Frames /sing


Seeing Machines and Modes of Slavery

The Human Machine

Corry Shores puts up a wonderful response to some of my optical research on Spinoza, drawing on some threads and putting them together in a way that I just had not yet: Seeing Machines. There he picks out what for me are several vital issues that are found in not only Spinoza’s, but also Descartes’ preoccupation with optical matters, both theoretical and practical, and really touches the primary concern. How do these modes of production (ideas, machines) reflect, express and criticize the very rise of instrumentality and really Capitalized labor (and merchant class related freedoms) in which they arose?

Consider how Descartes proposed his own notions of a transcendent God and free will. His sharp division between mind and body was essential for his project. Spinoza, however, reconciled the two [by means of his parallelism]. He was not so narrowly focused on abstract rational conceptions. He did not just design lenses for seeing things with greater focus. As well, he ground and polished them with his own hands. Ideas and their material instantiations cannot be divorced. In fact, kvond writes, “a calculation, for Spinoza, must be seen as an act, the mathematical point, as a relation and expression, and an instantiation, a persistence.” We do not just see, we see from a certain conceptual perspective. [Descartes saw the world mechanically. This perspective might view slaves as machines and not people.] Kvond puts it that we are always seeing-with.

In my view this connection is exactly right. Descartes’ preoccupation with the narrow focus of optical (and mental) clarity, and the attendant vision of machinic Instrumentality, is precisely related, ultimately, to the question of human slavery. It is no mere metaphor that Spinoza uses in his Ethics when he devotes his fourth part to the subject matter of “Human Slavery”. He is speaking of the emotions, but for Spinoza ideational over-focus was material over-focus. Emotional Slavery expressed itself in physical slavery. And he is not only thinking of individuals. It would seem out of place to give Descartes responsibility for 17th century slavery (why not, so much else gets laid at his feet!), but there are valid, thematic, if not arguments, parallels to be drawn between Descartes’ pursuit of a machinic world vision (paired from Mind), his attempt build automated devices that would not be stained by human hand interference, the attempt to mentally isolate clarity in terms of a point of focus, and the general colonial trend towards labor efficiency that would eventually replace indentured servitude (practical slavery) with outright slavery itself (the evaporation of the “human” in the name of production). I see in the very “object” oriented, optical preoccupation with central clarity – the hallmark of much, if not all of Idealism that followed – the conceptual cornerstone for Instrumentality itself, the mode of thought that regards a clarity and sureness of an intentional part as the grounds for what human beings should know, and what they do.

Additionally, it is precisely how we eroticize the boundary (that which lies outside our view of clarity, the “object” of our orientation), that fuels – both literally and imaginarily – our very Instrumentalities.

This is no mere theoretical question, but a large scale question of concept and human action. Much, if not all of the value of philosophy is that at the widest level in a certain register, what hu/man is capable of thinking becomes reconfigured, and I cannot help thinking that the preoccupations with optics and lenses that distinguished many of the great, newly affluent minds of the mid-17th century, bears a conceptual connection to the real human and institutional relationships that constituted the nature of their wealth. Optics, Instrument and slavery are not divorced, or at least Spinoza would refuse to divorce them. Corry did not realize it, but in the time of my optical study of Spinoza I also found compelling the likelihood that Spinoza, and the Spinoza family had at the very least tangential ties to the slave trade enhanced sugar buisness, leaving me with the suspicion that slavery and its connection to commerce lead in part to Spinoza’s decision to leave the occupation of family merchant behind, and devote himself both to philosophy and lenses.

Most of these are conjectural sketches, but because it seems that no one in Spinoza scholarship has much brought up the matter, they perhaps form a sketch of what is worth thinking about: Spinoza the Merchant, Caliban and the Prophetic Imagination, The London Question, Spinoza and the Ethiopian, The Sephardim and the Slave Trade, Spinoza Family Sugar Trade Timetable, Gabriel Spinoza and Barbados.

In this way it is possible perhaps to address the knot of questions behind recent talk about Ontology and Politics. The relationship between the two is I think best expressed by Spinoza’s political expression of ontologies, achieved through the erasure of the human/natural-world divide, descriptively turning Man into a force of nature, which is likely what it always was. But, as Corry helps me remember, this is not just a conceptual position, but also a part of the very intimacy philosophy bears to its time.


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