The past few days have witnessed a flurry of comments on the use and misuse of "materialism" in philosophy, starting with Gratton and continuing with Harman (1, 2) and Bryant.
Gratton hits the nail on the head when he asks, "What kind of material would we even be talking about?" Indeed, it's become increasingly difficult to understand from what material materialism is made.
Levi tosses some Marx into the salad:
Marx is somewhat off the hook here because he does speak of humans working with nonhuman matter in processes of production. The problem is that the role played by nonhuman and natural things really gets short shrift in Marx. The focus is on how humans transform these matters into something else, not the role these matters themselves play in transforming humans and each other.
The Marx problem is a big one. By and large, isn't it really Marxist thought that's absconded with the term materialism? If what "materialism" means to most is social relations in general and class relations in particular, then the deed is done: materialism is made of people!
Maybe part of the problem is the singularness of materialism. Gratton cites Harman on materialism being reductionist, and this is what I'm getting at too. Rather than seeking to define definitively the nature of matter (a task that inevitably leads to scientific reductionism), or taking material to mean that which mediates or regulates human interactions (which leads to inevitable correlationism), instead we should desire a multitude of materials. True materialism is an aggregate. Or, put differently, "materialism" doesn't exist, but "materialisms" do.
I get the sense that many people misconstrue object-oriented ontology as a singular material affair, as a reductionism: "everything's an object." But instead, proponents of OOO hold that all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally. The funeral pyre is not the same as the aardvark; the porcelatta is not equivalent to the rubgy ball. Not only are neither pair reducible to human encounter, but also neither are reducible to one another. In this respect, McLuhan is a better place to look for materialism than is Marx.
Harman reprises (and Bryant cites) the following quip, with which I agree: if you only ever find yourself talking about the human-world relation then you're a correlationist. We might add, if you only ever find yourself talking about one kind of stuff, then you're also not a materialist.