Spinoza as a precursor of the materialist dialectic


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.

Against the ‘enchantment’ of poetry and for the ‘arrogance’ of critical thinking


Robert Walser’s stress on the small, the insignificant, the minor, the almost-invisible is constitutive of his aporectic – I prefer to call it asymmetrically dialectical — literary discourse that ‘arrogantly’ affirms singularity precisely in and through the ‘humility’ of “continually stepping aside” from the light of recognition that affirmation of singularity inevitably calls upon itself. In one of his stories, for example, a heroic figure erupts suddenly from the insignificant margins of life only to once again melt away and disappear.

Does this Walserian sensibility not resonate with Blanchot’s literary practice, which is an affirmation of the singularity of visible-invisibility (or arrogance through humility)? Blanchot’s reclusive life-practice, which can arguably be construed as the continuation of his conception and practice of literature — writing as a continuous process of withdrawal from itself — beyond the paradigmatic frame of the literary, was possibly a demonstration of this ethics (and singularity) of arrogance-through-humility. This is a quality that is neither arrogance nor humility, but something entirely novel in that it exceeds the anthropologically-indexed affective coordinates of arrogance and humility in their dualised existence.

Walser’s style, if we may still talk in those terms, is the constant articulation and questioning of style itself as something that is always imperfect, and intrinsically inadequate. In that context, we would do well to conceptually approach poetry, not so much as style — which is thinking poetry through a foregrounding of its experiential dimension that is the necessary anthropological register and anthropological-passional index of its historically determinate instantiation as excess of meaning and language — but as a mode.

To conceptualise, and envisage, poetry modally is to grasp it, and have it articulate itself, in a manner that its form is already always a demonstration of its own excess. (Here the importance of the experiential dimension of poetry as the necessary condition of its determinate emerging is doubtless acknowledged, but what is also indicatively underscored is that this dimension is, in itself, not a sufficient condition for poetry to continue being itself.)

In such a (singular) situation, the separation between enchantment and disenchantment is rendered a zone of undecidability, and is thus immensely complicated. For instance, is the singular in the excessiveness of its eruption, which amounts to a break with the thrall of the banal, an enchantment or a disenchantment? And this poses yet another question: what is the condition in which the line shifts, causing the defamiliarising singularity of the quotidian to lapse into the familiarity of the exchangeable and the banal? Is familiarity, insofar as it’s an anthropologically-indexed affect concomitant with the internalisation of domination, disenchantment or enchantment? And, in such circumstances, is defamiliarisation — as an anthropologically- and thus passionally-indexed affectivity of singularity in its excessive eruption — enchantment or disenchantment?

The real question then is, can poetry be approached, and envisaged, as a decision of dwelling in that zone of undecidability? There can, of course, be more than one literary register through which such dwelling in the undecidability of excess is accomplished: the savagely explosive registration of continuous excess (the surrealist poems of Eluard, Aragon and Peret, or Rimbaud’s poetry); the fragile web of language, but one which is baroque in its interminable convolutions and elaborations, and which gets spun through the ceaselessly persistent valorisation of the evanescent and the irreducible (Proust, Beckett); but also, excess as the quiet slipping through of the small, the insignificant and the minor through the meshes of the system (Walser, Kafka, Celan ). In none of these registers, however, does the undecidability with regard to the distinction between enchantment and disenchantment become less demanding in any essential sense. All that such registers of ontological excess in their variegated multiplicity appear to accomplish are different anthropological-passional indexing of the truth of undecidability.

The same – that is, the decision to dwell in the undecidable, the purely possible –holds true for politics as well. That, needless to say, renders poetry and politics, vis-à-vis one another, a question of encounter rather than of some kind of deep or hidden ontological similitude. It is not for nothing that philosophy as the passion for truth begins, as Brecht accurately pointed out, in wonder and awe.

Truth on one hand, wonder and awe on the other. How much more aporetic — and thus undecidable — can a situation be? In such circumstances, to grasp such undecidability as enchantment is to privilege the experiential dimension of such undecidability over its practical-evental/performative dimension that informs the former but is irreducible to it. To indulge in such privileging of the experiential over the performative (or the practical-evental) is to abandon the post-phenomenological rigour of thinking and envisaging sensuousness for a phenomenological (and thus descriptivist) accounting of the same. This phenomenological — and wholly experiential — mode of approaching the sensuous logically amounts to moving away from conceptions of immanence and allegory (which is the immanence grasped in its inscription) to conceptions of interiority and myth, and thus productivism. The latter is inconsistent in its sensuousness because experience remains in it a subjective depth that does little to suspend the objectivity of presence and its metaphysics. In other words, in the phenomenological accounting of sensuousness, experience in its subjectivity fails to seek the institution of its own commensurate materiality and, thereby, become its own surface. As a result, experience, and the subjective, remains interiorised as a depth that is always in diremption from its objectivised and objectified surface. This is, to say without pulling too many punches, the abdication of materiality to spirit. This is a return, albeit through the rear window, of the Hegelian notion of art as the identitarianisation of the negativity of religion. This is poetry, not as the condition and procedure of truth, but as religious mystification.