Frames /sing


Spinoza and State Torture and Other Unfeeling Things

Eric asked a very important question in response to my post on Spinoza, Cybernetics and Chaoplexity. I repost my answer if for no other reasons that it sketches out in its links significant ramifications of the theoretical interpretation of what an affect is, and the role of empathy in social consciousness. Additionally, the idea of a hidden imitation of God prescription of State Torture by Spinoza of course would be highly provocative. The post is a little scatter shot, but is meant as a resource nexus, perhaps as a knot for further discussion.

Eric asks of Spinoza’s theory:

“So as an ideal, we would feel neither pleasure or pain connected with an idea of an external cause?

Wouldn’t, then, our capacity for empathetic relations be eliminated?”

There are several ways I can think to answer this question, and unfortunately I don’t have the time to really sink into this with the respect that it deserves and will have to rely upon past posts for explanation (feel free to question more deeply if you would like).

The Reality of the Affects: Della Rocca and Deleuze

First of all, there is debate among Spinozists whether in fact affects exist at all for Spinoza. M. Della Rocca, one of my favorite writers on Spinoza thinks that they do not (while Deleuze thinks that they do). I wrote on Della Rocca’s position in this post, Della Rocca’s Spinoza: Do Affects “represent” Anything?

And here is Deleuze on What an Affect is, some of the clearest explication he ever produced on Spinoza, lecture Cours Vincennes – 24/01/1978.

Here is Lilly Alanen’s rebuttal to Della Rocca: Spinoza’s Reason and the Reality of the Affects

I personally feel that both Deleuze and Della Rocca have it wrong on the question of “representation”, each in different ways, and I am not convinced by Alanen’s rebuttal. I questioned Della Rocca about both Deleuze’s position and the role of representation in his explantions. If I recall correctly he told me that he regards Deleuze as fundamentally wrong on the question of the reality of the affects, and that he is not as commited to the idea that ideas “represent” as he once had been.

Two Paths to the Social

Second of all, and pointed towards the question of empathy, Spinoza argues that there are two paths towards social order. The first is imaginary and based upon the empathy (and valuation) that binds, producing both affinity bonds between persons and emnities (which are also bonds). The second is a path of reason, which which does not rely explicitly on feeling the same as others, but rather in realizing the mutuality of benefits and uses that holds persons together in support.

Balibar remains unsurpassed in explicating these two braids of social reasoning, and I provide both a brief summation and a PDF copy of the argument that Balibar puts forth here:

Balibar’s Spinoza and Politics: The Braids of Reason and Passion

Spinoza and Unfeeling State Torture

Thirdly, the issue of empathy does have some extra-theoretical consequences for Spinoza I believe, in particular that Spinoza prescribes a be-like-God path to freedom, wherein God is a being that has no affects of any kind.

I have argued before that Spinoza actually provides something of a template for State Torture, in that a Totalitarian State manifests something of the same relationship to its enunciative citizenry as Substance does it its living modes (at least one can find homologies):

Spinoza’s Logic of Affects and an Ontology of Torture

I find this quite interesting, as far as I know, no one has argued this point before. (I would love to hear if others have come across it.)

Pure Affective Production and Social Making

Lastly though, as I tried to express in the post on Cybernetics and Chaoplexity, affects in Spinoza are to be read as transitions in power, bodily juxtapositions between thresholds. As such, the social world (including human and non-human actors) are ever in affective communication. And if indeed Spinoza is arguing against empathy, it is the common empathy of valuation, whereby one projects essential good/evil ascriptions to objects or events based upon our empathetic investments in others.

What Spinoza is calling for, at least in the Chaoplexic framework of the answer, is the severing of the physical affectio/feeling affectus from the additional idea of external causes (as essentialized), such that the affect itself provides a material progressive path when combined with our other breadth thinking.

The path is not all that different than that advocated by Buddhism. There is indeed a causal chain of effects, but the mind’s inordinate ascription of the power of cause to external events such that the mind is forced to hop here and there in reactive, ping-pong ball fashion, is the very thing that causes suffering. It is just that Spinoza’s argument extends more deeply into the social fabric, into the weavings of our mutual investments.

It seems to me that if we allow the intra-threshold pursuit as central to Spinoza’s vision, what he is prescribing is not a path of empathy (though certainly imagining others as ourselves is core to social reality), but of affective construction, of learning how to let affects speak without their simplified and attendant explanations, such that as streams between fixity and turbulance, they braid into each other.

3 responses to “Spinoza and State Torture and Other Unfeeling Things

  1. Amarilla September 6, 2009 at 10:15 am

    I appreciate this idea of chaoplexity, I recognize it in metaphorical terms as the work of the lathe, and the diamond grit we’ve discussed. Fixity is the structure of the crystal, its self-cohesion. But I appreciate the fact that the balance of these factors, obdurancy and penetration, become a braid here. It seems like the transitions from homeostasis to the state of disequilibrium reality imposes deserves some kind of ritualized observance to contain the anxiety that it produces.

    So tricky talking about affect, in psychological dialects affectlessness is symptomatic of trauma, isn’t it? Of a person or society exposed to more chaos and turbulence than they were ready for, as in post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative adaptions to reality, etc. They perhaps can’t feel empathy because the apparatus of feeling has been blown out. How many of us go through life like that, to some extent? Surely it’s a certain kind of affectlessness -deadening of empathy that makes state sponsored abuse and other types of sadism possible.

    It takes mysterious resiliency to let the real speak and do its work, given that many of us are deeply shocked and overwhelmed by “the thousand natural shocks the flesh it heir to.” (Hamlet)

    Sometimes I agree that I misattribute my disturbance to external causes, thereby demonizing some aspect of substance. One day I’m raging against the mess the kids, those small whirlwinds, make all over the house, and the next day I’m enjoying the mysterious accretions of junk as still lives. Although sometimes, as in the case of torture, it seems impossible to say that the cause of the disturbance is not an external one. (I’m missing a lot here.)

    Sorry for the wondering comment…. Thanks for the great post that raises so many fundamental question..Thanks Eric, too.

    • kvond September 6, 2009 at 3:56 pm

      Nice observations. In particular I like: “It seems like the transitions from homeostasis to the state of disequilibrium reality imposes deserves some kind of ritualized observance to contain the anxiety that it produces.” I think that often ritual is misunderstood as simply the manifestation (or prop) of false belief. Often it is much more a body-constituting reterritorialization amid the threats of tubulence.

  2. tempustorm September 12, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    Kvond, I still haven’t been able to view the material you link to in this post since I have been very busy with school starting. But, I posted up a thought about my reservations about Spinoza, resulting from his proximity to new age thought and its view of society and self as in-curable. I also E5p2 to be the determinative passage here, and my post would certainly benefit from giving it the excellent explication you have given it in your post on cybernetics/chaoplexity. Instead, I have shirked the explanation and gone right to my critique of it. I do recognize the power and beauty of this proposition but I still cannot see beyond my critique of it, that the cause of pain isn’t properly dealt with by turning in words, self-checking as you call it. It seems like turning outwards, society-checking, is in order as well. Even though I realize that we must avoid one-to-one causal explanations.

    Hopefully I will find some more time to post on my new blog. In which your blog is to my mind the greatest example of what a blog can do, and it is by reading your blog that I have been most motivated to start my own.

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