In Praise of Historical Materialism as a certain Philosophy of Nature

On December 17, 2014 by admin


Soumyabrata Choudhury

What is an extremely sober and measured account of some of the greatest European philosophers of the 20th century is also a book smelted in the fire of a certain materialism. I will go to the extent of saying, a certain historical materialism. A certain natural-historical materialism – admittedly an enigmatic characterization though not without a trace of irony… I will, in a moment, speak of the work of fire, the exact temperature at which thought moulds and smelts, beyond which temperature thought burns and rages; I will speak of certain traces, unburnt and immaculate, as if glowing with a superior indifference to the inflamed surface of their emergence. But before that, a word in enthusiasm for the fact that such an elusive fire, such an exact book exists!

Aniruddha Chowdhury’s Post-deconstructive Subjectivity and History: Phenomenology, Critical Theory and Post-colonial Thought commences with a fluent statement, encompassing a vast range of philosophical materials and operations, on the deconstruction of the history of western metaphysics and the possible dissolution of the Subject determined by this metaphysics as substantial and self-present identity – a deconstruction irreplaceably and disparately pioneered by Martin Heidegger and Jacques Derrida. Then the book utters a “yet…” . It says, “Yet, the aim of the present work is to argue that the deconstruction is not only not a dissolution of the subject, as it is often opined, but a thinking of the subject, or better, subjectivity otherwise than the transcendental philosophy or even ontology.” (p.1). So the exact question to ask is, what is this “thinking of the subject…otherwise”? To my mind, it is a natural-historical materialist thinking that passes through several nodal points, also called “singular” points in this book, reaching up to the heart of the post-colonial puzzle whether the “subaltern” has access to the position of the ennunciative subject. My unqualified enthusiasm is for the fact that Aniruddha Chowdhury writes a consistently philosophical book with remarkable restraint, maintaining this calm passion in a milieu of thought attuned to the heteronomy, nay, inconsistency of history, an inconsistency that the book affirms. It affirms the thinking of the subject otherwise than metaphysically, hence, heteronomously, inconsistently, historically – and for this exact ‘fiery’ reason, philosophically.

Everything hinges on the “yet” of the author which rises up in a kind of schematizing revolt at the exact moment when deconstruction promises – or threatens, depending on your taste – the delirium of a philosophy without the subject, an oceanic aphilosophy as it were. The “yet” interrupts the delirium every time to present the following schema (and here I am schematizing very quickly Aniruddha Chowdhury’s own epic schema): the subject is to be ‘otherwise’ thought, in the post-deconstructive cusp, as obligation, eschatology and natural-history. To this schema corresponds a brilliant constellation in the sky of European philosophy: Heidegger-Levinas-Walter Benjamin. Then come the last two ‘inconsistent’ chapters on Wilson Harris, the Carribean writer from mid 20th century and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the post-colonial Indian critic who provided the earliest passage for the English speaking world to deconstruction in the 1970s with her translation of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology.

In a moment, I will dwell further on the explicit interest of the ‘inconsistent’ chapters. Suffice it to say that they provide a second ‘non-European’ articulation to the hinge, a second “yet” articulated with the initial one which, in a manner of speaking, interrupts the fundamental (de)constructive interruption launching Chowdhury’s project.  But before that it is essential to point out that even within the Great Constellation, the star that is Walter Benjamin emits an ‘inconsistent’ light to make the Constellation tremble whereupon the sky of European philosophy shimmers, darkens, shimmers…This is the light of the notion of “natural-history”. In the chapter on Benjamin, the author prepares for the work of the German thinker’s singular notion by posing, in the light of the earlier chapters on Heidegger’s ‘gathering-abandoning’ of Dasein as a subject of obligation as opposed to being a historical subject, and Levinas’ opposition of eschatology-ethics to history, the following question: “…whether or not historiography can be reconciled, if that is the word, with the singularity and eventness of happening, and yet retain the critical dimension of thought without being totalizing.” (p.87)

From the earlier chapter on Heidegger we learnt that Dasein’s authentic temporalization requires a return to its “ownmost” potentiality, which, in turn, means the freeing of its ‘historical’ structures toward a pure listening to the “call” of the irreducible other. This freeing movement frees Dasein towards a true existential history away from mere historical existence. But such existential history is always a structure of ‘co-belonging’ within the element of the pure distance of the Other, that is,  a ‘being-with’ in the Other. This taking-place of ‘being-with’ is, peculiarly, the event of an obligated subject in (non) relation to an irreducible Other. The privileged place of this event of obligation is either a kind of “nameless” (Heidegger’s word from Letter on Humanism) discourse, or the ‘name-of-the-fire’ that is Poetry. We then learn about Levinas’ difficulty that Heidegger names the “nameless” too much; he signs the event too much along the contour of the “horizon” of the metaphysical figure of Man. The event then only returns to what it always was, an authentic ground and potentiality for an access and erection of meaning, of “ontological hermeneutics”. Levinas on his part radicalizes the gesture of obligation as the event of the other rather than re-absorb it into the authentic potentiality or capacity of a ‘subject’. To be sure, Aniruddha Chowdhury openly wagers the same radical ‘ethical’ gesture as a movement beyond hermeneutics, as present in Heidegger himself which the latter “disavows”, according to Chowdhury. The main point here however is that the readings and critique express a stake of the thinking of the subject “otherwise” and of the event “beyond being”, that go beyond both historical factuality and existential facticity. Beyond philosophy of history and ontology, a “beyond”, like the earlier “yet”, that philosophy must either incorporate into a superior consistency or inscribe in a necessarily dehiscent and inconsistent language of ‘that which happens’, which by the minimal definition of “event” has no proper language…

It has to be said that when Chowdhury cites Levinas’ ‘language’ of the event it is not proper to theology’s meaning of Levinas’ word, which is “eschatology”. Eschatology is the same as the “beyond” and the “yet”, a faint trace of the transcendence of the other that does not belong to philosophy as the intrigue(s) of knowledge (philosophy of history, ontology et al). Nevertheless, can we speak of a Levinasian consistency inherited as ‘modem’ philosophical discourse? I will keep this question in abeyance while stepping across to the second part of the book called “Critical Theory of History”. It begins with the chapter on Walter Benjamin. And now we are confronted not with the enigma of philosophy beyond the ‘intrigue(s) of knowledge’ but with historiography in its acute philosophical image beyond all hitherto ‘known’ philosophy.

The name wagered for this image is “natural-history” and its founding text is Benjamin’s The Origin of the German Mourning Plays. Chowdhury cites Benjamin on the aim of this book which is to “expose the seventeenth century to the light of the present day.” Chowdhury continues, “There is an originary technicity in the experience of the modern. Similarly, script rather than language, death’s head rather than face, citation rather than mimesis – these are the allegorical emblems in which the baroque world is ‘expressed’, or better, ‘shattered’” (p.88). It is in this magnificent and unhousable treatise   on the German baroque archive that Benjamin introduces the theme, notion and image of ‘natural history’. Chowdhury will show the many flashes of ‘natural history’ in several other essays by Benjamin, but the main idea emerges in the Baroque work that nature is “petrified history” and history is “petrified nature”. What does this mean? Taking cue from Theodore Adorno’s reading of the idea, one might say that it’s meaning is oblique and enigmatic, it is a cipher. A cipher that is “natural history” in Benjamin holds in profound reserve the great Marxian thesis that capitalism petrifies history into the ‘reified’ form of a kind of “second nature” (Georg Lukacs’ term). Everything henceforth becomes permanent, immobile, death’s head and death’s work. Yet Benjamin differentiates the thesis through the allegorical distance he constitutes within the world of baroque emblems. The “degraded” (again Lukacs’ word that I use independently of Adorno) and anachronistic baroque lesson is that all reification and fusion, all entropy and death take place in the element of a distance ; so ‘natural-history’ is also the falling apart of nature and history, the shattering of the totality of time known as history, of space known as nature. Conversely, the shattering is also a passing into each other, where the passage and the abyss are two faces of the same cipher, two dimensions of the same distance. I think Chowdhury had anticipated this, what I call, ‘fertile inconsistency’ in Heidegger’s constitution of ‘being-with’ in the element of an otherness and Levinas’ eschatology without either metaphysical or historical synchrony. To my mind, Chowdhury’s “actualization” of the anticipatory structure in the Benjamin chapter is a tour de force of materialist thinking. The central postulate of such thinking is that what is called, in philosophical language, “event”, is the real enigma of the perpetual passing of what we call “time” and the meaning of this passing we call “history” as if the latter exists as an order of Nature and Being. We could also call this the naturalization of history as “meaning” or “sense” that capitalism seeks to accomplish as a matter of life and death. The point is that in a “deontologizing” reading, such as Chowdhury’s, history which is the ruin of all philosophical language(s) of history, is also the ruin of the philosophical language of the “event”. And it is this that is brought home to the colonial – to – post-colonial situation when it is alleged that the colonies have no sense of history.

I would like to make my meaning clear in relation to the last two chapters of the book so as to conclude: I think that in the allegation of the lack of the ‘sense of history’, what is alleged of the materiality of colonial history as it happens is that it lacks the sense which marks a philosophical overcoming of history. In other words, the language of philosophy of history acts as the language of domination in the face of senselessness of the event – we know from Benjamin’s baroque lesson that within the sovereign eminence of an oriented history the ‘senseless’ and dis-orienting event (Benjamin will probably call it “weak”) forces even the sovereign to pass through the very allegorical, ‘degraded’ distance that secretly constituted the eminence in the first place. The implicit irony in Benjamin is that such an event-without-sense is rare (Benjamin will probably call it “messianic”); and the explicit irony in the post-colonial experience is that the language of domination lifts the secret on the constitutive inconsistency of all philosophy of history to judge the history of the colony as only event – degraded, poor in meaning, irreconcilably distanced from its own provenance. Paradoxically – but not unexpectedly – this operation of power sets up an equivocal norm of the event where the latter both provides a sign of mere ‘subaltern’ existence and a herald of true ‘revolutionary’ progress. So I find it essential to render explicit the equivocity of the “philosophical” language of the event as part of post-colonial irony. I also think it is urgent to read “revolution” as event-without-sense against all signs of “progress”, a lesson I take very seriously from Michael Lowy, another remarkable interpreter of Benjamin.

There is no chapter I enjoyed reading more than the one on Wilson Harris. Harris seems to diagnose the post-colonial symptom of the coloniser with perfect clarity: it is that the colonizer insists on a great irreversible division – there are societies with history and philosophy, and then there are “dwellings”. It’s not that Harris demystifies or demolishes the division; he renders it reversible. In Harris’ constitutive imagination, society becomes the petrified space of a kind of “static clock” of colonial time that consolidates (Harris’ term) itself into such a landscape. While “dwelling” (Harris’ word again) becomes something in the nature of a fleeting localization of time in its incessant migrations. So, colonialism’s image of universal society mimics embalmed Nature while “dwelling”, a figure of ‘natural phenomenology’ if any, in a reversible cosmos, is nothing else but transcience, heterochthony, the knotting and unknotting of time… Aniruddha Chowdhury presents the following fascinating question for what I have called the “reversible cosmos” of Wilson Harris, “Harris poses the question of dwelling in the singular term. What is the scale, the measure of dwelling?” (p.121). Chowdhury’s answer is compact and profound – the scale is ironic, the measure temporal. Between the chapters on Benjamin and Harris, we found an unannounced, almost imperceptible, line of exit from the consolidation called Philosophy. This line was nothing but a singular Theatre of Writing, with its masks, traces and distances. In the last chapter on Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak we are on the terrain of writing, still writing but now thematized as the institution of Deconstruction in a certain academic field. Does Chowdhury submit to the debt of philosophy-as-sense with this move? Well, if he does, he pays his debts exemplarily but I will not pursue the question out if its shadow.

I will say however that the chapter is crucial in letting us return to the inaugural enquiry: What, who and how – and the three dimensions are not consistent – is the subject thought “otherwise”than consolidated, colonial and colonised? This is the post-colonial question of the subject in light of the event in exit of the Theatre of Sense called “philosophy” – and Chowdhuru’s answer is, the subject is “subaltern”. Which is the subaltern subject whose discourse is the unforeseen language of an “exit” not simply from colonialism but within it as its hollow and supplement? According to Chowdhury, it is an ethical subject. I admire the richness and patience of the ethical demonstration but for me, the moment of truth is the decision to name the subject at the level of its philosophical unnameability. To me, “subaltern” is the decision of the historical materialist as other to wager a ‘generic anonym’. In the same way that “proletariat” was a generic anonym decided by another historical materialist as an-other. I salute Aniruddha Chowdhury’s affirmative deconstruction and affirmation of the decision(s) of the Other. I salute his wager that “…read as an allegory of the passage, an essential transformative question, the response to the  discomfiting question as to whether the subaltern can speak is affirmative: yes, yes.” (p.13)


 Soumyabrata Choudhury is Associate Professor,  School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Book Under Discussion   Post-Deconstructive Subjectivity and History: Phenomenology, Critical Theory and  Post-Colonial Thought. Aniruddha Chowdhury. Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2014.


ISBN               976-90-04-25969-

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