Marx Through Post-Structuralism by Simon Choat

Review of Choat, S. (2010) Marx Through Post-Structuralism: Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, London: Continuum, pp. 207.

PDF Versions: Review by Jason Edwards, Review by Saul Newman, Review by Mark Edward, Author’s Reply by Simon Choat.

Review by Jason Edwards[1]

Simon Choat’s Marx through Poststructuralism is an admirably clear book that convincingly puts the case for a re-evaluation of the work of some key post-structuralist thinkers (namely Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze) in light of the influence on them of Marx. More than this, he attempts to construct out of the engagement between Marx and these authors a conception of materialism that is relevant and useful in the present. While I readily agree that what we need to take out of Marx’s work – and indeed where possible that of the post-structuralist thinkers under consideration – is a critical materialist analysis of the social relations of the present informed by the study of the past, I am less convinced by Choat’s concluding argument that we can ground such a form of critical materialism in class struggle. By shedding light on the possibilities and difficulties that arise from the post-structuralist encounter with Marx, Choat points us in the right direction but his solution to the problem of the grounds of critique raises more questions than it answers. Indeed, the problem here may be that there isn’t a problem – a point which I’ll come to at the end of the review.

I’ll confine myself to some comments on and criticisms of Choat’s engagement with the work of Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze (I have little to say about the chapter on Lyotard, partly because I find him a considerably less interesting or original thinker than the other three) before returning to the issue of the grounds for materialist analysis and the significance of Althusser’s work for Choat’s project. With all the post-structuralist authors examined in the book, Choat manages to show well that even in moments of silence about and hostility towards Marxism they were still working around a problematic shaped by the impact of Marx and Marxism. In Derrida’s case, the texts of the 1960s that contributed to the emergence of deconstruction were written in a milieu in which the theoretical anti-humanism of structuralism had come to inform the structural Marxism of Althusser and his colleagues. Derrida stood at some distance from this work on Marx, but nonetheless, as Choat demonstrates, the critique of metaphysical conceptions of onto-teleology at the centre of Hegelian Marxism and certain versions of phenomenology, including that of Sartre, were warmly welcomed by Derrida. But Derrida used this anti-humanist and anti-historicist critique of metaphysics in order to undermine structuralism (and by implication structural Marxism), to demonstrate that the centre of the structural totality can never be present but is always deferred. This led to the insights developed in Derrida’s most important work – particularly ‘Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’ – about the reliance of the texts in the history of Western metaphysics on binary oppositions between terms, oppositions which the interminable play of language allows us to undermine.

As Choat recognizes, there is a way in which we might see deconstruction as a form of materialism. It cannot be materialism in the sense that it is the opposite of idealism – that would be to revert to the kind of binary opposition that deconstruction seeks to undermine. Materialism would have to appear as ‘third term’, as something that stands for the undermining of the either/ or opposition by virtue of a kind of material practice. But exactly what kind of practice is this? Choat is quite critical of Derrida’s Specters of Marx, and rightly so, because of his focus on Marx’s putative ontology at the expense of the practical and political import of Marx’s work. This is manifested in Derrida’s invocation of the ‘specter’ as a way of deconstructing Marx’s opposition between use-value and exchange-value. Choat’s analysis here is excellent and perhaps he is too reserved in asserting what he demonstrates very well: both the flimsiness of Derrida’s claim that the figure of the specter is central to Marx’s texts and his one-sidedly selective reading of Marx on the relationship between value, use-value and exchange-value. Choat exposes here the poverty of Derrida’s contributions as a political theorist, something evident from his other works on politics, such as The Politics of Friendship. For while Derrida himself argues for Marx as a political thinker, his own analysis in Specters of Marx tells us little of Marx’s political value beyond the messianic invocation of ‘democracy to come’, a recondite concept that neither helps us to analyse politics in the present nor point to where we can go in the future. But the point Choat could have pushed further here is that Derrida’s failure to illuminate Marx as a political thinker is not simply a product of his imprisonment within a particular kind of philosophical discourse, but of how this philosophical discourse as a material practice has been politically shaped. To say the same thing, deconstruction has a politics on its outside that it has proven loath to acknowledge, one that is intimately linked to the intellectual, academic and cultural life of certain kinds of late twentieth century capitalist societies.

But Choat is right not to dismiss Derrida and deconstruction, as some Anglo-American Marxists have done, as intellectually dishonest or unimportant. He is equally right to claim that the work of Foucault and Deleuze can better help us in seeing the continued relevance of Marx and the contours of a materialist approach to politics. Despite Foucault’s often explicit criticisms of Marx and Marxism, Choat shows that there is a clear sense in which Foucault’s genealogical studies are consistent with Marx’s approach to history and to social conflict. An interesting point here is with respect to Foucault’s concept of power as a productive force, often taken to be incompatible with Marx’s view of power as primarily a negative phenomenon, an instrument of class rule. But if we have sympathy with the idea that we can employ Marx’s work as a toolbox, an idea that Choat demonstrates Foucault to have held, then the stark contrast between the two views of power collapses. If we throw out the programmatic declarations about class power in Marx, what we find in analyses such as that of the working day and of primitive accumulation in Capital is a much more subtle approach that registers the contingency and openness of the outcome of conflict given the character of particular kinds of relations of production in different times and places. Class conflict is, in that sense, itself productive from Marx’s point of view as it changes the balance in relations of power, and gives rise to new classes just as it dissolves the bonds of the old.

Nevertheless, it is very hard to escape the fact that Marx envisaged communism as a form of human society in which power had been overcome, and this vision informed much of his work. Here lies the central problem with any attempt to reconcile Foucault’s conception of power with Marx’s: there may be affinities in some of the moments of the analysis, but ultimately Marx believes that self-realised human subjectivity in the absence of power is possible and desirable, a notion clearly at odds with the direction of Foucault’s work. Similarly, we might ask whether Deleuze (and Guattari’s) concepts of de-territorialization and re-territorialization are compatible with Marx’s analysis of capitalism in the way that Choat seems to signal. He thinks that these can be ‘useful concepts’, but at the same time he takes Deleuze to task for over-abstraction and is right to point out that de-territorialization and re-territorialization, as concepts applied by Deleuze and Guattari to all kinds of phenomena, tell us little about the specificity of capitalism. I would want to press the point further: the Deleuzian focus on de/ re-territorialization, on bodies without organs, on de-materialization, flow, etc. re-instates a kind of idealism entirely inconsistent with a materialist approach. For Marx, such an approach meant proceeding from concrete instances, whether that be the commodity in his economic analysis, or revolutions, wars, laws, etc. in his political writings. A work like A Thousand Plateaus, in contrast, uses concrete instances only to substantiate pre-formulated abstractions, and in doing so give us a partial and flawed picture of the character of capitalist social relations.

These criticisms aside, Choat does succeed in showing that there is value in reading Marx alongside the authors he engages with and not least if we are interested in a what constitutes the materiality of the material practice of analyzing politics and social relations in the past and present. In this respect, Choat is right to highlight the importance of a materialist approach that is critical, historical and focused on existing social relations. Against this yardstick, he is again correct in pointing out how in part the work of Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze can be found wanting. But the conclusion of the book is disappointing. He argues that the post-structuralists have shown us the importance of avoiding an ontologized Marx, but then goes on to champion ‘Marx’s way of securing critique [by rooting] philosophy in active social struggles’ (174). But it has to be asked, why do we need to return to this question of rooting or grounding philosophy in order to ‘secure’ critique? The question of whether there is any general ground for critique is a problem for philosophy. But it is not at all clear having gone through post-structuralism and cognate philosophical movements (Wittgenstein’s later philosophy comes to mind) whether it is or should be a problem for those interested in how social relations in the present are constituted and may be transformed. Putting the answer to the question of the grounds of critique in terms of ‘social struggle’ or ‘class struggle’ does not help us get us out of the problem in philosophy, even if we accept that classes are material, historical, mutable etc. It is significant, I think, that Louis Althusser, who is seen by Choat as the key figure in the relationship between Marx and post-structuralism, once made similar recourse to the idea of philosophy as ‘the class struggle in theory’ in renouncing his Reading Capital view of Marxism as the theory of theoretical practice. But the very problem with Althusser’s claim was that it was simply another abstraction, an assertion that class struggle is the ground or reference point for our critical engagement with the world. The danger is that we end up re-introducing another kind of social ontology – that of hegemonic conflict, class struggle – as a constraint upon the practice of critical materialist thinking.

[1] Department of Politics, Birkbeck College, London.

Review by Saul Newman

Simon Choat, in exploring an encounter between Marx’s thought and that of key post-structuralist thinkers, has done something important here. He has provided an alternate way of thinking about both Marx and post-structuralism, two critical perspectives that have hitherto been seen by many as irreconcilably opposed. From the point of view of the Marxist defenders of the faith, post-structuralists like Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and Lyotard have been seen as at once irresponsible relativists and conservative reactionaries, preoccupied with the play of discourse, power and desire at the expense of serious economic analysis; they thus not only deny revolutionaries a genuinely critical perspective, but are actually complicit in the ideological and cultural reproduction of postmodern capitalism. As an antidote to such nihilism we are exhorted to return to the ‘scientific’ rigours of Marxist political economy – or to its revolutionary permutations in various contemporary Leninisms and Trotskyisms. From the terrain of a certain unreflective and politically vacuous postmodernism, on the other hand, we find an equally questionable refrain: Marx’s thought is seen as crudely reductionist, out of date, universalizing, totalizing and hostile to difference.

Both these positions in their own way reflect a fundamentalism when it comes to Marx thought, and exhibit the dangers of not reading Marx properly, and at the same time insisting on a too rigid, purist interpretation of Marx, thus turning him to a dead dogma – something that is entirely unfaithful to ‘spirit’ (if we can invoke Derrida’s deconstructive reading here) of Marx. As Choat wants to show in this book, the most productive way to read Marx – and the best way to reaffirm or reconstruct his relevance today – is to recognise that there are, as with any great thinker, many Marx’s; that there is a heterogeneity to Marx’s thought and writings which invite new and heretical interpretations. And it is through post-structuralism – a series of theoretical interventions that affirm singularity, heresy, contamination, discontinuity and the destabilisation of fixed identities – that Choat finds the best way of renewing Marx. Whether or not Choat would approve of this way of putting things, he is performing a kind of deconstruction of Marx: the richness of Marx’s thought – not unmixed with tensions, contradictions, ambiguities – is unmoored from the fixed, uniform identity of ‘Marx’, one that was in any case retroactively imposed by the Marxism. We can, in other words, read Marx against Marx, just as Foucault showed us new ways of reading Kant against Kant: just as the critical, rebellious spirit of the Enlightenment could be mobilized against its rigid, universalizing categories, so too can a certain contingent materialism in Marx counter its tendencies towards Hegelian idealism and strict historical determinism. The Marx that emerges from Choat’s book – a figure animated and in a sense constructed out of post-structuralism – is a new kind of materialist Marx, one who emphasises the contingency rather than determinacy of history; who sees capitalism as emerging from a haphazard concatenation or ‘overdetermination’ of forces and events; and who sees the subjectivity of the proletariat as being constructed, in a Foucauldian sense, through the disciplinary mechanisms of the factory system and the warlike clamour of class struggle, rather than founded on a human essence whose original destiny would be revealed at the end of history. This singular materialism that Choat reconstructs in Marx should be understood as in terms of a Nietzschean (and Foucauldian) genealogy: a field of antagonistic force relations and contingent events from which economic and political assemblages nevertheless arise, but which is not founded on any sort of deeper essence or dialectical unfolding. Choat shows us how post-structuralist thought, despite – or rather because of – its taking a certain critical distance from Marx, allows this heretical materialism to be deepened and expanded.

Just as post-structuralism gives us new insights into Marx, so too does the engagement with Marx open up new approaches to post-structuralist thought. Concepts such as disciplinary and bio-power, productive desire, the differend and the event, are given new and astonishing resonance and clarity by considering them in relation to Marx’s analysis of capitalism. Hidden connections and convergences are uncovered, which at the same time allow a modification of concepts. Choat’s analysis therefore allows a genuinely productive contamination of ideas, which I always think is the best way of revealing their truth. However, we should not imagine that this heretical, deconstructive interpretation implies in any sense a sloppy, careless or unfaithful reading of any of the thinkers concerned, least of all Marx. On the contrary, Choat’s reading is rigorous, thorough and careful. I don’t always agree with his interpretations – for instance, Foucault’s notion of disciplinary power is not wholly intelligible within the schema of Marx’s analysis of capitalism, despite certain resemblances – and at times the parallels that are drawn feel a little forced. But on the whole the arguments are convincing and the theoretical engagements between thinkers are well justified.

And why shouldn’t they be? As Choat points out, post-structuralist thinkers emerged out of, in the wake of, and in answer to, a certain tradition of Marxist thought – that of Althusser; they therefore bore the legacy of Marx and remained haunted by Marx, even if they were critical (often justifiably so) of many of his ideas, or at least of certain ideas associated with the name of ‘Marx’. Indeed, all of us who see ourselves as critical thinkers are, in one way or another, the heirs of Marx, even as we seek to negotiate our own paths towards him. So the encounter between Marx and post-structuralism, while complicated and full of ambiguities, ambivalences and tensions, is a real encounter. It is nevertheless an encounter that had been largely forgotten or overlooked, and it is the great achievement of this book to remind us of it, and, moreover, to invite us to think about this radical legacy in new ways.

However, the question that remains unaddressed in this book – and in some ways this is a missed opportunity, a missed encounter – is how to put this radical legacy to work today. This is the political question, and for a study that wants to emphasise the political dimension of Marx’s thought – the material dimension of contingency, antagonism and struggle – it is surprising that there is no discussion about how the new conceptual approaches developed here can help us to think about radical politics today. How does this newly invigorated, heretically materialist Marx allow us to reflect on political situations in the contemporary world? How does it equip us with new ways of thinking about politics today; how does it allow us to think about, for instance, radical political struggles, social movements; how does it allow us to identify points of tension in global capitalism or in networks of power, and to act upon them? What forms of subjectivity and what forms of radical political action are conceivable today? If class is still a relevant category, and Choat seems to think it is – and if it is to be defined in terms of antagonistic relations rather than an as a socio-economic category – then where can those points of antagonism be located? And if, as I’m sure Choat would agree, the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary model is defunct, then what alternate strategies, tactics and forms of political organisation may take its place? If many activists around the world reject Marxism as a political signifier and a theoretical resource today, looking elsewhere to other traditions – anarchism, various socialisms, ecologism, indigenous cultures, for instance – then what sort of bearing does this have on Marx’s theories? To what extent is Marx’s thought – whose immanent heterogeneity has been revealed in Choat’s account – open to contamination from political discourses that historically have come from outside the corpus of his thought? Can there be an anarchist Marx, for instance?: this particular question is relevant here, as I think that anarchist ideas and themes, that resurged in May ’68, resonate at least as strongly in post-structuralist thought, if not as explicitly, as Marx’s ideas.

Indeed, to raise such questions about the political relevance of Marx’s thought today points to a certain problem here: if, for Marx, the political is the economic and the economic the political, then why is there no real engagement with the political implications of this radical re-visitation of Marx’s thought? Is Marx to be treated here simply as an analyst of capitalism? Marx, as Choat reminds us, is a thinker of revolution, of the political event – of the political as an event; and if we are to therefore assume that politics is central to Marx’s thought, then why is there no discussion of what a political or revolutionary event would look like today? Indeed, it is extraordinary that Choat seems to reprove Foucault for insufficiently explaining resistance and for leaving “little room for thinking about the future” (see p. 123) when this same lacunae is to be found in Choat’s work. Here I think there could have been, if not the attempt to apply Marx to concrete political questions today, then at least some kind of intervention in debates amongst contemporary thinkers like Hardt and Negri, Badiou, Žižek, Rancière, Laclau and Mouffe, thinkers who, in one way or another, are grappling with Marx’s legacy today. And if we are to compare Choat’s treatment of Marx with, for instance, that of Hardt and Negri, or, to take a radically different articulation, Laclau and Mouffe, while one might not agree with their analyses, they at least try to construct some sort of contemporary politics out of Marx: the immanent multitudes for Hardt and Negri, or the contingencies of radical democracy and hegemonic politics for Laclau and Mouffe. No such attempt is to be found in Choat’s work.

I am obviously not asking Choat to be prescriptive here. I am not demanding – and I’m sure this was not Choat’s intention either – the construction of a politico-theoretical apparatus of a post-structuralist Marx (or a Marxian post-structuralism) which can give us an alternative conceptual mapping of the entire world and provide clear-cut political solutions. Such an enterprise would not only defy the limitations of space, but would also go against what I suspect is our mutual wariness of totalizing theories. My point is simply that if Choat wants to assert not only the contemporary theoretical relevance of Marx, but also the idea of Marx as a political thinker – of Marx as a political event – then some of the questions I have raised above should at least be broached?

Perhaps these comments can be taken as an opportunity to further the discussion in this symposium, and to open up some of the new political questions that this book, much to its credit, inevitably prompts.

Review by Mark Edward

In Choat’s Marx Through Post-Structuralism one key claim is that different post-structural thinkers are engaged in the endeavour to provide a genuinely new materialist philosophy. Focusing on post-structuralist thinkers Jean-Francois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, Choat strives to investigate the influence of Marx and their attempts to create a materialist philosophy. In the following review I concentrate on the issue of materialism and make the claim that the materialism of each thinker holds significant differences. In  particular, I want to differentiate the materialism of Foucault from that of Deleuze.[1] Where the former remains tied to an anthropocentric form of materialism, the latter is able to formulate a non-anthropocentric materialism. The result is that any truly materialist philosophy is required to free itself from anthropocentricism if it is to avoid idealism.

Before I proceed to the main focus of my review a word of praise is required for the achievements of Marx Through Post-Structuralism. What Choat achieves is the fist substantial analysis of the influence of Marx on four key Post-Structural thinkers – an impressive achievement when thinkers like Foucault play a game of using but not referencing Marx. In addition, Marx Through Post-Structuralism demonstrates that it is possible for political scholars to find points of convergence between Post-Structuralism and Marx, rather than viewing them as antagonistic and incompatible paradigms. The result is that we can move beyond the one-upmanship of Post-Structuralist critiques of Marxism, and vice versa. Finally, Choat offers nuanced, careful and productive readings of Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze that will enlighten both new and established readers of these thinkers.

For Choat to demonstrate and support his claim that Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze propose and practise a materialist philosophy it is necessary to provide a definition of idealism. To define idealism Choat uses Althusser’s definition of idealism as ‘a philosophy of Origins and Ends, relying once on an ontology – defined here as a conception of the essential nature of the world – and a teleology – referring all events to a pre-established destiny.’[2] Although idealism is a varied and well-established philosophical position, Choat’s deployment of an Althusserian definition serves the purpose of the book’s claim that Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze are materialists. It is therefore adequate for Choat to omit a substantial discussion of how different philosophers define idealism. Furthermore, Choat outlines three specific criteria for a new materialism that escapes the idealist-materialist dichotomy. First, philosophy intervenes in political struggles and is not only a reflection on truth. Second, materialism recognises the contingency, complexity, and importance of history, without identifying a final point in history. Third, the subject is decentred and the soveriegnty of consciousness is dethroned.[3] In addition to Choat’s three criteria I would add another criterion: materialist philosophy cannot be anthropocentric. My additional criterion might sound similar to Choat’s third criteria. However, there is a significant difference between humanism and anthropocentricism. In humanism there is the belief of a natural and secular subject made possible from our conscious being. In the case of anthropocentricism there always requires the presence of humans and the human-world relation is examined.

The French Philosopher Quentin Meillasoux has coined a term that will become significant for determining a philosophical position. For Meillasoux, the term correlationism denotes a common trend in philosophy since Kant, which focuses on examining and understanding the human-world relation (or correlation). As Meillasoux writes, ‘correlationism consists in disqualifying the claim that it is possible to consider the realm of subjectivity and objectivity independently of one another[4] and since Kant the problem of philosophy has moved from trying to think substance and consisted in trying to think the correlation.’[5] The task of philosophy has then been a type of gamesmanship, where each philosopher is attempting to think the most original correlate. For example, the subject-object correlation, the noetico-noematic correlation, or the language-referent correlation.[6]  Graham Harman has noted that the problem with correlationism is that ‘the correlationist holds that we cannot think of humans without the world, nor world without humans, but only of a primal correlation or rapport between the two.[7] The result is that certain relations are excluded from thought in favour of thinking about the human-world relation. In other words, correlationism is a form of anthropocentricism that always requires the presence of humans. Other relations are of less interest. I now want to demonstrate how the materialism of Foucault is correlationist and the materialism of Deleuze avoids the charge of correlationism.

Foucault is sometimes regarded as embodying a new materialist philosophy and Disciplie and Punish is often cited as an exemplary example of Foucauldian materialism. Indeed, it is in Discipline and Punish where we see Foucault put into practice his notion of power being productive. However, what is evident is that in Discipline and Punish Foucault’s analysis is anthropocentric, despite its anti-humanist credentials. In a recent conference paper the philosopher Graham Harman has explained his reasons for rejecting the materialism of Foucault:

In this positive sense of the term, materialism refers to a standpoint that breaks down the tired dualism of subject and object, allowing these two poles to interpenetrate and mutually constitute one another. Michel Foucault (see especially Foucault 1977) is usually regarded as one of the hereos of this brand of materialism. Yet Foucault is not among my own intellectual heroes, precisely because “human subject” and “world” remain the two dominant poles of his universe, even if they are now glued together than left in lonely Cartesian solitude. A truly multipolar comos requires that the human being be treated as just one kind of entity among trillions of others, not as a full half of a dual monarchy: a mere Habdburg Metaphysics.[8]

I have included this lengthy quote from Harman as his criticism of Foucault suggests that we require a materialism that is capable of avoiding correlationism. In other words, a materialism that does not only concentrate on examining the relationship between human and world.

It is possible to make the claim that a Deleuzian ontology provides the potential to construct a non-anthropocentric and non-correlationist materialism. Deleuze has made it clear that his interest in metaphysics and his quest was intended to produce a metaphysics or an ontology, stating that ‘I’ve (i.e. Deleuze) never been worried about going beyond metaphysics or any death of philosophy’, adding that ‘I feel myself to be a pure metaphysician… Bergson says that modern science hasn’t founds its metaphysics, the metaphysic it would need. It is this metaphysics that interests me.’[9] Indeed, Deleuzian concepts embody a non-anthropocentric ontology and their application could apply to both human and non-human environments. For example, we could use concepts like becoming, virtual, singularity, strata, rhizome, intensive and others to describe environments that would not necessarily need the presence of humans. Protevi and Bonta have even put forward the claim that Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus is post-post-structuralist. Their point is they feel the need to not situate A Thousand Plateaus alongside the works of Derrida and Foucault.[10]

The point I am trying to express in my review might seem pedantic and not worth labouring. Indeed, Choat does acknowledge there are significant differences between Post-Structuralist thinkers. However, what has concerned me is that materialist philosophy needs to concern itself with relations between non-human actors and not only the human-world relation. As Harman has stated, we need a ‘non-Kantian world where the relation between prisons and human subjects is of no higher status than that between the various bricks in a prison, or between prisons rats and the cosmic rats annihilating protons in their brains.’[11] It is doubtful whether a Foucauldian materialism provides a non-Kantian world, but a Deleuzian materialism might have the capacity to offer a line of flight from correlationism.[12]

[1]  My review will neglect to provide much comments or analysis about Lyotard and Derrida for the reason I am less familiar with their work than that of Foucault and Deleuze.

[2] Simon Choat, Marx Through Post-Structuralism p2

[3] Simon Choat, Marx Through Post-Structuralism p172

[4] Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency translated by Ray Brassier (London: Continuum, 2008) p5

[5] Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency p6

[6] Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of  Contingency p6

[7] Graham Harman, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (Melbourne: Re.Press, 2009) p122

[8] Graham Harman, “I am Also of the Opinion that Materialism Must be Destroyed”

[9] Cited in Mark Bonta & John Protevi, Deleuze and Geophilosophy: A Guide and Glossary (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004) p12

[10] Bonta and Protevi would rather A Thousand Plateaus is seen as a unique geophilosophy blueprint and as an important as Descartes or Kant. See Mark Bonta & John Protevi, Deleuze and Geophilosophy p39

[11] Graham Harman, “I am Also of the Opinion that Materialism Must be Destroyed”

[12] There are other possible escape routes from correlationism in the work of Alfred Whitehead, Bruno Latour, Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, Steven Shaviro and Ian Bogost.

Author’s Reply by Simon Choat

I am enormously grateful to the editors of Global Discourse for this opportunity to respond to the three reviews of my book Marx Through Post-Structuralism, and equally grateful to the reviewers themselves for their careful readings, kind praise, and judicious and stimulating criticisms. My responses are offered in a spirit of intellectual generosity and I apologise in advance if reviewers or readers think I have overlooked the most salient or interesting points in the reviews.

Very broadly speaking, each reviewer raises questions about the concept of materialist philosophy that I put forward – specifically, about its relation to the current political and intellectual context, and its political consequences and possibilities. These questions seem to me to be extremely pertinent, for at least two reasons. First, they reflect a much broader discussion within present-day (Continental) philosophy, where materialism has become a key topic.[1] Second, the reviewers’ questions get to the heart of my book – not only because the nature and status of materialist philosophy is one of its central themes, but also because it is a theme that is not fully developed in the book and therefore requires more discussion.

I wanted to reread Marx through post-structuralism not simply because the post-structuralists have something to say about Marx, nor simply because the former are influenced by the latter, but because I believe that both Marx and the post-structuralists are united in a common endeavour, namely the attempt to articulate a genuinely materialist philosophy. In analysing post-structuralist readings of Marx, I hoped to begin to outline the contours of that philosophy. This was not intended as a dry exercise in the history of intellectual thought: although it may be interesting to trace different connections between various thinkers, it is a relatively pointless exercise if it does not tell us anything about how we can analyse the present. I wanted to show that in developing a materialist philosophy, both Marx and the post-structuralists develop innovative theoretical tools for the analysis and critique of capitalism.

Portraying Marx and the four post-structuralists as critics of capitalism raised the question of the nature of the critiques they advance. One way to criticise capitalism would be to compare it unfavourably to a vanished past; another way would be to insist that it is doomed because it must necessarily develop into something else. In various places Marx does both these things – and he does both at the same time, advancing the myth of a lost origin (pure use-value, transparency of social relations, etc.) that will one day be restored. Taking my cue from Althusser, I dismissed this nostalgia for lost origins as idealism. Yet the central question then becomes: on what basis can we offer a materialist critique of capitalism?

In a sense it was this question that inspired and propelled the book. The question raises a series of problems, which are perhaps best encapsulated in the work of Lyotard. In Libidinal Economy, Lyotard rejects all metaphysical foundations, mocking Marx’s pious search for some region uncorrupted by capitalism, from where critique can be secured and to which we can escape. But having done so, Lyotard then seems to be left with only two alternatives: either to repudiate critique altogether, or to smuggle in alternative grounds for critique. I thus find it hard to agree with Jason Edwards when he says in passing that Lyotard is ‘considerably less interesting’ than the other post-structuralists. One reason that I put Lyotard at the start of the book is because he best sets out the problems that face both Marx and the post-structuralists (and, indeed, any contemporary critical theorist): how can we maintain a critical perspective without lapsing into idealism? On what basis can critique now be secured? Edwards implies that these are not really problems at all, asking, ‘why do we need to return to this question of rooting or grounding philosophy in order to “secure” critique?’ There are a couple of issues raised by Edwards here: first, whether critical analysis needs ‘grounding’ at all; second, whether this ground can be that of class struggle.

Edwards suggests that, in a post-Wittgensteinian (and post-structuralist) world, the grounding of critique may be a problem for philosophy, but not ‘for those interested in how social relations in the present are constituted and may be transformed.’ I do not necessarily object to framing the question of grounding as ‘a problem for philosophy’, but only if we recognise that (as Derrida, on whom I think Edwards is a little harsh, has shown) one of philosophy’s roles is to probe and challenge the implicit philosophical and metaphysical assumptions that lie behind apparently non-philosophical endeavours such as the analysis of social relations. In other words, I am not so sure that those of us who wish to engage in an analysis of social relations can so readily dismiss philosophical problems.

If we attempt to abandon all foundations, the risk is either that critique itself is abandoned (and we end up with either a manic celebration the present – as in some of Lyotard’s work – or a gloomy foreclosure of radical change – as in some of Foucault’s work), or that we relapse into reliance on the very same foundations that we were supposed to have repudiated. Better instead to acknowledge that we cannot entirely do away with foundations: we always, necessarily, begin from some ground. This point can be made using the distinction, now common in Continental political thought, between anti-foundationalism and post-foundationalism: the former, in proclaiming the absence of all ground, simply mirrors traditional foundationalism, repeating its transcendental claims (what is the claim to have overcome or abandoned all foundations, if not a new foundation itself?); the latter, in contrast, does not affirm that there are no grounds, but that our grounds are always contingent.[2] I aim for a post-foundational rather than an anti-foundational materialism.

Acknowledging that we cannot do without some grounding, in Marx Through Post-Structuralism I suggested we could secure critique by rooting it in active social struggles, as Marx does. This brings us to Edwards’ second point: why determine social struggle specifically as class struggle? This (though I don’t know if Edwards would like the comparison) is Laclau and Mouffe’s question to Marxism: must social agents have a class character?[3] I concede that my comments on class, which come mainly in the final section of the book, are somewhat ambivalent (an ambivalence that at least in part reflects the difficulty of this question). My intention, however, was not to claim that all social struggles are in the last instance class struggles: I doubt if anyone would make this claim today, for it is clearly no longer tenable (if it ever was). My aim instead was to resist the exclusion of class that takes place in much post-structuralist-inspired commentary – not by straightforwardly reinstating Marx’s analysis of class, but by showing that the post-structuralists themselves do not repudiate the concept of class, and by using post-structuralist insights to begin rethinking the notion of class. This attempt to rethink class is admittedly sketched very hastily at the end of the book, and would need much more work if it is to prove productive. Given our current political situation, however, I do not think that this is a time for downplaying class struggle: it is difficult to see how the actions and policies of the present British government, for example, could be explained without reference to class.

Rooting critique in social struggle in the way that I propose means that we should no longer expect philosophy to set political objectives for us. But it does not mean that philosophy becomes somehow depoliticised, reduced to abstract and apolitical reflection. On the contrary, philosophy now becomes radically politicised: both aware of its own social and political conditions, and engaged in the creation of resources for use by those involved in various forms of resistance and struggle. The difficulty for materialist critique is in maintaining a kind of balance: refusing to offer a concrete programme of political action, while at the same time refusing the depoliticisation of philosophy. I think something of this difficulty is reflected in the review by Saul Newman, who is careful not to demand that I offer an itinerary of aims and strategies, but who nonetheless claims that I have little or nothing to say about how ‘to think about radical politics today’.

Newman’s point is to an extent well taken, as I shall explain in a moment, but I am also a little wary of the political demand that he makes, or at least the way in which he makes it. In the first place, I wonder if his comments might reflect an implicit disagreement between us over the nature of politics: a disagreement rooted in a wider dispute between different theoretical traditions, namely anarchism and Marxism. Newman is perhaps best known as a leading theorist of ‘postanarchism’: an attempt to reread the anarchist tradition via the lens of post-structuralism (Bakunin Through Post-Structuralism, so to speak). Elsewhere he has (like many other anarchists before and since) criticised Marx for reducing politics to economics and failing to recognise the autonomy and specificity of the political.[4] Part of what I have tried to show, however, is that rather than reducing the political to economics, Marx politicises the economic: whereas for classical political economy, politics ends where the market begins (with the market characterised as a realm of natural harmony and order), Marx shows that this supposedly apolitical economic realm is invested with and contested by political relations of power.

This, I think, begins to answer some of Newman’s questions. He asks: ‘if, for Marx, the political is the economic and the economic the political, then why is there no real engagement with the political implications of this radical re-visitation of Marx’s thought? Is Marx to be treated here simply as an analyst of capitalism?’ One way to respond is to say that it is precisely by thinking of Marx as an analyst of capitalism that we think of him as a political thinker. Accepting the political implications of Marx’s thought means acknowledging the broadened definition of politics he offers, so that ‘simply’ analysing capitalism is always necessarily and profoundly political.

If there is a risk that Newman’s definition of ‘politics’ is too narrow, then at the same time I think his demand may be too broad. I am asked why I have not addressed the kinds of (political) questions raised by Hardt and Negri, Badiou, Žižek, Rancière, Laclau and Mouffe. These are all important thinkers, and I have no doubt that valuable connections could be made between their work and that of the four post-structuralist thinkers that I examine. But detailed consideration of these connections would I think have stretched the scope of the book too far and diluted its central aim, which was to re-read Marx through post-structuralism. The work of Hardt & Negri and Laclau & Mouffe is explicitly excluded from consideration in the Introduction, because the work of these thinkers is derivative of rather than constitutive of what I call post-structuralism.

These qualifications notwithstanding, I agree with Newman that it is important the kinds of debates and issues these thinkers address need to be discussed. I always saw Marx Through Post-Structuralism as a kind of preliminary work, laying the foundation for further investigations. As such, I think Newman’s comments could be read not so much as criticism but more as an invitation: to see what kind of politics can be drawn from the materialist philosophy I tried to outline. I take Mark Edward’s comments in a similar spirit. While Newman asks that I look at thinkers like Rancière and Badiou, Edward calls for an engagement with an even more recent set of writers: those such as Quentin Meillassoux and Graham Harman, who have been grouped under the term ‘speculative realism’. It remains to be seen how enduring the ‘speculative turn’ will be, and some of their criticisms (especially of post-structuralist thinkers) seem to me to be aimed at straw men. But I do think that anyone writing about materialism today should welcome a dialogue with the speculative materialists. Nonetheless, I do have some preliminary reservations about their work.

Edward suggests that materialist philosophy cannot be anthropocentric. Following Harman, he argues that we should reject human-centred correlationist philosophies and search for ‘a materialism that does not only concentrate on examining the relationship between human and world.’ My concern is how this philosophy might translate into political thought and practice. The question that Newman puts to me can be put (with, I think, even more force and pertinence) to the thinkers that Edward cites: where are the politics here? If (as Harman urges) we ascribe a kind of ontological equality to a prisoner, a brick, a nuclear explosion, a dream, etc., then where does that lead us? As those who self-consciously situate themselves within the speculative realist movement have recognised, the question of politics is an ‘unresolved issue’ in their work.[5]

I do not think that the questions of politics and ontology can be separated as easily as speculative realists seem to assume (in short, I think that all ontology is political), and I do not think that purely ontological questions are what we should be focusing on. I favour instead the ‘hauntology’ of Derrida or the ‘critical ontology’ of Foucault, where the aim is to undermine ontological assumptions rather than to construct a new ontology. One reason that I am reluctant to endorse Edward’s choice of A Thousand Plateaus over Discipline and Punish is because I think that the main problem with Deleuze is that he is too keen to offer a new metaphysical ontology – and in doing so he obscures the important political questions. If the collection of concepts developed by Deleuze and Guattari (rhizome, deterritorialisation, etc.) can be applied just as easily to quilt-making as to capitalism, then are these concepts actually that useful? To reiterate: the question of materialist philosophy interested me because of its potential to provide tools for the analysis and critique of capitalism. Questions of ontology are important to this project, but they are not necessarily the place to start.

[1] Cf. Slavoj Žižek and Ben Woodward ‘Interview’ in Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman (eds) The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism (Melbourne:, 2011), p. 408: ‘since materialism is the hegemonic ideology today, the struggle is within materialism’.

[2] Cf. Oliver Marchart Post-Foundational Political Thought: Political Difference in Nancy, Lefort, Badiou and Laclau (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007).

[3] Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (London: Verso, 2001).

[4] See, for example, Saul Newman ‘Anarchism, Marxism and the Bonapartist state’, Anarchist Studies 12 (2004), pp. 36-59.

[5] Cf. Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman ‘Towards a Speculative Philosophy’ in Bryant et al (eds) The Speculative Turn, p. 16.