iPhones and God

During my runs I will always be found with my iPhone, which has an app (RunKeeper) I use to map my route and track my pace (through the phone’s built-in gps) all while listening to my favorite playlist or CD. Frequently I’ll get a text from my wife or daughter, or occasionally from my orthopedist friend, each from their own iPhones, while I’m out on my run. If the text is not urgent I can always wait until the cool down to reply, and then I’ll also use the phone to check my email and reply to comments on my blog (or check blog statistics, which is in itself a bad habit, I know). Moreover, if I were to happen to run out of the house on an errand and forget my phone, which is itself a rare occurrence, I will feel a notable sense of lack. Many I’ve talked to feel the same way. As I’ve heard it put so many times, “I can’t live without my iPhone.” There are three philosophical points that come to mind from this rather humdrum example, points that may reciprocally clarify and be clarified by this example.

  1. If God, in Spinoza’s sense, is the immanent cause of things, then in an important sense things express or manifest God, including my iPhone
  2. My iPhone is an excellent example of desiring-production, in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense of the term, in that the lack I feel is not the cause of the desire for the iPhone; rather, it is the machinic assemblage of desires associated with the iPhone that causes the feeling of lack, and hence the reproduction of the assemblage (which includes, among many other things, the phone, Apple, and AT&T).
  3. The fact that iPhones are ubiquitous among a broad swath of society, from middle class teens to wealthy doctors and surgeons, offers a window onto contemporary perceptions of wealth and poverty.

The relationship between God and things has been one of the most problematic of relationships to dog Spinoza commentators from the beginning. It did not seem to bother Spinoza at all. This could simply be because it was Spinoza’s blind spot or it could be that it really did not bother him, and for reasons he had laid out quite clearly (or at least clearly by his own self-assessment). For Spinoza, as is widely discussed, every thing has a reason for its existence, and this reason is nothing less than its cause. In the case of God, God’s nature entails his existence, or God is self-caused. In the case of particular things such as iPhones and cats, their nature does not entail their existence but rather entails the existence of other particular things. As Spinoza argues in 2P45, ‘Each idea of each body, or of each singular thing which actually exists, necessarily involves an eternal and infinite essence of God.’ But since ‘infinitely many things follow from the eternal necessity of God’s nature in infinitely many modes,’ Spinoza goes on in the Scholium to 2P45 to say that even if each singular thing ‘is determined by another singular thing to exist in a certain way,’ and so on ad infinitum, ‘still the force by which each one perseveres in existing follows from the eternal necessity of God’s nature.’ In other words, and as I argue in earlier posts (here and here), the attributes constitute the problematic multiplicity which constitutes the nature of God that is identifiable as such only within the modes, and hence in the infinite causal web of modes. In commenting on Spinoza’s claim in 2P8S ‘that there must be, for each existing thing, a certain cause on account of which it exists,’ Mason correctly notes that the ‘must be’ ‘adds nothing to the force of the assertion. The necessity consists only in the existence of a cause for each thing. Spinoza takes immanence seriously and literally.’ Mason states this point even more clearly and emphatically earier on in his book:

“There are no external rules of nature or logic above, behind, alongside or within the existing and acting of individuals which can explain them, or whose workings can explain or justify their necessity. There are only individuals and their actions.”

Turning to iPhones now. What is important here, from a Spinozist perspective, is the causal series within which the phone is situated and determinate, but the key point is that iPhones are both acting and acted upon, and we iPhone users are similarly situated modes whose bodies and minds act on and are acted upon by other modes. In transitioning to my second point, the iPhone is not simply an object that I pick up and use to satisfy my ends but it has in turn acted upon me by causing the desire to text, check email, etc., that would not have been possible without the phone. I originally did not get the unlimited texting plan with the phone but upon using the phone and the texting function, the desire to text more and more led me to change plans. This, put bluntly, although I recognize further elaboration is in order, is what Spinoza means by saying that the ‘force by which each one [that is, each singular thing such as iPhones] perseveres in existing follows from the eternal necessity of God’s nature.’

To elaborate this last point we can turn to my second point. What is this power to persevere in existence, also known as conatus for Spinoza. A variant answer to this question can be found in Deleuze and Guattari’s use of the concept desiring-production. Without delving into the immense literature in both Spinoza and DG scholarship that address conatus and desiring-production (respectively), we can simply highlight that God’s infinite power and enjoyment of existing, a power that is expressed in the force whereby singular things persevere in existing, is inseparable from things and the actions of things, although it is not to be confused with them. Stated in other terms, God’s infinite power and enjoyment of existing is irreducible to a scientific, normative account that would seek to identify the laws that restrict and regulate this power (as it does in the case of Leibniz). Following through on Mason’s claim, cited above, there are no such ‘external rules of nature or logic…There are only individuals and their actions.’ There is an interesting parallel here in the work of John Maynard Keynes (to anticipate my third point) when he discusses the uncertainty intrinsic to the study of wealth in a 1937 essay in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. In this essay Keynes is critical of those who believe that the ‘calculus of probability [is]…capable of reducing uncertainty to the same calculable status as that of certainty itself.’ After giving examples of uncertainty in his sense such as ‘the prospect of European war…the obsolescence of a new invention [such as an iPhone], or the position of private wealth-owners in the social system in 1970,’ Keynes argues that ‘there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever’ with respect to them (for more on Keynes and uncertainty, see Schliesser’s helpful economic posts). The concept of desiring-production can serve as an important conceptual tool to connect a Spinozist understanding of the conatus of singular things with the Keynsian understanding of uncertainty. In particular, desiring-production is irreducible to the efforts of axiomatic systems and the ‘calculus of probability’ to reduce it to a predictable process, such as the Oedipal triangulation of mommy-daddy-me which DG claim undermined the great advances Freud made in demonstrating the productive powers of the unconscious. The unconscious is productive, for Freud on their reading, but always with respect to an external logic (the logic of Oedipus) that predetermines its productive powers. As with Spinoza, Deleuze and Guattari take immanence seriously and literally. And yet, despite the irreducibility of desiring-production, God’s power of existing, and Keynsian uncertainty to a calculus of probabilities, there is nonetheless, as Keynes points out, decisions that are made despite the uncertainty, or singular things persevere despite their irreducibility to fixed patterns and logics. This opens the door for the relevance of philosophy, which I discussed in my previous post.

This brings me to my third point. For Keynes, failure to recognize uncertainty and assume the reducibility of uncertainty to a calculus of probability has resulted in a number of problematic consequences for economic theory (in particular, for Keynes, it results in an inadequate understanding of the motivations to hoard money, money not being in itself a source of increased wealth). To state the situation in Deleuzian terms, economics as a ‘major science’ may necessarily involve the calculus and probabilistic modeling of economic life but it also needs ‘minor science’, such as philosophy (though not exclusively or necessarily philosophy) which is an intellectual practice that is irreducible to the techniques of science. With respect to the perceptions of wealth in contemporary society – coming around finally to my third point – it is too easy to identify our individual wealth with the status and nature of singular things, or to trust the wealth of society itself to the ‘lawful’ nature of economies – namely, self-regulating free market capitalism. From the Spinozist perspective sketched here, it should be clear that the economies of societies are not lawful in the sense of adhering to external rules that predetermine and guide the economic activities within the society. To paraphrase Mason’s point: there are nothing but economic actors and actions, and the study of these actors and actions cannot be adequately captured by (major) science. However, the tendency to identify wealth with singular things alone, or with the lawful patterning of things in general, can lead in the first case to the failure to recognize inequalities [we all act and are acted upon by the same singular things, such as iPhones, and thus our economic similarities are perceived to be greater than our differences and inequalities]; and in the second case we accept governmental policies and ideologies that exacerbate social inequalities rather than facing them and addressing them. How else can we explain the fact that Obama could in all seriousness appoint the corrupt, deregulationist ideologue Larry Summers?

I could say more, and probably should, this is just a sketch of some thoughts after all, but I’ve got to go – I just got a text…


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