(Nathan Brown)

The title of our 2009 conference at MaMa was 21st Century Materialism. The title of this year’s conference is To Have Done With Life. Let me try to frame this year’s event by thinking through the relation between these two titles or these two problems: the relation between the philosophical orientation called materialism and the philosophical and scientific concept of life.

Terrence Malick’s new film, Tree of Life, offers a way into this problem. The film circulates around a central, singular event: the death of a son, an event that entails mourning of that death by a mother, a father, and two brothers. But this event—the fact of a death and the experience of loss, situated at an existential and psychological level—opens onto an meditation upon another event of properly ontological import: the emergence of life on earth. A son dies, he is mourned by his family. And on the anniversary of his death, decades later, the film’s narrative focalization upon the psychological interiority of his older brother breaks into what must be one of the most remarkable “flashbacks” in the history of cinema, even more grandiose than the famous analeptic cut which opens 2001: A Space Odyssey. Malick’s film returns us to what seems to be the origin of the cosmos, and from here we follow the expansion of the universe and the formation of our galaxy through the accretion of the earth, millennia of geological time, the self-organization of RNA and DNA molecules, the emergence of mitochondria and multicellular organisms, the evolution of diverse animal species during the Cambrian explosion, the reign and extinction of the dinosaurs, and the beginning of the latest ice age during the Pliocene. We then return to the bildungsroman of the eldest son, following the progress of his family romance up through the years preceding his younger brother’s death.

The film thus situates not only the mourning of loss, but the development of an entire affective context within a family, within the broadest possible perspective. The particularity of a life that can be lost takes on the universal singularity of A LIFE (Une Vie, in Deleuze’s sense). The scope of a particular loss to be mourned expands to include the emergence of life on earth as a condition of possibility for any affective experience of loss whatever. The implication of this gesture, it seems to me, is not that “loss” is the essence of life, but rather that the existence of “life” is the essence of loss. The “meaning” of the affective experience of loss is grounded in the existence of affectivity or experience per se—the existence of life—felt or understood as the ontological precondition for the possibility of the negation of affectivity or experience (the possibility of death).

In the film, this material is taken up within a Christian framework, which includes the problem not only of life but of spirit. Arguably, though, it is also a profoundly materialist film, insofar as this problem is addressed as one of material genesis: how does spiritual experience—as an existential fact—come into being within the cosmos? In what sense can we understand the emergence of life as an ontological condition of such experience? And how does the affective experience of loss draw together the problem of spirit and the problem of life insofar as it entails the work of mourning for the material absence of a living body: the disappearance of a life?

I mention Malick’s film as one example of an effort to reframe existential questions concerning the relation of life and death as ontological questions concerning the being or non-being of life per se. If the film is philosophically disappointing it’s because it approaches its problems through a Christian theogony. But if it is important, nevertheless, it’s not only because the film is beautifully made, but because of the subtlety with which it exposes the problematic of living being as both physical and metaphysical in scope. The being of “life” is a metaphysical problem because unless “life” is metaphysical it has no being: it is reducible to the material distribution of organizations and functions that  neither warrant nor support a general, encompassing concept. Every vitalist knows this, and that is why, for example, it at least makes sense to think that something like the Deleuzian concept of A LIFE may be the sine qua non of any coherent thinking of life. But, on the other hand, if “life” is purely metaphysical it has no being. Life is a physical problem because it is instantiated in material bodies whose properties and capacities differ from those of non-living bodies: even if, in certain instances, it turns out to be surprisingly difficult to specify just how this is the case.

The term “emergence” is the surest index of the doubly physical and metaphysical scope of this problem. The emergence of life, we say, and what we seem to mean by this is that we do not know exactly how—at exactly what point and in exactly what way—life came into being, though we do seem to know a great deal about its properties—including, supposedly, that it exists. The problem of “emergence” is that a modality of being came to be which was not before, and the difficulty is that tracking the physical causes of such an event leads to irresolvable aporia. And these aporia are too easily dissembled through reference to “complex, self-organizing processes,” as if we can at once account for and evade the radicality of the event we are trying to think by placing it within the same category as the formation of snowflakes, traffic patterns, or the activities of termite colonies. In its typical usage (the work of Stuart Kaufman, for example), the concept of “emergence” is a crypto-metaphysical concept pretending to offer physical explanations, at once allowing and accounting for gaps in the latter through reference to “complexity.”

The problem for biology, then, is that it is constantly on the cusp of either reduction to physical chemistry or ideological capture by metaphysics. The concept of “life” tends to get lost between explanations of biological organisms referring either to molecular interactions or to an irreducible systemic wholeness. And because it gets lost, it is prone to over-extension as the je ne sais quoi which accounts for the substance of the biological precisely through its indetermination.

Should we have done with life? If we deploy this concept as a means of pretending we know what we mean when we do not, then we probably should. And this is perhaps the dominant para-philosophical use of this concept today, as it is deployed by actor-network theory spin-offs and vitalist Spinozisms extolling the so-called “life of things.” As, for example, in the “vital materialism” of Jane Bennett.

But we cannot have done with life because it will not have done with us—until it does. In the meantime, it is a properly philosophical problem insofar as the self-evidence of its existence gives way onto the obscurity of its concept. The ethical and existential questions that it poses: “what is the good life?” or “what is it to live” are at the core of both ancient and modern philosophy. But there is a scission between these questions and the scientific and ontological question: “what is life?”

Within that scission, the life we do not know what it means to live demands to be thought.

To accede to this demand is to acknowledge that we do not know what death is. We do not know what extinction means. We do not know how affect, how feeling, how sensation came into the world. We do not what what sort of being it is that thinks or decides. We do not know what labors or suffers or revolts.

Malick’s film, to return to where I began, takes up this not knowing as a matter of faith. But if it is also a spur to reason, then perhaps our discussions this weekend will help some of us begin to think again about what is at stake in the disjunction between the life we live and the life we do not know.