Reviewed by Alejandro Torres
Geoff Pfeifer’s The New Materialism engages with the works of Louis Althusser, Alain Badiou, and Slavoj Žižek in a comparative analysis that recognizes both political and philosophical differences between their materialism and “materialisms that came before” (133).
The concept of “new materialism”, as discussed by Pfeifer in his analysis of Althusser is not exclusive to Marxist thought. It can be contrasted with soft-determinism, which is the view that human freedom and history are far from incompatible, as determinism is incomprehensible without human subjectivity. That said, historical ‘change’ is the product of a compatible relationship between human agency and the structure of social relations. Pfeifer mentions rather briefly however, that what he identifies as “new” could simply reflect the ways in which the aforementioned theorists ‘rethink the categories they inherit’ from elsewhere (137). Nevertheless, it is proper to believe that his criterion for reframing materialism remains more oriented towards political preference than plausibility, due to his focus on Marxist science and ideology.
Pfeifer’s text is comprised of six comprehensive chapters that summarize the works of Althusser, Badiou, and Žižek with reference to materialism through the lens of Marxist political thought. The first two chapters describe ‘Althusser’s political opposition to the Parti Communiste Français (PCF), and philosophically to the cultural Zhdanovism that led to the Stalinist vision of Marx’s materialism’ (10-11). The last four chapters provide a summary and analysis of Badiou and Žižek’s efforts to reconcile underlying ambiguities that we find in Althusser’s work, related to the structure of “social relations” and “human subjectivity”.
Pfeifer starts his book with a Hegelian criticism of Marx’s early work, arguing that ‘the doctrine of materialism is nothing more than the proverbial other side of the coin of Idealism’ (5). This appears at first sight familiar to those who have read Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, and presents the reader with key motives for the renewed interest in Althusser. Althusser’s work is motivated primarily by his opposition to Andrei Zhdanov’s “two cultures” view, claiming that ‘if it is the case that the material conditions which structure our existence are themselves multiple, diverse, and contradictory, then we cannot assert that materialism is teleological… but rather non-teleological’ (6). This is the argument where the traditional form of Materialism is for Pfeifer called into question. It is this contingency and aspect of “chance” that Pfeifer refers to as a distinct materialism to that of previous thinkers (his emphasis).
In Althusser’s view, twentieth-century Marxism in its practical, i.e. Stalinist form, had failed to recognize Marx’s reconciliation in his later Theses on Feuerbach, which ‘abandons the idea that it is not the objects of the human world that we find an alienated essence of humanity, but rather it is the social relations that become grouped together into a particular ensemble at a given time that offer us something like a human essence’ (16). The general understanding of Marxist ideology before and during the Stalinist regime had succumbed to an idealist lure that read History according to Marx as the necessary expression of human essence. In opposition to this, Althusser reframes human essence not as something static and eternal but contingent and determined by social relations. Because of this, much of twentieth century Marxist philosophers ‘have forgotten that Marx’s dialectics could become one thing or the other—could either become critical or revolutionary, or play the role of glorifying the current state of affairs’ (20).
Pfeifer distinguishes the concept of Ideology as proposed by Althusser from Hegel’s, in that our consciousness, for Althusser, is not free from that which determines its awareness. In our consciousness ‘we miss the historical nature of material relations that exist and the conceptual knowledge that attends it’ (35). However, the framing of Ideology by Althusser, as presented in the text, can be tricky. In part, because Ideology produces the awareness by which social relations occur, but at the same time it misrepresents these relations by making them appear non-continuous and necessary. Pfeifer is undaunted about the possibility of a paradox in his book, and leaves it open to speculation. Instead, he moves on to explain Spinoza’s influence on Althusser; we do not have a freedom in relation to matter we choose, and yet we translate this matter into ‘the natural order of things’ (Ibid). Consciousness thus appears both for Spinoza and Althusser as a mediator that connects the material world to one’s awareness of it.
Pfeifer emphasizes Althusser’s anti-humanist structuralism on the basis of his critique of Levi-Strauss, in which Althusser accepts Strauss’s claim that structural practices properly explain social relations, but also rejects his notion that the structured whole that structuralism seeks to describe is not endowed with a conscious existence (42). By treating consciousness as a “second degree relation” between matter and one’s body, Althusser seems to apply a Cartesian dualism that may be problematic for his own position later in the text. If consciousness serves as a mediator that connects material experiences to one’s awareness of the world, then consciousness is not secondary to matter but parallel in importance to its ontological existence. This is because one’s awareness and reasoning of the material world may depend on one’s consciousness as much as one’s direct experience with the physical world.
According to Pfeifer, Althusser’s theory of structural causality made it almost impossible to understand how free agents of action could possibly effect change deliberatively. For if ‘all science or scientific truth is temporal and historical at the same time, then it seems we encounter a simple relativism; and thereby fail to have real chances of pulling the non-ideological true from the ideological and holding it apart in such a way as to fully overcome the ideological’ (48). It is this foundational problem for structuralism what led to the publications of Badiou’s and Žižek’s essays on what Pfeifer identifies as “new materialism”; in an attempt to reconcile both politically and metaphysically human subjectivity with the history of social relations.
Pfeifer’s reference to Badiou reminisces most notably upon his conception of an “event”, i.e. a radical inevitable change that just happens, “the idea that a given historical moment gives avenue to a kind of external stasis” (52). For Badiou, this revolutionary shift (which he refers to as ‘eventual truth’) depends on the agents of action who experience it and are thus subjected to it. Pfeifer’s claim is that Badiou succumbs to an idealist formalism of his own, because his theory fails to explain how such ‘events’ are to be managed or planned by those who experience it. Pfeifer notes that, for Badiou, it is humans who have the possibility to change, by virtue of their commitment to the truth of events that are ‘cultivated by those who are subjectified’ (77). It is not clear in Pfeifer’s explanation how Badiou succeeds at distinguishing dialectical materialism from historical materialism, given Badiou’s quasi-structuralism defined by the necessity of recognizing an event and the immediate ability to act upon it thereafter. And so the problem found in Althusser’s project remains unattended in Badiou’s work.
Pfeifer shows his preference for Žižek’s theory on the grounds that he, unlike Badiou, locates the transformation in the subject of himself. That is, humans bear the weight of radical change, whereas, in Badiou’s project, subjects are merely subjects insofar as they bear witness to the event and remain committed to it. It is crucial for Žižek that knowledge and the ‘knower is determined by our pragmatic concerns and our active dealings with one another in the community’ (97). He views subjectivity as the product of various differences, based on institutions, practices, cultures, and epistemology. In other words, subjectivity itself is contingent and ideologically limited given its being as a product of history. To summarize, Žižek’s non-reductive materialism is not necessarily a rejection of the subjective world but rather ‘an embracing of the existence and determining power of the ideal qua subjectivity, in a quasi-Kantian sense’ (108). The symbolic is precisely a materially generated immaterial that has a “Real Abstract” existence (116). In sum, Žižek endorses Althusser by asserting that subjectivity is first found on the nexus of social practices and meanings.
Althusser, Badiou and Žižek are all thinkers worthy of exegetical recognition. That said, the rhetoric of the book gives the perception that a sound argument is not so much about its underlying theorization and evidence as much as a premise being reiterated. Pfeifer’s introduction of Žižek, for instance, merely recalls a repetitive point previously made in the first two chapters. In addition, Pfeifer makes a number of grammatical errors in nearly every chapter, which reflect poorly both on his authorship an on his publisher. For example, he writes: “…it is out of this the Marx himself experiences the ‘new’—it is the scientific practice that Marx engages in that partially produces—or reproduces, Marx’s world” (28). By following this we may question how much this says about the state of academic publishing in today’s journals.
Secondly, there are more serious problems with the content of the book. Readers seeking to encounter an account of new materialism may question the absence of postmodern critics, such as works inspired by Deleuze and Latour. It is of course admissible for Pfeifer to focus on the Althusserian project, given his emphasis on Marxist science and ideology, but the latter goal is ill-served in critical moments of the text. Pfeifer’s opening discussion of Marx is meant to evaluate both critically and analytically the relationship between necessity and contingency, structure and subjectivity, and stasis and change. Certainly we may find that Hegel is frequently known for reconciling these tensions of dialectics. And so the goal of Pfeifer considerably switches from identifying a new form of materialism to alight on a “proper” form of materialism through the lenses of Althusser, and ultimately Žižek.
Given his political preference, and thus choice, of the works cited, a proper materialism (or “new”, as he calls it) is that which is non-reductive (93). However, many materialists would argue that a proper materialism is an adequate form of soft-determinism, which reduces certain epiphenomena in light of compatible linkages between history and individual autonomy. But if we already had idealized a proper form of materialism to begin with, what use is there in arguing for it, or reiterating what has already been said?
2 October 2016