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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.


Žižek as Ur-Bloggist: Perfecting the Associative Theoretical Multimedium

The First Bloggist, Žižek as Father

Adam Kotsko has a wonderful line about Žižek, that his writing can only be understand as a theoretical-asethetic pre-posit of the Blog:

I think that Zizek has something about how Flaubert can only be understood retrospectively, because he was trying to do film by means of the novel — similarly, perhaps Zizek’s writing is anticipating not (as he has somewhere said) the CD-ROM, but rather the blog.

Aside from the fantastic inversion of Flaubert to cinema, and thus Žižek to populist journalism – talk about the return of the Bourgeoisie, first as parody, then as tragedy or at least made serious pop – this calls to mind Truman Capote’s line about Jack Kerouak, “That’s not writing, that’s typewriting.”

Žižek as the first, Primordial blogger, he who could not then blog because the techno-social space was yet invented. But how else could we have heard about the theories of someone from a country which no map knew, sporting unpronouncible consonants and knowing marks in his name, pealing off counter-intuitional brilliances on otherwise abandoned Hegel and Lacan, DJing in Hitchcock and the Terminator? Is not the Nom du Père of us bloggists…Žižek? The man who enjoys.

As proof of this, imagine how horrible it would be if Žižek actually blogged? It would be as if Flaubert made talkies. Does this mean that the blog world must track down and consume our father, ripping him into pieces like so many post-Oedipal and rabid daughters, maenads tearing at their Orpheus near a media river, or must it simply meet him at the crossroads and refuse to step aside?

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.

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.

The Analogy of Philosophical Wealth

Graham Harman makes an interesting analogy by which the philosophical Zizeks and Derridas of the philosophy world are like the Warren Buffetts of the economy. Unlike the somewhat rather weathy Republicans, the ultra-rich are actually liberal minded and generous, not sweating the small stuff, like the 80 million they lost in the market yesterday. These philosophers are prolific because they are asked to do books are the time. Their very name is a brand that sells ideas. But so many other philosophers are locked in mere Dukedoms and Principalities, where they exact the small pleasures of dominance:

If you’re one of the world’s most exciting philosophers (such as those mentioned in the previous post), then you have a lot of work to do, and no one writing a letter out of the blue needs to be put in their place. But those who might feel like they’re not getting their due will need to enact a number of micro-dominance rituals when you meet them, just to leave no doubt as to who is boss. These are all among the worst memories of a lifetime, but it will pay off in the end if I can eventually write a scathing article classifying the various types of such rituals.

Everyone who has suffered in the “office” knows of which Graham speaks, but what came to mind for me immediately was the rather universal complaint that someone like Zizek isn’t really doing any more real work. While making his stamp upon society, so to speak, he himself finds deep dissatisfaction with his book. And attentive readers tire of his retread of the same five ideas brought to ever varying subject matters. K-punk, who apparently has slipped into a lethargy of repeat-social-comment, put it beautifully, comparing Zizek’s intellectual output to a DJ who just keeps putting remix after remix of the same old song. The banality of it is painful.

Graham’s work seems centered on breaking through the fiefdom paralysis of local university and college powers, a dullness of thinking which is rather by-and-large blamed on either the tenure system, or the journal system. If we could just change the politics/economics of ideas, then all these brilliant minds could be set free, one feels. But, if one of the Warren Buffetts of philosophy, Zizek, a man who has escapes this emprisonment of minor cruelties, himself feels deep dissatisfied with what he is making (as do many of his readers), the question is not perhaps that of escape, or radical transformation. To-be-like-Zizek (only more happy), cannot be a philosophical aim.

Could it be that the kinds of minds/characters that excel in academic settings, those selected by those Darwinian environment, are simply less brilliant, less significantly profound, than they are supposed to be by the societal statis of the texts that they teach? To be sure, there are the amphibious types, minds that can perform outside of the bounds of their narrow selection (we read that enviroments do not so much select what is there, but rather what is not; and then, not even that, that organisms feedback); but what is selected for is not brilliance. That is, the “dominance rituals” are not an accidental by-product of the system(s), but its very acme.

There is the sense that the creativity of teaching minds is somehow squeezed out, and in turn squeezes out the creativity of the minds below them, in a mad kind of inverted Aristotlean habitus  and imitation toward ideal, but I find it notable that Graham in a certain sense weighs freedom in a register of productivity. The super-rich are more productive than the Associate Professor because they are asked to write books, to spin out an article. They are not fundamentally different, their position is different. But is this not an odd register for the philosophic? Have we not already acceded to the brute fact that the aim of contemporary philosophy is text production? Brilliant ideas succeed, when they do, because they produce more texts in response. They are virtual text fountains.

In some way thinking about the philosophy that gets produced in academia is like thinking about the philosophy that got produced in monestaries on the Middle Ages (I know, not an original comparison, “nook dwellers”). The point of the monestary is not that of idea. The idea is there only to restablize the function of the network, so to speak. The brutalities of soured, or embittered professorial corners of the world, the violences of the bureau, are not accidental to text and text producer’s factories, they are the point. Only the tortured flesh of the professor/student can produce a text so indifferent so as to rise to the level of the Beautiful.

Alternately, when I have encountered a wise academic philosopher (rarely; I have not had the privilege to mix with the heavy weights, perhaps they are different), it is not the case that I get the sense that their wisdom flows out of their brilliant ideas, that is, it is n0t what they have seen by virtue of their ideas, but comes out of their character. It is their character, in superabundance of, and engagment with, their environments, that saw them through. One gets the sense that they would have been wise if they had become a plumber, or a waitress. One could no more gain wisdom by adopting their positional philosophy, than by driving their car. This seems quite far from the ethical aim of philosophical origins.

All in all, it seems that it is not only creativity, but the purposive witness of the idea, its transformative effect, that is missing from what can be done with Philosophy. Graham Harman is committed to a change in this mould, to creating spaces where the “intellectual gambler” is given a more rightful place, where metaphysics can become properly speculative and inspiring. I deeply applaud this, but suggest that in the change of space we cannot simply think of an army of brilliant minds which have been put in bondage by an uncaring system. Professors excel at professing. Its a bit, but not exactly like, asking literature professors to write the great American or Parisian novel. Not impossible, but perhaps sometimes a question of genus.

If we are to return to the analogy if wealth, its not just that we could turn all of those conservative Republicans into loving liberals if we just found a way to make them all super rich like Warren Buffett, there would be no economy to thought. And it doesn’t even work to suggest to individual Republicans, “take it easy, one day you might be like Warren Buffett,” publishing books and articles left and right, with ease. I think one really has to uncover that essential, transformative brilliance does not occur at University, any more than essential, transformative faith occurs at seminary. The “stuff” of brilliance, in a Harmanian sense, is forever in retreat from is qualities, in those houses. But the world is not a university. The stuff of brilliance is more an artifact of nature, like a stone that you find when walking and paying attention in a way you don’t often, at the side of the path. It winks at you…or gets stuck in the shoe.

Spinoza’s Logic of Affects and an Ontology of Torture


There is a curious shadow in the logic of Spinoza, a dark, foreboding underlogic that comes with its incredible sheen, its recourse to a path of Joy and Rationality. It is not so much a consequence of its argumentation, a conclusion drawable from within its aims, but a manifestation of its logic.

What I have in mind is Spinoza’s implicit imperative that Joy follows the aim of becoming more like God. That is, Spinoza’s argument for the path to happiness is that the more that we become like God/Substance, the freer we become, the more active, the least reactionary. This method of analysis is based on the idea that only the entirety of Substance is causa sui, its own cause. All other things are caused through other things. And concordantly, the more we become the causes of our own action, through our better understanding of the forces at play through clearer ideas, the more Joyful and powerful we become.

A single example suffices to get at the root of what Spinoza is after. A child is hit by another child, and reacts with anger, or even hate. A man is hit by another man, and in understanding the forces at play (perhaps the history of race, the residual and institutional sadnesses) is able to act, rather than react, in a more powerful and active manner. Each, the child and the adult, experience themselves to be “free”, but one is consubstantially freer than the other: so would argue Spinoza.

The result of this imitatio be-like-God-have-clearer-ideas-become-more-powerful-and-free approach is remarkable in the capacities of change that inhabit nearly every situation. Each and every moment is open to mental, and therefore physical, avenues of change. In particular, as beings locked in history, the diachronic unfolding of inadequate ideas, a finite existence which is overrun with imaginary effects, our possibilities become our ability to affectively, and intelligently engage with others. That is, we become more our own cause (like God), insofar as we no longer conceive of ourselves as independent and isolated units. We become more our own cause insofar as we realize ourselves to be part of an assemblage of affective and ideational bodies that are already existing, and that through our awareness, we can intentionally construct. We become our own cause, to the degree that “our own” becomes larger and larger. The political ramifications of this path are striking in their dexterity, and it is for this reason that Spinoza became the first modern proponent of a liberal democracy of intellectual freedoms.

All this stems from Spinoza’s idea that we become more Joyous and more powerful, the more we become like God.

But as I say, there is a shadow beneath the logic of this argument, a different kind of “becoming like God” that seems to belie the very logic and exemplification Spinoza uses. And I say this as a Spinozist, a firm admirer of the possibilities of his thought.

One of the most praised, and disconcerting aspects of Spinoza’s notion of God is that this God has no affects. That is, because for Spinoza an affect is the passing from one degree of perfection, to another degree, God being perfect in the expression of himself can have no affect. For this reason, “He who loves God cannot endeavor that God should love him in return” (5p19). That makes for a remarkable ontological set up. We and animals, as finite beings, though we feel, suffer, love, ache, laugh, wonder, etc. as the actual expressions of the Totality that is God, God itself experiences none of these things. In a strange way, we experience them (as a product of our finitude), but God cannot, or does not (which is the same thing for Spinoza). Our very affective state, in its quality, is a kind of illusion which does not register upon the totality as such.

What is curious about this set-up is that it bears striking resemblance to one of the more horrific conditions of human social function, that of the Totalitarian Torture State. That is, under some analysis the State, as a necessary condition of its ideological status as an horizon of social determination actually must torture so as to produce the very expression of its condition, an expression which it then represses.

Eric Santner in his Study of the first Schizophrenic, Daniel Schreber, describes how the mechanism of political torture functions in this way:

Torture is the way an institution simultaneously confesses and represses its deepest secret: that its consistency, its enjoyment of recognition as a really existing social fact, ultimately depends on the magic of performative utterances, on the force of their own immanent process of enunciation. The abjection produced in the torture victim, his betrayal of everything that matters and is dear to him, his confession of his own putrescence, is, as it were, the “substance” that stands in for the lack of substantial foundations to which the institution might appeal for final and ultimate legitimation. The torture victim’s abject body is the ‘privileged’ site of a politicotheological epiphany, for it is there that the reality of institutions and the social facts they sponsor – contracts, titles, money, property, marriages, and the like – bottoms out, touches on a dimension of vicious circularity that cannot be avowed if these social facts are to continue to enjoy credibility, if the social field structured by them is to remain consistent for the subject.

My Own Private Germany: Daniel Paul Schreber’s Secret History of Modernity

In a Spinozist context there are quite a number of things that stand out.

For one, the notion of a “politicotheological epiphany”. There is in Spinoza a remarkable sense of the epiphanic. In readers who have struggled through his precise stackings of propositions, there comes a time when suddenly it all locks into place, and a sudden sheen comes into being. I have experienced this myself. It moves from boring and unlikely logic, to brilliant and revealing clarity. And the marriage of the political and the theological of course speaks to Spinoza’s own Politico-theological treatise, which seeks to show the divine and natural expression of both these realms.

Secondly, the enunciative power of the victim is dependent upon the very unaffective status of the torturer (whether it be the person him or herself, or the State). In much the same way, our very affective states, our loud-ringing cries (and laughter), for Spinoza are leveraged off from a non-affective thing, which actually produces them in us. This goes to the very core notion of what an inadequate idea is in Spinoza. An inadequate idea is one which one holds thinking it is about the world, when in fact it is an idea only about oneself (the state of one’s body). In a certain sense, one is confused not only about what an idea (representation) is about, but also “who” is thinking it. For instance, when I think to myself “Sam is a bastard” this idea is really best understood as an expression of my body being in a certain state, and thus in that my body is an extensional expression of Substance, it is an expression made by God, and not me. This illusionary locus of enunciation which marks out the nature of what makes inadequate ideas inadequate, is what shapes the logic of torture under Santner’s description. The victim seems to be crying out a confession of his own experience, but in fact is only expressing a condition of the whole. The victim is confessing-expressing what the State or its torturer cannot, as a matter of its own ontological logic. It is feeling what cannot be felt, as a vector of its own power. The cries and putrescence become immanent to the State.

In Spinoza I think this link can be found right at the level of Affects themselves, joys, loves, hates, sadnesses, jealousies, etc. (again, a thing that God cannot have). Spinoza tells us in the General Definition of Affect, that whatever the affect “this [a confused idea], which constitutes the form of the affect, must indicate or express, a constitution of the Body (or some part of it), which the Body (or some part of it) has because its power of acting, or force of existing, is increased or diminished, aided or restrained.”

Notice the particular form his denomination, the confused idea “must indicate or express”.

In the Latin Spinoza uses a word of largely social obligation to convey this representational necessity, debet (indicare vel exprimit debet). To translate more literally, it “owes”, it “pays the debt,” to “indicate or express”, “to show or come out of” a condition of the body. And the Latin verb exprimit, to express, can even be a word of near torture, in that it can read that ideas owe it to “squeeze out, press out, extort, wrest from” an organization of the body. The double duty of representation shown here “to indicate or express” has affinities with Santner’s process of enunciation which “confesses and represses”. If one were to draw these terms strictly to each other. Our inadequate ideas which we take as being ideas about the world, and belonging to us, are rather confessions of a God-Substance that cannot feel, and the fact of this confessional character is repressed in the very conscious experience of ourselves as distinct and personal entities. Spinoza’s immanent expression of God in affective beings, becomes the nightmare confessional and repressed torture of political subject. Just as Santner strips away the mechanism of enunciation in the example of political torture, Spinoza strips away the representational mechanism of expression in the form of affects felt and ideas held.

To be fair, what seems at first distinct between these two views is that the State is (unconsciously) invested in a particular kind of horrific enunciation, while God as Substance is not. This becomes clear in Michel de Certeau’s essay “Institution of Rot” whose reasonings Eric Santner is working from:

de Certeau wrote:

…[the] goal of torture, in effect, is to produce acceptance of a State discourse, through the confession of putrescence. What the torturer in the end wants to extort from the victim he tortures is to reduce him to being no more than that, rottenness, which is what the torturer himself is and knows that he is, but without avowing it. The victim must voice the filth, everywhere denied, that everywhere supports the representation of the regime’s ‘omnipotence,’ in other words, the ‘glorious image’ of themselves the regime provides for the adherents through its recognition of them. The victim must therefore assume the position of subject upon him the theatre of identifying power is performed.

“Institution of Rot,” in Psychosis in Sexual Identity: Toward a Post-Analytic View of the Schreber Case

Perhaps one could say, following Spinoza’s ontological-affective logic that the degree to which a totalitarian subject agrees with and expresses joyful statements, it is doing so enunciatively on the behalf of a non-affective State, adding to its glory (thereby, holding adequate ideas), and to the degree that he is not, and is made to suffer, he is enunciatively manifesting the ideological substrate of the State’s “glorious image”. The investment of the State in the most abject subject is a very particular kind of investment which is otherwise a product of a general logic of the State.

What is disturbing about this comparison of course is that it is a result that is antithetical the aims of Spinoza’s political imagination. Attempting to be “like God”, the cause of oneself, is supposed to lead to more and more freedom, more and more Joy. But there is an afterimage of such logic, a way in which “attempting to be like God” results in the more horrific totalitarian processes. For if Spinoza’s vision of an affective and modal expression of a non-affective Totality called God is brought to the formal logic of a Totalitarian State, we see striking correspondence. And that this correspondence is not one of accident, but goes to the most central aspect of Spinozist epistemology (that which makes up an inadequate idea) makes it even more ominous. Further, the logic of epiphanic “glorious image” sheen that the very enunicative and repressional processes of the State produce, “squeezing out from the organization of the body” seems to characterize well what is most remarkable about Spinoza’s achievement of stacked and inter-indexed propositions, the sudden clarity of theo-political power, as expressed by Nature and Mind. In short, what is best in Spinoza seems to sanction in part what is worst in politics, through a logic of onto-epistemic imitation. And what is worst in the political seems to explain what is best in Spinoza.

What is one to make of this? Is Spinoza’s really only a vast totalitarian dream projected onto the Universe? Is it that Spinoza, in his reasoned argument for a liberal democratic state not living up to the full de imiatione Dei consequence of his logic? To the first possibility I would answer, I don’t think so. To the second, perhaps. It seems to me that what Santner and de Certeau’s analysis of the logical apparatus of the Totalitarian State reveals about Spinoza’s logic is that there IS a certain epiphanic mechanism employed in his means, a certain redemptive torture of affect which makes of the Totality a “glorious image”. But the value of his thought certainly cannot be reduced to such. What is more important I think is what Spinoza, once this mechanism is exposed, tells us about the liberal state and the path of acting more and more like God. Within such a political process, both doors are open, and perhaps necessary, that of the immanent, body-building, affective sharing that is effectively creative, combining powers as new bodies that de-centralize identity, across Selves, in a communication of reasons; but also, that there is a certain kind of necessary cruelty to social organization, as at times one is forced to collapse one’s own repressed state into a tortured mechanism of enunciation, which generates the very sheen which gives direction to society, the very epiphany which affectively condenses bodies together and facilitates their assembled state. And perhaps these two passages to social wholes, and communications, are phasal to each other. There is no Golden Rule (as golden as Spinoza was able to write it), which does not contain the possibility of political theophany through enunciative confession-repression. Perhaps this is due to the contingent nature of history, and that beneath – or more distant to – reason, IS this very epiphanic capacity of bodies to assemble affects so as to “make the god appear” through suffering, and that at times such a capacity acts as a resource, a resource needing to be checked, but never eliminable. Or perhaps this is written into the very logic of logic, the very capacity to organize ourselves around reasons, ideas and criteria, the dark, but luminous shadow of rationality itself