Thursday, September 17, 2015

Conceptually Barking Dogs: Between Spinoza and the Frankfurt School

This post will be illustrated by pictures of my 
dog, Bento. *
(This picture was not staged. He stole this book)

"The concept of the dog doesn't bark" --Spinoza 

Idit Dobbs-Weinstein's Spinoza's Critique of Religion and its Heirs: Marx, Benjamin, and Adorno is a book that challenges many commonly held conceptions. The first is in the title itself, which suggests a strong relation where many, myself included saw at best a non-relation and at worst a repudiation of Spinoza by the Frankfurt School. Spinoza often appears less as a precursor for the Frankfurt School than as part of what the latter consider to be the dark side of the Enlightenment. I am thinking specifically of the passage of the Dialectic of the Enlightenment which states, "Spinoza's proposition: 'the endeavor of preserving oneself is the first and only basis of virtue," contains the true maxim of all Western civilization, in which the religious and philosophical differences of the bourgeoisie are laid to rest." It is thus somewhat surprising to see Dobbs-Weinstein recast a line of descent moving from Spinoza through Marx to Benjamin and Adorno. This reordering of the various philosophical precursors follows Dobbs-Weinstein's argument larger argument for the repressed materialist (islamic and judaic) Aristoltean tradition. 
I am not going to address either of these claims here. Both of which must wait for me to finish the book and write an official review (which I am scheduled to do). What I want to write about here follows a remark that is less controversial but nonetheless provocative. Dobbs-Weinstein writes,

First, if a historical materialist dialectics is to be critical, it must simultaneously be a reflection of concrete material institutions and practices and of the ideology or forms of consciousness to which they give rise. For both Marx and Spinoza, this is as true of the philosophers' lofty ideas/ideals as it is of the "vulgar masses." Briefly and explicitly stated, throughout his writings, oppressive material conditions, be they religious, political, or economic, and the alienated forms of consciousness reflecting them can, without exaggeration, be said to be nothing other than nineteenth expression of Spinoza's repeated claim in the Ethics that "mind is nothing but an idea of body," stated explicitly in historical terms. 

Bento contemplating dog art 

This passage asserts in a different manner, and from a different philosophical angle, something that I have called with a touch of scandal a "Spinozist dialectic." I have hinted at this in two places. First, in writing on Lordon and Citton, I have thrown out the phrase that the "Order and Connection of Ideology is the same as the Order and Connection of Exploitation". Second, and less directly, I have suggested that Balibar and Macherey's "other scene" constitutes a similar thought.  Between the two we get both identity and difference, the same order and connection combined with the assertion that bodies determine only bodies and ideas only ideas. Of course everything depends on how those two things, identity and difference, the connection between bodies and ideas, and their divergence and displacement are understood. 

Bento and his beloved rope toy 

To return then to the Frankfurt School, and its anti-Spinozism, it is worth noting that in his inaugural address at the Institute for Social Research Max Horkheimer spells out the general problem of the institute for social research as follows: 

Not just within social philosophy in the narrower sense, but in sociology as well as in general philosophy, discussions concerning society have slowly but ever more clearly crystallized around one question which is not just of current relevance, but which is indeed the contemporary version of the oldest and most important set of philosophical problems: namely, the question of the connection between the economic life of society, the psychical development of individuals, and the changes in the realm of culture in the narrower sense (to which belong not only the so-called intellectual elements, such as science, art, and religion, but also law, customs, fashion, public opinion, sports, leisure activities, lifestyle, etc.)...

The relation between economy, psyche, and culture return us to a fairly classical set of options of conceiving mind and body, spirit and matter. As Horkheimer states: 

It can thus be asserted that economy and Spirit are different expressions of one and the same essence; this would be bad Spinozism. Or, alternatively, one maintains that ideas or “spiritual” contents break into history and determine the action of human beings. The ideas are primary, while material life, in contrast, is secondary or derivative; world and history are rooted in Spirit. This would be an abstractly and thus badly understood Hegel. Or one believes, contrariwise, that the economy as material being is the only true reality; the psyche of human beings, personality as well as law, art, and philosophy, are to be completely derived from the economy, or mere reflections of the economy. This would be an abstractly and thus badly understood Marx.

Bento at home

Horkheimer's assertion is less a repudiation of Spinoza (not to mention Marx or Hegel) than a warning of what each becomes in one-sided or reductive version. Following "Omnis determinatio est negatio" Horkheimer's negations of the bad versions of Hegel, Spinoza, and Marx sets the task of what a materialist dialectic should be, serving as a counterpoint to Althusser's articulation of this unholy trinity. It is a matter of thinking simultaneously determination and irreducibility, causal connection and difference of expression. Ideas are nothing other than their material conditions grasped differently, but the difference, the difference of their expression does make a difference. It seems to me that Spinoza offers something important in this regard, and that Spinoza's real contribution to Marxism is not his anti-teleology, his conception of ideology, or of productive power (potentia), but his way of thinking through the identity and nonidentity of things and ideas. 

* Bento is my newly adopted canine friend. He may merit his own blog post someday (perhaps a follow up to some of the early writings on dogs on this blog). For now he stands as a reminder that as much as the concept dog does not bark, the idea of a dog pales in comparison to the wagging, licking, and barking reality. 

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