Seven Short Temporary Statements on Anthropological Materialism

Anthropological materialism is a tradition, a polemical term, a sensibility, a temporality, an (internal) category and an actuality.

1. An uncommon and idiosyncratic tradition. Anthropological materialism originally designates afterwards a group of isolated French and German authors from the 19th Century and the 1930s who don’t always relate explicitly to any sort of materialism.

2.  A polemical term. Anthropological materialism is neither a scientific socialism nor a romantic Marxism or a kind of humanism (although it can contain romantic and humanists elements).

3. A sensibility. Anthropological materialism is a method or, better, a sensibility, that grasps a playful doing in action and a poetical intensity in history that traditional materialist networks are unable to capture. This sort of poetical materialism is a kind of metonymy of a historic kernel that cannot be symbolised immediately without losing its specificity.

4.  A temporality. Anthropological materialism embodies a vertical temporality that interrupts the horizontal temporality of the victorious march of the conquering heroes and the cyclical temporality of the industry producing commodities.

5. A category. Anthropological materialism is used as a correcting category to vulgar materialism. It helps us understand Walter Benjamin from a new perspective but, above all, as far as the term points out a work in progress by Benjamin himself, to actualise his method.

6. An internal category. Historical materialism includes anthropological materialism, although it doesn’t always notice it. Anthropological materialism has to be deliberately “integrated” (but not disintegrated) into historical materialism, i.e. put into an intern tension with it in itself.

7. An actuality. Linked to the dialectical analysis of the capital, anthropological materialism helps us understand our present. It helps us circumscribe the forces of intoxication embedded into the collective imagery linked to commodity fetishism.

(I submit these experimental and provisional statements of anthropological materialism to the discussion. All your critics, comments and corrections are very welcome.)

Marc Berdet, SOAS, London, 13th Nov. 2010.


2 Responses

  1. Sami Khatib says:

    Dear Marc, thank you, that pushes things forward! Some minor comments:

    Ad 3. Maybe the Surrealism essay could also help here:
    „Es bringt uns nämlich nicht weiter, die rätselhafte Seite am Rätselhaften pathetisch oder fanatisch zu unterstreichen; vielmehr durchdringen wir das Geheimnis nur in dem Grade, als wir es im Alltäglichen wiederfinden, kraft einer dialektischen Optik, die das Alltägliche als undurchdringlich, das Undurchdringliche als alltäglich erkennt. Die passionierteste Untersuchung telepathischer Phänomene zum Beispiel wird einem über das Lesen (das ein eminent telepathischer Vorgang ist) nicht halb soviel lehren, wie die profane Erleuchtung des Lesens über die telepathischen Phänomene.“ (GS II, 307)
    So again, what it poetic sensibility, a term a find highly interesting and fruitful! Is it an awareness for the marginal, the forgotten (the rag-picker’s task to account for that) and/or a Hölderlinian “Heilig-Nüchterne”, the sober-absolute or sober-holy which cannot be translated into mechanistic language of functional relations in politics etc.

    Ad 4. Fully agree here! You could even say, that it smuggles in a kind of loop of time within the homogenous and empty time of capitalism (the latter is at the same time cyclical and linear progress oriented); this inner time loop within time could be called ‘operational time’ borrowing this term from Agamben/Guillaume introducing a time which does not need a vertical standpoint but can derange/de-pose capital time from within (call it a temporal virus which allows at the same time for a political time of action: temporal désoeuvrement as well as destructive political action)

    Ad 5. Yes! A corrective of historical materialism without which Benjamin’s inversion of traditional marxism cannot be understood

    Ad 6. Or rather say: an element, irreducible to DiaMat/HistMat

    Ad 7. Yes, but as dialectical thinker we might also say: a potentiality; even an actuality of the non-potentiality of history’s undead/of what did not happen/of what is ideologically embedded in ideology etc.

  1. 17/11/2010

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