Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Second Materialism

I’ll tell you who I like- Madonna. That woman can sing. So catchy. And poignant. God, is she poignant. “I’m living in a material world, and I am a material girl.” Madonna must have been reading all the trade journals, because never a truer thing was said of our modern age.

I think Madonna was singing about material wealth- that’s the materialism she meant. She noticed the creeping desire for material possessions infecting our greedy American souls and sang a little ditty about it. I don’t think anyone would deny that Madonna was right on the money on that account. Last year the U.S. bought so much stuff that we had to borrow $765 Billion dollars from the rest of the world to pay for it all.

But Madonna may have been right-on by other accounts as well. There is another form of creeping materialism these days, and it too is flagrantly American. It informs our science and motivates our politics. It supports our pragmatism. It has become so firmly entrenched in our thinking and cultural identity that it seems perfectly germane to our lives- so much so that we could not imagine another way. I am speaking of the materialism that makes drugs, and bombs, and windex. The materialism that craves physical gain and quantified benefit. The materialism that asks “What happens at the end of the day?” And “What’s the bottom line?” The American materialism that says, once and for all: “Enough with all the hub-bub and tell me what it is, really.” I am speaking of that other American materialism-philosophic materialism- the belief that at bottom, it’s all just matter, material. Material-ism.

What the hell is he talking about?

I’m getting there.

Has anyone noticed that neuroscience is taking over? It’s everywhere. I can’t not-read the Times without seeing some new study that proves, finally, that morality, or empathy, or language, or time, or prostitution, or backgammon is really just an issue of grey matter and synapse firings. And it’s proliferating as well. We now have neuropsychology, neurobiology, neuroeconomics, and most recently, neurotheology. Traditional disciplines are being usurped by the neuron- that most unwitting conquistador.

It’s not just the neuron, though. Legal proceedings now rely heavily on DNA records. Drug companies pay millions for chemical patents. Dr. Francis Collins just mapped the human genome and found God. What’s this all about?

Somewhere along the line, we became obsessed with the miniscule. We took two millennia to reach the stars, then suffered exploratory remorse, and in a reflective moment of depression, turned the instruments inward and wrote a new mantra: “it’s just…” It’s just molecules. It’s just atoms. It’s just quarks. It’s just genes. It’s just that, nothing more.

“What’s the big deal? It’s just neural activity, that’s all.”

“But I’m sad!”

“I know it feels like that. But really, it’s just a deficiency of sodium in your cerebral cortex.”

“Great. Thanks.”

We marveled at our escape from mysticism and aggrandized our new religion- science.

"Come one, come all. Come and see the newest thing in town. It’s not opinion. It’s not faith. It’s fact- it’s science."

No it’s not. It’s materialism. It’s belief that reduction to atomistic makeup constitutes explanation and knowledge. It’s a desperate attempt to forget humanity's special gift- consciousness- and all the responsibility that comes in tow. It’s a ravenous lust for results, productivity, control; and it couldn’t be more American if Madonna actually did sing a song about it.

The Real American Materialism:

“That’s it man. You see that quark there? That’s the Truth of it all.”

“Really, where? I can’t see it.”

“Here, use this.”

“Oh, there it is. That’s Truth?”

“Sure is.”

“Who said?”


“What did they say?”

“They said we’re living in a material world, and we’re all material girls. Come on, get with the times.”

“We’re living in a material world?”

“Sure are.”

“Is that right?”


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