For the spiritual tradition of the west, matter has largely been viewed as something to be contained and regulated; dangerous, shifty, unstable, and prone to regressive tendencies. It is to be infused and uplifted by spirit, transformed and made over till it glows. But this top-down, Platonist approach is also responsible for much of the hostile and oppositional attitudes that have everywhere degraded both the bodies of others, especially women, as well as the environment. Its legitimacy is summed up by the proto-Enlightenment pronouncement of Bacon that Nature is to be subdued.
Following Foucault’s remark that it’s been the body that’s been trapped inside the soul all this time and not the other way around, we might ask ourselves: what if the real goal of spirit is not, as we have for so long imagined, to descend into and animate an intransigent material world? What if instead it is matter that must come to the aid of spirit? What if spirit is that which stands in need of being redeemed?
It is not enough, of course, merely to reverse the binary. Any provocations on behalf of matter must be made with a view toward locating what is oppositional within its own logic while at the same time holding the idea of spirit, that is to say, form, in tension; not collapsing it into a straw man.
Such a shift stands behind Tim Morton’s bold notion of an “ecology without nature.” A liberating dissolution of binaries that would free us from the tyranny of the mind/nature split. The turn toward immanence is a call to re-envision the role earth and the body play in making a sense of the sacred possible. And what is the sacred, in this sense, if not the ever renewable potential of that-which-is-possible. I often think of Swift’s wry quatrain, which Yeats quotes in his preface to A Vision:
Matter, wise logicians say,
Cannot without a form subsist.
But form, say I as well as they,
Must fail if matter bring no grist.
It is that delightful and untranslatable English word, “grist,” which provides the hinge here. Spirit’s grist, to be effectual at all, must become embodied. It must come down to earth, as DH Lawrence knew, and be enflamed by the eros of matter. Enter Marcuse and all the angels of the poor, singing.