Base Matters

Zsolt Miklósvölgyi — Márió Z. Nemes

“[T]he universe is something like a spider or spit.”
(Georges Bataille)

For centuries, Western civilization has put a lot of effort into establishing its own essence as spirit, logos and/or meaning in opposition to materiality. The (post)modern notion of culture still preserves the memory of the Ciceronian idea of cultura animi. According to this idea we are “cultivating” our soul just as farmers cultivate their plough lands. Within this paradigm, the domestication of soil’s rough materiality becomes a fundamental programme, whilst the wild force that must be curbed continues to saturate the spheres of the organic and inorganic. Thus, the humanist programme of the “cultivation of soul” is destined to repress and dissemble the soil-like characteristics of the human, since soil is the flesh of the world which we share with stones, animals and monsters.

The current edition of Technologie und das Unheimliche (T+U) focuses on the Georges Bataille’s concept of base materialism — an idea that categorically opposes the history of culture’s attempts to eradicate matter. Bataille’s critical strategy, which has mainly been elaborated through texts published in the columns of the Surrealist art magazine Documents (edited by Bataille himself), has a dual orientation. Namely, from the perspective of base materialism the notion of culture, both as form and as forming, has become deconstructed along the carnality of the formless. Within this context, culture as form is the actual reference of the cultivation of soul, while culture as forming is the act of humanisation. Thus, the modernist conception of Bildung, which aims towards the ideal, is an idealist “anthropotechnics” (Peter Sloterdijk) that centralises the human as the master of beings by demonising rough phenomena.

Centralisation and domestication, however, come at price as the expulsion of matter from the realm of the spirit is a sado-masochistic process that splits in half the conditio humana along the master-slave dichotomy, while legitimising this trauma as the programme of perfection. The man who stands on two legs thus making away from the soil in order to stretch himself along a vertical metaphysics towards the realm of Nous. But slime and embryonic mucus, his rural vitality, haunt him continuously, drawing him back to horizontality so that it can enjoy the formless feast of being on all fours, or better yet, limbless. This idealist programme is seemingly denied by modern materialism, but in reality it dialectically supplements it, for no matter how much it expels the spirit from the realm of matter, it also stabilises the human within an anthropocentric reality. According to Bataille, idealism and materialism have to be eliminated equally, since both of them are preserving the power logic of (self-)repression.

Base materialism aims to transcend the humanistic ideology, because what belongs to the soil has to be returned to it. In other words, man does not have to be cultivated in order to overpower his own rough Other by interrupting its continuity, instead he must be dispersed within his own formlessness. Decentralisation and horizontalisation. De- and disbreeding in place of Bildung.

Artwork by Zsolt Berszán (T+U vol. 4, “Base Matters”)

The visual materials and anarchic articles of Documents Magazine create a counter-anthropotechnical archive where different dehumanising practices, such as animalisation, crystallisation, and dolloping are represented.The rough rhetoric of the soil creates a certain intensity out of different base matters (e.g. blood, snot, pus, urine, excrement) that is capable of destabilising the hygienic norms of human culture. This implies the fact that it is more accurate to reposition the practices of base subversion not within the false dichotomy of idealism and materialism, but rather within the context of the purity-impurity division. However, base materialism is not only represented by so-called abject qualities. The metamodern industrial and digital world constantly produces new forms of baseness, thus re-coding the heritage of Bataille’s idea. The current edition of T+U aims to analyse the process of this re-coding, while referring back to the results of the Documents-project in visual and textual forms at the same time.

The relevance of “base materialism” today is born from the pressing need to develop alternatives to the new hygienic norms instituted by the paradigms of the cyborg, synthetic biology, the anthropology of prosthesis and implants, and “materials as machines”. For the fantasy-regimes of digital materialism are not the continuation of the modernist dialectic of materialism and idealism, nor of the virtual and material from a long time ago; in their case, we could instead talk about the power politics of hygiene and the new aesthetics of sterility which are completely eliminating the realm of impurity, baseness and filth. The material fantasies of the digital are creating a systematic hypochondria, whereby hyper-sterile spheres are constantly threatened by the idea of base materialism. The natural scientific laboratory, representative of the camera obscura-model of the mind for Descartes and Leibniz, is now also the clinically clean server farms of the digital era, to which the outer world poses threats both bacterial and viral. This systematic hypochondria results in a paradoxical immune reaction, as these fantasy regimes are creating peculiar counter-materialisms against the base subversion. However, these pseudo-materialisms are only capable of representing matter as the problem of forming, as surface, pattern or eidos. In other words, they present matter as an ornamental surface that functions as a sterile projection screen of the intellect, whereby things are deprived of their “inside”, of their capacity for submersion and immersion.

In opposition to these fantasy-regimes, as the essays and artworks of this issue emphasise, numerous interrelated alternatives can be elaborated. In order to re-establish our alliance with matter, we must first clarify its ontological status — a move which leads our thoughts on materials to the very materiality of thinking. In other words, from the concept of “matter internal to the psyche” to the idea of the “psyché-as-matter”. Only then can we formulate questions (in an almost Kantian manner) about the basic relation between matter and the world: What is matter capable of? What is matter good for? What does materiality “want”? (Seregi)

Artwork by Eva Vuillemin (T+U vol. 4, “Base Matters”)

Henceforth we can follow the refinement of the notion of base materialism along many different, but conceptually coherent, threads. For instance, by following the concept of “psyché-as-matter” we may continue with the exploration of the psychopharmacology of thinking (Pasek), revealing the material bases and chemical bonds of thinking, of our poetics and metaphors; we thus reach a point where metaphors become digestive tracts, and poetry a form of waste management (Nemes Z.). Or we can continue by focusing on the “economics” (Harvey) of base materialism, whether it to be the notion of payment (Steinweg), or the idea of surplusage (Bartók) or plethora (Urbán). Furthermore, we can concentrate on the revolutionary (Absentology) or theatrical (Darida) potential of baseness as subversion, obscenity, and staging, as well as the ritual dimension (Hickmann) of the obscurity and darkness that establish the chromo-poetic aura of the notion.

By fitting into the dictionary of the T+U movement, all these practices, alternatives and interpretations, aim to contribute to the (re-)acquisition of “base materialism”, of the very proximity and interiority of things, of the material fundament of our very existence. However, in accordance with the contemporary geo-cultural realignments, this material re-foundation is happening within the formless forcefield of the Earth, within the spatio-temporal framework of the Anthropocene. Entering into the realm of the prodigal formlessness is not actually a disappearance, nor a deletion, but rather a dispersion within the intensity of matter. In other words, the decentralisation of the human form of culture is not a complete abolition of the form, but an opening of the intersection of forms along the ethics and politics of matter. Thus, this kind of interpretation of base materialism does not obliterate culture, but merely rearranges our relation to reality from an entirely non-anthropocentric viewpoint.

We are no longer shaping our bodies and our souls in opposition to the world, but rather let the world come into us as we step out into it.

Furthermore, the non-anthropocentric culture is an aesthetic culture, since in this case rough intensity is produced as sensual knowledge that constantly inspires transformation. The process of becoming-soil is also the process of becoming bird, plant, crystal; it is also to become preparation, plastic or machine, since within our planetary conditions the formless vortex of technology and nature is the wild happening of the world. Such impure transformations are nevertheless production, processing and birth, for the process of creation is necessarily filthy, whilst, as Radomir Konstantinović argues in the spirit of Bataille’s legacy, only uniformity can be innocent.

(Translated by Zsolt Miklósvölgyi)