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Massumi’s Cognitive Doubling, Spinoza’s Numerical Affectivity

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

Numericity of Connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spinoza Does Not Double

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

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

Parables for the Virtual, 32

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

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

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

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

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


Della Rocca’s Spinoza: Do Affects “represent” Anything?

Recently though I have been reading Michael Della Rocca’s essay, “The Power of an Idea: Spinoza’s Critique of Pure Will,” and despite my embrace of its conclusion as to the radically anti-Cartesian nature of 2p49, something of its intermediate conclusions troubled me. I may not fully understand the position, or it may be simply that I understand it, and disagree with it slightly.

It is Della’s Rocca’s conclusion that all modes of thought are indeed only those of ideas, and thus, of representations that confuses me. I do understand how he uses this principle causal reading of Spinoza to deny any possibility of a mental x (non-representational, will) determining a mental y (idea). But for me the difficulty arises with the nature of affects themselves, for while Spinoza certainly has argued that there is no will which determines which ideas we hold, it seems rather that the ideas that we hold indeed do determine the affects we have, and these affects are to be understood as “modes of thought”. I will go over this point a few times, so feel free to skip the examples.

What struck me was his exclusive reading of modes of thought so to be “fully reduced” to ideas was this kind of argumentative aim, as he writes, “I would also show, more generally, that there can be no item in thought, and thus no states of desire, hope, love, etc. that do not reduce fully to ideas” (Nous, 220).

I am unsure of just what he means to say, “states of x” are “fully reduced to ideas”. Is he reading an affect of Joy or desire to be an “item in thought”, even though it is defined as a transition that is “accompanied by”, and presumably not identical with, an idea? I might tend to agree that “representational content does all the causal work in the mind” for Spinoza (ibid), but something seems amiss here; if one is to fully describe Spinoza’s theory of the affects this something seems to be an account of the very degree of perfection of the ideas themselves. For the degree of the perfection of ideas determines the affect one has, and the very transition from one degree of perfection as a bodily power affirmation, (as found in the definitions of Joy and Sadness) should be considered a mode of thought, and perhaps a non-representational mode at that: for love itself apart from what is loved (Joy), represents nothing. In fact 2ax3 it would appear makes just this kind of distinction, an affect taken to be mode of thinking which is not its necessarily accompanying idea.

So we see the possible non-representational nature of affective modes of thought in a few places.

First, Spinoza in his attempt to deal with volition apart from desire presents representation-type model, (2p48s: “by will I understand a faculty…not the desire by which the mind wants a thing or avoids it”), gives his affirmations of a triangular example which he cites [the relationship between the ideas of a triangle and the angles therein]. Yet, in his General Definition of the Affects, he presents a very different kind of affirmation, that which is affirmed in examples of inadequate thought; here it is not some rational entailment as to the nature of the idea to itself (triangle/right angles), but of the body a degree of force of existing, or perfection. This affirmation of a degree of perfection seems to be a non-representational mode of thought, that is, it is only “born out of an idea” orta ex idea (for instance in the definition of the affect of Confidence), but remains distinct from that idea. We see this same distinction between the idea and the transition itself marked out in the definitions of Love, “Love is a Joy [an increase in perfection] with the accompaniment of (concomitante) an idea of an external cause”. What an idea affirms, that is, the mode of its thought, seems of paramount importance. In the instance of love, what is being affirmed as represented, is the idea of an external cause, but what is being affirmed (non-representatively) is the very power of the body to exist, in a specific degree. The question is, is “affirmation” necessarily representational (and not say, expressional).

For Spinoza, the modes of inadequate thinking are componented as to what they affirm, and what they represent. For instance, if I think I am saddened by a man betraying me (Hate), this is an affirmation of the belief that he is the cause of my sadness, (thus the idea is taken as a true representation of the causal explanation as to my state); but also by this very idea the Mind acts to affirm a weakening force of the body to exist such that it does exist to a lesser degree. Is this affirmation a “representation”? Spinoza says that it is a kind of representation, that is, it is something that “indicates or expresses” indicare vel exprimere the constitution of the body. But the very transition itself into a less real state, the feeling of sadness coming out of the idea which “constitutes the form of the affect”, does not seem a representation as we take the word.

This may of course have consequences for the nature of consciousness, that which “determines the mind to think this rather than that” (General Definitions of the Affects). Spinoza writes at 2p18s, defining Memory as “the certain connection of ideas involving the nature of things outside the body” and that this connection is the connection of the “affections of the human body”. Thus there is a kind of shadow parallel postulate which mirrors the parallel postulate of 2p7. There is the order and connection of ideas and things which is the same at the adequate level; but there is the order and connection of ideas about the nature of external things, and the affections of the body which are the same at the inadequate level. Of this second order, we think of an apple when we hear the word “apple” because the affections of our body are such that these have coincided, the hearing and the seeing. Presumably, this is also because in each affection, we have had the affect of joy, in that the Mind has affirmed in our body a greater degree of existing, transited (transito) to a greater perfection of being. These are two “orders” so to speak, the order of causal explanations provided by the Intellect’s ideas (2p18s), and the order of the affections of the body which produce the affirmations of the body, and affects via inadequate ideas. Both orders are modes of thinking, but how essentially representational, I am not sure. The first affirms and negates conceptually (as in the case of triangles), the second through its inadequate ideas “indicates or expresses” the degrees of being of the body, whose shifts (states of Joy, Sadness and Desire) do not seem represented.

This is the same fundamental tension which exists in the way he wants to talk about the will (voluntatem ). On the one had, it is a faculty (facultatem ) of presumably ideational affirmation and negation (2p48s); and yet he still wants to define Desire (Cupiditas) by its strivings, impulses, appetites and volitions (volitiones), which are as manifold (varia ) as with the constitution (constitutione ) of each man that is manifold (hominis…varii ), taking as their objects the very bodily states themselves; that is to say, volitions follow the order of bodily affections (Definition of the Affects, I). The faculty of voluntatem which rests with the affirmations and negations of ideas, and the inadequate production of volitiones result in two kinds of affirmations, and two different notions of representation. One affirmation occurs at the ideational level with adequate ideas, such as one does when discussing the ideas of triangles, (a triangle and not a circle), with no reference to the body at all, and one that occurs at the seemingly non-representational affective transition, “born of” inadequate ideas/images which indicate a degree of being of the body, affirming that, through the order of its affections.

What makes an idea=representation equivalence confusing is that Spinoza would like to distinguish ideas from images (“fictions we feign from the illusion of free will”), yet each can be taken as a representation. What Spinoza privileges as a true idea, what I would read as “an idea insofar as it is an idea” (2p49) isn’t really a representation in the usual sense, that is, it is not an idea about the nature of an external thing (that is, it does not literally re-present it). The intellect, insofar as it affirms or negates, understands things through their first causes, it explains them (2p18s). Thus, the intellectual Idea of God or Substance explains modal reality, but does not represent it, except perhaps in the most Scholastic of senses.

Axiom 3, Ethics Part II: There are no modes of thinking, such as love, desire, or whatever is designated by the word affects of the mind, unless there is in the same Individual the idea of the thing loved, desired, etc. But there can be an idea, even though there is no other mode of thinking.

I think key to reading 2ax3, on which Della Rocca’s interpretation rests, is understanding that when Spinoza writes “There are no modes of thinking, such as love…unless there is the idea of the thing loved,” he announces that the affect of loving (Joy), is a non-representational mode of thinking (already admitted by the axiom as distinct) which is concomitant to a representational, affirming mode of thought (inadequate idea) regarding an the external thing. That is, the affect arises out of the idea, but is distinct from it.

I agree with his thought, “Spinoza claims that because an idea cannot be conceived without a certain affirmation, and because that affirmation cannot be conceived without the idea, it follows, given Spinoza’s conception of essence (2def2), that affirmation pertains to the essence of the idea, and that the affirmation is identical with the idea” (Nous, 202). But we must distinguish between adequate and inadequate ideas. It is the particularity of the affirmation which marks it as such. The rational affirmation that is involved in the Intellect’s understanding through first causes, is not the same affirmation involved in affects as passions, though the latter can be explained through the former. Spinoza views all ideas, insofar as they are in the mind of God, as true. That is, what they affirm and negate constitute their essence. But in instances where we are not thinking of triangles, but inadequately of external objects, what is being affirmed is not the ratio of angles unto a conception of triangles, but a power of the body, an affirmation which is largely, if not entirely unconscious.

As I look closely at 2p49, affirmations (including the affirmation of the degrees of power of the body to exist) exist because they are involved by ideas (involvit ) insofar they are ideas. This quatenus idea est, can only mean as far as I can tell, ideas as opposed to images, adequate ideas as opposed to inadequate ideas, ideas as they are taken to be in the mind of God. The difficulty with strictly equating this aspect of affirmation (that of an idea insofar as it is an idea) with belief, is that it would be at the level of strictly true belief. As one passes from the strong notion of adequate ideas, to the weaker notion, what is being affirmed, by Spinoza’s definition of affect and inadequate idea, has changed. The affirmation (and negation) which at the level of adequate ideas would constitute true belief, at the level of affects is an affirmation of the body’s capacity to act. Indeed, having ideas of any sort is a kind of belief, an affirmation. But what is being affirmed seems for Spinoza to slide along a gradated, asymptotic line, at whose pinnacle adequate ideas as explanations of the causes of things, affirm and negate the internal particularities of those ideas; but insofar as they are not (true) ideas, they produce a non-representational change in the body’s power. These affective affirmations of the body may be said to be “enfolded by, wrapped by” adequate ideas which involve them involvere, but are they “reduced to” those ideas, for their effects remain modally distinct, as expressions?


I am thinking of a description of affects I once found in Deleuze’s lectures on Spinoza, one which made me think deeply about the restrictions Della Rocca was placing on mental action; it lead me to my close reading of Della Rocca’s line of thought. Deleuze writes, explaining the fundamental difference between an idea and an affect:

“Thus we start from a quite simple thing: the idea is a mode of thought defined by its representational character. This already gives us a first point of departure for distinguishing idea and affect (affectus) because we call affect any mode of thought which doesn’t represent anything. So what does that mean? Take at random what anybody would call affect or feeling, a hope for example, a pain, a love, this is not representational. There is an idea of the loved thing, to be sure, there is an idea of something hoped for, but hope as such or love as such represents nothing, strictly nothing. Every mode of thought insofar as it is non-representational will be termed affect”

(Cours Vincennes – 24/01/197eight)

Deleuze, whatever one makes of him, reads affects as essentially non-representational modes of thought; this seems to answer at first blush Della Rocca’s position “…this argument rule[s] out other modes of thought not ultimately ideas or representational states” (Nous, 220). This depends on what he means by “ultimately”. It would also depend on what one means by “representational content”. For, in his essay he seems to often take as identical in meaning, idea and representation. Yet as Spinoza distinguishes between idea and image (2p49s), and Della Rocca understands image to be the means by which the mind represents an “external state of affairs” (Nous, 210; via 2p17); just how “representational” are the affirmations of adequate ideas, for they are not representing external states of affairs (alone), but rather are explaining them. It seems rather, what is taken as “representational” in the usual sense, for instance the idea of a frog, that frog there, insofar as it makes me think of this or that, feel this or that, is merely for Spinoza an image, and not an idea proper.

I think this disjunction in what representation means can be seen in the way that the different kinds of affirmations are approached by Spinoza. Those of triangles and the such, by the intellect, involve no reference at all to states of the body itself, even though, all ideas in the Mind are supposed to take as their object the Body as it actually exists, an object in fact constituted (constituentis) by that state of the body (2p13). When discussing our ideas of triangles (and what they are supposed to represent, if we take such ideas to be fundamentally representational), there is no mention at all of the actual object of those ideas, the human body. Spinoza does not, in fact cannot say with any sense, “the idea that the two angles of a triangle add up to two right angles is affirmed because the body is in actual state x, which forms the actual object of this idea of the mind”.

The conflation of image representations and idea representations seems to undermine the thought that there can be no “interaction between…ideas and any non-ideas” (Nous, 223). While I certainly agree that there is no room for a Cartesian free will as an explanatory cause of belief in ideas, what does not seem supported by Spinoza in that he takes representations (inadequate ideas) to be unconscious affirmations of the body which give “rise to” shifts in perfection, transitions which are not representational in character. In the end, Spinoza actually seems to invert Descartes, and makes what we commonly take as “will,” the products of consciousness and choice, a non-representational, ontological effect, caused by largely representational states (inadequate ideas, images of external states), and these inadequate representational states in turn to be further caused by Intellectual affirmations and negations, which in the mind of God are less “representations” in the common sense term, as immanent expressions of modal states of the world, as ideas.

Key becomes the question, are the risings and fallings of degrees of power of the body to exist (and act), those transitions to and from perfection, to be considered “modes of thought” or of some alternate category, neither extension nor thought. There seems no room in Spinoza’s ontology for this third category.

I wonder if I have misunderstood a vital component of Della Rocca’s argument. I can certainly see how it makes clear the very nature of Spinoza’s radical refutation of Descartes, but I feel that some of his uses of “representation” go too far to adequately capture what Spinoza means by affect.


Michael Della Rocca is in my mind the clearest expositor of Spinoza living, and teaching at Yale. Highly recommended, his Represenation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza.

Closely related posts: Spinoza’s Two Concepts of Order ; Spinoza: The Body of Ideas as Lens ; Wasps, Orchids, Beetles, Crickets

Spinoza’s Rose

Spinoza would sign his letters with the above image of a rose and the word “caute” (Latin for caution, carefully, beware). It was a ring that he wore.

What I find of note here is that in resorting to, and seemingly having some enjoyment in, an iconic communication of an idea, he is communicating in a way quite distinct from his geometric style of so much fame. Instead we have a double movement. You have an image and its word below it, a veritable thing (extension) and its idea. Af first glance it seems to hold a fairly conservative and moral meaning. Sensuous images, attractive things, emotions are things one should Beware. But there is more to this image and word. Firstly, the rose was not just the image of the sensuous, but also that of secrecy. The Rosicrucian movement was in full swing at this time (and there is even some evidence that Descartes was a member or adherent early in his life), an esoteric vision of the world in which mathematics played an interesting part.

This is not to say that Spinoza’s Rose was Rosicrucian, but that the image holds something of the occult in the literal sense, that every physical thing keeps in its heart causal consequences which are hidden, a secrecy of effects. Further, the Rose is an image pun, in that Spinoza’s name holds the Portuguese word for “thorn” espinoza. And he was of Portuguese descent. (The ring has not only the image and word “caute” but also his initials.) It reads something along the lines of “I am a rose, beware the thorns”. Interestingly to me, this departs somewhat from the cool, rational picture we have of Spinoza, and contributes something to how he saw the world, and himself. In a sense, caute is the idea which lies behind every appearance for Spinoza. But this caution cannot be read merely as a moral conservatism, a simple, “don’t indulge”, but rather as expressing the idea that all things have edges and complex consequences.

By signing his letters and wearing his ring in such a personal way, Spinoza expressed something of himself that we miss. He was a very thorny person. He was excommunicated from the Jewish Community as a young man, no light event. His ideas would unleash any number of accusations and consequences over the next 150 years. He was a particular kind of rose. There is also the sense that by so suitably carrying his message in a pictorial form, he seems to be embracing the very thing which Idealism would diminish, the real Image, the physical rose. We can see the difference between his Rose and the word “caute” and a similar combination of the Image and the word “rose”. He is not making a Saussurian point between the signifer and the signified, but between a thing and its real consequences to us. He says, I appear to you as a rose, beware.

What is one to make of Spinoza’s play with puns and pictures?

What happens when we take even words as roses?

[written September 23, 2008]