Hasana Sharp, Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization, reviewed by Peter Gratton
Hasana Sharp, Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2011, 240 pages, $35.00 cloth, ISBN 9780226750743 (http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/S/bo11636371.html)
Hasana Sharp’s Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization is one the most invigorating books published in philosophy this year. Where Deleuzian and post-Althusserian accounts of Spinoza occasionally take all the affect out of one of the tradition’s most effective writers, Sharp’s book is eminently readable and clear about the stakes of rethinking Spinoza after the linguistic and discursive turns of the last half of the twentieth century. I have my own quibbles about the states of immanentism today, but nevertheless Sharp is convincing that one must first traverse Spinoza’s immanentist and naturalistic philosophy in a way that to my mind has never been done widely, whether we think ourselves post-Nietzschean or not. The element of the transcendent, if not the transcendental, conceived in terms of rights, the Other, the duties of practical reason, etc., still marks how we think the space of the political, and Sharp’s task is to have us think wholly otherwise, if not of the wholly Other.
What Sharp argues for is a “politics of renaturalization”. This surely is her most controversial claim, given the ways in which, throughout the era of the regimes of the biopolitical, nature has been used as the nom de guerre of the pernicious splits in society along racial, nationalistic, and patriarchal lines. But in true Spinozistic fashion, Sharp makes her points in ways that do less to anger her discursive partners than to build alliances by showing how the “denaturalizing” claims of feminists and critical race theorists are anything but anathema to her own project, though they need to be attenuated in terms of their “social constructivism” (page 8). In what follows, I set out the stakes of this project, first by summarizing the book, then situating Sharp’s own interventions in light of the recent rise in Continental realisms and materialisms. In this way, I hope to show its import for those thinking the relation of society and spatialization.
The book is split into two parts, “Reconfiguring the Human” and “Beyond the Image of Man”, and it should seen as moving through the dénouement of human sovereignty often depicted in modernity: first its sovereignty over itself, second over nature, and thirdly over the animals that they are. In the first part, Sharp sets out how Spinoza’s philosophy offers an antidote to the atomistic individual, while also countering those forms of hyperbolic ethics after Levinas that denote the asymmetry of self and other. On the one hand, Spinoza’s account of the self evinces “the lack of sovereignty in each and every one of us” (page 24), since we are embedded in webs of relations as “transindividuals”—she weds Spinoza and Simondon on this account—or collectivities among and beyond human beings. For this, she “seek[s] the nonhuman forces operating within everything we think is ours, or our own doing” (page 9). Here, Sharp works to shape a flatter ontology reminiscent of other neo-Spinozists such as Jane Bennett, whose “political ecology of things” in Vibrant Matter (see my review here) she cites approvingly. There is a positive, life-affirming upshot beyond this rethinking of nature, given that she urges us “to built a culture that affirms the necessity rather than the arbitrariness of the will in order to counter the hatred and sadness that arise from viewing ourselves and one another as uniquely responsible for our actions”; our bodies move not simply from the expression of the mind, but in response to other bodies—human and non-human alike (page 46). But just as Spinoza’s parallelism denies the sovereignty of the mind over the body, Sharp is also clear that Spinoza was not a naïve materialist wherein ideas are nothing but the concretion of our material conditions. Thus, she offers a corrective to many recent materialisms. “There is a danger that, in our time,” she warns, “the notion of natural determination may overwhelm the imagination, such that an invocation of the body eclipses any consideration of the mind” (page 49). Spinoza’s account of the ideas as having a force and self-perseverance unto themselves—the quick and loose analogy would be Richard Dawkins’ conception of “memes”—also challenges us to think how ideology operates, not in terms of domination and oppression, but in horizontal disseminations closer to the Foucauldian models of power. That is, the task is not just to think only bodies as caught in a chain of cause-and-effect relations, but the mind as well in terms of changes in affect that “points to the mind and body at once” in the dual languages of mind and extension irreducible to one another. This brings her later to draw on Deleuze’s conception of ethology:
Action within a plane of immanence opposes any notion of activity that depends upon transcendence of one’s situation, impulse, or causal environment. Action becomes an endeavor to cultivate a sensuous receptivity, in order better to determine the relations of composition that most enable one to think and thrive. Since one can exist only by virtue of the affects that circulate in one’s environment, ethological ethics entails the development of mutually beneficial affective compositions (page 216).
Thus a politics of renaturalization will avoid any move to that which “transcend[s] the natural realm of cause and effect”, instead “redefin[ing] agency to emphasize concrete problems of synergy and composition, rather than questions of rights and representation with respect to individuals and states” (page 42).
But the philosophical problem that has always trailed Spinozism is the question of freedom. On this view, Spinoza bathes the human in the shifting waters of causal relations, drowning out not just the will, but also all manner of creativity outside these relations. Though there are important moments in the history of philosophy to think freedom otherwise—Arendt’s thinking of action in the Human Condition also attempts to think freedom relationally, though she steers clear of Spinozistic causality—it’s true that many interpreters of Spinoza have rendered him a neo-Stoic: the best the mind can do in light of its place in a determined system is to gain knowledge of that fate (this is the first task of reason: to see nature as a causally determined system), thus moving from negative to positive affect in one’s given situation. There is no shortage of textual evidence in Spinoza himself and to one side of what Balibar calls his “fear of the masses” to defend this view. Needless to say this stoicism portends political passivity: the best one can do is acknowledge the state of what is, since any thinking that one could free oneself from such a state is an anthropological myth decried throughout the various scholiae of the Ethics. In this way, defenders of human freedom need not just to state more loudly that there must be some transcendent human freedom (I find this often in my own discussions of Spinoza), as if the problem of modernity was anything but articulating a notion of freedom in light of various determinisms—naturalistic evolution, structures of power, historical material conditions, and so on, depending on one’s school of thought. Political freedom, we should recall, became ascendant just as its metaphysics became most problematic. This was one of the preeminent reasons for Althusser and his followers’ turn to Spinoza in the 1960s and 1970s. I’ll put down my worry for now that Sharp herself finds it difficult to articulate a thinking of “freedom” otherwise, not least because she doesn’t contest the theory of causality (mirrored, as well, in the lockstep logic or geometric method of the Ethics) at the heart of Spinozism, and which leads Deleuze to focus on the “expressive” creativity in his own work on Spinoza. But we’ll see below how far she comes in this regard.
Sharp takes on this problem of determinism early in the book in terms of the relation of the mind to the tongue, where articulating freedom is literally the problem. In some way, there is no better means to put in relief all the conundrums Spinoza’s mind-body parallelism throw us into than thinking the material movement of the tongue. If there is no sovereignty of the mind over the body, then so too we must dispense with the “artisanal model” by which “ideas precede and govern actions, thoughts precede utterances, and minds command tongues” (page 43). Of course, this view has long been contested, but Sharp focuses on how her “renaturalization” extends Judith Butler’s treatment of language. For Butler, as is well known, speech is but a “citation” of norms fostered by linguistic structures and social practices, and subversion is to be found on the margins through parody and re-iterations of these structures. Here, “rather than the intractable government of the Symbolic,” Sharp emphasizes “the local transmission of affect that belongs to embodied and finite existence”, which in turn means focusing our attention less to “transforming representations of humanity or oedipal structures” than “experiment[ing] with the affective aspect of collective conversations” (page 44). Sharp thus begins her critique of the use of “representation” in politics, which she’ll elaborate later in chapters four and five. For Sharp, when we speak (and presumably write) with our bodies, we are not expressing or representing our thoughts, or indeed, a non-bodily social symbolic; rather our speech “issues from a constellation of affects” (page 48). In this way, “speech is liberating…only when we cease to see it as free,” that is, as “constituted within a complex constellation of causes” (page 53). What speech reveals, through the very movement of our tongues, is less our own willed intentions or set of ideas, than literally an announcing of the very affects in our localized fields of articulation. How we articulate ourselves differently, she suggests, is through our singular positions within cross-weaved and variegated webs of relation, which, though determined, are neither over-determined by one thing (the mind) or the Other (the Symbolic). Such is the way, in a seeming aside to her overall project through a discussion of the tongue, that she begins to articulate freedom differently.
This emphasis on articulation and affect does not mean Sharp abandons ideology critique, which often seeks to “denaturalize” a given set of ideas as historically contingent and useful only insofar as it props up given concatenations of power. “Renaturalizing” ideology means looking to how “social critics and political activists can grasp how ideas grow, survive, and thrive, or shrink and die, like any other natural being” (page 16). She follows on her account of the tongue by likening consciousness to the “fly on the coach” that takes credit for the power and movement of a coach up a hill as it buzzes around the horses, a story Althusser utilizes in his own account of the La Fontaine fable. Renaturalizing ideas follows from thinking how “all beings” for Spinoza “include a power of thinking that corresponds exactly to the power of their bodies to be disposed in different ways,” and the human mens is different “only in degree, not in kind”, for example, “from the power of thinking that belongs to a stone” (page 66). This “power” is also mirrored in that all beings, qua existing for Spinoza, have a conatus that seeks its own self-preservation. Moreover, thinking as such is never done alone, but has an “irreducible dependence upon neighboring ideas”, including the passions and affects we take up with and through one another. “The renaturalization of ideology begins”, she argues, “with the affirmation that we are in thought, rather than its authors, in order to gain a critical perspective upon this inevitable aspect of our modal existence” (page 76). Ideology critique cannot simply “unmask” the adequate truth beneath what we imagine—a point also taken up by Zizek and other neo-Lacanians—but that we must see ourselves less as imagining beings than, to borrow her earlier formulation, as existing in imagination, without the ability to step back to an objective or transcendent soil. At this point, she gives her best articulation of what praxis means for her politics:
The freedom yielded by the politics of renaturalization depends upon the lived, critical understanding that our conditions of activity are not entirely given but constructed, made out of the materials at hand. Freedom is a recomposition and reappropriation of what is given by the shared reality of historical, social, and natural life…a rearrangement of constituent corporeal relations and activities (page 77).
This is what makes ideology critique, as she notes, “difficult”, since it not a question of rendering a truer picture of reality, but rather involves impositions and movements of power, where the task is “not only to understand how to dismantle ideas in the causal network, but how to dismantle and oppressive constellation of ideas, regardless of their truth or falsity” (page 79).
She thus deepens Antonio Negri’s views of the common. Negri argues that in his political treatises, particularly the Political Treatise written just before his death, Spinoza gives us a thinking of a “multitude” that at each point forms a given state of affairs and is thus heterogeneous to the state form. That is, while previous considerations of the multitude saw it as produced by a given sovereign (think here of Dante’s De Monarchia), Spinoza flips this and notes that each state rules only as long as it can count on the passivity of the masses. Rethinking the multitude in terms of the imagination “leads to a contextually sensitive politics in which the form of government must be determined by the particular horizon of a multitude’s imagination, even if the link between our ‘advantage’ and collective life implies that it is always in our interest to democratize our institutions, be they monarchical or republican” (page 132). This, Etienne Balibar has argued, leads Spinoza to a fear of the masses in the double sense: the masses for Spinoza should be kept in fear for better control, but also, more liberatingly, all states operate in fear of those very same masses.
The upshot of Sharp’s renaturalization, I take it, is to extend this conception beyond the body of the multitude, found, for example, in Warren Montag’s accounts, to the ways in which “ideas are permitted to grow, expand, and take hold” (page 83). Just as any state of affairs is premised on the acquiescence of the masses (and thus must fear them), so too, any given set of ideas can only exist in an ecology in which certain sets of ideas are believed and, then perhaps one day, are not. In this way, she is led to a view in which the Symbolic is not the One-All that the masses should always fear as ineradicable, since there can be the “production of new and better truths through the resistant construction of our ideal environments” (page 84).
This brings us to the second part of the book, which for reasons of space, I’ll have to treat in shorter order. One dominating social imaginary has been the conception of the human as an “imperium within an imperium,” as Spinoza puts it. Arne Naess’s deep ecology has been the most prominent of the Spinoza’s ecologically-minded interpreters. Sharp takes less distance than other Spinozists from this previous incarnation of Spinozism, which many, including Genevieve Lloyd, found too often “humanized the non-human”, setting up nature as providing an inherent set of norms that Spinoza himself would castigate, given his equation of all norms and moralities with the formations of power. The effect is that moral judgment is not something uniquely human, for Spinoza, and Sharp’s task is less to rethink nature, no longer depicted in terms of that which opposes the human, but as what would include artificial objects such as robots (page 110). The more important strategic point is to “renaturalize the human” as “act[ing] by virtue of many diverse natural powers, human and nonhuman” (page 111). In her final chapter, Sharp thinks through the specificity of the human, that is, our differing capacities in terms of degree and not kind, from animals, which for her means that we neither deny the specificity of our particular powers (i.e, reduce through hatred the human to pure animality, whatever the latter might mean) nor that we place ourselves beyond the horizon of being with our animal others.
But, importantly for thinking through social critique, this “renaturalization of the human” leads her in the direction of an appraisal of the politics of recognition in her fourth and fifth chapters. I cannot do justice to this account here, but Sharp takes up the Hegel/Spinoza divide, not in terms of negativity/affirmation, as Deleuze’s interpreters do, but as a way to rethink all manner of humanistic representation. Sharp’s target is Butler, whom she sees as not only evincing a “social constructivism” anathema to her own Spinozism, but also as relying on an untenable distinctiveness of the human, where “the liberating relationship is not achieved through establishing relationships with other self-consciousnesses in which we represent one another in more satisfying ways”, an account found in post-Hegelians such as Fanon and Taylor as well (page 138). It’s true, of course, that Butler’s account is one ultimately of failure of any possible recognition, but this still remains “necessarily humanist” (page 151) and, Sharp argues, insofar as its guided by the necessary passage through the “impossibility of the Hegelian project”, “resigns” itself “to a melancholy project of perpetual dissatisfaction”, forever seeking a recognition that will never come.
Sharp hence sides with Elizabeth Grosz’s “politics of imperceptibility”, through which one looks to “constitute alternative ways of life” not “defined by oppressors” (page 158). As Sharp herself puts it, the “personal is not the political”, since personhood is won (or lost) in the dyadic models on loan from Hegelian and Levinasian accounts, which, Grosz argues, could only provide a politics, as one might say Levinas’s notion of the “hostage” indicates, “that is fundamentally servile” (page 164). In other words, the politics of recognition can only lead to self-hatred, since we can only ever “mock” the human for not realizing its denaturalized self. Ironically, then, it is those Spinozists, such as Grosz, who, while “depriv[ing] humanity of its special status,” nevertheless provide for Sharp the path forward for an affirmative politics. Let me emphasize the poignancy of these remarks, since “happy immanentists”, as my colleague Sean McGrath calls them, do not measure each activity against world historical events or hope for another world entirely, as if we could with one decision dismiss the play of powers in any given society. On this, looking to the changing dispositions in each performance of activism, each localized manifestation of joy and affect, is certainly more phenomenologically truer to the existence of the marginalized than the reduction of one and all to the “virtual homines sacri” of Agamben-type accounts. There is more to life, in short, than negativity (in the Hegelian and more everyday senses), even as we must never lose ourselves in simplistic forms of affirmation (Deleuze’s descriptions of childhood come to mind) that tear us away from our inherent relationality to those who are oppressed. Here we can quote from Sharp’s own quasi-manifesto at the end of chapter five, where she calls for “renaturaliz[ing] rather than humaniz[ing] the oppressed”:
As renaturalists, we do not aim primarily to be understood and valued by our fellows. We pursue strength, affinities with other vital forces, and alternative futures. …We depend upon and affect innumerable forces, human and nonhuman. The measure of our agency that is determined by other’s perceptions may be significant, but it is hardly the totality of our power and freedom. [We look to] siphon enabling energy and power where it happens to find it. It infects and enjoins whichever beings and forces might aid in the construction of a joyful insurgency against patriarchy, misanthropy, imperialism, and yes, “crippling self-hatred” (page 184).
In this way, Sharp brings together, in ways that few have done in the wake of speculative realism and various new materialisms, her critique of post-structuralist, discursive accounts along with considerations of new ideology critiques necessary for combating the oppressions she mentions. This account is badly needed at a time when STS and certain materialisms risk replacing description for ontology, and thus often offer but naïve narrativized empiricisms. I think the supposed anti-realisms of those she critiques is overblown (I’m thinking of Foucault’s own discussions of power and institutionality, or the Derridean ontology of “différance,” where often one mistakes a strategic focus on language as somehow itself a hierarchical ontology of the human over the non-human). I also worry about the abuses of such renaturalizations under what we’ve come to think as the biopolitical (a problem well apparent in Spinoza’s own account of nationhood and women, whose sexuality must be strictly controlled). But in true Spinozistic fashion, let’s not dwell on such “passive emotions”, and instead commend a philosophical consideration of renaturalization whose import we can affirm.
Peter Gratton, Department of Philosophy, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, NF A1C 5S7 Canada