Bryant, Spinoza, Negri: The Foundations of Materialist Thought

Materialism and collectivism are  fundamental aspects of constitutive thought. Ontological constitution can be  given only as the appropriation and accumulation of material elements, both  physical and social. … The reconstruction of the world is thus the very  process of the continual physical composition and recomposition of things — and,  with absolute constitutive mechanisms of historical, practical, and  ethico-political nature.

- Antonio Negri, The Savage Anomaly

William Forsythe’s Synchronous Objects.

After listening to a lecture online by William Forsythe (World renowned choreographer) and Alva Noë, author of Out of Our  Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness provided to me by dmfant from Anthem: video conversation. I began thinking about something Levi R. Bryant said along with my interest in Spinoza and Antonio Negri.

Flat Ontology and Spinoza: The Foundations of Materialist Thought

Levi R. Bryant once stated his views on Flat Ontology this ways:

Someone might remark that because a text has multiple layers there can be no flat ontology of the text.  In other words, it is here asserted that where there is a logic of depths and surfaces there is necessarily a vertical ontology.  However, this is precisely what flat ontology rejects.  If we take seriously that texts are composed of multiple layers, then only a flat ontology can properly preserve the layered nature of a text.  The claim that the text is flat is the claim that each of these layers is absolutely autonomy and irreducible to the others or that all of these layers are on equal ontological footing.  That is, flat ontology refuses a logic of expression that would reduce one thread, series, or layer of the text to another.  Instead, flat ontology would defend the dignity of each of these layers as a distinct multiplicity.  What is hereby refused is the reduction of anything to anything else.

- Levi R. Bryant (Larval Subjects) A Quick Remark on Flat Ontology

Whether one thinks of the world-at-Text or the Text-of-the-world one is brought back to the thought of Spinoza who said:

By God’s power (potentia) ordinary  people understand God’s free will and his right over all things which are,  things which on that account are commonly considered to be contingent. For they  say that God has the Power (potestas) of destroying all things and  reducing them to nothing. Further, they very often compare God’s power with the  power of Kings. But we have refuted this … and we have shown that God acts  with the same necessity by which he understands himself, i.e., just as it  follows from the necessity of the divine nature (as everyone maintains  unanimously) that God understands himself, with the same necessity it also  follows that God does infinitely many things in infinitely many modes. And then  we have shown … that God’s power is nothing except God’s active essence. And  so it is as impossible for us to conceive that God does not act as it is to  conceive that he does not exist. Again, if it were agreeable to pursue these  matters further, I could also show here that that power which ordinary people  fictitiously ascribe to God is not only human (which shows that ordinary people  conceive God as a man, or as like a man), but also involves lack of power …  For no one will be able to perceive rightly the things I maintain unless he  takes great care not to confuse God’s power with the human power or right of  Kings. (P3S)

One has to listen to Antonio Negri on Spinoza to understand just what this flat ontology entails, the force of its strangeness, the power of its conceptual integrity within Spinoza’s thought:

In the most recent, most penetrating, and most philologically faithful  interpretations of the Spinozian substance-mode paradox, there have been  repeated attempts to introduce another subdivision into the system at this point  in an effort to salvage the relevance of the attribute. Let us assume that “the  thinking substance and the extended substance are one and the same substance,  which is now comprehended under this attribute, now underthat. So also a mode of  extension and the idea of that mode are one and the same thing, but expressed in  two ways” (P7S). With this assumption we find ourselves confronted with a  parallelism that is principally that of thought and extension, a parallelism  founded on an extracognitive ratio essendi; on the other hand, we have  a parallelism of the mode and the idea of the mode, following a ratio  cognoscendi, an intracognitive parallelism that “replicates” what is  ontologically founded on the plane of knowledge. But we must ask ourselves: Is it possible, in the Spinoza of this period, to  separate the order of knowledge from the ontological order? Is it possible, then,  to abrogate the paradox revealed by the immediate relationship between substance  and mode? Is it permissible to negate the force that emerges here, the force  capable of overthrowing the metaphysical relationship and, specifically here,  capable of overthrowing the emanationist nexus? Actually, it is not a “replication”  we are dealing with here but a “reduction” of the origins of being to the  presence of being, to its terrific and potent singular givenness. Every attempt to resist the violence of the paradox (and the subsequent  overthrow of its terms) is unable to account for not the coherence, but the  force and happiness, of Spinoza’s first formulation of the system, of the first  stage of the Ethics. Little by little, the ontological reasoning  proceeds and approximates reality, destroying roads and bridges, every reminder  of the path it has traveled. The attributes and the ontological parallelism are  on the verge of elimination. But the process does not stop here. For the moment,  though, it settles here, on the first and fundamental limit of pantheism: If God  is all, all is God. The difference is important: on one side an idealistic  horizon, on the other side a materialistic potentiality.

The Spinozian mechanism denies  any possibility of a conception of the world that is not represented as a  singular, flat, and superficial emergence of being. God is the thing. God is  multiplicity. The one and the multiple are equivalent and indistinguishable  forces: On the terrain of the absolute the numerical sequence could not be given  if not as an assumption of the totality of events. Each is absolute in itself. The points on which constitutive thought is developed are those that result from  the critical process: points, instances, events that (in the relationship of  definitive metaphysical opening) are submitted once again to the tension, the  power of the totality of being. The reconstruction of the world is thus the very  process of the continual physical composition and recomposition of things — and,  with absolute constitutive mechanisms of historical, practical, and  ethico-political nature.

- Antonio Negri, The Savage Anomaly

Spinozian logic does not know the  hypothesis, it knows only the trace, the symptom. The versatility of being, which it accounts for, is within a woven fabric of  material acts that, in diverse compositions and figures, experience a process of  combination and self-formation. (Think of these Synchronous Objects)  The ethics shows this dynamism fully unfolded. Negri continues in an explication that is at once inventive and conditions our understanding of Spinoza’s thought:

The Ethics is a methodological work, not because its prolix geometrical method  is a paradigm for research but, rather, because it is an open work, a definition  of a first sketch of the human task of appropriating and constructing the world.  A series of absolutely Modern conditions thus serves the function of the  elementary goals of Spinoza’s discourse: It is not only an inductive spirit that  is developed to the point of realizing the pleasure of symptomatic knowledge but  also a sure materialism and a secure collectivism that function as the  presuppositions of the process of constitution. To the same degree that the  philosophy of emanation (recomposed in Renaissance terms) and the theory of the  attributes and that of parallelism diminish or fade under the pressure of  negative thought, the world reappears in its material freshness, the society  reemerges in its collective determination. Materialism and collectivism are  fundamental aspects of constitutive thought. Ontological constitution can be  given only as the appropriation and accumulation of material elements, both  physical and social. Once again, here the dialectic has no place: Spinozian  thought, just as it does not know the negative, does not know the verticality of  the mechanisms of sublimation and supersession (or, better, it knows them as  temptations from which to liberate itself). What is new and qualitatively  different in Spinoza is marked by the complexity of the constitutive processes,  in their dynamic (inertial) determination on the physical plane and in the  determination that they impose, appetitus and cupiditas, on  the ethical and historical plane. The physical and ethical constitutive dynamism  concludes, then, this first, rigorously materialistic foundation of Modern  thought. (ibid)

Listen again, just as Spinoza does not entertain the “dialectic” it does not know of the “negative”: it is the complexity and constitutive processes, in “their dynamic determination on the physical plane and in the determination that they impose, through sheer persistence and desire on both the ethical and historical plane: this is the flat ontology of a dynamic determination that is at once aware of its constitutive nature as both ethical and historical player on the stage of existence. Negri asks three key questions above:

1. But we must ask ourselves: Is it possible, in the Spinoza of this period, to  separate the order of knowledge from the ontological order? In other words can one draw a distinction between ontology and epistemology? And, of course, in that period one was not able too do this; but, are we now? Have we come far enough to understand just what thinking and being entail to devise such distinctions?

2. Is it possible, then,  to abrogate the paradox revealed by the immediate relationship between substance  and mode? Again, what is this relationship entail, and how does one define the distinction of such relations? And how do we define just what this substance is? Under what sign do we compose such distinctions? Is “substance” as substance the same for us as it was for Spinoza, or even Aristotle or the Scholastics?

3. Is it permissible to negate the force that emerges here, the force  capable of overthrowing the metaphysical relationship and, specifically here,  capable of overthrowing the emanationist nexus? What is the “force” that emerges? If it has such powers, then exactly what does this mean for a substantialist ontology; and, even more, for an epistemological abrogation of such an ontolgogy?

  2 comments for “Bryant, Spinoza, Negri: The Foundations of Materialist Thought

  1. kb
    January 2, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    some great excerpts but i have to think that negri has a very specific meaning of materialism that is quite at odds from that of the ‘new materialisms’ of today (eg, “The passage from nature to second nature, from physics to human action, must be mediated by subjectivity”). in particular, throughout SA, negri argues that we construct the world, it is our imagination, our productive force as humans that is materialist – again leading him to reject the “first foundation,” the first 2 books of the ethics, which contain s’ most materialist theses.

    anyway, just curious for your thoughts, as i find negri’s view wholly humanist and seemingly at odds with a lot of other stuff you’ve been posting – so maybe you have a different reading.

    • January 2, 2013 at 4:53 pm

      Of course… we could probably find contrary thought in almost all of the supposed new materialisms as well… for me at least, I am not locked solid into the new materialists camp as of yet; that is why I qualify my exploration of these shadow worlds of new materialism. In some ways the new materialism all seem to derive much of their stance within the Deleuzian world… but, for me Deleuze cannot be pegged down to any one materialist mold, he was all over the board in his approach to the past philosophers… I like that… why should be reduce materialism to a set of notions, ideas, concepts, etc. To me the important thing is that it is open to growth and becoming, to change… Yes, we will, if we look hard enough, find older humanist elements in most of these philosophers. Why? Well, think about it, even Foucault, Barthes, Derrida who were all in their ways anti-humanists still had aspects of the anthropomorphic thought in their discourses… I truly believe that we cannot just jump out and away from the older humanist tradition as if it never existed, instead we have to interrogate it; discover in its discursive practices what is worth saving, and what isn’t. I think people are all to quick to throw the baby out with the bathwater…. we need to be more circumspect in our appraisal of these older modes of thought.

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