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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.

The Sprache of Achilles: The Panoply of Speech

The Man that Does Not Think by Oneself

I want this post to both grow out of a comment Carl from Dead Voles made on the thread Heidegger “Never says…” and Harman says… and also to be an expansion upon the thoughts I began on my recent post Human Competence: Achilles On the Mend. There is a certain compatibility between Wittgensteinian language game approaches and the speaking strategies of Achilles, the hero of Homer’s Iliad, and it is my hope to use the figure of Achilles to point forward toward a way that is neither tragic, nor alienated in the world of objects, a post-human world of forces and coherent assemblage.

Carl was responding to a line from the neo-Marxist/Spinozist Etienne Balibar, that reflects something of Wittgenstein’s well-known Private Language Argument: “If no man ever thinks alone, then we might say that to know really is to think ever less by oneself”

This is making me think of Wittgenstein’s private language problem. Perhaps we’ve come full circle and back to your original post. In with the not-said is all of the rules and tools that any particular language game makes available to take for granted. These are the conditions for any intelligible and communicative statement. In practice they arise out of discourse communities, which are associated with ways of life, which are conditioned by all sorts of things starting with food and up through durable institutions. I trust I can wave my hands like this and convey a gist.

We make our own worlds, but not in conditions of our own choosing, as Marx said. So I couldn’t agree more when you say “I find it more valuable to see how we can invest the tradition itself with new possibilities, to change the tradition from within. And whether it is the tradition that is doing the thinking, or us as originals, really doesn’t matter.” Except I’d say it’s both, always both…

We had been discussing Graham Harman’s appropriation of Heidegger’s notion of Dasein and implied objecthood, coupled with his stout refusal to grant that Heidegger held such an idea, as it is originally his own: that objects other than human beings could have their own Dasein determination. The idea is meant to be both implicitly found within Heidegger, but also excluded from Heidegger. In a sense, it partakes in the authority of Heidegger, but aims to be immune to critiques of the same. In this regard, Carl suggests (at least it seems to me) that within a Wittgensteinian terminology, the language game of Heidegger’s description of the world might be seen to have within its possibilities Graham Harman’s assertions regarding forever hidden, real objects, although these possibilities were not developed by Heidegger.

Achillean Immanence vs. Odysseus’s Instrumentality

In my previous post on the difference between the heroic figures of fierce and woeful Achilles and the table-turning, wandering Odysseus, I pointed out that Western Philosophy, particularly in its modern manifestations, took on the wrong Greek hero. Instead of the radiating Achilles who defines himself by his bonds and presents himself as a pure man of action (or inaction), of which speech was a considerable means, philosophy concerned itself with the No-man traveler of endless turns, the serial human being whose only defining characteristic is his mind’s capacity to dexterously articulate itself amid the contingencies of Being, all the while largely homeless, spread across the earth.

There is an important factor in the story of Achilles though that narrows the point and brings us directly back to the comparison to language games that Carl draws. And this is Achilles’s linguistic strategies as found in his speech of the Ninth Book of the Iliad. For those who are unfamiliar, or need to be refreshed, Achilles the greatest warrior of the Greeks has withdrawn from the Trojan War because his rightfully awarded prize Briseis was taken from him by Agamemnon who is nominally the chief of the Hellenic contingent, as some sort of recompense for his own war-prize (a daughter of a priest of Apollo) having to be returned. The Hellenic warriors now are loosing the battle without their most powerful ally, and Agamemnon is faced with the shame of having acted unrightfully. Achilles has been convinced to come to a great hall meeting where he is to make a plea articulating his being wronged. As it has been put, “Achilles needs to be paid, but he cannot be bought off”.

Now this is the interesting thing. Achilles in our collective memory is largely thought of as some kind of glorious and blood splattered athlete, a kind of brute beauty perhaps, a pure articulation of body. But this is not at all the case in the minds of the listeners of Homer. He is a master of the lute and song, learned in the secrets of medical arts, and adroitly mesmerizing in speech (muthos). In his speech to the hall, in rebuttal to Odysseus’s finely constructed argument, he combines personal expression and ethical character argumentation (I am this way, Agamemnon is that way) to present a plea which strains the very form of the heroic hexameter verse in which it is to appear.

The Book 9 Speech: The New and the Old

There has been debate about the unique language forms used by Achilles, ever since Adam Parry’s 1956 article “The Language of Achilles” which claimed that Achilles’ abuse of the heroic form actually indicated his pure and existential alienation from the rigidity of human ordination. He was in a sense, cut off from history, and in the end performs some sort of transcendental and divine reconsilation through speech. David Claus in his 1975 “Aidös and the Language of Achilles” denied Parry’s conclusions, rather arguing that Achilles in speech only melded the heroic code to its new possibilities, bending and transforming its rules. The context of these interpretations can be seen in the informative essay, “The Language of Achilles: Reconstrution vs. Representation,” Steve Nimis (1986)[click here]. There Nimis sums Claus’s understanding of Achilles’ maneuver as the following,

Achilles, Claus argues, does not simply negate the heroic “code” (taking this term to mean a pattern of meaningful behavior and speech), but rather stretches and bends it in order to articulate his own ideal view of that code. Hence despite the formality and rhetorical predictability of his overt statements, [Achilles] manages to suggest a division of the heroic world into men who feel and love, who can fight, who have proper joy in their possessions, and those who rely on “things” to defend themselves against heroic sthenos, who seek to be kinglier than others, whose possessions are nothing good to them, who do not even know what a life is worth. Again, while this rejects Agamemnon and all his ways, it leaves the heroic code, at least as Achilles idealizes it, intact.

It is this I would like to focus on, the way in which an Achillean ideal type, through the force of his Being, his ideational and bodily capacity to act, takes hold of the existing “language game” and torques it to express what cannot otherwise be expressed within it. And in so doing, idealizes it by living out the expression he/she has formed. And it is specifically at the nexus of valuation that Achilles draws his distinction within the heroic realm. There are two kinds of men:

1. Men who feel and love, who can fight, who have proper joy of their possessions.

2. Those who rely on “things” to defend themselves against heroic strength [sthenos], who seek to be kinglier than others, whose possessions are nothing good to them, who do not even know what a life is worth.

Beneath this division is really the instrumentality of valuation, the unbodied, placeholder conception of “things” (objects and situations) as separable units of deploy vs. the lived and built bonds of enfleshed alliance. It is the difference between instrument and prosthetic grafting. Achilles forms his words out of his very fleshed circumstance, fully committed to what he can do. Agamemnon (and Odysseus) has politically weighed and buried self-interest against the possibilities of advance.

Nimis, taking both interpretive positions of relative alienation in hand, then qualifies Achilles’s speech act within the linguistic distinction of rule-governed creativity, and rule-changing creativity:

Both Claus’ analyses of Achilles’ speeches and Parry’s notion of Achilles’ alienation can be rethought in these terms, taking our cue from the distinction linguists make between rule-changing creativity and rule-governed creativity. All communication occurs in terms of conventions, but such conventions are constantly being used to “say” new things by various creative strategies. Rule-governed creativity is defined as the production of a new phrase or message which is a combination of conventional units in a way governed by prior conventions. Thus the sentence “there is a golden mountain on the moon” would be a “new” expression, but able to be understood given the existing conventions of English. Wallace Stevens’ famous line, however, “green colorless ideas sleep furiously,” is an example of rule-changing creativity, since the production and interpretation of this phrase require the establishment of a new convention which does not yet exist. Achilles’ speeches can be said to be examples of such rule-changing creativity. Like Wallace Stevens, he is a sign-producer who wishes to change the “code”, to articulate a meaning for whose communication and accurate reception no adequate conventions exist as yet. The situation seems to be paradoxical: if communication is based on conventions, how can it occur where no conventions exist? Yet unless we assume that language is “natural” in the strict sense (i.e., that it is immanent), all language must have become conventional by some form of rule-changing creativity (4)

Aside from the fact that philosopher Donald Davidson does have an idea of how language can occur without shared conventions, we can glimpse at the way in which Achilles’s speech act is to be idealized as the exemplar of almost all creative artistic activity. It is the attempt to creatively change the rules of a game that refuses your articulation, rather than play by the rules (and break them secretly when you can). And in so doing attempt to isolate and express the purpose of the language game in the first place.

Now there is something a bit Hegelian about this take of Nimis’s, and it really shows up in his conclusion, but I would like to focus on Achilles’s alienation. He is not alienated from human beings as a class, for he gets along well with his Myrmidons whom he leads, and Protroclus whom he loves, and Briseis, and Phoenix his old mentor (despite disagreements), and his mother the goddess Thetis. He alienated from his moment in history, the condition he has found himself in, as an injustice has been suffered. And he experiences this not as a personal injustice, which it is, but as a crisis in leadership itself, in the unkingliness of the said King who does not fight nor act equal to his position. This is shown much later in the Hellenic games Achilles presides over, after Agamemnon has left the narrative, showing the correct form of generous rule. Fair is not a calculation. So Achilles’s is not an ontological alienation under which he is somehow removed from his very Being, but a contingent insufficiency of expression, wherein his constitutional bonds are stretched. In this way, Achilles creatively stretches the heroic form, and with great expense steps away from the game so to affect it with his absence. A great portion of the tale is told with his absence as the main actor until finally it is only his armor that arrives. Achilles is the full inhuman and divine breadth that is in what’s human.

Achilles as Actor

When I suggest that the Achillean answer to the traditional Odysseus problems of philosophy is available, it is this that I emphasize (to select a few).

1. A substanced capacity to live through your bonds and attachments, and not simply use or deploy them.

2. The capacity to realize that speech acts are fully material acts, and that we can readily use rule-changing creativity to express what is within a rule-governed game.

3.The rhetor and the gnostic become the same person because the difference between the political and performance is collapsed.

4. Maintaining the hyper-human (divine) and trans-human (inanimate, elemental forces) spectrum of action, drawing on all our capacities to manifest (Solar Achilles).

5. Employ the immanence of one’s power as necessarily a limit reachable by mercy, the affirmation of custom renewed (Priam).

6. The value of things is fate.

7. Don the Achillean armor of immanence carefully, prudently (Patroclus); you are already wearing it.

8. When you make the corpse (Hector), turning the living into surface through the inscription of your desire, you must release it.

This is far from the self-negating existentialism of Odysseus (at least before he comes home to Ithica, as he becomes qualified by later Attic Tragedy). The human being takes its place within a panoply of historical objects, each fighting to bring forth its full expression. And bonds formed between living an inanimate things are as solid as atomic bonds, the forceful living through, and by the others around us. Man does not travel on his own temporal river, sequestered from the world, blessed/cursed only with the negating power of his consciousness. Man does not travel cloaked with the negating power of his own mortality. In the figure of Achilles it is not the illusion that man is both angel and animal, and therefore neither, the gap between them, but rather as all things are so constituted, man is a spectrum of forces brought to bear in their moment of history, finding the articulation that is best possible for them, those voices and those continuities.

Spinoza and Ovid

Michael Weiss discusses the book Betraying Spinoza with it author: A Kibitz on Pure Reason (Day Two). I have have to say that the book was not a favorite of mine, though the combination of veiled and unveiled personal observation, fiction and nonfiction was a unique take on Spinoza, a man who is sometimes overly caricatured by our needs to make him be a certain kind of person.

But I write here momentarily on something Michael Weiss says in passing, his note of the “inner warmth” of Spinoza beneath the “outer carapace”, signaled by Spinoza’s use of Ovid in the Ethics, hinting at an exoteric and an esoteric Spinoza:

I quite liked your narcissism quote, although my Penguin translation of The Ethics doesn’t put it so poetically as that – a shame, given the citations of Ovid with which Spinoza peppered a few of his axioms. This lure towards the romantic furnishes us with a clue, I think, about Baruch’s unacknowledged biases, since he thought the antique pangs of a fellow outcast fit for such a hyper-rationalist treatise on how best to stifle those pangs. Augustus likely gave Ovid the boot for his decadence and estimation of eros above the stuffy political conservatism and jingoism of imperial Rome. Spinoza had his own epicurean tastes, so I wonder if the frequent nods to the love poet aren’t further evidence of his inner warmth despite the outer carapace.

This caused me to think of my own love for Spinoza’s Ovid quotes and suggestions. In the wider view, I actually find Spinoza quite humorous at times. There have been guesses on what part Spinoza would have played in Terence’s “Andria” and “Eunuchus”, put on by van den Enden’s group in ’57 and ’58 (Leopold, Proietti), a point brought out by Wim Klever. I love the picture of Spinoza acting on stage as a 25 year old. But mostly, I have liked Spinoza’ remarkable Ovid Amores II xix reference when discussing the nature of the courtesan, and the facts of social binding, a Nietzschean: 


Iron is he who would love what the other has set down.

Let us hope while we fear and fear while we hope, we lovers

And let rare repulse make a place for a vow. (4-6)

The wordplay of the Latin is intense, and that Spinoza would draw on such multiplicitous lines is suggestive. Spinoza must have quoted favorite lines from memory (!), for he transposes the two initial lines, and significantly perhaps, suppresses the conciliatory conclusion of mutual conflict, the “locum voto”, the space for a vow (must we revisit the rumor of his lost love for van den Enden’s daughter?),


Let us hope while we fear, and fear while we hope, we lovers

Iron is he who would love what the other sets down. (Ep31c)

Spinoza’s contextually Ovidian argument:

If we imagine that someone enjoys some thing that only one can possess, we shall strive to bring it about that he does not possess it.
Schol: We see, therefore, that for the most part human nature is so constituted that men pity the unfortunate and envy the fortunate, and with greater hate the more they love the thing they imagine the other to possesses. We see, then, that from the same property of human nature from which it follows that men are compassionate [misericordes], it also follows that the same men are envious and ambitious (E3p32).

He who strives, only because of an affect, that others should love what he loves, and live according to his temperament, acts only from impulse and is hateful…since the greatest good men seek from an affect is often such that only one can possess it fully [ut unus tantum eius possit esse compos, hinc fit], those who love are not of one mind in their love-while they rejoice to sing the praises of the thing they love, they fear to be believed (E4p37s1)

I find these to be incredibly subtle and suggestive parts of his argument, and the poem they are drawn from provocative in subject. And lastly, one must remember that Colerus tells us that he would place spiders in a web to fight, amusing himself at the gladiatorial display. I have a feeling that Spinoza was something more than the man (image) we have made of him.


related thoughts: Spinoza and His Courtesan