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An observation on why Spinoza’s conception of the ethical is materialist

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“We see that this natural Divine law does not demand the performance of ceremonies—that is, actions in themselves indifferent, which are called good from the fact of their institution, or actions symbolizing something profitable for salvation, or (if one prefers this definition) actions of which the meaning surpasses human understanding. The natural light of reason does not demand anything which it is itself unable to supply, but only such as it can very clearly show to be good, or a means to our blessedness. Such things as are good, simply because they have been commanded or instituted, or as being symbols of something good, are mere shadows which cannot be reckoned among actions that are the offspring, as it were, or fruit of a sound mind and intellect.”
–Spinoza, A Theologico-Political Treatise

A rather obvious reading of the above passage would be to see it as a version of the fantasy of pure reason. But then we could also follow in Macherey and Althusser’s ‘Spinozist’ footsteps and read this quite differently. Spinoza’s god is the singularity of being and reason — a la the Spinozist conatus. His conatus or being can, therefore, be construed as the uninterruptedly, as opposed to sequentially, continuous excess of symbols that are deposited in and as the determinate moments constitutive of precisely this infinitely excessive, and thus dispersive and non-teleological movement, and which as those symbolic deposits tend to acquire a life of their own by getting instituted as commands (or, as Spinoza would say, human laws). That Spinoza conceives of being as a willing-knowing singularity becomes evident if we follow, later in this text, his explication of god as the concomitance of willing of things that come to comprise the world and the knowledge of those things.

Read in this manner, this Spinozist ‘version of the fantasy of pure reason’ can be envisaged, as it indeed is by Althusserians, as a theoretical mode to ground the practice of ideology-critique, which as that practice is derived from Marx’s articulation of his dialectical method as the theory of critique of political economy. Following Marx, who adopted Hegel’s dialectic only to see it precisely as the inverted reflection of the antagonism to the dialectic itself, Althusserians, particularly Macherey, would read ideology — which Althusser quite correctly characterised as the movement of its own displacement — as the image, or symptom, of its own absence, void or impossibility. And this is an approach that can arguably be read off Spinoza, including from his unambiguous suggestion here that “symbols of something good, are mere shadows” of that good.

The reason why Spinoza is open to such a reading is possibly because his thinking of being a la conatus — which for him is also, at once, “the offspring, as it were, or fruit of a sound mind and intellect” — precludes the need for it to be the ground for some kind of a moral law. In Kant, on the other hand, we have the moral law kick in as retroactive rationalisation (read metaphysicalisation) — and thus prospective regimentation — of multiple instantiations of pure reason as practical reason.

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Spinoza as a precursor of the materialist dialectic

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PROPOSITION XXVI. The human mind perceives no external body as actually existing unless through the ideas of the modifications of its body.

Demonstration. If the human body is in no way affected by any external body, then…the idea of the human body, that is to say…, the human mind, is not affected in any way by the idea of the existence of that body, nor does it in any way perceive the existence of that external body. But in so far as the human body is affected in any way by any external body, so far… does it perceive the external body
–Q.E.D.
Corollary. In so far as the human mind imagines an external body, so far it has not an adequate knowledge of it.
Demonstration. When the human mind through the ideas of the modifications of its body contemplates external bodies, we say that it then imagines…, nor can the mind…in any other way imagine external bodies as actually existing. Therefore…in so far as the mind imagines external bodies it does not possess an adequate knowledge of them — Q.E.D.
–Spinoza, ‘Ethics’

If one carefully attends to Spinoza’s understanding of substance as conatus, one can probably see how Spinozist substance can be read as a rupture from both the Cartesian, and Kantian, conceptions of subject-object duality. A rupture that is, if one may be allowed to speak in Alain Badiou’s terminology, subjective materiality in its singularisation. So, what is often termed Spinoza’s objectivism, is, in my opinion, ontological subtraction from the the subject-object duality, and its constitutive horizon of a symmetrical and thus idealist dialectic.

Therefore, the Spinozist substance, as far as I am concerned, is unrelenting antagonism to such a horizon of dialectical symmetry. And precisely for that reason is his substance or being — or his substantive being — nothing but the antagonism to the dialectic, which thinks dialectically precisely to preempt its subsumption by the dialectic, and its own interruption as antagonism thereof. All this, in order to keep being the antagonism or ontological excess it is.

In such circumstances, there is no question of Spinoza being a solipsist. For, singularity, particularly if it’s thought in terms of the relentlessness of antagonism to the dialectical machine, can by no means amount to solipsism. Spinoza, then, is, for me, certainly not a solipsist. But I wouldn’t call him an objectivist either. Pace Macherey, I read him as a materialist who philosophically prefigures the materialist dialectic.

One will see Spinoza as a solipsist only when one conceives materialism as objectivism, and does not grasp materiality as ontological excess — the actuality of uninterrupted exceeding of the subject-object duality and the horizon of symmetrical dialectic this duality is constitutive of. And it’s this ontological excess that is the approach at work in Marx’s theoretical practice of critique of political economy as is its philosophical presupposition.

This Marxian critique in its operation as “practical practice” — which would render such “practical practice” praxis — would be nothing but precisely this actuality of uninterrupted exceeding of the subject-object duality and the horizon of symmetrical dialectic it is constitutive of. In other words, Spinoza’s substance is subjectivity as a process of desubjectivation. Or, conversely,. Spinoza’s being is a subject that is substance precisely in being-aftersubject.

Some random and provisional thoughts on Marxian conceptions of production

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Production as in capitalist production is, pace Marx, always immaterial. That value, as the realisation of production, is, in Marx, objective and thus immaterial proves that. Materiality would then reside only in the singularity/singularisation of destructive creation, as opposed to and in subtraction from creative destruction that is condemned to be productive. Hence, production, following the Marx of Althusser, is an effect of its own displacement and excess, and thus a symptom of its own negation, or better, absencing. Not for nothing does Marx see the recomposition of social relations of production — or the change/increase in the organic composition of capital — in terms of the liberation of developed productive forces from social relations of production that can no longer contain them. Therefore, the so-called productive forces, when seen in the longee-duree of their action, reveal themselves for what they are — active forces of transformative destruction in their reactive rendition. It’s only by grasping productive forces in this fashion can one think practice in its anti-historicist immanence in and against capital, which is the realisation of the abstraction of historicist thought. In such circumstances, radical transformation — transformation as novelty as opposed to transformation as mere change — can neither be the Hegelian circle of movement that seeks to neurotically conceal the brokenness of its own circularity, nor, for that matter, can it be the circle of Nietzschean/poststructuralist repetition, which is merely the obverse of Hegelianism because it openly embraces the brokenness of the circle and makes the broken circle into a virtue. [The circularity of Hegel’s dialectic is broken, and thus neurotic, because his dialectic is about the negation of the concretely realised absolute as already always being the historically concrete realisation of the absolute. This is what Hegel’s conception of employed negativity — negativity that is always already productively employed — basically amounts to.] In such circumstances, radical transformation can only be the ceaseless indivisibility of Spinozist extension — the conception of conatus at work in Spinoza’s thinking — that amounts to the suspension of both the Hegelian circle and its poststructuralist (‘repetitive’) obverse.

However, some astute Hegelian Marxists (Adorno. Moishe Postone and Zizek particularly come to mind) — to give them their radical due — think the schizz in Hegelian thinking in its extreme by mobilising the brokenness of Hegelian circularity against precisely the Hegelian circle itself in order to emancipate the former from the latter. For instance, Adorno’s conception of the dialectic in terms of its negativity shows us the way forward on how to think negativity (of the dialectic) in and as its own presentation, and thus as affirmative excess of the dialectic. His conception of “negative dialectics” — and constellation — demonstrates how one can think the dialectic as a mode of presentation of its own negativity. As a result, it is aligned, as it were, with a way of thinking the dialectic that sees and demonstrates it as the mode of presentation of the determinate excess and voiding of precisely the dialectic itself as an abstraction. Such articulation, or thinking, of the dialectic in terms of its excessive and antagonistic asymmetry is what renders it materialist. That is arguably why Pierre Macherey, a faithfully committed Althusserian-Marxist, reads Adorno’s concept of “negative dialectics” affirmatively as an elaboration of the Spinozist conception of conatus — the ceaseless indivisibility of extension –, albeit one that is articulated in and through the discursive register of Hegelian-Marxism. Which is why, one is compelled to ask, how much of Hegel there really is in such ‘Hegelian’ thinking? Is this not a way that even as it indisputably passes through Hegel takes us to his antipodes? And is this way, in being more Hegelian than Hegel, not already something entirely different? After all, this Adornoesque move to mobilise the brokenness of Hegelian circularity against precisely the Hegelian circle itself in order to emancipate the former from the latter transforms the former into a quality that is radically distinct from that of brokenness-of-the-circle. This new quality is nothing but Spinoza’s conatus as the ceaseless indivisibility of extension — this is also how Marx thought “real history” as the infinity of beginnings in their ceaseless indivisibility. Hence, one feels prompted to ask, together with Macherey, “Hegel or Spinoza”? And answer with him; Spinoza of course; but the Spinoza who comes to us through Hegel and after him

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