Aesthetic Materialism, part 3: The Experiment

This blog is an experiment, a literary experiment, an extended “essay” - a word coined by Francis Bacon, in imitation of Montaigne, which means, literally, a “try,” an “attempt," even a kind of “stab,” in the sense of taking a stab at something.  I am attempting to draw out, in various ways, the consequences of a simple hypothesis, which is, as I’ve already said, the idea that materialism is not something that can be proven by any scientific experiment: materialism is an aesthetic.  It is a matter of taste.  Even, I am will to go so far as to say, an aesthetic choice - with all of the baggage that that word “choice” entails.  Even an incompatibilist does not deny that choice happens, or that choices exist - she merely insists that our choices are determined by forces beyond our control.

By asserting that materialism is an aesthetic, I am attempting to restore agency to the materialist, though I can, of course, appreciate that a certain part of the aesthetics of materialism is the delicious horror baked into the feeling that materialism is something that happens to you.  The delights of materialism are akin to despair, disillusionment, resignation, acceptance (Nietzsche used to say, “Russian fatalism”), a fierce, brave, and adventurous determination to confront something face-to-face, and the admittedly somewhat romantic notion of the heroic figure who stands before the truth, declaring, “Here I stand.  I can do no other,” (and without the fear or the relief of “so help me God, Amen”).  And yet materialism is just a little bit different from all of these.  It is a subtle, elusive je ne sais quoi, a certain ephemeral and ineffable delicatesse, a finesse that can only be detected - tasted - by the experienced, like the most esoteric notes of a Susumaniello. 

Perhaps we can only proceed apophatically, by the via negativa: we cannot say what the aesthetic of materialism is, only what it isn’t.  First of all, when I say that materialism is an aesthetic, I am not by any means equating materialism with realism.  All realism should be nauseating to anyone who has developed a taste for the material.  This relates to why I see a certain distance between science and materialism.  To be sure, materialism is perfectly compatible with science; there is nothing in materialism that cannot be described scientifically, and nothing that that science offers is outside the purview of materialism.  And yet they are not the same.  The materialistic is not the scientific, but the materialistic is nothing other than the scientific.

All love and all honor to science.  And yet, to a materialist, some of the pop science that is used to explain our social institutions just seems so uncultivated - so jejune, so passe, so obvious.  The history of the development of the materialist aesthetic can be seen as a series of stabs at the material... romanticism and realism were just two of the many stabs, each stab erring in one direction or another... each one a little off, a bit of an overreach... sometimes followed by an overcorrection... realism turned out to be a kind of romanticism, in its own way.... futurism was an important moment in the development of materialism, until it too was surpassed by dada and surrealism.... abstract expressionism is an improvement upon realism, because it asserts the materiality of the paint, the canvas, and, as in Jasper Johns’ work, ultimately various objects.  Yet even abstract expressionism fails to be materialist, because it remains, almost against its will, representational - it still expresses something, some deep, mysterious essence “behind” the canvas, as it were... that the representationalism was so to speak against its will showed that it had a will and was thus representationalist.  It took pop art to truly express nothing, to flatten the canvas, to become pure surface... and so on.

Materialism is not romantic, and materialism is not heroic.  (For this reason, socialist realism is not materialist.)  What if we were to say that materialism is tragic?  Now we’re heading in the right direction, but that’s not quite right either.  How about this: materialism is comic.  That’s very, very close, “close enough for government work” as the saying goes.  For almost all practical purposes, we might as well say that materialism is identical to comedy, and for that reason that the correct political position is always whatever is the funniest position.

But ultimately, this is, too, is slightly off the mark.  The key emotional response that materialism evokes is neither tears nor laughter, but boredom.  Materialism is extremely boring, because reality is boring.  Of course our memories are not boring - our memories are tragic, or comic, or heartwarming, or instructive - but that is largely because we are misremembering.  We remember stories and tell each other stories that have a point, but real life is not a story.  It is pointless.  Reality does not fit into any ideology, any preconceived category or even any postconceived category.  The material is not there to prove any point, or to stir any passion.  It’s just there. 

The materialist has cultivated an enormous capacity to be bored, because the material is so boring.  (This is, by the way, why Capital Volume 2 is Marx’s best book: because it is his most boring book.)  And yet, boredom is not enough to be a materialist.  A materialist is looking for a very specific kind of boringness, a boringness that only the material can provide.  It is not simply repetitiveness.  One can’t really put it into words, but when one sees it, it is unmistakeable: the perfect boredom of the real.

Click here for Aesthetic Materialism parts 1 and 2.


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