Frames /sing


Massumi’s Cognitive Doubling, Spinoza’s Numerical Affectivity

I have to admit that the first essay that confronted me in Massumi’s book has really stymied me. The difficulty comes at several levels, not the least of which that I had read this essay before in other contexts, not realizing it, and the deep disappointment with it from the past echoes back up through time like a dark, and somewhat intellectually fetid tide. The staining feeling that Massumi gets is it all wrong, terribly wrong in his attempted synthesis of Bergson and Spinoza, washes back up over my contemporaneous reading, and frankly left me very frustrated with my attempt to initiate an innocent engagement with the collection. (I am hoping that I had not amnesiacally run into Massumi’s other essays in the past.) One if left with the unenvied task of critically breaking apart Massumi’s experimental expositions, a very unkind and in fact unpleasant thing to do to such beautifully attempted and articulated readings in the realm of philosophy I appreciate, or…simply passing over what for me has been something of an infuriating encounter. I’m going to have to do much more of the latter, and less of the former for the essay “The Autonomy of Affect”, for the sake of preserving the right aptitude for the rest of what Massumi has to say. My responses will have to remain gnomic.

Numericity of Connections

First of all Massumi opens with the report of an experiment which involved a film that narratively told the story of a melting snowman. Massumi notes the variety of assessments of versions of the film (some without words, some factually descriptive, some emotionally keyed), coupled with seeming disparities of the autonomic effects of heartrate and skin galvinization, etc. From this he draws, as he is want to do, a radical, disjunctive contrast between affect responses (intensity) and literal comprehension (signifying comprehension). I know that this is his goal, to create a fundamental dichotomy, but, at least from a Spinozist perspective (which he attempts to appropriate), he’s got it all wrong. Factual descriptions are not necessarily in disjunction with affective responses…rather they set up their own affective responses in a variety of strengths. It is not the factuality of a narrative reading that confuses assessment of the film’s quality, but rather, I would suggest, the attempted synthesis of the viewer of their own projective interpretations of the reality of the images, and the viewer’s projective interpretation of the narrator’s reality. This is not intensity vs. signification at all, but a question of strength of image association, best seen in Spinoza’s reading of how images grow stronger through a numerical relation to causes:

5p8 – The greater the number of causes that simultaneously concur in arousing an emotion, the greater the emotion.

5p10 – As long as we are not assailed by emotions that are contrary to our nature, we have the power to arrange and associate affections of the body according to the order of the intellect.

5p11 – In proportion as a mental image is related [refertur] to more things, the more frequently does it occur – i.e., the more often it springs to life – and the more it engages the mind.

Proof : In proportion as an image or emotion is related to more things, the more causes there are by which it can be aroused and fostered, all of which the mind, by hypothesis, regards simultaneously as a result of the emotion. And so the emotion thereby occurs more frequently – i.e., springs to life more often – and engages the mind more (5p8).

The factality of a narration of an emotional cinematic scene simply sets up another vector of causes, but not one that is necessarily disjunctive at all. In fact Spinoza’s entire prescription is in finding the nexus between both vectors of causes. Massumi is quite good at drawing our attention to intensity, and in fact the autonomy of affect, but it is in my mind the equal need to find a doubling reflexive between the immanent and the actual, a necessary disjunction, that runs simply in the wrong direction.

Spinoza Does Not Double

One can see this in his outright appeal to Spinoza, how he torques Spinoza’s reading of mind to accomodate an abstraction of mind, a move that is really antithetical to Spinoza’s own project:

In Spinoza, it is only when the idea of the affection is doubled by an idea of the idea of the affection that it attained the level of conscious reflection. Conscious reflection is a doubling over of the idea upon itself, a self-recursion of the idea that enwraps the affection or impingement at two removes. For it has already been removed once by the body itself. The body infolds the effect of the impingement – it conserves the impingement minus the impinging thing, the impingement abstracted from the actual action that caused it and actual context of that action. This is a first-order idea produced spontaneously by the body: affection is immediately, spontaneously doubled by the repeatable trace of an encounter, the “form” of an encounter, in Spinoza’s terminology (an infolding, or contraction, of context in the vocabulary of this essay).

Parables for the Virtual, 32

First of all, because Massumi does not cite any Spinoza is pretty hard to find out just where he is coming from, and this frustrates our interpretative aims to even a greater degree because Massumi is inventing a position for himself. Insofar as one could extricate such a description from Spinoza, one would have to say that Spinoza works actually to show how this process of “mind” is fundamentally in error, and that betterment of mind consists in unraveling this confusion. To say that the body initially “removes” an effect from its environment (though its recursively organized semiotic effects that make it a “body” in the first place, let us say), in a kind of abstraction, is either in error due to its incompleteness, or in its intention. One must first grant that for Spinoza ideas in the mind of God refuse any such abstraction at all, and that due to this refusal, the quality of being that something has is leveraged upon this refusal of abstraction as well. The abstractly frankly is definitionally never complete, nor is it categorical (certainly not in the fashion that Massumi implies); which is to say the constitution of the effects of the body which make it a body occur via its participation IN its enviroment, its mutuality with its environment, one might say its sharing in its “essence”, and as a mode of Substance simply could not exist/persist without this sharing. The removal of the impingement simply does not fully or even abstractly occur. The ideas (what I read as information), which organize a body, are paticipations. Indeed they have their degrees of intensity, but there is no removal.

Secondly, the second-order of removal that enwraps the organism in consciousness is in fact not a goal or aim of Spinoza’s concept of freedom (he does not or will not move towards a Hegelian conception of reflection or incorporative wholeness, the wholeness that Spinoza pursues is machinic and constructive). One can see from Spinoza’s concept of affect and passion that attribution of intensity to an external cause (a passage from one degree of perfection and power to another, coupled with the idea of a cause, General Definition of the Affects), must be unwoven. In this manner, consciousness is NOT merely the idea of an idea. The trickling from one thought to another is a MODE of consciousness, one that is fundamentally involved in the deprivation of power. What Spinoza is concerned with is a mode of consciousness which is NOT reflective (hence, German Idealism’s dichotomous appropriations of Spinoza, beginning with Schelling and ending with Hegel, are truly wrong-headed, missing what is genuinely novel to Spinoza’s solution of the mind). One can see that Massumi is missing the boat as well, when he seeks to define “mind” specifically in reference the doubling itself, quite in contradistinction to Spinoza own undoubled qualification of mind as mere Attributive expression:

The trace determines a tendency, the potential, if not the appetite, for the autonomic repetition and variation of the impingement. Conscious reflection is the doubling over of this dynamic abstraction upon itself. The order of the connection of such dynamic abstractions among themselves, on the level specific to them, is called mind.

Indeed there are such doublings and such abstractions, but foundational is that this is not ALL that there is to mind. One can see right away that Massumi has made a right turn on Spinoza when he should have made a left, when he attempts to leverage a ghostly double out of Spinoza’s monism at the register of the body. Spinoza’s entire point is that the “body” is not what it thinks it is (and neither is the mind).

Again, these are tentative readings based on the temporal process of engagement.


4 responses to “Massumi’s Cognitive Doubling, Spinoza’s Numerical Affectivity

  1. Josh W January 2, 2010 at 5:47 pm

    So are you saying that the brain repeats outside events inside itself, and the relationship between these repetitions is our mind? Ok I missed out some bits in the interest of making the sentence less convoluted, so I’ll add them back here:

    These repetitions are not exact, because they can be adjusted by coinciding with other repetitions (or other relationships I don’t get yet).

    And we can repeat internal events too, making a repetition of the combined event, that doesn’t need to coincide with either of the two original event repititions (in other words we make magenta light from an overlap of red and blue light, but in Spinoza’s mind model the mind can just repeat the equivalent of magenta by itself after it has been produced the first time).

    If this is right, I suppose it begs the question of how this combination correlates with the real world; if someone mentally repeats an experience of blue light and an experience of red light, will it produce an experience of magenta, or will the brain interact them wrongly? If it can, how does that gluing become improved?

    • kvond January 2, 2010 at 7:41 pm

      Honestly I can’t keep track of what specifically you are referring to. Are you referring to Massumi’s assertion, or my Spinozist correction of his appeal to Spinoza? Spinoza has very little direct assertion of “repetion” as a principle, and certainly not one that explains perception.

      • Josh W January 4, 2010 at 11:19 pm

        Well as your critique seems to be based on his deviation from the model you agree with Spinoza about, all those layers are sort of tied together in the quote, which I reworked according to my own understanding to see if it still fitted.

        The first three paragraphs are me trying to make sense of the Spinoza quote you made given your criticisms of Massumi and what you’ve previously said about Spinoza:

        I got the impression before that from Spinoza’s point of view, if you perceive something, it is to some degree present; our perception of an object is our participation in it’s structure, or something like that.

        If that is the case, then memory and thought must be the partial recreation of the object because it is perceived again in some recognisable form! The dynamic abstraction seems to be like chopping off part of an object, the bit that faces us, so it can have a life of it’s own inside our head.

        I suppose there are other ways of working with it, (like the idea that imagination is in fact a non-local link) but I have a feeling that they collapse functionally into the same kind of idea, so their probably not worth pursuing, certainly not here.

        Of course, if I’ve misunderstood how he sees perception, then my inferences will be way off!

  2. kvond January 5, 2010 at 10:52 am

    Josh: “I got the impression before that from Spinoza’s point of view, if you perceive something, it is to some degree present; our perception of an object is our participation in it’s structure, or something like that.

    If that is the case, then memory and thought must be the partial recreation of the object because it is perceived again in some recognisable form! The dynamic abstraction seems to be like chopping off part of an object, the bit that faces us, so it can have a life of it’s own inside our head.”

    Kvond: I’m trying to twist Spinoza’s position to accomodate your description, and perhaps it can be done, but part of the problem is that you are beginning from a basic subject/object dyad, something that Spinoza is working to upend (along with, preventively, much of the Idealist tradition that followes). For Spinoza our perception of any object in the world is not of that object at all. It is an Idea we have of our own body being in a certain state. When I see that dog over there, I am not seeing that dog, but rather am seeing (ideationally expressing) myself in a certain state. That’s a sloppy way of putting it, but he is very radical on this. My ideas about things in the world are only ideas of my own body being x or y. Our imaginary relations (our phenomenology, etc), though, are combined with the degree-of-adequacy of our ideas, which produces the effects of better or worse perceptions, thoughts, notions, etc. But there is no “recreation” of the object (although you could alter your description and say that there is), because ultimately for Spinoza there is no “object” in the first place; which is to say, the “object” and “you” are both expressions of Substance – you are both distinct, but not separate. One way of understanding this is that the way that you and the object do connect in the more adequate perceptions and ideas we have, is through our (self) perception of mutual ideas, what he calls “common notions”, which are kind of like looking through the very structure of the Universe (of which you yourself are an expression), to some other part of the universe (of which it itself is an expression). An obvious, or general way of exemplifying this might be, you and other things are necessarily “extended”, so when you percieve something as having extensional qualities, you are doing so through the very Idea of extension. One is not really “recreating” the object. This being said, there is very little emphasis, or even description that allows us to say that one object (apart from perception) even remains the same object over time. He has only expressed general thoughts on this, likely because he does not regard it as an important problem, given that there is only ONE same that matters, Substance, and all continuity is seen through this.

    As far as “chopping off” part of an object in abstraction, one could argue this, as Spinoza both is at pains to say that all of our knowledge is shot through with imaginary effects, but also even that mathematics and other seemingly rational forms of knowledge are imaginary. One can say, yes, this is kind of chopping off, but because the object itself isn’t the point, what Spinoza sees is both a constant paricipation with and mutual expression of, the self and its objects. They are of one fabric. But are one fabric under the vision that all of our being and understanding is limited. It is a quite different picture than those which read objects and subjects as primary, and subjects as selecting out features which deprive them of real knowledge.

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