Spinoza Upside Down

Steven Shaviro’s post lays out quite nicely the contrast, as he sees it, between Spinoza-Deleuze and Whitehead. In essence this boils down to what role, if any, the virtual plays in their work. As a longtime admirer of Whitehead’s work as well as Shaviro’s reading of Whitehead, I’d like to think that in the end we agree on more than we disagree. I do want to address some of Shaviro’s concerns and see this as an opportunity to clarify some things. To begin, I want to discuss two claims that I would support and I believe Shaviro would support as well:

  1. There are nothing but modes or actual entities.
  2. The turn to the virtual should not be a turn away from actual entities and modes, and if it is there should be no such turning.

As for the first claim I take seriously Deleuze’s claim that his task was to make substance turn on its modes rather than have the modes turn on the substance they are modifications of. This may indeed entail turning Spinoza’s thought upside down, or unhinging it to use Shaviro’s phrase. Deleuze himself appears to echo Shaviro’s criticism of Spinoza that “There is no substance, nothing behind the modes or affections, for there to be modes or affections of,’ when in Difference and Repetition he claims that “Spinoza’s substance appears independent of the modes, while the modes are dependent on substance, but as though on something other than themselves.” (DR 40). As Shaviro states much the same point, “Spinozian substance is still a subject for all the predicates, a monism behind the pluralism.” I may therefore be going too far, even for Deleuze, in my own reading of Spinoza, but it is certainly true of Deleuze’s project, and so that will be my primary focus. First, I agree with Whitehead’s claim, which I discuss in an earlier post, that ‘apart from the things that are actual, there is nothing.’ (Process and Reality, p. 53). So I’ll elaborate a bit upon my reading of Whitehead and hopefully clarify my understanding of the virtual (and I’m inclined to cease using the term altogether and use problematic, dynamic system at the edge of chaos, or some other such term to avoid what has become the almost automatic association of the virtual with being something out of this world, to borrow Hallward’s apt phrase).

As I read Whitehead and Deleuze I see a Humean problematic – namely, what is important are not the terms (impressions and ideas) but the relations between these terms. This will loom large in Deleuze’s work, and not just in his reading of Hume whereby he stresses the significance for Hume of the fact that relations are external to their terms. Understood in this way, and as I argue at greater length in Deleuze’s Hume, a multiplicity is not to be confused with a material or substantial substrate but rather with the relations between actual terms, relations that are irreducible to the terms themselves. In Difference and Repetition, for example, distinct individual languages actualize a multiplicity, but for Deleuze a linguistic multiplicity, as he calls it, that is nothing less than the “reciprocal connections between phonemes.” It is thus the connections and relations between phonemes that is actualized as a language, and yet the phonemes are nonetheless inseparable from the language itself. The phonemes themselves are actual and as such can be objects of study. A language thus does not predicate upon the phonemes but are an emergent property of the relations between phonemes. Similarly for Whitehead he offers what he calls a “cell-theory of actuality.” (PR 256). In the same way that Deleuze argues for multiplicities that are inseparable from the state of affairs that actualize them – the relations among phonemes are inseparable from the diverse languages that actualize them – so too for Whitehead ‘each ultimate unit of fact is a cell-complex, not analyzable into components with equivalent completeness of actuality.’ (ibid.). In other words, and in line with Whitehead’s project to break with traditional philosophy’s long-established tendency to claim that what is ultimate, what grounds everything else, are facts, he will instead claim that there are nothing but actual entities and facts are simply cell-complexes, societies, or emergent properties (though he does not use this term of course) of actual entities. Moreover, as Shaviro points out, actual entities are not complete in themselves, for complete actual entities are perished actual entities, and thus they are always in the process of prehending and being prehended by other actual entities (a point Deleuze stresses about Whitehead in his book on Leibniz).

The lesson I draw from this in understanding the problematic is that it is not outside the actual, nor do I think it undermines the actual; rather, it is the power of relations, or what Deleuze will call the power of “and” that problematizes and intensifies the actual (a problematized or aberrant actual) while being inseparable from it. As Whitehead understands this point, the established facts are “societies [cell-complexes] in an environment [that] will constitute its orderly element, and the non-social actual entities will constitute its element of chaos.” (PR 131). These anti-social or nomadic actual entities are what problematize facts and, given a sufficient uprising (so to speak), they may very well lead to the displacement of this fact by another fact. One can see here one of the many reasons for the profound influence of Whitehead on Latour (not to mention the influence of occasionalism which Graham Harman rightly pointed out to me). This is in effect how I read a Spinoza where substance would indeed turn on the modes; namely,  substance would not be something behind the modes but rather something between them, the power of ‘and’ and the nondenumerable that is distinct from the modes while being inseparable from then.

What then are the implications of all this for the second claim, for the ethical move from the actual to the virtual? As Shaviro shows, Whitehead secularized God and hence placed God on an equal footing to all other actual entities and therefore removed the need for a return to a higher ideal. The same secularization needs to be done of the virtual, Shaviro argues, and if we do so we would then no longer need the move to the virtual. I agree. As I’ve tried to argue in an earlier post and again in Deleuze’s Hume, the virtual is already secularized and is not out of this world as Hallward and Badiou each argue (though in differet ways). The virtual is only determinate and identifiable as actualized, but then it is actualized as a problematized actual, an aberrant actual as the nomadic anti-social actual entities disrupt the equilibrium of the well-ordered society (to continue with Whitehead’s example) and thus the virtual (or problematic) functions as the relationships between actual entities that accounts for their birth and perishing. To clarify what I mean by way of an example, and more importantly to clarify what is meant by a move to the virtual or to multiplicity, I’ll return to an example I used in a previous post. If we take David Sudnow’s efforts to learn improvisational jazz, he is in essence attempting to learn to play jazzy melodies without an already written score. His difficulty in learning to play, which he describes in intricate (some might say excruciating) detail, was to know where his hands should go next in playing a melody. He found himself again and again returning to the well-established jazz chords and melodic runs that his instructor gave him, but found as he watched his instructor play that he always did more than that. What is this more? For Sudnow it was many more ways for his hands to go than the actual paths and patterns he had learned. However, he eventually discovered that when he was playing improvisational jazz he didn’t need to prefigure where his hands would go but could simply begin where he actually was. Sudnow uses the term “melodying” to capture the active, processual nature of playing improvisational jazz, of melodying amidst the actual (where one’s had actually is). Deleuze offers a related example in Logic of Sense when he discusses the actor who counter-actualizes their role. In contrast to Sudnow’s efforts to play improvisational jazz and hence make it up as he goes along, the actor performs a predetermined role with already written lines, but by counter-actualizing this role they are not escaping it but are making it active, individuating it, and they do so by tapping what Deleuze calls in his “Methods of Dramatization” talk, “sub-represenational dynamisms.” These dynamisms entail intensities that are not to be confused with the determinate and singular, with the determinate role. As Deleuze puts it in his talk:

Though experience always shows us intensities already developed in extensions, already covered over by qualities, we must conceive, precisely as a condition of experience, of pure intensities enveloped in a depth, in an intensive spatium that preexists every quality and every extension. Depth is the power of pure unextended spatium [or what I’ve been calling the power of absolutely indeterminate susbstance with respect to Spinoza]; intensity is only the power of differentiation or the unequal in itself, and each intensity is already difference, of the type E-E’, where E in turn refers to e-e’, and e to ε-ε’, etc. Such an intensive field constitutes an environment of individuation. (DI 97)

The turn to the virtual is therefore not a turn from the actual but rather an intensification and individuation of the actual. The actor individuates the role rather than passively reciting lines; Sudnow is individuating a melodic line when he is melodying a jazz piece rather than playing a written score (though even here, as with the actor, a performer can individuate the piece through the ‘power of differentiation’); and a speaker’s language is individuated by the intensive relations of phonemes. At this point one might ask how this relates to doing philosophy and in particular to the ethical concerns of Spinoza and Deleuze. My examples so far have been actors, musicians, and speakers of a language. Deleuze was asked much the same question by Ferdinand Alquié after his “Method of Dramatization” talk. ‘What struck me,’ Alquié says, ‘is that all the examples he [Deleuze] uses are not properly philosophical examples.’ Deleuze responds by saying that this criticism hit ‘home more forcefully,’ and says, ‘I do believe in the specificity of philosophy, and furthermore, this belief of mine derives from you yourself.’ (Alquié supervised Deleuze’s work on Spinoza). In particular, for Deleuze the ‘theory of systems’ he is developing is philosophical, and not scientific, and thus it is a ‘philosphical system, with its own dynamisms, precursors, larval subjects, specific to it.’ Philosophy thus has its specific dynamisms, multiplicities, and processes of individuation. Levi Bryant’s work is exemplary in detailing and applying the systems approach to understanding objects. I’ve argued along similar lines in Philosophy at the Edge of Chaos; and Manuel Delanda and Brian Massumi, less I forget, forged this insight even earlier. But what is true of philosophy as a distinctive, individuated system, is equally true for Spinoza and our understanding of an individual life. A determinate, singular life likewise has its own multiplicities that are tapped when one is living a joyful, intense, and individuated life, and this living (a la melodying for Sudnow) is inseparable from what one is actually doing within their determinate life. Whether or not this brings idealism back in, I’d like to think not, but as it is I’ve only sketched the general contours and admit that more needs to be done.


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