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Tag Archives: Desire

The “heart” of Neo-Liberalism, blah, blah, blah

While I try to shrug off all this Neo-liberalism this, and Neo-liberalism that, as other blogsters are using fancy acronyms for Neo-liberalism as if they are busy making entries in the Merck manual, this one passage of qualifications and analogies from the Neo-liberal hating Levi Bryant I find interesting (yes, he has equated Neo-liberalism with Nazism recently):

While I do not disagree with Rowan William’s thesis that the picture of the human as an intrinsically self-seeking creature constitutes a false anthropology, I have noticed that there is a tendency to treat the core of neo-liberal capitalist ideology as consisting almost entirely of this false anthropology. What is missing in this conception of neo-liberal ideology is the legal and normative framework that underlies this way of relating to the world and others. On the one hand, in order for neo-liberal capitalist ideology to get off the ground it requires what what might be called a “pure subject” or a “subject-without-qualities”, not unlike Descartes’ cogito or Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception. At the heart of neo-liberal capitalist ideology (NLCI) is not so much a subject pursuing self-interest, as a legal subject functioning as the substrate of property, commercial obligations and debts, and divorced from social context and conditions of production.

One can see right away from the bolded material that analogies abound. Levi objects to an anthropological view being read as the core of Neo-liberalism, because there is a framework (legal normative) in which (?) a substrate operates (legal subject) onto which various formal economic relations adhere.  What Levi denies, in something beyond a point of emphasis, is that the “heart” or the “core” of Neo-liberalism is the self-interested subject. Instead it is a mere formalism of “subject” and its laws. To put it briefly, it’s not the self-seeking, self-interested desiring-subject, it’s the structured-subject (legally and philosophically) that is the troublesome kernel of Neo-liberalism. Let’s leave aside the kind of rhetorical slippage between philosophical “subject” and legal “subject” here, is it really correct to say that THIS is the core/heart of Neoliberalism (whatever that is)?

From my perspective the attempt to minimize the anthropological myth, the idea that human beings are essentially and naturally selfish beings, and instead draw a different heart/core made of some kind of structuralization, misses something. The entire legal and normative framework, we would say, came into existence and into justification in the very strong context of the belief that human beings are self-interested beings, essentially. The entire formalized drive towards privatization is made in response to this picture of humanity, it is naturalized within it. While I’m not sure who is saying that Neo-liberalism is nothing but this myth – David Graeber does make a vivid anthropological argument that “even” exchange is something that is done between enemies, suggesting that economic models of abstract equivalencies are necessarily mythologically self-interested ones – I am also unsure how much of the “framework” and its formalized subject could operate without it. In fact, as Spinoza knew just at the cusp of the Cartesian subject, one cannot cut off the conception of the cogito from the idea of its separate faculties of Willing and Judgment. In order undo the abstract subject, willing and freedom have to be radicalized. The desiring subject, how it desires, and what it desires for is integral to the very isolation of the said “substrate” of the subject in the first place. In fact, all of this stems to a great degree from Representational conceptions of knowledge and related questions of autonomy, freedom and desire.

I don’t really know what good finding the heart or the core of Neoliberalism does, other than create a kind of rhetorical force to steady the aim of our critique. But I do doubt that our narratives about how humans naturally (or if one is in Lacanian moods, structurally) desire are not every bit as important as the laws and norms that are created to regulate and shape those desires. I personally find the Neo-liberalism stigma mark to be something of a canard, designed by those that think “radical break”, getting “outside”, is the only way towards justice, but in any case, philosophies of “lack” (including much of what flows from Hegel, and those that hunger after essentialized “nothingness” or “absence” or “object”) have a great deal to do with foreclosing the possibilities of thinking about the “subject”, or better, the self beyond its normative product-buying, object-chasing behavior. One  also has to ask, as we pre-occupy ourselves with “objects” as essential and constitutive relations, are we not already caught up in economies (of desire, of real capital) which presuppose the “lack” which drives them, sinking deeper into our mental concrete the assumptions which secure the relations we would wish to change or improve upon.


An Illusion of Free Will: “I moved my mouth. I talked. What did I say?”



Ed Young posts on recent experiments in brain stimulation that produced something of the illusion of a freedom of will, or at least the solicitation of the desire to act in a particular way: Electrical stimulation produces feelings of free will (found through Speculative Heresy) The original journal article ,“Movement Intention After Parietal Cortex Stimulation in Humans”, tells of how stimulation of the Posterior Parietal Cortex in patients produced not only the distinct feeling that they wanted to move parts of their body, but when the stimulation increased also the belief that they actually had completed the action, though they had not. Ed Young provides an excellently concise summation of the findings, and even makes mention of Cartesian Dualism.

The Flying Stone of Free Will

I am not one for feeling that scientific observation usually resolves long-standing philosophical issues which are born of conceptual and terminological circuits, but this does seem to be something of a a check on the Spinoza side of the ledger (perhaps to be added to the several entered by Damasio). As Spinoza saw the issue of the freedom of the will, the sense that we are freely acting was merely the awareness of an appetite to action combined with an ignorance of the causes that determined that appetite, bringing it into being. We, like a hypothetical thinking stone that is flying through the air, only imagine that we are freely acting, while we have been “thrown” by any number of external (and internal) forces.

The core of this position is found in his letter 62/58 to Schaller (October, 1674), which I quote at length because he presents his vision so compactly. It is interesting that some of Spinoza’s most revelatory position passages come from his letters:

I, therefore, pass on to that definition of liberty, which he says is my own; but I know not whence he has taken it. I say that a thing is free, which exists and acts solely by the necessity of its own nature. Thus also God understands Himself and all things freely, because it follows solely from the necessity of His nature, that He should understand all things. You see I do not place freedom in free decision, but in free necessity. However, let us descend to created things, which are all determined by external causes to exist and operate in a given determinate manner. In order that this may be clearly understood, let us conceive a very simple thing. For instance, a stone receives from the impulsion of an external cause, a certain quantity of motion, by virtue of which it continues to move after the impulsion given by the external cause has ceased. The permanence of the stone’s motion is constrained, not necessary, because it must be defined by the impulsion of an external cause. What is true of the stone is true of any individual, however complicated its nature, or varied its functions, inasmuch as every individual thing is necessarily determined by some external cause to exist and operate in a fixed and determinate manner.

Further conceive, I beg, that a stone, while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavouring, as far as it can, to continue to move. Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavour and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish. This is that human freedom, which all boast that they possess, and which consists solely in the fact, that men are conscious of their own desire, but are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined. Thus an infant believes that it desires milk freely; an angry child thinks he wishes freely for vengeance, a timid child thinks he wishes freely to run away. Again, a drunken man thinks, that from the free decision of his mind he speaks words, which afterwards, when sober, he would like to have left unsaid. So the delirious, the garrulous, and others of the same sort think that they act from the free decision of their mind, not that they are carried away by impulse. As this misconception is innate in all men, it is not easily conquered.

The Moving of Lips

How amenable is this non-dualistic framework to the conditions that Ed Young reports, wherein the motor action was able to be parsed from the mere feeling of intention, so much so that subjects even could be caused to hold the belief that they had not only a volition, but also had acted upon it,

Desmurget, on the other hand, could only ever produce the illusion of movement by focusing on the parietal cortex. And his patients’ descriptions of their experiences made it very clear that they were feeling some sort of internal intention to move, rather than feeling compelled by an external force. Without any prompting from the researchers, they all described their feelings with words such as “will”, “desire” or “wanting to”. One of the patients said, “I felt a desire to lick my lips”, after a low burst of current. With more stimulation, he said “I moved my mouth. I talked. What did I say?”

More than ever we get the sense that Spinoza hit upon something significant when he qualified the ideas we have about the world as really ideas we have of our body being in a certain state or other. And even more so, we get a glimpse into the finesse behind Spinoza’s denial of the freedom of the will, a “freedom” that resided under the veil of our ignorance (all the while still asserting a rigorous ethics). It was no mere abstract imposition of determinism for the sake of determinism. Nothing is more tiresome than the well-worn arguments of the freedom of the will, it seems. But what this study suggests is that if we look at the materiality of our freedoms, the means by which we experience our intentions as free, perhaps another kind of freedom is available, that of knowledge of causes a path of freedom advocated by Spinoza.

Further, our experiences and beliefs about the factuality of our actions, our very autonomic natures, seem to be fundamentally tied to our experiences of our appetites as such. It is not simply the case that we can ask, “Was that movement freely willed?” but also must ask, “Did we actually do what we thought we wanted to?” Our very desires, if strong enough, are part of the perception of action itself, suggesting that the understanding and appreciation for our actions, or intentions, may spring from an understanding of desire and appetite itself, just as Spinoza thought.

Of course, once we start untangling the weave of free intentions, the consolidation of a pure human “subject” also begins to unspool.

Spinoza and His Courtesan


Spinoza’s Courtesan.

There is in Spinoza several unSpinozic elements that float in his texts, a quoted poem here, a poetic aphorism there. One of these though is his reference to the courtesan (meretrix in Latin), actually translated out of the English by the usually accurate Curley, as if the specificity of the reference had to be suitably Spinozified and abstracted. It is always interesting to watch the “anomalous” features of a thinker, especially those that interpreters and translators seek to erase, for sometimes these “exceptions” prove to be guides of how wrong translators and interpreters are.

I’d like to focus on these rare references to The Prostitute. As Curley in his notes suggests, one must understand that the meretrix is a particular figure in history. She is not the street-walker, that is to be sure, but a woman well-cliented. In fact it is suspected that Spinoza has in mind the meretrix from the plays of Terence (and perhaps Plautus), a woman whose designs and seductions actually operate in such a way as to make a plot turn, comically. So she is not necessarily a figure of moral reprobation though she is still problematic.

Spinoza approaches the problem of the meretrix, (literally: she who earns), in the Appendix to Part IV of the Ethics where the general problem of Compassion, generosity and right living is considered in the view of the facts of sociability. She enters at section XIX, which has just followed the call for “care” in “accepting favors and returning thanks”. The call is for prudence. The Spinoza attempts to specify:

Spinoza wrote:

XIX. Moreover, love of a meretrix [Curley translates Amor praeterea meretrix: A purely sensual love], that is the desire of begetting that arises from external appearance, and absolutely, all love that has a cause other than the freedom of the mind, easily passes into hate—unless (which is worse) it is a species of madness. And then it is encouraged more by discord than by harmony.

Spinoza’ criticism is two fold. One is that the love a prostitute arises from (oritur: it is stirred up by) form alone (ex forma). It is fundamentally a reaction. From a form the libido is passively stirred up, and as such, it does not have as its cause, “the freedom of the Mind”. The question therefore is not whether such a love of form results in the freedom of the Mind, but rather what is the cause of such an action. Because the cause of the love of a courtesan is not the freedom of the Mind, it is lesser. And thus, the accepting of her favors, however equal the exchange, is not optimum. The second half of the criticism is that such a love, because its cause is from the form alone, the passions that it gives birth to can easily pass into hate or madness. It is unstable. Because men seek to own and be master of their passions, they become jealous, or drunk on them. The last sentence of the section is ambiguous in the Latin, it can alternatelhy mean that such a love feeds on discord, or that it encourages discord in the world. In either case, the love of the favors of the prostitute produces a fundamental discord, both in oneself and in society.

Spinoza contrasts this state with marriage:

XX. As for marriage, it certainly agrees with reason, if the Desire for physical union is not generated only by external appearance [ex sola forma] but also Love of begetting children and educating them wisely, and moreover, if the Love of each, of both man and woman, is caused not by external appearance only, but mainly by the freedom of the mind.

It is interesting that here Spinoza reverses the emphasis, attempting to qualify the institution of marriage. First, it is insofar as it is not by form alone, but also to beget children (have legitimate results) and lastly, mainly (another qualification) that its cause is from the freedom of the mind. He seems uncomfortable with the institution itself, but attempts to position it the context of courtesan love, being well aware of the weaknesses of real life marriages. It is as if Courtesan love is simpler and easier to assess.

He moves then immediately back onto the sure ground he is attempting to weigh:

Spinoza wrote:

XXI. Flattery also gives rise to harmony, but by the foul crime of bondage, or by treachery. No one is more taken in by flattery than the proud, who wish to be the first and are not.

This is really the core of his critique of meretrix love. For what is weakening in the Courtesan, and the job by which she is forced or chooses to earn her living, is that the prostitute is essentially a flatterer, someone who tells you what you would like to hear. What Spinoza is really trying to assess is the role of flattery in social relations. Flattery makes for social harmony, but at a cost. It is born out of fear [Appendix XVI].

“Only free men are very thankful to one another,” he writes at EIVp71, and this is the razor edge that Spinoza is trying to walk in examining the nature of sociability. Thankfulness does not include the acceptance of all gifts, and it is for this reason that the meretrix is brought in as an example.

For one who, out of foolishness, does not know how to reckon one gift against another, is not ungrateful; much less one who is not moved by the gifts of a courtesan to assist her lust (ipsius libidini inserviat: or, assist in his lust), nor by those of a thief to conceal his thefts (EVIp71s)

Thankfulness is a special prudence in the understanding of what is being produced. It is not the love of the meretrix that is in error, but the specific relation that does not make the most of itself. This is a sub-example of the exchange of flattery itself, as a form of societal transaction, the offering of a surface that does not have freedom in mind as its cause.

Spinoza, in examining the kind of exchanges that are best calls for great care, for gifts even of flattery cannot be simply shunned without respect of consequences:

To this we may add that we must be careful in declining favors, so that we do not seem to distain them, or out of Greed to be afraid of repayment. For in that way, in the very act of avoiding their Hate, we would incur it. So in declining favors we must take into account both what is useful and honorable (EIVp70s).

The issue of the courtesan cannot be closed so easily though, as one becomes careful in the kinds of relations one takes to external forms, as causes. For any philosophical discussion of courtesans must take in account the figure of Diotima, a Courtesan who supposedly taught Socrates his greatest understanding of Love (told in the Symposium). The Courtesan, as she is the symbol of affective passions, the Latin Comedy spur to action and resolution, and as she is also the fabled source of Socratic wisdom bringing us to understand the power of sociability itself, becomes not so much an example to be avoided, but really more, a historical figure, a paradigm of the fact of our affective state. For the Courtesan is one who works (again, the meretrix being the woman who earns), who must gather around her those that support her, by any lights she can muster, out of necessity. This seems our natural state, one of dependence upon others. Further, as such, she understands better than most, or perhaps any, the nature of desire, of human need and libido, by virtue of the position she occupies. It is notable that Spinoza places his discussion of the Courtesan in the context of greater human need for generosity:

XVII. Men are also won over by generosity, especially those who do not have the means of acquiring the things they require to sustain life. But to bring aid to everyone in need far surpasses the powers and advantage of private person. For his riches are quite unequal to the task. Moreover the capacity of one man is too limited for him to be able to unite all men to him in friendship. So the case of the poor falls upon society as a whole, and concerns only the general advantage. (EVI, appendix).

When Spinoza speaks of “riches” I believe he has in mind not only the material wealth that one might have, but also the conceptual wealth. The generosity to save and socialize is beyond the capacity of a single man. I suggest that the Courtesan actually stands as a figure in Spinoza for what actually is. She holds the secret of our interdependence, and our fundamentally passive states, and the secret of our desire to beget ourselves. She also shows our necessity to flatter. But Spinoza is calling for a deeper gift, a freer meretrix, one closer to the Socratic Diotima, who has transcended her economic reality of power, and finds in the gift and giving, something more…powerful.


[written September 11, 2006]