Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Strange Bedfellows: On Vaysse's Totalité et Finitude: Spinoza et Heidegger


Translation is the closest that I have ever come to demonic possession. Let me explain, I used to think that there were books I read, books I wrote about, and books I taught, each category representing a deeper level of familiarity, even intimacy to the point where it is harder and harder to tell where the book's thoughts end and my thoughts begin. Translation, however, is on a whole different level. It is thinking someone else's thoughts. 

As I have mentioned repeatedly on this blog, on social media, and to random people on the street, I have spent the last year or so translating Frank Fischbach's La production des hommes: Marx avec Spinoza. The translation is now for the most part complete, and should come out from Edinburgh University Press in June of 2023. Translating the book has been a transformative experience. I am even more convinced of one of the book's most controversial theses, that alienation is not the reduction of subjectivity to some object but is the reduction of material objective existence to subjectivity.  To be reduced to a bearer of labor power, to pure subjective capacity, is to be cut off from the social relations and objective conditions that make existence and activity possible. In other words, to draw together Spinoza and Marx, to be a kingdom within a kingdom, or to see oneself as such is not the zenith of freedom but the nadir of domination.Beyond this point, Fischbach's book does for Spinoza and the early Marx what Althusser did for Spinoza and the late Marx, effectively destroying that very division. The book goes a long way in making the case that what is often considered Marx's humanism is better understood as naturalism, and the influence or presence of Feuerbach conceals the subterranean influence of Spinoza. I feel like I need to reconsider how I read the early Marx. However, there is one point that I really struggled with and that is Fischbach's engagement with Heidegger, often placing Spinoza, Heidegger, and Marx in the same intellectual lineage. 

Part of my resistance to this pairing is autobiographical. When I was in graduate school Heideggerianism was everywhere, and Spinoza seemed to be a real alternative, an entirely different orientation of thought. Fischbach's book did make me curious, so curious that I decided to read one of the books he references, Jean-Marie Vaysse's Totalité et Finitude: Spinoza et Heidegger. 

The first thing that surprised me about the book was the conjunction "and" (et). I expected it to be "or"(ou) as it was for Hegel in Macherey's famous book. Vaysse recognizes that the conjunction is a strange one, that it must be in some sense an "and" that flies in the face of the obvious opposition. Spinoza would seem to be a thinker of metaphysics, of a philosophical system. This alone would oppose his project to Heidegger. As for Heidegger's explicit relation to Spinoza it is more of a non-relation, Spinoza is barely mentioned by Heidegger, and to some extent Spinoza falls outside of the trajectory that Heidegger charts of metaphysics as becoming a metaphysics of subjectivity, to thinking being as being what a subject produces. To go back to Fischbach one last time, Spinoza and Marx can be understood as falling outside of Heidegger's comprehension because for both of them production and subjectivity are not conjoined, each defining each other, but are absolutely opposed. As Fischbach writes,  referring once again to Spinoza and Marx (we'll get to Spinoza and Heidegger)

"The fundamental point these two philosophers have in common is their being at one and the same time thinkers of production and radical critics of subjectivity – two elements that are completely indissociable. While Heidegger considers the modern metaphysics of subjectivity as the completion and accomplishment of an approach than consists, from Greek philosophy onwards, in taking the productive comportment of humanity as the implicit guiding thread into the sense of being, Spinoza and Marx demonstrate on the contrary that a thought of production leads to the removal of subjectivity from its foundational role. Neither Spinoza nor Marx start from the subject: the former begins from substance and understands it as the infinite activity of production, that is, as the absolute unity of producing (natura naturans) and of product (natura naturata), as the complete immanence of production in the infinity of things produced; the latter begins not from the production as the activity of one or several subjects, but from the ensemble of the relations of production, a productive industry that is at the same time a process of individuation. In neither case is production thought from the subject: for both Spinoza and for Marx there is a production that exceeds all subjectivity, a production which has always already preceded, englobed and exceeded every subjective formation, engendering subjectivity as a secondary and derived aspect. Whether thinking of production as the infinite productivity of substance – which, in its immanence to the infinity of things produced, is demonstrated to be not at all a subject (the latter being conceived as that which precedes or supports the things that are produced, or as the term by which they are assembled) – or thinking of production as primarily an ensemble of relations that precede, condition and determine the formation of individually productive positions, both Spinoza and Marx understand and illustrate that production is never assignable to any foundational subject, that it is the basis of everything without being the act of a founding subject."

Despite this claim of omission, Fischbach sees a fundamental simularity of Spinoza, Heidegger, and Marx in that they are all philosophers of the world, not the subject, beginning with the relations that constitute subjectivity rather than the knowing subject as starting point. Vaysse, however sees a different similarity between Heidegger and Spinoza, one that starts with their critical targets, metaphysics and theology. Heidegger's destruction of metaphysics and Spinoza's pars destruens of theology, place the two on similar ground, or as Vaysse puts it, "Spinoza and Heidegger reject the metaphysical opposition between immanence and transcendence." This reject is clearest in what can be considered their methods. On this point Vaysse draws most distinctly from the existential analytic of Being and Time, in which Heidegger traces the very category and concepts of philosophical thought back to the practical comportments that underly them. At first glance this seems far from Spinoza's sub specie aeternitatis, of the Ethics as a system of propositions and demonstrations, however, Vaysse demonstrates that this mode of presentation is in some sense at odds with what it presents, with the understanding of existence that structures and articulates it. Spinoza like Heidegger begins from the assertion that it is is our practical comportment which primarily orients our thinking and acting. It is our desire and our affects that shape how we make sense of the world from the original "consciousness of our desires and ignorance of the causes of things" up to the qualities we attribute to the things that we desire. Our thinking is affective and active before it is reflective and contemplative. To some extent Vaysse's Heidegger and Spinoza comes after the Marxist interrogation of both, after the reading of the former, prompted by the proximity to Lukács that reads Being and Time for its critique of reification and alienation in modern life, and for the reading of the latter that understands Spinoza's philosophy to be as much one of the constitution of modal life as a philosophy of substance.

As much as this point brings Heidegger and Spinoza together as thinkers of comportment and activity, it also divides them on this terrain. As Vaysse writes, "If the affects proceeds to a detailed and systemic analysis of affective life, of its variations and conflicts, Heidegger retains only the phenomena of fear." Spinoza and Heidegger are both thinkers of the constitutive nature of affects or Stimmung, but differ in terms of the primacy they attach to different affects and their objects. This difference of affects reflects a fundamentally different understanding of finitude. For Spinoza to be finite, to be a mode, is to be affected in multiple and different ways, to be constantly affected and transformed even as one strives to maintain their being, while for Heidegger finitude is centralized in one primary affective orientation, fear or anxiety framed in terms of one central event, death. This difference relates to a second difference, for Heidegger inauthenticity, our everyday understanding, is primary structured through the anonymous They, while for Spinoza the imagination, the realm of inadequate ideas that constitutes our common sense, is structured around the individual as a kingdom within a kingdom. Of course, Spinoza has his own understanding of what Heidegger might call "inauthenticity" through the imitation of affects, the way our thinking, and feeling, is shaped by a kind of generic figure of what we imagine others love and hate. Such an imaginary constitution of a norm, or a standard, remains secondary to the primary illusion, and it is an illusion of autonomy and independence, an effacement of the relations that sustain and thwart our striving. Which is to say that for Spinoza the question of the quotidian, of our basic comportment, cannot be separated from our collective relations, there is a primacy of ethics and politics to ontology that is unthinkable from Heidegger's point of view. 

To come to a quick and provisional conclusion, Vaysse's book has the merit of removing the external opposition of Heidegger and Spinoza that would juxtapose ontology to metaphysics, finitude to totality, but in doing so he reveals an internal difference, one predicated on how we make sense of the relationship between our quotidian comportments and philosophical reflections, our finite striving and totality. Vaysse's book begins with Heidegger and Spinoza, tracing an unrecognized similarity of orientation and investigation, only to end with Heidegger or Spinoza, a difference which is political or ethical more than metaphysical. To say it  is political or ethical seems fairly lopsided, because, as many have noted, for Spinoza the political, or collective dimension, and the ethical, or practical orientation, were always central to Spinoza's examination of the quotidian formation of the imagination, while Heidegger never directly incorporated ethics or politics to his reflections on everyday comportment with disastrous results. 

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