Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Real as Relation

There are several lines from Hegel that are not only cited often, but also modified to become the basis for new statements. I am thinking of the famous injunction to consider the absolute not just as substance but as subject, which Badiou transforms into demand to “conceive of imperialist society not just as substance, but also as subject,” or of the assertion that the rational is real, which Muriel Combes rewrites as “the relational is real, the real is relational.” It is the former, which appears in Combes short book on Simondon, that interests me now.

Combes remark follows an important insight of Simondon’s, that individuation is not just a process of the constitution of things, an ontogenesis, but of the constitution of thoughts, which are also individuated through operations that transform an inchoate backdrop of thought into discrete concepts. Against a tradition that has assumed that the individual is given, in terms of both individual things and concepts, Simondon argues that both thoughts and beings must be constituted and sustained through an operation, that is a relation with pre-individual singularities and metastable conditions that function as their outside. Ultimately Combes offers a “mash-up” of sorts of Hegel’s statement, substituting relations for rational, and Spinoza’s equally famous proposition seven of Part II of the Ethics, which states that the order and connection of ideas and things are the same. Ideas and things are both relations, not just in their relation to each other, but intrinsically as well; ideas are relations and things are relations.

It is possible to situate Combes remark alongside at least two others, which cross a similar terrain. First, and most immediately, there is Vittorio Morfino’s assertion that Spinoza’s thought is an ontology of relation, rather than a metaphysics of substance. Of course Morfino is going against the dominant tradition of interpretation here, years of commentary that have focused on the stable presence of substance underneath the vacillations of the modes. However, it is precisely this division between primary substance and accidents that Spinoza’s thought refuses. There is no practical division between primary and secondary aspects, between what is intrinsic to a thing and its extrinsic relations. Spinoza defines the essence of a thing in such a way that it cannot be separated from its accidents. Desire is the essence of man; desire which is nothing other than the historically constituted articulation of the conatus, of a particular striving. A thing, a body, a mind, an individual, is nothing other than a relationship with its outside.

Second, Etienne Balibar has argued that Marx’s critique of ideology in The German Ideology has as its corollary a concept of the “real as relation.” The specific quote is: “The materialist critique of ideology, for its part corresponds to the analysis of the real as relation, as a structure of practical relations.” As Balibar notes, Marx does not just denounce ideology in the name of the actually existing material relations of production, in which case the relations would be the truth of the fiction of ideology, but attempts to demonstrate how ideology emerges through those relations, constituted by the division between mental and manual labor. Thus, it is not possible to simply juxtapose an ideological conception to a real condition since that real condition, the structure of material relations of production and reproduction, includes ideology.

There is nothing particularly unique or particularly unified about these three different texts. They are held together only by the tenuous threads of memory, as they all happen to be books or articles I have rea. Beyond that one could make the argument that philosophy has been trying to think the real of relation, or reality as a relation for a long time. After all, this is perhaps part of the meaning of Hegel’s idea of the absolute as subject. Dialectics, structuralism, and so-called post-structuralism have all attempted to pinpoint the particular consistency and logic of relations. If anything justifies this post it is the particular impetus that Combes’ reading of Simondon gives this idea: it is not just that what is exists as a relation, but thought is a relation as well. Thought is not outside of the relations that it is trying to grasp, but is thoroughly immanent to them and constituted by those relations. It seems to me that in this series of clippings and citations there is something like the basis for a materialist redefinition of philosophy.

On a similar point, and as a follow up to my previous post on “The Production of Stupidity,” I would recommend Yves Citton’s “Noo-politique spinoziste ? (Recension de deux livres récents sur Spinoza, de Lorenzo Vinciguerra et de Pascal Sévérac)” The article, which is in part a book review, attempts to bridge the gap between Spinozist discussions of the materiality of thought and Lazzarato’s work on noo-politics. The article ends with a discussion of the particular production of stupidity in contemporary society. As Citton argues stupidity is produced when an event or happening is situated outside the common, outside the dense network of relations that constitute it, and rendered incomprehensible in its singularity. To which I would add, in thinking about the forces of mass media, that such events are then related only to a moral dimension. After all it was Spinoza who taught us that moral understanding of phenomena, of God’s supposed law, tell us nothing; they are the effect and cause of ignorance.

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