- American Poetic Materialism from Whitman to Stevens by Mark Noble
Mark Noble. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Finally we have a book by a literary critic embracing materialism while also working through its inherent problems. Mark Noble does not congratulate himself for being bold and fearless in his critique of identity thinking and [End Page 237] his commitment to environmental values. Rather he seems simply to be concerned with stating clearly what has attracted American writers, and now critics, to a range of materialist positions or, more precisely, to “Modeling the human subject using an account of its material affinities” (193). This angle on materialism makes it strikingly clear that all materialisms seem stuck with the same problem: the need to maintain two incompatible positions. One position offers versions of a “materiality” that “achieves a determinate view of the world,” while its counterpart has to “dissolve the subject who does the viewing” in order for the primary claim about materialism to count as knowledge and not just fantasy produced by conjunctions of atoms (5). So the more intensely materialism pursues a universal ground for its own descriptions, the more sharply we experience the instability of the subject’s efforts to posit how that ground may be formulated.
Kenneth Burke called these opposing demands the paradox of substance— the need to posit at once a model for the stuff of the universe and for the ground by which we understand that stuff to be stuff of a certain kind. Like Burke, Noble is not content to point out this contradiction. He is fascinated by the various ways writers and philosophers come to encounter pressures on what they want to assert and so try to find within matter some principle of value and stability. In tracking those permutations, Noble wins remarkable authority. He shows great range, clarity, and depth in explaining philosophical positions from Lucretius and Diderot to James, Whitehead, and Badiou, always coming back to how one can combine understanding with accepting the instability of any subject position within materialism. And he offers keen and varied accounts of the course of materialism in the career of his four main figures—Whitman, Emerson, Santayana, and Stevens.
Whitman by 1855 “borrows from Lucretius a materialist mechanics of subjectivity, in which the sentient body is composed and sustained by the flow of objects toward it” (49). The poetry’s resistance to this story comes in the challenge to “forestall the deathliness of matter long enough to fashion a temporary space in which poems of democratic adhesion might be uttered” (50). For Emerson, the subject of experience fails to reconcile itself to pure flux, not because of democratic universalizings but because the intensity of its pain forces an awareness of how the conditions of subjectivity persist. So he has to work out “where to locate our lingering experiences of partiality, limitation, and loss within a material universe said to contain none of these things” (83). Santayana, on the other hand, is willing to surrender all large ontological claims (often mocking Emerson) for a process-based view of experience attempting to reconcile the multiplicity of available sensations with poetic modes of processing those sensations “from which conceptions of human value can be constructed” (141). Whitman strives to save the universal from the flow of matter, Emerson to honor the suffering person attempting to find identity through pain, and Santayana to preserve the conditions grounding ethical fictions that can ennoble his commitment to the senses.
Because Noble sees so clearly the impossibility of accommodating flux to modes of intersubjective intelligibility, he faces the choice of rejecting any kind of ontology defined by idealism or switching his materialist loyalty to something [End Page 238] that can account for the constant failures of ontology. He chooses the second because he thinks his own analyses provide “the inevitability and the theoretical necessity of an explicitly aporetic materialism” (29) that he finds in Theodor Adorno, to some extent in Deleuze, and ultimately in the poetic encounters with the material world that he studies:
The value of a term like “aporetic materialism” thus derives not from its designation of...