Saturday, October 13, 2012

Material (I)

The great basic question of all philosophy, especially of more recent philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being. From the very early times when men, still completely ignorant of the structure of their own bodies, under the stimulus of dream apparitions* came to believe that their thinking and sensation were not activities of their bodies, but of a distinct soul which inhabits the body and leaves it at death — from this time men have been driven to reflect about the relation between this soul and the outside world. If, upon death, it took leave of the body and lived on, there was no occassion to invent yet another distinct death for it. Thus arose the idea of immortality, which at that stage of development appeared not at all as a consolation but as a fate against which it was no use fighting, and often enough, as among the Greeks, as a positive misfortune. The quandry arising from the common universal ignorance of what to do with this soul, once its existence had been accepted, after the death of the body, and not religious desire for consolation, led in a general way to the tedious notion of personal immortality. In an exactly similar manner, the first gods arose through the personification of natural forces. And these gods in the further development of religions assumed more and more extramundane form, until finally by a process of abstraction, I might almost say of distillation, occurring naturally in the course of man’s intellectual development, out of the many more or less limited and mutually limiting gods there arose in the minds of men the idea of the one exclusive God of the monotheistic religions.

Thus the question of the relation of thinking to being, the relation of the spirit to nature — the paramount question of the whole of philosophy — has, no less than all religion, its roots in the narrow-minded and ignorant notions of savagery. But this question could for the first time be put forward in its whole acuteness, could achieve its full significance, only after humanity in Europe had awakened from the long hibernation of the Christian Middle Ages. The question of the position of thinking in relation to being, a question which, by the way, had played a great part also in the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, the question: which is primary, spirit or nature — that question, in relation to the church, was sharpened into this: Did God create the world or has the world been in existence eternally?

The answers which the philosophers gave to this question split them into two great camps. Those who asserted the primacy of spirit to nature and, therefore, in the last instance, assumed world creation in some form or other — and among the philosophers, Hegel, for example, this creation often becomes still more intricate and impossible than in Christianity — comprised the camp of idealism. The others, who regarded nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism.
These two expressions, idealism and materialism, originally signify nothing else but this; and here too they are not used in any other sense.

* Among savages and lower barbarians the idea is still universal that the human forms which appear in dreams are souls which have temporarily left their bodies; the real man is, therefore, held responsible for acts committed by his dream apparition against the dreamer. Thus Imthurn found this belief current, for example, among the Indians of Guiana in 1884.

(Friedrich Engels, from Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, 1886)

* * *

Graphology has taught us to recognize in handwriting images that the unconscious of the writer conceals in it it.  It may be supposed that the mimetic process which expresses itself in this way in the activity of the writer was, in the very distant times in which script originated, of utmost importance for writing.  Script has thus become, like language, an archive of nonsensuous similarities, of nonsensuous correspondences.

But this aspect of language, as well as of script, does not develop in isolation from its other, semiotic aspect.  Rather, the mimetic element in language can, like a flame, manifest itself only through a kind of bearer.  This bearer is the semiotic element.  Thus, the nexus of meaning of words or sentences is the bearer through which, like a flash, similarity appears.  For its production by man - like its perception by him - is in many cases, and particularly the most important, tied to its flashing up.  It flits past.  It is not improbable that the rapidity of writing and reading heightens the fusion of the semiotic and the mimetic in the sphere of language.

(Walter Benjamin, "On the Mimetic Faculty," 1933) 

* * *

Benjamin's fascination with mimesis flows from the confluence of three considerations; alterity, primitivism, and the resurgence of mimesis with modernity.  Without hesitation Benjamin affirms that the mimetic faculty is the rudiment of a former compulsion of persons to "become and behave like something else."  The ability to mime, and mime well, in other words, is the capacity to Other.

This discovery of the importance of the mimetic is itself testimony to Benjamin's enduring theme, the surfacing of "the primitive" within modernity as a direct result of modernity, especially of its everyday-life rhythms of montage and shock alongisde the revelation of the optical unconscious that is made possible by mimetic machinery such as the camera and the movies.  By definition, this notion of a resurfacing or refocussing of the mimetic rests on the assumption that "once upon a time" mankind was mimetically adept.  In this regard Benjamin refers specifically to mimicry in dance, cosmologies of microcosm and macrocosm, and divination by means of correspondences revealed by the entrails of animals and constellations of stars.  Much more could by said of the extensive role of mimesis in the ritual life of ancient and "primitive" societies.

(Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity, pp. 19-20, 1993)

* * *

Although what men see, touch, or grasp are responses to external stimuli, the external objects are determined by the selective activity of the senses and the senses in turn are constantly modified by the biological, social, and cultural evolution of the human species.  In a certain sense, then, there are no natural data, no God-given external facts of nature, but only socially-mediated objects.

(Z.A. Jordan, "The Evolution of Dialectical Materialism," 1967)

[It is helpful to reinforce here that Jordan's gloss on Marx does not claim that there is no eternal world from the standpoint of a Marxist materialism/naturalism, but that our data or our objects of such a world are only ever mediated.]  Further, from the same source:

Unlike mechanistic materialism, which is anxious to explain how ideas and systems of thought are produced by physical and chemical processes in the brain, historical materialism tries to show how ideas and systems of thought emerge from and are determined by social conditions, which both shape and mould man's behavior and are shaped and moulded by man.  But historical materialism also goes beyond what mechanistic materialism was ever able to consider, namely, it tries to explain how man as a natural entity, analogous to other natural entities, acquires his human characteristics through social existence and social evolution.

* * * 

An unrelated, personal addendum: I know that there are few thriving film blogs these days, and the faint guilt over my own inactivity with Elusive Lucidity has been alleviated somewhat by this fact.  It is not that I have been doing nothing, seeing nothing, reading nothing, or writing nothing.  It has all simply been directed elsewhere.  Almost definitely, EL will never return to the same level of activity as it had several years ago.  However, this has been a useful tool for me and may continue to be so here and there, so spurts of activity may still be forthcoming ... including a lot of quotes and maybe some commentary on philosophical questions of materialism, matter, mimesis, perception, and society as inaugurated in this very post.  Cheers, y'all.


Nathan said...

My heart weeps. May we at least know to what other ends your writing has been directed? Is it accessible anywhere?

Zach Campbell said...

Nathan - look, I've already got a new post up!

I've been writing a few things for Mubi from time to time, but not as frequently as I'd like. (This is down to my inabilities rather than a lack of opportunity at Mubi; Danny K. has always been very patient with me when I'm slow.) And earlier this year I published something on Jerry Lewis in La Furia Umana.

A lot of what I write though is for scholarly purposes; I hope to get an article or two submitted to a journal fairly soon. As to how accessible this will be ... it'll depend!