Thursday, May 22, 2008

Matters of Substance

I will admit from the beginning that I am not a Lacanian. I am minimally competent in Lacan. I have read him, sure, the selections from Ecrits, The Four Fundamental Concepts, and even The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, but all of that was along time ago. Nowadays I tend to avoid him not out of some fundamental disagreement but more out of an acute awareness of how much work it would take to actually engage Lacan again.

So it was with some trepidation that I picked up A. Kiarina Kordela’s $urplus: Spinoza, Lacan. Not that I think that the project of the book is totally unfounded. As the book suggests on the first page, Spinoza’s groundbreaking concept of immanent causality has, especially since Althusser’s invocation of it in Reading Capital, been inseparable from the concept of differential causality. So, perhaps, the encounter between Spinoza and Lacan has been a long time in coming.

The book takes as its central point of interpretation Spinoza’s difficult remark in Ethics II Prop 43, “As the light makes both itself and the darkness plain, so truth is the standard both of itself and of the false.” Kordela sees this statement as the basis for a contradiction in Spinoza’s thought. A contradiction between Spinoza’s ontology, which subordinates every final cause to a series of efficient and ultimately immanent causes (we call good what we have been determined to desire), and the requirements of human action that necessarily require some goal, some final cause. In Kordela’s Lacanian terms this becomes the necessity of a fiction. Thus to return to Spinoza’s somewhat puzzling statement, truth’s relation to its opposite, the false, becomes a matter of intimate interrelation. Truth is structured like a fiction.

Kordela illustrates this through Deleuze’s retelling of the story of the fall of Adam and Eve. As Deleuze stresses it is incoherent to think that God forbid Adam to eat the apple; rather it is necessary to understand the apparent injunction as a simple statement of causal effect—“in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Kordela argues that Spinoza (and Deleuze’s) contradiction has to do with living and dying as ends, as final causes, the former of which is more desireable. What Spinoza (and Deleuze) overlook according to Kordela is the unavoidable nature of the final cause, the unavoidable nature of a fiction. This criticism seems to miss the mark on several points. First, Spinoza addresses this “contradiction” in the preface to part four of the Ethics. As Spinoza argues despite the fact that good and evil indicate nothing in terms of things, tell us nothing about the world, it is necessary to retain these terms practically, with respect to some model or ideal of existence, an ideal that necessarily contains living. More to the point, Kordela’s general criticism that Spinoza fails to recognize the “cognitive dimension” of fiction seems to overlook the status of fiction, or the imaginary in Spinoza political works as well as the Ethics.

Those are the books limitations. The books strength lies in the way in which it reinterprets immanent causality, drawing lines connecting Spinoza and Marx. What Kordela focuses on is the tripartite structure in which Spinoza immanent causality is God (or Substance) expressed in terms of the modes of thought and extension, three terms in which the first exists only in its differential articulation into the other two. The equivalent of this in Marx is Surplus value which exists only in the form of exchange values, which are taken as signs, and use values, objects of utility. (The order and connection of ideas and things.) The structure of being is as follows according to Kordela…1) being as the imaginary univocity of abstract thought, that is, as simulacrum (exchange value or signifier); 2) Beings as the multiplicity of beings (use value or physical beings); and 3) the primary, transcendent, yet immanent, differential (non)-substance that at once institutes the above duplicity and is the effect thereof (surplus).”

I have to say that there is something clever about this idea of surplus value as substance, as substance that exists only in terms of its effects (which are also causes). First, it is not something that I would have thought of, and it does an interesting job of drawing together Spinoza and Marx’s insistence that thought is part of the world. Secondly it insists on an ontological dimension of capital, capital transforms being. It is this last point that is also a bit vexing, as much as the author suggests that an immanent ontology de-ontologizes ontology, rendering it historical and worldly rather than transcendent, it is hard to see this as nothing other than a fixed structure in which only the slots change. There would then be different surpluses, different excess immanent elements, from God to capital, structuring the relationship between thought and being. I would argue that this immanent ontology is not immanent enough, it must take the turn (arguably) that Spinoza’s work takes in part three and four of the ethics, turning towards desire, affects, etc. So much work needs to be done in understanding the intertwining connections between capital and desire. What the book ultimately lacks is something that Fischbach’s book does well articulating, is a connection between Marx and Spinoza at the level of practice, at the level of their concepts of labor and conatus.

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