philosophy as not philosophy: para-ontology, hauntology, schizoanalysis

"Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it ‘the way it really was’. It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to hold fast that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to the historical subject in a moment of danger. The danger threatens both the content of the tradition and those who inherit it. For both, it is one and the same thing: the danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes. Every age must strive anew to wrest tradition away from the conformism that is working to overpower it. The Messiah comes not only as the redeemer; he comes as the victor over the Antichrist. The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious."
- Walter Benjamin, Thesis VI

"The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice."
- Karl Marx, Thesis III

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Saving Spinoza

We all know the cliché according to which Spinoza remains a pre-critical philosopher insofar as, in his assertion of the identity of God and nature, he naively asserts a kind of reductionist materialism. Spinoza's nature is a 'closed mechanism', a blind chain of necessity, and freedom, far from some mystical exemption from this chain, is no more than the assumption of this necessity, et cetera. Thus Žižek claims that for Spinoza, ethics (deontology) is simply reduced to ontology, to this blind necessity free of any obscurantist language of teleological aims, a 'Good' which should be imposed on the way things simply 'are'. Such 'oughts' are no more than fictions that falsely impute to God a will or aim, when God in truth is ignorant of any aim and refers to the blind mechanism of natural causality.

So Spinoza ultimately leads us to a naive scienticism in which we need only learn the way things 'really work', devoid of any ideological mystifications. This 'post-ideological' reign of a pure science, in which we should simply administer the means of a satisfactory life free of any overriding prescriptions or projects, is the paradigm of submission to capitalism; Spinozism thus becomes the perfect capitalist ideology. There is no place for the Cartesian subject, subtracted from the closure of this natural necessity, lacking a proper place and lost, necessitating some perhaps 'fictional' narrative of a moral telos in order to act. Indeed, in this model there is properly no 'subject', but only the free play of natural impulses which, upon assuming their modest place within the natural causal order, can live free of such delusions and the harm they cause.

This reading of Spinoza is exemplified in his discussion of Adam's fall: God does not arbitrarily prohibit Adam from eating from the Tree of Knowledge in a simple exercise of authority, with death as the punishment; God is simply warning Adam of the 'scientific fact' that this fruit would be poisonous to him, that eating it would simply 'cause' him to die... Yet as A. Kiarina Kordela puts it in her remarkable book, $urplus: Spinoza, Lacan, it matters not whether this is an arbitrary prohibition or a mere natural fact, because either way, the notion that Adam should prefer life to death would already entail an aim, that he should live, which imposes on the mere 'facts' a fictional telos. [7-8] The point, then, is that any bare scientific analysis of facts, if it is to have any relevance for us, must already be warped by some fictional (ethical) aim imposed upon them; in short, Adam would've already had to have chosen to live.

Kordela's point, in reading Spinoza 'against himself', is that there is no neutral ontology which can simply see God/nature free of any imputed aims; that we are subjects insofar as we necessitate such a fictional imposition. This is the basic Lacanian point, that any chain of knowledge is incoherent, irrelevant without the stabilizing power of the Master-Signifier, the quilting point which fastens this knowledge to some determinate course of action. This quilting point is a fiction, but a necessary one, without which the world and a 'neutral' ontological analysis thereof would have no consistency for us. Yet can we account for this necessity within Spinoza's thought, or must we resort to 'turning him against himself' so as to draw out the inconsistency of his explicit statements? While I like to think I do not succumb to what she identifies as the 'Neo-Spinozist' tendency to take his words at face value, effacing confrontation with the deadlock intrinsic in his work, I nonetheless think his explicit doctrine is more nuanced than she gives it credit for. To be fair, I have only just begun reading this truly fantastic work, and do not know exactly where she will take her reading; yet, at this early stage, I already find it quite useful in explicating my own reading of Spinoza (to what degree this reading conforms to her's I cannot yet say).

I would contend that, far from the naive position that we can be done with the illusion of ethical aims and modestly resort to a neutral scientific analysis of nature, which must be supplemented with the 'critical' assertion of the necessity of these illusions for us, we can take Spinoza a bit further. The point would then be that, if we were to attempt a truly neutral, 'aimless' dwelling within nature, we would find ourselves unable to act, to do anything. Yet far from a mark of our imperfection, our inability to recognize and fully identify with our proper place in the perfect causal order, and the resulting necessity of supplementing this imperfection with a fiction, what if we radically assert that there is nothing to recognize, that there is no 'natural necessity' to which we would conform if freed from fictive aims?

In other words, insofar as God/nature is the complete chain of causes, a 'closed mechanism', that is, insofar as God is not the constitutive exception to the totality of the world but identified directly with the totality without exception, this totality in its 'infinite perfection' is thereby incomplete, inconsistent. Without the exceptional external view which could explicate 'the next link', that is, the 'natural aim' or 'God's will', there is no way to determine the necessary course of things, inclusive of 'what I should do free of any fictive moral aims'. In other words, the only conclusion of a purely neutral knowledge of nature is that necessity coincides with impossibility, with the impossibility of determining necessity without 'taking a chance', acting without any guarantee... We can thus see how Spinoza is the paradigmatic feminine philosopher in the Lacanian sense: God/nature is 'non-All', that is, there is nothing exempted from it, there is no exempted point of God's will (or, for that matter, a 'free subject' in the vulgar sense), but for that very reason this totality cannot attain closure, it remains incomplete and 'open'. Perfection paradoxically coincides with incompleteness just as the completeness of a fictional aim which gives meaning to arbitrary natural necessity is image of imperfection.

So the 'imperfection' of man is not simply his inability to recognize his place within the perfect order of God/nature; rather, this imperfection is transposed into God/nature itself, such that the shift from imperfection to perfection is no more than a change of perspective on one and the same thing. Whereas we, even in accepting that our aims are ultimately fictional, 'relative', may still continue to posit the divine chain of natural causes as simply epistemologically inaccessible to us, though complete in-itself, Spinoza radically asserts, with his 'third kind of knowledge' (intuition), that we can in fact directly know this perfection; my hermeneutical claim is that this 'intuition' involves no more than transposing this inaccessibility of a complete knowledge of perfection into the very incompleteness of perfection itself. We are thus this incompleteness of the Divine as 'for-itself'. (Furthermore, I would propose against Kordela that Deleuze's reading of Spinoza is not filtered through some vulgar Bergsonian vitalism; rather, if we take his understanding of intuition in Bergson as determined by the Spinozan concept as I read it, we can see that, rather than a 'Bergsonized Spinoza', Deleuze already 'Spinozizes Bergson'; I think his reading of élan vital as not some vulgar Universal Life, but rather a principle of self-difference, is evidence in this direction.)

So, to be precise, if we take Spinoza's God/nature along the same lines as the Lacanian assertion that 'God is unconscious', this does not mean that without the fictions constitutive of consciousness we would find a 'true' necessity, a 'proper place' within nature; rather, God/nature is ultimately no more than the impossibility of discovering such a necessity, the limit internal to every aim that prevents it from coinciding with itself, the very incompleteness of perfection as such. Indeed, Kordela hints at such a reading when she insists that Spinoza's assertion that God has no will, that nature is ultimately 'aimless', is to be read in the same way as Lacan's 'the big Other does not exist':
Lacan...maintains that the Other is inconsistent, that "there is no Other of the Other," that the Other in itself has no will or aim... [H]e adopts the Spinozian conception of history as aimless, and supplements it, according to the Spinozian conception of truth, with a willful and intentional gaze (and, hence, aim), which, however, is "a gaze imagined by me in the field of the Other". [17]
And precisely as subjects, who depend on fictional impositions of aims in order to make sense of the world, we are no more than this gaze already inscribed in God: not God's will, but God's opaqueness to itself, the fact that even God does not know his own will, that precisely as perfect, God cannot explain why necessity itself is necessary. Think, for example, of God's speech at the end of the Book of Job, in which he enumerates his own creations as if he himself is amazed at them, as if they are inexplicable even to their creator.

Thus, if freedom is affirmed necessity, it is precisely the assumption of the 'miraculous', inexplicable character of this necessity, the fact that not even God can explain why this was necessary. Spinoza never really elaborates a theory of the subject because the subject is no more than this splitting internal to the divine perfection of nature, this incompleteness/openness that is perfection, necessity. To return to the example of Adam, it is not simply that Adam, in order to make a decision regarding the fruit, must choose some aim (to live or to die), out of ignorance of what God really wants from him; the point is that God himself does not know what he wants of Adam, and hence must leave the decision up to Adam's ignorant, impulsive hubris. The gaze desperately seeking meaning from God is already inscribed in God himself, and is, far from a mark of imperfection, is precisely his perfection as such.

Of course this is only the preamble to such a reading of Spinoza, and I am here setting myself a task I probably won't even begin until my thesis is finished. And I still have a long ways to go in Kordela's book, among others. In any case, I highly recommend $urplus, which presents in my opinion the most original and exciting reading of Spinoza since Deleuze. Whether or not it supports my position, that Spinoza is already a 'critical' philosopher in the strict sense, has yet to be seen, but I am resolute that this is in fact the case. What this means is that, far from reducing deontology to ontology, fictive 'oughts' to the scientific 'is', any more than maintaining the gap between them, Spinoza more radically transposes the gap into the 'is' itself, so that Ethics is the name of the impossible coincidence of God/nature, of the One, with itself. The ethical subject then must assume this gap as his very being, he must identify with this gap/incompleteness that defines the perfection of God/nature.

Contrary to Žižek, Spinoza does not reduce deontology to ontology, but rather raises ontology to deontology. Thus we at the same time denounce fictive 'oughts', ideological aims imposed on the world, and a pure necessary order of 'is' accessible to science: the is, the Being of God/nature, is said only of the must, the vertiginous decision of the subject absent of any justification through aims (the Lacanian act): it is this tautological assertion of an act without any grounding in symbolic coordinates that would 'make sense of it' which selects what must be, which remakes 'what is' by dissolving the symbolic framework that previously defined it, retaining only that which can endure a new evaluation (ultimately, no more than the New itself in History, in the guise of the failed attempts to break out of the given symbolic order which were rendered meaningless by that very order; the act is thus one of Benjaminian Redemption). The is, the Lacanian Real, is ultimately nothing but this immanent limit of symbolization, this necessary inconsistency of every symbolic order, and hence the potential for the New to escape its confines.


Jack said...

A baby with no hands writes better than this Reid! COME ON NOW.

Not really, this is talented and incredibly detailed. It may not be for light reading, but it does entice you into the setting of philosophical thought without much effort.

Jay said...

This was really interesting, Reid. Be sure to email me when you follow up with this idea in a couple of decades.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why «lacanian people» can be satisfied with simple applying concepts already made (lacan's concepts) even (or specially) authors that are opposed to their view... it's curious they try to see faults in everything... (la manque, le fallus, le pere) instead of trying to create or to understand another point of view... the point of view that actually subsumes theirs, for example.

(sorry my English)

Anonymous said...

...maybe it's more interesting and fun to have points of view that «envelope» those other points of view that we want to lagh of... that's Deleuze's point of view actually.

P.D. there is not such a thing as God's will (not even opaque). The «will» is a mode of an attribute (thought). I wonder why your logic doesn't make you say that God has a body aswell...

Reid Kotlas said...

Anonymous -

The point of this piece was explicitly to claim that Spinoza allows us to think of God without a will, a thought which is painful and requires the obscuring imposition of a fantasmatic telos. So your criticism makes little sense, in that you are accusing me of a position that I explicitly denounce.

Anonymous said...

I believe that you can conciliate «necessity» with «impossibility» only if you think that God/Nature "could" have had a will. For Spinoza, the idea that God does not have a will is an adequate idea, not just a possibility.

You think not-God's will in termes of «God's infinite perfection does not have the "exceptional" external view that is necessary to explain the course of things». You're taking for granted that is necessary an external view in order to explain things. I could ask, it's truly necessary or it's just the "way" you're thinking, the point of view from where you're explaining this? I believe that Spinoza could say that you're not thinking «in» the self... you're taking the effects (modes) as if they were somehow the causes. I'm not saying that yours it's not a very good idea, I'm saying that is not a spinozist one.

I other words, you are saying that God's infinite perfection is not «complete» because God/Nature cannot be inmanent and transcedent at the same time (not even him can chose). For Spinoza, this is an inadecuate idea (I understand that in a lacanian field, this can be a very good idea -"God itself is castrated"). And I think is the same logic that makes some people say that, «since girls don't have penis then they lack from penis»...

That «modes» seek for meanings doesn't mean substance should do it too. Why to beleive in the first place that God could have been able to "know" what Adam could had wanted. To say that God himself is ignorant you must have first assumed that God could have «known» (the way you're supposing we (modes) "know"). And I think is clear that for Spinoza such possibility does not have a place.

However I like very much your paper. Sorry if I was not clear in some points, I think I could explain better.

Anonymous said...

Its seems highly curious that Hegel has made the Spinoza phrase, «Omnis determinatio est negatio», the central voice in his own logic. Since the «inmanence» concept that has brought Spinoza into philosohpy it's actually a critic to the idea of "mediation" and so an advanced attack to dialectics... it's at least "suspicious" Hegel's interest on Spinoza (I know there are very good reasons, much more important than this one). And I don't think Zizek and Badiou follow another "style" when they try to deal with Deleuze's work, and try to propose us a reading of a totally "disarmed" Deleuze-Guattari... And it's ok. Though I see no use of such enormous effort on "overlooking" (and even domesticating) what would be a fine explosive to hegelian thought... Reminds me really a sad try to «invest» on a «trace» that threatens to destroy.

Spinoza catrated? What for?

mouche dans l'mur said...

Well, seems you only answer little sense commentaries.