Why Spinoza?

I must begin with a confession: I am a smoker. I know that smoking is dangerous for my health, but I keep doing it. I have tried to stop a couple of times, but always failed. What most puzzles me in this troubled relationship is that, when I first began smoking, I did not like it. Some people like their first cigarettes. I hated it. I guess, as a teenager, I did it only for the sociality of it. Yet, for some reason, I kept doing it, until I got addicted. Now, I can’t stop. I smoke and I enjoy it.

My relationship to Spinoza is analogous to the one I have with smoking. When I first read the Ethics, I hated it, as much as I hated my first cigarette. With all that God talk at the beginning, I found it poisoning. Why should a woman philosopher with feminist sympathies be reading this misogynistic dead white male? Why exert all that effort to read such a difficult book just to get out of it, at best, some metaphysical embellishment of sexist remarks? Perhaps simply in order to criticise the bias of the Western philosophical canon that his philosophy embodies? Reading Spinoza gave me, and still gives me, a headache: it is very hard to read on your own and I am not sure why I did it in the first place. Indeed, like smoking, it was a social setting that sparked my addiction — a reading group on the Ethics when I was in graduate school. I joined simply because somebody told me that Spinoza had an interesting understanding of myth and imagination. And indeed, people to whom I felt close, such as Nietzsche or Althusser seemed to have made a great deal out of Spinoza’s writings. But when I began reading the Ethics, I continually wondered whether it was worth the effort. Since then, however, I have gotten progressively addicted to it. Although I know that this is dangerous for my health, I keep reading and teaching Spinoza. And although I have tried to stop a couple of times, I have never managed to do so. I keep reading and enjoying him.

Hasana Sharp’s book gave me new insight into this troubled relationship. Maybe Spinoza is not the link to Althusser, but rather a bridge to someplace further. Maybe the reason why I felt and still feel so attracted to Spinoza’s philosophy is not that he is a good companion to Marxism, but rather a reference point for what Hasana calls a “politics of re-naturalization.” I found this, which I take to be the central thesis of her book, fascinating. And I am not sure I am done processing it yet. So the comments that follow must be taken as an incomplete set of reflections that are more a series of questions that I have for Hasana Sharp and for myself than a fully fledged series of comments.

The book is divided in two parts. The first, entitled “Reconfiguring the Human,” guides us through a reading of some of Spinoza’s key concepts: affect (Chapter 1), ideas (Chapter 2), and reason (Chapter 3). The second, entitled “Beyond the Image of Man,” takes us on a journey beyond Spinoza’s letter, but still in his spirit: Chapter 4 focuses on desire and recognition as used in Butler’s feminist reading, Chapter 5 develops the concept of the “impersonal” toward a new “politics of imperceptibility,” and the final chapter is devoted to a discussion of the nonhuman and of the possibility of an ethics and politics that is not ruled by the image of man.

The connection between the two parts is the central notion of renaturalisation. Hasana borrows the term from Elisabeth Grosz, who used it to articulate the notion of a “power in nature” to transform debates about recognition and rights. The idea, which I take to be common to the works of Hasana and Grosz, is to recuperate a view of ourselves as natural, while retaining the achievements of our denaturalisation. Spinoza is presented in this book as the modern philosopher who can help us in this enterprise. Making it more ambitious, yet more valuable, this project does more than simply add yet another book to the long list of exegetic works on Spinoza: instead, it seeks to enlist Spinoza in a politics of emancipation.

How faithful is Hasana’s Spinoza to the author of the Ethics, the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (TTP), and the Tractatus Politicus? Perhaps the question is not so relevant. As the beginning of Chapter 4 acutely reminds us, “all authentic reading is in its own way violent, or it is nothing but the complaisance of a paraphrase.” These are Pierre Machery’s words, which significantly appear as an epigraph in the transition from the first part of the book, centered on Spinoza’s work itself, to the second part, centred on figures within feminism, ecology, and critical theory who have interpreted Spinoza. I do not think that Hasana’s reading of Spinoza is particularly violent toward the texts themselves, but even if it were so considered, I think we should welcome that violence as necessary.

Now, on to more specific points.

The fact that the book begins with the notion of affects in Spinoza is very significant. If Deleuze is right that Spinoza’s central question is “Why do people fight for their own servitude as if it were their own deliverance?” then we have to conclude that the answer must be found within Spinoza’s notions of affect and desire. As he clearly noted in the TTP, the reason why the discipline of obedience for the Ancient Hebrews was so effective was precisely that they could desire only what was permitted and never what was forbidden (this is, incidentally, another typically Spinozan anomaly, since most philosophical reflections on desire suggest that we desire what is forbidden; for Spinoza, however, we rarely do so, and that’s precisely the problem).

On the question of translation, I agree with Hasana that the translation of affectus by Shirley and Elwes as “emotion” is highly misleading (“affect is not reducible to our emotional life”). For Hasana, this is misleading because emotion applies only to human beings and perhaps higher animals and suggests “irrationality and bondage” (26). I would put the problem differently: “emotion” precisely does not capture the “irrationality and bondage” that is potentially attached to our affects. Affect is a broad and more neutral term, and includes what the Greeks termed “the passions.” The term emotion, as we use it today, suggests instead the idea of a temporary and mild affective situation. As such, it is distinguished from the irrationality and destructiveness that, since its invention in fifth century Greece, we associate with the term “passion” (pathos, passio). For instance, we say, “she has a passion for gambling,” but not “she has an emotion for gambling.” Though he may not have understood much about emotional life, Kant has nevertheless nicely clarified the difference between the two: Passions are like cancers of pure reason, since they imply a passivity that is destructive because it persists over time, whereas emotions are like a hangover; you may get drunk from emotions and have a bit of a headache, but it will soon be over. Furthermore, I think that the reason why the term emotion is so much in fashion nowadays with philosophers is that it, so to speak, can make our passions more acceptable to us, precisely like a hangover is easier to cope with than a cancer.

Yet, despite this relatively minor disagreement, I find Hasana’s account convincing. Her remarks that an affect is an event, a qualitative change equally corporeal and mental in the intensity of a being’s power to persevere, is very insightful, like the consequent remark that Spinoza alerts us to this peculiar nature of affects as expression of variation in agency. How about desire, then? Hasana emphasizes that Spinoza lists desire among the three primary affects, along with joy and sadness. This is right, but it seems to me that there is a tension in the text because at times desire seems to be a much broader category, including both joy and sadness — for instance, when he says at the end of Part 3 that desire is the very essence of being human. This passage always gives me a hard time. Here again I wonder what Hasana’s take would be.

Now a comment on the notion of cause that recurs often in Chapter 1. It is not clear to me what Hasana means by “cause.” More precisely, is Spinoza’s understanding of cause still applicable today? After the theory of relativity and quantum physics, can we still think of causality in the terms used within a philosophical framework that was elaborated for the clockwork universe of 17th century physics? Can we talk about determinism in the same terms in which Spinoza did? I have no answers to these questions, but my impression is the world of contemporary physics is much more malleable and unstable that the mechanistic clockwork universe behind Spinoza’s geometrical method. If I am right (and I may not be), the question emerges whether we can still accept Hasana’s proposal of a politics of renaturalisation even if we understand the relationship of cause and effect in a weak way, that is, as merely probable. And in what sense can we then speak of the laws of nature? How inflexible do they have to be to work in the service of politics of renaturalisation? Can we simply think of them as “probable” narratives or do we need a robust account of them? How deterministic is Hasana Sharp’s (if not Spinoza’s) determinism?

Finally, a remark on the section on “the tongue,” which I found particularly intriguing and which also raised for me a more general question that I had for the rest of the book. Is it really possible to go beyond a politics of representation? I am very sympathetic to the politics of renaturalisation and increasingly convinced by it (although I still need to ruminate on it a bit more), but can we ever be outside of representation? And do we need to be? If Chapter 2 is right in showing us that we are always “within ideology” because in a monistic framework we are always in thinking, is it really possible to be outside of representation? Is not a politics of renaturalisation always meant to be also a politics of representation, even if not necessarily of politics of rights and recognition?

This leads me directly to Chapter 2 where Hasana offers an account of what it could mean to renaturalize ideology. I take it that the notions of monism and materialism are crucial here. Let’s proceed one step at a time. As Hasana observes, “Spinoza offers a kind of materialism of ideas that underscores the exigency of joining forces to counter harmful ideas and the ways of life that correspond to them. Much attention has been given to Spinoza’s materialism of bodies, but one can articulate an analogous field of determination among ideas” (58). Now, if, as the author rightly emphasizes, the notion of “parallelism” is to be rejected as misleading because it suggests that the order and connection of ideas are “parallel” to what is between things (and not, as Spinoza states, the same, or “idem”), then what kind of materialism are we talking about? Is the field of determination among ideas simply “analogous” to the materialism of bodies or is it exactly the same thing? In other words, how monist is Sharp’s interpretation of Spinoza’s monism? What, in her view, is Spinoza’s materialism? Although I am very sympathetic to the materialist reading of Spinoza, I find the term somehow misleading. Spinoza’s materialism is not the materialism of the inanimate, brute matter of other materialist thinkers. If we take monism seriously, then we have to conclude that Spinoza’s materialism is a very eccentric one, one that perhaps, with a bit of exaggeration, we could call a “spiritual materialism.” I wonder how Hasana would react to this provocation.

Another way to look at this problem is the relationship between bodies and ideas. On page 62, Hasana writes that, “Spinoza’s metaphysic maintains an analytic distinction separation between ideas and bodies.” How distinct are they? I wondered when reading this passage. On page 69, Hasana writes that, “man, according to Spinoza, consists of a mind and a body which are the same thing.” In response, I want to ask, how similar are they, if it is true that the mind is just an idea of the body?

I liked this chapter because here I found that the implications of a “politics” of renatualisation begin to emerge. Many interpreters have focused on Spinoza’s understanding of nature, but what I found fascinating is that Hasana argues, following him, not just for a renaturalisation, but for a politics of it. In this respect, I wonder, what does the author exactly mean by “politics”? On page 63, we read that “a premise of the politics of renaturalisation is that we cannot understand either our power or lack of power before affirming that each of us is but a tiny part of nature.” What is the politics associated with such an understanding? In other words, is politics something that is “to be done,” as the title of the last section says, or something that we do in any case? Is the politics of renaturalisation just a different type of politics or the beginning of politics as such? What is the definition of politics on which this relies?

Moving on to Chapter 3, on man’s utility to man, we find the claim that Spinoza’s “vision of radical cooperation and collective striving to know and love nature becomes possible only upon the development of common notions through contact and affective exchange” (105). On the next page, Hasana suggests that the idea of a human nature must be taken to be simply a model (exemplar) of human nature. Does this mean that human nature is simply a universal notion and thus ultimately not much more than a being of the imagination? How helpful are beings of imagination to her project if we need a common notion for radical cooperation and collective striving?

With regard to Chapter 4, devoted to the “Desire for recognition? Butler, Hegel and Spinoza,” I found Hasana’s critique of the politics of recognition very compelling. The reason why I have personally always been very skeptical of recognition, in all of its forms, is that however one reads it, recognition implies that there is something that must be recognised as such. If, on the contrary, we emphasize with Spinoza that human beings are never given, but rather always processes of perpetually changing affective relationships, does it still make sense to talk about recognition?

In the brilliant chapter on the impersonal and the politics of imperceptibility (Chapter 5), the question of representation appears under a different light. I am sympathetic to the call for overcoming the focus on the person — something that probably aligns her project with Roberto Esposito’s recent book Terza Persona which has been translated into English as Third Person.

Hasana Sharp claims that a politics of imperceptibility pursues contact and communication, but without striving for admission to universality. I take the point about universality, but can there be contact and communication without representation? Does communication need to take the form of verbal or even rational communication, or can we think of it in terms of a communication through imagination? In the end, Spinoza stated that whenever communication with a whole community is the goal, we have to rely on imagination more than on reason. This is both because people prefer to be taught through an appeal to their imagination and because, regardless of this preference, very few people will be able to overcome imagination and reach the level of reason — an overcoming that requires great acuteness and self-restraint, that is, the very qualities that are seldom found in human beings.

The last chapter deals with “Nature, Norms, and Beasts” and argues that the general metaphysical framework of Spinoza’s philosophy is particularly congenial to a post-humanist project. This requires a creative reading of Spinoza’s explicit remarks on animals, but I think it is definitely in the spirit, if not the letter, of Spinoza’s Ethics.

In conclusion, I think this is a brilliant book that offers a fascinating reading of Spinoza’s conceptual apparatus, but also an important invitation to embark on a politics of renaturalisation. On a more personal level, I also have to thank Hasana Sharp for giving me some insight into understanding why I have been smoking for such a long time, and also for reassuring me that I do not have to quit.

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Chiara Bottici

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