the plebs but he was always sick with something. Wittgenstein prized tradition and order and called pacifists scum. Aquinas hailed from provincial nobility and thought inequality part of creation.
Eagleton’s method of agreement is formal but effective for the reader and against postmodernists, the “new materialists.” For Eagleton, postmodernists degrade (“dematerialize”) the body. They treat the body as if we were in the second century, as the Gnostic refuse from the latest and superficially radical enlightenment. These theorists are not sensual despite being all chatty about sex and whips. Bodies never become subjects. They stand in for mental constructs, fluidity, energy, difference, multiplicity. The result is asceticism. Only the extraordinary, the exception, the impossible count in tandem with capitalist abstraction. And Eagleton lapidates them fast, “[For them] matter must be rescued from the humiliation of being matter.” Our unremarkable bodies build meaningful lives with other people without the Traumas, the Real, or whatever deity rules this week. Eagleton is not interested in more congenial varieties either. Engels is too ambitious. Spinoza’s too contemplative. A simpler, more modest version will do without the jargon and sales-pitch sought by journals, a materialism of commonplace flesh and blood. Eagleton hopes this “unabashed universalism proves scandalous to the cultural commissars” and their deputies in academia.
Eagleton’s always shown full command of Catholic orthodoxy but he’s not exactly Vatican material. His reading of Aquinas inspires. Eagleton sounds like a Latin American theologian of liberation and their bolshie commitment to values NATO considers depassé like opting for the poor or clothing them. For Eagleton, more than any other Church thinker Aquinas reveals Christianity’s core materialism. The dogmas of incarnation and resurrection are truths of the body. Jesus was no Zoroaster or Plato. Jesus’s parables do not speak of two superpowers – good and evil, body and soul. The good obviously wins with Jesus’s death, the story goes, but his resurrection strikes at the heart of idealism. The soul without body is nothing. “Seek first the kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [food, drink, clothing] will be given to you.” Like Marx, the recognition of necessity is Jesus’s legislative priority.
Aquinas in the same way discerns two human substances (the psychic and the physic) but to better define each in their mutual unity and to provide a theory of virtue as material obligation and mastery. All things are perfect according to their specific nature. Human perfection lies in the unity of body and soul, but the body, “this stuff that speaks and feels” individuates all living things, giving them the final touch. For Aquinas, “a soul, i.e., a first principle of life, is the act of a body and not itself a body.” Therefore, if to be embodied is more perfect than being disembodied, it follows that material praxis is higher than belief. If souls were all that mattered, sex trade would be just trade, child labor a petty misdemeanor like peeing in public. Yet Christian reactionaries from Saint Paul to Augustine to Joel Osteen believe that body without spirit is dead so faith alone saves and good deeds are extracurricular. Aquinas like James, brother of Jesus, replies that faith and no works is useless. If faith were sufficient, even demons, said James, would be saved because they also believe. For completely opposite reasons, Eagleton and the Opus Dei consider Aquinas the greatest theologian of Christianity.
Marx for Eagleton was also a formidable theorist of the body. Marx’s very early work on Epicurus, his dissertation, argued that freedom and consciousness were bodily affairs. Senses were the “immediate theoreticians of the world.” The body mediates nature and history and the goal of a truly human society is “to return to the body its plundered [natural] powers so that the senses may be allowed to come to their own.” We enter proper history when our body is again our own.
Eagleton’s split here is clear again against culturalism for which nature or emancipation are not topics of cocktail chat. I’m extending his critique also to some Marxist theory. If deconstruction proclaimed, “There is nothing outside the text,” some neo-Marxists especially from the value-theory school asserted, “there is nothing outside capital” to keep up with the Joneses. Capital engulfs the laboring body. Exploitation dematerializes the body, bares it to the basic functions of toiling and shopping and to make more money so the infernal cycle starts all over. All true. But that alienation constitutes an order of such magnitude that to imagine otherwise, that there is concrete labor, is transhistorical. For value theorists like Moshe Postone or Robert Kurz, bêtes-noires like Engels and Lukács assumed naively that labor was a natural power enslaved by capitalism and that after the revolution the proletariat emancipates it and everything is golly. All starts and ends with abstract labor. We’re stuck in total historical structures that curiously don’t distinguish between slave and free labor, therefore, we must aim to the total and complete abolition of labor. I think this critique is circular, ahistorical, and appallingly backward, not to mention opportunist and post-hoc because it was based ultimately on the failure of the Soviets. Imagine saying on the eve of the American Civil War that labor overall and not slavery was the problem.
Marx obviously sees in Capital labor as “a process in which both man and nature participate.… He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, to appropriate nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature.” Yes, Marx is candid on both the natural and social character of labor. “The body belongs to both spheres simultaneously,” says Eagleton. Marx manages a dialectics of history and nature without Adorno’s jeremiads of nature and history producing either ideology or catastrophe. More to the point, for Marx, nature is more fundamental than history because our “species-being” is what allows us history in the first place. “It is the body that lies at the root of human history”, writes Eagleton, “because being historical is not itself historically relative.” Nature is there as death, evidence of “how our species being bears in upon the individual,” a dialectical reality if there ever was one as the absolute natural negation of all culturalist difference, “The fact that bleeding to death,” Eagleton jokes, “may be differently construed by different cultures does not mean that one is not bleeding to death.”
Nietzsche is another radical of the body, but of the brutal type. If Marx wished to emancipate the body through politics, Nietzsche discovers the body’s power and truth through war, torture, and desolation. All ‘fixed’ concepts and moral maxims emerge from a body whose universal history in the Genealogy of Morals is of “impaling it, stoning it, breaking it at the wheel, trampling it to death, cutting its flesh from the breast and boiling it.” Nothing helps the intellect better than the rack. Ideas get their staying power from fetid dungeons, not Harvard. The soul, that nature gives us right without a fight is invented to weaken the body along other canards of equality and meekness. Nietzsche’s hyper-naturalism obviously makes the postmodern uncomfortable. Better to see him as a soul before his time who spoke in riddles like Yoda. A hagiographer like Deleuze never takes Nietzsche at its word. Violence sometimes means “irony”, other times “culture”, or “a mental process that seizes thought to make it something affirmative and active,” like jumpstarting your car in a blizzard. The body in turn is a “multiplicity”, “the arbitrary outcome of active and reactive forces.” It’s a vegan word salad. Not one atom of flesh enters. Yet Nietzsche’s brutalism has some plusses in no need to disinfect. The body is heroic. It starts at the lowest and through unrestrained violence and forgetting it transfigures into Superman -like Jesus resurrected with an early onset of Alzheimer. Any worker who can feed her family and send her kids to school with a misery wage is proof of “overmanship” but Nietzsche obviously didn’t have her in mind.
The last materialist in Eagleton’s series is the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations. The traditional view of Wittgenstein’s philosophy is that language is a social construct. It mirrors itself in the prison house of structuralism, an idealism that substitutes Plato for “intersubjectity.” But for Eagleton, Wittgenstein conceived language quite differently. Language itself is one with material reality and it changes with reality when we discover new facts. It is corporeal. It involves tongue, sometimes the brain, vocal chords. Language expresses physical activity; it’s more theater than philosophy. Wittgenstein’s style is peppered with characters and props.
Concepts become dramatis personae in different stages, or language-games that are situated and enacted in space and time. And most importantly signs don’t float around freely like gas, waiting to be filled with meaning devoid of any logic and necessity. Signs do not acquire meaning by accident or in the void. One finds this formalism in Saussure or Derrida because these two can make their case with ease when we only deal with nouns as meanings for “static” signifiers like chairs and trees but that’s not the case with active verbs and prepositions or words like “non-descript,” “sneakily,” and “Oh Christ” (p.123). For Wittgenstein, meaning is immediately action, it is the way and manners a word works in a specific form of life. To know, for him, is to know how. Words like “perhaps” or “in” and “out” are corporeal and refer to our spatial and contingent placement in the world, that “we are subject to time, space, chance, error… the plurality and instability of the material world” (p.121).
Language discloses a material world, not sever us from it into a lonely solipsism. Language structures worlds with rules before truths and falsehoods enter. Wittgenstein here is close to Voloshinov, the Soviet linguist who published his Marxism and the Philosophy of Language in 1929 before Wittgenstein started to radically change his early ideas (that this may bear with Wittgenstein being known as a closet communist and admirer of the Soviet Union is an “extreme hypothesis” for his American epigones). The parallelisms in both thinkers are arresting. For Voloshinov, meanings lie in utterances which only make sense in a concrete historical condition. The same for Wittgenstein. Although Voloshinov did follow Marxism in conceiving language through ideology critique, Wittgenstein, much less inclined to revolution, considered many of our social ills rooted in wrong forms of thinking and practice, like treating mere concepts as ciphers of secret truths and, like the Zen fable, to go looking for a bull already riding one. The concepts we use will do just fine; they just need more explaining and practice. Eagleton thinks Wittgenstein’s attachment to rules, his conservatism, is unique. It’s not Tory slavishness to custom and habit though, but a critique of the “callow intellectualism” that a new word order can produce a new world order.
In conclusion, Eagleton’s Materialism is mainly a book of ethics with valuable political and epistemological dimensions. Although all these thinkers were political in their own ways, Eagleton emphasizes ethics. If capitalist materialism colonizes the body through consumption and fetishism; it also takes over the mind through intellectual rent-seeking and self-promotion. Really, the life of the mind, especially in academia, is no different now than selling dishwashers, even if revolution and radicalism are the talking points. But for Eagleton, a materialist good life has a renunciant quality, monkish almost, for the sake of a truly sensuous life. Ethical materialism orients us to practice the time-honored works of mercy, to engage mindfully with others here and now, to attend others in need, and to keep your old frypan for countless measures have been taken to be there in your kitchen.
8 March 2018