Thursday, May 31, 2007

Spinoza and Marx: Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together

It is no secret that I consider Marx and Spinoza to be “two great tastes that taste great together.” I also really like Reese's peanut butter cups, and have fond memories of their old commercials, which involved people walking down the street eating from jars of peanut butter only to collide with people eating chocolate bars. This is why jars of peanut butter should only be consumed in the kitchen or possibly while watching television. It is just too dangerous to eat peanut butter in public. I consider pushing this analogy to extremes (“hey, your immanent ontology is in my socio-historical critique!”), but I decide to spare you that, dear reader.

One of the things that interests me about the Spinoza/Marx intersection is that it is blatantly out of step with the two dominant acceptable ways of doing philosophy: the examination of influences and the construction of oppositions. There is not a real relationship of influence between Spinoza and Marx, as Vittorio Morfini put it, Marx’s scattered references to Spinoza are for the most part nothing more than a scholarly residue. It is equally difficult, if not impossible, to posit Marx against Spinoza, or Spinoza against Marx, the terrain is just too different. So, any writing on Marx and Spinoza must in some sense be an invention of new relations in philosophy, an exploration of virtual points of contact rather than a policing of identity (influence) and difference (oppositions).

Thus I was intrigued by La production des hommes: Marx avec Spinoza by Franck Fischbach. Fischbach makes it clear that his book is not so much on the actual relations between the two, but an attempt to read Marx in the light of Spinoza, to use Spinoza as a catalyst produce philosophical effects in Marx. For the most part this takes the form of several points of intersection, or similarity such as the fact that both Spinoza and Marx argue against a division between society and nature, insisting on their complex unity.

One of the sustained themes in the book is a reexamination of “alienation.” Fischbach argues that the trend has been to equate Marx with Hegel on this point; in this view alienation is synonymous with objectification. Against this view Fischbach argues that alienation is subjectification, the loss of objectivity, of a connection to the world to the point where the individual sees him or herself as a “kingdom within a kingdom.” One of the strong points of connection that Fischbach makes between between Spinoza and Marx is that the both see individuality, the subject as autonomous individual, as both an illusion and a point of impotence rather than power. However, Marx primarily examines the conditions of this illusion, the isolated individual as a product of bourgeois society, and Spinoza deals with its effects, both affective and intellectual. While this is an interesting way of looking at things in that it makes Spinoza and Marx out to be complementary, it does not strike me as completely accurate. It is true that in the Grundrisse Marx argues that it is paradoxically only in the most developed form of a society that the isolated individual appears. However, it is equally true that Spinoza provides and account of radically different conditions for the same sort of perspective, namely that “men are born ignorant of the causes of things…and are conscious of their appetite.” Thus, it is probably more accurate to say that Spinoza and Marx give different accounts of the constitution of subjectivity. I am not saying that Spinoza and Marx are necessarily opposed, as metaphysics to history, just that relating their different accounts of subjectivity requires more than a simple assertion of a division of labor in terms of conditions and effects.

In his reading of Marx, Fischbach places a great deal of importance on the separation from the individual from the means of production. For Fischabch this separation is a loss of “objectivity” of a connection to nature and sociality, which in a Marxist-Spinozian perspective are two different perspectives on the same thing: nature being only accessible through specific modes of engagement with nature and society being nothing other than a particular modification of nature. For Fischbach the modern metaphysical problem of the subject, as a subject set apart from an object, is not only alien to Marx and Spinoza, but is something their philosophy explains. It is a particular imaginary produced by particular social relations.

My criticism here is not of the metaphysical importance that Fischbach ascribes to separation but the political importance. He can only see the reduction of the individual to subject, to a subjective substrate of labor power, as a form of impotence. It seems to me that, as Negri and others have pointed out, that the separation of labor from the means of production also entails paradoxical power in its flexibility and cooperation. In fact cooperation is absent from Fischbach’s understanding of Marx, as he takes separation from the means of production to by synonymous with isolation.

In my view the strongest chapter of the book is the last one, “Métaphysique et Production.” In this chapter Fischbach takes up Heidegger’s criticism of production, or communism, as a realization of the west’s metaphysical focus on the subject. For Fischbach this criticism fails to address the specific way in which Spinoza and Marx think of production. “The fundamental point common to these two philosophers is that they are at one and the same time thinkers of production and radical critics of subjectivity, in fact these two aspects are perfectly indissociable from each other” (pg. 136, my crappy translation). Neither Spinoza nor Marx thinks of production as the productive activity of a subject, transcending and determining the process. Rather, for both these thinkers production is an entirely immanent process, in which what produces is itself produced. This is Fischbach’s version of “Deus sive natura,” and, in the case of Marx, of subjects being produced by the very social relations that they produce. The emphasis on production is not the realization of a humanism, rather it is only by expanding production, encompassing nature and subjectivity, that one can escape humanism. As Deleuze and Guattari write, “Everything is production.”

So, in the end, Fischbach’s book is useful both in terms of the how it practices philosophy and what it says. Thus, I do not feel that I wasted my time in reading it, even though it has nothing to do with the courses I should be preparing or the writing that I am working on.

1 comment:

fred said...

Great review. I'm glad to see that someone cares about Fischbach out of France.