What We Can Learn About the Soul by Talking About the Body — Reading “Materialism”

Sometimes I think that Terry Eagleton is a Don Quixote figure, on a quest that has taken him out into the desert, where he stands outside the line into Black Rock City, yelling profound truths with a book in his hands.

But what are we listening to?

In 2009 Eagleton, a prominent Marxist literary critic, delivered a series of lectures on the place of religion and faith in modern life that were collected as a short book: Reason, Faith, and Revolution. In it, he emphasized that “faith,” far from being irrational, is at heart the conviction that the world can be different. To “have faith” is not to make statements of literal fact, but to experience a value proposition that you must act on, like love and hope. Faith is therefore the soul of revolution.

I read it, and was awestruck.

In 2014 Terry Eagleton wrote Culture and the Death of God, a kind of intellectual history of the cultural impact of atheism – and I was so struck not just by the book, but by its relevance to Burning Man culture, that I started an online book club here to discuss its implications. (You can read those entries here.)

One of the readers, and occasional participants, of that book club was Larry Harvey. And a few months ago Larry pointed out to me that Eagleton had written a new book – Materialism – a kind of cultural history of, well, Materialism. Meaning, in this case, not the fetishization and pursuit of things but the idea that the universe is all matter, and must be understood that way.

We immediately connected it to this year’s Radical Ritual theme – and if you’re not sure why, you should read Larry’s article introducing this series, and then come back and keep reading here.

Eagleton is unique among the ranks of “materialists (and probably atheists) talking about religion” in that he actually understands religion. That, as he quite conclusively shows in his work over the last few years, is what separates the major atheists of the previous turn-of-the-century (Nietzsche, Russell, Wittgenstein, etc.) from the “New Atheists” of our recent turn-of-the-century: the former were religiously literate men who understood that the “death of God” would be a major social challenge and upheaval, while the latter think religion is simply a useless appendage that can be removed without having any major impact – everything will just go on like before, only better.

This is mistaken for two very big reasons. First, virtually every aspect of our social consciousness was forged in religious crucibles. (Mircea Eliade, decades before Eagleton, put it in evolutionary terms: we are still homo religious, and modernity hasn’t been around long enough to really change that.) Concepts as basic as what it means to be a person, of human rights, of where authority comes from and what it looks like, of marriage, of parenthood, of love, all came out of explicitly religious contexts. This is not to say that one can’t have concepts of personhood, human rights, authority, love, and all the rest without religion – but it is to say that if we no longer believe in the religious underpinning of these concepts as we currently practice them, there’s no particular reason that everything will continue to go on just the way it was. On the contrary – everything will be up for grabs. And while what comes next might end up being better than what comes before, that won’t happen by accident (if it happens at all). To try and uproot religion from culture is to require a radical re-imagination of society. The alternative – sticking to social orders that are based on concepts that nobody believes in anymore – will create a profound crisis of legitimacy (and maybe already has).

Second, contemporary materialists have only the most superficial language for the most profound of human subjective experiences. They take the perception of the sacred – a profound and important subjective experience that most of humanity has at some point – and have nothing to say about it except “it’s not real.” The language of moral calling, of higher accountability, of unconditional values, of the long night of the soul, of awe and wonder, are all similarly glossed over, explained away as brain functions or social conditioning. Consciousness itself is often explained away as an epiphenomenon. And you can’t have anything meaningful to say about things that you’ve already explained away.

That’s a problem because whatever you think is “really” happening, these are not only experiences that the vast majority of human beings have, but that they want to orient their lives toward. Once our basic material needs are met, most of us want more love, more meaning, more awe … we want to live according to values that move us, and we want to be moved in profound ways by art and human connection.

By not creating a vocabulary for this – by not even acknowledging the importance of this – 20th century materialism yielded all these human experiences to religion, said “all this belongs over there, we don’t want anything to do with it.”

Which is to say, materialism lobotomized itself.

And this is a profound injury, because as Eagleton takes pains to point out: rational thought cannot actually separate itself from subjective, embodied, experience. In fact, “reason” has as much in common with morality as with pure logic. To quote from Materialism:

“Reasoning is interwoven with our practical projects, but those projects are not themselves purely rational affairs. The final goal of all human activity is happiness or well-being; but although the fatiguing business of learning how to be fulfilled involves reason, it is not reducible to it This is not because rationality is a clinical, dispassionate matter. To be reasonable is to strive to view a situation as it really is, a strenuous enterprise which involves lifting our gaze above our endemic narcissism and self-interest. It also requires patience, persistence, resourcefulness, honesty, humility, the courage to confess that one is mistaken, a readiness to trust others, a refusal of anodyne fantasies and self-serving illusions, an acceptance of what may run counter to our own interests and so on. In this sense, objectivity is a moral affair. It has nothing to do with some bloodless disinterestedness.

“A rationality ungrounded in practical, sensory existence is not simply defective: it is not truly rational at all. Reason unhinged from the senses is a form of madness, as King Lear discovers. One name for what we might call sensuous reasoning is the aesthetic, which first sees the light of day not as talk about art but as a discourse of the body. It represents an attempt on the part of a rather bloodless form of Enlightenment reason to incorporate what one might call the logic of the senses. Modern aesthetics begins life as an attempt to smuggle the body back into a form of rationality that is in danger of expelling it as so much excess baggage. It is in the work of art above all that the rational and the sensory work conspire fruitfully together.”


Like Eagleton’s arguments in Materialism, Larry’s post is a counter-movement. He talks about experiences of spirit and soul un-ironically, unapologetically, and without ever once mentioning supernatural agency – or anything beyond the basic material conditions people are under. He is demonstrating that whatever your spiritual or religious convictions (or lack thereof), there are ways to talk about these profound experiences as physically grounded that are still meaningful and important.

Eagleton’s Materialism is a long-form proof of that argument. It demonstrates that many of the major standard bearers of a materialist viewpoint – such as Marx and Wittgenstein – were in fact deeply, even primarily, concerned with the way in which subjective experience emerges from material conditions. To deny the legitimacy of subjective experiences, their importance, their vitality, is to deny aspects of matter itself.

One need not be an atheist to find wisdom in this. One of the most stunning revelations of Materialism, for me, was the degree to which Eagleton uses the work of St. Thomas Aquinas – not only a theist, but one of the world’s great theists – to describe the importance of addressing ourselves as matter when we look to understand our spirituality. If the rejection of the subjective is the Achilles heel of modern atheists, the rejection of matter and material conditions as a contributing factor to spirituality as we experience it is surely a flaw of modern theists.

All of which is to say that there are useful and important conversations we can have about the impact of material conditions upon our spiritual experiences without ever making epistemological (or theological) claims. And many of those conversations will center around ritual action – about what we choose to do bodily, the physical conditions we choose to do it in, the focus of our attention, the ways we choose to relate to each other, and the experiences that result. Conversations that everyone can have (radically inclusive) and everyone can benefit from.

As Burning Man is increasingly seen around the world as a spiritual movement that offers no religious doctrine of any kind, this will be an increasingly useful conversation to have, and vocabulary to develop.   Whether or not we’re religious, whatever we do or don’t believe, many of us are seeking to orient ourselves to the sacred. Being able to talk to one another about that is important.

Whatever quixotic quest Eagleton’s on – and make no mistake, Materialism is at times a distracting, meandering slog – can be of great use to this.

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

5 Comments on “What We Can Learn About the Soul by Talking About the Body — Reading “Materialism”

  • Diogenes says:

    thank you!…..interesting direction of discussion…….one important world pattern involving religion decreasing in a literal , miraculous interpretation has occurred and well documented by Phil Zuckerman in ‘Societies Without God’……the religious folks in Sweden and Denmark no longer believe in gods,heaven,hell,miracles , BUT call themselves “Christians” and follow principles of compassion , fairness , generosity , etc……the change appears to have evolved fairly quickly over the last 80 years…..rather seamlessly……

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  • microcondian says:

    yes – thank you – let’s start crackin’ it –
    inner silence=conscious awareness=u.

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  • Stefan U. says:

    hi folks!!! a fine article this is -need 2 go deeper into this lecture..trying 2 understand 4 sure some of it! 4 the moment, me thinking about photons and quantumphysics in corellation 2 the Tao’s &religious Minds by reading Fritjof Capra’s ‘Das Tao der Physik’ and joining upcomming general studies &discussions about quantumTheoryPhysics. via entropic ‘ENTROPIE’thoughts and meaning the materalism (saturated or not, or enriched 2burn-like in atomic reactors, the fuelburning-rods) in whatever form it comes,–is a enrichment(toMaterialism), which always is followed by a burning process (see in the muscles, the life, on the event-horizon, the soil, the meteors, the molecules etc. etc. ) and a deflation to nothing! exactly art and culture-mainly in religion, too, are the elements who overcome the process of life and the incarnation2deflation 4 some longer period, but said like me out of a photographers mind.- the immense spill out of the massive amounts of digital photos for example – the www, lets even the materialism)or ART(.;-) of the analog photography die off in all of our minds. because of this rapid influx of all built on digital. – try 2 burn a negative-film, its not burning on itself. try 2 get a harddrive damaged or burning- it can do on itself from the inside out and easily. for sure the art of analogue photographica needs revitalised, so that IT as an profound art can overcome more next generations. and not just blown away by the digi-revolution. I think in my opinion that MODERNITY overcame us already to massive and quickly! Ah, for now its exactly enough 4 a comment- happy 2 get 2 talk about all the facts which matter most or even do not bother anyone, so i close this, with the thoughts on the most honorable Global Materialism- that everybody on this planet has something 4 life- not art or technics of religion or science, its the need 2 feed our ALL bodies, to life and have this daily process-experienced BURNING of calories which we all need 2 be there in our life-spans! -and-suggestion 4 discussions- does BURNING make us happier? Oder ist ‘brenn in der Hölle’ doch das normalste von ALLEM?! Will the burning of this -materialised- ART @burningman not add 2 much burnt-processes into our all air/atmoshere in addition 2 everything elso which burns around the globe same time and always (even the volcanoes, in the dematerialization process, from under our feet back into sight and in2 saturated AIR!) I would rather see no burning than having every child some more meals 2 have. GlobalMaterialism 4 good Globalism! Materialistic BURNING 4 the ART and the coming generations! -just some fastlyinthe head coming sunday thoughts of partyphotographer!-Stef-

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  • Kit Dingo says:

    Our society’s fear and distrust of the body and nature as vehicles for transnational experience as well as its craven worship of material abundance in the form of goods leaves those of us who value reason and the spiritual dimensions of existence without a framework or context. Some feminist and eco-philosophers are working in this area. Actually, Burning Man has allowed me to feel the connection between the spirit and the world and body more intensely and I am very grateful for that. Thank you for this essay.

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