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Varieties of vital materialism

Boekbijdrage - Hoofdstuk

In the shift from early modern matter theory to complex forms of Enlightenment materialism – from Bacon to Toland, Mandeville and the clandestine manuscript tradition – we are faced with a reconfiguration of matter. From passive or mechanistic (defined strictly in terms of size, shape and motion), it becomes dynamic and plastic, as in this statement by John Toland in the fifth of his Letters to Serena: “Activity ought to enter into the Definition of Matter, it ought likewise to express the Essence thereof” (Toland 1704, 165). In addition, matter in this process of ‘endowment’ or incorporation of properties becomes vitalized, notably with the incorporation of properties such as irritability and sensibility (Wolfe 2014). Here, it is important not to oppose vitalism and materialism, for at least two reasons: first, because the concept of matter is becoming reconfigured so it possesses irreducibly vital properties (if Toland had granted it motion and activity, and rejected Newton’s distinction between gravity and matter, further texts of the period add on additional, biomedically or embryologically derived properties); but also, second, because several distinctive eighteenth-century medical vitalists insist on the irreducible materiality of the living systems they study. The ‘life’ they are interested in is not that of a vital principle, archaeus, semina rerum, vis vita or entelechy: it is that of a living body, or organism. This interrelation or even interpenetration of a materialist project to understand Life, and a vitalist project of articulating the specific, organized materiality of living bodies shows how the purported novelty of a ‘new materialism’ which claims to discover, in the late twentieth or early twenty-first century, the fact of our embodiment, including its cultural ramifications, may need to be taken with a considerable dose of salt. I seek to reconstruct this articulation of a vital materialism, so different from the old vision of a mechanistic materialism (Kaitaro 2008, Wolfe 2012), as classically presented by Engels (Engels 1888, in Marx & Engels 1982). In addition, I emphasize that this specifically vital materialism is nevertheless not a wholesale holism: it embraces a reductionist dimension, in its medicalized approach to body:soul relations. Matter is active, but not spiritualized.
Boek: The new politics of materialism : history, philosophy, science
Pagina's: 44 - 65
Jaar van publicatie:2017