Malabou, Materialism, and a Thought via Job

Materialism is a name for the non-transcendental status of form, in general. Matter is what forms itself in producing the conditions of possibility of this formation. Any transcendental instance necessarily finds itself in a position of exteriority in relation to that which it organises. By its nature the condition of possibility is other than what it makes possible. Materialism, in general, affirms the opposite, the absence of any outside of the process of formation. Matter is self in formation, and selves in formation are, then, systematically non-transcendental.

Catherine Malabou, Whither Materialism? Althusser/Darwin, 6:50 — 7:44

This may seem something of an odd segue. How does one go from a definition of materialism to a quite particular and theological-cum-hermeneutical reflection regarding the book and character of Job? All I can say is, bear with me.

Recently, I read a paper by Adam Kotsko outlining and building connections between Antonio Negri and Gustavo Gutiérrez’s respective humanist and Christian readings of Job. Kotsko leads us to the conclusion that for both, ultimately, God becomes something of an issue that serves to obfuscate an underlying, yet significant, similarity. One (Negri) reads Job as recognising God’s death – i.e. in the fact that God shows up to bluster about what that God has made; the other (Gutiérrez) postulates Job’s arrival at a new understanding of a “weak” God, constrained by human agency, and that God’s inability and unwillingness to destroy humanity – wicked or not.

Explicit and implicit materialisms are affirmed each in their own way between these two readings. For Negri, recognition of God’s death is what awakens the human recognition of the need to actively change the conditions of existence – it is about matter forming and giving form to itself. In Gutiérrez’s case, it is the unveiling of a weak God dependent on human activity and response that points us to an affirmation of a certain sort of materialism that forces us to disavow, in this Christian reading, any easy talk of transcendence (certainly God is envisaged as creator but creation has run away with itself – perpetuating and sustaining its own form – which God seems to find a certain delight or awe in).

Rendering this materialist connection more transparent, Kotsko writes,

Both affirm the agency and power of the oppressed, and both affirm that there is some source of power beyond what is expressed in the current situation… some kind of potentiality or virtuality that is intimately tied to the current situation while not being completely determined by it or reducible to it.

Whether we call this source of power God or the unactualized power of humanity, then, it seems to function in a similar way in both arguments.

This has been a peculiar post, no doubt; yet, the connection with Job, for all of its arbitrariness arises because there is, I believe, reasonable interpretative ground for a materialist reading of the work to be established. Beyond thought about God, the character of Job will fully assume and assert his own material existence, agency, and moral responsibility. Against the ideologies of his “friends,” Job maintains his innocence, to the point of declaring, that although there may be no God (willing or existing?) to grant him respite and justice, he will hold onto his righteousness above all else (27:2-6). Before and even beyond the response of God, Job is moved to an ethical materialism – becoming a non-transcendental self in formation, willing its own formation and agency – rejecting trite appeals to transcendence and of divine balancing of moral accounts. In this vein, Christine Hayes writes,

Even in the depths of his anguish, and even though he is now convinced that God does not enforce a moral law in the universe, Job clings to one value: righteousness is a virtue in and of itself, and even if it brings no reward Job will not give up his righteousness. Face to face with the shocking insight that good and evil are met with indifference by God, that righteousness brings no reward and wickedness no punishment, Job although bitter, refuses to succumb to a moral nihilism…

So in his darkest, most bitter hour with all hope of reward gone, Job clings to the one thing he has — his own righteousness. In fact, when all hope of just reward is gone then righteousness becomes an intrinsic value.

As we know, it will be into this situation the author has God enter and affirm Job’s mode of being.  God as appearing in some whirlwind and celebrating nature is witnessed by Job and the others as, in Tillichian terms, a “God beyond God” – as Being Itself. God is presented as exceeding the parochial demands to moral accountancy, as one who appears to showcase the vitality of nature to those who wish to imagine some providence humanity may appeal to so as to get “one up” on the surrounding chaosmos. No, God, for the author, appears to Job not to assure safety, nor to share escapist guarantees of an afterlife – as so much religion would like – but to affirm the exceeding materiality of the morality Job has cultivated – for Job affirms it regardless of transcendence – and to remind him of that to which it can and should be directed – the surrounding world. For Job does not see God, Job sees the creation – a flurry of animals, birds, heights, depths, and beasts – ‘to “see” god is to see the creation,’ as Catherine Keller writes.

Job leads us to a vision of an absolute multiplicity of uncontainable materiality under irrepressible formation, and to a God witnessed only in the witnessing of this multiplicity. We are lead with Job to the affirmation of ‘some source of power beyond what is expressed in the current situation… some kind of potentiality or virtuality’ that does not negate the absolute materiality of ‘selves in formation’ but provides them with their undeniable vitality.

It is this ecological surplus that Job sees and turns his non-transcendental, without strings, ethical attention to. Job has affirmed by God his own capability – the sort of self in self-formation he can be – and it is this he turns, to the world. There is no outside here, only a God seen only as (in) nature and a nature only seen as (in) God; only a buzzing materiality in constant self-formation that has afforded the emergence of selves capable of – like Job – generating and enacting a moral vision that forms (and affirms) the divinely-charged materiality of the world, as much as it forms them.