Friday, October 14, 2022

The Dialectics of Obedience: Vardoulakis, Balibar, Macherey

Halloween in Houston 

The Following is a response to Vardoulakis book Spinoza, The Epicurean that I gave at SPEP. I previously blogged about the book. 

One of the many merits of Dimitris Vardoulakis’ Spinoza, the Epicurean: Authority and Utility in Materialism is that it focuses on the question of obedience as central to the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. Obedience is what differentiates revelation from knowledge, scripture from philosophy, action from belief. On one side, the first of these terms, there is obedience, that which falls under the control the state, and on the other freedom, the domain of philosophy. However, such an assertion would suggest obedience is a simple matter, that the line between obedience and freedom can be sharply drawn. Vardoulakis suggests that obedience must be understood through a dialectic of authority and freedom. As Vardoulakis describes this dialectic: 

Authority requires obedience whereas the drive to calculate our utility presupposes that we make our own practical judgements. Thus, under certain conditions, when authority takes over and suspends our judgements the result is political submission. But, also, under different conditions, we may calculate that it is to our utility to let someone else—for instance, someone with more knowledge or expertise—calculate our utility on our behalf. We can show the same interdependence by starting with utility: it is impossible to conceive of the human in terms of the calculation of utility without admitting that obedience, and hence authority, are necessary in certain circumstances. There is no such a thing as pure reason in human action. There is no human immune to obedience. 

Vardoulakis formulation is striking in two parts, first, as I have already indicated, in suggesting that the division between obedience and freedom, authority and utility, is not easy to draw, as one necessarily spills over into the other, but more importantly in suggesting that this relation is necessarily dialectical. This is the second major contribution of Vardoulakis’ book, in arguing not for a dialectic reading of Spinoza but for a specifically Spinozist dialectic. 

 The idea of a dialectic in Spinoza is a necessarily vexed one. Much of the current turn to Spinoza in contemporary thought, especially that of Gilles Deleuze and Antonio Negri, have promoted Spinoza as an alternative to the dialectic. It is a matter of deciding between affirmation and negation, Spinoza and Hegel. However, Pierre Macherey in the closing of Hegel or Spinoza, puts forward the notion that Spinoza offers a non-teleological dialectic. As Macherey writes, outlining the fundamental problems of this dialectic,

 What is or what would be a dialectic that functioned in the absence of all guarantees, in an absolutely causal manner, without a prior orientation that would establish within it, from beginning, the principle of absolute negativity, without the promise that all the contradictions in which it engages are by rights resolved, because they carry within them the conditions of their resolution? 

 The contemporary turn to Spinoza is itself split, without a necessary conditions of a guarantee, between those who see Spinoza as opposed to the dialectic, to negativity and contradiction, and those that see in Spinoza not the nondialectical other of the dialectic, but its dialectical correction, a surprising one since, as Macherey argues, in this case the correction comes before the deviation, Spinoza before Hegel. Spinoza makes possible a dialectic without telos or resolution, a materialist dialectic. Vardoulakis’ declaration of the dialectic of authority and utility is most productively read against the backdrop of this turn to a Spinozist dialectic, or a dialectic in Spinoza, which is to say along with Pierre Macherey and Etienne Balibar as his central interlocutors. (I say Balibar and Macherey, but for the purpose of this response I am going to focus on the former, but Macherey's Sagesse ou Ignorance would seem to have its own dialectic of obedience). As I will argue, in each case what is examined dialectically is obedience itself, or, what we could call, following contemporary philosophy, subjection. That subjection is dialectical can be glimpsed from Spinoza’s well known formulation that the masses fight for “servitude as if it was salvation,” the formulation suggests that subjection must be thought not just as something passively endured but something actively strived for, we need to see subjection in activity and activity in subjection. 

 In this way a dialectical reading overcomes the limitations of those interpretations which have apparently found in Spinoza only a theory of subjection, of ideology, or of subversion, of affirmative transformation.. The most obvious of the former would be Louis Althusser, for whom the Spinozist theory of the imagination, with its focus on the subject, is the basis of ideological interpellation. It also overcomes the limitations of those, such as Deleuze and Negri, who find in Spinoza the affirmation of a constitutive and transformative power. Reading Spinoza dialectically means recognize that the very terms of opposition, subjection and constitution, negation and affirmation, must be thought of as thoroughly intertwined. Spinoza is neither a thinker of pure subjection, of the imagination, or first kind of knowledge as ideology, but nor is he the thinker of constituent power or affirmative lines of flight. He is neither of these things, or perhaps both of these things, because subjection and its opposite, lines of flight or constitutive power, are neither of these things. We are always dealing with both, and with both intertwined, that is part of what it means to read Spinoza dialectically. 

 What do we mean by dialectic? In some sense a definition of the dialectic would seem to be, well undialectical, but beyond such an objection, which is both always tempting and always disappointing, I think that we can offer a basic formulation of at least a few common aspects. First, such a dialectic involves both a unity and a contradiction of opposites, but one without a third term or necessary resolution. Authority and Utility do not resolve themselves into some sublation through the authority of utility itself in a kind of enlightened democracy. However, this does not mean that such a dialectic is entirely static. The rejection of a general resolution, of a third term, means that the resolution of these tensions can only be thought in their historical specificity. Spinoza’s historical study of Moses is not an illustration of a general principle but specific instances of what in a concrete situation, a political dialectic. As Balibar argues, “Spinoza’s definition can be considered dialectical in the sense that the passage from the abstract to the concrete, as the development of the initial formula’s contradictions, arises from a historical study.” Spinoza’s engagement with the singular case in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus is necessary because the contradictions of utility and authority only resolve themselves in a specific situation. 

 The existing historical situation is not just a contradictory unity of authority and utility, but also reason and imagination. Etienne Balibar has made this particular dialectic central to his understanding of Spinoza. Spinoza reflects on the intersections of imagination and reason, affect and intellect, in the constitution of the collective and the individual in at least two places. The first is in terms of the general definition of ambition. Ambition is the affective constitution of society, the desire that others love what I love, that others live according to my temperament [ingenium]. As such it is inseparable from the imagination, from the imaginary constitution of the other’s desire and love. In and through ambition we constitute the image of the other, of ‘men’ [homines] in general, the generic image of others that functions as a guide for our actions and desires (EIIIP29). It is no longer the love or hatred of this or that individual, or collection of individuals that orients an individual’s actions, but a generic idea, a kind of ‘society effect.’ There are two limits to this affective constitution of ambition. First, at the level of sociality, and the conceptual grasp of social relations, ‘men’ is a universal. For Spinoza all universals stem from the human body’s finitude, it is affected by so many images that it can no longer grasp the singular differences (EIIP40S). What is left then is a generic idea that is produced by the inability to imagine all the myriad things, a universal that is always tainted by some particular content: some will imagine man as a rational animal, while others will think of a featherless biped. The ‘men’ who we strive to act like, whose image governs our loves and hates, is a fiction, an unstable universal that is imagined differently by different individuals. It is as much a condition of discord as harmony. Second, there is a problem at the level of the object of this sociality, that which we want others to love or hate. We desire that others love what we love, the love (or hatred) we feel is strengthened by the idea that others love what we love. This ambition becomes a source of conflict especially if the object that we desire is subject to the rule of scarcity, and thus cannot be possessed by all equally. Ambition is thus internally conflicted. As Spinoza writes, ‘those who love are not of one mind in their love—while they rejoice to sing the praises of the thing they love, they fear to be believed’ (EIVP37S1). The constitution of society through ambition is inherently contradictory, the very things that draw people together, the desire to love as others love and to have others love what I love, divide them as well. As conflicted as this sociality is, it is a sociality, which is to say that the ambivalence of ambition are not a remnant of the state of nature, but are a product of sociality itself. 

 Society, or, as Spinoza puts it, the city, is not exclusively founded on the ambivalent sociality of the passions. It is also founded on reason, on the powers of the intellect. It is the same conatus, the same striving, underlying reason and ambition. In each case there is a striving to make the temperament of the individual coincide with others, to constitute a collective temperament that would reflect the individual. However, the essential difference is in how this relation to the other and the object is constituted. The rational constitution of the state is based on the recognition that it is more useful to live with others. This idea of man is not the idea of men constituted through the imagination, it is not the universal idea, but the utility of sociality relations. It is not the desire that others live as I live, or that I coordinate my love and hates with others, but mankind can accomplish more collectively than individually (EIVP35S). As Spinoza famously writes, ‘nothing is more useful to man than man’ (EIVP37S2). This idea of man does not produce the ambivalence that determines the affect of ambition. Individuals guided by reason actually agree with each other, add and assist each other, rather than strive to orient their actions around an impossible object of what the others want. Moreover, reason as an object of desire is truly common, not only can it be shared by all, but its worth increases with the number of people who participate in it (EIVP36). Reason is not scarce, not finite, and is actually increased by others thinking the same thing. Men under the guidance of reason can overcome the contradictions of ambition and actually desire that others desire what they desire. 

 These two different foundations of the city, these two different genesis of sociality, one based on the affect of ambition and the other based on reason, are not two different options: there is not a city of affects and a city of reason supplanting each other as two different phases, two different orders. Spinoza’s text presents them as two different demonstrations of the same thing, suggesting the coexistence of these two different constitutions of society. As Balibar writes, ‘Sociability is therefore the unity of a real agreement and an imaginary ambivalence, both of which have real effects.’ We are always dealing with both affects, with ambition, and reason, with a city founded on a projection of our ideas of man, and a city founded on our rational utility. While there is no telos, no necessary progression by which the city founded on reason, a democracy, necessarily displaces a city founded on founded on superstition and affects, that does no meant that the relation is entirely static. The particular combination of reason and affects defines the nature of a given city, and its particular history. There is no more one generic essence of the city’s striving than there is an essence of man’s singular striving. The striving, the particular relations that constitute the city, the collective, must be thought from the singular case, from the specific way it is affected and determined. There is thus a history, but this history must be thought from the singular case, from the particular way in which any given city combines ambition and reason, affects and knowledge. 

For Balibar this is not just a reading of Spinoza, but could be understood to be a general thesis about politics in general, which is always situated between reason, on the fundamental thesis that “nothing is more useful to man than man,” that we benefit from living in a society, from the way in which living among others makes our lives better than a solitary life. This fact is true of any society which has an irreducible dimension of utility. At the same time every society is founded on an imaginary institution, an image of what it means to be in a city, what it means to be human. Every city is both rational and imagined, and this contradictory unity of these two scenes exists in each specific case. As much as it is possible to push the city to become more rational, which is to say less exclusive and hierarchal, it is never possible to dispense with the other scene entirely. This limit acts back on political philosophy itself, as Balibar argues any attempt to think through the relation of Spinoza and Marx must necessarily recognize the limit of each to think the other scene. As Balibar writes, 

It would be easy to conclude that Marx is basically unaware of the “other scene” of politics, the scene of communitarian affiliation, and therefore unaware of symbolic violence as well (although he names it or has bequeathed us with the word ideology, one of the aptest names for it); and to conclude that Spinoza, for his part, basically ignores the irreducible level of economic antagonism (doubtless because, at the economic level, where conatus can perhaps be conceived of as a “productive force,” Spinoza is basically an optimist and a utilitarian” (Balibar 2015: 12) 

 The dialectic of imagination and reason means that any philosophy that focuses on reason, on individual or collective interest as the basis of politics, must necessarily contend with imaginary identifications, and any politics of the imagination, or imagined communities, must necessarily contend with the rational basis of any social relation. It is possible to map these two dialectics onto each other, to argue that reason is utility and vice versa, since nothing is more useful to man than man, and, at the same time, that authority is constituted in an through the imagination, since authority, that which cannot be contested often passes through the theological, which is to say superstition which is founded upon the imagination. However, what I would like to suggest is that we see the dialectic of utility and authority and that of imagination and reason as two fundamentally different dialectics, which intersect without necessarily reflecting each other. This is in part because, as Vardoulakis argues, authority cannot be neatly mapped onto the imagination even as it passes through it especially in those forms inflected by religion and superstition. Authority exists in part because humanity does not always recognize what is useful, namely that a political order which combines the efforts of each, is useful. For those who do not recognized the utility of society, or more to the point, those who do not recognize it in the moment, since we see the better and do the worse from time to time, we are all social and anti-social, authority provides another foundation for society. Authority is a necessary supplement to the rational basis of society, and as such it could be described as a rational irrationality, or a-rationality. Authority which is outside of reason because it cannot be contested by reason has a rational basis, or to put it more succinctly, sometimes there is a utility to authority. However, at the exact moment that such a claim can be made, a claim that would unite two into one through the expansive sense of utility, they come asunder because if authority is useful, a necessary supplement to the rational understanding of society, than it can be evaluated in terms of its utility. This is what Negri identifies as the historical criticism of religion. Religion, it is argued, played its part in sustaining and bringing together the human community during a period in which it could not govern itself, as in the case of Moses leading his people out of slavery, but it is no longer useful, creating conflict rather than accord, and functioning as a fetter on the powers and forces of society. Any attempt to unify authority and utility into one term, make authority useful or utility itself authority, necessarily fails, producing its opposite. 

The two dialectics could also be differentiated in terms of their specific foundations. Imagination and reason are grounded on an anthropological basis, on humanities capacity to affect and be affected. The two images of humanity, the one defined by utility and rationality is an concept of humanity, while the other, that of the imagined community is an image, and like all images it is defined by the bodies inability to hold multiple images together. All images of humanity, or of a common community, are necessarily shaped by particular images of society. In contrast to this, authority is less an anthropological fact than a particular institution, it is artificial, or more to the point it is an attempt to contend with the artificial ground of any social order. This is why there is an appeal to the theological in those moments of foundation. As much as the two dialectics overlap, as reason and utility are two different expressions of the same thing, and imagination and authority pass through the same relation to the past, they cannot be said to be the same thing, the political or institutional cannot be reduced to the anthropological and vice versa. The two different dialectical reflect the fundamental fact that any given political order is at once an effect of anthropology, stemming from human reason and imagination, but exceeds it in that any political order cannot be reduced to imagination and reason. 

This brings us to what could be considered the third moment of the spinozist dialectic, one that pushes it furthest from a Hegelian understanding, if the first is to be found in the unity of opposites, a basic criteria for a dialectic, and the second in the non-teleology, or, to say the same thing differently in the historical specificity of its resolution, then the third moment is in the necessary overdetermination of the dialectic itself. There is never anything like a contradiction, or even a central contradiction, which would be able to encompass the totality of the historical moment. It is not a matter of a dialectic of authority and utility, of reason and imagination, or of affect and concept, to add another figure but of the necessary overdetermination of any dialectic, as reason and imagination, utility and authority intersect with and complicate each other. This is only to name the two we have briefly considered here, we could also consider the dialectic of desire and the affects which have been explored by Frédéric Lordon. The merit of Vardoulakis book is not just that he has given us a new contradiction, that of authority and utility, which remain outside of the scope of most discussions of Spinoza, but that in insisting on the dialectical dimension of that relation he offers a way to not only encompass the others, but brings us that closer to thinking together Spinoza and dialectical thought.

No comments: