Friday, August 08, 2014

Taking Form: Morfino and Zourbachvili Encounter Spinoza

The translation of Vittorio Morfino's Plural Temporality: Transindividuality and the Aleatory Between Spinoza and Althusser deserves to be considered an event in its own right. Morfino is not very well known in the Anglo-American world, but those who have heard him speak at the annual Historical Materialism conference in London know how important his work is to Marxism, Spinoza, and materialism more broadly. Morfino has the rather singular talent of drawing together seemingly incongruous streams of thought into relation. Morfino is not to content to remain with the apparent points of opposition, nor does he simply declare some secret unity between disparate thinkers. In one of my favorite conference presentations, I remember Morfino declaring that the presence of Spinoza in Marx's thought was nothing but a "scholarly residue," the notebooks on the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and other references nothing more than the dutiful work of a German philosopher in the 19th century, but that this of course makes the connection between Marx and Spinoza interesting. Since the contours of this connection cannot not be found in the typical anxiety of influence, it can only be invented in connections and relations of tendencies and presuppositions. (For examples of this invention of the Marx/Spinoza encounter see Negri, Lordon, Fischbach, etc.) 

Within the terrain of post-Althusserian Spinozism perhaps the most glaring point of tension is between Spinoza's work and Althusser's posthumously published "aleatory materialism." While it is possible to see the connections between Spinoza's immanent causality and Althusser's structural causality, and Althusser's famous essay on ISA's is pretty much an application of the Appendix to Part One of the Ethics to post-68 France, it is harder to connect Spinoza's sub specie aeternitatis to Althusser's philosophy of the encounter. Such a connection would seem to be the product of a delusion. 

Morfino squares this particular circle through two philosophical interventions. First, Morfino connects Althusser's differential temporality from Reading Capital to Spinoza's idea of indefinite duration. This connection stresses the necessarily different times of every finite thing, and thus of every relation. "A social formation is thus an interweaving of different times, requiring reflection on the displacement and torsion created by the articulation of the different levels of the structure." Spinoza's redefinition of essences, of essences understood as relations, relations which require extrinsic relations, other bodies and affects to exist, is also a redefinition of temporality. Everything that exists is singular in its duration as well as its existence. The "present" or the conjuncture is nothing other than conjunction of these different durations, different times, effecting and transforming each other. Althusser's idea of different times then receives clarification and grounding from Spinoza, while, in turn, Althusser's thought makes it possible to think the eternal not as a static moment but the relation of different times. As Morfino writes, 

"The hermeneutic circle has come full turn: Althusser's outline renders intelligible Spinoza's theory of temporality, while receiving an ontological foundation from this intelligibility in return. And yet, this circle is not a pure, zero-sum game of interpretation. The game creates a displacement; it creates a definite distance from the theological temporality into which Spinoza's interpretation of eternity often relapses." 

This idea of multiple times, of the present, as the relation of different times, has as its corollary a rereading of the idea of encounter. It is not a matter of thinking encounter as an event, as a kind of rupture, but of the primacy of the encounter to form. The encounter is not something that happens once, but rather it is the very fact of the primacy of relations. As Morfino argues, the central thinker of aleatory materialism is not Machiavelli or Lucretius (and certainly not Heidegger) but perhaps Darwin; it is Darwin that makes it possible to think reality as the conjunction of multiple encounters without a teleology or order. It is a matter of thinking the order and connection  of nature not as some linear causality, but as the intersection of multiple causalities. It is a matter of thinking of reality as relation. 

François Zourabichvili's Spinoza: Une physique de la pensée also engages with a rethinking of the question of form in Spinoza. For Zourabichvili Spinoza's innovation with respect to relation has to do with his redefinition of individual body as being a relation of motion of rest. This not only breaks with hylomorphic conceptions that understood as individuation as a relation of form and matter, but of the entire conception of the soul caught up in such definitions. As the title suggests Zourabichvili is less interested in Spinoza's redefinition of bodies than what this redefinition means for thinking of mind, of thought. If the soul is no longer the form of matter, it too must be a relation of motion and rest. The mind is only an idea of the body, sharing its basic relations and structure. Or, put more plainly, mind is nothing other than a series of relations of ideas. Some of these ideas are singular, reflecting particular relations, and others are ideas necessitated by other ideas, reflecting more general relations. The mind, like the body, is nothing but constant relation of relations, constantly being nourished by its encounters with other ideas. 

Morfino and Zourbachvili demonstrate that Spinoza is a paradoxical philosopher. The supposed philosopher's philosopher whose concepts actually make possible a radical redefinition of the very ideas of essence, relation, body, and mind. Spinoza in this sense is a radical pars destruens of the received vocabulary of philosophy. However, this promise poses its own particular challenge for the very practice of philosophy. It is not enough to simply assert "relations, contingency, encounter," against the old metaphysics of substances, necessity, and forms, but any real knowledge of relations must depart philosophical speculation to actively grasp the relations that produce the current encounters, the ideas that produce ideas. On this reading Spinoza is not just a complement to Marx, the ontology the latter was lacking, but another version of the same intellectual imperative, to think the complex relations that actually constitute the world. 

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