We were Spinozists

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II. Macherey

Pierre Macherey was Althusser's first student to write a monograph about Spinoza's thought.57 Like his mentor, Macherey tries to show that Spinoza is as much, if not more so, the theoretical antecedent to Marx as Hegel is. Unlike Althusser, Macherey has a more sophisticated and extended comparison (in contrast to Althusser's more polemical remarks) between the two philosophers in his Hegel or Spinoza.58 One of Macherey's main contentions is that Hegel found “something indigestible” in Spinoza's philosophy, and Spinoza was an ever-present limit in relation to Hegel's philosophy, i.e. there are aspects of Spinoza's philosophy that anticipate Hegel's, which the latter could never completely embrace “even at the moment of its inclusion.”59 In other words, Hegel could never sublate the moment of Spinoza because in many ways Spinoza had already read and anticipated Hegel. The focus in this essay is less about the merit of Macherey's evaluation of Hegel's critique of Spinoza, even though there are valuable insights against Hegel's reading, and more about how Macherey reads Spinoza.

Macherey spends a considerable amount of time showing that the very things of which Hegel accuses Spinoza of being guilty, e.g. Spinoza's geometric method is external to its object, are misplaced, and that the two thinkers are in agreement on this issue, i.e. Spinoza is just as critical of an abstract method of knowledge.60 Thus, both Spinoza and Hegel are opposed to any kind of philosophy that wants to establish a method or rules of procedure before the act of thinking itself, contra Descartes and Kant. For Spinoza, according to Macherey, is a thinker opposed to an absolute beginning in the sense that there must be an established truth before one begins to think about concrete things and processes. With an Althusserian-bent, Macherey reads Spinoza's theory of knowledge as one of production:

Knowledge is by contrast an activity – this idea is essential for Spinoza – and as such never truly begins, nor begins in truth, because it has always already begun. There are always already ideas, because “man thinks” in accordance with his nature. This is why the argument of infinite regression, which we have already addressed, retains a certain validity, if at the same time we deny it the value of a refutation: it simply describes the conditions in which knowledge is produced, through a sequence of absolutely continuous ideas without any assignable beginning.61
According to Macherey, Spinoza is not concerned with finding the “truth” of reality or its foundation. There is no guarantee for truth because thinking has already begun and is always in the process of producing, i.e. there is no return to “foundation.” This is an aspect of Spinozism that Macherey says Hegel ignores.62 When Spinoza begins the Ethics with definitions they are not, as Hegel would suggest, the source of truth from which everything is formally and abstractly deduced. Key definitions such as substance, attributes, and modes are not rigid but preliminary principles and “are exactly the equivalent to the rough-hewn stone that the first black-smiths needed 'to begin' their work.” As Macherey understands the definitions, axioms, and other preliminary concepts, they are “notions that are still abstract, simple words, natural ideas that acquire no real significance except at the moment when they function in the demonstrations and where they produce real effects, thus expressing a capacity that they did not have at the beginning.”63 Macherey also notes that the Ethics and Hegel's Logic should be approached in the same way, i.e. not a rigidly deducted system. With regard to method and knowledge, Spinoza and Hegel are on the same side.

However, the similarity with regard to method and knowledge ends there. There is a complete absence of contradiction that drives rational development in Macherey's reading of Spinoza. In the latter's theory of knowledge, the power of the intellect is “integrally positive, an affirmation of self, that excludes any retreat or failing; it does not incorporate negativity of any kind.” On the other hand, for Hegel, contradiction is the driving force of all conceptual knowledge. This distinction is important for Macherey because the Hegelian contradiction has “an orientation that directs the entire process toward an end that is the principal secret of all its operations.”64 One result of this thinking according to Macherey is that Hegelian rationalism remains stuck in the mire of the notion of classical order with the absolute functioning as a guarantee that is always present throughout its historical moments. In some sense, the end is always guaranteed and completed in Hegelian spirit, while Spinozian substance and its process of knowledge is “absolutely causal” and is free from “all pre-established norms.”65 Because substance is absolutely causal there is no end to posit, only the infinite production of substance and its modes. Causa sui is thus the more materialist approach for Macherey because of its anti-teleogical consequence, which can allow for the contingency of history since substance and its history is ultimately production.

Another key concept in Spinoza is that of adequate idea, which is a main focus in both the Emendation and the Ethics.66 In Macherey, an adequate idea for Spinoza is not about a concept corresponding to an object, i.e. the idea of a cat represents the actual object of a cat. This would place a concept in a hierarchical position with regard to an object, or to put it in in Spinozian terms, the attribute of thought is somehow above the attribute of extension. The attributes in terms of causal links are separated in a fundamental way. The idea of two cats causing the production of kittens is in a different causal order than the two existing cats in extension causing the production of kittens. Or to make it more relevant for politics and economics, the material production of capital (economics), while related, does not communicate directly with the ideological production of capital (politics).67 People should not confuse the two attributes because an adequate idea must be determined within itself; the idea of adequation can function as critique.68

Furthermore, a consequence of such an understanding of truth is that knowledge is not dependent upon an active willing subject, but the idea itself is active or a modification of substance. The truth of an idea, an adequate idea of a political situation for example, finds its adequateness within itself as opposed to what the subjective wills of the agents involved would like to happen. A Spinozian politics is not based upon a free will, but rather the awareness that knowledge is a “matter of politics.”69 The process of knowledge is non-evolutionary in Spinoza or a “process without end” and thus an adequate idea of a political situation should find its truth within itself, i.e. through a materialist analysis of the given as opposed to what people subjectively would like to happen.

Having briefly delineated Macherey's understanding of the Spinozian theory of knowledge, it is important to address another key aspect of Spinoza's system: the attributes. Macherey is informative in addressing Hegel's understanding of the attributes; the latter claims that there are only two, arbitrary attributes, thought and extension, while Spinoza actually claims there are infinite attributes.70 Rather than external predicates (thought and extension) that are attached to a subject (substance), the attributes are contents that stand for the form of the substance.71 Macherey further elaborates what he means by this claim in a passage that is revealing of his idiosyncratic reading of Spinoza. Macherey explains,

Thus, what we would have gained on one hand, by ceasing to consider the attributes as forms engendered by intellect, we would have evidently lost on the other, by reducing them to ideas that passively reflect an external reality. To overcome this new difficulty, it must be added that attributes are neither “active” representations nor “passive” representations, images, nor even ideas of the intellect or in the intellect; the attributes are not in the intellect, as forms through which the latter would apprehend them, objectively or not, a content given in substance, but they are in substance itself, whose essences they constitute. It is clear that this precision is enough to rid the definition of attributes of any notion of passivity: the attributes are active insofar as it is substance that expresses itself in them, in all of its essences.72

The attributes are not passive aspects of substance but are actively constitutive of it. Another aspect of Macherey's reading is that in his attempt to make attributes active, they in some sense have their own reality or independence; the attributes become essences of substance. Instead of substance being the cause of all its attributes and modifications, substance becomes dependent upon its attributes reversing the causal order. Macherey becomes more explicit about the consequence of his reading when he emphasizes “the causa sui is nothing other than the process within which substance engenders itself through the “essences” that constitute it, on which its existence is established; this movement succeeds at the moment when it produces substance, as the product of its activity, as the result of its own determination.”73 Macherey insists that in order for Spinozian substance to be coherent and adequately “materialist” then the order between substance and attributes should be reversed so that the attributes come before substance.74

Macherey acknowledges that there is a potential problem in reading the attributes in such a way. Drawing on Gueroult's commentary, Macherey points out that if substance is coterminous with its attributes then there could be as many substances as there are attributes. In other words, it would be accurate to say that all there are are substances.75 To use words from Spinoza, the attributes or rather the substances would be infinite absolute, not infinite in kind, which would produce a problem of how each of the substances could relate to one another without an arbitrary assertion, i.e. without a rational deduction integral to Spinoza's system. For Macherey, it would seem at first that resolving the unity and differentiation problem cannot avoid force: “substance actualizes itself through its attributes in an entirely different manner: substance actualizes itself in a clean break, which passes without intermediary from one level to another, in such a way that the relationship between the infinite only in its kind and the absolutely infinite first presents itself as a true contradiction, which is resolved suddenly, by force, beyond any attempt at reconciliation.”76 Not quite satisfied with positing one side of the issue over the other, Macherey is forcing himself to maintain that substance is both the diversity of its attributes as well as their unification; for Macherey, “these two aspects are not sequential but simultaneous.”77 In an almost Kantian formulation, Macherey maintains that both positions of substance → attributes and attributes → substance must both be asserted as adequate to substance's nature.

When Macherey continues into a discussion of the modes, he continues to acknowledge this ambivalence in his reading. If the necessity of the modes and the necessity of substance are one and the same, then the two become indeterminate, which is especially a problem for substance since it is supposed to have the most reality due to it being an infinite cause of itself.78 A full analysis of how Macherey attempts to resolve this issue will take us too far astray. But Macherey seems to have to hold onto these contradictory positions without adequately demonstrating their truth, or perhaps, in a language his brand of Spinozism is comfortable with, adequate.

Macherey has to maintain this potential contradiction because of his emphasis on the “materialist dialectic” of a “process without subject” and his anti-teleological commitments. His version of Spinoza must maintain that substance is nothing but its affections,79 i.e. its attributes and modes, in order to not, supposedly, posit an end. To use Macherey's words, “the struggle of tendencies that do not carry within themselves the promise of their resolution. Or again, a unity of contraries, but without the negation of the negation.”80 Given the failures of certain trends of Hegelian Marxism, Macherey's skepticism of the negation of negation is understandable and warranted, since communism's inevitability prevented certain thinkers at the time from actually engaging with the contradictions of the present. The existence of capitalism's potential downfall and gravediggers does not necessarily mean that they will be actualized and fulfilled. But such a reading of substance has potential problems for such a materialist project of the critique of political economy and the critique of ideology. First, if substance is nothing but its affections then it can only be known negatively, i.e. substance is never concretely and adequately known. Thus, substance acts as a secondary category rather than a necessary one. Second and more importantly, when substance becomes its affections, attributes and modes, Macherey runs the risk of undermining substance's unicity in favor of a multiplicity, which he acknowledges as a potential problem. Substance becomes substances, i.e. infinities absolutely rather than infinite through substance's nature. The modifications that would result would each be self-subsisting without communication or relation. There is nothing that unifies the affects one person to another, and therefore the critique of political economy and ideology becomes merely an assertion of one's affections. Macherey's ideology critique, which is an important aspect of the Althusserian project, collapses on itself since it cannot distinguish between another's affections as “ideology” from the dialectical materialist's affections as “science.” Granted, Macherey does say that substance unifies as well as multiplies but substance essentially acts as a negative concept for Macherey (substance is its affections); substance is not a concept that is adequately demonstrated as concrete but is only a negative referent.


Although Deleuze has a slightly different philosophical project, he shares an anti-Hegelianism and a re-reading of Spinozian substance with Althusser and Macherey. In fact, Deleuze is quite explicit in his Spinoza not being one of metaphysical monistic substance. Deleuze says in an interview, “What interested me most in Spinoza wasn't his Substance, but the composition of finite modes.... the hope of making substance turn on finite modes, or at least seeing in substance a plane of immanence in which finite modes operate...”81 Here and in other passages Deleuze is straightforward in turning Spinoza from a philosopher of substance monism into a philosopher of pluralistic immanence. Yet stopping at these remarks is not enough in addressing Deleuze's philosophical innovation. One must work through Deleuze's work on Spinoza and see how this move comes about and whether it is one of merit and worth pursuing. The focus here is on Deleuze's larger book, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, although Spinoza: Practical Philosophy deals with similar themes in a more accessible form.82

Expressionism in Philosophy, originally published in French as Spinoza et le problème de l'expression,83 was Deleuze's minor thesis along with the major thesis, Difference and Repetition. Although he acknowledges that Spinoza hardly uses the term, Deleuze claims that the main insight of Spinozian philosophy is the problem of expression unbeknownst to the former. What distinguishes Spinoza from all previous philosophy is that Spinoza is able to avoid the pitfalls of prior theology and neo-Platonism of placing a One that undergirds all of the Many, where the former is the ground on which the latter stand. The technical term “expression” allows Deleuze to emphasize that Spinozian substance or God is not a ground or a being external but is an expression of itself and its affections. Like Althusser and Macherey, Deleuze emphasizes the immanence of substance and its non-hierarchical nature to its affections.84 Expressionism in Philosophy is a complex work, spanning the history of philosophy and Spinoza's unique position within it. Although one cannot do complete justice to all of the arguments of this book, there are relevant passages for the concerns of this paper.

Through the idea of expression, Deleuze seeks to re-work Spinozian substance to revolve around its attributes and modes. Rather than substance (or any other concept in the history of philosophy standing for Absolute) having more of a reality than its affections, and thus establishing a hierarchical conception of reality, Deleuze claims that the essence of substance has no existence outside the attributes that express it, so that each attribute expresses a certain eternal and infinite essence. What is expressed has no existence outside its expressions; each expression is, as it were, the existence of what is expressed.”85 In an attempt to make substance fit what Deleuze calls in other texts the “plane of immanence,” substance is said to have no existence outside of the attributes that express it, resulting in an ontology that is entirely immanent and a flat plane.

When the attributes are read in such a way, they cease to be of a lesser reality or a negation of the wholeness or perfection of substance but have a positive reality in themselves. Since the infinite attributes are no longer seen as limits (especially as thought placing a limit on extension), the attributes and modes are seen has having infinite affirmative reality themselves.

Deleuze writes,

It is the nature of real distinction between attributes that excludes all division of substance; it is this nature of real distinction that preserves in distinct terms all their respective positivity, forbidding their definition through opposition one to another, and referring them all to the same indivisible substance. Spinoza seems to have gone further than any other along the path of this new logic: a logic of pure affirmation, of unlimited quality, and thus of the unconditioned totality that possesses all qualities; a logic, that is, of the absolute. Attributes should be understood as the elements of such a composition of the absolute.86

Although there are infinite distinctions amongst the attributes, they are unified in substance; but simultaneously each attribute has its positive reality without limiting other attributes. Spinoza is the thinker of affirmation par excellence and has no conception of negativity or dialectics.87 Even in this early text, it is clear that Deleuze is trying to think the plane of immanence and life as opposed to any philosophy of hierarchy or negation.88 Each attribute is a pure affirmative quality of substance; if certain attributes were to be subordinated to others (e.g. thought as opposed to extension) or if attributes were to be subordinated to substance then Spinoza's philosophy would not be one of expression.

As was noted earlier, Deleuze is more interested in the modes than substance. One key move he makes is to make substance revolve around the modes, rather than substance being the cause of the modes and their further modification. Deleuze notes,“But if it be true that modes, by virtue of their power, exist only in their relation to substance, then substance, by virtue of its power, exist only in its relation to modes: it has an absolutely infinite power of existence only by exercising in an infinity of things, in an infinity of ways or modes, the capacity to be affected corresponding to that power.”89 It is important to note that Deleuze is not saying that substance must have infinite attributes and infinite modifications because it is truly infinite and perfect – that would be a fairly orthodox reading of the substance/modes relation. What Deleuze is saying is that substance can only exist as substance through its modes, or in other words, he has not only collapsed the modes into substance but also the substance into the modes. Substance in order to be substance must be its affections for Deleuze.

At times, Deleuze will qualify this claim of what appears to an equivocation of modes and substance. He remarks that “[t]he univocity of attributes does not mean that substance and modes have the same being or the same perfection: substance is in itself, and modifications are in substance as in something else.”90 In order for God to be distinguished from its modifications, it must have more reality or perfection; in the Spinozian system, a cause has more perfection than its effects. But even while Deleuze wants to maintain this essential tenet of Spinozian philosophy, he still wants to maintain that they are equal at least in a very particular sense. “Spinoza posits the equality of all forms of being, and the univocity of reality which follows from this equality,” Deleuze argues, “The philosophy of immanence appears from all viewpoints as the theory of unitary Being, equal Being, common and univocal Being. It seeks the conditions of a genuine affirmation, condemning all approaches that take away from Being its full positivity, that is, its formal community.”91 Deleuze's solution to the potentially conflicting claims that the modes precede or constitute substance and simultaneously that substance is the cause of its modifications is to claim that they are unified through seeing God as immanent, equalizing all aspects of its being without limiting its various manifestations.

Showing how this reading of the modes manifests itself throughout the whole of Deleuze's oeuvre is beyond the scope of this essay, but there are some moments in his other work that draw on his previous studies of Spinoza, implicitly or explicitly, that are revealing of this move. To put it crudely, the following passages are the “applied” aspects of Deleuze's Spinozism.

In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the rhizome can be seen as an expression of Deleuze's idiosyncratic reading of Spinozian substance. Deleuze and Guattari argue that the anti-hierarchical rhizome starts from the middle or milieu, not seeking totalization or order. The rhizome is seen as doing away with beginnings and endings allowing for the multiplicity of life to explode the transcendent hierarchical order of the state, of linguistics, etc.92 The modes in a plane of immanence are not subordinated to a unifying force that seeks to capture them but are anarchic desires that seek flight. It can be hypothesized that the privileging of the desiring modes (whatever form they might take, such as the rhizome) is summarized in this collaborative work when Deleuze and Guattari make the claim “PLURALISM = MONISM.”93

The influence of Spinoza, or at least Deleuze's reading of him, is more explicit in his and Guattari's concept of the body without organs (BwO) through which they seek another way of conceiving of a flight from unifying organization. In fact, they claim that the Ethics is the great book of the BwO.94 As Deleuze and Guattari develop the concept of the BwO, they raise the issue of whether there is a unifying entity or totality that brings together the multiplicity of all BwO's in explicitly Spinozian terms.95 The tentative answer to this problem is that Deleuze and Guattari want to explode this opposition of the One and the Multiple, that the BwO's is a “fusional multiplicity that effectively goes beyond any opposition between the one and the multiple,” and emphasize the formal multiplicity of the attributes and ontological unity of substance; in effect, the “BwO is the field of immanence of desire, the plane of consistency specific to desire (with desire defined as a process of production without reference to any exterior agency, whether it be a lack that hollows it out or a pleasure that fills it).”96 Harking back to Deleuze's Spinoza monograph, substance is its modes as much as the modes are in substance, and for Deleuze and Guattari potentially breaks out of hierarchical relationship between One and Many. The reading of the modes in this way allows for Deleuze to reappropriate substance so that it is not necessitarian, i.e. fully determining its modification in the causal chain, but opens up a space for the anarchic, contingent, multiplicity of modes or life. As Deleuze and Guattari claim, “Spinoza, Heliogabalus, and experimentation have the same formula: anarchy and unity are one and the same thing, not the unity of the One, but a much stranger unity that applies only to the multiple.”97 Now that the modes are freed from any deterministic system, their trajectory is open to the contingency of events and new formations, which produce ever new ones ad infinitum; the modes are not bound by the previous causal change, since they are as much that chain themselves, and can flee the capturing tendencies of capital, the state, et al. Like Althusser and Macherey, Deleuze (and Guattari) (re)read Spinoza in order to understand the contemporary conjecture without an appeal to any teleological guarantee that would ultimately do violence to singularities.

Thus, these conceptual formulations in Deleuze's work with Guattari provide some insight into what Deleuze meant when he wrote, “All that Spinozism needed to do for the univocal to become an object of pure affirmation was to make substance turn around the modes...”98 Having tried to show how Deleuze makes substance turn around the modes, it is now necessary to point to the perhaps unintended political consequences. Deleuze thought that making Spinoza a philosopher of contingency opened up the possibility of new radical politics that renounced any teleology and would pave the way for a new materialist philosophy. Yet, I want to claim, as I did with Althusser and Macherey, that Deleuze's politics become unthinkable given his reading of Spinoza.

As indicated above, Deleuze tries to make the claim that the modes in some sense constitute substance. The first move in the construction of this claim is to make Thought and Extension ontologically distinct,99 although Deleuze claims that they are unified in substance. Yet if they are substantially distinct, i.e. distinct in that thought cannot causally determine extension, the problem arises as to how they relate at all, or Deleuze notes how to these two (and the infinite others) attributes express the same thing.100 In other words, it raises the issue as to how the infinitely multiple relate to one another, if at all. Deleuze is aware of Kant's critique of Spinoza in that the latter (supposedly) could not account for the unity of attributes and modes:

Everything leads us to expect that there will be modes in different attributes expressing the same modification. Yet we have no absolute certainty in this matter. One might even conceive as many worlds as there are attributes. Nature would be in substance, but multiple in its modifications, what is produced in one attribute remaining absolutely different from what is produced in another. It is because of their individual coherence, their specificity, that we are forced to seek a separate ground of the unity of which they are capable.

The answer that Deleuze provides to this dilemma is that the idea of God synthesizes these qualities because “God's understanding has no less unity than divine substance, and so the things he understands have no less unity than God himself.”101

Knox Peden notes that Deleuze's making the attributes themselves substantial makes substance “purely ideational” or a formal category without content.102 While I agree with the insight that substance acts as secondary consideration or a place holder in Deleuze, Peden overemphasizes the issue that this is a problem of rationalism qua rationalism (as opposed to materialism?) or idea qua idea and seems to miss the larger point that this idea of God is asserted or added on arbitrarily rather than being necessarily deduced through itself – like Spinoza does the true idea in the Emendation.103 With the emphasis on the substantiality of the attributes and the attempt to make substance turn around the modes, Deleuze seems to undermine any kind of radical politics because when modes constitute what is the most real then one cannot speak of substance but substances. The modes become contingently related without an argument as to why or how they can relate to one another. One cannot speak of a critique of existing poltico-economico-social forms because it has not been demonstrated from Deleuze's premises as to why one's politics is communicable to another; in other words, there is no reason provided as to why my political ideas, commitments, and practices could ever be related to someone else,yet alone many others, for they would be merely thoughts in my own head. Deleuze's version of Spinoza, in its emphasis on contingent anarchic multiplicity, was a response to totalizing tendencies throughout social and political life as well as their philosophical expressions (especially Hegel). But in his attempt to make a Spinozian philosophy more open to contingent multiplicity of history and political events, Deleuze undermines any attempt to make sense of those contingent aspects of political life and further to be able to communicate political commitments through resistance, solidarity, or any other radical political action.

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