Commonly this realm of the immaterial is personified or reified as an immaterial force, spirit, soul, or divinity,
in which (or in whom) is invested transcendent and usually unlimited, immortal, or permanently enduring or recurring powers or abilities. These latter are often invested with interventional force, with a power to intervene in and affect aspects or properties or qualities in and of the (produced) “material” or secondary world. Conversely, such reified principles or powers are often also understood to be impossibly remote, unapproachable, or even indefinably and totally other. But both conditions or properties of the immaterial principle or “spirit” are co-determined and co-constructed, and in some religious traditions oscillate and alternate: a double-bind of absolute otherness versus transcendently powerful interventionism. Any concept of an immaterial spirit or god as totally unfathomable otherness is linked and defined by an opposite complete transparency. Sometimes the god hears one’s wishes, sometimes it doesn’t.
What is traditionally masked in (or by) such ontologies are both their hierarchical structure or systematicity and their articulation as a religiosity; the very opposition between a “material” and an “immaterial” level of existence is defined from the position of that which it presumes (pretends) to investigate. The material/immaterial ontology is not a conclusion but a preliminary philosophical hypothesis masquerading as that which it ostensibly seeks to prove. Simply by evoking the “materiality” of the world, that the world is characterized by a property of materiality or of matter, it simultaneously co-produces its ostensible antithesis: the “spiritual” or non- (pre- or post-) material world. To criticize “materialism” is to create and invoke its alleged opposite.
This thesis suggests the following corollaries:
a. The material/immaterial opposition is the ground or template ormatrix for positing equivalent or complementary properties in multiple dimensions: on the level of the scale of the individual, the group, the community, the nation, the species, and so forth.
b. These scalar transpositions or postulates are as (metaphorical) equivalences, which commonly specify a certain appropriateness: certain proper or fitting human (and other) behaviors which bear with them legal or ethical force or discipline.
To which may be added that the effect of the maintenance of this duality is the possibility of imagining the belief that the “immaterial” has an “independent” existence of its own (a “transcendental signified” exceeding the chain of material signs), and thus prior to its “material” antithesis, constituting the essence of religiosity.4 This semiological or epistemological artifact is the most important and powerful implication of religiosity. But it simultaneously makes possible the imagining of its antithesis, namely that: the “material” has an independent existence of its own, independent of and prior to any imaginary projected “immaterial” antithesis, which constitutes the essence of artistry or artifice.
All of which suggests a further conclusion, namely that the maintenance of the duality generates an uncannily “oscillating ontology,” whereby “materialism” and “spiritualism” (to use the most common terms) perpetually contend for a position of primacy or transcendence. The entire “contest” between spiritualism and materialism is a rhetorical illusion.
In general, then, the maintenance of the materialism/immaterialism dualism–the belief in a realm of spirit or immateriality and its (from certain religious perspectives) lower or “derivative” antithesis, a realm of “pure” (or mere) matter–or vice-versa– allows for the possibility of each perspective imagining its antithesis. Each is the ghost perpetually haunting the “body” of the other: the system of its otherness. Each “realm” or mode of being is essentially unstable or fragile, as its essence always contains its “opposite,” each opposite (each “elsewhere”) being what grounds and makes possible the first ontological realm.
- Which recalls the observation by Derrida that “The maintenance of the rigorous distinction…between the signans and the signatum, the equation of the signatum and the concept, inherently leaves open the possibility of thinking a concept signified in and of itself, a concept simply present for thought, independent of a relationship to language, that is, of a relationship to a system of signifiers…leaving open this possibility…accedes to the classical exigency of…a ‘transcen- dental signified,’ which in and of itself, in its essence, would refer to no signifier, would exceed the chain of signs.” (Jacques Derrida, “Semiology and Grammatology,” in Derrida, Positions, ed. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981): 19-20.↵