“We were Spinozists”: Contingency and Necessity in Contemporary Readings of Spinoza Zachary Kimes
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Over the past 40 years, theorists such as Louis Althusser, Pierre Macherey, and Gilles Deleuze have turned to Benedict Spinoza to rethink political agency under contemporary capitalism. Although each thinker brings his own concerns, each of these “French Spinozists” emphasize Spinoza's anti-teleology and downplay his metaphysical concept of substance for a stronger emphasis on the modes. Rather than a rigid determinist without any purchase on politics, Spinoza is read as a thinker who provides tools to think the complexity of political events and their contingency. These theorists saw Spinoza as an alternative to the vulgar Marxism of the Communist Party and as a proto-materialist without the baggage of Hegelian teleology. In this paper, I address the issues of this turn to what I call a “contingent Spinoza.” Firstly, I argue that their appropriation has little to do with the texts of Spinoza. But more importantly, this use of Spinoza does not bare out in the type of politics they want to maintain. If reality and its processes are absolutely, metaphysically contingent, then there is no reason to privilege one political commitment over another. In conclusion, I argue that Spinoza is a helpful and even necessary theorist for a radical politics, but this is to be found in Spinoza's emphasis on the metaphysical necessity of substance.
Invoking Benedict Spinoza as a profound and radical political thinker might strike some as odd.1 Traditionally, or at least more often than not, Spinoza has been considered a dry metaphysician who starts with God and logically deduces the rest of the world, moving from proposition to proposition shown in his unique more geometrico, and unconcerned with the political realities of humans. God, substance, infinity, or any other term Spinoza uses swallows up the human, modes, and finite. According to this admittedly exaggerated caricature, Spinoza's philosophy is acosmic, unable to think a concrete reality, individual, or persons, and therefore, incapable of thinking politically.
Thus, it appears even stranger that several Marxists (or at least thinkers drawing from Marx) would find resources for contemporary critiques of capitalism and radical politics that derive from such critiques. There are a few sparse references to Spinoza in Marx's work, but not a sustained engagement with his work like readers see with regard to Hegel, Feuerbach, Smith, and Ricardo.2 This has been the case generally throughout the history of Marxism as well.3 Yet one of Louis Althusser's main theses is that Spinoza is Marx's materialist antecedent and is a more direct relation to Marx's materialism than Hegel. If there is little of Spinoza in Marx (and Engels) that is explicit, then the influence must be implicit.
Drawing out this influence is not a purely scholastic exercise for thinkers as diverse as Althusser, Pierre Macherey, and Gilles Deleuze i.e. pointing to the influence of Spinoza on Marx is not an exercise done solely for academic reasons but also, to put it in Spinozian terms, has theoretical and political affects. In other words, the “detour”4 through Spinoza is supposed to improve one's theoretical understanding in order to better understand one's situation and in turn to change that situation. Spinoza's texts are not dry pieces of parchment relegated to the historical archives of passé human knowledge but speak to the contemporary politico-socio-economic moment.
The focus of this essay will be on the readings of Spinoza by Althusser, Macherey, and Deleuze, particularly their readings of the Ethics. While each thinker brings his own concerns with him as he reads Spinoza, I argue that they can be read as offering a “contingent” reading of Spinoza. Rather than focus on Spinozian substance that necessarily causes all of its modifications, these theorists emphasize contingent aspects of his theoretical philosophy. One key move they all share is to place less emphasis on substance in favor of the attributes and the modes. This move allows Althusser, Macherey, and Deleuze in various ways to move away from teleological understandings of radical politics in favor of a more “immanent materialist” conception that provides no guarantee from the outset.5 Furthermore, the contingent reading of Spinoza supposedly can better think the dominant material production of the social, political, and economic and can provide a critique of those forms. My point of contention is that ignoring or downplaying the importance of substance makes thinking these issues of political action such as critique, solidarity, resistance, and revolution a problem at best, unthinkable at worst. If the modes are what are truly real and substance is a secondary category or completely collapsed into the modes, then each mode becomes absolutely infinite rather than infinite in kind and any of these claims are arbitrary or unthinkable.6 At the end I gesture toward a “necessity” reading of Spinoza that would provide a better theoretical framework for thinking the above mentioned political actions.
A Detour through Martial Gueroult
In order to better understand the reception of Spinoza in Althusser, Macherey, and Deleuze it is helpful to take a detour through the work of an important French philosopher, Martial Gueroult. Although virtually unknown to the English-speaking audience,7 Gueroult played a highly influential role in the reception of Spinoza in the post-WWII French academy. Althusser acknowledges the importance of Gueroult's method of studying the history of philosophy in The Future Lasts Forever, even if Althusser thought Gueroult's reading was fairly apolitical.8 Deleuze was one of Gueroult's students and wrote a positive review of his teacher's first volume study of the Ethics.9 A brief summary of Gueroult's approach to Spinoza and the history of philosophy will help us better understand the subsequent readings put forward by the contingent Spinozists.10
As Gueroult understands it, philosophy should eliminate the first-person perspective, i.e. one should not try to reduce a philosophy to its historical context or the personal experience of the author, and should instead seek “a proliferation of structurally interconnected concepts indifferent to their source.”11 To put it differently, Gueroult's take on philosophy is one that seeks to avoid a crude historicism in favor for the conceptual argumentation of a text. The value of a text is not based upon a historical situation but in its way to rationally produce a coherent argument or a system. The goal of the history of philosophy is not to reconstruct the historical context but rather to see how a philosophical system breaks with the contingencies of its context.12 The fact that Gueroult produced a two-volume study of the Ethics, which tried to bring out the coherence or incoherence of Spinoza's propositions and conceptual moves, seems to make sense. Gueroult appears to be a universal rationalist concerned with universal concepts and their deductions.
However, it must be kept in mind that Gueroult practiced the history of philosophy as well and any simplistic move to lump him in as a philosopher of the universal would actually undermine his historical method. Although Gueroult thought that the value of text should be measured by its conceptual argumentation, he also “maintained the irreducibility and singularity of philosophical works.”13 When appointed as the chair at the Collège de France, Gueroult made this point in his inaugural address. In a typically Socratic/Platonic fashion, Gueroult notes that one of philosophy's virtues is to counter mere opinion. Philosophy must have an internal coherence and demonstration. Yet the fact that philosophy has coherence and differs from mere opinion does not mean that it somehow has more purchase on reality. Instead, all that philosophy can aspire to is internal rationality. Gureoult argues, “The rationality that grounds any philosophy – whether that philosophy is rational or not […] has a constitutive function: since the philosophy is not already finished before it is developed, only existing after its completion despite numerous obstacles […] a double end in one is thus realized: the construction of a monument, the demonstration of a truth.”14 If the importance of a philosophical text is its internal rational demonstration of its own truth, and there are an infinite plurality of texts across history, then one cannot speak of a philosophical “truth” but only philosophical “truths.” Gueroult's practice of the history of philosophy is anti-Hegelian in the sense that philosophy should not be concerned with bringing out the truth of a previous work into a more fully realized truth, but historical texts have their own truth and reality.15 Thus, Gueroult is an advocate of pluralism in philosophy, which judges a philosophy on its own terms rather than in comparison to a contemporary philosophical system or to the extent the philosophy under question relates to an external reality.
Having passed through Gueroult's general approach to philosophy, it is now time to pass briefly through his interpretation of Spinoza specifically. As it has been noted before, Gueroult is, in part, responding to the (mis)interpretation at the hands of Hegel and his progeny, which says that the “attributes” serve as determinations of substance that would be entirely indeterminate without the attributes. In his reading, Gueroult argues that substance and attributes must be read “genetically” and are in fact equivalent, i.e. the attributes and substance occupy the same “plane”; this reading is supposed to distinguish Spinoza's philosophy from others in that the foundation is not to be found beyond, behind, outside the world itself but coterminous with it.16
As a tentative reader of Spinoza knows, substance has an infinity of attributes but only two are known to humans, i.e. thought and extension, which are not causally related.17 Thought and extension share the same immanent cause (substance) but one cannot cause the other. A thought may cause another thought but not another modification of extension or vise versa; thought as an attribute is fundamentally different from extension as an attribute. Or as Gueroult puts it, “There is no juxtaposition of the attributes, since they are identical as to their causal act, but neither is there fusion between them, since they remain irreducible as to their essences.”18This is how Gueroult interprets what other scholars call Spinoza's parallelism.19 According to Gueroult's reading of Spinoza's parallelism, there is an ontological and epistemological distinction between the attributes known to humans. In fact, the only way that humans are able to make a conceptual distinction between thought and extension is because in some sense they are ontologically distinct. This distinction between attributes thus allows for a radical distinction between cause and effect. Substance as cause is separate from itself as a mode of thought because this mode of thought is a specific instance of substance as infinite mode, while substance as cause has an infinity of attributes and modes. In a difficult passage, Gueroult writes,
The incommensurability between God as cause and his intellect coincides therefore with the incommensurability between God as object and his intellect as idea. […] this incommensurability, far from excluding the knowledge or truth of the idea, is on the contrary their condition, for the conformity of the idea to its object, which defines the idea, or truth, would be impossible without their fundamental distinction.20 God as a mode of thought (intellect) is distinct from God as cause (in this case, object), but for Gueroult, this is not a problem because this separation generates the truth of an idea. To put it rhetorically: Why would one need to do philosophy if there were no fundamental distinction between the thought of God (which he creates) and God himself as object? This is why Gueroult's reading of Spinoza as a genetic and synthetic thinker is important and idiosyncratic. As Gueroult understands Spinoza, thought and extension are fundamentally distinct not only epistemologically but also ontologically, which allows for the production of “truths” under the protocols of philosophy. The lesson of Spinozism for Gueroult is not the correspondence between a concept and an object. Instead, philosophy and Spinozism specifically “becomes for Gueroult not the site of a singular truth in and of itself but rather an epistemology (gnoseology) that allows for articulation and understanding of a plurality of “true ideas” to be produced ad infinitum.”21
In his unique reading of the substance/attributes/modes relation, Gueroult reveals and reinforces his approach to philosophy. There are a plurality and infinity of “truths” in philosophy, which allows for the plurality of systems and further creation of concepts and systems. But if this is the case then it becomes an issue as to how one argues for one philosophical system over others. Why is Spinoza to be preferred over Descartes? Given Gueroult's concept of philosophy, one cannot argue for one philosophy over the other because the former's concept of substance provides a better explanation of reality; that is an impossibility according to Gueroult's approach, since philosophy is not concerned with concepts as they relate to reality but rather how they conceptually cohere. Gueroult seems to inadvertently undermine Spinozism and a rationalist monist metaphysics when he writes that “absolute rationalism, imposing the total intelligibility of God, key to the total intelligibility of things, is Spinozism's first article of faith.”22What a philosophy says can only be evaluated from the internal protocols that it creates within itself and stands or falls according to conceptual coherence and relation. Spinozian substance is therefore not a necessary metaphysical concept but something one voluntaristically chooses to affirm or deny. According to this mentality, one cannot argue for Spinozian rationalist monism but can only affirm it by faith.23
Reading as Production, Reading as Creation
Before examining the texts that deal with Spinoza specifically, it is important to work through some texts in which some of the thinkers under consideration elaborate their approach to philosophy and reading texts. This is an important undertaking because it brings to light the idiosyncratic nature of their respective readings of Spinoza. One must have a firm grasp of what these thinkers mean when they “read” and “philosophize” broadly speaking.
One aspect that unites these thinkers is their insistence that one does not merely read a text. To read a text philosophically is not to regurgitate the arguments word for word to the letter; this may serve use for historical record but it is not the philosophical approach. Being “faithful” to the text is not the responsibility of the philosopher. It is a guilty reading and necessarily so.24
The task of reading is not to extract the “rational kernel” of a text and to bring out its unbeknownst true meaning; for Althusser the alternative to this naïve reading is what he calls symptomatic reading.25 Althusser claims that the later Marx as an embodiment of symptomatic reading (after the supposed epidemiological break) and says it “divulges the undivulged event in the text it reads, and in the same movement relates it to a different text, present as a necessary absence in the first.” Reading does not bring out the hidden meaning of the text, but points toward an absence that leads to a creative appropriation of the text. Furthermore, what distinguishes this new kind of reading is that symptomatic reading presupposes two texts, a text divided against itself, and measures the first against the second, articulating the lapses in the first text.26 The task of reading is to show the discrepancies and gaps in a text that the thinker could not think (as opposed to conscious suppression). When one reads symptomatically, one does not “reproduce” the text and its concepts but engages in “production”:
It is therefore a question of producing, in the precise sense of the word, which seems to signify making manifest what is latent, but which really means transforming (in order to give a pre-existing raw material the form of an object adapted to an end), something which in a sense already exists. This production, in the double sense which gives the production operation the necessary form of a circle, is the production of knowledge. To conceive Marx's philosophy in its specificity is therefore to conceive the essence of the very movement with which the knowledge of it is produced, or to conceive knowledge as production.27 Symptomatic reading and knowledge do not bring out the “essence” of things, or the truth underlying all things, but are productive, transforming the text and object.
Deleuze and Guattari's approach to philosophy shares similarities to Althusser's (and his students') symptomatic reading. In their last collaborative work, What is Philosophy?, Deleuze and Guattari's answer to that question is that “philosophy is the art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts” or more precisely “philosophy is the discipline that involves creating concepts.”28 Concepts do not exist in a vacuum, nor do they arrive deus ex machina without drawing on some “raw” material of previous philosophies and concepts, but neither are concepts the realization of what was previously there. Similar to symptomatic reading, philosophy, according to Deleuze and Guattari, does not (or at least should not) concern itself with knowing the underlying truth of reality. The success or failure of a philosophy depends on its ability to be interesting, remarkable, important, in short, in its ability to create a new concept.29 With regard to the history of philosophy, one can assume in reading historical philosophical texts, it is not the concern of the philosopher to merely reproduce the content of the text and its context. In fact, Deleuze and Guattari argue that “the history of philosophy is completely without interest if it does not undertake to awaken a dormant concept and to play it again on a new stage, even if this comes at the price of turning it against itself.”30 If there is an essence to a philosophy (a word that Deleuze and Guattari would at the very least hesitate to use), it is the creation of new concepts which produce new lines of flight and ever new possibilities for creation. Texts are paint palettes where one dabs in various colors to create new schemes, new creations. Furthermore, the text or philosophy can be used against itself to undermine its initial meaning and to be put to use in a contemporary context.31
What is striking in Althusser, Macherey, and Deleuze's approach to reading texts is how much it departs from their main source of philosophical inspiration. As laid out in the Theological-Political Treatise, Spinoza's method of interpretation has more to do with philology than with any symptomatic or creative reading. In that text, Spinoza says the proper way to read text requires meticulous historical reconstruction, an in-depth knowledge of the original language, and understanding of the political and social structures of the times.32 Another contrast between Spinoza and this branch of progeny is that unlike the latter, Spinoza thinks that one can extract the truth of a text and that there are proper interpretations of the text.33 Pointing out this discrepancy is important because it is an indication of how to understand the contingent reading of Spinoza. The “method” or form is intertwined with the content.
A Lack of Substance, or Contingent Spinoza
The contingent Spinozists, through their idiosyncratic reading of their forerunner, see in Spinoza a contemporary thinker who is the true materialist predecessor of Marx instead of Hegel. Furthermore, Spinoza does not have the supposed teleological baggage of positing any metaphysical goals of humanity, which he most clearly lays out in the appendix of part one of the Ethics. My point of contention is not that Spinoza is not an important predecessor of Marx; a study of Spinoza is necessary in understanding Marx's project. Rather, my main concern is that in their radical re-reading and appropriation of Spinoza they either downplay or ignore the role of substance in Spinoza's system and the ultimate importance the concept plays in his political convictions.34 Substance is an essential concept in Spinoza's philosophy and is intricately tied to his political arguments. In their anti-Hegelianism, the contingent Spinozists want to escape the notion of totality and say that Spinoza's notion of substance is either not important, or secondary in comparison to attributes or the modes. But this lack of substance, which I am using in a Pickwickian sense,35 makes their radical political positions, which could be broadly construed as anti-capitalist if not precisely Marxist, incoherent. What follows in this section is an exegesis of the contingent Spinozist's understanding of Spinoza's metaphysics. Only after exploring this topic can one understand the politics of the contingent Spinozists.
In his Elements of Self-Criticism, Althusser tells his readers that, contrary to some critics, he and his students were never structuralists but “were guilty of an equally powerful and compromising passion: we were Spinozists.” Yet this admission of heresy is not to be confused with the following of Spinoza's texts and arguments. Althusser's self-proclaimed Spinozism put forward theses “which [Spinoza] would surely never have acknowledged, though they did not actually contradict him.” This heresy can in fact be read as a kind of orthodox Spinozism, one of the greatest heresies in the history of thought.36 Althusser's detour was less a journey to Spinoza than a journey through Spinoza, i.e. an attempt to better understand Althusser's own philosophical materialism. What Althusser et al tried to do in working through Spinoza was to find out “under what conditions a philosophy might, in what it said or did not say, and in spite of its form – or on the contrary, just because of its form, that is because of the theoretical apparatus of its theses, in short because of its positions – produce effects useful to materialism.”37 The relevance of Spinoza is not what his philosophy says (since a text's silences can be as revealing as the text's words) but rather what kind of effects a philosophy produces that is useful to the materialist enterprise. Spinoza's argument for substance, attributes, modes, and all other concepts and theses are at best secondary; the usefulness of a concept for materialism takes precedence over its place and deduction in a system.
According to Althusser, one materialist aspect of Spinoza's philosophy is his understanding of God. While Althusser admits that Hegel's God shares similarities with Spinoza's, Hegel makes a theoretical error in what Althusser perceives to be a positing of telos through the negation of the negation, i.e. that subjects through dialectical contemplation can comprehend the goal of history, spirit, and can have complete transparency of the totality; this claim is one instance of what Althusser calls “the 'mystification' of the Hegelian dialectic.” In contrast, Spinoza does not posit any goals for mankind or any kind of transcendence.38 Because Spinoza “begins with God” and never deviates from the path of immanence, Althusser sees in the former the true predecessor of a materialist philosophy. In an inversion of Hegel's criticisms of Spinoza, i.e. that the latter never went beyond Substance and was unable to see that Substance was also Subject, Althusser argues that Spinoza was a greater materialist for having not made the transition from Substance to Subject.39 Through his sticking to God and immanence, Althusser argues, Spinoza provides the theoretical foundation of a materialism.
Another aspect of Spinoza that Althusser thinks is a materialist corrective of bourgeois ideology is Spinoza's understanding of truth. In the famous dictum “verum index sui et falsi” (the true is the index of itself and what is false),40 Spinoza reorients the perspective of philosophy and its relation to truth away from a “criterion of truth” and jurisdiction to a notion of the true internal to itself. Althusser contends that this conception of the true avoids the issues of how to justify the criterion without resorting to an infinite regress; criterion can and must be rejected “for it only represents a form of Jurisdiction, a Judge to authenticate and guarantee the validity of what is True.” Furthermore, Althusser claims that Spinoza, as a good nominalist, avoids talking about the “Truth” in favor of talking about what is “true” and that “Truth” and “Jurisdiction of a Criterion always go together.” These aspects are tied to dogmatic and transcendental arguments that want to relate the true to some kind of transcendental Truth, a form of mystification according to Althusser. What Spinoza's conception of the true allows for is that the true identifies itself within itself as a product, which shares a common lineage with the Marxist “criterion of practice.”41 Althusser's interpretation of Spinoza's theory of the true argues that the true emerges from its own internal processes (along with the mind that tries to retrace the true's production). What Althusser gleaned from Spinoza can be best articulated by Althusser himself: “I 'defined' knowledge as 'production' and affirmed the interiority of the forms of scientificity to 'theoretical practice,' I based myself on Spinoza: not in order to provide The answer, but to counter the dominant idealism and, via Spinoza, to open a road where materialism might, if it runs the risk, find something other than words.”42
In the concluding passages of his self-reflection, Althusser argues that Spinoza's dialectic surpasses Hegel's. The latter's, Althusser claims, is “a dialectic which produces its own material substance,” i.e. the various spheres (abstract right, morality, civil society, the state) that Hegel lays out in the Philosophy of Right; these spheres are too tightly bound with their “truth” lying beyond themselves with all of them ultimately sublated into a bound whole. The parts fit too neatly with the whole, which Althusser argues is an expression of bourgeois ideology: “it is (the capitalist's) labor which has produced capital.”43 Althusser's alternative for Marxist philosophy is to replace sublated spheres with the “real, distinct” “sites” of “Topography.” The economic infrastructure and the ideological superstructure are somehow related but fundamentally distinct; the state is “up above” the economic but in a mystified contradiction. Althusser's point is to critique a dialectic that sublates the “truth of” previous moments in favor of a dialectic that emphasizes “the determination in the last instance by the economic” and a “forced recognition of the material conditions of its own efficacy.”44 Althusser bases this Spinoza through a re-reading of attributes and their connection. The order and connection of ideas (superstructure – ideology) is the same as the order and connection of things (base – economic production).45 But since the attributes are causally distinct, this allows one to explain why ideology has some autonomy from the base, thus providing a more materialist critique of bourgeois ideology. Spinoza is again seen as the beginning of a correction of pitfalls of the Hegelian dialectic.
In his reading of Spinoza's concepts of Whole (substance) and parts (modes), Althusser asserts that in Spinoza's attempt to grasp a “non-emiment” causality he provided a unique way to understand the part/whole relation: “an unbounded Whole, which is only the active relation between its parts...”46 Like he admits earlier in the essay, this claim about Spinoza does not necessarily appear in Spinoza's philosophy. The concept of the “unbounded Whole” is an indirect influence that enabled Althusser et al to use Spinoza as “unique guide.” Contrary to Spinoza's insistence that substance precedes its modifications in the chain of causality and having its own distinct reality,47 Althusser claims without textual evidence that the whole is its effects, i.e. substance is collapsed into the modes. A consequence of this reading is that Althusser thinks this is a stepping stone to a more materialist understanding of social relations in that it seeks only to understand finite relations (capitalist production with its ideological expressions) with substance as a place holder to make these finite relations cohere in some way. There are no claims about a coherent, sublated, conceptual totality but only a science of the infrastructure and superstructure. As I show later, this collapsing of substance into the attributes and modes makes it hard to maintain a project that wishes to separate “science” from “ideology.”
In the unfinished manuscript translated as “The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter,” Althusser continues to explore the significance of Spinoza for his philosophy. Along with Epicurus, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Marx, Heidegger, and Derrida, Althusser claims that Spinoza is part of a hidden tradition in the history of philosophy: “the 'materialism'... of the rain, the swerve, the encounter, the take [prise].”48 This materialism of the encounter – which Althusser admits is a tradition of his own creation, his “misreading” – is distinct in that it is a materialism of the aleatory and the contingent. In a reading of Epicurus, Althusser depicts a world that is not ruled or (in)formed by meaning, cause, reason, or logos but the swerve, i.e. that there is no inherent comprehensiveness of the world but is an after affect of contingent occurrences: “But accomplishment of the fact is just a pure effect of contingency, since it depends on the aleatory encounter of the atoms due to the swerve of the clinamen. Before the accomplishment of the fact, before the world, there is only the non-accomplishment of the fact, the non-world that is merely the unreal existence of the atoms.”49 Contingency and the void give birth to reality. The existence of these circumstances means that philosophy should not seek reason or the origin of things but produce “a theory of their contingency and a recognition of fact, of the fact of contingency, the fact of the subordination of necessity to contingency, and the fact of the forms which 'gives form' to the effect of the encounter.”50
Althusser then applies the framework of the materialism of the encounter to the philosophy of Spinoza. Although there is some indication of where Althusser's reading of Spinoza was going in the essays in self-criticism, Althusser further radicalizes his reading of Spinoza in his pivot to aleatory materialism.51 Rather than a rational monist who thinks everything has a reality and can be conceptualized as a modification of substance, Spinoza is turned into an aleatory materialist of the encounter, the swerve. “For Spinoza,” Althusser writes, “the object of philosophy is the void.”52 Instead of seeing in substance the supreme reality, i.e. the entity that has the most reality, Althusser says the Spinozian substance is really a void. Spinoza begins with God rather than experience of the world or the thinking subject, and this God is in fact nothing since “by starting with this beyond-which-there-is-nothing, which, because it thus exists in the absolute, in the absence of all relation, is itself nothing.”53 Althusser further elaborates what he understands the Spinozist God to be. He lists characteristics typically attributed to substance (absolute, unique, infinite, with infinite number of infinite attributes) and humans only know the two attributes of thought and extension because of their finite nature. The fact that there are infinite attributes of which only two are known by humans leads Althusser to state this gap “leaves the door to their [infinite attributes] existence and their aleatory figures wide open.”54 Furthermore, this insight allows Althusser to re-read Spinoza's parallelism of attributes as recalling Epicurus' rain – that the different attributes fall in parallel succession like atoms but with thought (soul) and extension (body) never colliding or uniting.55 After restating philosophical claims found in other works (e.g. that Spinoza's philosophy has no Subject), Althusser concludes his section on Spinoza with a reworking of his theory of knowledge in its relation to the external world through Heideggerian lexicon. Although he does not use “substance,” instead opting for “world,” Althusser reformulates Spinozian substance through Heideggerian Dasein arguing that Spinoza turns his back on theories of knowledge and a theory of nature “for the recognition of the 'world' as a unique totality that is not totalized, but experienced in its dispersion, and experience as the 'given' into which we are 'thrown' and on the basis of which we forge all our illusions [fabricae].”56 Through his cross-breeding of Spinoza and Heidegger, Althusser wants to emphasize that the totality of reality and social relations are not capable of being conceptually totalized, i.e. that humans cannot have knowledge of a whole but can only know the contingent finite modes which fall in parallel.
The reading put forth by Althusser here is revealing in showing his “contingency” re-reading of Spinoza. Instead of Spinozian substance being read as the whole that encompasses all of its attributes and modes, Althusser says God is “nothing” because it exists independently of all relations, i.e. substance is not reliant on the modes. The attributes and the modes are not united through substance (since according to Althusser, it is a totality that is not totalized), but fall in parallel never colliding. Relations between and amongst different modes (for example, one could think of various political actors) share absolutely contingent relations like Epicurus' drops of rain. While Althusser thought he was opening up a scene for political action, that communism is not an inevitability, that there are contingent events that cannot be predicted, that moments for socio-politico-economic transformation can be missed, by making Spinozian substance the plane for contingency, turning Spinoza's philosophy into one of contingency actually weakens agents' ability to act (or as Spinoza would put it, increase their power) and does not provide a theoretical grounding for understanding how finite modes, i.e. different actors and expressions of power, can relate to each other at all. The modes have absolutely contingent relationships with one another, and therefore one's affections or ideas cannot be related to another. Furthermore, Althusser's turning into a negative relation or void makes the critique of ideology too difficult to maintain. If the modes are contingently following in parallel in the void, there is no reason to believe that they could ever relate, and one's critique of a given social, economic, or political formation becomes an assertion, a quasi-will to power, rather than a critique that works through the totality and its various manifestations.