- To Save Materialism from Itself. A review of Elizabeth Grosz, The Incorporeal:Ontology, Ethics, and the Limits of Materialism
"Materialism" functions today as an obligatory academic shibboleth. Against the somatophobia of the Western philosophical canon, many consider this a welcome relief. Elizabeth Grosz has herself done much to emphasize the force, significance, and ineliminability of the biological body in her analyses of everything from gender, to art, to political futurity. It is worth noting, then, that her latest book orients itself differently, arguing for nothing less than a turn to everything that is not material, not in order to leave materialism behind, but rather to complete it and to save it from itself. "Every materialism," Grosz writes, "requires a frame, a nonmaterial localization, a becoming-space and time, that cannot exist in the same way and with the same form as the objects or things that they frame" (28). It would be wrong, of course, to spin this declaration in opposition to her earlier work. But it would be just as wrong, I think, not to see in it a punctuating point in a newer phase of Grosz's thinking. Either way, in the end, one may be left wanting more than the series of figure studies that make it up.
The pragmatists used to insist that philosophy realizes itself most fully only in the attempt to ensure that the future will differ from the past—for the better, one hopes. They meant this at least in part as an indictment of metaphysical speculation. The Incorporeal pursues this precept, but argues for its location in the realm of ontology: "This is a book on ethics," Grosz tells us early on, "although it never addresses morality, the question of what is to be done" (1). That's because it is a book, more obviously, about ontology—"the substance, structure, and forms of the world" (1)—that attends not only to how the world is but more significantly to how it might be, in what ways it is open to change, in what those changes might plausibly consist, and through what processes they are brought about. The Incorporeal is a book about ethics in the sense that it seeks to secure, at the ontological level, the possibility for change in political, social, collective, cultural, and economic life. Grosz calls this "ontoethics." It does not ask the (moral) question of what is to be done, but attends rather to the conditions that underwrite and direct the myriad (ethical) ways by which that question might be taken up and carried out.
These claims are far from novel. In making them, Grosz remains in the comfortable if crowded company of the feminist new materialists—Karen Barad, Jane Bennett, Diana Coole, Rosi Braidotti, and others—who have been deploying similar neologisms for at least a decade (Barad 2007: 90). To be fair, Grosz's own Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism may be considered one of the movement's founding texts. And this is part of what makes The Incorporeal feel new. The subtitle of the 1994 text designates corporeality as its theoretical aim. Twenty-three years later, it is that very same corporeality that is now to be completed with its opposite number. In this respect, The Incorporeal, even as it remains a work in ontoethics—and even while many of its sources as well as the overarching purposes to which they are put remain continuous with the work of the other new materialists—nonetheless represents a marked departure from the rest of the field.
The incorporeal is Grosz's name for what is immaterial but not anti-material; what it is that conditions the material without itself being material; what is ideal, not as an objection to or a transcendence over the material, but as a production out of materiality that simultaneously frames, orients, and completes what produces it. The point, for her, is that the corporeal finds the principle for its creativity, its openness, and its futurity, in the incorporeal—and so it is to the incorporeal that an ontoethics ought to turn...