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Tag Archives: Affects

Transcendence or Immanence: Cake-and-eat-it-too-ism


Unwrapping Christmas Gifts

This is my last post on “The Autonomy of Affect” and I expect to go onto the rest of the book. Near the end Massumi makes a fantastic point about the somewhat false problem of transcendence vs. immanence, something that he also perceptively links to our spatializaton of concepts, and to his own prescription that we must make paradoxes that work for us:

…all this makes it difficult to speak of either transcendence or immanence. No matter what one does, they tend to flip over onto each other, in a kind of spontaneous Deleuzian combustion.  It makes little difference if the field of existence (being plus potential; the actual in its relation with the virtual) is thought of as an infinite interiority or a parallelism of mutual exteriorities. You get burned either way. Spinoza had it both ways: an indivisible substance divided into parallel attributes. To the extent that the terms transcendence and immanence connote spatial relations – and they inevitably do – they are inadequate to the task. A philosophical sleight of hand like Spinoza’s is always necessary. The trick is to get comfortable with productive paradox.

 Parables for the Virtual, 38

Of course I am drawn to he appeal to Spinoza. It seems that when I trace out Massumi’s proposed Spinozism I get the best sense of his metholodological twisting, and perhaps the best sense of where he goes wrong for me. I think he really hits upon a core issue with the spatialization of terms, something he wishes to alleviate through a confessed counter-spell of temporalization, as one can see in the footnote to the passage above:

* [from the footnote] The “productive paradoxical” procedure…will be to inflect the notion with timelike concepts of process and self-reference (the immanent understood not as an immanence to something, but of the belonging of a process to its own potential to vary) while retaining a connotation of spacelikeness (the immanence of process as a “space” proper to change as such).

I see a few problems with this time vs. space paradoxical sizzoring. The first is that it assumes a fundamental binary which would operate necessarily towards a proposed truth. Yes, I think that these are complimentary views, but they tend to collapse themselves into Spacialization = objects and Temporalization = processes. We are then in a resultant and to me sterile struggle between objects and processes, imagining that some sort of synthesis is what would compose the answer. None of this cuts to the root of the spatialization itself, which is opticality, in my opinion. Yes, spatial displays should be temporalized, but processes cannot become our new objects. What do I mean to say? I am at the cusp of something important. Massumi’s space vs time procedure leads to all sorts of binarization and dichotomy playing (which itself is largely an optical phenomena, “negation” in all its varieties). For instance where he picks up Spinoza he is loosely saying that the two Attributes offer a transcendent model, presumably wherein “idea” transcends “extension”, something to be juxtaposed, suitably and paradoxically, to the immanent model of monist Substance. This matches his own treatment of the virtual as both the source from which actualization occurs, and the to some degree transcendent key to actualization feedback and reflection. He tries to accomplish this miniature Hegelianism at the local level of a largely objectological abstraction. So where does he get it all wrong?

For me the problem is with the transcendent end of the dichotomy, as he exemplifies from Spinoza. There is an aspect of idea priority in Spinoza, but he works hard to undercut it in his very framework. The reason for this is that his ontology is not simply one great monument to Truth, but also a prescription for everyday freedom. It is never that idea escapes extension, nor even that its brings extension higher. Idea realizes its immanent condition (and this is accomplished in a fully affective manner), and as such realizes its impriority over extension. What does this mean. The ideas we have are only or foundationally ideas of our own body being in particular states. My idea of anything in the world is essentially an idea of “me” in a non-reflexive fashion. There is no sizzoring between immanence and transcendence, rather there is collapse into immanent core, and a weaving of causal wholeness from out of that core. This is Spinoza’s object vs process resolution. One’s object state is perspectival, and is already shot through ACROSS its borders, invaded, and opened-out-under, not through some idealist and metaphysical powers of difference itself, but because difference is simply the horizon line of being under creation. One positions oneself at that shore with a kind of aesthetic orchestration or dispersal, but it is really neither object nor process (in any contrastive sense).

Key to this is Spinoza’s General Definition of the Affects diagnosis of the Mind. The thoughts by which we orient ourselves and largely construct our causal relation to the world are degrees of power change in our ontological status in the world, direct affirmations of our body with onto-pleasure lean, and (I would say) positionings on the objective-affective scale of dissonance to triviality. The spatialization that leads Massumi into an object vs process resolution, itself must be reread on a degree-of-being diagnostic. In fact Massumi’s Deleuzian dichotomization, his proposed dialectic however qualified, shows that he did not absorb fully the Plotinean resolution to the long standing problem of Dualism, he did not see, as Augustine did, how Plotinus’ vectorial Being dis-solves Manicheanism. Turning the virtual into Spirit simply places the locus of dualism within a new box, making the actual the new Body. Massumi is definitely on the right track looking to affect as the proper place were dualisms of this sort are (re)solved, where Body gets its say, so to speak, but until this spatialization is diagnosed within degree-of-being perception, our self-diagnoses and prescriptions retain too much of the opticality which begins it all. Difference, per se, enters into the ideological funhouse mirror of duplication, and the Civil “person” becomes an inordinate locus for subjective acts of freedom, and all-too-human centered action for concern, losing the technological (and species) interindices of our mutually created world.

Instead, Spinoza meant his two Attributes to be read against an infinity, the unbound expression of Substance, and not as a two-step ladder to transcendence, (or even a transcendence/immanence dyad). They mark out the specific topography of our own becoming active, a cartological means of perfectly ourselves in a variety of techniques for Joy. Massumi is quite correct that our spatialization of them leads to confusions of a kind, but his notion of will-ful paradox perhaps missing the infinitude towards which they are directed. They are star-mappings for those a-toss at sea, something that a dense gravity crush of paradox may not help in. They are not mean as paradoxical relations, but perhaps the bending of flat map upon the sphere of action, the recognition that it is not paradoxical that parallel lines do meet. The interiority of our process is the discovery of an “interior” (out there), something we regularly do, but also, the tracings of the moving line between interiority and exteriority, how it creates a special shore, one which falls across our boundaries.

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.

Spinoza and State Torture and Other Unfeeling Things

Eric asked a very important question in response to my post on Spinoza, Cybernetics and Chaoplexity. I repost my answer if for no other reasons that it sketches out in its links significant ramifications of the theoretical interpretation of what an affect is, and the role of empathy in social consciousness. Additionally, the idea of a hidden imitation of God prescription of State Torture by Spinoza of course would be highly provocative. The post is a little scatter shot, but is meant as a resource nexus, perhaps as a knot for further discussion.

Eric asks of Spinoza’s theory:

“So as an ideal, we would feel neither pleasure or pain connected with an idea of an external cause?

Wouldn’t, then, our capacity for empathetic relations be eliminated?”

There are several ways I can think to answer this question, and unfortunately I don’t have the time to really sink into this with the respect that it deserves and will have to rely upon past posts for explanation (feel free to question more deeply if you would like).

The Reality of the Affects: Della Rocca and Deleuze

First of all, there is debate among Spinozists whether in fact affects exist at all for Spinoza. M. Della Rocca, one of my favorite writers on Spinoza thinks that they do not (while Deleuze thinks that they do). I wrote on Della Rocca’s position in this post, Della Rocca’s Spinoza: Do Affects “represent” Anything?

And here is Deleuze on What an Affect is, some of the clearest explication he ever produced on Spinoza, lecture Cours Vincennes – 24/01/1978.

Here is Lilly Alanen’s rebuttal to Della Rocca: Spinoza’s Reason and the Reality of the Affects

I personally feel that both Deleuze and Della Rocca have it wrong on the question of “representation”, each in different ways, and I am not convinced by Alanen’s rebuttal. I questioned Della Rocca about both Deleuze’s position and the role of representation in his explantions. If I recall correctly he told me that he regards Deleuze as fundamentally wrong on the question of the reality of the affects, and that he is not as commited to the idea that ideas “represent” as he once had been.

Two Paths to the Social

Second of all, and pointed towards the question of empathy, Spinoza argues that there are two paths towards social order. The first is imaginary and based upon the empathy (and valuation) that binds, producing both affinity bonds between persons and emnities (which are also bonds). The second is a path of reason, which which does not rely explicitly on feeling the same as others, but rather in realizing the mutuality of benefits and uses that holds persons together in support.

Balibar remains unsurpassed in explicating these two braids of social reasoning, and I provide both a brief summation and a PDF copy of the argument that Balibar puts forth here:

Balibar’s Spinoza and Politics: The Braids of Reason and Passion

Spinoza and Unfeeling State Torture

Thirdly, the issue of empathy does have some extra-theoretical consequences for Spinoza I believe, in particular that Spinoza prescribes a be-like-God path to freedom, wherein God is a being that has no affects of any kind.

I have argued before that Spinoza actually provides something of a template for State Torture, in that a Totalitarian State manifests something of the same relationship to its enunciative citizenry as Substance does it its living modes (at least one can find homologies):

Spinoza’s Logic of Affects and an Ontology of Torture

I find this quite interesting, as far as I know, no one has argued this point before. (I would love to hear if others have come across it.)

Pure Affective Production and Social Making

Lastly though, as I tried to express in the post on Cybernetics and Chaoplexity, affects in Spinoza are to be read as transitions in power, bodily juxtapositions between thresholds. As such, the social world (including human and non-human actors) are ever in affective communication. And if indeed Spinoza is arguing against empathy, it is the common empathy of valuation, whereby one projects essential good/evil ascriptions to objects or events based upon our empathetic investments in others.

What Spinoza is calling for, at least in the Chaoplexic framework of the answer, is the severing of the physical affectio/feeling affectus from the additional idea of external causes (as essentialized), such that the affect itself provides a material progressive path when combined with our other breadth thinking.

The path is not all that different than that advocated by Buddhism. There is indeed a causal chain of effects, but the mind’s inordinate ascription of the power of cause to external events such that the mind is forced to hop here and there in reactive, ping-pong ball fashion, is the very thing that causes suffering. It is just that Spinoza’s argument extends more deeply into the social fabric, into the weavings of our mutual investments.

It seems to me that if we allow the intra-threshold pursuit as central to Spinoza’s vision, what he is prescribing is not a path of empathy (though certainly imagining others as ourselves is core to social reality), but of affective construction, of learning how to let affects speak without their simplified and attendant explanations, such that as streams between fixity and turbulance, they braid into each other.

Balibar’s Spinoza and Politics: The Braids of Reason and Passion

The life of the passions, like that of reason, is similarly conditioned by the struggle to persevere in being; like reason, the passions express a natural (though inadequate) mode of human Desire. Does this mean that the passions, which are a constant cause of conflict between men, represent the antithesis of sociabilty? Not at all. What Spinoza demonstrates is that there is another form of the genesis (or “production”) of society, which springs from the passions themselves and which is worked out in them and through them, even if, in this case, the result is not necessarily a harmonious society (85)

Etienne Balibar, Spinoza and Politics

How Passions Bring Us Together

Recent discussion made me realize that there is an very significant text out there on Spinoza that is likely quite under read, and it is best to give it a boost. While much attention gets paid to Spinoza’s vast metaphysical claims, much less is directed towards his very early championing of liberal democracy freedoms (one of the first in European history). And seldom when his political views are examined does the analysis seem to fit snuggly back into his metaphysics. It often appears to be the case that there are two slightly disjoined topics, the metaphysical and then the political (we can insert “the psychological” which is also a branch of his thinking that sometimes is taken with some autonomy from the rests).

With great surpass, this cannot be said of Etienne Balibar’s Spinoza and Politics, very inexpensively available from Verso. The book is a brilliant slim volume, perhaps the best work on Spinoza from the neo-Marxists (though Negri’s The Savage Anomaly is inspiring, or at least quite inspired).

I want to post here a pdf of the book: Spinoza and Politics, Etienne Balibar [click here].

If you want to get a grasp on the lines of political argument as found in the Ethicsplease at least read the fouth chapter, “The Ethics: A Political Anthropology” (76-98), where Balibar braids together two separate descriptions of the social, one rational, one affectual, passing back and forth between the third and fourth books of the Ethics. (Warning, it does take a close reading, with page-turnings best done with the Ethics  in hand). He does such a wonderful job of drawing out the two, mutually supporting arguments that are almost in hidden dialogue with each other, that he makes much of the rest of Spinoza political thinking more clear. What comes through is that counter to a Hobbesian mythology of a natural, animal state of the war of against all, even our greatest conflicts between persons and society are alreadysocial. There is no pre-social state of conflict. This is a conclusion of the utmost theoretical consequence for it undercuts much of what is projectively assumed about the nature of goverment, and it has bearing upon the very roots of epistemology and perception. Additionally, it brings into bold relief the mistaken simplification that Spinoza viewed the affects or the imagination in solely a detrimental, or antithetical fashion.

Here I provide a copy of the excellent diagram he includes to help the reader follow his explication. It is a figure that I have returned to many times, both in the reading, but also later in thinking through Spinoza’s position. And below that is a from-text summation of part of the argument.


Some Rough Thoughts on the Conatus – Spinoza

Michael at Complete Lies asked in a comment on my last post for Spinoza’s take on the conatus, so I thought I should post my brief response over here as well. Perhaps this has some interest for others as well:

The conatus is really central Spinoza’s telling of the world, though perhaps not with the kind of centrality that Schopenhauer would wish. Each and everything in existence has conatus, a striving, which as Spinoza describes it makes up something of its essence as a thing in existence. With almost Neitzschean Will to Power force (sans the implicit normalization of domination), each thing does all it it can to persist, pursuing its Joys, avoiding its sadnesses. But because of modal essences (the essence of “real objects” in Graham’s metaphysics) do not have existence predicated of them, that is, because they are not their own cause of existence, they relie upon the external causes of other things, and concordantly those conatuses as well. So existence becomes a mixed rationalizing, but still Machiavellian game of power negotions with other conatus-driven bodies and minds.

But, this is not a Hobbesian world where there is a primal state of war, “all against all,” which human beings rise up out of by virtue of a mythical contract, because a conatus that has come into existence has done so already in harmony with a cooperation of a mutuality of causes, it is dependent in its finite existence. You can see this same metaphysical fact in Spinoza’s political theory, and the concept that the human affects are organized through the imagination of others. Even strife among human beings, their most powerful negative projections upon each other, are already occurring in a social field wherein each person sees this enemy in some fundamental way “the same” as him (if only the same as a competitor).

For this reason, much as what happens on the metaphysical level of the dependency of strivings upon other strivings, this happens on the social level, a mutuality of conception both supports destructive warrings, but also of course the capacity to find agreement and align.


Graham Harman’s New Weblog: Object-Oriented Philosophy

Graham Harman’s new weblog has begun, and one can only look forward to the Latour and Heidegger friendly development of his metaphysical thought (responded to in brief by me here).

In his opening post, My Favorite Philosophers, he lists them in this order, Leibniz, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Plato and then an unexpected Brentano, Plotinus (a hidden favorite of mine) and Levinas get honorable mention. His list of 5 and reasons are worth quoting:

1. G.W. Leibniz

Here is the perfect package, as far as I’m concerned. He’s a hard-harded realist, BUT he has the weirdest imagination on the market, AND he writes such short major works that I often have “Leibniz afternoons” where I read 5 or 6 of his key works without leaving the house. Leibniz, to me, is the essence of what philosophy ought to be- take reality firmly into account, but then push it so far that you burst out laughing at what you’ve come up with.

2. Friedrich Nietzsche

It’s not that I agree with his doctrines; in fact, a majority of them are the opposite of my own. But this guy could really write. (In fact, what Leibniz really needed to achieve godhood was a devastating writing style; he had to settle for “clear,” which was good enough given his many other talents.) But no one in philosophy can write like Nietzsche. And for me, style in philosophy is not frivolous ornament atop a set of boring true propositions- style is a scalpel cutting toward the bottom of the world. Nietzsche has it.

3. Martin Heidegger.

I’m not saying he’s the 3rd greatest, just my 3rd favorite. (He’s surely one of the 10 greatest, though.) His strength and weakness are the same: the utter monotony of his ideas. Heidegger famously said that every great thinker has just one great thought, though this was probably a case of projection. Whatever one says about being, however we try to determine it, being slips away because it is always something more.

4. Plato.

I must admit that Plato was an acquired taste for me. My students tend to love reading about Socrates in the Platonic dialogues, but at age 18 I just thought it was a bunch of boring, pious, preachy drivel about justice and virtue. Nietzsche’s literary brilliance walks up and smacks you in the face. Plato’s literary genius is at least as great, but requires years of refined taste to appreciate fully.

5. Franz Brentano.

The top 5 needed a dark horse pick, and this is it. Most people know him only as Husserl’s teacher. Occasionally one goes and looks at his Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint to find a quote or two about intentionality, but it’s generally assumed that whatever is worthwhile in Brentano has already been assimilated by other, more interesting, later thinkers. But try this experiment… sit down for a weekend with something by Brentano and forget that you ever heard anything about him before. The man is incredible. He tears you apart with amazing arguments; he has wide mastery of numerous historic figures; he is self-confident in the good sense, not deferring to his elders with faked modesty; his wit is often devastating. Also, just look at his photo. I always think “Rasputin” when I see this one, and that’s the sort of charisma he had, luring both Husserl and Freud into his circle of students through his sheer oratorical power in the classroom.

 He makes an interesting point in this list to specifically address Spinoza, in particular to say why he did not enjoy him, calling his stock, humorously (and in some sense insightfully), over-priced. It is interesting because as a Spinozist I find great affinity for his project and many of his commitments. In particular though, it is his appreciation for Plotinus (a long neglected thinker of tremendous proportions) that I imagined would give him a love for Spinoza. Spinoza, in my view, is a modern Plotinus. Below I post his interesting take on Spinoza, and my lettered response to those thoughts:

Graham: “As for Spinoza, I won’t deny he’s one of the greats, but his stock is overpriced these days. Everyone rushes to show that their own views were foreshadowed by Spinoza. I happen to think that nearly every one of his ideas was on the wrong track: only one substance; determinism; stoicism. I’d flip those all upside-down.”

Myself: I love your list (especially your reason for loving Nietzsche). as a Spinozist, but not of the fanatical Continental variety, I cannot help but draw a comparison. You list Plotinus as a darkhorse thinker of preference, and Spinoza a man whose stock is way over-priced. Much praise I offer for both. Might I suggest that there is a vital connection between the two that is quite undeveloped, and that is Plotinus’s luminary view that Being exists in degrees (using the image of a halo of light rolling out into non-Being, full of Being but still ebbing). It is this concept of Being that Augustine took up (Evil as privation), and I believe eventually Spinoza secured (Falsity as privation). It provides some antidote to the visualization of Being that binary, while still giving flat ontologies a certain depth (much like the depth you give Latour). Might I (eventually) seduce you into purchasing this stock, not in a Deleuzian way, but a Plotinian way, in an analytical way, I would be much joyed.

This is not to rescue him completely from your criticism, for Spinoza is everywhere, practically as omnipresent as his God. But he seems to speak to a certain pre-Kantian, alter-Cartesian future. And we do know that Leibniz had a bit of a weakness for Spinoza, both as a philosopher and an optical instrument maker (Spinoza’s much obscured materialist, and even cybernetic side). (Multitudnal Substances are nothing more than his modes, determinism is only the power of the explanation and description, and stocism is just the purity and power of the affects.) Part of the pleasure of their being so much Spinoza is the chance to read him outside of, that is beyond, the tradition(s), much as you have done for Heidegger who had his nice run at ubiquity.

A primary location for Spinoza’s Plotinian degree-of-Being conception, the General Definition of the Affects, explanation:

“I say, further, whereby the mind affirms concerning its body or any part thereof a force for existence greater [or less] than before. For all the ideas of bodies, which we possess, denote rather the actual disposition of our own body (E2P16C2) than the nature of an external body. But the idea which constitutes the reality of an affect must denote or express the disposition of the body, or of some part thereof, which is possessed by the body, or some part thereof, because its power of action or force for existence is increased or diminished, helped or hindered.
But it must be noted that, when I say a greater or less force for existence than before, I do not mean that the mind compares the present with the past disposition of the body, but that the idea which constitutes the reality of an affect affirms something of the body, which, in fact, involves more or less of reality than before. [sed quod idea, quae affectus formam constituit, aliquid de corpore affirmat, quod plus minusve realitatis revera involvit, quam antea]”

Visual and Lyrical Spinoza

In order to pursue the inner, intelligible yet affective kernel of Yannis Kyriakides’ lyrical rendition of Spinoza’s defintions of the affects, written about here, I shot and edited this short visual meditation on the music he composed, brought through the Latinity. It is but a stone I found in a stream nearby my house, caught in and expressing an aura of ice amid the flow of water. Let the localization of the stone defy its parameters.

Putting words to it, the film is meant to augment the flight that Kyriakides already gives to Spinoza’s text, across the body of its ideas, tenebrated up through our auditory concordance to the whole of a visual spectrum. It is my conviction that despite the acclaim of Spinoza’s supposed renunciation of the affects, in favor of the lone purity of the mind, Spinoza’s depiction of the world opens wide an entire landscape for the emotions, living free to their development and expression, an expression that is artistic, caught on the nerve. The freedom theorized in Spinoza’s thought is nothing, can do nothing, if not for the materiality of the image and the voice. This is something touched on by Yannis Kyriakides’s rich tonations and Carola Arons’s vocality.

Latin, the ancient tongue of Church, crystalizes. Ideas perform. Thoughts linger and lead. History arches its back.

[Here is where you can purchase his Spinoza composition.]

Spinoza Opera, Spinoza Sung

I have had the extraordinary pleasure today of listening to what can only be called a Spinoza Opera, recordings of music written for the 2002 VeenFabriek performance of Spinoza: I am not where I think myself to be  [performance website]. It is an thought-provoking rendition of both Spinoza’s defintions of the affects, taken from the end of part three of the Ethics, read in Latin and put to a harpsichord’s punctuating notes and aura effects; and then, it is the acoustical reading of Spinoza’s letter to G. H. Schaller [62 (58)], wherein he determinatively explains the illusion of Freewill by evoking the “thoughts” of a stone that flies through the air (how we are all resolutely to be). The baroque instrumentation, the haunt of precise Latin passing through the affectation of a feminent throat (concievably repressed to some degree in Spinoza, how we see the figure of the Courtesan rise up again, gathering up in her tresses the whole of the scholia which drag like a great train to her/his thought). One wonders how a 17th century Amsterdam marano who loved the theatre and Terence would respond to hearing his sculpted propositions on the affects, so themselves affecti-fied, doubling back upon their employ.

The title of the recording is The Thing Like Us, in reference to one of the most powerful analytical condensations of all of Spinoza’s thought. Rem nobis similem… (3p27). As the composer envisioned it, the music was to engage the very affective and imaginary foundations of our sociability, the way that we interpret the world inescabably through a projection of seeing others as “things like us”. Part of this ratio-imaginary capacity is extended to the affective way that we “see ourselves” in music, expressed there, amid the arrangement of the notes. (One should keep in mind that traditionally in Latin Res is not only “thing” as in “object”, but situation, condition, matter.) In very real senses, the reason why we can even read music is because it is a “thing like us”, echoing to the core of our body’s affective and rational capacities. But part of the piece’s reflexivity is not only in comment upon how music operates by being in similitude to us, but also, as the composer Yannis Kyriakides confesses, in acknowledgement of the very musical, self-referential, recursive structure of the Ethics itself. In this way The Thing Like Us shows us how music itself is a Thing Like Us, but also it does so through a remarkable involution, by being a Thing Like the Ethics. Instead of merely a copy of a copy in any Platonic sense of diminishment, it is a productive similitude, an enabling affective entrance into the priorities and claims of the Ethics. As we hear the note and tonal cartographies of the Latin, is it not so like how we encounter a proposition. So engaged, the entire Ethics  almost stands up with a kind of articulative force, its many propsitions like so many operative, inter-connected legs, ambulate, its proofs newly so like organs of internal exchange. There is something of the animation of the Golem in this piece, a Golem that is internal to Us.

After the clear and distinctly voiced musical manifestations of the affects, in the second half as Spinoza’s letter to Schaller is read/performed, it should not be missed that through the introduction of the worker’s “everyman” voice, how human and connected historical Spinoza was. Not only was it through the glimmering and glass edifice of the Ethics  that Spinoza performed his truth, but in epistolary bridgings. His thought extended out in handwriting across plague and sea-lanes, in greeting. At a unique hour of Western becoming, as a man of science and the politic of words, Spinoza attempted thought sub specie aeternitatis, and the lived consternation of a historical homo faber, a balancing act in which friendship and communication played a vital part. Epistolary Spinoza was an artisan, a worker, and ultimately his great systematic assemblage was one that he imagined would physically”work”, much like the lathe he applied himself to daily. The Ethics was a smithed tool, not only metaphorically, fashioned out of our own body of God, and designed to affect our bodies as much as our minds. Without actors and stage much of the interpretive power of this opera’s original performance is lost in the second half — wherein it seems a working class Haguean encounters something of a Lady Philosophia on stage (if I read the description right – the singing character of Carla being inspired by Van den Enden’s daughter), entering with the audience a theatrical space meant to affectively be the interior of Spinoza’s architectural mind — yet the two voices in dialogue still bring forth a historicism which cannot not be lost in Spinoza, (what is Spinoza in dialogue?), the flesh and body of finite action.

I think that this is what at most this musical rendition allows, the shining forth of the flesh of Spinoza’s contemplations (and life lived), the affection of the affectio. In the end any diadactic interpretation of Spinoza that might have inspired and structured these pieces in the minds of the composer, director, and actors, falls to the essential and unitary trans-lation of a Latin text meant to be invisibly read, without moving one’s lips, translation into a stringed-vibration (instrument and throat). The materiality of his invention is recaptured it if was ever lost in the great Rationalist appropriation/interpretation of his thought.

So what does Spinoza sound like?

I found most powerful here the expression of the affects, in the first half. The vibrato way in which the Latin words, each sonically isolated in their short sentences, are made to resonant higher, even higher than the text alone could take them. In this way they here scale  the body.

Take for instance one of my favorite defintions of the affects…love

The Affect of Love : “Love is Joy/Pleasure accompanied by the idea of an external cause”.

Read with the voice, “Amor/est…lae-ti-ti-ah…concomitante idea CAUsae externae”

See, feel, how Amor rises out of the atmospherics of a potentiality of the Body, and the verb to-be seals it off. How Joy floats momentarily, suspended ontologically until it is brought up with the mechanics of causal interpretation, the sour-rise of cause, pushing the affect forward, as a passion, the closure of causal understanding itself caught in a aural crespification. The potentiality of human love is segmented out in a bit by bit anatomy of thought within tremendous historical consequence. (At least this is my reading and experience.)

Or the whispering, precise feather in the Affect of Desire that causes us to linger, to contemplate not only the thought itself, but also the conditions of the Latin within which Spinoza wrote, the citizen-of-the-world lingua, fostered by Catholic and Protestant imaginations that were tearing. Like a long tenebrous string Kyriakides’ and Harpaz’s “Desire” plays under, sub, to the immanence of our organizations, like a subtle thought.

And then Laetitia itself, Joy/Pleasure, the increase of  perfection, “Laetitia est hominis transitio a minore ad maiorem perfectionem” . The harmonics are haunting in the contemplation of the definition Spinoza provides. The way that the tone of “perfectionem” carries out, incompariably, does more than indicate the nature of Laetitia, it affectively qualifies it within our meditation on the definition. The ultimate coherence of the defintion, and their whole, plays out. This not so much an inter-pretation, as a consub-statiation, in mind and body, a renewal.

These are just a few thoughts.

Here is where you can explore each of the tracks devoted to Spinoza in extended clips, and purchase the CD (or Amazon). You will find the text that comes with the music, as expressed by the composer, the director Paul Koek, and the actor/singer Carola Arons, a commentary which serve to bring to life not only the philosophy behind the composition and performance, but also summon up the full physicality that emerged from this engagment between rational construction and the affecture of the body in theatre and music.

The material of the Ethics, Spinoza’s letters and life comes alive in very much the sense that Spinoza defined alive, that which opens into and as a degree of freedom. If Spinoza imagined the propositions of the Ethics to be the eyes of the Mind, then singing propositions can perhaps be imagined as something like the skin of the Mind, as they allows us to be envoloped and oriented to what the eyes can see — perhaps more tenebrated, communicated, in-speed. Part of understanding the fidelity of Kyriakides’ opera is appreciating that its aesthetic power, the authenticity of its form, may lie in its pedagogic power, much as with the method more geometico of Spinoza’s own Ethics. It is contemplation of Spinoza’s propositions (and letter), a meditation via musicality, that something of its rationality is grasped, in process.

The extended tonal lyricism of this “opera”, as it negotiates tipping between peaks of cacophony, and clustered hues of sweeter clarity, should be fruitfully compared to “Breathing in Reverse”, Joseph Semah’s performance reading of Spinoza Theological-Political Treatise in three antique languages. The tonal justapositions in the former compliment the historical juxapositions in the latter.

[Also of interest, here, a rich personal response and review to Kyriakides’ Spinoza, and Stan Verdult’s weblog comment on the production in 2005]

The Trick of Dogs: Etiologic, Affection and Triangulation, Part III of IV

A Spinoza Advisement to Reconcile Davidson to Wittgenstein

Part III of IV, following part I, and part II




At this point I would like to leave off from Davidson’s theory, in its particulars, and take it up at another level, for Wittgenstein’s idea of a governing commonality of behavior sheds light back upon our original question that is of the interpretability of others under an Augustinian panpsychic conception of the world [cited at the end of part I]. For if truly it is similarity of behavior that facilitates translatability, then the similarities could cross species lines, and perhaps even substances, insofar as adequate descriptions of others could be grounded to some degree upon sameness. The question of whether a dog can hold a pretense raises its head again. And Davidson, focused on the normativity of true and false belief, is very strict here in denying the capacities of “belief” to things other than people:

Having a belief demands…appreciating the contrast between true belief and false, between appearance and reality, mere seeming and being. We can of course say that a sunflower has made a mistake if it turns towards an artificial light as if it were the sun, but we do not attribute belief to the sunflower (“Three Varieties of Knowledge” 209).

While we might quibble about what we do and do not say about sunflowers, in actual instances, I would like to use Wittgenstein’s thought about the sameness of behavior to open this question to a larger order. If you recall, indeed it was upon the very causal interrelationships between organisms and their world, that Davidson founds his conception of triangulabilty and belief attribution. The ability to recognize consistent patterns of behavior in response to consistent features of the world is of the kind that my cat may very well “know”, in any practical sense of the term, that I am responding to the same features of the world, (a visitor, or a can of food), that he is. In fact it would not go too wrong to say that Davidson holds linguistic triangulation to be a subspecies of a larger process of triangulation that goes on in lower animals (though how far down, we can question). We can ask: Is there a fundamental experience or process that we undergo, which is more primary, which is beneath our attributions of belief, giving them their ultimate facility? I believe there is. Below Wittgenstein’s concepts of rule-following, and below Davidson’s argument for a normative holism of beliefs, I believe that there are two fundamental questions (or attributional stances) which govern our interpretation of the world, and these are put forth in the concept of triangulation itself, (and only made more systematized by the rationality of our discourse). These two questions are:

1.What must the world be like for this creature to be acting in this way? (α)

2. And what must this creature be like so as to be acting in this way? (β)

Diagram of two spaces:


These two imaginations of the world, I suggest, help govern all our interpretations and intercourses, a somatic understanding of both the causally effective objective world, and the experientially affected testifying aspects of that world which inform us about it.

To better understand how such questions or stances may be elucidated, I would like to draw upon Spinoza’s conception of the affective imagination. Like Wittgenstein’s intuition that a sameness grounds the interpretation of things that are different than us, so too Spinoza sees an affective imagination of others, the bodily experience of others as the same as ourselves, as central to our ability to make sense of the world. In the Ethics his thesis is put forward plainly, in concise style:

“If we imagine a thing like us, toward which we have had no affect, to be affected with some affect, we are thereby affected with a like affect (EIIIp27)” (γ).

For Spinoza, our very perception of the world is governed, filtered through our understanding that other things are like us, and in imagining them to be like us, when they are affected in some causal way, that very shared, affective quality allows us to make determinations about the world. Our experience of ourselves and the world is not only between us and the world-as-it-is, but rather is part of an entire fabric of affective imaginations, which hold people (and other things) together in a meaningful and revelatory process.

Diagram of sameness, causally affected, following Spinoza’s EIIIp27:


Seen in this way, the two hermeneutical, primary questions which govern an understanding of the world and others, may be seen as instances of affective imagination, in terms of “same”. To take an example, when an animal, perhaps a squirrel, reacts to an event in the world, perhaps a gunshot to which it darts up tree, the first assumption is that the squirrel is like us. Question 1: How must the world be for the creature to be acting in this way? Answer: There is a gunshot, which caused me to startle as well. The squirrel’s reaction grounds our sense of the objective, and this confirmation is reestablished with an affective affinity to the squirrel.

That is, we bodily can imagine the state that the squirrel is in, and we do so at a sub-linguistic level, starting from the humoral and neural systems on up (δ). If we experience the immediate tension of being full of alarm, our triangulation with the world allow us to “know” that the squirrel feels the same. (Even in the instance of a filmed event, perhaps one where we are not startled by a gunshot at all, we still participate in the triangulation, and we can affectively, and imaginatively feel what the squirrel feels.) In this way, the second question has been answered: 2. And what must this creature be like so to be acting in this way? Answer: It is (feels) like us. So fundamental is this causal and affectively gnostic capacity of interpretation, a product of sure, evolutionary needs, it must ground nearly all of our interpretative strategies of others and the world, no matter how abstract.

Diagram of sameness, causally affected:


One can see the power of these two questions, though, when the world doesn’t seem to present an immediate cause for the behavior being interpreted. If our hypothetical squirrel started running around madly, darting to and fro, as if reacting to gunshots that we could not hear, we would instinctively strain for the outside circumstance which would causally explain such behavior. (Just as, perhaps, the squirrel would do if we started darting around). If not able to find such a cause, we would be forced to answer the second question, differently (ε). There is something about the squirrel which is not like us. Either that he is imagining something that is not there, or prospectively holding beliefs (by the lights of our description), which are untenable to the way that the world is. In any case, we also would imagine the squirrel to be enough like us that we could affectively imagine what it would be like to be like him, despite the world offering up no causal explanation for the behavior. The causes sought are either those of the world or those “within,” such that we imagine through affective sameness what it is like to be the reporting other, that is the other which cues us to states of the world. In this way, the entire world can be seen to be acting as both a causally affecting set of circumstances, here called mimetic space, and also a deictic, informing set of circumstances, such that we affectively bind with that which reports on the world, at one level of intersubjectivity, somatic or conceptual, or another. And one can see why Davidson’s appeal to the causal nature of beliefs and reasons is so integral to this process, for as caused, and causing, they join the weave of reality together.

It is this affective imagination, a living process of causal interpretation through shared affect, which grounds the kind of distinction which Wittgenstein wants to make between attributing sensation to a stone and to a fly. There is something different, he wants to say, about the way that we respond to a stone, and how we respond to a fly:

Look at a stone and imagine it having sensations.-One says to oneself: How could one so much as get the idea of ascribing a sensation to a thing?…And now look at a wriggling fly and at once these difficulties vanish and pain seems to get a foothold here…(PI 284)

What I suggest Wittgenstein is missing here, because he has got his eye on behavior and justification alone, is that an affective and attributing imagination of the causal relationship of others (including other things such as stones) to the world upon which they “report,” deictically, is what is at the ground of “how could one so much as get the idea” of ascribing anything. And while I disagree with the idea that one could not ascribe sensation to a stone, on the very principal that affective imagination is the core of epistemic understanding, and that in instances an affective understanding of what a stone might be experiencing might play a key role in our understanding the world and ourselves, (picture Michaelangelo’s Pietà being struck by a hammer, or an honored flag burned, a grave defiled) (ζ), Wittgenstein is on the right track when identifying the nature of the attribution, that is it based on a sense of sameness (though not confined to a sameness of behavior, as he would like).

In this way our attributions of sense, even, or especially between fellow language users come into plainer view. When someone speaks about the world (or themselves), this double question of triangulation appears, one sponsored by an affective imagination of the state of the other person, a consequential pathos, in which I feel what state they must be in, in order for their words or behaviors to make sense. For this reason, when someone of a different race, or a different age, or culture is expressing themselves, we are prone to imagine ourselves like them, adopt a visceral understanding of their state, such that their causal relationship to the world makes sense. This imagined state, comprised not only of a pathos of sensations, but also of attributive thoughts and beliefs, is understood to be causal to that behavior. When their report confirms our notion of the world, for instance to take something fairly abstract, if they attest to the factuality of God, if we believe that there is a God, (or the impossibility of a God, if we believe that there is no God), we readily adopt a similarity of feeling, and affinity of bodily experience which affectively binds us together, in the name of an objective world which is seen to have caused bothof our shared beliefs. When the report is that the world is not how we view it, for instance when listening to a paranoid schizophrenic, or a political protestor too attuned to problems we do not see as significant, we again adopt, (perhaps after checking the world over to see if indeed the causes of their beliefs are missing, or checking our own state to see if we are impaired by belief or situation), an affective imagination of what it must be like to be the other, in order to make such a report. This may include not only bodily states which always accompany the process, but the imagination of certain beliefs which must be held, in order to make the most sense of a “wrong” conception of what is. These are understood to be unreasonable or false beliefs. In this way, we affectively, that is bodily, relate in our daily imaginations, to every single person (and thing) which participates in our triangulation of the world, even those with whom we disagree.

It is for this reason, that is the primacy of an affective imagination, that Augustine’s conception of a panpsychic world whereby each thing is in communication with all that is around it is at the very least the epistemic condition of our knowing. And, I suggest, our attribution of “sensation” or “belief” upon the inanimate, or the lower animals, is not simply a categorical slippage, a fanciful and generous distribution of what more properly belongs among language users. Rather, it is the reverse. The very conditions of language use, those upon which beliefs are attributed, are established in a deeper affective imagination of what it must be like to be another, whether it be an animal or a stone. Instead of seeing the ascription of belief to non-humans as parasitic upon a closed domain of language use, mental predicates could best be seen as particulars of a larger process, and their attribution equal and necessary to the occasions that support them, no matter how brief.

In the name of such a thought, I would like in culmination to present a brief aesthetic theory, one that would find itself thoroughly rooted in affective triangulation in the widest of senses. The purpose of this thought is to not only expose the triangulating nature of artistic production and enjoyment, but also to show how our very perceptions and communications of the world consist, and share in a creative, revealing process. So in this sense of aesthetics I would suggest that our primary understanding and experience of art, whether it be of a painting, or of reading a novel, or of listening to a symphony, is that of answering, toggling back and forth between these same two fundamental questions: How must the world be for this to be the case? How must he/she/it to be showing this?

If we consider, for instance, when we read the narration of a narrator in a novel, telling about his fictive world, we are learning not only something about that fictive world, but about the fictive narrator herself. Our two spaces, the mimetic and the deictic present themselves in tension. We triangulate, given the clues in the text about two kinds of “what must be so” and in so doing are reoriented, by experience, to ourselves, the third leg of the triangle. The narrator for instance might reveal a world that causes us to see and feel it with particular vividness, such that her presence is nearly eclipsed (but never completely so), or might prove herself a faulty narrator (distorted by a bias of perception), such that the mimetic world falls back (but never completely so), and we are pulled into the intersubjective world of her deictic space. We might even draw back at times from the text, when struck by a particularly beautiful passage, and say to ourselves, how must the actual world be, in order for this writer to have been able to write such a line? Or, how must the writer to have been, what must they have been feeling, to have been able to write such a line? In this way, the world itself is reconstructed, not only through our projections, but by the very foundations of our knowing anything, a fluid shifting between must-bes which reflect back upon each other, and upon us. This is the key to understanding why art is indispensable, and also to seeing why understanding others, things and people, is always an art.



α. There is also, of course, a reflective third: How must I really be such as to make sense that this creature would be acting like this?

β. For question 2, the Greek derived word deictic, “to show, to indicate”, is used to describe this relation.

γ. Spinoza develops an entire theory of perception and socialization which stems from this thesis, which need not be gone into here, but suggests a further study into how it might give light to both Wittgenstein and Davidson’s conception of the social. It is no small matter that Wittgenstein and Davidson were both at times influenced by Spinoza: Wittgenstein supposedly naming his Tractatus after a work of Spinoza’s own, and Davidson drawing on Spinoza’s parallelism for his Anomalous Monism, to name only two connections.

δ. For the full consequences of Spinoza’s thought that all ideas are only ideas of the body, and the level at which the body registers affective meanings, see neurologist Antonio Damasio’s book Looking For Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain.

ε. There is a third option, the “third” question, which would fall into asking how we really are, so as to make sense of this behavior, for instance we might imagine for a moment that we may be deaf, that indeed there was a gunshot which we did not hear. This suggests that in the failing of the first two questions, there is always a third, the questioning of our own state, a fact that points to the nature of triangulation in the first place, that there are always three legs to the triangle, and that we, our own self-monitoring is always sewn into the nature of how we perceive others and the world.

ζ. Indeed, one need not even appeal to symbolically endowed inanimate objects, but rather in the Augustinian sense understand that even our perception of the inanimate, as it may bear traces of causal effects in the world, a stone perhaps that has a mark or cracking, in the deictic sense of showing, involves an affective imagination of that thing, as similar to us, however dimly. In this manner we must to some degree know what it is like to be “stone” in our ability to read the causal traces upon stone. So it might be said that a regularity of affective states foregrounds our thoughts and intuitions about any thing that reports the world to us.


Part IV posted here

The Reality of the Affects: Spinoza’s Plotinian Real

In counterbalance to the points made in the post below, I have the following thoughts which stem from Lilli Alanen’s response to Della Rocca.

In reading Alanen’s response to Della Rocca’s “Rationalism Run Amok” I have a few questions. In particular it is her trouble with the idea that all affects are illusionary.

Here is the germ of it:

So existence is not an all or nothing affair but comes in more and less. But then the conclusion that we with our passive affects exist to a much lesser degree than the eternal and infinite God does not seem very startling. It becomes so only if one, as Della Rocca seems to do, sides with idealist Spinoza commentators in thinking that anything less than full intelligibility, and with it full perfection or being, lacks reality.

Do we really need to draw such drastic conclusions? More to the point: do we need to draw these drastic conclusions?

Here’s a worry: There is, Della Rocca argues, a sense in which passive affects are real and fully intelligible, namely qua ideas in God’s mind. The very same ideas which are confused in my mind are distinct and adequate in God’s. This is just a manifestation of what he calls the mind-relativity of content (p. 19). Does this mean affects are fully real in God’s mind? Hardly qua affects, since God’s mind contains only adequate ideas. So are they unreal after all? I’m troubled by mind-relativity here and have a hard time seeing how adequate ideas in God’s mind could be the same as the confused one in ours?

This is the difficulty that I have. Alanen seems to argue that because our intuition tells us that if something exists to some degree, it can be said to exist completely so. That is, because Spinoza grants that affects are idea-expressions of degrees of being, these affects themselves must be said to exist, fully. But isn’t it Spinoza’s entire point that such ideas and affects in so far as they have being, are already perfect (in the mind of God), and in so far as they don’t have being, are imperfect and inadequate? Because Spinoza makes being itself the vector of inadequacy, I don’t see how one can say that affects actually are (despite our intuition, and experience that they are). The way that Spinoza has set it up seems to be that the predicate of being is entirely linked to the degree of adequacy. By insisting that affects are “real” Alanen is insisting something of the order that “degrees of being are real” has full being, and I am not sure how in Spinoza’s system one could do that.

If I put my question a different way, Spinoza in a famous letter to Jellis, denies the being of “negation”:

As to the doctrine that figure is negation and not anything positive, it is plain that the whole of matter considered indefinitely can have no figure, and that figure can only exist in finite and determinate bodies. For he who says, that he perceives a figure, merely indicates thereby, that he conceives a determinate thing, and how it is determinate. This determination, therefore, does not appertain to the thing according to its being, but, on the contrary, is its non-being. As then figure is nothing else than determination, and determination is negation, figure, as has been said, can be nothing but negation.

Letter 50 to Jellis, June 2, 1674

The negation of which a particular figure is composed, pertains only to its non-being. Would one say then that “negation” for Spinoza must have being? Or even that “non-being” for Spinoza, must have “being”? This seems like a similar kind of assertion to the one that Alanen proposes, and it appears to undercut what Spinoza is attempting to say.

A similar problem occurs in the assessment of the Blind Man in his letter to Blijenbergh (Letter 21, Jan 28, 1665). Here Spinoza wants to tell us that a blind man is no less perfect than a stone is perfect:

“I proceed further to the explanation of the terms “Negation” and “Privation”…I say, therefore, that Privation is, not the act of depriving, but only the pure and simple lack, which is itself nothing. Indeed it is only a Being of reason, or mode of thinking, which we form when we compare things with one another. We say, for example, that a blind man is deprived of sight because we easily imagine him as seeing…But when we consider God’s decree, and his nature, we can no more affirm that of man than of a Stone, that he is deprived of vision…God is no more the cause of his not seeing than of the stone’s not seeing, which is pure Negation”

If one replaces “seeing” with “affect” we see that having an affect is only a negation, a negation which is nothing (has no Being). If we connect up any affective being with the Totality of which it is an expression (that is, remove all its negations and border), the affect disappears, because there is no transition in power or degree of being. That is Spinoza’s point, is it not?

The same thing seems to register on the level of epistemology:

E4p1dem: Falsity consists only in the privation of knowledge…”

What Alanen seems to be want to say is that the “privation of knowledge” is real, the “negation of sight” in a blind man (and a stone) is real, that non-being is real. But this seems to undercut a primary embrace of Being, the idea that Being is a plentitude and that negation is an illusion of perspective, comparison, projected ideas and inadequate ideas. Although she critique’s Della Rocca for accepting an Idealist-type conclusion, one that makes the changes in the world to be mere illusions, she seems accept the very thing that Hegel critiqued Spinoza for failing to see, the Reality of the Negation. Rather it seems, Spinoza has to be taken at his word, that degrees of being are exactly that, degrees of being.

I wonder how she would square her interpretation with the clear comments on Negation and Privation taken above?

Closely Related Post: Negation and the Unseeing Stone