The Essentialism of Materialism and Immaterialism

This week one of the phrases that has been occupying my mind is 'do without.'  I met-up with Luke this past week and we discussed it at length.  He correctly identified my emphasis on the word do vs. without, and later wrote about it.  In his post he explored the apparent contradictions of a life lived with or without, and the problem one encounters when putting emphasis on the second word, without.  James explored the idea as well, providing a wonderful picture of the simplicity of emphasizing without over do.

I think that we have a general understanding of materialism, which emphasizes the things of the world over its inhabitants.  Just as we rely on words or images in language to mean more than we can (or wish) to say, we use material possessions to convey social cues.  What I wear, what I drive, where I live, what I own are the fastest way for me to separate myself from, or attract myself to the other without having to engage in any meaningful and human ways.  The car I drive (not literally, but imagine!) is rarely about being a car, in the sense of a conveyance; it is more properly the car that you don't drive, and the car driven by the others with which I wish to be associated.

I think that what I call immaterialism is less well understood.  Immaterialism is an overt anti-materialism.  It is a possession I don't have, which I don't have in the same way that someone else has, that is, it is similarly relied upon to convey meaning to those around me without needing to engage.  One can own a car, and not own a car.  But in the same way that owning a car can (and often is) about more than the car as car, and seeks to transmit meaning by the particular choice of car, not owning a car can similarly become a possession.  When I rely on my renunciations to communicate something about myself, I have begun to engage in immaterialism.  If I were to again borrow from James, I might say that this owning and not-owning are highly related along the y-axis.

The movement I am describing in both cases above is that of essentialism which replaces interpretation.  In order to be like me you need to own a big house.  In order to be like me you need to not own a car.  In both cases the goal of the material and its existence, or lack thereof, is to free society from the need to interpret.  Said another way, we seek to imbue objects with meaning so that we are not required to communicate.  When I have to know you in order to understand what your choices mean, I am forced to risk myself, I am forced to come to know you, to see you.

The decision by Luke and James to live in a particular kind of house is a knowledge only available through friendship--I have to know them in order to get at it.  The meaning is not available in the material, but through the doing with, and the doing without.  This leaves them both open to repeated accusations of hypocrisy.  However, each such accusation reveals the reliance on one (or both) of materialism and immaterialism.  It is only when we are willing to do with the other that we begin to understand what lies behind these choices.