Frames /sing


Infinitely Narrow: How Spinoza Corrects Descartes’ Lenses

Corry Shores has another nice post up in his series on my study of Spinoza’s optical theories and practices. He is the only person, as far as I know, who has made an attempt to read through the whole of my study and it is with great appreciation to find my thoughts reflected there. Here, 6: Seeing Differences between Descartes and Spinoza. Some Observations on Spinoza’s Sight. [The Kvond Spinoza’s Foci Summary Series], he points out a power conceptual, and pictorial difference between Descartes and Spinoza. In my understanding it is hard to over estimate just how pervasive Descartes’ optical metaphor for consciousness and methodology for clarity became, in particular when it was grafted onto by Idealist notions of fundamental intentionality, self-hood, and subject/object duality. Spinoza’s correction to the hyperbolic lens, the lens that Descartes felt would unlock all the powers of clear, nearly unlimited vision to man, stands at a fundamental cross-roads in the history of philosophy, noting the turn-out where modernity could not branched off from the Idealism it followed.

This contrast between the narrowly clear and self-evident, and the broad spectrum, comprehensive intuition of a whole makes an interesting contact point to a discussion Carl Dyke and I have been having over at his blog, on the Infinity Standard (something he regards as an unhealthy societal influence), Existential infinity. Descartes envisioned an infinity as well, an infinite power developed upon the tunnel vision of narrow band precision of clarity, ultimately founded upon the notion of the “self” as indubitable. While Spinoza wanted to say of lenses, of eyes, and ultimately of consciousness, whenever we are perceiving something clearly it is always because we are already perceiving the vista of what lies beyond it. There is no narrow clarity that supersedes and establishes the role of the margin. In fact, as is the case in criticisms of philosophies of Presence, it is always the margin, the ground, that allows the narrow, bright center to have importance, or even substance at all. As I have mentioned before, recent concerns about objects and their centrality are grown out of the image of clear centrality itself, something that comes out of Descartes’ optics, and as I tried to show, Kepler before him.

We do not realize how much our folk and philosophical conception of consciousness and the world is governed by a metaphor of tunnel vision.

A related post: The Hole at the “Center of Vision”

13 responses to “Infinitely Narrow: How Spinoza Corrects Descartes’ Lenses

  1. Carl October 20, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    This is great stuff. I’m still digesting your comment over at my place but my first impression is that I can agree with you on most if not all points. Really enjoying this discussion.

    I like this idea of branching modernity at Descartes. Toulmin (Cosmopolis) does something similar in seeing missed branches at Montaigne and Pascal. The common thread seems to be wholism and relation vs. Descartes’ vivisections. Of course Latour plays on this in We Have Never Been Modern too.

    I remember that Martin Jay did a book on the optic metaphor; no time to track down the reference now; have you seen it?

    • Alexei October 20, 2009 at 8:52 pm

      With Downcast eyes: The Denigration of Vision in 20th Century French thought

      • kvond October 20, 2009 at 10:16 pm


        Are you recommending this book, or simply referring to it? I understand that it deals with the metaphors of vision, but does it deal specifically with the issue I raise? Spinoza is not much mentioned, for instance.

      • Alexei October 21, 2009 at 10:31 am

        Ummm, I think ‘recommend’ might be too strong a word in this situation. Jay is essentialy a journalist of ideas: he gets the names and the places right and manages to convey the feel of a movement. But I’ve never fond him to be very penetrating.

        Essentially, though, Jay charts the move away from “occularity” as the philosophical trope, hich is still present in Critical Thoery for instance,and argues that this move is ultimately ill conceived.

        So there’s a consonance between you and him (the emphasis on clarity, for example), but there is certainly no overlap.

      • kvond October 21, 2009 at 11:35 am

        Yes, this is exactly as I intuited (for the worst) when I thought about purchasing the book during my Spinoza and Optics research. I just hate that kind of journalism of ideas, at least in book form. You open a book like that looking for a long drink of water, and you get a sip.

        But at least it is interesting to me in topic. I’m not so much concerned with present occularity but interested in how and where it began, and at least provisionally I believe one of its main sources was Kepler and Descartes embrace of the hyperbolic lens.

      • Carl November 3, 2009 at 2:39 am

        Aside: Interesting to see Jay this way. I thought this of H. Stuart Hughes as well, his mentor at Harvard and mine at UCSD, who wrote an imposing series of books on late 19th/20th century European intellectual history starting with Consciousness and Society. He covered everything with a sort of magisterial sweep, but despite a rhetorical flourish about “retrospective cultural anthropology” the level of analysis was on the order of turning a personal preference for Freud into an invidious judgment that he was the towering figure of the age. (I should say that Stuart was always very kind and generous to me.)

        My main advisor was David Luft, a very smart and interesting man who wrote on Musil and the Viennese scene and had also been Hughes’ student. Despite his quality and because of his relative lack of ambition David was sort of the red-headed stepchild of a Hughesian lineage that also included Dominick LaCapra and John Toews. And I ended up studying Western Marxism, which was Jay’s first field. But perhaps because of all this inbreeding in a basically journalistic practice of intellectual history, I tend to think that whatever I have to say that’s actually interesting is the product of accidents of marginal influence.

    • kvond October 20, 2009 at 10:19 pm

      Yes Carl. This is one of the two-steps-back things that happen when Graham Harman tries to re-objectize Latour.

      And I do like the evolutionary metaphor of a branch of thought/species unpursued.

  2. Pingback: spoonerized alliterations » Blog Archive » Tunnel Vision

  3. amarilla October 20, 2009 at 10:46 pm

    I think there’s amazing threads that tie together the issues buried in the infinity standard question and the hyper-centrality/overdefinition you speak of here, with its tendency to automatically and insensitively trim off the liminal/subjective in favor of “precision.” In psychoanalytic circles I’ve read it discussed as over-externalization, which might be the same as hyper-objectification. There is torture and self-sabotage in it as expressed in the use of the term vivisetion. Fabulous post, thank you. The themes you are Carl are tracing seem especially worthwhile.

    • kvond October 21, 2009 at 11:52 am

      I’m glad you see the connection in such a strong way. I don’t really see the limnal as “subjective” (which is largely determined in a subject/obect binary), but I follow what you are saying. It is for me “trans-subjective” in that it necessarily goes beyond the boundary of the central and moves to a kind of participation with the field.

      I like the reference to “over-externalization” this is I believe very much in keep with Spinoza’s psychology which tried to go to the root of such, the strong valuations we make (good/bad) of things in the world through our imaginary investments. For Spinoza things in the world achieved a sort of false concretization by being seen as the direct and valued cause of our personal happiness or sadness. The very externality of these things in the world comes out of our blame or crediting of them for our internal states, and it is this fundamental binarization (which is really an imaginary projection of our own affects out into the world) that creates the subject/object dichotomy and really the hardened sense that we are apart from the world.

      And yes, Carl’s use of vivisection is more interesting here, especially because Descartes, if I recall, used the cadaver’s eye of a cow (not vivisection, but rather intimate), and inserted it into a box to make a camera obscura lens and show how the eye and ultimately the visual mind worked, making a kind of cybernetic flesh camera. There is a sense in which the instrumentality which the subject/object dichotomy (affect projection) leads, the need to control the “object” is involved with cutting it out from the rest of the field that gave rise to it.

      • Amarilla October 21, 2009 at 7:23 pm

        The concept of over-externalization is something I picked up from Marion Woodman. When I came across it in her book The Pregnant Virgin (I know, heavy handed title…) a bell rang.

        The world I grew up in seemed very dangerous emotionally, a mine field, so I learned to study the externals very carefully and suppress what you might call the field or the ground of my being. This carried over into drawing, where I drew careful, realistic renderings of whatever was in front of me but it was all depressingly souless and bound to factualities, for the most part. I feel like I’ve been learning to relax into the field with its subtle richness for a very long time and I still have a long way to go.

        At one point I used to have flashes of seeing myself and all that surrounded me as a composition, maybe similar to a Cezanne or a Vuillard. It was truly blissful thing that I can’t put into words, but the memory of it came back to me at just about the same time I read the article where you discuss privation, a blind man, the field. So you can start to see why your subjects are very important to me, greatly appreciated, and have fleshed out my various vocabularies and restorative practices with surprising potency.

      • kvond October 21, 2009 at 7:52 pm

        It is good that my own journeys into Spinoza and else aid others in their’s as well.

  4. amarilla October 22, 2009 at 10:03 am

    Still thinking about the hyperfocus issues, I’m so fascinated, but will try not to get carried away. It parallels the dramas of fixation/entrenchement/overemphasis and their evils and various tortures and reductionisms: greed, jealousy, elitism, vengeance, prejudice. I know it sounds moralistic but I’m not judging anyone just stating that I’ve experienced too often these painfully narrow states of mind and I know they tithe more than a tenth.

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