April 15, 2009

We can become confused and mislead by the affects and emotions based on memory traces of past objects

Spinoza and Naturalism from Larval Subjects by larvalsubjects
when I was younger, perhaps around the age of 15 or 16, I discovered Spinoza’s Ethics. I am not sure why I found myself so obsessed with this book at that time in my life. That year I read the Theologico-Politico Treatise, the Ethics, and the Treatise on the Endmendation of the Intellect. These are certainly strange texts for a 15 year old filled with raging hormones to become obsessed with. Perhaps it was that Spinoza dared to say “One” in his description of the universe. I have always gravitated towards holistic conceptions of the universe, fascinated with the interdependence or interconnection of things among one another. That same year I found myself [trying to] read Whitehead’s Process and Reality, and Leibniz’s Monadology and Discourse on Metaphysics for similar reasons. Although I had standard teen fascinations with existentialism, devouring Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and Nausea, Heidegger’s Being and Time, and the standard works by Camus, Kafka, and Dostoyevsky, my real love was these wild and wooly metaphysicians. Spinoza, Leibniz, and Descartes motivated me to buckle down and actually learn mathematics so that I might read them.

Yet in addition to Spinoza’s beautiful holistic and process oriented metaphysics, I was, no doubt drawn to his work due to the magnificent appendix to Part I of the Ethics, and the biting and corrosive critique of religious belief in the Theologico-Politico Treatise. The time was the early 90s. I lived in a small coal mining town in Ohio (having lived all over the country). At this time the Religious Right was in full ascension– quietly growing in power and pervading the country without anyone really knowing.

I was raised in a rather secular family. Although my father was raised my Southern Baptist and my mother was raised devoutly Catholic– the Bryant boys had, like all good Southern Baptists, been forbidden to date Catholics, but let’s be honest, who can resist those uniforms? –and although I was raised in the Episcopal church (they cut the difference), religion was never a real presence, as far as I can recall, in our family. Yes, I went to church on Sundays– I think –but I don’t really remember much if anything about it beyond groaning when I had to get out of bed and sneaking out of the services under the alibi of having to use the restroom so that I could explore the enticing forests around the church in New England and in Ohio; primitive feeling, primordial forests with grounds covered with ferns, muted sounds of animals, the greening of green speaking to some hidden vitality, and towering pines all about. A much better form of worship, I think.

At any rate, in my teen years a religious revival movement swept through my small town, somehow managing to turn everything upside down. Around me everyone was suddenly becoming “Born Again”, and with this came a potent witches brew that looked entirely different to me than anything I had ever encountered in the Gospels, which I and my extended family– my grandmother on my mother’s side and I had passionately discussed these things as long as I can remember –had read as a sort of political map for forming a society where conflict is minimized, where social relations are not based on tribal affiliations (including the label “Christian”), and where the question is one of how we can collectively achieve flourishing.

This revival movement, however, was very different. Suddenly people were angry, very angry. That year, in my English class, we were reading Orwell’s 1984. Much to my shock– as a result of this book I was also doing research in fascism and the Soviet Gulags under Stalin –the head cheerleader, who the year before had been the school “hussy”, cried out in moral outrage over the sexual content of this book. Irony of ironies. To my surprise, others responded in kind and within days there were throngs of parents and students protesting this book, throwing it into burning piles (they literally burned the book) and demanding that it be banished from the reading list. Quickly evolutionary theory began to get challenged in the Biology curriculum, and sex education was swiftly changed to focus on abstinence only education, spreading all sorts of misinformation about the efficacy of condoms in fighting STDs and preventing pregnancy… This, in a community that was rife with teen STDs, even among the Born Agains, and teen pregnancy. It seemed as if madness had descended upon this sleepy little town.

In this setting, Spinoza could not but be a comforting light of sanity in a world that was so dark. I still remember the quickening of my pulse as I read the Appendix to Part I of Spinoza’s Ethics. The critique of superstition, of the “prejudices about the nature of God”, that he there presents still remains startling and powerful to this day. Yet these words, in particular, have continued to resonate in my thought to this day:

After men persuaded themselves, that everything which is created is created for their sake, they were bound to consider as the chief quality in everything that which is most useful to themselves, and to account those things the best of all which have the most beneficial effect on mankind. Further, they were bound to form abstract notions for the explanation of the nature of things, such as goodness, badness, order, confusion, warmth, cold, beauty, deformity, and so on; and from the belief that they are free agents arose the further notions praise and blame, sin and merit.

Where a theological conception of value was premised on the command, without reason, to obey, where things were simply good or bad because God “said so”, Spinoza discerned that what we call “good” or “bad” is not a feature of things themselves, but of the relationship between our bodies and objects. We call “good” that which promotes our being and “bad” that which diminishes our being. Values, under this construal, were understood as relational terms. With this simple insight, Spinoza could thereby explain all sorts of things. Thus, since the constitution of each person is different, it became possible to arrive at an account of why relational terms like “good” and “bad” were applied differently. But also, premised on this thesis, it became possible to set about developing a “science” of values or ethics. That is, rather than beginning with a list of moral principles telling us what is good and bad, we could instead investigate, in broad contours, those things that generally promote our being and those that diminish our being. Indeed, this is the natural process of any human development anyway for, as is often observed, we are not born with a knowledge of cause and effect relations.

As the neurologist Antonio Damasio notes in his crisply written Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling of the Brain, Spinoza was among the first to develop a genuinely naturalistic theory of mind, emotion, feeling, and value. At the heart of Spinoza’s understanding of the mind is the thesis that the mind is an “image” of the body. In other words, mind is not something separated from the body, it is not a faculty of reason detached from the body and governing the body, but rather there is a parallelism between mind and body in which mental states are reflections of bodily states. These bodily states are what Damasio calls “emotion” and which Spinoza called “affects” or capacities to act and be acted upon (here we can think of neuronal events, states of nerve endings, hormonal states, etc.) which are reflected in what Damasio calls “feelings” and Spinoza called “emotions”. Bodily states that diminish the body’s power of acting are accompanied by “sad passions” such as pain, sadness, depression, envy, etc, whereas bodily states that increase the body’s power of acting, its perfection, etc., are accompanied by “joyous passions” (love, happiness, excitement, etc). This thesis has been well substantiated by contemporary neuroscience and cognitive science.

Closely related to this thesis about the mind as an “image of the body”, is the thesis that all things are defined by their conatus or endeavor to persevere in our being. A naturalistic account of mind is premised on the thesis that at root life strives to persevere in its being and that our activities are related to this conatus which Spinoza argues is the very essence of our being. To be sure, we can be mistaken as to what enhances our conatus, but nonetheless even in these confusions it is a relation to conatus that defines what we value and don’t value, what we call “good” and what we call “bad”.

If I do not eat my neighbor despite the fact that his flesh would enhance my conatus, then this is because, on the one hand, eating my neighbor would also very likely diminish my conatus by virtue of the fact that he’s bigger than me and would ring my bell or because I would be imprisoned, but also because the continued existence of my neighbor enhances my conatus as one who assists me in navigating the world, provides me with companionship, etc. As Spinoza puts it, “nothing is more useful to man than man.” It is therefore in the interest of our conatus to promote peaceful and just relations among men. We might not initially see this in our day to day life as we have difficulty discerning systematic relations and networks, but it is one task of reason to reveal these relations of interdependence and mutual benefit so as to persuade others that they benefit more by loving their neighbor than burning him at the stake.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Spinoza argued that the only thing that can overturn an affect-emotion is a more powerful affect-emotion. This is a crucial observation about the nature of our reasoning that demolishes, a priori, any normative theory that would base normativity on pure reason. As everyone can readily observe from their own experience, moral principles based on pure reason– such as the imperative to always treat humans as ends in themselves rather than means to an end –is completely impotent in persuading and transforming the affects that animate the Neo-Nazi hate-monger filled with rage towards the Jew or immigrant. The imperative completely falls on deaf ears. What is required is a more powerful affect, whether it be joy or fear, that overturns the power of this affect and, in effect, abolishes it.

Socrates, Jesus, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi all understood this principle, even if they did not understand their engagement in these terms. There principle of non-violent resistance or, as Gandhi called it, “Satyagraha", was an active rhetoric for the production of affects or, as Hume would say, “sentiments”. When Jesus says “turn the other cheek” or, in more modern parlance, “thank you sir, can I have another?”, this strategy is not directed at the person plucking out his eye, but at the audience.

When Civil Rights activists march in the name of equality, knowingly submitting themselves to the batons, dogs, and fire hoses of police officers, their action is addressed not at the police officers but at the television cameras and the millions of women watching their soap operas on television throughout the country and witnessing these acts of brutality on the news. And what do they accompany through these acts? They create affects more powerful than the affects that animate this hostility, hatred, anger, etc. In witnessing the spectacle of the body beaten to a bloody pulp or of Socrates calmly drinking the hemlock after a rigged trial, the audience’s affects are transformed and their hostility to Socrates, Jesus, African-Americans, and the indigenous population of India is overturned. A more powerful affect sends the dark sad passion fleeing from the field of battle.

Book III of Spinoza’s Ethics is a cartography of these affects, carefully analyzing the relationship between affect, emotion, memory traces, and the various objects of the world. What it maps are the various ways in which we can become confused and mislead by the relationship between the objects of the world and the affects and emotions based on memory traces of past objects that share a resemblance to the objects we are currently experience despite the fact that the object we’re currently experiencing possesses very different powers.

For example, I am filled with rage when I meet a person named “Tom” without being able to understand why this Tom produces this affect and emotion within me. After all, this Tom seems to be a very nice guy and is not thwarting me in any particular way. What I miss is that in my childhood I knew a Tom who tormented me mercilessly daily. My current experience of Tom evokes the memory trace of that other Tom, activating these sad passions and their accompanying affects. In tracing this cartography of the affects, Spinoza gives us the means of untangling these confusions, but also of more directly pursing, both as individuals and collectively, joyous passions.

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