Sunday, May 29, 2011

Social Life: Towards (Spinozist) Socio-Political Thought

The socio-political, or the social, has been out of favor for some time now. Perhaps this started with Hannah Arendt’s influential critique, which defined the social as the nebulous space that blurred the necessary distinctions of home and polis. Beyond that, and closer to hand, there was perhaps the dominance, semantic and otherwise, of the ethico-political; a phrase that was initially associated with Foucault but soon spread to various attempts, including those that were anti-Foucauldian, to articulate politics with ethics. Politics would be henceforth founded on ethics, whether it be the ethics of human rights and communicative reason or the infinite alterity of the other. The dominance of this term was followed by the recent revival of the political, understood as prescription, or the axiom of equality, separated from any engagement with economy or society. This evasion of the social at the level of political thought has been doubled with rise of new materialisms that define the material is cosmological or vital terms, throwing out the “historical” or “dialectical” baby with the correlationist bathwater. 
It is for this reason that I was interested to read two books that reexamine the social from the perspective of Spinoza. The first, Manifeste pour une philosophie sociale by Franck Fischbach is directly concerned with returning the social to philosophical discussions but only indirectly concerned with Spinoza (being written by a Spinozist Marxist). The second, Spinoza et les Science Sociales is directly concerned with Spinoza, but less concerned with the social as a philosophical object than the field of social sciences. 

As I have indicated, Fischbach is directly concerned with redefining “social philosophy, “ a project that he takes up against the revival of political philosophy. As Fischbach argues, political philosophy, and he is referring to the dominance of Rawls, is primarily juridical and normative. Against this, social philosophy is situated ambiguously between description and evaluation. Its fundamental concepts such as alienation and domination are both descriptive and normative, and cannot be addressed through the juridical language of rights. This has lead to it not being seen as philosophical at all, which is complicated by the fact that its very object emerged in the nineteenth century, with the instability and alienation produced by the rise of capitalist society. Thus, the refusal of the social, in favor of a political rights and abstract theory of justice, is a refusal to confront the persistence of those problems in modern life, problems that we can no longer believe will be solved by democracy itself, by extending the vote to workers, women, and racial and ethnic minorities. The dominance of political of philosophy can thus be understood as a foreshortening of the powers of critique and liberation. As Marx and Foucault have both argued, rights fail to address the actual powers of capital and society. 

Ultimately, however, the conflict between political and social philosophy is, as Fischbach argues, one of their respective anthropology. The individual of political philosophy is rational, cut off from its natural ignorance by a veil of ignorance. The human individual of social philosophy is a natural and relational individual constituted of needs, affects, and desires. It is in this context that Fischbach makes mention of his work on Spinoza, the social individual is situated in a network of increasing and decreasing powers. However, Fischbach’s work is simultaneously broader and more narrow than a Spinozist consideration of social philosophy: he traces its roots to Rousseau and argues that it includes Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Foucault, but he ultimately settles on “recognition,” from Hegel interpreted by Honneth, as the central category of this new philosophy. It is recognition that makes it possible to address the conditions of the precarious and immigrants, the new alientations and dominations, a transformation of knowledge and politics, description and prescription. 

Spinoza et les sciences sociales edited by Yves Citton et Frédéric Lordon can perhaps be best understood as an attempt to take up Fischbach’s suggestion of the anthropology, or ontology, of social philosophy, an ontology that has suggestive resonances with certain heterodox traditions within the social sciences, namely Tarde, Foucault, and Bourdieu. The different essays focus on everything from a Spinozist account of money to the theoretical similarities with Foucault. Despite this, there is a unifying theme of sorts, that of affects. Spinoza’s thought predates the “discovery of the social,” but his fundamental ontology of relation, of the capacity to affect and be affected, has similarities with social thought. Morevever, his thought is oriented towards the constitution of collectivities and individuals, avoiding the reification of either. Finally, there is in Spinoza a refusal of the division between the natural and the social, often understood as constitutive of the social sciences, a fact that the book affirms in its opening pages and cover illustration. 

It would be difficult to sum up much of the book’s essays, and I have already mentioned Negri’s contribution, but the most interesting are the one’s that try to think through the gulf between Spinoza and the present, generating a Spinozist account of money and the contemporary economies of affect. Such investigations involve a transformation of philosophy (as well as social sciences): an engagement with the social involves both a destruction of the ontologies of rational autonomy and the construction of new knowledge, a construction which requires conflict and the conjuncture as its condition. This is after all one of Negri’s fundamental points about Spinoza, about the central role of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in its constitution. I offer his remark from The Savage Anomaly as a conclusion: 

After the development of such a radical pars destruens, after the identification of a solid point of support by which the metaphysical perspective re-opens, the elaboration of the pars construens requires a practical moment. The ethics could not be constituted in a project, in the metaphysics of the mode and of reality, if it were not inserted into history, into politics, into the phenomenology of a single and collective life: if it were not to derive new nourishment from that engagement.

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