On Matter

Mar 18, 2017 · 19 min read

Tamás Seregi

Matter is a non-ideal abstraction.

Materiality is an abstraction, in that it never exists in itself; it must be subtracted from the concrete, and is always already interlaced with the forms, meanings and relations that have been imposed on it. In other words, it is inseparable from these attributes. Even „pure matter” is relational: it connects with the immaterial, emptiness, obscurity, with purity itself. Matter is never nothing, never the negation of being or its absence, yet nevertheless this does not mean that it contains anything affirmative. The material is a not-nothing that is never anything. In fact, it is less than nothing, for although it does not negate being, neither does it affirm it; materiality is indifference. Matter is indifferent towards everything, even itself, this is why it is often called — erroneously — „dead matter”. Obviously, there exists living matter as well as dead matter. But even living matter does not relate to life; rather, it „lives”.

Matter is non-ideal: this means that it is real. Ideal things, objecthoods, are fully capable of existence, of becoming real. Realias — so they were called in medieval times. A realia is something we must conform to, something that is unquestionable, something whose existence is a given. God is the ultimate reality. When viewed from such a perspective, matter has far less reality than an ideal object. But we do not want to reject the real existence of matter or materiality, therefore we must ask what this reality is composed of and how it is experienced. Its non-ideality has nothing to do with its resistance to meaning and external relations. Non-ideality has everything to do with the fact that matter has no purpose, no goal, and cannot be integrated into any intelligible teleology. Of course, at times this does not seem to be the case. Matter can appear as malleable, as capable of bearing meaning, as something that transcends empiricism, as a reality that is available for labelling and categorization, a slice of the world that can easily be instrumentalized and made into a vehicle of signification. But this is only make-believe; the source of this illusion lies in the indifference of matter. Matter resists and strives (conatus), slowly removing all ideality from itself; it is unintegrable into ideologies. The only progression in matter is its slow, persistent and unstoppable descent into what we call entropy. Its non-ideality and non-independence signifies a liminal state of ambiguity, in which materiality is always trapped. It cannot become truly real, but also cannot ever really enter into relations without some form of mutual withdrawal. Pure matter is none other than energy, which is only capable of spreading across the cosmos, inevitably undoing itself in dissipation.

Lőrinc Borsos: The True Face of Enlightenment (detail), 2016, Photo by Áron Weber

Poor, unfortunate matter! It is that which always loses, that which is always humiliated. And when it rarely wins, nobody cares about its victory, if anybody is left who is even capable of registering such an uneventful event. Matter does not say anything; it cannot be thought of, because when we think, we never think about it. Georges Bataille recognized this truth, when he labelled all previous forms of materialism (from atomism all the way to dialectical materialism) as idealism, for none of these materialisms actually had anything to say about matter itself.[1] Rather, they thematized mental constructions, concepts (such as atoms) which had as little actual materiality as the epistemic constructions of idealism. Or perhaps even less, for at least idealists thought of themselves as being opposed to matter, and thereby related to materiality in a negative sense. It says much that mostly artists were the ones who understood the true meaning of materiality, but even they always turned to matter to escape from something else (as in the case of „anti-form sculpture”). Such artistic projects were mostly short-lived experiments or translated into new productions of meaning (in the case of anti-form sculpture the transformation into site-specificity), and therefore became unfaithful to matter.

But we don’t even know to what we should be faithful! To energy? To formlessness? To sensibility? To expression? We have good reason to believe that matter is a relational term, even an expression of the limit, even an ephemera or something purely functional. We have every reason to think this because the consciousness which we use to think itself follows such imperatives. Consciousness progresses from sense to imagination and thought. Constitutive consciousness transcends itself to the object that it sees, or imagines, or thinks, this object will become the content of the act of consciousness, which is always composed of materiality. Matter always is, this matter, however never exists independently of acts of consciousness. They are eachother’s correlates. This means that if we concentrate our attention to a chair, the form and function of that chair will constitute the object of our act of consciousness, while all other sensual components will form its materiality. Consciousness, however, is also capable of concentrating upon the color of the chair, or, rather, color itself. In this latter case color becomes an object of consciousness, a perfect object, just as perfect as the chair was previously, and in this moment the chair becomes, as a whole, a substrate, matter, the materiality of color within this second act of consciousness. For the pure, transcendental consciousness which brackets all ontological premises, the given situation must resemble one of the above scenarios, if we seek to remain true to the transcendental phenomenological viewpoint.

But now we are writing of matter and must be faithful to the imperative of materiality. Transcendental phenomenology could not, more or less, dwell upon the terrain of the material; its most tremendous failures occurred when it attempted to account for the phenomenon of sense and sensuality. As soon as it restricted matter to the immanence of thought, it removed intentionality from sensibility. Consciousness is no longer immanent, in the sense that it was formerly understood to be an internal representation of an unknown external world (à la Locke or Berkeley), while sensation, within the intentional act, always remains immanent and never has any autonomous intentional relationality of its own. Therefore, we cannot ever really direct ourselves towards sense itself.[2] The reason is simple and is relevant to the concept of matter: the sensual contains no rationality. For Husserl consciousness is rationality itself; as a consequence, consciousness can only contain the irrational if it negates it from the very beginning („I do not hear tone-sensations but the singer’s song”). More or less — we wrote above. The reason for this is not that phenomenology, in spite of its many prejudices, still nevertheless recognizes the importance, to a certain extent, that materiality can be an „in-itself”; instead, this mode of philosophy discovered a different materiality, a matter that was not given to consciousness but the materiality of consciousness itself. Husserl held what we call „soul” to be the „matter” of consciousness. More precisely, the nonconstituted, nonobjectified, to use a Lacanian expression, „nonsymbolic” part of the soul. This element denotes raw bodily sensations such as pain or internally felt irritations, but also psychic ones such as moods, and also drives (Triebe) and also a level of more complex acts of consciousness, such as when Husserl refers to „judgement-materials”, referring to the experience of acts of judgement.

Lőrinc Borsos: Etalon, 2016, Photo by Áron Weber

In this moment, a new dimension of materiality opens up before us: no longer may the realm of the material be restricted to physical matter. Consciousness is bordered by two forms of transcendence, the materiality of the other, composed of physical matter, and the materiality of ipseity, in which all consciousness is embedded, and from which it can only be alienated at the cost of being alienated from itself: if it creates intentional objectivities. Through such an action from pain as an experienced act of consciousness pain becomes an intentional object, as Jean-Paul Sartre has described most beautifully.[3] And so the Self is created as the center and ruler of psychic life. Husserl does not consistently deduct this conclusion — that the Self is only a product of consciousness — this step is done by Sartre, who nevertheless fails to reach the other conclusion, which would imply the materiality of consciousness as transcendence. Instead, Sartre vaguely names this new materiality „the unconscious.” Later, he goes on to reinterpret this Freudian term, rejecting its symbolic nature and leaving behind those processes of symbolization that prevented Freud from seeing anything other than the oversimplified theatricality of Father/Mother/Child. Such a reinterpretation of the unconscious only takes place during the middle of the twentieth century, when Gaston Bachelard resurrects the Presocratic notion of „primal elements.” We may also mention Bachelard’s notion of „material imagination” as constituting an important turning point in Continental thought. In addition, Julia Kristeva uncovered underneath the symbolic a deeper level, that of the „semiotic”. Underneath the symbolic there are lavalike, volcanic liquidities, subversive revolutionary materialities. We can also mention the Romantic notion of autoaffection, as explicated in the philosophy of Michel Henry.[4] The concept of matter internal to the psyche is gradually replaced by the conceptualization of psyche-as-matter. And just as matter is indifferent, while nevertheless resistant and does not lend itself to categorization, it also fails to recognize the various boundaries and limits that some would impose upon its plenitude. Slowly but surely, matter leaks through the dams and fills up entire collective consciousnesses, languages, social bodies and even nature. The material allies with chaos, insanity, fanaticism, subversion, consumption, alienation, gradation (demographic explosion) and deterritorialization (mass migration), with anything through which it may show itself, so as to compensate for its lack of rights.

Lőrinc Borsos: Unfinishable Inventory (detail), 2016, Photo by Áron Weber

We must give rights to matter! It has the right to be formless! We do not have to necessarily serve matter, we do not have to become its slaves. Rather, it must be allowed to be autonomous. Along the lines of the religious tolerance of former times we should invent a kind of ontological tolerance, in both practice and in theory. Tolerance need not be conceived of as a relation of inequality, as a gift given to an inferior. Neither the human nor the material element are anything other than immanent. Matter should not be deified, and neither should it be served. We owe nothing to matter. The assumption of the reverse — the assumption that we should serve materiality — was a typical mistake of 1950s art, from abstract expressionism to concretism and gesture-painting, or informel painting in general, even performance art.[5] The reason we do not owe deference to the material is not because consciousness is immaterial or because it is made of matter, but because it is always already inside of a material environment, as Sartre writes. And yet — consciousness is nothing. But precisely because it is nothing, it cannot exit its environment. Consciousness is too close to its own ecology and — however paradoxical, such an assertion may sound — for this very reason, it cannot expropriate materiality. Neither can consciousness dissolve the material element into itself, nor can it become one with materiality. The distance necessary for all such gestures is missing. (Consciousness is close to God, even too close, for it is the pure absence not only of matter but of God).[6] Consciousness creates objects and a myriad of forms, while existing within its material ecology (and it does not just make objects from materials, but also against their materiality, extracting them from their environments, making its own objects from their backgrounds). Consciousness exists inside of materiality as a psyche, and materiality exists inside of consciousness in a wide variety of forms, such as physical and chemical components, reactions and aggregates. Physical energy and psychological, even spiritual desires and needs are always in transition, and are ceaselessly characterized by transversality. Humans not only desire to become God/s, but also the entirety of the world: we do not only seek to shape the course of the world, or to let the world influence us (acting vs undergoing); not only do we objectify slices of the world (ownership and knowledge), but we also want to become the world itself (existence). Becoming-animal, becoming-plant, becoming-thing, becoming-immaterial (emptiness, materialized nothingness.) To become ethically solid, flexible in action, speculatively imaginative, intensively passionate, invisibly unintelligible. The implementation of consciousness must (quid juris) become independent, even when it is, in actuality (quid facti), not really as autonomous as it would desire to be. Such considerations change nothing. No consciousness strives to remain just one person, for consciousness has nothing to do with being a „person” — it is extraneous to the world and humans, even to its own existence, within which it must nevertheless dwell. Consciousness must exist. This is the tragedy of transcendental consciousness, the tragedy of ontology. Existence is a burden to consciousness not only because of its contingency; it would be a burden even if we could attach some purpose and goal to its being.

Lőrinc Borsos: Good Funeral, Bad Funeral (detail), 2016, Photo by Áron Weber

Everything would be so simple if matter were a quality. Or a quantity. The concept of matter has undergone a Hegelian trajectory several times during the course of its history, long before Hegel of course. But somehow, inexplicably, it never fit into any of these categories. Neither can the synthesis of these two categories — measure — do justice to the plenitude of matter. Matter cannot come into adequation with measure (its movement is one that gravitates between quantity and quality); measure always stays somewhere in the distance, in the form of a utopia never to come. We have historical experiences of such failures. Whether we chose to flee into the future or remain stuck in the past, both gestures lead to infinity, while neither quantity nor quality could arrive at any kind of synthesis. Such a synthesis could not become all-encompassing, but neither did it come to be meaningful for the future. If only this would have been the case…

Quality is somehow always (apparently) brought into connection with subjectivity, while quantity is relegated to the side of objectivity. This is how quality becomes quale. As if we didn’t see red, but saw in a red manner, as if red were not something „out there”, at a distance from us, connected to things, in an objective manner like everything else around us. As if it were no independent from us as subjects, as individuals, as if there were really any point in thinking that everybody has a different perception of red. If this were the case, would it change anything on a personal level? Perhaps in a material sense, which is to say: it doesn’t matter at all. In such a way we would have restricted our possibilities, and we would not be able to discuss the materiality of personality, whether each and every person has a distinct materiality of their own, an individuated material mode. All the while, we have torn out a piece from the mass of qualities, the part that we thought could be objectified, and we have started to believe that it may be equated with „matter.” Democritus has already done this action, for he distinguished between primary and secondary qualities. Under primary qualities belong size, form, movement and structure — form, in short. All that which is geometrizable. This mode of thinking about the world was resuscitated by modernity and came to be expanded into a more general arithmetization of science. Galiei, Van Helmont, Locke and Newton were key players in this expansion of arithmetic worldview. For this, matter had to be made passive, impotent, uncreative and unable to develop in and of its own accord: matter became dead matter. The world of Aristotle, the world that held matter to be full of potentiality and hidden occult teleologies, drew to a close. No longer were there any analogies between the soul and matter, the two were fatally and, it would seem, irredeemably separated by modernity. From the 17th century onwards, matter could be nothing but the sum of all that which is quantifiable, or at least measurable, that which has mass and weight. Fire ceases to be matter, the phlogiston theory is falsified and the materiality of soul is abandoned. And of course, this finding must be absolutized. For a very long period of time, atomism, though it comes to be utilized in the case of gaseous materials, still considers atoms to be solid entities, solid, irreducible building-blocks of the world. Matter, therefore becomes measurable and impenetrable — according to the Newtonian view, matter is solid, massive, hard, impenetrable and mobile. Emptiness becomes a strange immateriality, something with whose secret we cannot even conceive, so much so that we tend to forget about it. Kant did the very same, with the subjectivization of space. This move on Kant’s part did not solve the secret of emptiness, but rather opened up the infinitude of space within human minds, so that the soul may submerge and explode within infinity and n-dimensional space (Deleuze).

Lőrinc Borsos: The Old Testament Hero, 2016, Photo by Áron Weber

Water and fire conspired with one another against earth and air, water dispersed earth, fire heated up air; the soul could not become a solid presence or substrate, rationality failed to remain a clare et distincta medium for things. The clinamen became an all-encompassing fact, as envisaged by atomism (though atomists never could explain what it was).[7] What we got was a world of flows and vortices, instead of a world of atoms and empty space. The world of thermodynamics instead of a mechanical world. And yet the Earth still moves, even the Earth moves, and not only in space, but underneath our feet. And fire is not only above, but beneath us; while striving upwards, it penetrates us. The horizontal (flows) and the vertical (eruptions) are forever in movement, in the context of a universal turbulence both within and without.

Energy became the elemental existential mode of matter; the entirety of the world is bound energy. Such a world contains both soul and mind. Physical energy has come to be thought of, lately, as a total intensity. The criteria for the ability to exert a physical effect are considered, alongside measurability and impenetrability, are supplemented by general efficacy. And in the meanwhile, nothing actually disappeared; it was only reconsidered, transvaluated. Quantum physics did not destroy atomism; the former only relativized the latter. Neither did it reverse the distinction between matter (particle) and radiation (wave), it only relativized this perceived difference; in fact, this theory also integrated the Aristotelean-alchemist notion of the transversability of materials into one another (the Mendelev-table proved precisely this), and it uncovered matter in ever more places (for instance, the discovery of gravitational waves and the positing of dark matter). Matter is everywhere, filling everything: even space has become materiality.

Have we finally discovered the final basis of matter? Whether or not this is the case — who knows. One thing is for certain: if we are searching for a final basis, we are guaranteed never to find it within materiality. Naturally, this does not mean we should go looking for it in some spiritual cause acting upon matter, but rather, in the absence of anything spiritual: within nothing. As Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield write: „For Anaximander, as we have seen, the basic stuff was something entirely characterless: an anonymous neutral basis, from which everyday substances were formed by a »separating out« of opposing qualities. (Its nearest modern equivalent is the physicist’s generalized idea of »energy«”[8] The difference today between our age and antiquity, not to mention early medieval times, is that nothingness, absence, matter, have all become measurable. Energy and intensity are measurable nothings. This quantifiable nothing can only become a quality if it is given form.

Once more, we regress to the ancient difference between matter and form, an extreme version at that: does every important distinction has to be effectuated by form, while matter only plays a restrictive role? Such would be the consequence if we do not reconsider our view of matter. The path of this transformation must lead from the abstract to the concrete. Matter must surrender its primacy. However abstract it may be on the level of meaning and rationality, it cannot remain abstract in relation to form. Matter is none other than energy endowed with form or intensity, which means that matter is always complex, and form enjoys precedence in relation to its materiality. Pure form exists, even if it is not completely autonomous, and pure energy. But pure matter is a misnomer, at least in theory. (Pure matter is not the same as homogeneous matter!) The right of matter to be formless does not entail a regression into the form of pure matter; rather, it means that we maintain the right of matter to resist the externality of form. That externality into which spirit (God, the Demiurge, the human…) wants to force the material, so that it may then be endowed with function, rationality and meaning. Matter always has a form that is independent of its external manifestations, a form of its own; its natural tendency towards formlessness is merely a way of returning to its original form. And this form(lessness) is not static. Matter without external form is capable of many things: its own form does not seize and concentrate all of its many potentialities and energies. The relation between form and energy is one that is irreducible to externality, for form itself is capable of dynamization when it unites with energy. Matter does not integrate energy into its interstices, but rather gives energy a direction, opening up possibilities and channels through which energy may unite with other forms. Matter is always unstable and capable of further formation; if we consider stability to be the primary existential modality, we fail to realize that spontaneous formation and productivity are also inherent properties of matter. All matter is capable of something; if not chemical reactions, then at least mixing, dispersion, weighing or the maintenance of its form(lessness).

Lőrinc Borsos: Isolation, 2016, Photo by Áron Weber

In conclusion, we would highlight three questions relating to materiality:

What is matter capable of? — This is — in itself — a dimension of reality, a level that humans always seek to forget, or an obstacle to be overcome. And yet, or perhaps, precisely because of this, all investigations relating to materiality must start with this question. We should enumerate all the actions materiality is capable of, all acts — on all temporal levels — that can be related to the agency of materiality itself. And this must be done systematically, drawing upon all relevant sciences (from the natural sciences to psychology, history and all the way to aesthetics), but also drawing inspiration from our everyday experiences. In such a manner, the corpus of matter could be assembled,[9] a body of work open to systematization — or not. One thing is certain: totalization should not be valued, in and of itself.

What is matter good for? — This is the dimension of reality-for-us, the level of the world that is has been elaborated upon most by philosophies of the past. It is held to be of most importance for our lives as humans. In a word, it is instrumentality.

What does materiality „want”? — This is the intersubjective dimension. Not the level of epistemology or instrumentality, rather, the territory wherein we live „with” matter, wherein materiality and we ourselves have rights in addition to existence. What kind of entity can be considered a legal person? — this is the most important question on this level. If the living have the right to life, but the dividing line separating the living from the nonliving is uncertain,[10] then why could we not endow inorganic matter with rights? Or even independently of whether the inorganic „lives”, could we not say it deserves to have rights, that it deserves our respect? Does the inorganic not have the right to be left alone and intact, free to deploy its form in the world? Do we not mutilate mountains when we mine them and extract minerals from their bowels? In such a case, it is not simply the living habitat that is injured, but also the mountain itself. But what does it mean „to want”? This question is far from a trivial one. Do we not make an ontological mistake at this point, if we were to, for instance, endow inorganic entities with souls? The answer is simple: yes, such a step would constitute, strictly speaking, an ontological mistake, a miscategorization, but there are some intentional modes that can operate with neither consciousness nor soul. Therefore, we must rethink the notion of intentionality, separating it from the phenomenology of knowledge and philosophies of the body, and raise it to the ontological level.[11]

(Translated by Ádám Lovász)

Tamás Seregi is professor of aesthetics and philosophy at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary. He has translated the works of Pierre Bourdieu, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Clement Greenberg, Jean-Paul Sartre, et al. into Hungarian. His first book entitled, A jelen [The Present] has been published in 2016.

Lőrinc Borsos is a fictitious artist brought to life by artists János Borsos and Lilla Lőrinc in 2008. She lives in Székesfehérvár and works in Budapest. All images are from her recent exhibition entitled “Nonentity” at ICA-D Institute of Contemporary Art, Dunaújváros, Hungary in 2016.

[1] Bataille, Georges Visions of Excess. Alan University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1985, „Materialism”, p.15.

[2] As Husserl said: „These so-called immanent contents are therefore merely intended or intentional, whlie truely immanent contents, which belong to the real make-up (reellen Bestande) of the intentional experiences, are not intentional: they constitute the act, provide necessary points d’appui which render possible an intention, but are not themselves intended, not the objects presented in the act. I do not see colour-sensations but coloured things, I do not hear tone-sensations but the singer’s song, etc. etc.” Edmund Husserl: Logical Investigations. Tr. by J. N. Findlay. Routledge, London and New York, 2001, p. 99.

[3] See the chapter „The Body as Being-For-Itself: Facticity” in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (Tr. by Hazel E. Barnes. Washington Square Press, New York, 1956).

[4] „Life is form and form is modality of life” — Henri Focillon claims in the Thirties (The Life of Forms in Art. Tr. by Jean Molino. New York: Zone Books. 1992. p. 33), and denies it Michel Henry from the Sixties on: life is matter and matter is always on this side (and not beyond!) of the world, of being, of ontology. See Michel Henry: Philosophie et phénoménologie du corps. PUF, Paris, 1965.

[5] I do not intend this to mean that I in any way seek to deprecate the artistic merit of these works.

[6] God is closer to us than we are to ourselves — Michel Henry, following Meister Eckhardt, says this on numerous occasions. Conscience is an example of this autoaffectivity.

[7] See: Michel Serres: La naissance de la physique dans le texte de Lucrèce. Fleuves et turbulences. Minuit, Paris, 1977.

[8] Stephen Toulmin — June Goodfield: The Architecture of Matter. Hutchinson & Co., London, 1962, 50.

[9] Nancy, Jean-Luc: Corpus, Fordham University Press, New York, 2008.

[10] The movement from inorganic to organic contains transitory states such as crystals that cannot be neatly subsumed within any of these two categories. In relation to the other direction (organic → inorganic) viruses are prototypical examples.

[11] I make an attempt to resolve this dilemma in one of my essays: „Az intencionalitásról és az intencionális kritikáról.” Helikon, Vol. 56. 2010/4, 597–616.


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