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In Praise of Scholarly Enemism: People are Animals Too!

Larvel Subjects emerges from his coccon to spread his wet-wings in a new sun. In this thought-post , he objects to what he calls “kumbaya politics”, specific it seems to the humanism of the some from the academic Left. While I have no idea what events he is responding to (a post, a book read, a professor he quarreled with?), and thus cannot trace the real target of his thinking, there is an important thought in his semi-argument which inspires thoughts on abstractions of opposition (While I use Larvel Subject’s declamations here, my thoughts are directed beyond whatever political position he holds. In so doing I approach not only aspects of his argument, but the way that they connect to the Revolutionary, Marxist politics we here recently have been discussing: concepts necessary of radical breaks. They are the platform for ruminations.):

Here it is not a question of being tolerant or recognizing that “everyone is human”. Indeed, one wishes that the tender hearted humanists would recognize that all humans are animals and that animals often prey upon one another and exercise terrific cruelty on one another, not out of malice or wickedness, but simply out of pursuing their own interests. However, no matter how nice these people are, when faced with a system that causes so much human misery and such disproportionate privilege, certainly it follows that the friend/enemy distinction is entirely operative. In fact, what is disgusting is not the operation of the friend/enemy distinction, but those who would deny its presence, treating the field of struggle as if it were flat and everyone were in the same position.

To my ear this supposed dichotomy betweeen the “tender-hearted” human (which is co-operative and communal) and the “animal” (which is driven by warring self-interest) is one of the most enduring and naive projections around. It is founded upon the largely Christian message that there are divine and animal parts of the human being: the selfishness of primative, animal, affective, emotional interests, versus the angelic, other-worldly “human” state. Its jarring that intellectuals still think this way. What is animal in us (all of us being animal) is not particularly some kind of naturalized “prey upon each other” penchant for “cruelty on one another”, but all of our behaviors. Not only do animals attack and kill one another, but they also commune with great intimacy and sacrifice, negotiate boundaries, modify their environments and any number of complexly related interactions. Larval Subjects seems to feel that because we are not just human beings but animals, and animals naturally “pursue their own interests” there is an inherent contradiction between human pursuits of interests, and our animal ones. While it is certainly admitted that the “friend/enemy distinction” is “operative” (who would deny this, I have no idea), they question is, what place does such a distinction have in politics? What good does it serve? (It is a mistake to make of the friend/enemy distinction some kind of naturalized Good animal expression: all our expressions are animal ones.)

The Traps of Oppositional Thinking

What is at stake here, in praise of academics who suppose the friend/enemy distinction not only to be operative, but essential, is what I read to be Oppositional Thinking: my thoughts become most clear to me, and others, to the degree that they are in opposition to something other (to some principle, or more readly, some persons who are the enemy). The difficulty with Oppositional Thinking, in particular that of the political realm, is that when one thinks consistently in this way and begins to identify oneself within an essential opposition, a curious thing seems to happen. Your personal investment is no longer in the defeat of the very thing that have declared yourself in opposition to, but rather in the perpetuation of very state of opposition itself. In just this way one actually works to preserve the very thing you have declared you wish to overcome. The enemy gives you purpose.

It is precisely this kind of projective imagination that seems in play when nostalgia-ridden academics require only the complete end to Capitalism as proof that justice has been achieved (or even substantially pursued). The cry is “Yes, a lot of things have changed, but that is still Capitalism!” It is that we must invent newer and newer forms of Capitalism, just as a fundamentalist Christian has to invent newer and newer manifestations of the Devil, in order to maintain the authority of our protest voice, and really the coherence of our own identities as protesters.

Living In the Land of the Enemy

Beyond this descriptive insistence in which the enemy continually has to be recreated, I believe that one also invents a strange sort of detachment from one’s own investments in the world, one’s day to day connections to lived lives. Like born-agains, one is living-in-enemy-territory, painfully partaking in the very forms of supposed universal cruelty of the System, losing track of the complexities of local violences (how deleterious, I have often thought, is even a frown worn throughout the day, or a person habitually ignored, as it spreads its ripples across attendant faces.) Further, this detachment actually allows one to actively invest in the very systematic structures that one theoretically objects to. For instance a professor argues against heirarchial knowledge systems in a way that in practice manifestly performs and trains them, inculcating her or his students in the classroom. The abuses and cruelties of human relations can often be clearly evident in professor feifdom mentalities of knowledge-as-jargon power that make up professor/student exchanges. By and large, projections of wholesale and systematic friend/enemy distinctions promote detachments from real relations (lived) such that war is imagined by academics to be only something that can be accomplished in the Heavens of ontological disputes. “Yes, I am guilty of Capitalist Relations, but I fight the good fight up there in the Ethersphere!” is the confession.

I believe something of this kind of thinking/detachment can also be seen in Larval Subject’s notion of “objective guilt”. It is interesting, if not an outright confusion, that he qualifies his participation on Capitalism as “non-intentional” instead of simply “animal” self-interest:

Rather, objective guilt is instead a function, despite any intentions that a person might have, of the functional role that a person’s actions play in an overarching system of social relations. Thus, for example, as someone who has a 403 retirement plan, I possess a share of objective guilt with respect to how Capital functions to stratify society, how it exploits other groups of people, how it organizes war and poverty, how it destroys the environment, and all the rest. This objective guilt has nothing to do with my intentions as an individual person. No, my intention as an individual is to set aside a certain percentage of my wages for investment so that I might some day be able to retire and sustain my existence until death. I have no desire or intention to exploit others, to organize poverty, to promote war, to destroy the planet, etc. However, objectively my investments participate in all of these phenomena.

It is not without coincidence that it is immediately following this self-confession that the myth of the non-tender-hearted animal is presented, to bookend the justification of one’s course in life. I am not too-guilty of the crimes of Capitalism because a) Explicitly, I do not intend to be, and b) Implicitly, I am an animal and just naturally pursuant of self-interest. This seems precisely the kind of internal contradiction and self-justification that is generated in Oppositional Thinking: an under-grounding myth of naturalized forces, and detachment from real-world, lived relations under the category of (entirely human) “intentionality”.

It is not just that such enemy-making thought leads to a kind of performative self-contradiction, an identity entrapment for the loyal believers, but it also leads to a practical restriction on where people look for real-world solutions to problems of injusitice. To take a small example. If one is a priori committed to the view that something called “Capitalism” is inherently evil, some kind of pervading monstrous, crushing influence, the very notion that one might turn to Capitalism itself for solutions becomes foreclosed. Microcredit with its power to transform societies of poverty through the lending of money to the most impoverished and disempowered in small increments can become simply the perceived infiltration of an insideous force, the enemy creeping within. One’s fantasy-space of premises shapes the very models of our freedoms, a fantasy-space that can seldom come under review for those who have memorized the founding tenets of analysis.

The Animal Within

To return to the picture of the “animal” within. There is a mistaken conception of the Animal that presumes that “war of all against all” is somehow the most natural and essential of states, and that we all must be soberly loyal, as animals to this fact. This requires some form of non-animal abstract social contract (Hobbes), or sublimation of primitive parts (Freud), but also a rightful embrace of what is deeper: pure “self-interest”. Self-interest is in my view necessarily other-interest. Not only in human beings, but in the “lower” animals as well. Yes, the friend/enemy distinction is operative, but it is not essential. It is context dependent and something often best overcome. One is never naturally my enemy. The myth of an essentially segregated “self-interest” buried in the animal is one that has paid very little attention to real animals in the world, a myth that requires essentialized kinds presumed to be in essential opposition. Oppositional Thinking in the same way often requires the imaginary projection of an enemy that one works to perpetuate both in the imaginary and material sense, so as to maintain one’s meaningful position in the world, seeing the hand of the Devil everywhere, so that one can fight it (and with far-cast eyes fail to see what one is actively invested in).

[Addendum: Anodynelite has a wonderful post up which also has some connection to the friend/enemy distinction:

I am more than happy to make friend/enemy distinctions, to draw lines in the political sand. But from here, it does not follow that I believe "radical breaks" are possible, or that friend/enemy distinctions are always productive intellectually. I do not believe that because friend/enemy distinctions exist within a political economy that we have carte blanche when it comes to "revolutionary violence" as a means to our political ends. I do not believe that modes of non-violent resistance necessarily preclude friend/enemy distinctions; quite the contrary, I believe that the most effective and ruthlessly efficient methods of resistance at our disposal are non-violent.

Here: Latour has Answers ]

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41 responses to “In Praise of Scholarly Enemism: People are Animals Too!

  1. pochp April 1, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    In most cases, animals are more civilized than man.

  2. kvond April 1, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    You point to the problem of projections of essential qualities along an hierarchy of forms. Are human beings “uncivilized” because their animal parts are unacknowledged, or that they need to be overcome? Or is the very notion of civilization itself already wrong-headed?

  3. pochp April 1, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    I’ll say yes to both your questions.
    Illustration: When animals fight and one participant surrenders, the victor leaves and doesn’t go on mangling its opponent. Not the same with humans don’t you think?

  4. kvond April 1, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    I am uncomfortable with any strict designation between the animal and the human. Humans are in my view, animals.

  5. Mikhail Emelianov April 1, 2009 at 5:26 pm

    Great post, I just wanted to point out that the baby in Jesus’ lap is in fact me…

  6. kvond April 1, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    M.E., I just don’t recognize you without your beard…but I trust you.

  7. Mikhail Emelianov April 1, 2009 at 5:40 pm

    It certainly is me, to suggest otherwise is to allow the unthinkable, i.e. that Jesus also held other babies which simply cannot be true as I am a very special person precisely due to that Jesus holding occurrence…

  8. kvond April 1, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    Ah, you are forgetting Badiou’s advisment that you must now conduct “truth procedures” and pursue “the generic”. If you are to be loyal to this “occurance” I think I see a purge of society in the future.

  9. anodynelite April 1, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    But according to Jesus we are all his special babies. Well, everyone except for those heretical pagan babies over there in other countries who have never heard of Jesus. They’re going to burn forever.

    Anyway, although I cannot stand “oppositional thinking” as you’ve aptly described it, I think I may have misread a couple of points in the LS post the first time I read it. Upon re-reading it and the comments afterward, I agree with the spirit of the post if not the letter–we do need to get past humanism and essentialism. Oppositional thinkers who define themselves solely with respect to friend/enemy distinctions often fail to do this, because they’re too busy laying out the ontological land for their half to see that they’ve essentialized any real “opposition” out of existence.

    I’m pretty receptive to eliminative realist methods of overturning essentialism, and more optimistic about technoscience than most. I really like LS’s explication of Latour’s ANT “flat ontology” stratagem, too.

  10. kvond April 1, 2009 at 7:26 pm

    AL,

    Because I have no idea who LS is talking about when he is picturing himself against those who imagine that a lion and a gazelle can sit down and “smoke a bowl together,” or which human beings would consitute a lion and his natural prey in his model of the political, I can’t really comment more on what LS is meaning here. These analogies seem pretty misplaced. I can only say that any appeals to animal aggression as naturalized opposition, or the detachments of “objective guilt” in my view cannot be supported.

  11. larvalsubjects April 1, 2009 at 11:36 pm

    Kvond,

    There’s nothing in this post I really disagree with, though I am perplexed by your interpretation of my post. With respect to your question about what inspired this post, it was not leftist “academics” as you seem to suppose throughout, but a discussion with a 60s era democratic activist friend of mine who felt compelled to emphasize that the bankers and investors involved in the financial meltdown are nonetheless good people who did not intentionally mean any harm and that, in his words, it’s important for leftist activists to remember that they’re human too. This line of thinking struck me as one of the most egregious forms of leftist politics to emerge out of the 60s era, premised on a sort of New Age mentality where the problems of political conflict are attributing to failing to recognize the humanity of others and that if we just recognized that humanity and that all people want to do good there would be no political conflict.

    I find your description of my position and post in terms of a Christian distinction between the animal and the human unrecognizable. If anything, my post was critiquing an idealized version of the human that we commonly find among humanist and New Age forms of politics. My reversal, towards the end of the post, where I wish that proponents of such politics would recognize that as humans we are animals is not designed to suggest, as you impute to me, that animality and motivation by self-interest is only characterized by cruelty and preying on others. I am not sure how you could possibly arrive at this interpretation of my words, especially given that you are a long time reader of my blog and aware that I have a deep admiration of Spinoza and especially book 3 of the Ethics where he unfolds a wide variety of phenomena both negative and positive based on conatus and based on what you know of my interest in biology. The point in evoking animality was to target precisely the sort of idealization of the human that were at work in my democratic activist friend’s thought process. The fact that I emphasized preying on other animals and cruel play with captured prey does not entail an exclusion of other phenomena engaged in by animals such as nurturing, forming collectives, etc. However, it would not have been relevant to evoke these other behaviors given the issue in the post.

    I agree with a good deal of what you have to say about the pitfalls of oppositional thinking in this post and have written a number of posts on my blog dealing with precisely this issue in the context of Hegel and Lacan. Indeed, a number of my discussions of Lacan’s understanding of masculine sexuality as it relates to ontologies of transcendence revolved around this sort of concern. I do wonder, however, if there isn’t a wiff of the Hegelian “beautiful soul” at work in the call to overcome oppositional thinking. The beautiful soul, of course, claims that all of the differences that populate the world are ultimately harmonious and peaceful, and decries the conflicts and contradictions that make up the world. Where those caught up in opposition risk forming identities that come to depend on maintaining that opposition, thereby wishing for no change at all, beautiful souls risk seeing harmony everywhere and conflict as simply a confusion or misunderstanding, thereby failing to get involved or take a stand at all.

  12. kvond April 2, 2009 at 7:05 am

    LS: “This line of thinking struck me as one of the most egregious forms of leftist politics to emerge out of the 60s era, premised on a sort of New Age mentality where the problems of political conflict are attributing to failing to recognize the humanity of others and that if we just recognized that humanity and that all people want to do good there would be no political conflict.”

    Kvond: Then I find your claim that your “objective guilt” of a participation in Capitalist “phenomena” has “nothing to do with your intentions” incoherent, for it participates in the very same logic that “wanting to do good” is a significant measure. Your supposed intentionality, upon which you seem to want to implicitly found a “subjective innocence”(one imgines the opposite of objective guilt), is in my view entirely a humanist conception. To put it one way, wolves may be “objectively guilty” of murdering sheep, but subjectively innocent because they are just pursuing “self-interest” (apparently). You want to have it both ways. Humans are animals so they naturally pursue self-interest in cruel fashion, making the friend/enemy distinction “operative” but then again, you yourself are subjectively innocent, due to your do-good”intentions”.

    LS: “This line of thinking struck me as one of the most egregious forms of leftist politics to emerge out of the 60s era, premised on a sort of New Age mentality where the problems of political conflict are attributing to failing to recognize the humanity of others and that if we just recognized that humanity and that all people want to do good there would be no political conflict.”

    Kvond: And to contrast this “we are all humans” with an imaginary “we are all self-pursuant, cruel animals” is a mistake. “Bankers are all animals too” does not preclude that there is a position to be found in which one does not essentialize them as a political kind.

    LS: “My reversal, towards the end of the post, where I wish that proponents of such politics would recognize that as humans we are animals is not designed to suggest, as you impute to me, that animality and motivation by self-interest is only characterized by cruelty and preying on others.”

    Kvond: Unfortunately this is precisely the “design” of your selection of a few characteristics from the animal kingdom to essentialize something counter to reported New Age political ideas of the human. Most New Age, 60s thinkers have very little problem thinking of human beings as natural products, and usually read political cooperation in keeping with the general symbiosis of life on the planet. Because though you launched an entire political, ontological polemic against one person who I do not know, I cannot follow the specific target of your thinking here. I can only respond to the generalities of claims.

    LS: “I am not sure how you could possibly arrive at this interpretation of my words, especially given that you are a long time reader of my blog and aware that I have a deep admiration of Spinoza and especially book 3 of the Ethics where he unfolds a wide variety of phenomena both negative and positive based on conatus and based on what you know of my interest in biology.”

    Kvond: As a longtime reader of your blog I’ve come to understand that you are highly inconsistant in your selection of which principles of other thinkers you want to appropriate, often with little care for the internal coherence of your thought. As a self-admitted intellectual bricoleur you borrow and mix with great, and to my ear, contradictory freedom. Your interests in Spinoza (just book 3, apparently) and biology unfortunately do not require you to remain consistent with these interests.

    LS: “The fact that I emphasized preying on other animals and cruel play with captured prey does not entail an exclusion of other phenomena engaged in by animals such as nurturing, forming collectives, etc. However, it would not have been relevant to evoke these other behaviors given the issue in the post.”

    Kvond: Yes, you rhetorically used a picture of animals which has very little to do with Spinoza or biology, and just happened to coincide with a fundamental binarization of the human into the divine and the animal. How silly of me to actually take your off-the-cuff rhetoric seriously. You do not think that animals are fundamentally cruel and fundamentally “self-serving” but only say so in order to defeat a political position you find objection to. It would have been inappropriate to bring out other aspects of what animals are (including human animals) because it did not fit your argument. I get it.

    LS: ” I do wonder, however, if there isn’t a wiff of the Hegelian “beautiful soul” at work in the call to overcome oppositional thinking. The beautiful soul, of course, claims that all of the differences that populate the world are ultimately harmonious and peaceful, and decries the conflicts and contradictions that make up the world.”

    Kvond: Hmmm. I am no fan of Hegel at all, so I had not considered it. And I’m not sure that I am calling for “overcoming” Oppositional Thinking. I simply find Oppositional Thinking often performatively contradictory (as mentioned, people who invest heavily in this type of thinking often work to perpetuate the very thing that they claim they are fighting). I don’t think that one has to overcome this, but merely find it ineffectual and tending toward self-contradiction. I find the framing of questions of conflict best addressed by looking at things from a non-essentializing perspective. Essentialization of opposition is in my view largely a process of affective projection.

    LS:”Where those caught up in opposition risk forming identities that come to depend on maintaining that opposition, thereby wishing for no change at all, beautiful souls risk seeing harmony everywhere and conflict as simply a confusion or misunderstanding, thereby failing to get involved or take a stand at all.”

    Kvond: With this I disagree, though I can’t tell if you are addressing my position, or that of your New Age friend. One does not see “harmony everywhere” but the potential for greater harmony everywhere. One can move from this place of conflict, to that place of less so, there are paths for it, if wanted. Sometimes this can be accomplished by producing rupture, sometimes by increasing the coherence in communication and understanding that it is one world that is shared.

  13. larvalsubjects April 2, 2009 at 9:52 am

    Again, I find that I am unable to recognize myself in any of your remarks here as they strike me as such a wild misinterpretation of my position that I have no idea who you’re addressing. I’ll content myself to responding to your first remark as it functions as the premise for everything that follows. You write:

    Then I find your claim that your “objective guilt” of a participation in Capitalist “phenomena” has “nothing to do with your intentions” incoherent, for it participates in the very same logic that “wanting to do good” is a significant measure. Your supposed intentionality, upon which you seem to want to implicitly found a “subjective innocence”(one imgines the opposite of objective guilt), is in my view entirely a humanist conception. To put it one way, wolves may be “objectively guilty” of murdering sheep, but subjectively innocent because they are just pursuing “self-interest” (apparently). You want to have it both ways. Humans are animals so they naturally pursue self-interest in cruel fashion, making the friend/enemy distinction “operative” but then again, you yourself are subjectively innocent, due to your do-good”intentions”.

    It is difficult to see how the issue of objective guilt has anything to do with “wanting to do good”. If you have any background in debates in ethical philosophy, then you know that one of the major debates in ethics is whether ethical culpability depends on the intentions of a person or on the actions of a person. A Kantian claims that ethical culpability is defined by the intentions of a person. Thus, if a person engages in an action that produces highly negative consequences, that action can nonetheless be morally good, according to Kant, if it is based on the right intention (an intention in conformity with the categorical imperative). Likewise, if one engages in an action that produces highly positive consequences, that action can nonetheless, for Kant, lack ethical merit if it is not based on the right intention. For the Kantian, then, the moral worth or merit of an action is entirely independent of its consequences.

    It is not unusual to hear variants of this sort of Kantian reasoning in political discussions. Thus, for example, you might hear someone claim that they are not a racist or a sexist because they do not have any thoughts that are consciously racist or sexist. That is, they do not intend to be racist or sexist, just as the banker or investor does not intend to exploit others.

    My position is not premised on having my cake and eating it too by claiming that one can be subjectively innocent and objectively guilty. Rather, my position is premised on rejecting this sort of Kantianism altogether. In other words, I am claiming that the question of a person’s intentions is irrelevant to the question of the functional role they play in society. In other words, a person is objectively guilty if their actions produce certain social consequences, regardless of whether or not they intend to produce those consequences. Certainly the investor does not intend to exploit other people, ruin the environment, produce war, and reinforce unequal geographical distributions of wealth. But in my view, the fact that he doesn’t intend to do these things does not get him off the hook. Indeed, the question of what he intends is irrelevant to evaluating his actions at all. The investors actions nonetheless do produce these things. It is at the level of what is produced that the issue arises.

  14. kvond April 2, 2009 at 12:26 pm

    LS: ” In other words, I am claiming that the question of a person’s intentions is irrelevant to the question of the functional role they play in society. In other words, a person is objectively guilty if their actions produce certain social consequences, regardless of whether or not they intend to produce those consequences.”

    Kvond: I still don’t see the coherence of your point(s)

    1)In what way does this have anything to do with the (rhetorical) view that animals naturally act cruel with self-interest?

    (2) In what way does this in affect whether or not “we are all humans” can be a basis for deciding the ethical responsibility of Bankers?

    (3) Why are “functional role” consequences called “guilt” of any kind? When my car’s tire goes flat, I do not say that it is “objectively guilty” of going flat.

    (4) How do we determine how “objectively guilty” you personally are as self-pursuant animal Capitalist?

    I regret that you do not recognize yourself in my interpretation of your positions. This is quite often the case between us. You feel that you are perfectly coherent and substantive, and I regularly read you as self-contradictory and guilty of mixing of inconcordant arguments to no obvious end. I may be reading elements of your thinking that you cannot see, or I may simply be a very poor reader of you. Or a combination of both.

  15. larvalsubjects April 2, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    As a principle of interpretive charity I try to work from the premise that if I constantly experience someone else’s writing as contradictory and incordant, I am the one misinterpreting that person’s writing and that I need to go back to the text or talk to the person trying to figure out what I’m misunderstanding. I think this is especially the case when I experience someone’s claims as utterly absurd. Since people don’t generally hold ridiculous or absurd positions (which isn’t to say that people don’t hold false positions), I conclude that I must be missing something in what they’re trying to claim. On to your questions.

    Your first question can only be answered by referring to your second question. In order to understand where I’m coming from, it is necessary to understand how I interpret the claim that “we’re all human.” When someone makes the observation, in a political or ethical context, that we’re all human I take it that they’re not making the trivial observation that biologically we all share the characteristic of being human. The content behind the “signifier” human in such expressions is rather a value statement that implicitly attributes a set of value properties to being human. First, I take it that a person who finds it necessary to emphasize that we’re all human is making the claim that “we’re all alike” and therefore that we should not be in conflict with one another. When I recognize that we’re both human, for example, I no longer treat you as “other” or set myself in opposition to you. Second, I take it that the person that feels it necessary to emphasize that we’re all human is implicitly attributing a set of idealized and positive characteristics to humans. These idealized properties would be things like innately desiring the good, not intentionally wanting to hurt other people, nurturing our young, desiring flourishing communities that promote general happiness, etc. Here then, the subtext of the claim that we’re all human is that since people want all these nice things we’re all generally good and since we’re all generally good we should recognize the goodness in other people. Finally, third, the implicit subtext I hear in such declarations is that, following from the first and second point, the thesis seems to be that things such as conflict between people are unnatural to our nature or essence as humans and result not from real conflicts, but rather from failing to recognize that those we are in conflict with are human and want the same things as us. Were we to no longer view the person we’re in conflict with as an abstract other but as human, the story goes, this conflict would disappear. That is how I interpret the declaration that “we’re all human” or what I hear in that declaration. I could be mistaken in interpreting it that way, but I don’t understand any other reason why someone would be compelled to enunciate it. Perhaps I should have spelled all of this out in my original post, though I guess I took this connotation or subtext as obvious.

    Returning then to your first question about animality, I think you misconstrue what I’m claiming when I evoke animality. First, I invite you to return to my original remarks where you quote me. I write,

    Indeed, one wishes that the tender hearted humanists would recognize that all humans are animals and that animals often prey upon one another and exercise terrific cruelty on one another, not out of malice or wickedness, but simply out of pursuing their own interests.

    In response to this remark, you go on to write,

    What is animal in us (all of us being animal) is not particularly some kind of naturalized “prey upon each other” penchant for “cruelty on one another”, but all of our behaviors. Not only do animals attack and kill one another, but they also commune with great intimacy and sacrifice, negotiate boundaries, modify their environments and any number of complexly related interactions. Larval Subjects seems to feel that because we are not just human beings but animals, and animals naturally “pursue their own interests” there is an inherent contradiction between human pursuits of interests, and our animal ones.

    Now, you have accused me of making incoherent and self-contradictory claims, but perhaps you arrive at this conclusion because you have not read me carefully and are already approaching me with certain preconceptions and an axe to grind. Not the bolded word in my passage: often. Somehow, you jump from the observation that animals often behave in a particular way (which, in Aristotlean logic, is a particular affirmative proposition “some S are P” allowing for its subcontrary “some S are not P), to the conclusion that I am making both a claim about grounds and a universal affirmative assertion: All S are P. In other words, in the passage of yours I cite about, you claim that somehow I exclude all of these other things animals do from the field of animality. That would only follow were I making a universal affirmative claim. Moreover, when I remark that some animals act cruel not out of malice but simply out of pursuing their self-interest (e.g., the wolves eating the gazelle aren’t tearing at its flesh because they hate the gazelle or are hostile to it), you arrive at the conclusion that self-interest or conatus logically entails cruelty. Yet the premise that conatus lies at the heart of all of our actions does not logically entail cruelty as the only possible outcome of conatus. Cruelty and conflict are one way in which conatus can manifest itself. It is not the only way.

    Why, then, in my post did I adopt the rhetorical gesture of wishing that those who find it significant that we’re all human remember that we’re all animals? I felt the need to make this move so as to undercut the idealized version of the human I outlined above. Nothing about our being human, in other words, entails that we will be good or that we share the “same” interests. Similarly, in response to your criticisms, it should also be pointed out that nothing about our being animals entails that we must be cruel.

    I think your third question about why our complicity in a particular system and in producing a set of consequences is a good one. Why refer to this as guilt at all. On the one hand, I have ontological reasons for this. I take it that the ontology we advocate has consequences for our ethical theories or how we conceive the nature of ethics. Ontologically, I have an ecological or relational view of being. Entities, in my view, always exist in networks and systems of relations. To my thinking this entails a rethinking of ethics. Rather than restricting the scope of ethics to individual persons in isolation from broader systems, it is necessary to think about persons and their actions relationally. As such, the ethical question becomes on of how one’s actions have a broader impact on the relational network to which they belong.

    It seems to me that there is a disanalogy between your example of flat tires and my example of investors. I don’t refer to a car tire as guilty or objectively guilty when it goes flat because a car tire does not have agency. By contrast, an investor does have agency. I suppose I therefore wish to retain the notion of agency while separating it from the issue of conscious intentions or motives. The investor doesn’t wish to exploit others, ruin the environment, cause wars, etc., but this is effectively what his actions do. Likewise, a man might say that he is not sexist or that he is not racist, and he might never have conscious sexist or racist thoughts, but if you visit his home and discover that his partner does all the housework and if you watch him interact with his partner and discover that he acts in a markedly different way towards men and women, listening to what the men have to say, ignoring what women have to say, constantly interrupting women, never interrupting men, etc., we can say that the man is objectively sexist. His sexism is not to be located in his thoughts, intentions, or self-consciousness– he might passionately call for equality, etc –but in his actions.

    With respect to your fourth question, you’ll note that the first example of objective guilt I give in my original post is objective guilt:

    Rather, objective guilt is instead a function, despite any intentions that a person might have, of the functional role that a person’s actions play in an overarching system of social relations. Thus, for example, as someone who has a 403 retirement plan, I possess a share of objective guilt with respect to how Capital functions to stratify society, how it exploits other groups of people, how it organizes war and poverty, how it destroys the environment, and all the rest. This objective guilt has nothing to do with my intentions as an individual person. No, my intention as an individual is to set aside a certain percentage of my wages for investment so that I might some day be able to retire and sustain my existence until death. I have no desire or intention to exploit others, to organize poverty, to promote war, to destroy the planet, etc. However, objectively my investments participate in all of these phenomena.

    In other words, I do not exempt myself from this objective guilt. Returning to the theme of ecological ontology and ethics, all of us are more or less objectively guilty of certain things by virtue of the fact that we’re enmeshed in a networked system of relations. However, having observed that, we need some way of evaluating degrees of objective guilt. To do this we need to refer back to how networks are organized. One of the remarkable features of networks is that certain nodes in a network function as “hubs” that are key points in how the ongoing relations of a network function. For example, Chicago’s international airport is a major network hub for air travel. If that hub were to cease functioning for whatever reason it would have a ripple effect on many other elements of the network. By contrast, Lynchburg airport in Virginia certainly has network relations with other airports, but does not itself function as a hub like Chicago.

    Here I think we get the beginnings of an ecological ethics. In other words, we would have to look at what persons, entities (for example, corporations), or collectives of people function as singular points or hubs within a network of relations or processes. A board director for AIG has a much higher degree of complicity in the production of certain environmental, political, and economic effects than someone else by virtue of the way in which he’s hooked in to the network and functions to maintain a particular set of network relations. Without him or AIG, all sorts of relations collapse altogether. Moreover, AIG or that particular individual effectively enables all sorts of things like environmental destruction, wars over resources, oppressive political regimes, wealth inequality, etc., by virtue of how that financial institution functions in the world economy, organizing human relations and human-world relations in particular ways. Hopefully this clarifies my position for you.

  16. anodynelite April 2, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    One thing I have noticed among the sort of leftist-humanists LS is talking about, in my discussions with these types (though my dealings have been more outside of academia than within it), is that they’ll often try to cite “symbiosis” (from biology, w/r/t parasites and hosts and other similar systems) as a counter-essentialism which they oppose to the “capitalist” ideology of violence and ruthless competition.

    What I’ve always tried to point out to these people is that, no matter what an individual capitalist might say about how s/he thinks capitalism works, corporations rely just as much on “symbiosis” as they do on competition. (How many times have I had to sit through a boardmeeting where “symbiosis” was discussed? Ugh.) In fact, the idea that everyone is competing for a raise or for personal advancement within the ranks is largely mythical. Middle management is a perfect example of how not-upwardly-mobile, not-competitive, and inefficient capitalism can be.

  17. larvalsubjects April 2, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    Anondyn,

    I’ve encountered a similar use of biological concepts among certain New Age leftist-humanists. Drawing on concepts from biology such as those of self-regulating ecosystems, an image of nature as a harmonious system based on interconnection and balance is treated as being the essence of nature. From this the New Age leftist humanist then develops a critique of society wherein it is argued that the source of our problems lies in failing to observe the wisdom of nature by recognizing our interconnection with all things and by striving for balance and harmony. Capra’s book, The Web of Life is a good example of this line of political thought (despite the fact that the book is a popular science book on autopoiesis, chaos theory, systems theory, ecology, etc).

    My problem with this line of thought is not the thesis that things are interconnected, but with the manner in which it idealizes nature. Nature, in my view at least, functions not through harmonies– though we find them here and there –but rather is populated with all sorts of disequilibriums and disharmonies. Indeed, I would argue that it is precisely because the earth is in a state of disequilibrium that life takes place at all (i.e., the sun places the earth in a state of energetic disequilibrium). The idea of nature as a space of balanced harmonies just strikes me as a spiritualist mythology. Throughout nature we find all sorts of contradictions and conflicts that can’t simply be dismissed or ignored.

    This is not to say that there aren’t harmonies, nor, following Kvond, that we shouldn’t strive to produce harmonies, only that we shouldn’t pretend that conflicts aren’t there or that they’re somehow deviations from true essence or perversions. In a political context I think this is especially clear in the case of economic social relations. Of course management doesn’t want to exploit its workers. The CEOs of a company are motivated by the desire to turn a profit and all of their decisions are premised on this desire. This motive, however, objectively generates a set of unavoidable conflicts. Management necessarily has to perpetually find ways to minimize the cost of production, produce more, etc., so as to insure that it grows over the previous year. Part of this cost reduction will thus necessarily involve technologization of factories where possible (jobs lost), outsourcing to other countries where labor is cheaper (jobs lost and very likely deals with other governments that insure that wages do not grow for these foreign employees), longer work hours for a lower wage, fewer benefits, etc. In the meantime, the workers are motivated by the desire to increase their wages, improve their working conditions, shorten their working day, and get more benefits. All of these things are things that raise the cost of production.

    What we have here is an *objective* conflict or contradiction between two competing sets of interests. In fact, we see exactly this conflict right now with the big three auto companies, where legislators (in the pocket of these companies) and high ranking members of these companies continuously place the blame on the unions, calling for the unions to make sacrifices and concessions while the high ranking employees are asked to make no sacrifices or concessions. It’s disgusting. The thing that motivated my original post was exactly this issue. Here we have a guy saying “don’t forget we’re all human!”, as if any conflict between these workers and management is simply a failure to recognize mutual humanity. However, recognizing the humanity of the CEO doesn’t do the auto worker losing his job, getting fewer benefits, or taking a lower wage a whole hell of a lot of good.

  18. kvond April 2, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    LS,

    I’m glad I’ve given you a platform to make your thoughts clearer to others. I’m sorry that I have not the time to read your piece posted here, but thank you for presenting it. I do have time though to address your opening paragraph:

    “As a principle of interpretive charity I try to work from the premise that if I constantly experience someone else’s writing as contradictory and incordant, I am the one misinterpreting that person’s writing and that I need to go back to the text or talk to the person trying to figure out what I’m misunderstanding. I think this is especially the case when I experience someone’s claims as utterly absurd. Since people don’t generally hold ridiculous or absurd positions (which isn’t to say that people don’t hold false positions), I conclude that I must be missing something in what they’re trying to claim.”

    You and I are quite different in this application of interpretive charity. If a writer is not coherent on any number of apparent levels, particularly one that is rather verbose in explication, I feel no obligation to dig as deeply as possible to figure out what they are TRYING to say. That is their job. The word is full of texts, and most of them are not very interesting on their own sake. And unless a text, in particular an online text, sparkles, I have little desire to figure out what is laying beneath its otherwise muddy surface.

    This is even more so the case when the author speaks with a kind of grand, authoritative and exhaustive tone, as you sometimes do (perhaps because you are used to lecturing first and second year students, teaching them the ropes). From such a tone I expect a substance that is even more than sparkling, practically brilliant.

    Now, as happens to be the case, your texts do at times sparkle, in particular with the nature of their subject matter. But each time I scratch at their glinty surface, I find incoherence underneath, often a ripe combination of any number of assorted part-philosophies, whose combination you read as coherent, but to my ear are discordantly combined. When you and I have discussed this before you have either:

    a) Referred back to any number of un-named posts of yours in the past which supposedly make all the connections clear, usually with the half-accusation that your reader has been too lazy to research your position.

    b) Retreated into “I’m but a bricoleur, and have never claimed to be anything more”.

    Neither of these responses, nor my experience of your combinations of diverse arguments inspire me to think that there is “gold in dem der hills”. I’m not saying that there isn’t gold, or that many others don’t already find gold there. It is just that I am under no obligation to search for it beyond the particular intial confrontation with the text.

    I’m sorry that I can’t go further than this. As I mentioned, I am glad you have had the opportunity to make yourself more clear to other readers.

  19. larvalsubjects April 2, 2009 at 9:44 pm

    Kvond,

    You place me in a rather awkward position. You write a post significantly critiquing my remarks and interpreting me in a way that I believe to be a woeful misinterpretation, and then, when I take the time to carefully clarify my position you refuse to read that clarification. In my response I neither make the claim that I am a bricoleur nor refer you to other diaries I have written, but simply spell out my line of thought as is to be expected when someone misinterprets your claims. If your habit of misinterpretation were restricted to my writings I might believe that there is something to your charges of incoherence, but given that there are a whole slew of people here in the blogospheres and other philosophers that you have treated in this way, I think something is going on on your end, not on the end of the people you are criticizing. At any rate, since you lack the time to bother with people’s clarifications of their positions, perhaps you can do them the courtesy of not writing about their work or referring to them. It is intellectually dishonest to address someone else’s work and criticize it without a willingness to engage in a subsequent discussion that might lead to a mutual understanding of respective positions.

  20. kvond April 2, 2009 at 9:55 pm

    Unfortunately this is not your blog, and you cannot do as you have repeatedly done, and simply delete my interpretations of your thinking process, and urge me to pursue my ideas solely over at my blog. That is what I am doing here. You are perfectly free to come here and comment all you like, and I sincerely am happy to provide you with the opportunity to make yourself clear.

    As I pointed out in my original post, my target was NOT your political position, but rather the aspects of your argument that reflect back upon Marxist, oppositional thinking, whether or not this is a position you held. As you came to defend yourself I took interest in the particular claim you were making, but truthfully when I saw you wading knee deep into exhaustive explication and lesson giving, the kind of which I have tried to wade through several times before, I simply see no point. You have a very hard time putting your thoughts together in any concise manner, unless you are simply borrowing principles, ad hoc, from past philosophers, stringing them together like Christmas tree lights.

    But the time you took out to make yourself clear certainly was NOT wasted. The internet is more or less, forever. There are contemporary readers who probably appreciate the detail of your thinking on these matters, and then there are of course the e-historians, when you strike it big and have a branch of philosophy named after yourself, who will research the epistolary exchangees between us (no less than they do for Descartes).

    As for the “slew” of philosophers I have abused, I can only think of one. And Graham Harman simply had not toleration for someone raising the same kind of critique that might be leveled at Hegel, or Husserl or Heidegger. Only history will tell whether my point made toward his essentializing binary of oriental objects has merit or not. If you would like to list the rest of these abused “slew” I would certainly be interested. You can post them here.

  21. larvalsubjects April 2, 2009 at 10:33 pm

    Fair enough, you’re right of course and I am flattered that you’ve spilled so much digital ink on my incoherent rambling thoughts on your blog since you’ve encountered me. I must be productive for you somehow. You’re also write that I have great difficulty expressing myself concisely. It is nothing about you or anyone else but is more like a mental tick like a twitching eye or lip that I can’t help (there’s a whole psychological history here that I won’t bore you with). If I’m reading you correctly in these remarks and your references to academics throughout this post and elsewhere, you take this tic to be me lecturing you like you’re a student and looking down my nose at you. I think this way of experiencing the way I talk or write is more on your end than anything I intend or think. In the first place, I’m nobody in the academic world. I teach at a two year college and get about as much respect from academics as a Sunday baseball player gets from major league baseball players. On the other hand, when I do express myself in concise and pithy ways much confusion seems to ensue. It is odd, however, I think, for you to ask me four questions as you did in the post that preceded my lengthy response and refuse to even bother with that response. Why ask the questions if you don’t want to hear the answers? In my view, we’re actually a lot closer in our basic views then we are opposed. I had hoped that after our last quarrel it might be possible to approach discussion with one another on more amicable terms, but the sarcasm and contempt with which you address both in this diary and in your posts responding to my responses makes that very difficult. Then again, just as I think your obvious insecurities about academics and sense that you’re being talked down to are your affair, it might be that I’m filtering words intended as witty in playful in a much more hostile way than they’re intended.

  22. kvond April 2, 2009 at 10:58 pm

    LS,

    I have seen you return before to this notion that you are but a small time professor in a small time school as evidence that you do not speak with a tone of largess, authority, and lesson-giving. I hope you see that everyone is a King on the internet, and your reduced place in life really has as much chance of stepping-up your tone as any other influence. Professors, in their own little corners of their departments, regularly talk with inflated authority to their students and their peers. And small school professors often likely feel that they deserve a bigger place in the world. I am no professor. I am not even a philosopher. I have no authority to defend.

    I’m sorry that I did not read your response. Perhaps I will in the future. I began reading it, but it started with one of your usual lectures, this time on how one is (I am)supposed to read, citing the all important “principle of charity”, as if I were some 101 philosophy student, or hadn’t read tons of Davidson who made very good use of the principle. As I pressed forward, it was just more of the same. I have to be honest and say that your exhaustive style (which in the past has yielded very little richness when waded through) has taxed me beyond my generosity. I do not blame you for this, but only our particular combination. If this comes from my insecurity or yours, or both, who knows. I rightfully should have asked my questions with the proviso, “if you can succinctly answer”.

    As for writing at length, and having it be ignored, I do believe that I wrote a fairly substantial critique of your objections to Spinoza’s Substance to bring into focus the point I was making in an active discussion we were having at your blog, including a time-consuming typing out of Della Rocca’s argument for your advantage and reference, and posted it at this blog, linking it in your comments section, an effort that was, as far as I could tell, ignored (I don’t know, I stopped checking). The point is, no big deal. Sometimes it is good to be spurred to investigate your position, and to put it into words, even if others really don’t care about it. It offers a moment of self-refection and self-critique.

  23. larvalsubjects April 2, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    That’s a fair criticism. My opening with points about charity was certainly obnoxious in one respect as I’m aware that you’re a big fan of Davidson (some day you’ll have to explain to me how you reconcile him with Spinoza though I know from conversations with him when he was still alive that he was a big fan of Spinoza), and that Davidson deals heavily with the issue of charity. It is difficult to give concise responses to the things you say because often when responses to you are concise you interpret them in very surprising ways. Additionally, you can be frustrating to talk to because you often read over qualifications very quickly. For example, in my original remark about animals I say animals often act in ways that are cruel and conflictual. “Often”, of course, means “some do, some don’t”. Yet your entire interpretation of my claim spins on omitting this qualification and universalizing my statement, making it an exclusive claim to the effect that animals are cruel and that self-interest leads to that cruelty. Missing key qualifications like that, brief as they are, leads to what I’m calling misinterpretation and leads to an attribution of incoherence where perhaps one is not to be found.

  24. kvond April 3, 2009 at 10:35 am

    LS: “Additionally, you can be frustrating to talk to because you often read over qualifications very quickly. For example, in my original remark about animals I say animals often act in ways that are cruel and conflictual. “Often”, of course, means “some do, some don’t”. Yet your entire interpretation of my claim spins on omitting this qualification and universalizing my statement, making it an exclusive claim to the effect that animals are cruel and that self-interest leads to that cruelty.”

    Kvond: This is fair, or at least I can see why you would say such a thing. But you assume here it seems that I do not see the qualification. A good philosophical writer must qualify and make blanket statements with hesitation. But my eye does not turn to the universalizations made in arguments (for they are seldom, and easily attacked). Rather I look instinctly toward the rhetorical form of an argument, the picture being presented. In this case you were drawing on a picture of the animal which has a very deep history, and it was (in my opinion) that from this history the power of the word-picture was formed. You in answer then qualified your use of this picture saying that it simply did not fit to mention other aspects of animals. But that was exactly my point. You were rhetorically using a picture of animal, and rhetorically contrasting it with tender-hearted humanism, which for me made a false contrast. When looking at the underlying thinking, there is nothing in the idea that “we are all animals” that precludes us from thinking “we are all humans” is a valid and harmonious path towards political resolution. As Anodynelite pointed out, liberal 60s types regularly drawn on metaphors of symbiosis to justify their visions of the world. And Spinoza who presupposes a “we are all humans” answer to political problems, certainly sees no categorical distinction between human beings and animals.

    There is no reason to open up the argument on this point again. Only, this is to say, I did not miss read your qualification, but rather questioned the thought-pattern expressed in the rhetorical use that surpassed its literally meaning. When examining arguments, in my opinion, one must look not only to what is literally claimed, but also to the picture, the figures presented.

    Admittedly, this can be very frustrating for writers who do not want their metaphors and analogies examined. They want to be held responsible only for the pure thought stated. But this is not how it goes. Where the thought came from (its genetic history), and the means by which it is presented (its pictures and analogies) also fall under critique. Quite often the under “truth” of an discourse is revealed there. This was precisely the problem Graham Harman ran into in my examination of his over-rich, orientalized descriptions of his “sensuous objects”. Eventually he felt it was unfair of me to draw attention to his rather attention-getting language use.

  25. kvond April 3, 2009 at 1:01 pm

    postscript, as a sidenote. Here is an example of how the “we are all animals” conception has been employed in favor of a vision of society in which is largely harmonious, taken from ur-anarchist/communist Peter Kropotkin early in the last century, as he combated the rise of Social Darwinism:

    In the animal world we have seen that the vast majority of species live in societies, and that they find in association the best arms for the struggle for life: understood, of course, in its wide Darwinian sense – not as a struggle for the sheer means of existence, but as a struggle against all natural conditions unfavourable to the species. The animal species, in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits, and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development, are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress. The mutual protection which is obtained in this case, the possibility of attaining old age and of accumulating experience, the higher intellectual development, and the further growth of sociable habits, secure the maintenance of the species, its extension, and its further progressive evolution. The unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay.

    – Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902), Conclusion.

  26. larvalsubjects April 3, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    I think what’s so remarkable about Spinoza’s approach to these social and political issues, however, is that he has no illusions about our nature. This is what is so breathtaking about the psychology he develops in book III of the Ethics and the concept of natural right he develops in the TTP (i.e., that “natural right” is whatever is in the power of a creature to do). Consequently, rather than an idealized version of a humanity, he is the careful cartographer of the geometry of our affects and emotions, showing all of the various deadlocks and sad passions it can lead to. The social and political question then becomes that of figuring out how we can form social relations that diminish these deadlocks, producing a more harmonious and flourishing society for ourselves. My gripe with my democratic activist friend would be that he doesn’t first recognize the genuine nature of the conflict between the worker and the investor. Spinoza would have no problem recognizing this, but would, from there, work out a way in which the interests of both parties might be balanced with one another in a way that, while certainly limiting natural right or the power of their bodies, would nonetheless benefit them all through the formation of a collective body.

  27. larvalsubjects April 3, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    Just to clarify– yes, yes, I know, be concise –the problem with my democratic activist friend’s position is that he thinks the problem or the conflict arises from a failure to recognize the mutual humanity of those involved in the conflict, rather than recognizing the real conflict between the interests of the worker and the interests of the owner. If that conflict of interests goes unrecognized such that we think the problem resides in failure to recognize mutual humanity, the conflict of interests will remain in place.

  28. kvond April 3, 2009 at 3:39 pm

    Larval Subjects:

    “Just to clarify– yes, yes, I know, be concise –the problem with my democratic activist friend’s position is that he thinks the problem or the conflict arises from a failure to recognize the mutual humanity of those involved in the conflict, rather than recognizing the real conflict between the interests of the worker and the interests of the owner.”

    “My gripe with my democratic activist friend would be that he doesn’t first recognize the genuine nature of the conflict between the worker and the investor. Spinoza would have no problem recognizing this, but would, from there, work out a way in which the interests of both parties might be balanced with one another in a way that, while certainly limiting natural right or the power of their bodies, would nonetheless benefit them all through the formation of a collective body.”

    Kvond:

    I’m afraid we are going to slip into quibbling and endless qualifications, but what you mean by “genuine” in “the genuine nature of the conflict” is where the screw turns. I am not privy to your friend’s arguments (perhaps you can invite her or him to post something to make them more clear), but I must say that in terms of Spinoza’s political theory, the answer would be found at least in part exactly where your friend says it is, recognizing “mutual humanity”. With some sophistication Spinoza founds sociabilty upon a primary understanding that the other person is just like us (this is both the source of imaginary conflicts and unions, i.e. in the imitation of the affects, as well as our rational resolutions).

    It is for this reason that Spinoza says, “Man is a god to man” (hominem homini deum esse), contrary to Hobbes’s “Man is wolf to man” (homo homini lupus, quoting Plautus), something I have pointed out to you before. It is precisely for Spinoza that one must recognize our mutual natures in order to bring harmony between us, something he ultimately founds upon the harmonious nature of the universe.

    As he writes, “There are, therefore, many things outside of us which are useful to us, and on that account to be sought. Of these, we can think of none more excellent than those that agree entirely with our nature. For if, for example, two individuals of entirely the same nature are joined to one another, they compose an individual twice as powerful as each one. To man, then, there is nothing more useful than man” – E4p18siii

    One of course can disagree with Spinoza, but unless I misunderstand your friend’s position I can’t see how one can have recourse to Spinoza to counter him. For Spinoza the mutuality of recognition is key to understanding the nature of human conflicts in their imaginary but still concrete origins.

  29. larvalsubjects April 3, 2009 at 7:25 pm

    Good points, Kvond. How does that understanding of each other as having the same nature affect the owners motive of turning a profit by minimizing the cost of production either through wage decreases, automation of production, or outsourcing, while simultaneously producing more for less and the workers motive of having better working conditions, higher salary, more benefits, and a shorter work week and day?

  30. kvond April 3, 2009 at 7:38 pm

    I’m not sure that I understand the question. How does it affect them potentially, as rational agents, (i.e., what arguments would Spinoza make toward them); or how does it affect them concretely, within the immitation of the affects (how would Spinoza diagnosis and explain their actions)?

  31. larvalsubjects April 3, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    Well I guess what I’m asking is how does this mutual recognition of mutual humanity help to diminish the conflict between them? I can see how it affects me. As per your nice post on Balibar, my recognition of the fundamental sociality of my nature helps me to see it is in my best interests to collectively work with my fellows to produce a better social world. If I band together with them, not only do I get all the benefits of their company, but I am also far better able to achieve my own ends. With the CEO or board director of a major corporation it is harder to see how this works. Because he already has massive wealth and political power he’s far less dependent on others than I am, and therefore has far less need to work together with them. As such, he can pursue all sorts of policies that benefit him personally and his company while screwing over his workers.

  32. kvond April 3, 2009 at 8:19 pm

    LS: “With the CEO or board director of a major corporation it is harder to see how this works. Because he already has massive wealth and political power he’s far less dependent on others than I am, and therefore has far less need to work together with them. As such, he can pursue all sorts of policies that benefit him personally and his company while screwing over his workers.”

    Kvond: I think that there are several Spinozist inroads here. The first is personal-psychological. Spinoza would want to tell the CEO, you think you are happy at the top of the heap, but you are still living a reactive life full of fears and pains. This is not a path one could take politically, psychologizing at a distance, but it would be an appeal Spinoza would make personally. (We of course have the examples of Gates and Buffett.)

    Linked to this, Spinoza suggests that one’s own freedom consists in the capacity to make others free. In a certain sense, other human beings Spinoza considers as natural resources, so his argument to the CEO is ecological. Free your workers to a greater degree (not just in terms of wealth, but even more so in terms of intellectual and emotional freedom)and have more powerful alignments.

    This too can be found in some business theory. Profit making is not necessarily improved by exploitation. Rather, communication and invested work can improve company performance. The same can be said about customer care. Of course there are any number of exploitive paths to wealth, just as their are ecologically destructive uses of resources, and brutal ways to exercise political power. The question is, what is the most productive and meaningful over time?

    What is key is that Spinoza wants to show that self-serving is ultimately other serving. And when it appears not, one is either imaginarily mistaken, or contingently opportune and short-sighted.

    I think these are the two arguments he makes, psychological in terms of happiness, and practical in terms of an ecology of forces.

  33. kvond April 3, 2009 at 8:59 pm

    On the issue of Spinoza and CEOs, I think also we have to keep in mind that Spinoza was actually a CEO of a company, when he took over the family trading firm after his father’s death. We have some historical evidence that his firm may have dealt with the sugar trade, or even when financially pressed, the diamond trade. With the Portugese seizure of Recife Brazil (Dec 1653, six months before Spinoza’s father dies), a highly lucrative Dutch sugar colony heavily populated with Jewish merchants from Spinoza’s community, there as a precipitous drop in the wealth of Jews in Amsterdam, something which certainly affected the health of the family firm. We have accounts of Spinoza bringing a lawsuit in an attempt to collect a debt, after having himself been physically abused. Spinoza was a CEO right at the very heart of Capitalism’s beginning.

    I’ve argued elsewhere that it may have been the disturbing link to the slave trade that at least in some way drove him from the family business (aside from its loss of prosperity). Sugar/slave relations were the future for the economy of Europe and the New World, and it may have been that Spinoza wanted no part of this (see his Caliban dream of the scabrous Brazilian). We have clue that Spinoza thought hard about the question of prosperity as he took to renouncing his position as head of the family firm. The opening paragraph of his “On the Emendation of the Intellect” tells of how he actively renounced fame and riches, something that “experience” (not reason) taught him:

    “After experience had taught me that all the usual surroundings of social life are vain and futile; seeing that none of the objects of my fears contained in themselves anything either good or bad, except in so far as the mind is affected by them, I finally resolved to inquire whether there might be some real good having power to communicate itself, which would affect the mind singly, to the exclusion of all else; whether, in fact, there might be anything of which the discovery and attainment would enable me to enjoy continuous, supreme, and unending happiness. [P02] I say “I finally resolved,” for at first sight it seemed unwise willingly to lose hold on what was sure for the sake of something then uncertain. I could see the benefits which are acquired through fame and riches, and that I should be obliged to abandon the quest of such objects, if I seriously devoted myself to the search for something different and new. I perceived that if true happiness chanced to be placed in the former I should necessarily miss it; while if, on the other hand, it were not so placed, and I gave them my whole attention, I should equally fail.”

    There is no proof that it was the moral compulsion agains the slave trade that moved him away from the family buisness, but it does seem that there was something to that way of life that deterred him.

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/2008/06/06/spinoza-and-the-caliban-question/

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/2008/08/09/spinoza-the-merchant-the-canary-islands-sugar-and-diamonds-and-leprosy/

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/2008/08/23/spinoza-sugar-time-table/

  34. larvalsubjects April 3, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    I like the ecological/ethics politics you’re proposing here. In the long post I wrote with the obnoxious opening charity remark, I proposed a similar sort of ecological ethics based on network relations. The question is how to shift particular network patterns when those patterns tend to reinforce themselves. For example, the CEO might himself share all the values that you outline above. The problem is that his place within the network structure of economic relations make it very difficult to change his business model. While he might prefer a far more sustainable form of business and relations to employs, the fact that he competes against other companies that can put him out of business means that he must constantly be finding ways to turn a profit so as to reinvest capital to produce more so as to stay in business. That is, there’s a feedback loop here that somewhat exceeds the wishes or intentions of those involved. Change then needs to be system wide so as to escape this vicious cycle.

    Incidentally, have you read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars novels? Throughout he deals with a lot of these sorts of issues as humans colonize Mars and try to envision a new sort of society for themselves. One of the more fascinating story lines in the novel revolves around different types of corporations and how they conceive their aims in terms of Marx. There’s a lot of marvelous political theory and ecological thought throughout these novels.

    In the Spinoza connection, you might also enjoy Neal Stevenson’s Baroque Cycle which is situated in Spinoza’s historical period and is a novel about the intrigues of the Royal Society, Leibniz, Newton, and much else besides. Spinoza is referred to in the novels though I haven’t gotten far enough yet to know whether he becomes a key character. At any rate, Stevenson does a terrific job bringing the age to life. In his research he was deeply influenced by the historian Braudel from the Annals school, who wrote histories from the micro-level focusing on what daily life was like, epidemiologies, economics shifts, etc., rather than on the history of grand events and historical figures. This gives Stevenson’s novel a thick texture or feel for the age.

  35. kvond April 3, 2009 at 10:02 pm

    Your novel recommendations sounds good. As far as the well-meaning CEO I am unsure of the categorical restriction of this network conception. That is, there are always networks of power available, running counter or askew to the one you describe, if Spinoza is right. Indeed a particular buisness might contingently fail, but largely the project of freedom and an ecology of persons is one that can be enacted moment to moment, person to person. Spinoza’s approach is “liberate others and thus liberate yourself” This of course would include liberating the minds of legislators, consumers, workers, and competitors. One works to form more perfect unions. Of course there is always the temptation to think that the State itself should “do the good guy good”.

  36. kvond April 3, 2009 at 10:07 pm

    p.s. for any that are interested, as for the building of Networks, I strongly suggested in a fairly recent post that Latour was a closet (or unconscious) Spinozist. (Their positions are uncommonly close.) In my view his theory could be improved by moving closer to the Spinozist position:

    http://kvond.wordpress.com/2009/03/04/is-latour-an-under-expressed-spinozist/

  37. larvalsubjects April 3, 2009 at 11:16 pm

    The point you make about networks is exactly the reason I adopt the concept of networks rather than that of structures or systems. The nice thing about a network is that the elements of a network are not reducible to their relations, but can enter into different relations or be parts of multiple relational tendencies. Thus, as you point out, there are always a variety of different tendencies populating a network. Some of these tendencies are stronger than other. When I make the point about CEO’s and corporations, I’m only saying that there are particular feedback loops in our system that tend to perpetuate themselves. The question then is how these alternative tendencies can be strengthened.

  38. kvond April 3, 2009 at 11:59 pm

    We view the multiplicity of possibilities in Networks differently, but that’s okay. We seem close enough in intent here, if not in content.

  39. larvalsubjects April 4, 2009 at 11:58 pm

    Kvond, I wanted to say that as rocky as this discussion started, I really got a lot out of it and appreciate your patience and magnanimity over the course of it. I also admire your passion for truth and your willingness to call a spade a spade when you either see a contradiction between the rhetorical strata of a text and the avowed content of a text, or in your willingness to point out what you view as a philosophical incoherence. After this discussion I go away feeling very good, even if we aren’t entirely on the same page and I think that speaks to the sort of community of persons Spinoza evokes in his own metaphysico-ethico writings. While I might not share exactly the same metaphysics as you or even exactly the same ethics, I think our aims are very much the same and I count you as an ally even if affectively I sometimes find your medicine painful to swallow.

    Best,

    Levi

  40. kvond April 5, 2009 at 12:05 am

    Thanks for the very good words. Appreciated. Often, as was the case with Nietzsche, it is often those that are closest to one’s position that one is harshest, as Nietzsche was very harsh on Spinoza, whether deservedly so or not. If intellection has any chance it is with honesty of expression. For some reason you and I have had our acute tensions, and tensions can be both productive or destructive. All I can do is wish you the very best on your intellectual journey and creations.

  41. Pingback: immanence - kvond’s Spinoza

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