Spinoza’s joint-stock theory of the affects

Spinoza’s understanding of the affects can illuminate much, but I do not think it amounts to a critical or radical politics of the affective. So while I finish a post on the politics of affect that is more to do with current theories and politics around affect, I thought I would reiterate some of the argument in C&C, but that I discuss further in another essay, “Spinoza’s Affections.”

Spinoza’s understanding of the affective was only one instance of the periodic attempt by philosophers to leap over the categorical distinction between mind and body. It would be a mistake to assume that he did so without reinstating that distinction in another form or by overstating his distance from considerations of national-imperial and corporate (as well as colonial) policy.

Firstly, despite the contrast between Hobbes and Spinoza in the late 1960s by Macheray among others, both attributed to the masses a capacity for being affected without reason that they did not ascribe to themselves. This is why Spinoza shifts from writing a politico-theological treatise to writing about ethics—the latter was intended for a more narrow audience inside the corridors of power.

Secondly and more importantly, as a concept of “the body’s power of acting”—that is through being affected “increased or diminished, aided or restrained”— Spinoza’s theory of the affects is an early rendition of the theory of human capital and a guide to business ethics.

dutch_east_indiaSituated on the one (and losing) side of debates at the time about whether the Dutch East India Company should insist on the religious conversion of its trading partners, Spinoza’s rather modest heresy consisted of arguing that it was more important to accumulate the power to act than it was to collect explicit converts, precisely because he situated the affections on a continuum of greater or lesser “perfection” and because the “body” Spinoza had in mind, and whose dilemma he thought through, was the joint-stock company. This is why Spinoza argued that each affective state is a transitional state that can lead away or toward “perfection”—while the foreign trading partners of the Dutch East India Company might not now be religious converts, they nevertheless could be situated somewhere along a continuum of that conversion.

It is not coincidental that even today advocates of multiculturalism often rest their arguments on theories of human capital, namely: that cultural or religious differences can, inasmuch as they remain under its auspices, increase the stock of the national economy.

9 thoughts on “Spinoza’s joint-stock theory of the affects

  1. This is a helpful clarification. What exceeds Spinoza, that which lie concealed in his theory of affects, is the historicity of the body.I also get the feeling that reading Spinoza requires us to ignore that bodies have historicity in view of his more general theory of life–that it is eternally continuous and that no amount of historical dislocation, also a localization of continuity that life imposes on the living but a localization that risks disturbing the continuum owing to the mortality in which history is embedded and always condemned to express its fallibility, so to speak, can on the contrary outsmart the eternity of the conatus, as Spinoza views it. But even life is expressive, that is to say, it has to be embedded in a particular perceptive assemblage or structure such as a body or a brain that is made to enact what conatus wishes it to express. More technically, the conatus wishes the body to express life in its unforgiving eternity, but which, again, owing to the mortality of the body’s embeddedness cannot just disembed the body to express life. It goes without saying that even life has so much interest in life–I emphasize ‘interest’ to drive home the point that life is not extrinsic to any kind of justification. It is always already in life.

  2. There are different concepts of the continuity of life, from those in evolutionary theories (mentioned here https://s0metim3s.com/2013/09/20/prognoses-mutation/) to those of Spinozian monism. It might well be the case that Spinoza’s understanding of the affects can’t be reduced to the disputes between factions of the Dutch bourgeoisie in the seventeenth century. But, yes, life is not extrinsic to its justifications – which raises the question of why this particular one among all others, and then a subsequent question about why this, or at least a modification of it, became so central to post-1968 philosophy in France.

  3. Why Spinoza after 68? To answer that we need to ask about what was happening in 1968 in and beyond Paris and France. An almost revolution occurred with its locus of energy coming from surprising quarters and being generalise across France in the form of a more or less general strike; a wave of global radicalism; a new generation of young people beginning to assert sexuality, the body, and problems of everyday life as the grounds for their politics and ethics; Vietnam escalates; the civil rights movement makes linkages between political ontology, history and skin; anti-psychiatry is blossoming and challenging the distinctions between mad and sane; the quasi-transcendental value of Gold is dispatched; a variety of left and right wing terror campaigns spread throughout a Europe undergoing political turmoil; a Pope publishes a text condemning the emergence of birth control, stepping into debates around feminism’s politics of reproductive rights; the Khmer-Rogue seizes Cambodia; the United States sends the first manned flight into space. None of this even captures the findings from the world of the sciences (developments in neurology and so forth).

    Not all of these events happened at the same time. Most of them occurred after the university occupations and street battles began. Along with all of these events there are reaffirmations of the centrality of the body and contestations over its place in socioeconomic, sexual, racial, and even planetary economies. What also happens- as we well know- is a series of combined breaks from the historical materialism that failed to predict the upsurge of 1968, the model of the Party with its class substitionalism and authoritarianism (seen as necessarily linked and articulated via a critique of transcendence). The emphasis came to be placed on spontaneity, autonomous organisation and living, and so on- the old familiar story.

    Doesn’t the appeal to Spinoza make sense given the shock of the proliferation of new pluralities (political bodies as well as bodily politics), and in trying to find a methodology or an approach for thinking through a conceptuality that displayed and intensified fidelity to the new fields, modes and existentialities of struggle? The idea had to descend from the Platonic-Hegelian heights…Spinozan immanence offered that.

    Perhaps this is merely to repeat a doxa that we’ve grown tired of though.

  4. All of that, yes. The only thing I would add to that or emphasise a little more is the critique of Descartes. Particularly in the 1960s and on this takes place in the context of the the high watermark of Fordist line production (which has its particular distinction between mind and body) and the distinction between factory and household (that involves the same binary, yet in a slightly different way).

    I think it’s remarkable that while Spinoza is read so as to leap over this binary, those who read him nevertheless go on to reinstate (restore) it in another way when they attempt to theorise new forms of work — as with the concepts of cognitive and immaterial labour.

    There’s a periodisation of the re/turns to theories of affect in C&C that goes something like this: i) 17th C Holland, 16th C in England, Machiavelli and the Renaissance more generally, ii) post-1968 France, iii) the growing predominance of the service industry. And I’d suggest that a Spinozian theory of the affects is capable of describing some of the terms of the latter, but not in a way I would regard as particularly radical. In any case, the concepts of potestas/potenzia remain Aristotelian, and the immanentism of this easily slips into a form of positivism.

  5. I should have mentioned the stuff on Fordism. I think the reference to Cartesianism is implied in the return to the body as a privileged site of politics, theory and philosophy. Nonetheless, I agree with the strange reinscription of dualism that concepts like cognitive/immaterial labour can imply. We have to be careful though not to overstate this reinscription as it seems to me that the very terms admit of slippage or seepage from a kind of phenomenology to a political ontology; that is, they want to describe the advent of what they see as the new hegemonic formulation of labour but allow this, at times, to seem like a neoCartesian separation of body from affect. Indeed, the point is to see the cognitive and immaterial as precisely emergent from the body and its (neuro)physiological capacities. Some quick scattered thoughts:

    I think Bifo does a better job of this than most, given his insistence on the limits of “the conscious organism” and the displacement of alienation from the plane of psychic insufficiency to psychophysical pathology. Although this proceeds through the “semiosphere” of signification and value it is obvious that this sphere isn’t intended as a separate ontological realm but simply the materio-discursivity of proliferating signs and significations that Freud already established as having an efficient materiality for bodies. The proliferation of semiotic affordances simply exceeds our biological attentional capacities: too much to see, too much to process, too much to do- the political physiology of the behaviour inhibition system that people like Steigler are calling the “attention economy”.

    It is telling that Bifo talks about abandoning the Spinozan Deleuze for the more Lacanian Baudrillard in all this because of the latter’s critique of the metaphysics of production. For him it is precisely the run-away affirmation of production that is at fault in the immaterialist hypotheses and that is shared, grounded, in Spinoza’s theory of the affects. Baudrillard prefers to subscribe to the Ballardian “death of affect” hypothesis:

    “There is no affectivity behind all this: no psychology, no ambivalence or desire, no libido or death-drive. Death is a natural implication in this limitless exploration of the possible forms of violence done to the body, but this is never (as in sadism or masochism) what the violence purposely and perversely aims at, never a distortion of sense and sex (in comparison to what?). There is no repressed unconscious (affective or representational) therein, except via a second reading which would necessarily reinject still more twisted meaning in order to conform to the psychoanalytical model. The nonsensicalness, the brutality, of this mixture of body and technology is totally immanent—it is the reversion of one into the other. And an unprecedented sort of sexuality results from this, a kind of potential dizziness linked to the pure inscription of the body’s non-existent signs: a ritual symbolism of incisions and brands, like in the graffiti of the subways of New York”- Baudrillard, Simulacra and Science Fiction.

    Behind everything is lack, lack, lack. But in Baudrillard lack isn’t originary, it is the result of production, of overproduction, in other words, it is the consequence of excess. He has his terminology for this: pornography, obscenity, and, above all, hyperreality. It is the hyper-realisation of affect that produces its crash, its “death” or its increasingly singularised expression as rage.

    The problem of the immaterialists is that they miss the way in which the immaterial is in fact the incorporeal events produced by corporeal bodies. Thus when they affirm immateriality they are also championing affect as limitless, as a pure virtuality, a simulacra that can burst forth from any territorialisation (and hence, I suppose, Hardt and Negri’s position that post-Fordism is already latent communism). While its true that affect is transmittable (materially, via hormonal secretions in sweat for instance, as well as through “body-language”) it is not infinitely transmittable- endocrinological systems have their own organic limits.

    I also wonder the extent to which Baudrillard’s critique of production gears into Derrida’s critique of presence, insofar as production is a making that is specifically a making-present. The overproduction of presence (hyper-realisation) means that the incorporeal is figured in the place of the corporeal but as a (pseudo) corporeality without limit- which is merely to take on capital’s own fantasmatic image of this kind of work. Insofar as this holds, I don’t see it as slipping into a positivism but the opposite, a complete fleeing from actuality into a kind of liminal dream-space of disembodied lucidity- a mysticism of capital itself.

    I’d rather not have to choose between an affective accelerationism and an accelerated affectivity.

  6. Positivism is a kind of mysticism, I agree. I also agree that Bifo has been better than most, but there’s as much critical reflection on depression as there is its indulgence as teleology. In any event, at this point I would not give up on Deleuze and Guattari just yet, at least not AO and ATP in particular. Specifically because the extent to which those texts are able to move beyond theories of lack, and (much more than they are at times acknowledged as doing) clarify the heteronormativity of both affective and political economies. Baudrillard – I think he went awry, but/because it’s difficult to get beyond the challenge of Mirror of Production without specifying the affective contours of production *and* reproduction.

  7. I like the slipperying agreement there :-)

    Depression isn’t just posited a teleology in Bifo, but almost as a strategic teleology. In the absence of revolution- let’s embrace “exhaustion” and “senilisation”- I don’t think Bifo has had much contact with people who have developed dementia…it’s not a liberatory experience. He is one of my preferred diagnosticians, but I wouldn’t want him as my psychiatrist.

    Baudrillard went wrong because he generalised the condition of his own impotence to the world- at least that is partly the case. How could the law of immanence and the productivity of desire appear to him except as obscene? He couldn’t get at them from the inside. I suppose in that sense Baudrillard completely misses the heteronormativity of affective economies/ecologies and finds in their place the a-sexual a-signifying (absence of) normativities; and hence his melancholic nihilism.

    [Not that I want to suggest that asexuality is necessarily tied to an absence of meanings].

  8. Well, it’s the faux neutrality of affective economies that renders this law of immanence into positivism, mysticism and worse. Cue Deleuze’s “The Simulacrum and Ancient Philosophy.” As in, I think that’s an excellent account of where/how/when/why the mythology of neutrality steps in ..


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