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Tag Archives: Revolution

True Revolutionary Spirit and “the System”

Thinking on Anodyne Lite’s post on Radical Break revolution (and its attendant hatred for the dread neoliberalism), materialism, privilege and revolution, the following occurs.

For those who hadn’t seen it, Samberg’s satirical take on white positioning against “the System” is absolutely hilarious. But more than this it really captures for me some of the self-contradiction found in even the most academic anti-Capitalist pleas for a “radical break” from the perceived wholeness of Capitalist closure. As I’ve mentioned many times, these fairly wealthy (on world standard), usually older white professors/authors are essentially text machines producing books for largely white, affluent youths, all of which are “part of the system”. Zizek and Badiou of course prime examples.

Pristine is when Samberg choruses “I’m an adult!” We glimpse the kind of Dysphoric pleasures involved in standing up against the “System”. This is not to mention the complex ironies involved in white person’s rapping with ghetto force, and the grammatical games involved in whether or not one’s Dad is a phone. Important humor.


Spinoza, Infinite Substance, and Kabbalah Influence

Math Unto Infinities of Different Sizes and Badiou

I’ve been looking into the status of mathematical knowledge in Spinoza’s ontology and epistemology, and been having some discussion with Eric Schliesser with whom I agree: Spinoza is a skeptic in terms of a stable, mathematical knowledge of nature via mathematical thought and operation. This of course is rather counter intuitive considering the heavily rationalistic interpretation of Spinoza in the last century, and the rather strong circumstantial evidence of his more geometrico form of his Ethics, which seems to announce the primacy of mathematical knowledge.

There is also a timely subject matter to these questions, at least in these circles of blogged conversation, as Badiou’s Cantor-inspired Set Theory framing of Being runs right up against and perhaps turning upon the onto-epistemic standing of maths in Spinoza’s philosophy. Aside from any critique that Spinoza might offer Badiou’s Being a la maths, there is the provocative historical fact that Cantor’s Set Theory was heavily influenced by early study of Spinoza, in particular his position on kinds of Infinity and questions of divisibility. Spinoza represents a kind of Ur-figure in the concepts Badiou make central, so getting a firm grasp of Spinoza’s differences seems contemporaneously a significant thing to have.

The Door of Heaven and Spinoza’s Early Influences

But in this post, given my personal context, I simply want to post a significant passage on the connection between some of Spinoza’s most elementary ideas, and the thesis that Spinoza was strongly influenced by concepts found in the Kabbalah and the Zohar. Long have I noticed the similarities, and have even come upon other sources outlining them, but it seems that it is a fact/thesis that often get forgotten – some of Spinoza’s most significant contributions to philosophy, not to mention his involute and sometimes sublated Neoplatonism, are best reflected in the ideas found  in this religious thinking. It is good to provide a googable link and easy reference for those who have not thought about it much.

The best Spinoza interpreters continued to link the great philosopher with the doctrines of the authentic Kabbalah, especially those of the Zohar. One of the most important among them was Stanislaus von Dunin-Borkowski, a German Jesuit whose book Der Junge de Spinoza/ is still a classic hardly ever matched by more recent publications. Dunin-Borkowski has a full chapter called “Kabbalistische Wanderfahrten” (Kabbalist travels). A subdivision of it reads (pp. 176-90): “Der Ursprung der Mysticism-Kabbalah und die Urkeime des Spinozismus” (The origin of Mystericism-Kabbalah and the first germs of budding Spinozism). The author stresses that “a higher form of cognition of all finite things, a cognition of God and the light of eternity in the Kabbalah as well as in De Spinoza appears as the highlight of Ethics“. According to him, there was a highly developed older and intermediary type of Jewish mysticism prevailing beside the Kabbalahin the thirteenth century, and the Talmudists had already conceived the existence of mediators between God and the Universe. From these mystics, he concludes, an infinitely long and slow but almost straight evolution leads, through the ideas of the (kabbalistic) sephiroth and the neoplatonic emanations, directly to the basic concepts of the natura naturans and the first links of the natura naturata  in Spinoza’s system. Dunin-Borkowski, in contrast to Heinrich Grätz, the well-known historian of Jews in Germany, calls the sephiroth in the Sepher Jetzirah (Book of Creation) of the Zohara “highly advanced evolution of the secret philosophy of the Talmud, a groping for a link with secular science, an important transitional work pointing to the speculation of the oldest gaonitic religious philosophers. The concept of the En Sof, the Endless or Boundless one, Dunin-Borkowski continues, dominates the Zoharto the same extent as it will later be prevalent in Spinoza’s mind. And here we encounter exactly the same determinations which by so many thinkers and scholars consider a fundamental clevage between Judiasm and Spinozism. God (the En Sof) cannot be designated by any known attributes. He is best called Ayin (the undeterminable). Hence, in order to make His existence known to all, the Diety was obliged (or, what amounts to the same thing, wishes) to reveal Himself at least to a certain extent. But the En Sof, being boundless, cannot become the direct creator, for he has neither will, intention, desire, thought, language nor action, attributes which belong only to finite beings. The En Sof, therefore, made His existence known in the creation of the world by the ten sephiroth, which flowing directly from Him, partake of His perfection and infinity.

These substances or emanations are parts of one another, as sparks are part of the same flame; yet they are, at the same time, distinguished from one another, as are different colours of the same light…The pantheistic suggestions of the first and third book of the Zohar  have become of the highest significance for Spinoza. For there the sephirah “wisdom” forms a perfect unity with the crown and the En Sof. “They are like three heads which, actually, form only one. Everything is connected and linked together in the one whole (the universe). Between the Universe and the Ancient One (God) there is no distinction at all. All is One, and He is all – without distinction and separation.He who describes the sephiroth as separated from one another, destroys God’s unity’.

But Dunin-Borkowski has made another important discovery. The concepts of the Kabbalah were first transmitted to young Spinoza in a rather palatable contemporary version, i.e. Abraham (Alonzo) Herrera’s famous book Door of Heaven. It was written in Spanish and translated into Hebrew by Isaac Aboab. This work, which dealt with Kabbalistic philosophy, was a favorite sourcebook of Baruch’s noted Talmud teachers, Saul Levi Morteira and Manasseh ben Israel. In 1678 (one year after Spinoza’s death), a Latin version appeared under the title Sha’ar Hashomayim  class=”hiddenSpellError” pre=”Hashomayim “>seu Porta Coelorum. In quo Dogmata Cabbalistica Philosophorum proponuntur et cum philosophiae Platonis conferuntur.

Herrera himself had already died in 1639, and young Baruch absorbed the contents of Door of Heaven just during those most decisive years of mental development when the imprint of new ideas of strongest and everlasting in every budding intellectual. He read, of course, the book in its Hebrew version, the language he mastered best up to his death (despite his somewhat clumsy Latin publications and Dutch letters).

According to Herrera, there is on original substance with an infinite extension. Outside it, there are only divine modiwhich are all encompassed in that original substance, the En Sof, even in the potentialities. Thus, there is a created (finite) and a non-created (infinite) State of God, i.e. both God in His proper sense and the Universe; but God is and remains the immanent cause of all things, and the “Universe is actually nothing but the revealed and unveiled God”. Therefore, we find in the “Lexicon Cabbalisticum” (a chapter of the Door of Heaven) the unequivoked statement: “the acceptance of this unity is part and parcel of the faith of every genuine Israelite; we must believe that the Infinite manifests Himself in all His modi through the unity” (my italics). There is one substance, Herrera stresses, with infinite properites. It is determining itself by a multitude of infinite beings which are, however, nothing but its modifications. God is One and Many at the same time – one in so far as He is infinite; many in so far as He determines Himself in His attributes and modi. These modi cannot exist nor be understood without the Divine One inherent and indwelling in them. Everything is one in God(my italics). Dunin-Borkowski reaches the following conclusion: “Especially the first five treatises of the book [Herrera’s Door of Heaven] explain that only blind prejudice can overlook this source of Spinoza’s.

“Spinoza and Kabbalah” by Henry Walter Brann,  in Spinoza: Context, sources, and the early writings (2001), edited by Genevieve Lloyd

If Spinoza had read The Door of Heaven  it was likely before the age of 15, but really the Kabbalah was a prevalent conceptual touch-stone at this time due to messianic stirrings in the political realm. In any case, as I see it, Spinoza’s Kabbalistic influence seems likely, and it is noteworthy that Brann reads the Kabbalistic impulse, along with its mathematical preoccupations, as part of the attempt of mysticism to come to grips with the power of science. In a certain sense Spinoza’s system can be seen as an extremely rigorous, scientific and literal radicalization of both the religious impulse of the Kabbalah, but also its political force (an immanent unity towards a freedom through communication, an offspring of Renaissance revolutionary conceptions of civil transformation). In a more particular view towards the question of the status of mathematical knowledge in Spinoza’s system, the Kabbalistic influence of an insistently Infinite and unbroken Substance helps interpret the power of Spinoza’s seemingly anti-mathematical stance in his letter 12 to Meyer, wherein he declared mathematics imaginary in origin. Perhaps we get a glimpse of just how Spinoza conceived that it is through the Intellect that we see any quantity as infinite and undividable into finite parts, despite our ability through mathematics to divide quantities with incredible facility and clarity.  Additionally, Spinoza’s pantheism, (the issue under which the Catholic Cantor most firmly staked his objection of Spinoza), understood as a position taken upon mathematical infinity and set=making itself, may help provide the most robust correction to Badiou’s mathematical ontologies.

Open Source Intellectual Expression: Vital Nodality

Watched Revolution OS(2002) on Netflix instant play last night (if you haven’t clued in, the “instant play” feature of Netflix is perhaps the best aspect of the product). The documentary on the development of the Linux/Gnu operating system with heavy interview time given to all the major players has informative parallel to bloggery-based intellectual development. To hear of the sudden profusion of a small piece of intellectual work, let us say the Open Source Definition, (and the surprise of its non-professional author), reminds me of the work I did last summer on Spinoza and Optics (apparently, and ridiculously, making me a foremost expert on the subject in the world, simply because no one else had thought to do it). I tell myself I really should read  The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, by Eric Raymond (whose essay quixotically changed the course of companies), which I have been meaning to for some time. It is not just the philosophical, practical and commercial tensions that fill this story, but, as the film shows, also that remarkable personalities come in contact and are expressed through these very specific means, nodes of transmission and transfer, the opening and closing of possibilities. Written ideas, working protocols, adhered principles, licensing documents, the joy of work all come to structured confluence. I think for those who imagine that there is a future for the intellectual process of shared ideas offered by this medium, there is much to learn from their historical example. I will say that how these people generally feel about writing and working on code is how I feel about working on (or being inspired by) philosophical problems or pursuing and posting research. And it’s always interesting to watch the imposition of “Cathedral” culture and those mental habits upon more or less spontaneous community. Most compelling perhaps is to watch the separation of the “idea” of the revolution from its commercial success -exemplified by how they had to figure out a way to change the word “free”. Not a betrayal, nor a dialectic reversal… an expressive mutation, a revolution in the genuine sense.

When thinking about intellectual gate-keeping, we are reminded of course, of JSTOR – a citadel of guarded labor born from largely not-for-profit institutions.

In Praise of Scholarly Enemism: People are Animals Too!

Larvel Subjects emerges from his coccon to spread his wet-wings in a new sun. In this thought-post , he objects to what he calls “kumbaya politics”, specific it seems to the humanism of the some from the academic Left. While I have no idea what events he is responding to (a post, a book read, a professor he quarreled with?), and thus cannot trace the real target of his thinking, there is an important thought in his semi-argument which inspires thoughts on abstractions of opposition (While I use Larvel Subject’s declamations here, my thoughts are directed beyond whatever political position he holds. In so doing I approach not only aspects of his argument, but the way that they connect to the Revolutionary, Marxist politics we here recently have been discussing: concepts necessary of radical breaks. They are the platform for ruminations.):

Here it is not a question of being tolerant or recognizing that “everyone is human”. Indeed, one wishes that the tender hearted humanists would recognize that all humans are animals and that animals often prey upon one another and exercise terrific cruelty on one another, not out of malice or wickedness, but simply out of pursuing their own interests. However, no matter how nice these people are, when faced with a system that causes so much human misery and such disproportionate privilege, certainly it follows that the friend/enemy distinction is entirely operative. In fact, what is disgusting is not the operation of the friend/enemy distinction, but those who would deny its presence, treating the field of struggle as if it were flat and everyone were in the same position.

To my ear this supposed dichotomy betweeen the “tender-hearted” human (which is co-operative and communal) and the “animal” (which is driven by warring self-interest) is one of the most enduring and naive projections around. It is founded upon the largely Christian message that there are divine and animal parts of the human being: the selfishness of primative, animal, affective, emotional interests, versus the angelic, other-worldly “human” state. Its jarring that intellectuals still think this way. What is animal in us (all of us being animal) is not particularly some kind of naturalized “prey upon each other” penchant for “cruelty on one another”, but all of our behaviors. Not only do animals attack and kill one another, but they also commune with great intimacy and sacrifice, negotiate boundaries, modify their environments and any number of complexly related interactions. Larval Subjects seems to feel that because we are not just human beings but animals, and animals naturally “pursue their own interests” there is an inherent contradiction between human pursuits of interests, and our animal ones. While it is certainly admitted that the “friend/enemy distinction” is “operative” (who would deny this, I have no idea), they question is, what place does such a distinction have in politics? What good does it serve? (It is a mistake to make of the friend/enemy distinction some kind of naturalized Good animal expression: all our expressions are animal ones.)

The Traps of Oppositional Thinking

What is at stake here, in praise of academics who suppose the friend/enemy distinction not only to be operative, but essential, is what I read to be Oppositional Thinking: my thoughts become most clear to me, and others, to the degree that they are in opposition to something other (to some principle, or more readly, some persons who are the enemy). The difficulty with Oppositional Thinking, in particular that of the political realm, is that when one thinks consistently in this way and begins to identify oneself within an essential opposition, a curious thing seems to happen. Your personal investment is no longer in the defeat of the very thing that have declared yourself in opposition to, but rather in the perpetuation of very state of opposition itself. In just this way one actually works to preserve the very thing you have declared you wish to overcome. The enemy gives you purpose.

It is precisely this kind of projective imagination that seems in play when nostalgia-ridden academics require only the complete end to Capitalism as proof that justice has been achieved (or even substantially pursued). The cry is “Yes, a lot of things have changed, but that is still Capitalism!” It is that we must invent newer and newer forms of Capitalism, just as a fundamentalist Christian has to invent newer and newer manifestations of the Devil, in order to maintain the authority of our protest voice, and really the coherence of our own identities as protesters.

Living In the Land of the Enemy

Beyond this descriptive insistence in which the enemy continually has to be recreated, I believe that one also invents a strange sort of detachment from one’s own investments in the world, one’s day to day connections to lived lives. Like born-agains, one is living-in-enemy-territory, painfully partaking in the very forms of supposed universal cruelty of the System, losing track of the complexities of local violences (how deleterious, I have often thought, is even a frown worn throughout the day, or a person habitually ignored, as it spreads its ripples across attendant faces.) Further, this detachment actually allows one to actively invest in the very systematic structures that one theoretically objects to. For instance a professor argues against heirarchial knowledge systems in a way that in practice manifestly performs and trains them, inculcating her or his students in the classroom. The abuses and cruelties of human relations can often be clearly evident in professor feifdom mentalities of knowledge-as-jargon power that make up professor/student exchanges. By and large, projections of wholesale and systematic friend/enemy distinctions promote detachments from real relations (lived) such that war is imagined by academics to be only something that can be accomplished in the Heavens of ontological disputes. “Yes, I am guilty of Capitalist Relations, but I fight the good fight up there in the Ethersphere!” is the confession.

I believe something of this kind of thinking/detachment can also be seen in Larval Subject’s notion of “objective guilt”. It is interesting, if not an outright confusion, that he qualifies his participation on Capitalism as “non-intentional” instead of simply “animal” self-interest:

Rather, objective guilt is instead a function, despite any intentions that a person might have, of the functional role that a person’s actions play in an overarching system of social relations. Thus, for example, as someone who has a 403 retirement plan, I possess a share of objective guilt with respect to how Capital functions to stratify society, how it exploits other groups of people, how it organizes war and poverty, how it destroys the environment, and all the rest. This objective guilt has nothing to do with my intentions as an individual person. No, my intention as an individual is to set aside a certain percentage of my wages for investment so that I might some day be able to retire and sustain my existence until death. I have no desire or intention to exploit others, to organize poverty, to promote war, to destroy the planet, etc. However, objectively my investments participate in all of these phenomena.

It is not without coincidence that it is immediately following this self-confession that the myth of the non-tender-hearted animal is presented, to bookend the justification of one’s course in life. I am not too-guilty of the crimes of Capitalism because a) Explicitly, I do not intend to be, and b) Implicitly, I am an animal and just naturally pursuant of self-interest. This seems precisely the kind of internal contradiction and self-justification that is generated in Oppositional Thinking: an under-grounding myth of naturalized forces, and detachment from real-world, lived relations under the category of (entirely human) “intentionality”.

It is not just that such enemy-making thought leads to a kind of performative self-contradiction, an identity entrapment for the loyal believers, but it also leads to a practical restriction on where people look for real-world solutions to problems of injusitice. To take a small example. If one is a priori committed to the view that something called “Capitalism” is inherently evil, some kind of pervading monstrous, crushing influence, the very notion that one might turn to Capitalism itself for solutions becomes foreclosed. Microcredit with its power to transform societies of poverty through the lending of money to the most impoverished and disempowered in small increments can become simply the perceived infiltration of an insideous force, the enemy creeping within. One’s fantasy-space of premises shapes the very models of our freedoms, a fantasy-space that can seldom come under review for those who have memorized the founding tenets of analysis.

The Animal Within

To return to the picture of the “animal” within. There is a mistaken conception of the Animal that presumes that “war of all against all” is somehow the most natural and essential of states, and that we all must be soberly loyal, as animals to this fact. This requires some form of non-animal abstract social contract (Hobbes), or sublimation of primitive parts (Freud), but also a rightful embrace of what is deeper: pure “self-interest”. Self-interest is in my view necessarily other-interest. Not only in human beings, but in the “lower” animals as well. Yes, the friend/enemy distinction is operative, but it is not essential. It is context dependent and something often best overcome. One is never naturally my enemy. The myth of an essentially segregated “self-interest” buried in the animal is one that has paid very little attention to real animals in the world, a myth that requires essentialized kinds presumed to be in essential opposition. Oppositional Thinking in the same way often requires the imaginary projection of an enemy that one works to perpetuate both in the imaginary and material sense, so as to maintain one’s meaningful position in the world, seeing the hand of the Devil everywhere, so that one can fight it (and with far-cast eyes fail to see what one is actively invested in).

[Addendum: Anodynelite has a wonderful post up which also has some connection to the friend/enemy distinction:

I am more than happy to make friend/enemy distinctions, to draw lines in the political sand. But from here, it does not follow that I believe “radical breaks” are possible, or that friend/enemy distinctions are always productive intellectually. I do not believe that because friend/enemy distinctions exist within a political economy that we have carte blanche when it comes to “revolutionary violence” as a means to our political ends. I do not believe that modes of non-violent resistance necessarily preclude friend/enemy distinctions; quite the contrary, I believe that the most effective and ruthlessly efficient methods of resistance at our disposal are non-violent.

Here: Latour has Answers ]

Anodyneheavy: The Codification of Revolution

Anodyne lite has a wonderfully concise critique of what I take to be the Badioun-Zizek, perhaps Negri epistemo-revolution tactics. A brief sample, with which I in spirit and point agree:

Because insofar as our notions of what’s radical rely on rehashing a hypothesis that is haunted by the specter of colossal failure and violent abuse, grounded in a bygone era of industrial proliferation, humanism, and positivism, operating according to grandiose totalizing epistemologies that can find no purchase in praxis, and rife with unchallenged fetishism and essentialism, these ostensibly radical theories present absolutely no threat whatsoever to global capitalism.

For my part, I’m not even sure what revolutionary thinking is, or if I would want any part of it. I’m much less concerned with something being radically new, or radically radical, and much more drawn to that which is radically interesting. I’m not even sure that there is such a thing as “global capitalism” (or if any one knows what global capitalism is), other than one vast projection of a supposed series of alliances and principles of exchange that form some indominable (and evil) System. How about this: We look for a way to make peoples lives more meaningful.