Materialism lost in the woods

Hilan Bensusan

The notion of matter hides a connection to the forest. Accordingly, the route away from pure matter rehearsed in the metaphysical adventure begun by Aristotle evokes a departure from the woods towards a domestication that entails taking the forest to be the collection of elementary materials that can be extracted from it. Removed from the connection with the woods, matter ends up being at most a source of potentialities that can only resist the metaphysical adventure by appealing to the capacities that lie passively in the raw materials. After briefly discussing some features of matter in Heidegger’s picture of the metaphysical project, Butler’s erotics of matter and Simondon’s account of how matter is informed, I move to the tropical rainforest in its shifting dynamics, where ousia proves elusive. The forest – denoted by the Yanomami expression urihi a, as used by Kopenawa – is a place of noise and divergence that contrasts with the taste for desert landscapes and resists the univocity of intelligibility. I recommend that the materialist look into the forest, hyle = urihi a, instead of appealing to raw materials in order to continue trusting matter to be a source of resistance.

1. The old hyle

Ὕλη (hyle), certainly distinct from δένδρα (dendra), before it meant content, stuff, material, raw material, matter or wood, pointed to the forest, this abundant assemblage of more or less intertwined things. Aristotle (Metaph. A 3) lists the four ἀρχῆς αἰτίων (arches aition), among them ὕλην (hylen) or ὑποκείμενον (hypokeimenon).[1] This aitia is distinct from the other three because it addresses what was there before something comes into existence – in contrast, the fourth aitia addresses the ends, the third deals with what brings it to existence and the first with the archetypical intelligibility to be derived from form. The first aitia is to some extent indifferent to what was there before – and the intensity of this indifference is precisely what is at stake when Aristotle contrasts his hylemorphism with Plato’s neglect of the content of a form. Aristotle, in a perhaps strategic concession to Plato, associates the first αἰτία to the ultimate ἀρχή (arché) or to the principle that explains why things are as they are. However, the principle here is not what comes before; that’s the second aitia, which is hyle, the substratum that underlies what something is. To understand is perhaps to capture the form, but hypokeimenon comes into the picture because things don’t come out of the blue; rather, they come from the woods.

Hypokeimenon, substratum, is also equivocal in multiple ways. It points at what lies underneath and, in that sense, what takes place before something is presented as what it is – like timber (or the wood) before it becomes a desk, but also like a spectre or an apparition in the dark before any of its qualities have been detected. It is like the raw material for every addition of quality – in the construction of a desk but also in the attribution of predicates to something. Hypokeimenon is therefore also sometimes translated as ‘subject’. This is because it is what receives predication – and is not itself a predicate. Aristotle associates the substratum to the ὅτι ἐστὶν (hoti estin) – existence as separated from essence – and also to the τόδε τι (tode ti) – the deictic this, something akin to Duns Scotus’ haecceitas. The substratum is what is underneath any predication, any quality or relation; it is what is in-formed, what receives a form. Hyle and hypokeimenon, considered together, suggest that they are the point of departure for theeffect the aitia produces. This is what precedes movement, what makes predication possible by being a receptacle for qualities and relations and what brings substantiality down to earth.

The central character of what Aristotle has to say about how things are is οὐσία (ousia), something that lasts, endures in being presented, persists as what it is. It is often translated as ‘substance’, though originally it is something like ‘home’: a house, a dwelling, an address. This is where something subsists, lives, returns often and tends to be most of the time. Aristotle stresses that forms are not where things live, their ousia; a thing’s home is rather an informed hyle. The hylemorphic ousia is perhaps like a DIY object that comes with a set of materials and the instructions to assemble them. Hyle is allocated to ousia, to the house. This means perhaps a house made from the woods – or rather a dwelling in the forest. Aristotle claims that ousia is primordial and it is with respect to it that other modes of being are to be understood. His house in the woods is a domestic image – and a sedentary one. Further, hyle is not a protagonist; it is acknowledged as what makes ousia sensible, but it plays no other part than that of being informed, of being predicated, of instantiating the form.

Hyle appears as the passive element in ousia, not unlike the way Plato conceived it – except that Aristotle took hyle to be a separate element that is allocated to the house and stands passively at its service, while Plato took it to be an unqualified receptacle standing at the ready for the forms to express themselves. Plato held that the dwelling of things isn’t in the sensible but elsewhere and they would journey to hyle as visitors who never make themselves fully at home. The indeterminate receptacle was understood not as part of the house but as just a waypoint that itself is alien to understanding: the χώρα (khora), which is a space used for something, but also the unused land around a city. Khora is not an empty place but an available place. In a nutshell, hyle appears either as a hypokeimenon or as khora. That elementary material is either a constituent of a house (not in itself sufficient for dwelling in) or an available place for forms on the go.

If we take hyle to be the forest, it is either the ingredients of a recipe or an indeterminate host. Indeed, what happens if we focus not on the supplement to the meaning of hyle that has had a long philosophical career among materialists and their discontents and focus instead on what the word could bring to the fore in the ears of Aristotle and his peers? What if we stick to the forest, which arguably was what enabled the initial thoughts about matter, raw stuff and even elementary material? This is perhaps a starting point for an archaeology of the very elemental materiality that we often suppose to be ubiquitous. In parallel, it can also be a route to an an-archaeology of a materialism of elements.[2] In any case, this is what I will attempt to do here.

2. Woods and walls

Heidegger prefers to understand ousia as presence, as what is in the process of being what it is. “Presence”, he writes, “in the eminent and primal sense is the persisting of something which lingers of itself, lies present, the persisting of the individual in each case”.[3] It is connected to a particular, the this. The primary sense of presence is expressed in hoti estin, the existentia as opposed to essentia.[4]Heidegger sees this distinction as a crucial step in launching the metaphysical adventure in Aristotle’s (dissenting) reading of Plato. What presences itself independently of any qualification is brought in by the form – existentia is put at the service of essentia. Presence can then in principle be understood in terms of the expression of the essentia in the hypokeimenon, in hyle. The adventure of metaphysics starts with a reverse engineering of what makes something present – an extraction of presence from the otherwise indeterminate hyle. The hyle is present, but only connected to what lingers to form an intelligible unit. If we take hyle as the forest, we can echo Levinas’ striking remark concerning metaphysical thought that “[t]he security of the peoples of Europe behind their borders and the walls of their houses, assured of their property, is not the sociological condition of metaphysical thought, but the very project of such thought”.[5] The project is to engage the elementary materials (from the woods) in building intelligible houses with walls, roofs and floors. Metaphysics is a project for the forest – one that integrates the elementary materials in the project of exposing how anything is present.

The adventure in which Aristotle takes the decisive step is that of establishing what makes something abide in being what it is – what makes a wine have its qualities, what makes the grape have a typical shape, what makes the vineyard produce fruit, what makes the seed germinate. The effort is to separate the ousia of things from their appearance. Hence, Aristotle’s inauguration of metaphysics draws on Plato’s separation of ideas or forms and sensible things. Aristotle enlists hyle to understand presence as ἐνέργεια (energeia), what is at work. Ousia is not a fully exposed thing but a process of informing matter – and to that energeia things tend to return. Metaphysics emerges from Aristotle’s ousia only because Plato had already separated things from the forms that they express. Heidegger, considering the launching of the metaphysical project, writes that “Aristotle was able to think ousia as energeia only in opposition to ousia as idea”.[6] Because essentia is separated from existentia, at least notionally, presence becomes an affair of instantiated predications. One can then build walls and roofs and floors from hyle, from what is to be found in the woods. The forest is indeed where things appear separated from their predications – it’s a place where we notice that there is something around before we know what that something is. However, the woods are hardly a passive receptacle; perhaps the supplement of meaning to hyle that made it denote ‘matter’ is what made the elementary materials simply subject to the forms pressed on them.

Turning woods into wood is a first step in a long metaphysical adventure that will end up seeing everything as part of an exposed and disposed reality. The transformation of hyle from forest to timber is the equivalent to the shift of physis into thesis, which Heidegger described as a loss of the world.[7] Dealing with the world as composed of objects with intrinsic nature – with underlying physis – unfolded into the very endeavour of metaphysics, the effort to turn things that can both reveal and conceal themselves into exposed objects. The metaphysical struggle against unsolicited presences is also a fight against uncontrollable absences. It is the fight against the haunting images of the woods where the elements come from. These haunting images form a patchwork of thoughts and impressions that only eventually resolve into full-fledged presences. There is a persisting stereoscopy of images that makes it impossible to see only one object. (Analogously, Garrett Hardin takes the very science of ecology to be grounded on the idea that we can never do merely one thing.)[8] The woods are overpopulated with images that blend with perspectives where they appear – the forest is a stereoscopic place where traces are only occasionally resolved into presences.

A central starting point of Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think[9] is that in the forest everything is thought about – it is as if by turning what appears as objects of thought, including the human visitor, the forest conjures a collective procedure that is thoroughly stereoscopic and divergent. In a sense, this is what Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert hint at with the word utupë, which is an image that is not merely a subjective construct but rather something between an archetype and a mask.[10] Rather than bringing about a presence (ousia), hyle (woods) gives rise to utupë. These thinking forests perhaps make use of what can be taken as mere existentia, as unqualified hypokeimenon – an unidentified, indetermined existent that comes one’s way. Thinking itself emerges as a forest; the experience of thought appears like a walk amid forming images that only sometimes resolve into conclusions, decisions or actions. We can then suspect that hyle does not take us to a deprived, impoverished image where almost nothing is present – like in a desert – but rather to an abundance of elements that resist the convergence required for extracting the intelligibility of things. Notice that while the thought of physis assumes a convergence concerning the nature of things, the thought of the forest – what Yanomami thinking denotes with the expression urihi a – is divergent, stereoscopic, full of spectres and echoes. The forest is a crossroads of unresolved appearances. If hyle = urihi a, it speaks about a primordial divergence that is short of an impenetrable flux because at each moment one can engage with what appears and attempt to think through it by thinking with it. Urihi a is a place of conversations, conversations that happen at different paces, in different media, in different forms.[11] If physis ushers in the project of knowing the world, urihi a is closer to the project of an unending living conversation. It is therefore not a place of fixed natures, but a place where whatever is met is not passive and resists being fully known by entertaining a stereoscopy – by being more than one thing.

Materialism has a history of attempting to counter the metaphysical adventure of exposing the nature of things. There is, materialists would like to remind the adventurers, a dimension that blocks capture: things have a materiality that, though elusive, provides an enduring resistance. Perhaps matter is uncooperative to the project of extracting the intelligible nature of things because it is a repository of potentialities. Matter is inexhaustible; any given thing it forms is just one among several of its capacities. To argue for this elusive resistance, materialists evoke a matter that is indeterminate; that is, not the matter of an ousia but rather the matter that precedes the birth of things with their form and their intelligibility. Perhaps then the best bet for the materialist is to appeal to hyle = urihi a = woods: it is the forest that provides this dissonant reality that harbours potentialities beyond the existing walls. The forest (hyle, urihi a) points to a different adventure for thinking, an adventure where thought is not directed towards the rest of the world but rather towards an environment of other thinking processes that are perhaps slower, perhaps less exposed, perhaps beyond understanding. If materialists aim to show that metaphysics as a project is limited by matter, I suggest they turn towards forests. I suggest they translate their main protagonist as urihi a and get lost in the woods.

3. The mother-forest and the factory manager

Drawing on Luce Irigaray’s reflections on Plato’s chora[12] – indeterminate, unindividuated and pure passivity – Judith Butler investigates the erotics that orientate thinking about matter.[13] Because her work about gender performativity is often understood as moving away from bodies, a question concerning the materiality of sex haunts her thinking. She addresses the issue by focusing first on the sexuality of matter. Matter is associated with the feminine, informed by determinations in the hylemorphist scheme but also in Plato’s indefinite raw material for the acts of the demiurge. She then argues that the erotics of possessing what is passive with action orientates Western thought about matter – something that is standing in reserve for any act of determination. Butler’s emphasis is on the image of sexual intercourse hosted in the very exercise of thinking about material things. The elementary materials are conceived as passively waiting for an action that will give them form. The picture is that of an insemination where matter has no protagonism. Further, the Latin word materia points to the harder inner wood of a tree and also, according to some, to its origin or source, the mother. With the equation matter = mother, the intercourse conception of material things gains a further feature: not only is the mother a non-commanding source acting as a reproductive device standing in reserve, but also matter is endowed, in its passivity, with a generating capacity associated with its potentialities. Just as mothers are crucial but rendered unimportant by a phallocentric reasoning, materialities are the source rendered subservient, and the orientating erotics seems to be the same. In contrast, if the mother-forest is evoked, a different and somehow wilder picture emerges: matter is the woods, where presences are constantly being rehearsed and insinuated. It is a source, a starting point, but not because it awaits action but rather because it is a repository of intersecting (and stereoscopic) protagonists.

An interesting way out of the focus on substance – and on the underlying matter that passively provides its concreteness – is to look at the (material) processes through which individuation takes place. Gilbert Simondon argues that no individual (presence) precedes a process of individuation.[14] There are no ready-made individuals indifferent to processes that give rise to things and their natures. Simondon’s materialism can be formulated like this: ask of any individual what has forged it, and the processes that will emerge will show a materiality that will prove hard to exorcise. These material processes are what makes it possible for matter to engage with form in the hylemorphist narrative. To conceive of a hylemorphic ousia as a principle of individuation is to overlook the very fabric that makes each thing an individual. Simondon compares individuation through a principle to the view of those standing outside a workshop, only seeing what comes in and what goes out. To understand individuation, one has to leave this commanding position and go into the workshop. It is not the factory manager who individuates but the workers, the machines and the arrangements within the raw materials. Individuation is a process of production and, as such, cannot be reduced to its ingredients – bringing a new individual into existence requires genetic operations that cannot be disregarded. It is as if the process of pregnancy and birth – as much as the intention or lack of intention to procreate – are unavoidable sponsors of the individual. Simondon, then, points to the dynamic character of matter if these processes provide the material production of a thing. He distinguishes between the stable, the unstable and the meta-stable. The last is what needs external sponsors to carry on being what it is. Matter, in a woods materialism, would certainly be meta-stable. It harbours forces to maintain it as what it is. Further, indeed, matter emerges as dynamic and therefore not an element or a passive ingredient but rather a process of bringing things about. It is only with matter that things are individuated and therefore, ultimately, they cannot harbour a nature or an intelligible principle of constitution unless this takes into consideration the vicissitudes of their individuation. Material contingencies shape things in a way that often escapes the engineers, the factory managers and the overall design for the final product.

A materialism of forests would refuse to associate matter with an indifferent, indeterminate yet common ground from which things take shape. The transformation of woods into passive matter is a quest for a quiet (perhaps desertic) ground for everything. It is the idea that the ground, the arché, has to be a bedrock, firmer than what stands on top and indifferent to whatever uses it as a foundation. I have argued elsewhere that we can engage in a different adventure for thought if we think of grounds not in terms of bedrock but in terms of fire.[15] Fire is the elementary material that is most like the process of shaping things from within – like the Earth and its neighbouring planets are shaped by fire. What if ground is fire and not bedrock – what if the start is a splinter and not a command? The elementary material of fire is already a frictive element, a bursting one and not a resting one where things find their final structure. Perhaps fire is not suitable as a proper arché; it is rather an an-arché and the starting point for an an-archaeology.[16] Fire is also perhaps a more suitable archetype (or an-archetype) for matter than earth, wood or stone. A materialism of fire is akin to the one of forests – it seeks resistance in something that is restless and ever changing and dwells somewhere underneath fully developed presences. Fire is part of the forest; some forests are forged by fire. In the forest, like with fire, individuals are not the ultimate unit, as their individuation constantly depends on the process that sustains them. Forests, like fire, are non-converging, dynamic and meta-stable. A materialism of the woods is one that sees the forest underlying the walls, the factory and every process that gives rise to a presence.

4. Hylea

Alexander von Humboldt, early in the 19th century, called the Amazon rainforest ‘hylea’. The rainforest (urihi a) has sustaining forces that makes it abundant and often make the nature of its elements elusive. It is hard to approach it with the taste for desert landscapes that Willard van Orman Quine recommended.[17] Quine’s idea was to apply Ockham’s razor as much as possible – to treat everything as the most desertic possible. Or rather, to assume that there was a small set of simple principles behind everything. An overpopulated universe, in contrast, is unlovely. But the materialist of the woods has the opposite taste. Indeed, William Wimsatt, in his Re-engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings, has opposed Quine’s preference precisely with one for tropical rainforests.[18] Wimsatt aims at re-inserting the abundance of the forest into biological thinking about life. The rainforest enjoys not only an abundance of individuals seen differently from plenty of different viewpoints, but also an ever-growing abundance of species, varieties, relations and landscapes. The growing abundance progresses at different paces, sometimes requiring open spaces to leave room for further complexity. The materialist of woods takes this scheme of perpetual addition in a vulnerable landscape to be among that which is concrete. The material world is hostage to the diverging, stereoscopic and abundant patchwork of the forest. Including the desert, which thrives on the same elementary materials – only at often slower dynamics.

As urihi a, the forest is a place where presences and their underlying utupë are intertwined – perhaps where there is room for existence and subsistence in the sense of Quine’s Wyman, a Meinongian invented opponent.[19] Richard Routley has put forward the idea of a more-than-desertic conception of existence through the image of a Meinongian jungle where possible objects, fictitious characters and ill-defined things find a space.[20] The jungle harbours the very cellar of existence, the hypokeimenon of things that appear as their utupë and that are still without their essentia. The jungle is a place where there is no fixed nature, no understandable intelligibility associated to what is present. The jungle materialist is a friend of what eludes the enterprise of making things controllable. Materialism trusts matter to do a disrupting job in the endeavour to make things redundant – but the hyle = urihi a is what can gather the forces to do so. To be sure, hyle and hylea are under a great threat as the adventure of metaphysics grows further indifferent to their challenges. The materialist insists that only the materiality of things can block the adventure  or bend its course. The appeal to a matter-jungle is an appeal to an elementary ingredient deprived of any nature but a volatile and dissonant one. The forest as urihi a is not a dynamic and processual structure that can be described and revealed – turned into an underlying desert of a handful of robust principles. It is an ongoing sequence of perspectives and responses that reach no completeness and no picture to be achieved once and for all. The materialist toolkit including chora, hypokeimenon, a departure from metaphysical assumption, a resistance to erotic passivity, a commitment to ongoing processes of individuation, the jungle and urihi a can provide the resources for a reorientation from hyle as a product to hyle as a divergence. Much of what is thought of and expected from matter can be found in the woods – perhaps precisely because the woods is where matter comes from. The materialist, in turn, is invited to look at the noisy and dissonant forest behind the raw elementary materials.


  1. Aristotle. Metaphysics. Translated by W. D. Ross. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1908.
  2. Bensusan, Hilan. “An-arché, xeinos, urihi a: the primordial Other in a cosmopolitical forest”, to appear.
  3. Bensusan, Hilan.“Polemos doesn’t stop anywhere short of the world: On anarchaeology, ontology and politics”, Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies, 2, 2013, pp. 66–85.
  4. Bensusan, Hilan. Being Up for Grabs: On Speculative Anarcheology. London: Open Humanities, 2016.
  5. Bensusan, Hilan. “Geist and Ge-Stell: Beyond the Cyber-Nihilist Convergence of Intelligence”, Cosmos and History, 16, 2, 2020.
  6. Bensusan, Hilan. Indexicalism: Realism and the Metaphysics of Paradox. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2021.
  7. Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter. New York: Routledge, 1993.
  8. Hardin, Garrett. “Letter to the International Academy for Preventive Medicine”, 2001,, accessed March 2021.
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  10. Heidegger, Martin. “Metaphysics as history of being”, in J. Stambaugh, The End of Philosophy. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2003, pp. 1–54.
  11. Irigaray, Luce. Speculum, de l’autre femme. Paris: Minuit, 1974.
  12. Kohn, Eduardo. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013.
  13. Kopenawa, Davi & Bruce Albert. The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.
  14. Levinas, Emmanuel. Proper Names, trans. Michael B. Smith, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.
  15. Plato. Timaeus. Trans. B. Jowett, London: Pantianos, 1871.
  16. Quine, Willard v. O. “On what there is”, in: From a Logical Point of View, New York: Harper, 1953.
  17. Routley, Richard. Exploring Meinong’s Jungle and Beyond. Departmental Monograph #3, Department of Philosophy, RSSS, Australian National University, 1980.
  18. Simondon, Gilbert. L’individuation à la lumière des notions de formes et d’information. Grenoble: Jérôme Millon, 2005.
  19. Wimsatt, William. Re-engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Visualization: Anton Kraftsky, Ivan Spitsyn