Spectral Materialism


One should thus get rid of the fear that, once we ascertain that reality is the infinitely divisible, substanceless void within a void, “matter will disappear.” What the digital informational revolution, the biogenetic revolution, and the quantum revolution in physics all share is that they mark the reemergence of what, for want of a better term, one is tempted to call a post-metaphysical idealism. It is as if Chesterton’s insight into how the materialist struggle for the full assertion of reality, against its subordination to any “higher” metaphysical order, culminates in the loss of reality itself: what began as the assertion of material reality ended up as the realm of pure formulas of quantum physics. Is, however, this really a form of idealism? Since the radical materialist stance asserts that there is no World, that the World in its Whole is Nothing, materialism has nothing to do with the presence of damp, dense matter – its proper figures are, rather, constellations in which matter seems to “disappear,” like the pure oscillations of the superstrings or quantum- vibrations. On the contrary, if we see in raw, inert matter more than an imaginary screen, we always secretly endorse some kind of spiritualism, as in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, in which the dense plastic matter of the planet directly embodies Mind. This “spectral materialism” has three different forms: in the informational revolution, matter is reduced to the medium of purely digitalized information; in biogenetics, the biological body is reduced to the medium of the reproduction of the genetic code; in quantum physics, reality itself, the density of matter, is reduced to the collapse of the virtuality of wave oscillations (or, in the general theory of relativity, matter is reduced to an effect of space’s curvature). Here we encounter ANOTHER crucial aspect of the opposition idealism/materialism: materialism is not the assertion of inert material density in its humid heaviness – SUCH a “materialism” can always serve as a support for gnostic spiritualist obscurantism. In contrast to it, a true materialism joyously assumes the “disappearance of matter,” the fact that there is only void.

Slavoj Žižek, Organs Without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences, Routledge,

2012, pp.21-22.

Photo credit: Matt Carr/Getty Images.


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‘Against Interpretation’

Susan Sontag, by Annie Leibovitz.

Who could be against interpretation? Interpretation is what we do. It is as natural to us, and perhaps even as automatic to us as our breathing or our heartbeat. It is, I would say, the basic function of human cognition. We like to think that we deal with reality, but we do not. In fact we encounter a stream of instantaneous phenomena. These phenomena may have a relationship to reality, but that relationship is neither constant nor consistent, and nor is it in any way measurable. When we see a tree, for example, we do not, cannot, know the totality of ‘tree’; but the instant flash of trunk, branch, leaves, and whatever images come into our minds are what we interpret, and we give it a meaning, a word. We interpret it. We do not even reduce the totality down to that interpretation, because we do not have the totality to start with.

At this point the shade of Susan Sontag comes and stands at my elbow, crossly tapping her foot.

“That is not what I meant,” she says, and points to a passage in her famous essay, ‘Against Interpretation’.

Of course, I don’t mean interpretation in its broadest sense, the sense in which Nietzsche (rightly) says, “There are no facts, only interpretations.” By interpretation, I mean here a conscious act of the mind which illustrates a certain code, certain “rules” of interpretation.

Fair enough. Let’s set aside my insistence on our everyday experience of the world as being one of phenomena, and let’s take that definition of interpretation, damned by Sontag as “the compliment that mediocrity pays to genius,” and run with it. Here is the opening paragraph of her essay:

The earliest experience of art must have been that it was incatatory, magical; art was an instrument of ritual. (Cf. the paintings in the caves at Lascaux, Altamira, Niaux, La Pasiega, etc.) The earliest theory of art, that of the Greek philosophers, proposed that art was mimesis, imitation of reality.

Sontag’s initial sentence is an example of the very process she abhors – it is an interpretation. Whenever we contemplate prehistoric humanity we come across things we don’t understand. Give us a flint hand-axe or a scraper and we’re happy, we can immediately see what they’re for. Give us unaccountable marks on a piece of bone, a cup-and-ring pattern on a stone, or a vivid painting on the wall of a cave – something for which there is no obvious purpose – and we feel compelled to invent one. We come up with a “must have been,” we consciously interpret. Our fall-back position is ‘ritual’. We have no proof that our remote ancestors divided life up by any kind of taxonomy that we would recognise, no evidence at all that painting a cave wall had any significance for them beyond being an act woven into everyday life, no evidence of their metaphysical sensibilities, no evidence at all of ritual. In fact, all we can be forgiven for recognising in the paintings is a mimetic quality, the one that the Greeks thought up later.

The reductive verdict of ‘ritual’ is our colonial mind-set at work. It is the same hegemonic code and rules of interpretation that dubbed ‘ritual’ what we thought we saw when Maasai, or Andaman Islanders, or Maori, or Iroquois went through something that their society or culture regularly repeated. In our supposedly civilised superiority, looking down upon those whom we considered ‘primitive’, we reduced what they did to a word we could cope with, a word replete with condescension – we are above all that, we are rational beings, or so we say to ourselves.

Judith Butler, wascapes.com

I’m going to digress for a while. This whole subject of ritual opens up another avenue of thought for me and, like a dog in a field, I like to follow fresh scents. I’ll go back to Judith Butler’s declaration of gender as a “stylized repetition of acts” (519). Gender, Butler tells us, is performative, to which I always feel bound to answer, “What isn’t?” What single act that we do any moment of any day of the year, be it demonstrative of gender or anything else in our make-up or in what society or culture expects of us, is not in some way a declaration of who we are, who we are to be taken to be, or what we are currently doing? When we repeat that act, particularly on a regular basis, then its stylised repetition makes it part of a ritual. For that is what a ritual is – the regular repetition of a performative act. At every Catholic mass, the priest raises the host and consecrates it, by which performative action it becomes the body of Christ; his congregation recognises this, it is familiar to them, they have seen this performative act a hundred times or more.

It could be that the actions that came before our colonial eyes in East Africa, the Andaman Islands, Aotearoa, or Ontario, or before the rediscoverers’ eyes in the caves of South-Western Europe, do or did have that order of significance for their actors. But it is not so simply because we say it is so.

I have, in any case, always been dissatisfied with the word ‘ritual’. Where there is something familiar such as the Catholic mass mentioned above, or the way that the court officials and the advocates rise and bow when the Sheriff enters the courtroom, it is the outward signal that there is a process under way. I prefer ‘process’. It is still condescending and presumptuous to look on at something from an exotic culture, nod knowingly, and say, “Process.” But at least the word has less of a derogatory nuance. It might be possible to look at the cave paintings and surmise that there was a cultural process going on; but I believe the most we can do, the most we should do, is look with awe, and with satisfaction, at something our sisters and brothers felt it worth putting there.

In her essay, Susan Sontag makes a plea for us to back off from conscious interpretation. She says (or rather, she said in 1964 – her shade is no longer standing at my elbow tapping her foot):

What kind of criticism, of commentary on the arts, is desirable today? For I am not saying that works of art are ineffable, that they cannot be described or paraphrased. They can be. The question is how. What would criticism look like that would serve the work of art, not usurp its place? […] What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. […] Transparence is the highest, most liberating value in art – and in criticism – today. Transparence means experiencing the luminousness of the thing itself, of things being what they are […] In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.
(12, 13, 14)

“Of things being what they are.” I certainly see where she is coming from. But this takes me back to my initial point – the impossibility of knowing what things are. Our first, perhaps our only, experience of an artefact is that immediate phenomenon, filtered through our senses, dealt with by our powers of perception, made some-sort-of-sense-of if sense is really what we’re making; this phenomenon, instead of standing still, plays a giant game of association with our mind, conjuring up other images, some of which seem to last, others dissipate before they’re fully formed. We do ‘interpret’, we can’t help it. I often put it this way – we read everything. Just not as coherently as we would like to believe.

In my opinion we ought to be aware of this. Perhaps it is not an erotics of art but a ‘chaotics’ that we need, or, if you prefer something more solid to hold onto, something with an –ology to it, a phenomenology of art. Perhaps we need a whole tool set, a Swiss-Army-Knife of the consciousness, in which we keep interpretation, erotics, chaotics, and any other handy tool.

Sontag might not have liked that idea, and would have kept the interpretive tool snapped shut. Not for her the peeling away of the skin to reveal and interpret content. Of modernist art she said:

The content may have changed. It may now be less figurative, less lucidly realistic, but it is still assumed that a work of art is its content. Or, as it’s usually put today, that a work of art by definition says something. (“What X is saying is…,” “What X is trying to say is…,” “What X said is…,” etc.)

Lyn Hejinian, by Carolyn Andrews.

What Sontag is saying here – I know, that’s cheeky of me! – is that art is never used as a means of communication. I doubt that such a statement can be accepted. Many works in all kinds of genres are produced to be seen and heard and understood, to convey a message or to make a point, to be instrumentalist even didactic. Sontag objects to the epanalegesis of Philo of Alexandria, and by extension of any revision of the meaning of scripture, down to this day, beyond the expression of the religious experience of the culture within which it was first written; thus she must object to any passing over of the proprietorship of content, if content there is, and surely to form, which she privileges above content. This is a narrowing down. A poet such as Lyn Hejinian, on the other hand, takes an approach that is vigorously diametrically opposite. For Hejinian, intrinsic in loosening her own proprietorship of a poem is relinquishing authority over meaning. She finds with Yurii Tynianov that even a single word does not have a single definite meaning, but is “a chameleon, in which not only various shades, but even various colors arise with each usage” (Tynianov 60), conceding his idea of the “oscillating sign” in which meanings and nuances jostle for position (70) in a signifier, which can even slip away from its signified (Ward 19). Thus writing, and even more so reading, becomes an exercise not in teasing out any fixed or intended meaning, but in allowing thought-associations to form freely with words, and further “where one once sought a vocabulary for ideas, one now seeks ideas for vocabularies” (Hejinian, Language of Inquiry 27). This is an interpretation beyond bald interpretation, a deliberate invitation for the reader to take part in the creative process, adding other dongles to the Swiss-Army-Knife:

But the fact of modern poetry’s being “hard to read” can be extolled as a virtue in and of itself […]. In writing that is propelled by sonic associations, for example, what one might call musicality, the result may, paradoxically, be a form of realism, giving the poem’s language material reality, palpability, presence, and worldliness. Such difficulty, even when it doesn’t produce conventional sense, may be engaging in its own right; or, from another point of view, it may be disengaging. It may be emblematic of resistance, elaborating a rejection and even a defiance of the production of totalizing and normalizing meanings, in resisting dogmatism, it may create spaces for ambiguity, provisionality, and difference. […] it may serve to roughen the surface of the work, so that it catches one’s attention, impedes one’s reading, wakes one up to reality.

This is a wonderfully liberating attitude compared to Sontag’s, an ‘anything goes’ attitude to reading or observing or hearing a work of art, closer to my idea of ‘chaotics’ perhaps. Not without its problems, of course, it is no more a definitive view than Sontag’s, and the world has moved on since all these statements were made.

Where does this leave us? Sontag’s essay remains a major work of influence, a ‘must read’ item for all those who want to study literature or contemplate any genre of expressive art. However it is not, of course, graven on tablets of stone.


I hope you have enjoyed reading the above. Of course it can’t have covered everything – it has touched on areas about which whole books have been written. If you would like to enter into discussion about this post, please use the comments box below, or email me at taxonomydomine{a}gmail.com, and I will transfer your remarks here. Vigorous counter-arguments are welcome; flames, however, will be doused.

Here’s an interesting digression: why did I pick those particular photographs of the women I quoted here?


Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in

Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal, vol.40 No.4,

1988, pp.519-531.

Hejinian, Lyn. The Language of Inquiry. University of California Press, 2000.

Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation. Vintage, 1988.

Tynianov, Yurii. The Problem of Verse Language. Translated by Michael Sosa

and Brent Harvey. Ardis, 1981.

Ward, Geoff. Language Poetry and the American Avant-garde. British

Association for American Studies, 1993.

Walter Benjamin on History

 Angelus Novus

Mein Flügel ist zum Schwung bereit,
ich kehrte gern zurück,
den blieb ich auch lebendige Zeit,
ich hätte wenig Gluck
– Gerhard Scholem, “Gruss vom Angelus”

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

The above paragraph is the ninth of Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (Illuminations, tr. Harry Zohn, ed. Hannah Arendt, Schocken Books, 1968, pp.257-8).