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kvond

Žižek Asks “What is Spinoza?”: Tarrying With a Negative

Where Spinoza Diverts From History

Through some recent cursory discussion in which arose the comparison between Lacan’s analytic three realms of Imaginary, Symbolic, Real and Spinoza three knowledges (Imaginary, Rational and Intutional) a very important homology upon which their differences are perhaps best spelled out, the subject of Žižek’s take on Spinoza reoccurred to me. I had encountered it a few times before, and as always with his subversive simplifications I took pleasure in what he had to say…but lasting with a kernel of firm resistance. Instead of exploring the genetic relationship between Lacan and Spinoza there is the sense that Žižek is performing a landscape of historical necessity, contorting Spinoza’s theory in a kind of Procrustean vision which reduces him to what history made of him in the developments of German Idealism, in particular under the controversy of Panthesism of that Age. What is lost to us in such a movement of Spirit is both the social-political determinations which fueled the German Ideal reformulation of Spinoza – perhaps penult in the figure of Schelling (including our loss of Heine) – but more importantly Spinoza himself. And with the loss of Spinoza, is lost the potentiality of his claims and their own historical expressions of proto-modern forms of the Dutch Republic. Žižek ensures that Spinoza cannot come to us without the mediation of German Idealism. It is impossible. There can be no importation of the past along another nexus.

This made me wish I had engaged Žižek’s thoughts on Spinoza before, so I take this chance to take up some aspects of his inscription upon Spinoza, in a kind of running commentary. Hopefully this will direct others to his succinct and interesting exposition, but also will expand Spinoza out from such a titan’s bed. My mode of engagement is not academic. I simply pass to his excellent essay and extract the relevant and interesting passages, quote whole from them, breaking them into points that mostly flow into each other, and comment with some length in much the same way I would as my mind runs when I read them. You can simply skip my comments and read the numbered points and get a pretty good sense of where Žižek is coming from (and one can always return to the essay itself). I interpose several linked reference to past posts in case others would like to hyperlink around these arguments, changing frames as they wish.

The Denial of the Mediator

From Spinoza, Kant, Hegel and… Badiou!

1. So what is Spinoza? He is effectively the philosopher of Substance, and at a precise historical moment: AFTER Descartes. For that reason, he is able to draw all (unexpected, for most of us) consequences from it.

I certainly agree with Žižek that historically configuring Spinoza as AFTER Descartes is quite significant, I make something of a sociologically argument for the importance of Spinoza leveraged precisely on this fact, but Žižek has something important also in mind here. Spinoza is not only after Descartes, he is BEFORE Kant and then Hegel. He forms part of a progression, a series, which terminates in Hegel. Whereas I would argue that Spinoza’s Non-Representational, degree-of-Being view of knowledge was the path not taken (exposing the raw intellect of potential in early Dutch experimentation with Capitalism, Democracy and Mechanism), Žižek necessarily reads him as part of a march towards an ultimate totalization which finds its completion in Hegel. Following this trajectory requires that we take the Idealist’s approach which moves from Spinoza to Kant to Schelling and then Hegel, and reduce Spinoza’s philosophy to merely being a philosophy of Substance. There is something to Spinoza’s Substance, but it is not what German Idealism would like to make of it.

2. Substance means, first of all, that there is no mediation between the attributes: each attribute (thoughts, bodies…) is infinite in itself, it has no outer limit where it would touch another attribute – “substance” is the very name for this absolutely neutral medium of the multitude of attributes. This lack of mediation is the same as the lack of subjectivity, because subject IS such a mediation: it ex-sists in/through what Deleuze, in The Logic of Sense, called the “dark precursor,” the mediator between the two different series, the point of suture between them. So what is missing in Spinoza is the elementary “twist” of dialectical inversion which characterizes negativity, the inversion by means of which the very renunciation to desire turns into desire of renunciation, etc.

I do not think that Deleuze’s dark precursor is identical to the “subject”. In fact there are two levels at which I would resist Žižek’s easy slide. Firstly there is the conflation between “subject” and “subjectivity” and this is unwarranted. Caroline Williams delivered a nice Althusserian-Spinozist paper that can be accessed here: Subjectless Subjectivity, A Geography of Subject: Beyond Objectology. As Williams forwards, it should be argued indeed that there is subjectivity in Spinoza, without the “subject” proper. Secondly, Deleuze’s dark precursor is not in any sense a negation. Rhetorically it does invoke something of Schelling’s Dark God ungrund of the coming subjective reflexivity, but it is itself a surplus without reflection:

“In fact, it is not by poverty of its vocabulary that language invents the form in which it plays the role of dark precursor, but by its excess, by its most positive syntactic and semantic power. In playing this role it differentiates the differences between different things spoken of, relating these immediately to one another in a series which it causes to resonate.”

Difference and Repetition

Žižek is trying to wedge in the truth of his dialectical inversion, and where it does not fit it is merely coming (if history gives it enough time). Who can blame him, but we must keep track of such wedgings. Not every meditation is an inversion (it might very well be a “fold”) and not every mediation is a negation. In any case though, I would be glad to accept that Spinoza contains neither “Subject” nor “dark precursor”(or its Schelling imposition), and this is due to the unmediated nature of Substance’s expression. Substance both exists and acts via the modes (E3p6dem).

3. What is unthinkable for him is what Freud called “death drive”: the idea that conatus is based on a fundamental act of self-sabotaging. Spinoza, with his assertion of conatus, of every entity’s striving to persist and strengthen its being and, in this way, striving for happiness, remains within the Aristotelian frame of what a good life is – what is outside his scope is the what Kant calls “categorical imperative,” an unconditional thrust that parasitizes upon a human subject without any regard for its well-being, “beyond the pleasure-principle,” and that, for Lacan, is the name of desire at its purest.

This also is something I affirm, and have written on. There is a primary if not absolute tension between Freud’s Death Drive or his splitting of the drives, and Spinoza’s unitary Pleasure Principle conatus (Spinoza performs the differentiation of destruction on another, and in fact multiple levels). I entertain the differences between Freud and Spinoza here, in the latter part of the article: The Zuggtmonic Drive: (Dark) Intelligence Without Center. As I try to point out, there is a conflation between two things in Freud’s pursuit of this drive: the search for an explanation for the repetition of trauma (recursive unhappy behavior), and the presence of conscious/unconscious morbid thoughts such as “I want to die”, neither of which require the positing of an entirely different metaphysical drive.

It is good as well that Žižek organizes the contrast between Spinoza’s conatus and Freud’s Death Drive as the problem of self-sabotage. This is because it allows us to potentially trace how Spinoza unhinges the explanatory need for such drive in his subversion of the “self” as it assumed. This is to say, ultimately Spinoza deprives any self of ontological ground upon which any then “sabotage” can be grafted or posited. There indeed are selves, just as there are objects (in fact there are just as many one could say), but these selves are ever in boundary-smearing expansions and contractions, pulled in tides across their horizons. And pleasure/power is the mode by which these permutations appear to accrue and disperse.

Where is the Center of the Affects?

4. What the “imitation of affects” introduces is the notion of trans-individual circulation and communication: as Deleuze later developed in a Spinozian vein, affects are not something that belongs to a subject and is then passed over to another subject; affects function at the pre-individual level, as free-floating intensities which belong to no one and circulate at a level “beneath” intersubjectivity. This is what is so new about imitatio afecti: the idea that affects circulate DIRECTLY, as what psychoanalysis calls “partial objects.”

Here Žižek brings to the fore a very important feature of Spinoza. It is in fact the one feature that will undermine the singular framing he is trying to provide, how Substance has to be mediated by a negating Subject. Because Spinoza’s is a subjectivity without a subject, and because his ontology of modes is cross-tidal, the looked-for subject never appears. This not to say that it is denied, rather, it simply makes no appearance because it is unnecessary in the surplus of Spinoza’s model. Without the Subject Žižek’s progression through to German Idealism’s preoccupation with an optics of reflection or construction falls off its rails…reifying as they in their variety are want to do, imaginary reflections of images in mirrors, in camera obscura devices, in paintings of linear perspective, unto a logic of binary negating ab-straction. Indeed it is through the “trans-individual” communication of affects, the autonomy of affects we want to say, that we trace out the cross-currents that both work to vectorially focus themselves in persons, selves, identities, bodies of coherence, but also tear at these the same, communicating across their parts in such a way that there are gravities which pull at the joints of any anatomy. This implicit cross-directionality in Spinoza I have written on under the conceptual auspice of “Conjoined Semiosis”: Spinoza’s Notion of Inside and Outside: What is a Passion?, The Necessary Intersections of the Human Body: Spinoza, Conjoined Semiosis: A “Nerve Language” of Bodies and The “ens reale” and the “ens rationis”: Spelling Out Differences. But aside from the details of an argument of Conjoined Semiosis, it is in the general sense the veritably the trans-individual nature of the imitation of the affects which undercuts the centrality of the subject itself, and eventually atrophies its need. Interestingly, and with some connection to Lacan’s imaginary stage of identification, the imitatio affecti are the congealing of essential rational presuppositions (we must see the world as reflected by others who are both like us, and are in the same world) which help center our experiences along specific gravities; but these condensations are not reducible to strict abstract binaries  of terms Same and Different,  as they inhabit and inform the co-ordination of the entire animal and biotic world where no Symbolic “subject” gains any footing even for the staunchest Idealist. (On the extrapolations of the imitation of the affects and it rational centering: The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation, Part I of IV and the concept of an Exowelt.) Yet the autonomy of these affects, the way that non-human effects communicate themselves across those similarities, is the very thing that fuses the human and the non-human together, smearing out the anthropocentric center of human-oriented, Idealist preoccupation. As Žižek rightly stresses, these forces are beneath subjectivity. What he does not fully recognize is the sufficiency of this “beneath” in terms of explanation. One should add, these effects are not “partial objects” as they pervade the biotic world and inhabit a great variety of non-representational states, at best they are semiotic pieces.

5. The next philosophical consequence is the thorough rejection of negativity: each entity strives towards its full actualization – every obstacle comes from outside. In short, since every entity endeavors to persist in its own being, nothing can be destroyed from within, for all change must come from without.

Inside/Outside and the Vectors of Determination

This is an important point, and one can certainly see how Žižek arrives at this interpretation. Spinoza is quite forceful at times that there is only a physics in which things are composed in strict inside/outside determinations. And objects persists through some sort of momentum or conatus – like a baseball thrown through a vacuum in space – striving until some External event violently interacts with its internal circulation, eventually breaking apart its communications of parts which had existed in an otherwise harmonious relation. This is certainly in some sense the picture in Spinoza, and from it we gain his very strong cybernetic interpretation of the improvements of human knowledge and autonomy. We are to look within and order our informational house in much the same way that in cybernetic theory a system works back towards a homeostasis, and does so through the filtering of external (and thus threatening) noise. But Spinoza’s view is not comprehensively cybernetic. (I discuss the relationship between Spinoza’s Cybernetic and Chaoplexic features in Is Spinoza a Cyberneticist, or a Chaocomplexicist?.) One of the reasons for this is that ultimately any cognitive inside/outside boundary – and thus any ontological grounding of the “subject” proper – is illusionary, or a kind of perspective for Spinoza. Spinoza’s readings of inside persistence and external obstacle are meant to be understood as something like: “insofar as something is taken in abstraction to be apart from its environment, and insofar as it is abstracted in an act of imagination from Substance and pictured as a thing unto itself, then…”. But this inside/outside dichotomy of external destruction is not the foundation upon which the negative is foreclosed. Instead really the negation which draws a boundary between one interiority and an external force (an imaginary exclusion), is not just a distinctness which separates, but a distinctness which joins the inside and outside in a mutuality. Ultimately because all interactions participate in each other, both at the level of Substance’s expression, but also at the epistemic mutuality of essence in a shared course, inside and outside are not final determinants. (An provisional development of this line of thinking is found here, in a study of the metaphysical consequences of Spinoza’s letter to Balling: Spinoza’s Scheme of the Prophetic Imagination ; Omens of the Future: Intellection and Imagination.)

This brings Žižek’s invocation of a fairly common reading of Spinoza that “all change must come from without” under some radical revision. Where the change comes from ultimately is Substance’s own expression under which inside and outside attribution has no final anchor. Further, a study of Spinoza’s theory of affects, specifically his General Definition of the Affects, we see that inside and outside is no longer the focus of the diagnosis. All passions are indeed causal relations of passivity to events external to the object, registered as a lack of self-determination (which all things but Substance share), but these are auto-affirmations of its own power to exist, expressed in the degree of adequacy of one’s own ideas. This is central to Spinoza’s idea of freedom. The change in power, a loss of a degree of being, is constituted by a kind, a quality of self-affirmation which is not a reflexivity, a mental (or I would say informational, organizational) affirmation of the physical capacity to be. Locating this change strictly outside of the internal closure of affirmation simply doesn’t hold, and this is because the inside/outside boundary is not determinative. I do not blame Žižek for simplifying the Spinoza model in the way that he does, because Spinoza at times truly speaks in that way and it is common to read in him this fashion, but his physics of preservation is part of a larger metaphysical organization in which internal ordering and external participation preside.

6. What Spinoza excludes with his rejection of negativity is the very symbolic order, since, as we have learned already from Saussure, the minimal definition of the symbolic order is that every identity is reducible to a bundle (faisceau – the same root as in Fascism!) of differences: the identity of signifier resides solely in its difference(s) from other signifier(s).

This is interesting. Žižek appeals to Saussure’s binding of signifiers (upon which he wishes to leverage his Master Signifier) to show how any ultimate inside/outside diagnosis of change requires a negating Symbolic Realm, the realm in which the “subject” finds its proper place. Žižek’s reasoning is a little circular and shifting here. Identify requires a “bundle” and a “bundle” requires a negation. Spinoza refuses a negation, therefore he refuses a “bundle” view of differences. What he does not consider is the way in which Spinoza indeed allows a bundles of differences that make an “internal” difference, but then mitigates any such reading through internal transformations of being (General Definition of Affects) and a mutuality of inside/outside participations. Bundles are transpierced by other bundles, so to speak. It certainly is true that there is no “symbolic order” as Žižek conceives it in Spinoza, but there are semiotic powers of organization in its stead. It is perhaps symptomatic that Žižek has moved from one simplified notion of Inside and Outside (Spinoza’s proposed physics) to another (Saussure’s linguistics).

7. What this amounts to is that the absence can exert a positive causality – only within a symbolic universe is- the fact that the dog did not bark an event… This is what Spinoza wants to dispense with – all that he admits is a purely positive network of causes-effects in which by definition an absence cannot play any positive role.

Here is where we can really almost leave philosophy behind and simply think about the world itself. Unless we are speaking of a highly refined, and circularly defined concept of “event”, it simply is not true that the absence of some event can only have a positive (and here I read positive as promotional and determinative) role in making sense of the world. Žižek simply wants this to be the case, that “subject” and “absence” and “negation” and “symbolic” and “signifier” all interlock to provide a framework for reading the world and others. Unless you already assume the sufficiency of such a framework, one has to even ask how does such a view get off the ground? The way that it gets off the ground is from starting one’s analysis with the Idealist binary abstractions of Being and Non-Being or Subject and Object. But the world does not start there. One need only begin with another model, perhaps that of music, to grasp how significantly an “absence” can be a presence without dissolving into abstractions of Being and its negation. Even a child’s tune played on the piano can show how an anticipated note, when not played, produces a determinative effect (pleasure, discordance, etc), without its resolution into a full “subject” operation. A semiotic contrapuntal view of the world as inter-rhythmed, for instance such as that offered by Biosemiosis,  is one in which anticipated absences play a heavy, constitutive role. As I have pointed out before under the question of Spinoza’s supervention of the Death Drive, experiments with Slime Mold intelligence show that the presence or absence of stimulate become determinants of intellect action, such that absences work as much as “events” as presences do (The Zuggtmonic Drive: (Dark) Intelligence Without Center). Unless one wants to confer to Slime Mold’s “subject” status, the theory and our world conflict. I might add, as a moment of obvious recognition, my dog quite easily reads my failure to feed her at the right time of the day as an “event”, as well as my failure to become alarmed at a sound outside the house.

8. Or, to put it in yet another way: Spinoza is not ready to admit into the order of ontology what he himself, in his critique of the anthropomorphic notion of god, describes as a false notion which just fills in the lacunae in our knowledge – say, an object which, in its very positive existence, just gives body to a lack. For him, any negativity is “imaginary,” the result of our anthropomorphic limited false knowledge which fails to grasp the actual causal chain – what remains outside his scope is a notion of negativity which would be precisely obfuscated by our imaginary (mis)cognition. While the imaginary (mis)cognition is, of course, focused on lacks, these are always lacks with regard to some positive measure (from our imperfection with regard to god, to our incomplete knowledge of nature); what eludes it is a POSITIVE notion of lack, a “generative” absence.

This is a nice final point, and we see where Žižek and Spinoza are at greatest friction. Žižek needs the negation to be the foundation of the ethical itself, whereas Spinoza writes an entire Ethics which requires nothing of the negation as an ontological force. What Žižek finds as contradictory in Spinoza is that the imaginary projections of anthropomorphic imaginary relations which are supposed to plug-up in the gap of our knowledge are not appreciated for what they are, fill-ins for a gash in the ontological itself. Indeed the heart-felt link between the subject and negation that Žižek requires so as to ladder himself up onto Kantian grounds, is one that cannot imagine an ethical position without the gash in the world. It is telling that the musicality of life, the contrapuntal semiotic cohesion between the biotic and the abiotic, the role of tempo and constructive absences, cannot be grasped by Žižek’s Lacanian hands. Žižek must lead us to what Spinoza called and denied “a kingdom within a kingdom”. The reason why imaginary relations are not simply stucco for the hole in the humanist wall, meant to seal out the traumatizing Real that leaks in, is that the human itself is already participant and not cut off. To put it one way, in the failure to grasp “the actual causal chain” (imagined by Žižek as a failure of Representation) mis-cognitions through both the pursuits of pleasure and affirmation of power, participate in a mutuality of causal connection. Even the most imaginary relation in Spinoza is already a partially true one. There is no cut-off from the thing-in-itself. It is not a case of vats and brains. To use an example Spinoza takes from Descartes, we may imagine that the Sun is 200 ft away (and represent it as such), but this expresses a true relation of participation involving both the Sun and our Body, and this is to some degree participant in the true. The problematic is not how to connect the cut-off interior to an Ideal exterior, but how to improve these already existing connections and participations. Imaginary effects as powers of connection are an ethical connection in which we are already participant. Ethics runs itself right down to the fibers of existence. The lacks of mis-cognition are relatives of power and action, degrees of possible performance, and not categorical negations and their completion. And key to this is appreciating the contrapuntal nature of absences. I discuss this in the context of Hoffmeyer’s Code Duality in Bioethics, Defining the Moral Subject and Spinoza. I owe Hoffmeyer’s theory a proper critique which I have worked on but not presented, but truly it is that Spinoza’s ethical subjectivity is woven out of the very semiotic material of both the biotic and abiotic world. It requires no subject proper. Žižek is correct in centering Spinoza against any Kantian subject commandment, but he is incorrect (or deficient) in reducing Spinoza’s position to this lack of Kantianism, something he accomplishes by amputating the inside/outside diagnostic from the living body of Spinoza’s full metaphysical position, and then importing the inside/outside distinction to his own Saussurian conclusion.

A Dynasty of Kings: The Insertion of Negation

Largely the progression that Žižek wants to enable is one founded upon the Idealist Representational view of knowledge, coupled with the Christianized centrality of the “subject” (as both soul and legal figure). Žižek wants there to be a holy trinity of Spinoza-Kant-Hegel upon which he can graft a further Idealist trinity of Deleuze-Derrida-Lacan. Aside from the logic of a kind of royal dynasty, subsumption of all philosophical enterprises under the notion that a trio of Kings must mythically occupy the throne in their seasonal turn, we recognize that this genealogy of Kings is accomplished with a severe descriptive restriction upon what Spinoza claimed. Indeed Žižek is right to demarcate all the ways in which Spinoza is not Kant and not Hegel, but pared from Spinoza are all the complex explanatory frameworks that enable him to stake out his non-Idealist alterity. In a sense we cannot begrudge Žižek’s attempted synthesis of the alien Spinoza to his own philosophical position (perhaps not unlike Kreon’s desire to subsume the house of Oedipus unto the State). Repeating the traumas of a State performance of course does not do the job any better.

There is another order in which I don’t understand the Lacanian-Marxist preoccupation with the negation. The fundamental and ontological structuring of the “object” and lack as the condition of desire and subject itself is an instantiation of a logic of Capitalism. It is the proposition that metaphysically our relations to the world can be none other than that of a kind of gap-chasing and fundamental alienation, an alienation which one could argue is has been historically produced. I simply do not understand how those politically minded against alienation would take as firm a hold as possible to a metaphysics of alienation, except in the most masochistic of senses.

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2 responses to “Žižek Asks “What is Spinoza?”: Tarrying With a Negative

  1. bryank December 11, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    Interesting post. I found a lot of your comments on Spinoza pretty helpful, since I don’t really know all that much of Spinoza myself, although I should say I substantially (no pun intended) disagree with your comments on the “subject,” negativity, and the dialectic, particularly the last paragraph’s Deleuzian attack on negation is I think misguided. Anyhow, these are pretty extensive and so I hope to write on these issues in a bit more depth over at the Howler.

    Speaking of Zizek and psychoanalysis, and hopefully not to hijack your thread here, but I found this recent post over at Harman’s blog to be a bit peculiar:

    An estimated 3,000 students participated in the UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN SNOWBALL FIGHT.

    Sounds fun. I spent my freshman year at St. John’s at the Santa Fe campus, and there was a wondrous snowstorm, I believe in December as well. A couple of guys had an unbeatable position on a second-floor terrace next to the science labs, with an arsenal of snowballs that they launched at random passers-by. Just for the challenge I decided to go after them solo, from ground level.

    It was about 9 PM, and unusually dark, and when my disadvantaged assault on them began I heard them refer to me as a “fool”– though I knew who they were and they didn’t know who I was. Their voices were unmistakable. One was a Mr. Thomas L. from Pittsburgh (full name withheld), and I no longer remember the other.

    I don’t remember if I hit them or not.

    (http://doctorzamalek2.wordpress.com/2009/12/11/madison-snowball-fight/)

    Doesn’t that seem like kind of a fantasmatic reversal of his current blogospheric position?

  2. kvond December 11, 2009 at 6:59 pm

    I’m not sure what you mean by my comments on negativity and subjectivity, as most of my comments are concerning Spinoza’s own position (which you admit you don’t know well). Perhaps you only mean the negativity in the Lacanian “subject”, if so I look foward to your thoughts on this. As far as my Deleuzian attack on negativity, I’m not sure how to separate out from Spinoza’s own position which makes of negativity a concrete illusion. The position against negativity that I take isn’t from Deleuze, its from Spinoza.

    As far as Harman, he apparently has been a foolish fellow for quite a long time. Frankly, I don’t know how you read his posts.

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