Saturday, September 22, 2018

(In)finitude's Score: On André Tosel

In some sense this is a belated response to André Tosel's passing last year. When Tosel died I was only vaguely aware of his name, I may have read an essay on Spinoza or Balibar here or there, but only knew his work by reputation. It was the initial wave of responses to Tosel's death especially this interview on Revue Période that got me interested in reading Tosel. I started by reading Spinoza ou l'autre (in)finitude and have gone through the little Emancipations aujourd'hui? Études sur Marx (et Engels), Du Retour du Religieux, and Le Marxisme du 20e Siècle, with a few more on the way.

Starting with Spinoza the first thing that struck me was his attempt to think through the conjunction of infinity and finitude. In a brief blogpost I tried to suggest that Spinoza and Marx offer another way of thinking finitude outside of the moribund tradition of Heidegger. Tosel's concerns are somewhat different, stressing that Spinoza rejects both the finitude of humility in the face of the divine and its emerging opposite in the infinitude of enlightenment rationality. As Tosel writes,

"Spinoza unites somehow two traits that are incompatible in all other philosophies. He corrects one conception by the other through a confrontation that exceeds them both. On the one hand, he distances himself from a conception of finitude forbidding man any fantasy of mastery and referring him to his mortal condition and his passionate servitude, a conception that is generally a property of religions which found their authority and domination on this weakness. On the other hand, he redefines an active and productive conception of this finitude; it has become a means for man to affirm and increase his power to think and act properly, a conception peculiar to the modern and humanist tradition, sustained above all by the Enlightenment and by philosophical idealism. But Spinoza rejects the Promethean pretensions that make man a kingdom within a kingdom. This is a strange philosophy that unites the infinite and the finite and finds no reason to despair or hope in the true idea that nature is indifferent to the ends that man proposes, but that does not prevent man, like any other mode, from striving to realize his causal power."(All translations here are mine).

Bracketing for a moment this as a reading of Spinoza, this passage sets up two intersecting problems. First, there is a history of different conjunctions of infinite and finite. The intersection of Spinoza's conjunction is itself historically specific, Spinoza's criticism of a theology that celebrates ignorance, humility, and obedience and his critique of humanity understood as a kingdom within a kingdom are aimed at both sides of the conflict between reason and enlightenment. This conflict is no longer our conflict, and thus it would follow that infinity and finitude take on different formulations at different historical moments. This leads to the second problem, if the conflict between infinity and finitude is in some sense a transhistorical reality, reappearing in different figures of infinity and finitude, then this must in some sense reflect a fundamental anthropological condition that splits humanity between generic equivalence of capacity and its specific articulation. (This is in some ways similar to Paolo Virno

First, it is worth asking what is the current articulation of finitude and infinity? With respect to the current conjuncture, Tosel defines globalization as the conjunction of these two tendencies. 

"Capitalist globalization appears thus as a process that reunites incompatible extremes. It is an oxymoron realized. It is presented, in one aspect, as universalization of economic, social, and political processes, that are supposed to represent the nec plus ultra of history (democratic regimes, free enterprise, global market, internet, prison). Its other aspect is a megamachine that fragments, hierarchizes, eliminates, all that is its "other" that it encounters."

This conjunction is not without its subjective effects. As Tosel writes,

"Between these two poles are deployed all of the human variations which go from the maximum of social power to its minimum...Global capitalism tends to unify in a contradictory manner heterogenous populations that is produced by transforming them into subjects of infinite consumption and perpetual indebtedness until death, while often refusing them the satisfaction of basic needs."

What Tosel identifies as the neoliberal imaginary is caught between two poles, an abstract rationality geared towards ceaseless and undifferentiated accumulation of value, and an other reduced to the concrete specificity of its conditions. This is why despite its supposed indifference to cultural or anthropological divisions neoliberal ideologies cannot help but divide humanity into the rational and the irrational, markets and tribes. Or, as Etienne Balibar writes, "At the moment at which humankind becomes economically and, to some extent, culturally ‘united,’ it is violently divided ‘biopolitically." 

These two sides of the imaginary, map onto the two sides of labor in capital, abstract and concrete, undifferentiated activity and its concrete specificity.  Beyond that it is worth noting how these two sides of humanity, abstract potential and concrete actuality, are deployed in various debates and situations. How some in society are always identified with their potential to change, transform, and do more, while others are reduced to their past, their record, what they have already done. This line does not just cut across the labor process but across the racial and gender divides of society. 

The question remains, however, what would be a way out of this bind, especially since it is a generic anthropological, even ontological condition, to be caught between infinite potential and concrete specificity. In Études sur Marx (et Engels) Tosel argues for what he calls a "finite communism." A finite communism works from the premise of the "double mediation" of the relations of productions by the forces of production and the forces by the relations (or poiesis by praxis and praxis by poiesis, making by doing and doing by making). In other words there is no purely rational productivity unencumbered by social relations, and there are no social relations unaffected by their material conditions. We are always dealing with both technical and social constraints. This not only dispenses with any ideal of communism as the full realization of rationality, something believed today only by neo-Hegelians and Badiou, but it also would be a way to integrate environmental thinking into communism. Tosel does not mention it, but part of our finitude is the finitude of the planet and its natural processes. If a finite communism is one that raises the very question of being in common then it must do so in a way that engages both human finitude, our vulnerability which is attached to that of the planet and the life it sustains, and infinity, our capacity to exceed and transform our conditions. 

To turn from Marx and back to Spinoza, it seems to me that we not only need a finite communism, one that dispenses with the fantasies of infinite productivity or a purely rational society, but we need to counter both the deep seated ideologies of finitude, the racists fantasies of unsurmountable tribal divides, and the prevailing ideologies of the infinite, the fantasies of rational markets and infinite growth. We need a new Tractatus Theologico-Politicus that critically engages the spontaneous philosophies of the market, and the neo-racisms of cultural differences. 

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