Sunday, July 24, 2011

Red Spinozism: Towards and Against a Spinozist Theory of Alienation

It is possible to understand the interest in Marxist Spinozism, Spinozist Marxism, or, as Alberto Toscano once put it, Red Spinozism, as a kind of funhouse mirror, where the concepts from one philosopher take on new shapes and forms when reflected through the other. The two most well known of Marx’s concepts that have made it through this hall of mirrors are ideology, which has been refracted through Spinoza’s theory of imagination and the first kind of knowledge in Althusser, and living labor, which has been expanded to an ontological level of production through Negri’s reading of the productive nature of reason and desire. Moreover, Spinoza’s concepts of structural or immanent causality have been read through the mode of production and the multitude has been read through class struggle and the autonomist hypothesis. I hastily list these different concept refractions and transformations in order to stress that has been absent, namely alienation.

This is perhaps due to the influence of Althusser on the reception of Spinoza, Spinoza became synonymous with the rejection of humanism, but it is also perhaps an effect of the history of translation. Alexandre Matheron’s Individu et Commuaté chez Spinoza has not been translated into English. Matheron’s text offers one of the more interesting and provocative redefinitions of alienation in his reading of Spinoza. Matheron’s reading is oriented by the Appendix to Part One of the Ethics, what Althusser calls the “matrix of every possible theory of ideology.” Matheron takes his bearings from the two objects of Spinoza’s critique in the Appendix: the first, and most well know, is of course the anthropomorphic conception of God, a good that acts towards certain ends, ends which match with or thwart are own; the second, is that of the idea that objects, things, are intrinsically good or bad. Both of these inadequate ideas stem from the same cause, from the way in which we conscious of our appetite but ignorance of the causes of things. This leads to a way in which our appetite, our desire, becomes the way we make sense of the world, projecting it onto everything we encounter and the cosmos itself. Matheron describes this as follows (forgive my sloppy translation). 

“The progress of consciousness is subject to a double alienation. On the one hand there is an “earthly alienation” [aliénation mondaine] , that can be called economic, provided that we give this word the largest possible sense: by which we unconditionally attach value to particular objects that surround us, valueing them as positive or negative, which we consider to be "goods" (worldly goods) or as "bad,” and which we will now devote our lives to pursuing and fleeing. On the other hand an ideological alienation, both cause and effect of the first: that by which we transpose our passions and beliefs into an ontology, developing an inverted vision of the world, a vision outlined by the traditional view of he cosmos: a universal teleogy and heirarchy of goods, which gives a privileged to man, and, as the keystone of the system, an undefined God. It is this double alienation, which will control the whole course of our emotional life.” 

There are two interesting points about this. First, and this is part of Matheron’s entire critique of teology, or finalism, the idea of the explanatory power of final purposes in nature. Matheron argues that there are multiple versions of this idea of finalism, from religion which sees the purposes of a God underlying the universe, to metaphysics, which has as its twin objects the free subject and the object with intrinsic qualities, the good which we strive for. This broad spectrum of ideas stands in sharp contrast to Spinoza’s genealogy of the constructed and constructive desire, the conatus. As Spinoza writes, “it is clear that we neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it” (EIIIP9Schol). Desire is shifted from the object and its qualities as well as from the subject and its interests to the history of encounters that have shaped our desires, from final to efficient and immanent causes. Second, Matheron’s “double alienation” makes possible an understanding of alienation in terms of both objects, the goods that we see as having value, and the ultimate purpose of the world, religion. Matheron adds an affective component to this alienation: for him superstition, the religion of gods and sacrifices, is dominated by an affective economy of fear, and metaphysics is a serene religion, a religion that contemplates its god rather than expecting them it to act. Thus, it is possible to see the way in which uncertainty and fear in the first alienation, the alienation of goods, reinforces the second alienation, the alienation in God. In Matheron we can see the basis for a theory for the mutual reinforcing ideologies of the market and God. To quote Ken Lay, “I believe in God and I believe in Free Markets.” 

Alienation for Matheron is nearly synonymous with Spinoza’s definition of inadequate ideas, whenever we fail to grasp the cause of striving, the source of images, we are alienated, projecting our forces onto something else. 

This interest in a Spinozist theory of alienation, from Matheron and others, stands in sharp contrast to Pascal Sévérac’s argument in Le Devenir actif chez Spinoza. Sévérac argues that Spinoza’s ontology makes alienation, which always relies on a difference between essence and existence, impossible (Sévérac is equally critical of Deleuze’s idea of force separated from what it can do, which raises the question as to how far this language of forces was from alienation in the first place). For Sévérac all power is actualized, desire is essence here and now. Thus, there can be no alienation, no separation, just different actualizations of power, different strivings of this essence. Sévérac’s book raises many isssues, too many to go into here, but to reduce it to one provocation would be as follows. Sévérac realizes that his reading blurs the distinction between passive and active, inadequate and adequate, making it difficult to understand an immanent distinction between the two. Sévérac turns to Canguilhelm, towards his natural theory of norms, to make this distinction. For Canghuilhelm, pathology is not an absence of norms, but a reduction of normativity. A sick person cannot create new norms, cannot actively transform his or herself. Health, or activity, is not a norm but the capacity to redefine norms. 

There are two advantages to Sévérac’s reading. First, he separates inactivity from any theory of sadness, pointing out that is the passive joyful affects, the joys that contingently befall us, that poses the greatest threat to becoming active. This has always been the problem with the idea of alienation: it relies too heavily on some affective feeling of oppression, which seems increasingly absent in contemporary society. A consumer society could thus be described as a society of passive joyful affects, of the constant promise of joys that will come from the outside, from the purchase of this or that thing. Second, becoming active is then not the restoration of some essense, of some putative human nature, but the capacity to transform nature.


ignatious said...

interesting! I had the same problem in very different cultural domain as part of my PhD research. I was talking about enthusiasts. Active enthusiasm as a function of meeting 'challenges' and producing 'know how'. Passive enthusiasm as an assumption of media-directed challenges and the reception of know-how. I used Weber's notion of charisma to describe the organisational structure of primarily passive enthusiast scenes arranged around spectacles.

Sonja Lavaert said...

Thank you, and for the other texts on the blog that I discover now. Very interesting!

Joel Glidden said...

The Severac thing is interesting, but to me it seems much less "Spinozist" than, say, Negri or Deleuze, and in Spinoza's philosophy in general. I still don't really fully grasp Spinoza's ontology or metaphysics, but I understand it as being that there's negation of an individual essence insofar as an individual is determined, which I think Spinoza said himself specifically in a letter somewhere. Does Severac see affects of joy as being part of an individual's existence, but sad affects are not "part" of the individual in some way? And if so, then wouldn't that be a big deviation of Spinoza's ideas? (I've only read The Ethics, Practical Philosophy, and I'm halfway through The Savage Anomaly right now)

unemployed negativity said...

Contrary to what Hegel thought determination is not negation, every thing, every modal thing is determined. A thing is defined as much by its affects as its striving, its joyful and sad affects. There is a difference between its auto-determination and its determination by others. This is the only difference that Severac allows. What he rejects, and argues is not Spinozist, is any distinction between virtual and actual, between a things potential and actuality. Everything is always actualized.

Joel Glidden said...

Right, okay, I think I get it a lot more now. So Severac is rejecting the idea of alienation completely, and replacing it with Canguilhelm's theory of norms? If so, that definitely makes a lot of sense. I can't remember what I was thinking before. By the way, I apologize if it's inappropriate to solicit you to explain this stuff to me, but I found it extremely interesting. I'd really like to read that link to the Severac thing, but I have no French, and Google Translate only created a "close but no cigar" kind of situation.