Saturday, July 18, 2020

A Habitus for the Rest of Us: Lantoine on Spinoza and Disposition



Jacques-Louis Lantoine's L'Intelligence de la pratique: Le Concept de disposition chez Spinoza is a contribution to what I have called Spinozist Social Thought. Social thought here is understood as distinct from but not entirely separable from the political, social thought is more concerned with social relations, imitation, affect, and habits, rather rights, powers and states. The book is a dissertation completed under the guidance of Chantal Jaquet and Frédéric Lordon (among others), two of the thinkers at the center of this turn to the socio-political in and after Spinoza. It is also a follow up to Lantoine's Spinoza Après Bourdieu: Politiques des Dispositions.

What connects these two books is not just the term disposition, but the general insight that what Spinoza offers social and political thought is the way he thinks the articulation of external conditions and internal impetus that make up a habit or character. Of course all of these terms get a specific vocabulary in Spinoza, namely affect, conatus, and ingenium, but Lantoine's book benefits from consider the problem more broadly in order to grasp the specificity of Spinoza's contribution. Lantoine situates Spinoza within the larger problem of "dispositions,"a problem which runs from hexis in Aristotle to habitus in Bourdieu, that is one reason for the broader term. The other reason is that even within Spinoza it is less a question of a specific term than a general problem which runs from ontology through politics. 

As Lantoine argues the term disposition has generally been understood to encompass both an ensemble of possibities and a virtual tendency. The very idea of a disposition is situated in metaphysical ambiguity between the possible and the actual, the existent and the non-existent. To be disposed is to never quite to have done something, but nor it to be entirely free of it. Disposition as a tendency mediates between action and conditions, defining a tendency. Dispositions are in part created, determined by conditions, and in part willed, part of one's particular comportment or attitude. Disposition is the point of intersection between possibility and actually, conditions and action, exteriority and interiority.

How does Spinoza's thought transform each of these problems? First, and most famously, Spinoza argues that "Desire is man’s very essence, insofar as it is conceived to be determined, from any given affection of it, to do something." The combination of desire and affect, of impetus and determination, overcomes the tendency to see a disposition as just a mechanical habit. As Lantoine writes, "The concept of conatus offers the dynamic, the impetus to the concept of disposition as an actual state of mind and body, which allows to escape the legitimate criticisms addressed a vulgar mechanism: "Dispositio seu conatus."


To put this in anthropological terms, rather than see disposition as a kind of habit or inertia that is only operative in those moments of automatic action or passivity, we have to see the way in which being affected, being determined, is operative in precisely those moments in which we act or desire. Spinoza stated that we are born conscious of our desires and ignorant of our causes, and this must be interpreted to include the causes of our desires as well. We are never more unaware of causes then when we claim to freely choose our desires.

Such an assertion would seem to double down on determination by entirely eliminating the dualism of habit and will, external causes and internal motivations. Our desires are in some sense nothing other than a constitutive misrepresentation of external causes. Moreover, Lantoine sides with such Spinozists as Pascal Sévérac in arguing that there is nothing virtual or possible about disposition, no latent tendency that can be mobilized. Disposition is primarily thought in terms of ingenium, as actual character. Such a formulation seems to utterly foreclose any kind new activity, locking everyone in a vicious circle of acting out the role that has been created for them. Lantoine even goes as far to say that "we do not know what a body is capable of" should be read less as a statement of virtual possibility, as Deleuze famously argued, but as one of material determination. The things we attribute to our mind, to our will, the paintings and other creations, will might just be a product of our body, more determined than free.  

How then are new things possible, how is change possible, or, more to the point, how can we become more active, reasonable, and free? For Lantoine the condition of possibility is in the complexity of our dispositions, we are disposed in multiple ways, have conflicting characters and conditions. For Lantoine this is the point of difference between Bourdieu and Spinoza. As Lantoine writes,"While habitus makes it possible to produce an anthropology of  predictable agents, disposition, combined with ingenium, makes it possible to produce an anthropology of inconstant automata." We are inconstant, capable of change, because we are not one disposition, but a metastable combination of different characters and habits (another point of contact between Spinoza and Simondon). We go from character to character fluctuating according to the different things that affect us. 

The dispositions that Spinoza analyzes, the drunk or gossip, are best understood as tendencies, not tendencies because they are in some sense virtual, or not actualized, but tendencies that are non actual because they conflict with other tendencies. There are multiple points where Spinoza discusses these conflicting characters, but the most well known is his formula "seeing the better and doing the worse," which characterizes much of ethical life. Such a formula taken on its own sounds like the worst kind of cynicism. Of course much of the Ethics is an attempt to understand rather than mock this condition, explaining how the affects and imagination overcome, overpower, what we rationalized perceive as better, but taking a more general clue from Spinoza as a social thinker, and thinking Marx with Spinoza, it is possible to see the way in which seeing the better and doing the worst is part of capitalist society. As Marx wrote in the 1844 Manuscripts

Do I obey economic laws if I extract money by offering my body for sale, by surrendering it to another's lust? (The factory workers in France call the prostitution of their wives and daughters the nth working hour, which is literally correct.) — Or am I not acting in keeping with political economy if I sell my friend to the Moroccans? (And the direct sale of men in the form of a trade in conscripts, etc., takes place in all civilised countries.) — Then the political economist replies to me: You do not transgress my laws; but see what Cousin Ethics and Cousin Religion have to say about it. My political economic ethics and religion have nothing to reproach you with, but — But whom am I now to believe, political economy or ethics? — The ethics of political economy is acquisition, work, thrift, sobriety — but political economy promises to satisfy my needs. — The political economy of ethics is the opulence of a good conscience, of virtue, etc.; but how can I live virtuously if I do not live? And how can I have a good conscience if I do not know anything? It stems from the very nature of estrangement that each sphere applies to me a different and opposite yardstick — ethics one and political economy another; for each is a specific estrangement of man and> focuses attention on a particular field of estranged essential activity, and each stands in an estranged relation to the other.

Or, the TL: DR version supplied by The Simpsons

Capitalism produces a particular kind of disposition with divides the better from the worse, one becomes the site of contemplation, a heaven of a beautiful souls, of what one ought to do, and the other becomes the "real world" of practical necessity in which any kind of ethical standard is at best a luxury for the rich if not utter hypocrisy. Seeing the better and doing the worse has gone from an inconstant personal failure to almost a way of life. Capitalism is rife with guilty pleasures, with food that is not good for us, with stupid televisions shows we watch anyway.The general formula of this is "I know, but..." as someone eats something they know they shouldn't but can afford, or takes a job they object to because they need the money. 

With respect to the latter it is worth watching The Assistant, a movie all about seeing the better and doing the worse, as a young woman who works for a producer, who is basically Harvey Weinstein, struggles to do the right thing, to stop his predation, and eventually reconciles herself to doing the worst, all because she needs to keep her job. The film, which deserves a longer analysis, is a long meditation on how the idea of the better is broken by the necessity to do the worst. 


Spinoza reminds that the constant shame, the sad affects, from knowing the right thing but not being able to do it becomes something that we strive to avoid. It becomes easy to give up on the better, to believe that there is only the worst, that everyone is simply doing what they have to do to survive, to get and maintain power. In this way of looking at the world those who are most suspect are those who strive to do better. They are seen as snobbish elites, or, when some failure is exposed, hypocrites. Every attempt to articulate the better is branded as hypocrisy from the outset simply because the worst dictates much of our daily life.

The only thing worse than "seeing the better and doing the worst" is reveling in the worst. (This might be be another explanation for Trump, he is relief from an ideal or standard, he makes it a point to make it clear that he is doing the worst). The important point is that many people are aware of the better, of the right thing to do, but they are equally aware that necessity compels them to do the worst. This is why a truly liberatory politics must not be a moralism of the better, but must work to actively transform the world that the better can be actively lived by all. 

1 comment:

DRLL said...

Thank you so much for your blog and for this entry on dispositions, as well as your ongoing conversation with the French Spinozists. I am currently working on an article about Machado de Assis's main character, Brás Cubas, who is seen to act mainly based on caprice, and it very much relates to your work on Spinoza.
Good day to you.