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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.

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2/n: The ESSENTIAL binary of all Philosophical Discussion

I want to repeat a comment I added over at Naught Thought on the subject of what makes Dark Vitalism “dark”. I think Complete Lies was doubtfully querying about what the adjective adds. Its fair to ask.

It occurs to me to add that I have heard it said that if there is any TRUE binary, it is the binary of Being/Not-Being on the one hand, and Polyvocality on the other: perhaps symbolized as 2/n. In otherwords, the very idea that there are two (some fundamental two whatever their name), and that there are the many (all of which are to be investigated). In my mind what makes Vitalism Dark would be the decided attempt to position one’s vitalism on the “dark” side of this binary, within polyocality. Here, “dark” is not only representively dark, as in dark vs. light (with all the cultural powers and pitfalls of being on the lesser half), but also dark as in, non-binarious in its explanations.

I believe I found this thought when reading the excellent (really excellent) Volatile Bodies by Elizabeth Grosz, though certainly the idea of it is plentiful.

What is interesting about this essential binary which places binarization itself on one half, and multiplicity expression on the other is that it makes something of a good short hand for measuring out other positions. It seems to drive a hard line through most of Idealist thought which privileges and focuses itself upon the “2” as a producer of the “n”, while what Deleuze calls the Distaff tradition focuses on the “n” as underpinning any illusion or clarity of the “2”. And one might even say that a taxonomy of 2 vs. n elements might be made of any fundamental onto-epistemic assumptions of a prospective philosophical position. How invested is it in the “2” (and its multiplications)?  How are 2-elements handled, what place are they given? We can see as well how the 2 directs itself away from the physical world and a naturalized account of the world, and towards the traditional philosophical transcendent preoccupation, while the “n” seems to both engage in a kind of material poeticism, but one amenable to the sciences, maths and sociology (which describes structures of the n quite well).

The Spinoza Equation

Also of note of such an essential dichtomy for me is that it shows something of the uniqueness of Spinoza’s position, as he threw off the reportedly first and dominant “2” in modern philosophy, Descartes Mind/Body. He preserved it in an interesting way, as part of a conceptual dualism which itself was part of an infinity of attribute expressions, making a philosophy that might be signified as (1)/2*/n. His (1)/2*/n allows for investigation and embrace of the “n” (modal, concrete expression), but does so within a unity and really an affective unity (a strength of his philosophy which directs any pragmatic project of freedom towards n itself), though in aymptotic fashion.

It seems to me that any “dark” vitalism, or dark panpsychism (which is an even more compelling term), is one that embraces the “n” half of the binary in some very strong conceptual and really dynamic sort of way. Its one that reads the n as the very material of the theory. And part of the shrugging off the primacy of the “2” is realizing the non-ontological status of the negation.

The Fantasm of the Point: Vico, Plotinus, Campanella and even Badiou

(ca. 204-270 AD) 

To return to the diagram of my last post on Plotinus I want to think along with a confluence of ideas that condense upon the very center of it, the infintesmal locus of “matter” which exists merely as a private, yet also which alternately can be considered as a radiating center (under a different analogy).

The direction I want to go in this is a rumination that first starts from Badiouian notion that Being is not of the One, or “the One is not,” and that mathematics in a sense speaks Being,  pronouncing what is expressible of being-qua-being. The principle that the non-numerical One is beyond Being is of course one that Plotinus holds at the pinacle of his Ontology, for Being starts with the varigated particularization of the Nous. It is there that the predication of Being takes hold. The way that Plotinus tells it, the Nous is produced by the plentitude/emptiness of The One, and necessarily breaks it apart into a kind of representation which divides it into parts. The reason that Plotinus gives for this division into likenesses is interesting. It is that the Nous struggles with the fact that it has no control over that upon which it ultimately depends, a control which expresses itself in the desire to preserve:

The hypostasis of the Intellect [Nous] cannot maintain its vision of the One in primal unity, but “being being unable to preserve the power which it was procuring, it broke it up and made the one [power] that it might bear it part by part [katà méros]” (6.7 [38] 15.20-22). In so doing, Intellect constitutes itself as an imitation of the Good, as a many-hued and varigated Good (agathòn poíkilon).

F.M. Schroeder, citing Plotinus in Form and Transformation

Now there is a great and dissatisfying danger of simply reading these particularizations as mere abstractions of an esoteric philosophy, the most gripless of metaphysics, but Plotinus’s reasoning as to why the Nous indeed breaks up the One has strong affective, phenomenological correlates. It is the very dependency of the unity of the Nous upon what lies beyond it, and inclusive of it, that generates a corresponding particularization. In drawing power from what is outside, the inside distinguishes itself. If we turn to the simple figure of a circle (for millenia a favorite of philosophers, and think in terms of systems theory, we understand that whatever system there is, it necessarily is less complex than its environment. This is to say, as all systems (the inside) depends upon a more complex outside, the very inside/outside boundary issue of dependency drives the very divisions of the inside in regard to what lies beyond it. If we allow the observations of evolutary theory, life has moved from less to more complex, and with this increase of internal divisions (differences that make differences) it has relatively gained a greater role in the preservation of the power upon which it depends (and, notably, which it is also an expression). Plotinus’s story of the Nous serves as a metaphysical directionality which prescribes how any person (organism) might orient themselves to conditions which are beyond it, like the Nous with totalizes these relations, the move is towards a complexification of differences that make differences.

For Plotinus, this process of particularization comes from what he calls “beholding” or “witnessing”. Whereas the first particularization beholds the One/the Expressed, those of Soul and Sensation are even more narrow in what they behold, all the way down to matter, which simply exists as a non-existent privation. A speck of darkness.

A Retreat to Vico’s Conception of Mathematics: the ficta of points (1668 – 1744)

I find this speck of nothingness interesting because its very non-divisibilty division reflects something of mathematics, the way in which points or numbers are non-existent distinctions that operate as a kind of limit. What I have in mind is Giambattista Vico’s interpretation of mathematics as the most divine of human acts, because in the invention of the point and the unit human beings act just a God did, creating something out of nothing in imitation of divinity, scientia humana divinae sit imitatrix. For Vico, a forerunner to some themes found in Kant, human beings cannot truly know things that they have not created. Only God truly knows what is created. The reason why human beings can have perfect knowledge of mathematics is that its creation is wholely their own. In a sense, mathematics operates “within” the circle of human articulation.

To quote some Vico, and then a commentator, to give perspective on his position:

…man defines the names themselves, and on the model of God with no underlying thing he creates (creat) the point, line and surface as if from nothing, as if they were things…to establish (condidit) for himself a certain world of forms and numbers, which he embraces within himself: and by producing, shortening, or composing lines, by adding, substracting, or reckoning numbers, he effects infinite works because he knows infinite truths within himself

But the point of the human imagination is not the point we draw with a pencil: “the point, when you draw it, is not a point: the one, when you multiply it, is no longer fully one.”

“man, containing within himself an imaginary world of lines and numbers, operates in it with his abstractions, just as God does in the universe with reality.”

With something of Plotinus’s reasoning, the very imaginary abstraction that human beings creates is a coping mechanism for that which lies beyond them and upon which they depend. Here Robert Miner provides a good overview of Vico’s approach to the knowing of human understanding:

Abstraction is the mind’s way of coping with its estrangement from things. Because he cannot possess ‘the elementa rerum by which things themselves exist with certainty,’ he resorts to the fabrication (confingere) of elementa verborum, elements which, despite their unreality, are able to ‘stimulate ideas with no controversy.'”

Vico has described human truth as a factum that is arrived at through a synthesis of elements that are only partially grasped, because they exist outside the mind which grasps them. If the human mind is essentially outside the elementa rerum, how does it manage to grasp even their outside edges? Vico proceeds to answer this question: “God knows everything, because he contains within himself the elements from which all things are composed; man seeks to know these elements by a process of dividing (dividendo).”

What is the relation of “dividing” to making? Is dividendo creative or destructive? Vico’s answer is “both.” De antiquissima 1.2 begins with an homage to the fecundity of dissection. The “anatomy of nature’s works” gives birth to a range of human scientiae. It does so by inventing their objects. One can divide man into body and spirit. From body, human science has “picked out (excerpsit) or, as men say, abstracted figure and motion, and from these, as well as from all other things, it has extracted (extulit) being and unity.” The objects obtained through abstraction give rise to the human scientiae metaphysics (whose proper object is ens), arithmetic (unum), geometry (figura), mechanics (motus from the edge), physics (motion from the center), medicine (corpus), logic (ratio), and ethics (voluntas).

The fecundity of dissection comes at a cost. Man creates the human scientiae by fragmenting, and therefore destroying, the whole…The entities created by abstraction – being, unity, figure, motion, shape, intellect, will – are “one thing in God, in whom they are one, and another thing in man, in whom they are divided.” Ripped from the whole in which they have life, humanly obtained elements are disiecta membra. “In God they live, in man they perish.” Our efforts to understand nature by cutting it up supplies us with theories rather than works: “in nobis sunt ratiocina, in Deo sunt opera.” All that man acquires through dividing the whole, is like man himself, nihil prae Deo; all finite and created beings are nothing but disposita entis infiniti ac aeterni. Etymology confirms the connection between division and diminution: Vico asserts that minuere means both “to lessen” and “to separate.”

The limitations of abstraction ensure that we have access only to the extrema of the elementa rerum. In what is likely to be an illusion to Lucretius, Vico declares that when man starts to investigate the nature of things (naturam rerum vestigabundus), he finds that “he does not have within himself the elements from which composite things exist.” This lack (brevitas) is not a morally neutral feature of the human condition, but a “vice of the mind” (mentis vicium). It is an effect of fallenness, a decline from a primordeal state in which mind and nature where integrated. (Vico uses nefas to characterize physicists who think they can provide real defintions of things.) Man responds to this condition by turning the mentis vicium to good use, by performing an operation that relies solely upon the mind and bypasses, as it were, the material world. “By abstraction, as they say, he fabricates (configit) two things for himself: the point that can be drawn and the unit that can be multiplied.” The association of abstractio and configere suggests that abstraction is creative. The suggestion is confirmed in the Prima Riposta, where Vico writes that mathematics [move to quotes on mathematics].

Truth in Making, Robert Miner

The Terminus Point of Nonbeing: Campanella (1568 – 1639 )

 

There is another evocative figure of radiating being, that which Campanella uses to characterize how each thing is but a point from which non-Being radiates, a kind of photographic negative of Plotinus’s conception:

 What we are concerned with is something that has an actual bearing on the existential order [not “relative nothingnesss” (nihilum secundum quid), the essence of a thing prior to existence], i.e., the composition of an infinite nonbeing with a finite being in existing realities. This is the point at issue, and this Campanella tries to illustrate by means of an analogy. Just as we can conceive a line stretching from the center of the earth beyond the circumfrence of the sky in infinitum, so, he says, man, like any other creature, is but a little dot where infinite nonbeing is terminated. Man is in effect the negation of an infinite number of other things and of God himself, being surrounded, as he is, by an infinite nonbeing (Bonansea, Tommaso Campanella, citing Met, II, 6, 3, 7)

In this Campanella presents something very close to Spinoza’s letter 21 claim that “all determination is negation,” something that Hegel made quite a bit of. Only in Spinoza any particular determination/negation is not a negation of God/Substance, but rather its Substance (Campanella always heretically veering towards collapsing God and Creation into one panpsychic whole, like Spinoza, but careful to walk the line).

What I am inspired to say about these circular analogies for Being and coherence of action, with their distinct and performative inside/outside designations, is that somehow mathematics in coming out of the pure fictiveness of human creation, in inventing the Non-Being of the immaterial point, somehow grasps whole the entire matrix of radiating conceptions, and is able to map out with great fecundity the very Oneness which is beyond Being (in a Plotinian sense). Weaving out the very absence, the infintesmal (as my wife tells me, what is the decimal point which divides the infinitely large from the infinitely small, made of?), we get a glimpse of the very varigatedness that Plotinus attributes to Nous likeness taking.  The whole thing is sutured closed, or at least remotely closed, for one imagines that there are many kinds of mappings that can be woven from the nothingness of the point.

Further though, even in its appropriation of the infinite nothingness, mathematics owes Alfred Korzybski’s adage “The map is not the territory,” while keeping in mind that mapping, and map-following is itself part of the territory (one hunts through the map, as one hunts through the territory). All organisms seem to in some form follow Plotinus’s thoughts on why the Nous mirrored the One, being unable to preserve that upon which they depend. The semiotic relations that make up an organisms internal relations, and then thus relations to other organisms, are not only performances, but also are duplications (not necessarily representations), “picking out” (intelligere, to choose out) certain aspects of the world, and it is always a tension between picking out the most important, valued features, and sheer numericity, since these two are intimately related. In a certain sense, mathematics too needs to be seen as a vast material organism/organization, as material as any map, appendage to the human species.

Witnessing Ontologies of Difference

The Full Nelson of Plato

Larval Subjects posted what Levi calls “the Full Nelson” of Plato, the exemplary text from the Phaedo which has condemned all of Western Philosophy to a certain kind of choke hold that ever since we have been trying to get out of (to transmute Hegelian dialectics into a single trope we still carry with us). The fearsome conclusion, roughly as Plato wrote it reads,

And we recognize also that this absolute equality has only been known, and can only be known, through the medium of sight or touch, or of some other sense. And this I would affirm of all such conceptions (75d)

Socrates has turned the relative sameness between things (rocks, tables, doves) into a derivative of Sameness itself, some surpassive Sameness, which we must have had grasp of [lambano] previously, so as to be able to grasp these samenesses through our senses.

I suppose we all know this drill, but occasionally when we return to the Same, we detect something different, and for some reason reading Levi’s post elicited in me a slightly different understanding of the Same, even the Same in the Platonic chokehold sense.

I should say from the start that the associations that I have for the search of Ontologies of Difference, of pure-Difference, have always troubled me. It is not that they are wrongly motivated, but rather that they seemed far too in love with the soterial potential of essential binaries, the Being/Not-Being dichotomy of imagined to be transcendental Logic (even when renounced), a dichotomy which itself is derived from an over-simplified caricature of human experience: hence, the reduction of the subject qua Subject, and on overall disregard for the plentitude of Being. It seems that somewhere someone got it into their heads (and there are more than a few candidates), that homosexuals or blacks or women, or poor, that is those that fall to the margins of society cannot be fully affirmed, cannot have the full rights of Being, unless we find a Being that starts  with Difference. In such a reading which not only exposes the political use made of Ontologies in the past, a certain naturalization of subjugation, the category of Being seems to stand in for the State, and to reduced difference (skin color, gender, mental coherence, poverty) to merely a derivative of the State (as the Same Status), necessarily condemning many to the margins. Same became not only the political enemy, but the Ontological enemy. Difference must be celebrated, (and ontologically, logically posited) as essential and if possible, prior.

There is more than a grain of truth to this revisioning. That is, through our ontologizations we configure what is imaginable, we lay the land of concept so to speak. So a radical revisioning of what is ontologically beneath all of our legal and otherwise taken to be objective descriptions seems deeply in keeping with changing what is possible between us. Yet, there is something to this praise of difference for itself, the grand celebration of difference as the full right of Being which troubles me.

First of all, insofar as this re-ontologizing is a vast reclassification of particular people of difference, that is particular homosexuals, particular people of color or (trans)gender (the rights of which as different become projected onto the class of others like them that are deprived), there is an odd consumerist essentialization of difference for its own sake running through like a theme. “We chose and affirm our difference, as difference, because choice is what essentialized commercial subjects do, that is our right and duty, to choose.” As individual intellectuals celebrate their choices, and then align their differences to groups composed of difference, whose difference then becomes ontologized as a point of logic through elaborate strategies, it seems that dragged with it all is a fundamental, domesticating assumption, the subject of choice. I cannot say this for all celebrations of difference, and all searches to get out of Plato’s homoerotic chokehold, but this is a strong current in the movement.

Second of all, coming to think again on the nature of Plato’s Same, the enemy of pure, underived Difference, it seems that in some ways this Same has been misconstrued. I say this because for a very long time I think I misconstrued it. The problem is that in our binaries of logic we tend to flatten out what is a possibly a much more dynamic relation, almost always with a hope of transcending it. We draw the flat map to have mastery over the terrain, but as Wittgenstein tells us, the map is not the territory. (I would add, if we are to understand maps and territories, we have understand that while the map is not THE territory, it is A territory.)

A Minimization of Difference

Back to Levi’s post and my reaction to it. The trouble is that when we as postmoderns look at the argument that Plato puts forth, it does feel stultifying. (As Levi sums it up…)

Plato’s argument thus runs as follows. Equal-things always differ in some respect or capacity. Because equal-things always differ, we cannot arrive at a concept of equality-itself from equal-things. Therefore, our concept of equality-itself does not arise after our experience of equal-things, but must precede our experience of equal-things, for how could we recognize equal-things as equal-things- all of which differ both from themselves and others like them -if we did not first know equality-itself. Consequently, our concept of equality itself is prior to any of our dealings with the world.

For one thing, we don’t want our experiences here on this earth to be minimized in the least. This minimization begins a long process of minimizing one thing or another, one experience or another, one person or another, one peoples or another. We might be all for valuations and discriminations of better or worse, but something in us tells us that it should not start at the wholesale level, our experiences here are as real and significant as anything else. Secondly and relatedly, there is the terrible sense that if the reason why we able to recognize the similarity of things is simply because we have already grasped, before hand, a Grand and essential Sameness, this fails to capture the importance of differences to us. It is not just the samenesses that give us a love for living, but differences, perhaps even more so. How can all of these mundane distinctions merely be derivative? This carries with it the unsatisfactory notion that homosexuality is merely derivative of heterosexuality (with lexical irony), and that woman is derived from man, black a marring of white.

The Even Ground of Equilibrium

But, thinking on what it would mean for Sameness to be the origin, the great basin for Differences, I went back to Plato’s text, and looked at the word for “same” or “equal” (as it is translated). It is Ison, from which we get our words like isometric or isomorphic. What is immediately conjured up is mathematical equality, and this is generally the purity of Same towards which this binary heads. But contingently the LSJ dictionary had among any of its easily recognizable uses, one use which contained a subtle difference. It not only meant “equal” but “even”, as in can describe ground as “even or flat”, or the cadence of an army as marching in iso. As always is the case with the Greek, as much as we would really like to rationalize them into a near mathematical purity (given the tradition of their depiction), there is always a depth, a material depth to their conceptions that we miss. There is not a great difference between ison as “equal” and ison as “even”, but it a difference that opens up what Same is, not only for the Greeks, but for us as well.

I started picturing what it would be like to assume evenness of ground, or of step as the basin for difference, and what came to my mind is a perceptual experience which I rather naively assume to be shared with much of the animal kingdom. A predator, perhaps a mountain lion on its ledge overlooking a shallow gorge stares out at the field. There is an odd sort of evenness to it, as consciously it creates a field upon which differences register, there, a movement in the brush! Is this picture of consciousness, the idea that the evenness of the field in a certain sense foregrounds the possibility of difference really at the heart of the repression of woman and people of color? Is it that the difference of a deer’s movements are “derived” from the Same of the valley gorge, playing second fiddle? Is it that the evenness of perception has priority over the differences it enables, and if so, this hierarchy becomes the hierarchy of the subjugation? Well, in thinking about it, the shallow gorge is never completely flat, or even. It is already percolating with differences that the lion is registering (in my fantasy reenactment of an animal perception). The field of vision, as even, is in a sense is fecund with both samenesses and differences, both the flat and the eruption, seem to be found within a general sense of ison. Instead of thinking of a great abstraction through which our logical binary can cut, it seems better to think of ison as Equilibrium, and an experience of Equilibrium at that.

When imagining that a sense of equilibrium is prior to, or the condition of disturbance, it seems that something less of the conceptual either/or baggage of ontological abstraction is carried through. It is hard to imagine that the general sense of equilibrium what we as organisms have is foundational to a naturalized minimization of the differences between people. Instead, equilibrium becomes the experiential baseline (already which in differences) for which other differences, disequilibrium’s, disturbances, take on their significances.

In this embodied vision though we are immediately drawn into a Hegelian comprehension of the Negation of the Negation, that is, at bottom is an equilibrium process that encounters disturbances (negations, exceptions), when are then re-incorporated into a new and higher equilibrium. As someone like Judith Bulter complains, difference is always subsumed under a new Non-difference, (with the implicit, and one might say Capitalist duty to difference for the sake of difference). Everything goes flat again. We have the appeal of a process of consciousness which describes how we are ever disturbed, and find ways to repress or reintegrate these differences that may feel like something we naturally do, without the desirable conclusion of difference for its own sake.

Not a fan of the Hegelian appreciation of the Negation, and its attendant teleology of history, I wondered if there is another way to think about this equilibrium, this field of evenness, which is not so reductive. Well versed with Spinozist tendencies, my own appreciation for Plotinus’s NeoPlatonic revisioning of Platonic Forms (ultimately the Ison), I keep wondering if we are missing something in the Greek notion of Same, of Equal, of Even.

Cat or Tails

If I return to the mountain lion and explore this notion of Same as Equilibrium and continue with the imagination of the field of differences, this is what I come up with. The cat, gazing lazily over the gorge is in an unattuned state of perception, that is, their is a directedness upon the general equilibrium of the life-force below which does not form an object, and upon which eruptive events occur, the shake of breezes on brush, the shadow from a hawk above, the regularity of the brook running. Any of these can provide occasions for momentary attenuation which is then reintegrated in the general state of equilibrium. These disturbances, these eruptions of a difference that make difference, are not best seen as objects, per se, but effects of relation. Their perception does not make up the essence of a consciousness (it intentionality), but the entirety of the field, its equilibrium states and its dissonances, do.
Now there is a movement, a disturbance which heightens the cat. Ears move forward, eyes narrow, breathing slows.

The difference, the disturbance in the equilibrium is registered as “prey” (to be categorically crude about it). The cat’s involuntary motions already set up a new equilibrium, and then motions towards the animal below (those differences), on a vector, set up new equilibriums, and soon the animal is running, leaping, configuring itself as a mutuality within the field of the world that the deer, the shallow gorge, and it all share. The contemplative equilibrium, that of a passive witnessing of a certain retreating flatness, has been transformed into an equilibrium of subsuming movement. Capacity to act. To say that all of the differences (disturbances) are only derived from the Equilibrium is to be too lexical, too syllo-logical about it (and to misunderstand the origins of logic). They are the very substance of what Equilibrium is. They are its expression and power as equilibrium. It is that the mountain lion has appeal to (cognitively, structurally) the dynamic equilibrium of the world, that it is able to act more freely. It is not that all of the differences are merely collapsed into the banality of Same, but that rhythm operates through the recognition of the full reality of difference, as difference, a process which is includes the awareness of difference as dissonance. If one is to make the collapse of the nature of Being into that of the State that is implicit is so many criticism of ontologies of Same, it is not that marginality is a secondary effect of the State (or even that the State is established through the necessary suppression of difference through the production of marginality — still too optical, containing the notion of the “hidden”), but that the State in its very forth comingness, produces a maximalization of difference as the possibility of its very field, as perception. Instead of a Subject as Object-consciousness essentialization reading of Being (with its priority of absence or Nothingness which cloaks at the borders of an object, not to mention the optical sense that the “back” or the “inside” of the object is forever hidden from us), it is a Same as Dynamic Equilibrium, producing differences as concrete expressions of its power to act, maximizing those differences as it goes, creating the texture of its possibilities.

I think that this is what is behind the development of Plato’s “Full Nelson”. It is not so much a chokehold, as a hug (one might say if one were being humorous). The Same is not a flat, logical identity of things to be expressed merely as a binary, and not even a Progressive necessity of the reduction of differences, but rather it is best seen as dynamic equilibrium, equilibrium as maximum expressiveness, an expressiveness beyond all subsumption. Being as radiating differences and distinctions.

There comes to mind a word from Sophocles’ Ode to Time, found in the play Aias. Time is called “anaríthmêtos”. I have quoted the line before:

All things Great [makros] and Unmeasured [anaríthmêtos] Time (646)

The word is often translated “countless” or “immeasurable” (and makros often simply translated as “long”). Time moves for Sophocles with a kind of negative theology. It cannot be measured. A metron is Greek is not only a “measure” as in a measurement, but also a “measure” as in a meter of poetry. Sophocles in measured poetry is singing about the immeasurableness of Time, a pure and delightful contradiction. If we were to translated the metered verse of the Greek into our English emphasis on rhyme, Time moves un-rhymeably, as we rhyme about and with it. As we move away from Sophocles’s joy of the negation the chasm of the tragic abyss (something I think he eventually profoundly overcomes with the concept of Eleos  in the play “Philoctetes”), I think this is an essential aspect of the conception of Same which must be incorporated in our reading of the concept. Equilibrium for the Greeks, is musical. It is in the form of the poetic, as expression. If we are to recover from Plato’s Full-Nelson, it is from within this heritage of the Same that we must surely operate, the Same as maximalization of differences.

 

Again though, we really much retreat from any flat logic of binary differences, they are not rich enough to capture what happens in metered verse. (There is not only a genetic reason why Parmenides who is thought to have made a category mistake of flat logic wrote in meter.) And reaching out toward an ontology of pure difference does not cut it either (the dignity of persons of color or mixed gender does not rely upon that). It is rather the sense, the overriding and concrete sense that the entire world monistically is connected, that it rhymes, fundamentally with itself. All of our equilibriums, our transitions from contemplatively flat equilibriums to dynamic, poetic, bounding mountain-lion equilibriums of action, are reliant upon the appeal to a world that expresses itself as one vast equilibrium, an equilibrium of expression. The lion cannot run without fundamentally rhyming with the ground, the shallow gorge, and even the deer, each of them as expressions.

This is where I have long had a subtle misreading of the Sameness of Being which sterilely cut itself off from its step-brothers Differences. How is it that we are supposed to connect all of those differences (and those samenesses) back up to one Same? What an absurd question. It relies upon a notion of Same, of Ison, too flat, too drained white, not richly enough conceived as equilibrium as maximum expression. Much as which we have had the metaphysical danger of confusing the map with territory, we have flattened out the lines of what Ison means. A car idling in the drive is Ison, even. The same car accelerating through a canyon curve is Ison. The communication between the driver and the steering mechanism is Ison. But also, the tree that has fallen in the road also must be Ison, if we are to continue, and the fear of hitting a deer is Ison, or the speeding over the limit is Ison. That is, there is always a plentitude toward the rhyming which is appealable, the bath in which is rewarded with a constructability, the possibility of action.

Same as Dynamis

It is here that I think that Spinoza’s notion of Substance provides particular revelation. How is it that he connects the Substance up to all the diversity within it?, people want to ask, flattening out the map of dichotomies. How does he get to the Only thing to the Many things? This to mistake the question of the Same at the conceptual level. The Ison is fundamentally and unreservedly a dynamic equilibrium, a vast expression. As such it necessarily produces a maximalization of differences out of the pure plentitude of its even, equal, Isotic expression. To make anything less of these modal differences than the absolutely concrete actuality of Ison, to minimize even the tiniest of differences, is to minimize the reality of what Dynamic expressive Equilibrium is. The modes are Real because Being when it is “running” (and it is by it very nature always running), produces itself distinctly.

Returning to our mountain-lion, it is a music of Being which may attend to this subline of music (this equilibrium, the shallow gorge) in order to note this subline of music (deer-brush interactions, which serves as a dissonance), then composing its own gorge-lion subline of music, but none of this is done outside of a harmonization, that is the music, however faltering, always recaptures itself in a way that musicality itself becomes the tantamount supposition. The question for pure ontology of Difference, that is, the sour note that is granted full rights and dignity out of its very sourness, always must come back to the dynamics of tasting. This does not mean that all difference is simply collapsed into Same, made into an ephemera, an illusion (unless the illusion is that one can have a musical difference whose essence is non-musical, a freedom of choice or purchase which is utterly private and cut off from all interplay…the fantasy behind the hole in the Capitalist, Democratic Subject). Rather, as one acts as Substance, increasing one’s capacity to act in the world through the understanding of expressive causes, as Substance one increases the number of differences one creates, a potentiality of sournotes abound, which is nothing other than the creation of a perceptual field of distinguishings, a body of dissonances, the way that the hair stands up on your skin, bristling. The is the meaning of horror, and awe, which lies at the bottom of any ancient contemplation of Same, of Ison.

The project of Being, insofar as we can stipulate one, is the creation of as diverse a number of surfaces upon which the horror-awe can condense, the maximalization of intensity as expressive equilibrium, in which one’s own differences register as a plentitude. Is this pure Difference? I wouldn’t know. It is more an Ontology of Perceptibility, and I suggest that it is reached not through a primary optical metaphor of Objecthood (the hidden below the surface), the shadow the Citizen as Subject, but through constructive bodily assemblage, the way that we technologically construct the living soul through our cybernetic combinations with the material and para-material world, creating more and more surfaces upon which revelation (dissonances) may occur. The hairs stand up on end.
It is for this reason that I think it best to see our capacities to read and experience the world as ultimately mutually expressive. Action is not at a distance because distance implies primary opticality. Action is always constructive out of a plentitude that is present, which is ever appealed to making rich differences which make the difference. Ison as plentitude, and not its lack.

The unhappy consequence of this understanding of Being is that it does not give ontological voice to what is taken to be an essential human experience (people what to define the Human separation from Nature by it). We want an ontology which expresses our alienation, one that fundamentally buries out alienation in the very heart of Being. We do not want to be told that our sadnesses, our dislocations are only problems of perspective, that if simply change our view our haunting shadow of the Abyss will simply disappear. And part of this is not wanting to imagine that when a bird returns to its nest-tree only to find it destroyed or raided, it may feel alienated or dislocated, or even sorrowful, at least not in the category which we are able. Our ontologies must entrench the very sorrow of our condition, anchoring it, alleviating our need to look towards our relations (chosen and otherwise), as the causes of our experience. It is agreed that the great satisfaction of Existential Ontologies of Negation, is denied here. Ours is not a world condemned to a freedom of Nothingness in various guises. In replace of this solace is rather opened a continual path of construction. That is, at any moment in time we can begin construction of bodies in assemblage, which are either newly created, seemingly ex nihilist of a change idea or mind, or can be reconfigured more powerfully from already existing forms (the same change in two ways). At any moment one can begin anew a music through the musical recognition of what is already playing, edging on cacophony. One searches for the tilted Equilibrium and affectively combines with other affective bodies, anew. Repeating a sour note, attenuatedly, changes it, yet one can only repeat the note cognitively, in a change of power, through the understanding of its cause through a mutuality with the world, and with others. When one does so one changes the possibilities of difference, modal becomes nodal.

The finding of similiarites (of which metaphor is a exemplary) is ultimately not a referential process. The “same” of which the process participates is not a same of reference, a pointing back to, or over and above to some over-arching ground of Same. I’m not sure that even Plato thought of it in this way. This is a table not because there is a same of Table floating behind it. Rather, the finding of similarities is productive and best seen as bodily in construction, putting our bodies in consonance, such that it assumes the power of an equilibrium. Looking for the priority of this equilibrium, its foundation, is like looking for the workability of the experience of “it works”. But this does not make this Ur-Equilibrium simply the world of Becoming, for this flattens out the pure dimensionality of Being (a great fear of someone like Graham Harman). This dimensionality, a certain depth, is found in two ways. Locally its is found in the sheer dimensionality of bodies on combination, in the lived, affective transfers which express the power of communications, radiating out. The mountain lion-gorge-deer assemblage is dimensioned in locality. But it is also brought into depth through the nature of causal understanding itself. The very nature of increases in power through causal understandings, necessarily a minimal trinity where there was only a shallow binary before. The world becomes fleshed and immanent, through the power of causal understanding. This too is not a understanding of reference (Substance is not a “thing” or even a “state”), but of a constitutive experience flowing out of what Equilibrium must be.

Beneath any such appreciation of Equilibrium there is always the danger of having the concept collapse and become flat, that is the constant and ever-producing Equilibrium of Being can be read as a flat-line nullity. This the haunt of the Freudian Death Drive, the Shadow of the Pleasure Principle. A Pure and empty circulation, the inorganic draw beneath Pleasure pursuits. There is a tendency to see Pure Being as a negation of its expression. Our individual pleasures only collapse into a great machine of Death. This is merely, in my view, the gravitous compliment of too close a contact with the sacred (profane), as dissonance rises beyond the threshold of comprehension or even organization. The Death Drive circulation works as the center-of-gravity closure that allows dissonance affects to sink down and cohere, if only in a pure banality of effects, forever the attractor of Fascist, totalitarian binding. In this way a Spinozist conception of Substance (and of State) maintains as matter of its project ever the asethetic haunt of blind circulation, intensity turning down upon itself for the sake of its own rhyming. The music of Being turned into a dull ditty (the pains/pleasures of dissonance flashing as mere surface ephemera). The antedote to this is to realize its ever presence (as a function of lived thresholds of coherence, a tendency to urgently create bodies in vaccum), and to return a notion of Ison as normatively and ontologically the production of maximal difference, as a product of its fecundity. These ontological closures are mere cocoonings (sometimes brutal), for mixtures of potential action through dynamic Equilibrium.

The Harmanic Impassibilty of Monism…Spinoza Sails Through

Late last night Graham Harman posted his objections to monism, a Spectre that haunts his sleep. When I saw the post I was greatly relieved because I thought that finally I was to understand why Graham Harman’s Cartesian-constructed project of  post-humanism would not be better served by a turn to pre-Kantian Spinoza. It has seemed to me that this is really where Graham is heading, dragged by the specific current of his philosophical ambitions. But he has told us that he has great distain for the popularity of Spinoza who seemed to be hidden behind all kinds of postmodern metaphysical imaginations, he resists that robust, salty sea. Further, he has come down the Rhine River’s Idealist tributaries, he likes the beer-houses in local town ports where objects duck and hide, and thus has worked toward wending Intentional object-defined conceptions of consciousness, once solidly in the service of human-centric ontologies (Descartes, Husserl, and even Heidegger), out towards a post-human future. Can it be that all of the nobility of the object will be lost in a philosophical absorbtion into Deleuze and DeLandian “molten slag”? I mean where will the rights  of the object (formerly postulated as the rights of man), stand, if we cannot make objects themselves (and their consciousness partner) the ontological center of philosophy? I was excited because I felt I was really going to have an answer to the question, Why should the “hiddenness” of the object stop there, at the object, and not be read more fully in the hidden Immanence of Spinoza’s Substance, especially if we are going to propose a post-human philosophy that does not privilege the specific conceptual phenomenological reductions of human experience. Is it true that the Rhine only flows into the sea (and if in the sea, does that mean that all is lost, or are there some very good things one can do at sea, as any good maritime adventure knows)?

Here I’d like to take up in more detail the objections I raised in response. My comments there were quick-fire and I believe that restating them with greater context them will bring their argumentative force into even greater relief. Mostly at the time I simply was responding to the disappointment I felt that when Graham took on “monism” he seemed to be taking on everything but Spinoza. He somehow steered either right into the Scylla of undarable Parmenides (the only “real” monism he would grant), or the Charybdis of Spinoza influenced  post-structuralist thinking like Deleuze and DeLanda (D & G’s Thousand Plateaus is actually quite far from Spinoza, though he does get mentioned in interesting ways there, while his monographs on Spinoza are fairly close to text). Straight through, between these rocks, he never goes.

This may be because he is most familiar with both the pre-Socratic and the “molten slag” versions, and less with Spinoza himself, but I suggest, in that as Spinoza offered the most incisive correction of Descartes right at the root of Descartes human-centric theorizations, it is really to Spinoza, to Spinoza’s Monism, he should go. Here I’d like to present his points against monism, piece by piece, and put them in juxtaposition to Spinoza himself, and see how they stand.

1. There are two ancient monisms, that of Parmenides and that of Plotinus.

Graham counts between these only Parmenides’s “being is, non-being is not” the only real monism of the two. The Hen (One) of Plontinus is not a true monism in Graham’s mind because the Hen is only  the source of things. I’m not sure that I follow his thinking here. The way that Plontinus argues his point, the Hen radiates out like a light source, ebbing as it goes, the closer to the source (the greater the Nous union of things as one thing), the greater reality one has, but in many ways there is no Being other than this light, radiation. The relatively isolated parts of the world that appear to not be part of the One, indeed are part of the one, as its emanation. Their isolation from the One is really a kind of illusion of perspective (despite Graham’s insistence that they are not). That is, their existence is that of entirely being an emanation of the One, and as distinctly separate things, this separation is an expression of their non-Being. Thus, insofar as there is One thing, only one thing has being. Separations from the One are simply compositions of Being and Non-Being, a kind of relative, non-Noetic illusion. It is a real noetic difference, expresses as the nature of the radiation of the One, but in terms of Being itself, the separation is an illusion. Now is this a “monism”? Well it depends how you define monism. There is only one thing that has Being, and non-Being has no Being (it works like the outer reaches of the ebbing of the One). But Plotinus puts the One even above the Being/Non-Being distinction (this would already involve Nous), and he is inconsistent as to how he treats matter, either as a kind of substrate of absolute (metaphorical) darkness, or as an illusion of non-Noetic perception, for there is only the One. So let us say, a kind of monism, depending on how you qualify Being.

I go into the nature of Plotinus’s monism because it will be within the concept of a Degree of Being ontology that Spinoza will operate. I don’t know if he picked up the fundamental idea from Augustine who made strong use of it to defend against essential, heretical Dualisms, or from other Neo-Platonic sources, but Spinoza leverages his entire metaphysics upon a degree of Being (expressed as the power to act, the adequacy of idea, a degree of perfection) conception of modal expression. But he does this through an inclusion of the old-fashioned Parmenidean claim, “Being is, non-Being is not,” which in Spinoza reads as the illusion of privation and all determination is negation (letter 21), or “There is nothing positive in ideas on account of which they are called false” (E2p33), “falsity consists in the privation of knowledge…” (E2p35). It was Hegel who was struck by the power of the phrase “all determination is negation” as found in Spinoza’s letter 21, and it was he who took up the reality of the negation into a progressive, and human-centric concept of Consciousness, leaving behind the other half of Spinoza’s Plontinian proviso, that all privation is illusion. As I will mention later, Hegel feared that without a progressive march toward the powers of negation human beings simply would not be significant in their conscious powers when placed before the universe. The small compliment Spinoza pays to Man, that he is relevantly more active (and real) than tables and rocks and mice, was simply not enough. Man must be the center of the entire march of history’s progress. Failing this centricity and direction, it was for Hegel that all of Spinoza collapsed into an acosmism, all of creation being merely an illusion.

2. Levinas proposes a qualitiless “there is” (a version of monism perhaps).

“1940’s. Emmanuel Levinas. Insomnia (from which I now suffer) reveals that the world itself is an inescapable, rumbling il y a (“there is”) without any specific qualities.”

Well in terms of Spinoza, this is simply not the case. Right away Graham has passed from ancient monisms to postmodern vagaries of Being, steered from Parmenides into the whirling Abyss. While Spinoza’s Substance does not have “qualities” per se, it expresses itself in Attributes (of an infinite number), and through those Attributes, in an infinity of real modes. And all of these modes are fully actualized, concrete things (though like with Plotinus, their conceptual isolation from Substance which “exists and acts” through them, can bring on a perspective of relative non-Being). Even the remotest speck of particle in the furthest reaches of the universe has complete Being, but when considered apart from Substance and other modal compositions of cause, its Being is to a very small degree.

Graham’s objection to Levinas’s indeterminate “lump”: “For if the il y a is a single lump, how is it meaningful to say that the mind can break it into parts?”  is answered by Spinoza by saying that we can break the world into parts because it is expressed in the two Attributes of Thought and Extension, and the mind as a determined, thinking thing, following from that order, through the affects of its body/ideas, its imagination and rational thought can distinguish the determinations of Being.

3. Jean-Luc Nancy, “Corpus¨:  Reality itself is an indeterminate “whatever”…

Clearly these two matching points are Graham’s personal engagement with the outer-reaches of what really is not much of a monism at all. They are quite far from Spinoza, and even quite far from Deleuze’s imaginative refashioning of Spinoza. The incredible unexplainable, one might say non-Noetic, character of this thinking perhaps explains the great trepidation Graham holds for monism (and its swarthy postmodern cohorts).

4. There is an intellectual momentum against “objects”.

This may be in the circles that Graham has come from, clearly the moiling Continental waters of the Rhine dumping into the sea, but if we understand “intellectual” to include scientific pursuits, and even Analytical philosophy, the war against the “object” does not have quite the same character. As far as Spinoza goes, indeed there are objects, what he calls bodies, as Substance is expressed into two discernable Attributes, Thought and Extension. Every body has its parallel idea (and may have ideas which are expressions of its power to act). In a certain sense, because it is not clear at all that any human being can have a completely adequate idea, the adequate idea of any object whatsoever, even the idea of one’s own “object” (body) is actually to some degree hidden from the mind of human beings, one might say that the idea of the object retreats (this proposes a heretofore unmentioned close parallel perhaps to Graham’s hidden object, in a different systematic context).

5. The world is either homogeneous or it is heterogeneous, you can’t have both.

Because this is the most substantial of Graham’s claims against monism, at least insofar as they can be directed against Spinoza, his point is worth quoting in full:

*If the world is a whole, then either it is utterly homogenous, or it is not. If yes, then particular things will tend to be viewed as delusions.

*If the world is *not* viewed as homogeneous, then it must consist of various zones that differ from each other in some way. These can either be called individual objects, or something pre-individual. If they are objects, then my point has been conceded and monism has been rejected.

There are two ways that Spinoza counters this emphatic either/or. The first is that there is both a homogeneity and a heterogeneity built into the expression of Substance. (Remember, Substance does not float out there beyond actuality for Spinoza, but “exists and acts” modally.) Spinoza argues that Substance is expressed in only two Attributes that the human Mind can comprehend, as mentioned, Thought and Extension. In the hands of the modern Analytic philosopher Donald Davidson, who professes a monism of Concept Dualism (Anomalous Monism) these are simply the two concepts of the physical and the mental. They are not reducible to each other, and there is no causation between the one and the other. Spinoza tells us that there is a fundamental homogeneity between Attributes (understanding the actual number of these to be infinite), and that is “the order and connection” of their expression (E2p7). In the case of the two Attributes we can perceive, things and ideas are expressed in parallel. This is a fundamental homogenity in the expression of Substance, it is the same across  Attributes. But, this Attributive expression is distinct in the very differences of the Attributes themselves, that is, the conceptual order of the mental, descriptions of thoughts, beliefs, ideas, is different from the descriptions of objects, things, bodies. And even greater than this, Substance expresses itself in the real determinations of an infinity of modes, granting full reality to any aspect of existence, no matter who flimsy you want to make it. 

6. There is a tendency these days to find some comtemporary philosopher who tries to have it both ways.

This is an odd sounding point. I assume that he is referring to the dissatisfactory “molten slag,” ‘intensity” versions he has already dismissed. But one wonders if merely by trying to solve Graham’s proposed dilemma disqualifies the solution? It seems to me that it is not some contemporary philosopher who solved this cake and eat-it-too  difficulty of monism, but Spinoza himself, who closed the Idealist, human-centered breach right after Descartes opened it. There are of course many contemporary, creative things being done with Spinoza, and I can see why some of them collapse in a dissatisfying way for Graham, but these are not properly Spinoza’s thought. (I should add as well, that the monist Analytic philosopher Davidson, who has some largely unstated metaphysical differences with Spinoza, also seem to evade both horns of Graham’s impossibility: there is one kind of thing: matter; and two different fundamentally conceptual kinds of ways of describing it, concepts that are a product of our evolution). 

7. The status of pre-individuals needs to be explained.

Another point worth quoting in full:

*But the status of these pre-individuals needs to be further explained. Either they are fully deployed in their mutual relations, or they hold something in reserve that is non-relational. If the latter, then they are objects and you’re simply trying to avoid using the name; my point has been conceded.

As Spinoza answers this question of the pre-individual, if I read him correctly, the essence of any modal expression already is in Substance (the Mind of God), but has not necessarily come into existence through the mutuality of (horizontal, transitive) modal causes (causes that will be extrinsic to it). To qualify this existence in the Mind of God sub specie aeternitas  as a kind of “reserve,” I’m not sure what this means, other than to say as Spinoza does, that God is the efficient cause of the essence of things and not just their existence. In a sense, the “reserve” is the immanent, causal power of Substance itself.

But if they are fully exhausted by their mutual relations, then there are really no firewalls of any sort between the various zones of this “pre-individual” kingdom, and you end up with monism. You can’t have an intermediate position.

Spinoza’s ends up with monism. Individuals, objects, thoughts, ideas, relations, each thing, is explained by (which means understood through) both a reference to horizontal transitive causation and Substance’s immanent causation.

8. Latour holds something that might appear to be an intermediate position.

As Graham explains, this appearance is undone by the fact that any change produces a change in object:

Even though Latour is a relationist, his actors are always trapped in a specific set of relations, here and now. A thing cannot change even the least important of its relations even one iota and still remain the same thing.

Now the first aspect is the very same thing for Spinoza’s monism. Each modal expression is (well, not trapped), but determined, expressed, in a very specific set of relations. This determination is both a delineation and an expression of its power. There is not any vagary to this in the least. The question as to whether something remains the same thing or not in Spinoza is an open one. There is the theoretical framework though to argue that Latour’s position is tenable. Spinoza defines a body as a ratio of moving parts that stay in communication with each other, expressing an essence (conatus). The sameness of an object is a factor of both this ratio and the communication (not very Latourian at face value, though one could call this communication a network). The status of this ratio is indeterminate in Spinoza, for ultimately there is only one thing that persists and that is Substance (so any ratio of parts in communication is part of a far greater ratio 0f parts in communication). The ratio of “same” is both real (that is determined and reference-able), but ultimately is it explainable in term of other parts. In this way perhaps (and others) Spinoza is able to achieve something Latour’s occasionalism cannot.

9. Graham’s Model involves an intolerable retreat of every object  into darkness.

The problem with my model, of course, is that with so many different entities withdrawing from each other into an apparently non-relational darkness, one wonders why anything happens at all. But I spend lots of time trying to solve this problem- the problem seems to me inevitable.

I appreciate Graham’s candidness here. But to my ear this is a huge problem for a model that wants to explain the nature of reality. If you can’t explain why anything happens at all, the entire explanatory apparatus of your model is paralyzed. Instead one is left with something perhaps more poetic and epiphanic, than explanatory. In confessing that it is inevitable, one assumes he means of his philosophical position, and perhaps this why he is haunted by monism, the instinctive appeal that if he is ever going to get his cut-off, darkness imploding objects to go anywhere, and do anything, for any reason, he has to fundamentally connect them.

For Spinoza, as I wrote in my response to Graham, “This is not a problem at all…for the change between concrete states is a function of the conatus of each essence striving to persist, the contingency of modal transitive causes, and the degree of power which is expressive of its adequacy of ideas. Nothing is in isolation of anything else, events, objects, bodies, thoughts, emotions are understood through the knowledge through their causes, so the path towards more powerful change is always open, ready to be caused.” What it comes down to is the power and real freedom of a good, rational explanation of events, understood as a linking action, or the consideration of explanation as some kind of contingency, some bubbling up of events.

10. Monism is the cheap way out.

This is how Graham expresses the dodging the snatch-and-run  of monims, (something to be contrasted with his very expensive inability to explain why anything happens at all):

Monism, in short, is a cheap way of trying to avoid the communication problem that may be the central paradox of philosophy: ” a thing is itself, yet it is also another insofar as it affects others and becomes something other.” Monism is a way of saying “it’s a false problem; everything’s already interconnected anyway, so why do you artificially divide it?”

I still can’t tell if when Graham mentions “monism” he is thinking of the most vague of all Being declarations, like “there is something there” or of a particularly rigorous monism. But if we take up his objection, I would tell him that Spinoza’s philosophy would suggest that the path forward is not just that a thing becomes “something other” when it effects others, but that in understanding how it combines with others, that it cybernetically becomes something more, when it effects others (or they affect it), the thing becomes more powerful and free. This change is a real, ontological change, and it is achieved through explanation. Spinoza’s monism is a far cry from some kind of loving, “Hey man, we are all one big piece of Somethin’,” rather it provides the conceptual framework for a cartography of Being, inviting the very particular study of the exact ways in which determinatively we are connected (and determinatively not connected). Only by understanding your causes do you leverage yourself into combination with more things, actively. It is learning to cut so as to not dull your knife, at the joints of Being, so to speak (as the Daoist said, and then Lacan). 

I appreciate Graham’s thoughts on monism, and he has expressed in the past fundamental resistance to Spinoza’s thinking. There may be grounds for his disfavor, but none of them fall on his so-far-expressed  objections to monism. In fact, by my lights, Spinoza slips right through the two fearsome dangers that he poses on each side of the monist tendency, and he does so with Plontinian aplumb, that swashbuckler! Oh, Spinoza, the Odysseus of Being, polútropos ! Perhaps he has never been better described. Now only if I write the Achilles of Being, that is really what I will someday do.

[I thought I would return to the vital question of Hegel’s accusation of Spinoza’s acosmism, but the post did not lead that way, as I have put forward before, following Gatens and Lloyd, Hegel’s accusation stems from his only thinking of Spinoza vertically, and failing to understand the full horizontal reality of the modes for Spinoza: determinations by which God “exists and acts”. I bring something of this argument to bear in my earlier post Harman Brings Central Clarity to the Issue (wink, nod), coupled with a nice diagram]

Dust…Beware Fantasies of Being

For tho’ he had vanished, tho’ entombed not,

Thin, as if the awe of a fugative, was the dust.

Lines 255 and 256 of the Antigone stand in the way of any purely immanent, plentitudnal reading of the world’s ontology. A thin layer of dust has made the body of Polynikes “disappear”. In order to understand this one must see this naturalistically. A dust storm has billowed up in the night. At dawn, the body which could not be buried has literally become invisibile in the thinnest of layers. This layer is a co-incidence of the contingent into Fate, caught up in imaginary relations: the imagination of Lack.

So invisible it was that Hölderlin, Heidegger’s “prophet of future Being”, refused to, or mis-translated it into absence, in a parentheses of negatives:

Nichts feierlichs. Es war kein Grabmal nicht.

Nur zarter Staub, wie wenn man das Verbot

Gescheut. (265-67).

Spinoza and Plotinus, some morning thoughts

I ran across a LiveJournal entry that touched on something I have always found of interest, the relationship of Spinoza to Plotinus:

It’s amazing how much Spinoza resembles Plotinus.

Plotinus said that, instead of creation ex nihilo, existence emanated from God.

Emanation ex deo (out of God), confirms the absolute transcendence of the One, making the unfolding of the cosmos purely a consequence of its existence; the One is in no way affected or diminished by these emanations.

This mirrors Spinoza’s idea that “creation” (so to speak) was necessary because God exists; and that the world is the way it is, and could be no other way, because of the nature of God. And though physical things are contingent (limited by things outside of themselves), God/substance is the only non-contingent, necessary thing, because God is not acted upon by outside agents (there is nothing outside of God). Existence necessarily exists, because of the nature of God, but the modes of existence are contingent.

In Plotinus’ view, it’s the ulimate destiny of contingent things to reunite with the One. I haven’t read anything about ultimate ends in Spinoza’s Ethics, but if I remember correctly, he agrees (kinda) with Plotinus. Not only is it our fate to disappear into God (to become one with the Force!)–a fate which we have no choice about–we should actively assent to it, in order to increase our happiness.

The conceptual parallels between Spinoza and Plotinus have always appeared to me to be significant, as it seems that somehow through Plotinus Spinoza had an inheritance of the “degrees of Being” interpretation of power and truth. One does not know if he received this Neo-Platonic inheritance through Augustine or through an early youth exposure to Kabbalistic thinking that was rife in the religious community at the time, but very few interpreters seem to give it much weight, preferring instead the Cartesian root-stem. But Spinoza vectorial treatment of knowledge and his General defintion of the affects surely demands such an additional analysis. That I know of, only Deleuze (EiP:S, pp 170 -178) gives substantive consideration to this continuance, as he touchily tries to parse out Spinoza’s immanencefrom Plotinus’s emanation, a perhaps vital distinction (dictionary bending, one that always gets me flipping the pages to re-familiarize myself with these two words).

Such a connection proves significant because it bears on “ladyelaine’s” final paragraph here the path to freedom, for Hegel too thought that Spinoza’s position ultimately lead to an acomism, the collapse of all that exists into an non-distinct whole, a Blob of Being, without reflection. Hegel’s view was likely held because reflection was the gem-stone of his personal brilliant crown, the manner by which he pulled himself free, and originally from Spinoza gravity, the analytic that distinguished himself. Spinoza was missing the Reality of the “negation”, but was he? Hegel’s saving of the “soul”, the surety that the human soul was special, made of a distinction that was different in kind from the manner of distinctions that made rocks, and lakes and even sun’s light distinct somehow fails to grasp the grandeur of Spinoza’s treatment of the negation. The negation is indeed Real, but real as a comprehensive expression of the whole, wholeness against which the vectors of knowledge and power leverage themselves as completing. My own conceptions are composed of illusionary negations (distinctions of separation) only insofar as they limit my ability to act. Following Augustine in some way, they are composed of a relative poverty, degrees of privation. And this privation is only resolved through addition, an addition that is both bodily and relatively clear (insofar as).

I believe that a subtle key is that the “active assent” that ladyelaine intuits to be missing from Spinoza, only at first blush only seems absent, because it is everywhere. Every thought Spinoza asserts is an assertion. This is only retarded by imagining that a “person” is at the center of this assertion, instead of being composed by it. ladyelaine elsewhere touches on the difficulty she has in accepting that mind can be ascribed to something that is not a person (here). This of course is an ultimate question. Is it coherent to think of a rock having “mind”? Or, perhaps more tempting, is it coherent to think that a rock has “information”? It seems to me is that Spinoza proposes a unique monist (and material) solution, one that allows us to see that as minds we much necessarily combine with other minds, and (a very signficant “and”) as bodies we must combine with other bodies, forming compositional, thinking and affective wholes (however fleetingly). And, our freedom depends on it.

Related: Becoming Intense and Longitude: Deleuze and Guattari , Deleuze Lecture on Spinoza

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 on 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

 

Spinoza’s Letter 21 to Blyenbergh: Negation and the Unseeing Stone

I reprint here part of a letter I wrote to a good friend, as part of our exchange over philosophy. It includes an explication of Spinoza’s influential January 28th letter to Blyenbergh, wherein Spinoza reveals his take towards negation, a passage which Hegel would focus on, as significant for what it asserts, but also what he would claim it does not grasp.

“omnis determinato est negatio”

 

I think that one of the most important ideas in Spinoza is the way that he treats “negation”, for he makes a distinction between the difference between negation and “privation”. It is rather in that Negation often is conflated with privation, making of it a kind of “lack”, upon which all desire is founded, that much of Modern Philosophy parts company with Spinoza. Instead Spinoza argues for the perfection and completeness of any particular state of the world, at any one point in time. His description of the capabilities of “seeing” (those missing in a blind man, and those missing from a stone), is one of the most illustrative examples of this thought. In his Letter 21 to Blyenbergh, he outlines fairly clearly the difference between negation and privation. It is an extraordinary thought, (not the first time said in history):

 I will proceed to explain further the words privation and negation, and briefly point out what is necessary for the elucidation of my former letter. I say then, first, that privation is not the act of depriving, but simply and merely a state of want, which is in itself nothing: it is a mere entity of the reason, a mode of thought framed in comparing one thing with another. We say, for example, that a blind man is deprived of sight, because we readily imagine him as seeing, or else because we compare him with others who can see, or compare his present condition with his past condition when he could see; when we regard the man in this way, comparing his nature either with the nature of others or with his own past nature, we affirm that sight belongs to his nature, and therefore assert that he has been deprived of it. But when we are considering the nature and decree of God, we cannot affirm privation of sight in the case of the aforesaid man any more than in the case of a stone; for at the actual time sight lies no more within the scope of the man than of the stone; since there belongs to man and forms part of his nature only that which is granted to him by the understanding and will of God. Hence it follows that God is no more the cause of a blind man not seeing, than he is of a stone not seeing. Not seeing is a pure negation.

January 28, 1665

What he means is that a blind man is not missing sightedness, just as the stone is not missing sightedness, only our imaginary comparison of one state of the world to another causes us to say so. Instead each thing (the blind man and the stone) is negated in a particular and determined way. That is to say, limited. The limitation is the nexus of causes that bring it into being, the bordering interactions with other modes of Reality which make it what it is. And what it is is exactly what it can do. Negation simply means having boundaries of the capacity to do.

The thing is, because Substance (or God or Nature) is by essence not limited at all, but infinite, all negation is a kind of illusion. That is, we might see the blind man as limited or determined in a certain fashion, but the blind man is actually a modal expression of Totality, and our drawing of a line around him, making of him a closed entity (which can or cannot see), is only a temporary perspective. If the blind man is standing on a plain of grass (or perhaps more thoroughly, living there) there is nothing that stops us from perceiving it as a blind-man-plain-of-grass assemblage, where “seeing” is only one sliver of any number of possible and complex interactions between parts, (one can glimpse the ecological consequences of such a flexibility, wherein dependence become expression, or inter-expression between environments). Moment by moment, each thing is perfect because it could be no other way; all is a full expression of God/Substance/Nature.

So when Spinoza talks of the non-being of something, that is, just as in the description of the perception of the basket in Joyce (perceiving through what something is not), this non-being is simply a perspective. It is, in a certain sense an imaginative illusion. There is no such thing as non-being, (it has no ultimate bearing on things), because all things derive their power from the fullness of Being itself. Any localized mode of Being (be it a stone or a man or a grassland) is a full expression of God, which is also dependent upon all the negations which constitute it. That is, the causal boundaries which compose any figure by limiting it, actually compose it, in the way perhaps how negative space around a statue might be said to “be” the statue.

So there is a double move in Spinoza. One is that any one particular moment of expression, of a man say (both of his body and his idea), is already perfect because it flows from the Infinite being of God, what we call Nature. The fullness and perfection of each thing is thus guaranteed. But the second move, one that Hegel misses [and I am following Gatens and Lloyd here, who are following Macherey] because he would like to wedge out the soul of a man to a place of importance, is that the negation of any one thing, that is, its actual boundaries which seem to limit it, are veritably the connective tissue to all that is, the assembled source of its power. (It is for this reason that Deleuze characterizes Spinoza’s Theory of Power as “the ability to be affected”. Through the fabric of these “negations” the assemblage of things shows itself to be an incredibly complex thing. Even the simplest thing, a water molecule, through its very limitations, connects to huge things, a tidal wave.

 

So to return to Joyce’s description of the basket, which is a beautiful one,

[quoted in a previous letter] In order to see that basket, said Stephen, your mind first of all separates the basket from the rest of the visible universe which is not the basket. The first phase of apprehension is a bounding line drawn about the object to be apprehended. An esthetic image is presented to us either in space or in time. What is audible is presented in time, what is visible is presented in spae. But temporal or spatial the esthetic image is first luminously apprehended as selfbounded and selfcontained upon the immeasurable background of space or time which is not it. You apprehend it as one thing. You see it as one whole. You apprehend its wholeness. That is integritas.

Stephen Dedalus, in The Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man

If we keep in mind the way that Spinoza sees the body and the nature of perception, we see how even this description of the basket is superseded by the notion of the perceptive Body itself. Recall, Spinoza says that all perception of “things” (those things outside of us), are actually our perception of our body. All ideas are of our body being in a certain state. A neurophysiologist can describe the brain as being our sixth sense, that which perceives the Body. So, while it may very well seem that we are perceiving a “basket” and doing so by also perceiving its non-being, all that is not-basket outside of it, Spinoza would say that all the while we are only holding ideas about our own body being in a particular state (a state that due to the causal relations between out body and all else, which allows us with clear ideas to act powerfully in the world). The being and non-being of things cloaks the actual changes in power of our own body, as we form ideas of that body in particular states.

This conception of the body as a closed arena of perception, forming ideas only about its own state, leads Spinoza to articulate a theory about the passions and being a passive state. Affects, that is emotional reaction to the world, is part of the imaginary and confused ideas of the world that necessarily make up human perception. In a sense, it is part of our experience of living in time, the way that we compare the world and ourselves to past and future states of being. This is a very subtle and strange thought for me, and one which it took me a long time to understand, and then possibly to accept. The core expression of it is found at the end of part 3 of the Ethics, in “The General Definition of the Affects”:

E3: DOA. Emotion, which is called a passivity of the soul, is a confused idea, whereby the mind affirms concerning its body, or any part thereof, a force for existence (existendi vis) greater or less than before, and by the presence of which the mind is determined to think of one thing rather than another.

Explanation.–I say, first, that emotion or passion of the soul is a confused idea. For we have shown that the mind is only passive, in so far as it has inadequate or confused ideas (E3P3). 

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 emotion 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 emotion affirms something of the body, which, in fact, involves more or less of reality than before.

Note, central here is that the Mind, as it moves through pleasures and pains and appears to do so by comparing its current state to other states, past and future, but Spinoza claims that it really is not doing so at all. Instead, the Mind as it thinks is rather affirming in more or less clear ways the force of particular parts of the body, such that that actual affirmation gives those parts, that expression, more reality. This is an amazing thought. We conceive of ourselves having one reality, a fixed baseline of reality, as all things do, passing into various characteristic states. But here Spinoza, because there is only One Reality, that is the reality of Substance, the things which partake of that reality more (that is, express themselves with a greater capacity to act, a greater capacity to be affected), actually are more Real. The coming and going of Pleasure and Pain is the coming and going of the Reality of a thing, even though each state is perfect, because from the point of view of the Totality even the smallest part is a fully real expression of the Whole. Our entire lives are fluctuations of becoming more or less real as persons, as we pass into more or less active states of being, all the while expressing a perfection.

I thoroughly agree with you that our departures over Nietzsche, insofar as we have disagreements, are in the degree of credit that I offer him. There are a few reasons for this for me, the largest of which is that I am, or have been quite Nietzschean in nature, and thus have found Spinoza to be a kind of relief or antidote for this nature-a way of directing it, making its impulses more powerful and more at ease. In this sense Nietzsche gets my razored critique as part of my own self-critique. I also believe that Nietzsche himself requires that I be ungenerous, as this is the way that he conducted his own thought, savagely attacking those he thought close to himself. He would not want to be “given” anything. Thus for me reading Nietzsche generously is somewhat unNietzschean. And lastly I suppose, I am hardest on those that achieve the broadest degree of cultural acceptance, and Nietzsche has been rather thoroughly embraced by an academic heritage, at least on the Continental side, and by culture as a whole. I can think of no other modern philosopher, in spirit, who is so well esteemed (if mis-understood) by non-philosophers; and also not one so credited. Thus my stand against Nietzsche operates as both a stand against myself, and a stand against various instutionalizations of thought, a pronged critique I cannot resist. Spinoza then operates as something new, radical and liberating, in the most pragmatic of senses. I certainly would not to think to have you agree with me in approach, because this is individual, but it is good that you know the motivations of my arguments, and take them for what they are worth for you. Yes Nietzsche can be read as reacting to the “moral climate of his time” (but this makes him a bit reactive and not as active as he might be); and the same can be said of Spinoza, but his tone and method more quiet (perhaps more powerful?). The question of the influence of his own thought, and his pre-mediation of those difficulties is an excellent one. Considering that he was a near-forgotten writer until reanimated after the two world wars, this either reflects his own inflated sense of grandiosity, or his incredible prescience. Probably both.

As to my thought that there is no “negation” in biology, I mean that only in the sense that there is no “non-being” in biological explanations. In genetics in particular, and statistical and population analysis, the idea of “lack” has no place at all. Instead we only have ways of combining, molecular and algorithmic capacities to act, and an inter-relationship between environment, populations and genetic properties which only display what can be done. The genetic material and the conditions which unfold are shown to be expressions of each other, by most accounts that I have read. Specifically I have in mind the work of Maturana and Varela and their biological theory of Life, Autopoiesis, but also general Neo-Darwinian accounts. I have yet to hear any theory of biology which would support a Hegelian view of the world. This is not to say that it is not possible, but only that I have not heard it.