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Category Archives: Caliban

Spinoza and the Caliban Question

The Power of Liberative Imagination in Spinoza, the Calibanic Art

Sometime like apes that mow and chatter at me
And after bite me, then like hedgehogs which
Lie tumbling in my barefoot way and mount
Their pricks at my footfall; sometime am I
All wound with adders who with cloven tongues
Do hiss me into madness.


Political Theorist, and at one time imprisoned Spinozist, Antonio Negri calls it the Caliban Question. And I think it is perhaps the greatest question of all, in regards to the full applicability of Spinoza to modern times. What is the Caliban Question?

For Negri, the Caliban Question is the search for the positive role of the imagination in the architecture of Being which Spinoza presents. This is a difficult thing to assess, for the great weight of a Rationalist interpretation of Spinoza tugs at us with pendulous force. We feel that we may have freed ourselves up from it, only to be dragged down again as we encounter the rather obvious and plainly stated descriptions against the imagination, wherein Spinoza repeatedly calls it confused, and lessor. The Caliban Question is, What room does Spinoza make for imaginative processes which lead towards the liberation of humans? What good does the imagination have?

branching off this line of thinking: Spinoza and the Metaphoric Rise of the Imagination

Caliban of course is the slave of Prospero, from Shakespeare’s Tempest. He is a “moon-calf”, a deformed and dark human offspring of the witch Sycorax by virtue of which he thought himself to be King of himself, and inheritor of the island to which Prospero had been shipwrecked. Prospero, by virtue of his learning and knowledge is himself a sorcerer, and by these powers he has enslaved this primitive boy-man as a retribution for an attempted rape of his daughter, attempting to people “this isle with Calibans”. Comical Caliban, in more recent post-colonial studies has been taken as an emblem of indigenous and childized, magical society.  And Caliban’s alliance to the two, Stephano and Trinculo, charmed by their celestial liquor, symbolizes a fundamental if mystified revolutionary spirit, the impulse to throw off an oppressive tyrant. To put it in short, the Caliban Question is the question of affective empowerment through an imaginary relation.

How to Make Tools Without Tools

Spinoza himself puts the position of the imagination within a process of intellection, taking up the interesting Cartesian analogy of trying to smith a hammer without a hammer. Here the question is raised of how the intellect is able to bootstrap itself up from non-intellective capacities. Implicit is that there is something of tool before proper “tool” and there is something of intellection within imagination:

The matter stands on the same footing as the making of material tools, which might be argued about in a similar way. (5) For, in order to work iron, hammer is needed, and the hammer cannot be forthcoming unless it has been made; but, in order to make it, there was need of another hammer and other tools, and so on to infinity. (6) We might thus vainly endeavor to prove that men have no power of working iron. [31] (1) But as men at first made use of the instruments supplied by nature to accomplish very easy pieces of workmanship, laboriously and imperfectly, and then, when these were finished, wrought other things more difficult with less labour and greater perfection; and so gradually mounted from the simplest operations to the making of tools, and from the making of tools to the making of more complex tools, and fresh feats of workmanship, till they arrived at making, complicated mechanisms which they now possess.

The Emendation of the Intellect

But the question remains, whether we are discussing the invention and production of tools, or of logical means, what exact role does imagination play in such a progression? One may very well accept the ultimate reduction of the world to a sub specie aeternitatis view of Ideas and Extension, but really at some point the imagination of the world as orderly, of tools being able to do one thing or another, is implicit in a rational and cohesive view of action. Imagination cannot solely be a bad, retarding thing. Or, to position the question another way, there must be gradations of clarity or efficacy within imaginary thinking as well: Caliban must be granted a path to liberation while still being, or even by virtue of himself being, a Caliban.

Hammer tools - Spinoza


Negri’s Caliban: Spinoza takes a five-year break from his Ethics 

Negri, because he is at most interested in the political liberation effects of Spinoza’s philosophy, wants to isolate and ensure this locus of a positive imagination as it is found in Spinoza’s total picture of the capacities of human beings, (and he brings this argument to bear in chapter 5, “Interruption of the System” of his The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics ). As some have, he focuses on the mysterious five year break Spinoza took from writing his magnum opus Ethics, from 1665 – 1670, during which Spinoza turned himself from the most abstract Ontological and Epistemological considerations of Substance and God (Books 1 and 2 of the Ethics), to treat the much more concrete and practical issues of Theology (Biblical hermeneutics, in particular as they are used to legitimate and organize power), and Politics (how that power is so organized). Negri’s point is that Spinoza has been forced by circumstance and the limitations of his top-down abstractions, to embrace the concrete conditions of a modal and historic time, the phenomenal and real surface of a profundum sea. In short, Spinoza pulled his head out of eternity, and turned his analytical gaze to matters of his day, the facts of human power.

The historical circumstances of Spinoza’s break were these:

1. In March of 1665 the English set out in War to limit the Dutch domination of sea-faring world trade. It was in the basis of this trade the Spinoza’s home community in Amsterdam was becoming a proto-capitalist world economic force, straining the limits of Royalist political forms. After several early successes by the British, the war would become quite bloody and fierce. Eventually the political ramifications would lead to the imprisonment of Spinoza’s epistolary British friend and secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg.

Screenshot 2022-08-29 163421

2. Plague, come 1663, hit northern Continental Europe. In its first year nearly 10,000 died in Amsterdam, 24,000 in the next year. By 1665 it had swum the channel to London. Early that summer, a thousand deaths a week were reported in the city, by August it was 6000 a week. 200,000 cats were killed. Houses were sealed, the gates of London closed. It would drive the scientifically minded Royal Society in London to stop meeting (1666), as the wealthy took sick, or fled to country estates. In the winter of 1664 Spinoza himself for a few months would leave the village of Voorburg because its size and proximity to The Hague had made it unsafe.

 Sabattai Zevi

3. There was a strong messianic tide in the air. Christian millinarians were disappointed that the year 1656 – a number derived from the book of Daniel and a calculation of the date of the flood – had passed and the Jews had not converted to signal the time of Second Coming. In Amsterdam rabbi Menasseh beth Israel had reported a decade earlier that some of the lost tribes of Isreal had been discovered in the New World, indicating that the messiah was approaching. Sabattai Zevi, a Smyrna Jew born on an auspicious date, come to be an inspirational Cabbalist, in Jerusalem in the Spring of 1665 declared himself to be the Messiah, and announced that the day of Redemption would be June 18th, 1666. Religious fervor over this figure and the date spread across Europe. Eschatologically minded Christians took this Jewish activity and expectation as a sign that the end days were near.

Screenshot 2022-08-29 153057

(1664 comet, drawing and observations of Matasaburou, a 12 year old boy in Japan)

4. In early December of 1664 the (in)auspicious appearance of a comet in the sky set the tone for propheticized and earth-rending changes, and remained in the sky well into the next year. Christopher Wren and John Wallis among others set to testing out their theories as to the nature of comets, while in widespread fashion most understood the comet as harbinger of the disasters. (Anecdotal to fears, Robert Knox tells of a rebellion that broke out in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) at mid-night on Dec 21, when the “fearful blazing star” was directly over head. The rebellion lasted more than a week, until the tail turned its direction.)

One has to picture the degree of social crisis occurring at nearly every level of exchange and expectation. Imagine thousands upon thousands dying in our major cities, particularly in the quarters brimming with poor. See that letters themselves, between scientists and philosophers, were being heated and ironed, so to take the disease out, as it traveled from elsewhere. Un-visible death creeps through every association and acquaintance, and families and friendships are disintegrating. Reports of the brutality/bravery of Dutch navy men reached both shores, as invisible shipping lanes spread across the channel are being fired upon, those tenuous threads across the Atlantic stretched taut all the way down to Brazil, a place of “primitive” and mythologized wealth, a balancing point for new opportunity and cultural redemption – the Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam being the fathers and sons of a recently inquistioned people. Spinoza was part of a ring of exchange, as he haply kept correspondence with Oldenburg in London, scientists sharing and combating over their startling new theories and mechanisms. Knowledge circulated with relative freedom from Italy to Paris to The Hague to London and back, passing through veils of secrecy. But now all this potential connectivity was threatened and stamped by death, and the friendship with Oldenburg would not survive the war, plague and publishing in warmth. Every opening for others was also a breech. The messianic fervor of both Christians and Jews should not be underestimated. It expressed viscerally the ambitions of an expected, and then yearned for deliverance. As plague wiped out the the city centers, focusing on the poor, and as Royal forms of governance strained, the eschatological, the coming of an “event” to trigger it all, was ripened into a hung fruit. How startling the comet of the winter of 1664 must have seemed, in retrospect! I bring the drawing from a Japanese boy’s diary to suggest the global semiotic force of its presence. Such a light, no matter its interpretation, confers on every eye, each evening of long nights, an interpretive imperative. The most distant planets were just being glimpsed in glasses of the kind that Spinoza was polishing. Now a body was burning across the sky, filled with empty signification. The prophetic fulfillments of Zevi Sabbatai, the Jewish occult assurance of a date of Redemption, surely stirred the volatile mix deep, deep, bringing together history, biblical fact and historical cataclysmic in a single star. The condensation of all these forces, fears and transitions, before death’s door must have shaken even Spinoza’s quiet soul to the bone. Spinoza’s turn to the matters of the day, how social reality was produced, was a kind of philosophical triage.

The moon-calf’s isle full of noises: Spinoza writes a letter to console a Father who lost his son

Hast thou not dropp’d from heaven?

Out o’ the moon, I do assure thee: I was the man i’
the moon when time was.

I have seen thee in her and I do adore thee:
My mistress show’d me thee and thy dog and thy bush.

At this time of coming war, the not-yet-comet, horrible city-plague and messiah expectation, Spinoza’s good friend Peter Balling’s young son suddenly succumbed to pestilence (for controversial thoughts on the timing of the son’s death, see here). It is one of the few glimpses we have into Spinoza’s tenderness, for his letter to Mr. Balling (letter 17), though answering questions of metaphysics, is tinged with the personal and heartfelt. Balling was one of Spinoza’s circle of Amsterdam Cartesians with whom he had grown close a decade before, and Balling had just finished translating some of Spinoza’s work from the Latin.

It is upon this letter that Negri’s research into the substance of imagination lights, for in it we have the sensitive treatment of a most human and most imaginative event. Peter Balling, knowing well Spinoza’s arguments against the imagination, tells Spinoza of a hallucinatory experience, one that disturbingly binds him to his son now dead. We know of the contents of Balling’s description from Spinoza’s response.

Spinoza begins by telling Balling that his prophetic experience of his son’s groans were merely of the imagination:

With regard to Omens, of which you make mention in telling me that, while your child was still healthy and strong, you heard groans like those he uttered when he was ill and shortly afterwards died, I should judge that these were not real groans, but only the effect of your imagination; (tran. Elwes)

We might at this point see that Spinoza is going to say that these hallucinated groans are to Spinoza merely imagination, a confused play of the mind upon itself. But this will not be the case. For really Spinoza finds degrees of truth in all knowing, even imaginary knowing. And here he will a distinction which says something in particular about kinds of imaginary influences. First Spinoza cements his conclusion that indeed these were imaginary effects. They were not direct perceptions gained through the senses:

for you say that, when you got up and composed yourself to listen, you did not hear them so clearly either as before or as afterwards, when you had fallen asleep again. This, I think, shows that the groans were purely due to the imagination, which, when it was unfettered and free, could imagine groans more forcibly and vividly than when you sat up in order to listen in a particular direction.

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

A Brazilian Caliban: the dream opens itself up

Spinoza then makes a rather interesting, if discordant, diversion. He means at the surface of it to explain that he too had experienced a play of the imagination which forcefully maintained itself, superimposed upon the world, when one thing or another was not being stared at. But the content of this dream, and its persistence, the jutting presence it seems to have in the letter, makes of it for the psychologically minded, a cypher:

I think I can both illustrate and confirm what I say by another occurrence, which befell me at Rhijnsburg last winter. When one morning, after the day had dawned, I woke up from a very unpleasant dream, the images, which had presented themselves to me in sleep, remained before my eyes just as vividly as though the things had been real, especially the image of a certain black and scabrous Brazilian whom I had never seen before. This image disappeared for the most part when, in order to divert my thoughts, I cast my eyes on a boot, or something else. But, as soon as I lifted my eyes again without fixing my attention on any particular object, the same image of this same negro appeared with the same vividness again and again, until the head of it gradually vanished (translation modified).

We can see the imposition of the black and scabby Brazilian negro. It is easy now in our time of critical reflection to understand that the figure, though Spinoza had “never seen” him before, embodies much that is projective in the wealth and organization of Amsterdam and European crisis. (Spinoza is from merchant’s family which traded primarily with colonial Brazil.) The Brazil. The locus of some of the lost tribes of Israel, the slavery of humanity on whose trade fuels a new and possibly democratic liberation in the United Provinces, a diseased figure which speaks to the plague, a persistent intruder in Sense itself. Spinoza turns to this memory in empathy with, and not just an illustration of, Peter Balling’s premonition. There suggests a grand kind of synthesis here. The most personal and the most economic and cultural. A son one has always known, slave one has never met. But how is it to gain footing?

Spinoza makes an important distinction, one that I think is requisite by the very nature of his bi-Attributive metaphysics (perhaps though in violation of a postulate of an infinite number of Attributes):

Effects of imagination either from the constitution of a body or of a mind, originate (translation own).

Effectus imaginationis ex constitutione vel coporis vel mentis oriuntur.

Spinoza wants to have Balling see that the dream of the Brazilian Caliban is perhaps somehow fundamentally different than his own premonition of his son’s illness and death. See here my treatment of Spinoza’s Prophetic Imagination here.

At this point in the letter to this effect Spinoza brings up the kind of hallucinations which characterize the effects of the imagination brought on by the condition of the body. First he mentions the delirium caused by fevers. Next he mentions how a constitutionally “tenacious” man or woman tenacem imagines “nothing but quarrels, brawls, slaughterings, and the like”. These are effects that are supposed to flow from physical effects. In contrast to this physical arisal, there is the logic of imaginary progressions, spreading out in a web of expanding associations and tracings:

We also see that the imagination is to a certain extent determined by the character of the constitution of the soul [ab animae constitutione ], for, as we know by experience, it follows the traces of the Intellect in all things, and arranges its images and words, just as the Intellect arranges its demonstrations and connects one with another; so that we are hardly at all able to say, what will not serve the imagination as a basis for some image or other.

Spinoza, in his dichotomy of causes, will set up a distinction as to which effects of the imagination are possibly prophetic of the future, and those which are not. The distinction is simple, if ever impossible to support as pure. Effects which proceed from the body can have no prophetic glimpse, those that proceed from the mind/soul, can, in a confused way, have a presentament of the future:

This being so, I say that no effects of imagination springing from physical causes can ever be omens of future events; inasmuch as their causes do not involve any future events. But the effects of imagination, or images originating in the mental constitution, may be omens of some future event; inasmuch as the mind may have a confused presentiment of the future.

He goes further, characterizing just what it was about Peter Balling’s hallucination what may have made it prophetic, and it is based on the concept of union and love:

It may, therefore, imagine a future event as forcibly and vividly, as though it were present; for instance a father (to take an example resembling your own) loves his child so much, that he and the beloved child are, as it were, one and the same. And since (like that which I demonstrated on another occasion) there must necessarily exist in thought the idea of the essence of the child’s states and their results, and since the father, through his union with his child, is a part of the said child, the soul of the father must necessarily participate in the ideal essence of the child and his states, and in their results, as I have shown at greater length elsewhere.

The prophetic capacities of Peter Balling causally stem from his loving and shared essence with his son. There is for Spinoza a very real sense in which participation in another person’s force of existing can make of you both One Thing, and by virtue of this synthetic and truly cybernetic understanding of shared essence, the imagination can operate as an, albeit confused, but still forceful and productive means of understanding and liberation. Just how Spinoza aims to delineate that his own hallucination of the Brazilian Caliban, wanting of freedom, as a participant in the forces which helped enslave him, as a merely bodily effect of the imagination, one does not know. Perhaps this distinction only is a residue of his need to privilege his friend’s intimate hallucination. Or perhaps he himself could not fathom the ideational sharing he might have with a distant and dark figure whom “he had never met”. The question remains open.

Spinoza's Prophetic Imagination schema

see more on this diagram here

But Spinoza then will set out, as if a diagnostician of imaginative phenomena, several pragmatic restrictions which serve to curtail too rampant an application of this prophetic principle:

Again, as the soul of the father participates ideally in the consequences of his child’s essence, he may (as I have said) sometimes imagine some of the said consequences as vividly as if they were present with him, provided that the following conditions are fulfilled:

I. If the incidence in his son’s life be remarkable; II. If it be capable of being readily imagined; III. If the time of its happening be not too remote; IV. If his body be well constituted, in respect not only of health but also free from all cares and troubles which could outwardly trouble the senses; [V.] It may also assist the result, if we think of something which generally stimulates similar ideas. For instance, if while we are talking with this or that man we hear groans, it will generally happen that, when we think of the man again, the groans heard when we spoke with him will recur to our mind.

Negri and Spinoza

Negri  grasps hold of this affirmation and does not let go. The Reality of the Imagination, the constitutive partaking it has with the essences of things, the fact that all of the social Real is shot through with imaginary forces, and that these forces concretely and causally make up the forms of our social domain, is the hinge-point on which Negri turns Spinoza’s critique of imagination, to a imaginative project of liberation. It is possible, indeed historically necessary, to imagine, and perhaps phenomenologically experience, a liberation in order to bring it about. And this occurs as part of cybernetic sharing of persons in a single form. In a sense, if the future is not too far out, and the event is imaginable and distinct enough, and the body is in good enough health, a prophetic, if confused capture comes into play.

Making the cat speak: the negotiation between the knowing imagination and the oppressive powers of knowledge

open your mouth; here is that
which will give language to you, cat: open your
mouth; this will shake your shaking, I can tell you,
and that soundly: you cannot tell who’s your friend:
open your chaps again.


I’ll show thee every fertile inch o’ th’ island;
And I will kiss thy foot: I prithee, be my god.

Negri conducts a rather thorough analysis of a diachronic and synchronic braid of arguments in Spinoza’s interruptive Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, the result of which is the conclusion that Spinoza is caught in the embrace of necessarily imaginative historical concreteness of the human condition. Imaginative effects are those which constitute modal reality, in particular those effects which serve to bind the social whole. The imaginary telling of the nature of the world and its laws is a necessary over-determination of the Real determination of causal explanation, manifest in a phenomenal expression which is distinctly affective. I quote here at length to finish off the point:

In other words, the problem consists of the special nature of the effects of the prophetic imagination, of the paradox of an essential nothingness that produces historical being and certainty. This is the moment when the critical function becomes phenomenological. The imagination justifies its confused and indeterminate being by molding itself in the natural potentia, in the development and increase of the human operari. Therefore, two levels can be identified: a first, static level on which the imagination proposes a partial but positive definition of its own contents and a second, dynamic level on which the movement and effects of the imagination are validated as a function of the ethical constitution of the world.13 The political raises the theological to the level of truth. And here the problem of “false consciousness” is posed in modern terms! We must now, therefore, follow this process that, through a powerful operation, raises illusion to the level of truth; we must examine and differentiate its internal truth and falsity. The instrumental paradox of the “libertine” critique of religion is accepted here (imagination is illusion) in the inverted form that really constitutes it (and illusion constitutes reality). But the Spinozianin version of the constitutive function evades the skeptical danger and every skeptical temptation. Constitutive activity, in fact, is not a simple political function, it is not double truth; it is, rather, ontological power. Revelation’s lesson is undoubtedly “ad hominem” an illusory sign of a hidden truth, but it is the operative character of illusion that makes it real and therefore true (chapter II, pp. 43-44)  

The potential for ideological critique in this position is immense, but in this thread of thoughts I am not so much interested in the political, as important as it is. I am interested in the figure of Caliban himself. Where does he stand in this cross-fire of imaginative effects, the universal primative cast in a permanently comic and revolutionary position? Or, what does Spinoza make of his dream? Could it come solely from bodily effects? (And problematically for Spinoza’s distinction, since all bodily effects are paralleled by ideational effects, how does such a division maintain itself?) So how long does this figure linger over our focus upon his arguments? In what manner did the dream (winter of ’62) and its recollection (summer of ’64) foreground his break with the Ethics and his endeavor to concretize his theories in historical form? And as comet, war, plague, messiah, personal deaths and distant colonies invade upon the civility of a productive Europe is not the imagination itself the locus of any move towards freedom? How much did Spinoza imagine the possibilities and needs of his Ethics as he returned to it in roughly in 1670, and took on the nature of the affects and appetites of men, and their unliberative powers?

What I want to question here how much each of us are a Caliban, a moon-calf who hears the sounds of our island, and is taught not only a language of means, but also of oppression. That the condition of our means is one of mystification, an over-determined vision of how things are. And that though Spinoza argued and believed that clear and distinct thought were the best means of a liberation, imaginary participation in shared substance may be the primary means of progressive increase in the power to act. Ever to ask, who endowed our purpose with words. It is interesting that while Shakespeare traces out the historic conditions of a succession of powerful takeovers by means of knowledge: Sycorax of the island, the King of Naples over Prospero, Sycorax over the moon, Prospero over the sea, Prospero over the island, placed in Caliban is the liberative force itself, made comic and absurd, the acknowledgement of a certain passivity and dependence which gives birth to alliance. And it is the same dependence which for Spinoza links the most brutish thing to the “rest of the rock”. There is a place, I believe, between a father’s shared premonition of his son, and a community’s prophetic glimpse of its own future.

When thou didst not, savage,
Know thine own meaning, but wouldst gabble like
A thing most brutish, I endowed thy purposes
With words that made them known.

For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king: and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ the island.