Monday, October 01, 2018

Logic of Alternation: From Mind and Body to Material Conditions and Ideology

Presented at McGill September 2018

This is a longer version of something I posted here, presented for a discussion of Chantal Jaquet's Affects, Actions, and Passions in Spinoza. 

I intend to approach Chantal Jaquet’s interpretation of the mind and body in Spinoza somewhat obliquely by examining its possible implications for a social theory. In doing so I am following a fairly recent tendency to view Spinoza as not just an important political thinker, but also one whose account of affects, imagination, and knowledge offers profound insight on social and political life. I am thinking here explicitly of Yves Citton and Frédérique Lordon's Spinoza et les science sociales, but also more broadly Jaquet’s own work on transclasses which uses a Spinozist anthropology and ontology to examine the reproduction and nonreproduction of social relations. That is not the book that we are here to discuss, so I would like to begin my remarks on Affects, Actions, and Passions in Spinoza by putting forward something of an axiom, every interpretation of the relation of mind and body in Spinoza necessary has profound implications for how one thinks of social and political relations. 

Much of the interpretation of minds and bodies in Spinoza hinges on Proposition Seven of Part Two of the Ethics, “The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things.” One interpretation of this proposition that has held particular sway of contemporary Spinoza scholarship is what is called parallelism, the order and connection of things and ideas are envisioned as almost two parallel lines, always identical but never touching. As Jaquet notes, one of the most prominent advocates for the thesis of parallelism is Gilles Deleuze. For Deleuze parallelism is the necessary name of the univocity of things and ideas, as the two being two expressions of being without hierarchy or transcendence. “By his strict parallelism Spinoza refuses any analogy, any eminence, any kind of superiority of one series over another, and any ideal action that presupposes a preeminence: there is no more any superiority of soul over body, than of the attribute of Thought over that of Extension." In Deleuze’s early studies of Spinoza the political or social dimensions of this parallelism is only broadly sketched in that Deleuze primarily sees parallelism as destroying a series of analogies in which the god over nature, the mind over the body, and the king over the kingdom reinforce and echo each other. Parallelism, or a particular version of it, reappears in A Thousand Plateaus. The reference is not explicitly Spinoza, but a Spinoza inflected through Marx and Foucault. The order and connection of ideas and things are replaced with assemblages of enunciation and bodies, statements and relations. As Deleuze and Guattari write, 

On the first, horizontal, axis, an assemblage comprises two segments one of content and one of expression. On the one hand it is a machinic assemblage of bodies, of actions and passions, an intermingling of bodies reaction to one another, on the other hand it is a collective assemblage of enunciation, of acts and statements, of incorporeal transformations attributed to bodies. Then on a vertical axis, the assemblage has both territorial sides, or reterritorialized sides, which stabilize it, and cutting edges of deterritorialization which carry it away. 

What is maintained however is the identity and non-relation of bodies and statements as two different sides of given historical assemblage. They are both different ways of grasping the same thing and because of that they do not cause or influence each other. To take Deleuze’s favorite example from Foucault, the discourse of delinquency and the panopticon do not cause or determine each other, but are both part of a general transformation in the shifting practices of power. The non-relation of enunciations and bodies is aimed against both materialist philosophies that would assert the primacy of material relations, the assemblage of bodies over statements, or the primacy of signifier, enunciations over actions and passions. The identity, that which keeps them the same, is no longer God or the causal power of nature, but what is referred to as the relative deterritorialization of society, the general process of social transformation in which abstraction and decontextualization (and opposing forces of concretization) are the primary focus. Bodies and words do not affect each other; each reflect in their own way the general process of social transformation. 

Parallelism is not the only interpretation of Proposition Seven to carry over into political and social thought. One could also make the argument that dimensions of Althusser’s thought bear witness to a particular interpretation of the seventh proposition. Althusser’s attempts to think the specificity of a particular practice of philosophy owe an immense debt to Spinoza. What Althusser stresses is the idea of a philosophical effect, of a causal order to philosophy, even if philosophy acts only on itself, as its own particular practice, its operation must have its own efficacy. As Althusser writes, “Philosophy intervenes in reality only by producing results within itself. It acts outside of itself through the result that it produces within itself.” Althusser follows the spirit, but not exactly the letter of Spinoza, by arguing that philosophy can only act in and on other ideas, but in acting on ideas it ultimately transforms itself and the world. In this case the letter follows the spirit, as Pierre Macherey, in his interpretation of Proposition Seven of Part Two, argues that the sameness, “the identity, refers to the order and connection. What ideas and things have in common is a causal connection, a causal order; ideas are determined and affected by ideas just as things are affected and determined by other things. As Macherey argues, situating Spinoza's understanding of thought and extension against his contemporaries: 

Unlike Hobbes for whom there is nothing outside of bodies, and also unlike Descartes, for whom causality applies only to bodies,--Spinoza's causa seu ratio, argues that extension and thought have the same principle of intelligibility while maintaining the specific rules proper to each of their systems [maintenant la spécificité des lois propres à chacun des ces systèmes] (Macherey 1997b, 130, Translation mine). 

Macherey argues that while the term Deus sive Natura, or, God that is nature, has been used as shorthand to indicate the explosive force of Spinoza's ontology, stating an absolute identity of creator and creation, the identity of an immanent process, it is possible to indicate his reworking of the very idea of thought through another formula, "causa seu ratio," cause or reason (Macherey 1998a. 58). The rational order is the same as the causal order as ideas act on and effect different ideas. It is this notion that makes “theoretical practice,” the idea that ideas can transform and effect other ideas possible: philosophy can only be a practice, can only have effects, if ideas are in some sense the same as things in by determined by other ideas, even if the philosophical practices can only act on other philosophies. 

Jaquet offers a different understanding of the relation of minds and bodies, in contrast to both parallelism and the causa seu ratio of theoretical practice. This interpretation runs through Jaquet’s work on Spinoza from Affects, Actions, and Passions in Spinoza (first published in 2015) to Spinoza à l’Oeuvre: Composition des Corps et Force des Idées (published in 2017). First, as Jaquet argues in Affects, Actions, and Passions, what identifies the identity of the order and connection of things and ideas is the underlying equality of the causal order of nature. Or, to cite Spinoza “God’s power of thinking is equal to his power of thinking.” This equality is relative, pertaining to the objective and formal essence of the attributes, but it is not an equality of all aspects. As Jaquet writes, “Yet if the order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things, this does not necessarily mean that the modes of expression of ideas and things are strictly identical and always assume the same importance” (pg. 17). As Jaquet demonstrates with respect to the affects, since affects are always both of body and mind, Spinoza’s demonstration and definition of affects sometimes stresses the bodily connections and transformations and at times the connection of ideas and associations that produce a given affect. Some affects, and affective transformations, such as gluttony and drunkenness, reflect the bodies transformation, and some, like jealousy and ambition, entail complex operations of thought, an entire chain of thoughts connecting disparate encounters and ideas. More to the point, sometimes what seems to be an effect of a mental operation, like pity is often a embodied imitation. As Jaquet writes, “It is not a question of being fooled by appearances, but rather of determining what principle is operating in the affect, regardless of its mental or physical hue.”(pg. 149) This difference of the relative importance of ideas and bodies is expanded in Spinoza à l’Oeuvre. As Jaquet stresses, citing the Scholium of Proposition 21, “the mind and the body, are one and the same individual, which is conceived now under the attribute of thought and now under the attribute of extension.” Mind and body are one individual that can sometimes be grasped under each of the different attributes. 

The ability to grasp the same thing, the same individual, according to the body or the mind constitutes what Jaquet calls a logic of alternation. This logic can be seen at work in several places in the Ethics. As Jaquet demonstrates, the long Scholium of Proposition 40 of Part Two shows how universal and transcendent ideas are the products not so much of operations of thought, but of bodies. As Spinoza argues, the human body is only capable of imagining a few things at a time, and thus when it is overwhelmed by multiple images what remains is a confused image of a multiplicity. Universal notions such as man, dog, etc., and transcendent notions such as being are best understood by referencing the body and its capacity to form and sustain images. As I have as I suggested above, a similar and inverse phenomena can be found with respect to the affects. As much as the affects are lived and experienced as bodily transformations, as increases and decreases of power, sometime the causes of affects are to be found less in the relations between bodies than the association of ideas. It sometimes takes a lot of thought to arrive at jealousy or fear. The logic of alternation replaces the parallel series of minds and bodies with the recognition of not just the identity of minds and bodies, as two different perspectives on the same thing, but on the necessity of at times grasping a given situation or even according to one or another causal order. All things are not equal in all ways. 

It is my contention that Jaquet “logic of alternation” should be understood as not just an important contribution to Spinoza scholarship but to the broader field of post-spinozist social and political thought. The question of the determination of things or ideas, minds or bodies, or, more to the point, material conditions or ideology, is in some sense the central question of post-Marxist social theory. This lingering question has been how to think together both determination and distinction, identity and difference. At first the determination was generally conceived one way, the economic base determined and dictated the superstructure. Ideologies were merely effects of material conditions. It is worth noting, that some important revisions to this notion, such as Althusser’s idea of ideological being not just an effect of material conditions but a necessary condition of their reproduction, were indebted to Spinoza. It is beyond the scope of my remarks here, but one can trace an entire history of Spinozism in post-Marxist thought in which Althusser’s insistence of the immanent causality of the mode of production leads to an increasing awareness of the materiality of affects, desires, and ideas. Whereas Spinoza’s effect in the history of philosophy has been to question the body’s reduction to a mere effect of the will, the assertion that no one knows what a body can do, his effect in Marxism has been in some sense the opposite, in asserting the material effects of the imagination, affects, and beliefs as necessary conditions of the reproduction of the relations of production, no one knows what ideology is capable of, what its material effects it is capable of. Placing ideas and things, ideology and material conditions, on the same plane raises the question of their efficacy in any given situation. 

Jaquet’s logic of alternation is in part founded on the assertion that one cannot decide in advance the importance of bodies or ideas, material relations or their representation, but that the specific efficacy of ideas and bodies must be thought from a given situation. As Spinoza demonstrates sometimes at the basis of our ideas there is the body and the limits of its capacity to hold and sustain images, and sometimes at the base of our most visceral reactions are the connections and associations of different ideas, the functioning of our spiritual automaton. What does this look like beyond the scope of the mental and affective life of an individual? How might it be used to explain and understand social and political relations? Without belaboring the comparison to other Spinozists it is possible to some points of comparison between Jaquet’s logic of alternation and Etienne Balibar's “other scene.” As Balibar writes, 

I even think that we can describe what such a schema would ideally consist of. It would not be the sum of a “base” and a “superstructure,” working like complement or supplement of historicity, but rather the combination of two “bases” of explanation or two determinations both incompatible and indissociable: the mode of subjection and the mode of production (or, more generally, the ideological mode and the generalized economic mode). Both are material, although in the opposite sense. To name these different sense of the materiality of subjection and production, the traditional terms imaginary and reality suggest themselves. One can adopt them, provided that one keep in mind that in any historical conjuncture, the effects of the imaginary can only appear through and by means of the real, and the effects of the real through and by means of the imaginary; in other words, the structural law of the causality of history is the detour through and by means of the other scene. Let us say, parodying Marx, that economy has no more a “history of its own” than does ideology, since each has its history only through the other that is the efficient cause of its own effects. (“The Infinite Contradiction) 

And elsewhere continuing the same line of inquiry: 

The determining factor, the cause, is always at work on the other scene—that is, it intervenes through the mediation of its opposite. Such is the general form of the ‘ruse of reason’ (which is every bit as much the ruse of unreason): economic effects never themselves have economic causes, no more than symbolic effects have symbolic or ideological causes. 

Of course we would have to change the terminology, and the relations; the scenes in question are not economy or ideology, at least directly, but bodies and minds, affects and ideas. In some sense such a change returns Balibar’s “Other scene” back to its Spinozist roots, I do not have the space to develop the argument here, but Balibar’s concept of the “other scene” is heavily indebted to the two demonstrations of Proposition 37 of Part Four of the Ethics in which the state is founded alternately on the affects of ambition, the desire that others should live and love as I do, and the rational recognition that nothing is more “useful to man than man.” Every polity, even community, is founded upon two scenes, affective and rational. Or, as Balibar puts it, ‘Sociability is therefore the unity of a real agreement and an imaginary ambivalence, both of which have real effects.’ A logic of alternation is one way of thinking of this movement from scene to scene. However, in Jaquet’s account this is less a general rule, in which material conditions always pass over into ideological representations and symbolic identifications have material effects, than a logic that pertains to singular situations. Ideas determining and affecting ideas, and bodies determining and affecting bodies is the general rule, the alternation, bodies and imaginations shaping ideas and thoughts and ideas altering affective life, is the singular case, predicated on the identity of mind and body in a singular individual. Here it seems necessary to not only turn to the letter of Spinoza’s texts, but to follow Jaquet in positing a distinction between individuality and singularity: an individual is both mind and body, but an alternation is a singular occurrence predicated on relations of ideas and affects that exceed the individual. As Jaquet argues most strongly in her book on transclasses, singularity is not to be confused with individuality. Singularity is a complex of multiple and metastable determinations, while individuality is the fantasy of an entirely independent isolated action. 

Lastly, and in conclusion, I want to stress the importance of Jaquet’s particular interpretation of the unity of mind and body Spinoza, arguing why it is perhaps more important now, at this particular moment. The question of material conditions and ideological representations has migrated from the narrow confines of Marxist theory to the newspapers of the world. The recent rise of right-wing populism in the US and Europe has given rise to a constant question as to the role of the economy, and economic anxiety, or race and nation, as symbolic identifications. Much of this debate has taken the form of a kind of vacillation, every time economic indicators such as jobs are mentioned in surveys or polls, someone counters with another survey or poll that highlights racism and nativism. It is a constant back and forth of material conditions and their imaginary and affective representation. Jaquet’s logic of alternation makes it possible to cut through this vacillation by reminding us that sometimes material conditions are themselves the site of affective investments, and sometimes thinking, the association of ideas and affects, has directly material effects.

To take one example from the recent political transformations mentioned above, concern and anxiety over work, over jobs, would seem to be the reflection of purely economic and material conditions. But, work, especially as it is connected to notions of immigrants stealing jobs, of various people advancing in society with working to make a contribution, also stands in as a bit of a metonym for an entire social order and hierarchy. So sometimes “work” is just a name for an affective investment in a stable and hierarchical social order. Anecdotally, this can be seen by the way in which any political march or protest, at least in the US will invariably be met with someone yelling, “Get a job.” The rational and pragmatic concern with work and material conditions of labor is sometimes just the alibi for an affective investment in a particular type of social order or hierarchy. The inverse can also be the case, as what is immediately and intensely felt, emotions such as disgust and fear that underlie various political and social ideologies such as racism, nativism, and homophobia, forming a kind of spontaneous philosophy, are themselves the effect of thoughts as much as affects, minds as much as bodies. Claims for the spontaneous and natural basis of particular sentiments often conceal or naturalize the causal order of thoughts necessary for producing them. The causal conditions of a given sentiment can only be grasped in a singular situation, by tracing the bodily comportments and mental associations that have produced it. Moreover, one is never dealing with pure relations of ideas without any affective dimension, or affects and imagination without any thought. As Jaquet argues the logic of alternation, a logic of “sometimes, sometimes” is also and at the same time a logic of “also, also.” It is necessary to view everything under the two attributes, as both relations of things and ideas. 

Perhaps there may have been a point where a linear causality of material conditions determining ideology or thoughts shaping material practices was adequate to understanding social relations. Or it was enough to add immanence, immanent causality, to understand the materiality of ideology, how subjectivity was not just an effect but a cause of social relations. However, it increasingly appears that it is not a matter of just asserting the immanence of subjectivity to production, of ideology to material conditions, but to grasp the specific points where ideas have embodied affects and practices are transformed into ideas. Chantal Jaquet’s logic of alternation has produced a Spinoza adequate to the current historical moment.

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