berger’s spinoza book

John Berger is releasing a new book inspired by Spinoza called Bento’s Sketchbook. Here’s the description from Verso’s site:

The seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza—also known as Benedict or Bento de Spinoza—spent the most intense years of his short life writing. A sporadic draughtsman, he also carried with him a sketchbook. After his sudden death, his friends rescued letters, manuscripts, notes—but no drawings.

For years, John Berger has imagined finding Bento’s sketchbook without knowing what its pages might hold, but wanting to see the drawings alongside his surviving words. When one day a friend gave Berger a beautiful, virgin sketchbook, John said “This is Bento’s!” and he began to draw, taking his inspiration from the philosopher’s vision.

The result is Bento’s Sketchbook—an exploration of the practice of drawing and a meditation on how art guides our gaze to the world: to flowers, to the human body, to the pitilessness of the new world order and the forms of resistance to it.

Yes, please!

first reply to leon

Leon has posted a generous reply to my questions of yesterday. One thing I should say straight off is that I think Leon is doing important work bringing Peirce into the continental discussion, so I’m eager to learn from him. I’m reading more Peirce because of him! For now I’d like to pull out two quotes from his post and push him to say a little bit more. In the following quote I feel like there’s a bit of sleight-of-hand going on, a  rick that is familiar in theophenomenology:

In a Scholastic manner Peirce basically states that its “fetishism” to say that God “exists” like a stone or tree “exists.”  He is rather interested in how the natural world and its processes can lead one to find the hypothesis of a divine creator a compelling one, and once one adopts that hypothesis, to see what its practical effects upon conduct might be. There is also a phenomenological sort of reportage here: what is it like to experience the suggestion of such a hypothesis? In being awestruck, why is deity the most compelling hypothesis that the cosmos itself seems to suggest?

The trick is the transformation of religious sentiment into evidence for the divine, with the qualification that this is no irrational leap of faith, but something completely natural. There are books out there about a ‘faith instinct’, which isn’t really what Leon is talking about here. But if we want naturalistic grounds for religious faith, perhaps a faith instinct theory could buttress Peirce’s firstness-feeling for God in the NA (“Neglected Argument”)?

Here’s the second quote, on Spinoza:

Spinoza. With Spinoza’s God, there *is* no real difference between nature naturing and natured natured.  And, there is no real freedom in his system, either. Parallel modifications of the one divine substance.  But with Peirce (and others such as Heidegger or Schelling) we get ontological difference and also freedom, or spontaneity and variation from law.  Feeling is the medium of communication between the generative conditions of the world where this freedom originates, and the world.  Yes, potency takes on special significance.  And I’d say, on this point, if anything, its Deleuze (not Spinoza) who comes closest, actually, to developing a theistic naturalist metaphysics (unbeknownst to him!)  Why? For one, its the conditions of generativity – the abstract machine, as it were – that is the divine nature.  This positions the ground as a unique *transcendental* ground empowered with an ultimate feature: the power of creativity.  And so Tom asks: why tack back on terms such as God or Spirit if we would like a thoroughgoing naturalistic metaphysics?  We don’t.  This ground is fully part of nature, yet supercedes nature’s ordinariness.  It is “super” natural yet contained *within* the natural.  A “natural supernaturalism,” if you willl.

Leon’s right to point out that Spinoza’s monism dictates that there is no ontological difference between nature naturing and nature natured for Spinoza. It is crucial that he does not make such a distinction, because if he would have, then it would be quite easy to construe nature naturing as divine–which is what Leon and Corrington have done, it seems. Why make that move? It seems that the impulse for the latter is to preserve real freedom and real chance (Peirce’s tychism). This can only be done, it seems, if a real ontological distinction is drawn between the two aspects of nature. This seems disallowed for Leon because it runs the risk of fracturing nature in undesirable ways. The way to avoid this fracturing, it seems, is to say that potency (and spirit) are fully natural; they’re what bring chance, spontaneity, and freedom into the deterministic order of nature. So is chance/freedom simply posited as existing? Spinoza would say that when we believe in chance/freedom, we fundamentally misunderstand (or fail to imagine) all of the links in the causal chain of nature. Someone like Althusser, in his “Underground Materialism” essay, would like to replace chance into the materialist tradition (Spinoza too). But Althusser is trying really hard to pinpoint the locus of chance in each of the figures he considers. It seems that with Peirce, it’s a matter of being compelled to believe in the divine by virtue of being overwhelmed by the awesomeness of the cosmos. This, however, is a passive affect for Spinoza, not the kind of thing that rational belief is built upon. So, is the religious Peirce giving up his earlier rationalism in his later work and the NA?

Again, why can’t we just see the transcendental ground of nature–potency, nature naturing, plane of immanence, abstract machine, what have you–as nature (or matter)? Why call it God or the divine? Is there compelling reason to divinize the ground, or is it simply a viable hypothesis? If it’s just a hypothesis, then it’s merely one amongst many and it would seem that the law of elegance (Ockham’s Razor) would be applicable here. In any event, I think my point is clear enough.

explosive plasticity?

I’ve recently been thinking about a claim Malabou makes in her brain book. She says that plasticity entails explosiveness, as when we think of C-4 plastic explosives or similar material. The analogy is to the vitality of life, the creative way it bursts forth and strives beyond itself, its form. Nietzsche says in Ecce Homo, “I am no man, I am dynamite!” Life aims beyond preservation, natural kinds, sedimented forms. Such is will to power.

But is it plasticity that is explosive, or is it life? If life is plasticity, then it seems possible. I prefer to think of plasticity dispositionally, as a state of material rather than as the impulse of vital matter. Material objects take on form, hold form, succumb to and resist influence. It does not seem that they seek to explode their own form; or rather, they cannot do this on their own. Nietzsche would seem to agree: the will to power is not self-explosive unless it is hindered in its release, turned against itself. This, however, is a perversion of life–what gives birth to things like consciousness, conscience, moral reflection.

Perhaps we then have at least two versions of plasticity. Plasticity conceived as a disposition of matter, on the one hand, and plasticity conceived as the dual nature of vitality, of life, on the other. In the latter case plasticity is something like the impulse of life, which is at once a striving to preserve and a striving to surpass. In Spinoza, this latter would be the desire to unite with other bodies in friendship and create a more powerful composite body, along with the desire for self-preservation/desire to persevere in existence (conatus). Or, taking the first understanding of plasticity, it would be equivalent to the ratio of motion and rest, quickness and slowness that constitutes the integrity/identity of any composite body. Plasticity is in Spinoza, in one of these forms. I tend to think it’s ratio, rather than conatus.

what can a child do?

Be a Spinozist: ‘Children are Spinozists,” Deleuze and Guattari tell us in A Thousand Plateaus. This means, in part, that they tend to apprehend objects as assemblages, rather than as beings whose functions are specifically determined by nature (organic) or craftsmanship (inorganic). Objects are what their relations enable them to be; they are whatever they can link up with. This does not mean that objects are merely their relations. It implies that objects are imbued with more power than their substantial form contains. Is this power really possessed by the object or does its relations determine its power? Analytic metaphysicians debate this question, I have found out recently. This is a great question, a Spinozist question. In any case, the child more readily discerns possible connections, aggregates, and therefore thinks of the world of objects in terms of machines instead of organs. They don’t ask, What is the chair? They ask: What is a chair? The difference here is the difference between asking for the genus and specific difference of a chair or asking after the Form of chair, and asking what a chair can do. Not what is it made to do, but what can it do? For Spinoza this is understood as affective capacity–the capacity to affect and be affected by other objects/bodies. Children are especially adept at cataloguing the affective capacity of objects, and in virture of this their method of organization (their taxonomy) is more concrete, keyed into the imperceptible forces that join bodies into composites or tear bodies apart from one another. Children are neither Aristotelian nor phenomenologist.

bichat’s definition of life

I’ve always been fond of Xavier Bichat’s definition of life from Recherches physiologiques sur la vie et la mort: ‘Life is the collection of functions that resist death’. This simple definition contains echoes of Spinozan conatus, and it can be modified to yield a general theory of life as maintenance. Life is the maintenance which resists decay. This is of course true at the level of the organism, which does whatever it needs to in order to avoid malnourishment, fatigue, vulnerability, and whatever else will lead to its demise. The same thing can be seen at the level of social movements, trends, and events in general. By contrast, there are events that persist without maintenance–happenings. These must be accounted for without appeal to their maintenance. In the latter case the aleatory is opposed to the maintained. The aleatory event dies a death without resisting; it dissipates on its own terms, which means that it has nothing to do with life as Bichat understands it. The maintained event, on the other hand, assumes a certain conservatism that may or may not become a burden to itself. Here, life becomes an obstacle to life, as Nietzsche discerned.