SPEAKER 1: Welcome, everybody. It's my great pleasure to introduce Timothy Brennan, a prominent cultural critic whose work is extraordinarily powerful and wide-ranging. He's professor at the University of Minnesota, where he's a member of both the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature and the Department of English. He's also affiliated with Minnesota's Institute for Global Studies, and the Institute for Advanced Studies.
Tim's areas of focus are multiple and include continental, literary, and cultural theory; 19th and 20th century comparative literature; world literature; post-colonial theory; and popular music. He's the author of four important books-- Salman Rushdie in the Third World-- Myths of the Nation, 1989; At Home in the World-- Cosmopolitanism Now, 1997; Wars of Position-- The Cultural Politics of Left and Right, 2006; and most recently, Secular Devotion-- Afro-Latin Music and Imperial Jazz, which came out in 2008.
He's also written a vast number of articles, reviews, and occasional pieces in such publications as The Nation, TLS, and the London Review of Books, and he has been interviewed a number of times on radio and television. He's received fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the ACLS, and the McKnight Foundation; and he has taught or held fellowships at a number of universities, including Cornell, the University of Michigan, Rutgers University, Irvine, Humboldt University in Berlin, Stony Brook, and Purdue.
Brennan's work, beginning in the 1980s, has consistently presented a provocative challenge to the reigning doxa in literary and cultural studies, and his book Wars of Position is particularly searching, comprehensive, and fiery. I highly recommend it to you.
In his earliest work on Rushdie and cosmopolitanism, Brennan sounded a strong critique of what might be called the celebratory relation to cosmopolitanism, which also included a tendency to nominate celebrity intellectuals and writers who tended to be extremely privileged socio-economically, despite claims to a certain honorific cultural marginality. But the critique reached deeper than that, drawing on and vividly resuscitating Gramsci's historical critique of the cosmopolitan intellectual and his countervailing emphasis on the important task of developing national culture.
According to Gramsci, the Italian cosmopolitan intellectuals' disconnected relation to national culture traces back to the culturally homogenizing effects of the Roman Empire. Cosmopolitanism here translates into a culturally conditioned, disastrous detachment that is specifically linked to imperialism, the false universal ecumenicism of the Catholic Church, and the development of a rootless, intellectualized, managerial class. Over and against this, Gramsci sets the activist intellectual, one who helps to forward the development of national culture through the vigorous and direct expression, not of some nostalgically unified national mythos, but of the complex, intercultural engagements that define the national history.
In his broader work on cosmopolitanism, including and extending beyond his second book, Brennan argues that contemporary theories and ideologies of cosmopolitanism in the US are themselves deeply expressive of a specific form of American imperialism. He thus very much rains on the parade of the cosmo-theorists, who for him are actually the unwitting purveyors of an ideology that fits the American nationalist agenda, involved as they are in what Brennan describes as a fundamentally neoliberal, quote, "consecration of pluralist mythology and aestheticist retreat."
Everywhere buttressed by a breathtaking erudition and a bracing polemical style, Brennan's work is extraordinarily challenging sentence by sentence and page by page. Wars of Position is a focused yet comprehensive critique of the shape of current intellectual debate in the academy and the larger political culture, arguing across several chapters that the politics of identity and its successor and close relation-- the politics of being, deriving from Heidegger, and exemplified in the work of Hardt and Negri, and Agamben-- have essentially ejected from the political landscape the more honorable politics of belief.
Being, whether in the form of sociology or ontology, has replaced belief, and this has vitiated debate in politics, promoting estheticized forms of theory and crypto-liberal formations that, in Brennan's account, simply aid the work of American-style global capitalism. Also linked to this is a flight from any politics seeking to enter or make claims upon the state. The key target here is Hardt and Negri's Empire, which, of course, itself performs the very connection between sociological and ontological being that Brennan says more generally characterizes the theoretical landscape.
Moreover, Brennan links the origins of the complex intellectual history he tells to a political and historical development, a turn that he dates to the period of 1975 to 1980, and that he says is characterized by the end of the social-democratic vision, and the replacement of political belonging with notions of identity and the abandonment of a politics centered on the state.
Tim's most recent book, Secular Devotion, extends his important work in theory and literature to the realm of music and popular culture, particularly the popular music of the African diaspora. In that book, he argues that new world African music, extending from northern Brazil to the southern United States, is hostile to the dominant religious impulses of modern life and to the commercial assault on demotic traditions and other types of unscripted human contact. It is, in his view, a coded revenge on modern life, its intense popularity constituting precisely what he calls a form of secular devotion.
Tim is currently at work on a book entitled Borrowed Light: The Colonial Imagination in Modern European Thought (1905 to 1968). Please join me in welcoming him.
TIMOTHY BRENNAN: OK, can everybody hear me OK? Good. I have a kind of a soft voice, so I want to make sure that I'm communicating. I didn't plan it this way, but I spent all morning talking about Spinoza in my seminar. So I'm, hopefully, not talked out, but the participants from my seminar who are here can hopefully elicit some of the things that I've left out of our longer and probably richer discussion than will be present in my presentation today, which at least partly, at least half, concerns Spinoza.
I wanted to begin by cheating a little bit and provide a gloss on my own paper before I actually give it. What I'd like to do, in other words, is bring right up to the surface some of the theoretical issues that I hope we can talk about afterwards. But if we don't talk about them afterwards, at least I want them to be on your mind as you're hearing me present this paper.
One of them has to do with the displacement of Hegelian thought in post-war Europe and the United States. I want you to see the comments that I'm making today on Spinoza and Vico very much in the context of that attempted displacement. And I want to suggest that there-- you know, in spite of the efforts to outmaneuver Hegelian thought, that it always seems to be standing there, muted, disguised, unwanted, and unavoidable, in whatever statement of the new currently presents itself.
And I'm suggesting that, perhaps, the Hegelian tradition is hated so much, not for its political content, but because it consistently reminds those who steal from it of their own dependency. I'd also like to suggest that the attempt to marginalize Hegel on the grounds of what is perceived as his obnoxious political fealties-- for example, his supposed deification of the state, or the notion of an uncritical defense of bourgeois property relations, his attractions to totality at the expense of difference, et cetera, et cetera; all of these positions, which, I think, we're, by now, quite familiar with-- that, instead of these being the reason that Hegel is rejected, that it, perhaps, has to do, in fact, with just the opposite. That he's not a conservative thinker, but that he's a frighteningly revolutionary one.
Not to say that his own politics are revolutionary, but to say that it is his philosophy and the way that it's been received and inherited, that turns the attention of philosophy to the everyday world of events and affairs, and derives its notions directly from the world. That it's explicitly transformative in its intent. In fact, believes that one cannot escape reason, even in the apparent dodges of escaping reason.
And that it demonstrates how reason is dynamically interactive and helps make the real. And therefore, that philosophy to be real, cannot be real until it becomes actual, and therefore, it's fearful to a certain kind of critic for whom thought is instead a refuge of utopian possibilities. Calls the bluff of that kind of intellectual. So I'm suggesting that, perhaps, there's a misprision about why Hegel has been rejected.
Next theoretical point would have to do with the post-political, and some of the notions derived from Spinoza that we're familiar with now. Notions like immanence and de multitude, and what relationship that might have to do with a certain kind of political paralysis or stasis that I'm calling the post-political.
Next, the notion of traditions and counter-traditions. That instead of thinking of the theoretical milieu in which we work as a discursive regime, which is the typical way in which we think of it, think instead of it as traditions, by which I mean influences that are consciously adopted and taken on by a force of will, in which people are named. Traditions, in fact, that have been, in the case of theory, in the last 20 or 30 years, rather selective, which is to say coercive, which is to say monopolistic, which is to say that there are counter-traditions that have been, not only forgotten or shunted to the side, but actively censored, suppressed. And that's one of the things I'd have us think about.
And then, finally, the last theoretical issue that I would at least raise here at the beginning-- the notion of the rupture or the break. The notion that, in order for one to conjure up a new politics that's appropriate to the present, that one has to perceive of history as undergoing periodic ruptures, in which a new constellation of ideas is required. And I'm suggesting right here at the beginning-- although, perhaps, it will sound outrageous without me explaining why-- that the notion of the rupture or the break is a conservative position, and that the counter idea of historical continuity is paradoxically the more progressive one.
OK, Vico, Spinoza and the Imperial Past. By imperial past, I mean two different things. On one hand, the actual systems of imperial rule that existed in the past. On the other, the reclamation of the very concept of the past, that is, our devising of ways of doing history that conform to the values and outlooks of the empire within which we now live. It is the second of these that I want to explore in my presentation.
By doing so, I'm interested in the possibilities offered by a different mode of theorizing, particularly in the fields of post-colonial studies, globalization theory, and comparative literature, since those are my fields. How does the thinking as well as the manner of argument that emerges from the contrast between Vico and Spinoza cast a different light on the history of colonialism and imperialism? That's what I propose to talk about.
Let me begin with the recent reception of Spinoza. Before the project of resurrecting the philosophy of Spinoza by French and Italian communist intellectuals of the 1960s and 1970s, the philosopher did not figure very centrally in either academic or political debate. Only 15 years ago or so publishers considered Spinoza a topic without public appeal. Now, given the commercial viability of the work of Antonio Negri, for instance, and the modest appeal of Deleuzian theory in the academic market, this is no longer the case.
And this trend is found also in completely different, much more mainstream, circles of intellectual history. So it's not only the neo-Spinozists, Marxists of France and Italy, that I'm talking about. I'm talking also about, for example, Jonathan Israel's massive study Radical Enlightenment, from 2001, which is built very centrally around the figure of Spinoza. I'm thinking of Steven Nadler's Spinoza's Heresy; Margaret Gullan-Whur's Within Reason: A Life of Spinoza; and Antonio Damasio's Looking for Spinoza; all of these published in the last 10 years.
The dilemma for contemporary commentators, though, has been to reconcile how Spinoza can serve as a contemporary resource and a political guide. He so clearly belongs to a past circumscribed by, and rooted in, the volatile transitional world of the early modern era. His was the time of an emergent Dutch commercial empire, in which the conflict between a mercantile bourgeoisie, still in its heroic phase, and the aristocratic forces of William of Orange defined the philosophical stances at work within it.
What is more, Spinoza so obviously carried on the intellectual habits of his own past, that is, now our past, twice removed. Archaic, one could argue, even by 17th century lights, to the degree that it was still deeply scholastic in its forms of argumentation, and much more devoted to disputes of theology and biblical exegesis than Galileo, Bacon, or Erasmus before him.
On the other hand, Spinoza brought radical bona fides into the mix. His early banishment from the synagogue of Amsterdam for atheism made him a symbol of principled dissidence. And his subversive political stands were evident in the fact that some of his friends and allies perished at the hands of the authorities for proclaiming versions of his ideas. But also, Spinoza's secularized Jewish identity, with its sophisticated reliance on finding in the concept of God a system of universal worldly laws. This paid acute attention to the merging of law and text, and this placed him very much in the spirit of current hermeneutic fashions, as well as the deconstructive and Sausserean preoccupations of theory.
This model of textual authority, as exemplified by a philosophy whose verbal exactness he wrote in a Latin that had been shorn of all connotation by centuries of scholastic philosophy, is inseparable from its claims to correspondence. Language acquires an opacity in Spinoza, and becomes in that way the very external thingliness to which language supposedly refers. So it is this contemporary setting, at any rate, that allows the current icon of Spinoza to flourish as an immediate familiar, as if he were a contemporary out of place in the past who could now be greeted as a long-lost friend.
But as I hope to establish, and this is always a corollary of invented pasts, Spinoza's contemporaneity is extremely selective. It can just as easily be said that even as a religious reprobate, Spinoza set out in the manner of an ardent and now disappointed believer to demonstrate a new theology, but without the imperfection of his elders. He had found in the rationalist apprehension of natural laws a new god, radically undermining in this way the substance of Christian and Jewish doctrine, but while keeping the form of the textual law intact.
To put this another way, Spinoza can be said to hunger for the infinite, the untranscendable, and above all, the unanswerable. He seeks a space that one can never think beyond, and so can never completely understand. Or rather, what we understand is that we are subject to it, and an inferior part of it, a mere attribute of the divine substance.
Seen this way, the philosophy, although subversively rationalist for its time, is not at all liberatory in the late 20th century sense. So the Spinozist intellectuals of post-war France and Italy-- Louis Althusser, the instigator of the movement in many respects, but also Pierre Macherey, Gilles Delueze, Alexandre Matheron, Etienne Balibar, Antonio Negri, and then later, Paolo Virno-- we're aware from the start that the relationship they wanted to establish with the past was in some ways dubious. It had to be invented as much as explained.
Macherey, for example, asks, quote, "what allows one to say of a body of philosophical thought that it is actual, whereas historically, it belongs to the past?" End quote. He answers this by saying that it is actual, or in the original French, contemporary, because a number of thinkers, himself included, had lately turned to Spinoza and were writing about him. This alone made him actual.
But the popularity of his reception, Macherey goes on to say, relied on a theory of reading that would allow Spinoza to become Spinoza. "Actuality occurs," Macherey continues, "when a philosophy independently"-- this is a quote-- "independently of the objective conditions authorizing an authentic and actual reading of his oeuvre becomes a source of inspiration for other forms of philosophical thought that are precisely not based on an authentic reading of his work, but is given the greatest margin of interpretation." End quote.
Althusser too was very specific about the fact that he had knowingly attributed to the author of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and the Ethics, i.e. Spinoza, a number of theses which he would surely never have acknowledged, though they did not actually contradict him. This, according to Althusser, could be justified on the grounds that every movement is based on philosophical detours, and the creation of a different sort of division-- in this case, between and of Hegel.
By these inventive means, the 19th century had its pantheist Spinoza, and the 20th century its political one. So one would want to contrast this notion of reading-- what Althusser in another place called the symptomatic reading, or that Macherey calls the productive reading-- from a philological approach to the text that would want, in fact, to find textual authority for the positions one was attributing to the author.
"The alternative arrived at here"-- Spinoza in quotation marks-- "has served to erase a history of party involvements, and Hegelian philosophical resources, while borrowing heavily from their modes of address their focus on mobilizations and constituencies, and their praxis-oriented intellectual style." This move further allowed one to go back, via a mode of philosophical time travel, to a moment when the bourgeoisie was still heroic, to a time when 17th century radicalism could-- by being transposed onto the actual, in the sense of the contemporaneous-- fit comfortably in the present political center.
The relevance for post-colonial studies of this apparently isolated, even quirky, case of archival rehabilitation is greater than it might seem. Long-standing conflicts within post-colonial studies are captioned perfectly and in ways that are almost completely unrecognized by the so-called founder of post-colonial studies, Edward Said, who polemically embraced the work of Spinoza's near contemporary, the Neapolitan philologist Giambattista Vico, as a counter to the philosophical strands found in Descartes and Spinoza that were then asserting themselves in literary and cultural theory. Then, meaning the mid-1970s.
Moreover-- wait, sorry-- what I wish to foreground, then, is what I take to be hidden, that the strains of post-colonial studies that Said and like-minded others, like Raymond Williams, intended to launch were Vician, as in Vico. Vician, although Said's intentions have not necessarily been understood this way.
Moreover, I will argue that the current appeal to Spinoza that takes its leads from Althusserian post-Marxism of the 1960s and '70s, and later given definitive form in his essays and self-criticism from 1974, published a year before Said's beginnings, is antipathetic to Vician theories of language, history, agency, and foreign cultures. And in this interpretation of Spinoza are given many of post-colonialism's current fads and tendencies.
Finally, I propose to find in the contrast provided by Vico an explicit riposte to Descartes and his philosophical offspring, which includes Spinoza himself. In taking this line, I wish to challenge the thesis that the present is post-imperial by showing that what is at stake is, in part, a struggle over intellectual lineages, and that this conflict bears on how we understand and study empire today. Let me proceed by now turning briefly to Vico.
Vico's masterwork, the New Science, published first in 1725, occupies a very different world of logic and perception than Spinoza's. It is a vivid, bulky, formerly innovative compendium of linguistic archeology, a kind of graphic readings of antique prints and imaginative recountings of what happened in pre-history, at a time when writing, and therefore the raw materials of the disciplinary historian, did not yet exist. A long and asymmetrical work, it is filled with dramatic stories of class conflict, insurrection, intertribal warfare, and the rise of the first cities, the first books, and the first empires.
Vico's guiding principle throughout is that no one people, race, or region, has priority in the story of human beings. His history, as he puts it, is Gentile, meaning that it traces human origins from the first gens, and leaves the providential story of the chosen people to the side. The book's thesis is thus prophetically non-denominational. It is a unified theory of fragmentary events and peoples, showing what is common in the multiple practices of human communities over many millennia. And it is composed of multiple short entries that accumulate over hundreds of pages to provide a unified field theory of historical change.
In this sense, it is built entirely from the tattered scraps of ancient poetry and prose, reconstructed to become an actual story, like a piece of broken pottery reconstituted from its many shards by a technique of poetic reading. To that degree, the study is both history and meta-history, showcasing, as Vico's own proud achievement, a theory of reading. In this way, bringing the study of literature and politics together at the very point that anxieties over foreignness and the rise of civilizations meet.
Both are summoned to illustrate the disreputable present of various early modern claims to European centrality and nationalist boasting. For all these reasons, we might recognize the relevance of his work to post-colonial theory and comparative literature, at the same time that we glean from it an elaborate justification for the recovery of the past as history. Vico ironically dubs this-- that is, history-- a science to distinguish it from the mathematical rationalism of Descartes and his descendants, including Spinoza.
To put this differently, Spinoza is the anti-Vico, just as we would have to say that Vico is the scourge of Spinozism. Not merely Vico himself, but the legacies of Vico in the work of Jules Michelet, Raymond Schwab, Herder, Hegel, Gyorgy Lukacs, Erich Auerbach, and Antonio Gramsci, counter the same theoretical resistances represented by Spinoza's contemporary rival.
In this context, let us recall that the word in Latin that Spinoza would have used, and did, for the state, was imperium. The problems being mooted in neo-Spinoza's political circles do not, for the most part, directly deal with imperialism. They are concerned, rather, with the nature of political rule as such, but they are relevant to the larger problem that imperialism poses, among these, the problem of coercion.
The particularly colonial or imperial dimension of the Spinoza revival emerges precisely against this background, as Warren Montag, one of the Spinoza revival's most talented interpreters makes clear in the following quotation. Quote, "we know," says Montag, "that the rise of the transatlantic slave trade coincided exactly with the flowering of political philosophy in the 17th century. But that the great philosophers had nothing, or almost nothing, to say about it, perhaps because it came too close to suggesting that property rights and the system of accumulation they justified depended on violence, whether in the first or last instance. Or perhaps because its violence was a too-visible reminder of the more subtle forms of coercion that made acceptable the granting of formal rights, the tyranny of everyday life, the constant discipline of the market in the state, that ensured that the multitude would live their servitude as freedom." End quote.
But all of this is precisely what Hegel, as one of the great philosophers no doubt being alluded to here, had addressed. Every detail of it, in fact, in his attacks on slavery in the philosophy of right, as well as in his concession that the colonial settlement strategies of Europe were examples of pure self-interested, mocked politic. And in his persistent exposure of the excesses of the market economy, based on a system of accumulation, that he gave the name bourgeois society, Burgerlicher Gessellschaft.
So the attempt to resuscitate Spinoza on the grounds of modern philosophy's silence on the important question of slavery and violence depends to some degree on forgetting this legacy, which takes us back to the problem of substituting memory for history that I flagged at the outset. What I would like to suggest, in fact, is that Hegel's relevant cure for being part of a Vician tradition. Hegel is explicitly targeted by Althusser in his invention of Spinoza, and is, frankly, conceded by Althusser to be one of the principal reasons for seeking a Spinozist alternative.
But how can one speak of a Vician tradition when his work, not unlike Spinoza's, was neglected for more than a century after his death, and who for many remained an obscure, early 18th century professor of grammar? When I say Vician tradition, I mean, first of all, a minoritarian intellectual position that preceded Vico himself in the form of the medieval scholarly legacies already implicitly secular, that Martin Bernal observes Vico was heir to-- one, the champion, the legendary Egyptian founder of writing, Hermes Trismegistus, a.k.a. Thoth, the etymological root of the Greek theos or god, as the founder of non-biblical, or Gentile, philosophy and culture.
I'm referring also to the 19th and 20th century philologists, the mappers of the world's spirit, whom Edward Said once examined, and I think it is important to remember, extolled in Orientalism, a book, that, as I read it, was for Said an apprenticeship that allowed him to understand how mere literary critics, the stodgy and often arcane 19th century linguists, etymologists, and editors, managed to become public personalities with a voice in policymaking.
With the word Vician, I mean also to draw on the Gyorgy Lukacs of the essay reification and the consciousness of the proletariat, where Lukacs speaks of the quote, "prophetic words," unquote, of Vico, the man who avered that, "if we are able to regard the whole of reality as history,"-- that is, as our history, since there is no other-- "we shall have raised ourselves to the position from which reality can be understood as our action," end quote. It is mostly forgotten that in the same context, Lukacs makes the derogatory comment that all givens, that is, inherited ideas considered conventionally true, are dismissed by Spinoza in his work as nonexistent, causing them to vanish behind the monumental architecture of the rational forms.
We can see the same point being made more directly by Vico himself, when he notes that, for Spinoza, whatever is clearly and distinctly perceived is for that reason true. As a result, doubt has no room in his philosophy, except as a vacillation of the mind. The entire purpose of Spinoza's project is to prove the substantiality of the I that knows.
This is a Vico who has been repudiated in a different iteration of the left/right amalgam of thinking about which I've written elsewhere. For instance, in the ways that Hannah Arendt contemptuously called Vico an ideologist of the classless society. By contrast, E.P. Thompson, in his remarkable polemic against Althusser's errorless theorizing in the Poverty of Theory, Vico is the one he claimed who was able to hold in simultaneous suspension, without manifest contradiction, a Hegelian, a Marxist, and a structuralist heuristic.
But perhaps above all, I'm thinking of the Vician inspirations of Valentin Voloshinov and his linguistics, which were the shattering ripostes to the abstract objectivism still dominant in Saussure's linguistics on the one hand, and the equally extremist linguistic subjectivism of Humboldt and his followers that he also calls upon Vico to expose. The Humboldt line of influence, he suggests-- Voloshinov, that is, suggests-- leads to the sort of infantile invocations of the invented languages of modernism so prevalent among the lyric poets of countless American small magazines, that Mikhail Bakhtin mercilessly ridicules in his much misunderstood introduction to Rabelais and His World, which I take to be a polemic against modernism.
In short, I might say the Vician tradition condenses Proudhon's remark in The Philosophy of Poverty, in his chapter on God, that the whole effort, even of those who, following Bossuet, Vico, Herder, Hegel, have applied themselves to the philosophy of history, has been hitherto to establish a presence of a providential destiny presiding over the moments of man. Seen by this light, it is reasonable to propose that Vico, rather than any other thinker, has given us a theory of history and a method of work that can stand up to scrutiny as both a reflective and philosophical history, inspiring, along with those I've already mentioned, also figures as diverse as Benedetto Croce, Eugene Sorel, Antonio Labriola, RG Collingwood, Ernst Cassirer, and later, Hayden White and Said.
The importance of this, think for a minute. Without Michelet, no Annales school. Without Gramsci, no subaltern studies. The effects are profound. The name Vico is a way of alluding, then, to something that had to conceal itself in the prevailing critical winds of right-moving prejudice, scientism, and political intolerance of the post-war period, in which a left Hegelian posture was as heterodox and as dangerously blasphemous as was secularity in the Middle Ages.
Let us pause, then, on this notion of providence, which any reader of The New Science cannot fail to notice or puzzle over. How can a tract like The New Science, which nods to religious convention, but that no attentive reader can interpret as anything but counter-religious, how could it be simultaneously about so apparently religious a concept as providence?
Vico is saying, among other things, that humans, however separated they are by culture, by geography, by historical experience, or mode of production, as they, in fact, have been throughout much of their pre-history, they all happened, remarkably, to arrive at similar civil institutions in isolation from one another, and without any group having exported the key or model as a gift of their unique genius. Each people found its way to society, to laws, to cultural achievement, to economic self-sufficiency, or as he puts it in The New Science, plowed lands were the first altars of the Gentiles.
How could this have happened, Vico asks, if there were not some secular logic to humans themselves as social creatures, some innate capacity to express their humanity in forms recognizable to, and valued by, all? Rejecting all notions of cultural diffusionism, Vico's is a radical view of parallel and independent development that counters what he calls the conceit of nations. And this countering is one of The New Science's overarching principles.
This logic he somewhat impishly, and with a great deal of intentional paradox, calls providence, exists in part to contest and reclaim the meaning given the word providence in Bossuet's Discourse on Universal History, published in 1681, where Bossuet, a fierce opponent of equality, a defender of absolute monarchy, and a professional panegyrist of the powerful, borrowed lavishly from the Bible to illustrate God's plans for history. But Vico was also flirting with the prevailing religious rhetoric that he intended, in fact, to mock.
We associate this with more modern thinkers, like Hegel, but it is Vico, for instance, who traces the progressive development of human societies based, not on a divine teleology, but on human labor, negotiation, and struggle. By a plan, in other words, that is arrived at slowly, clumsily, and with great conflict and error, but nevertheless with innovation also, and integrity, and the ability to learn.
His famous thesis of verum factum, that is, we know only that which we have made, is an epistemological point, it is true. But it is also a recognition of the sheer quantity of toil that permeates the story of human endeavor, and that moved people from the time of wandering and living in caves to metropolitan splendor.
In the same way, Hegel's concept of the mind journeying through history is anticipated by Vico, although expressed much more colorfully and with more narrative detail. But above all, the sense in Vico of opposition, of the conflict of classes, of political migrations, of the revolt against tyrants, that progress comes from the battle of opposing interests, these are the concrete reasons for us to place them together.
Before Vico, in, for example, Tacitus, Herodotus, and the Venerable Bede, one wrote of human variety, and even of historical change. But it is only with Vico that we are first given the thesis that with certain stages of development, corresponding types of government, modes of technology, and patterns of social organization emerge. That certain human concepts or values are possible only within definite social structures. These Vician seeds blossom, not only in Hegel, but in many others as well.
Of course, it needs to be said that this whole line of argument would initially seem to be antipathetic to Vico's opening gambit in The New Science, which freely conceded to orthodoxy that one people had precedence over all the others. That, according to biblical verities, the Jews, as the chosen by God, were first, were exceptional, and existed, as it were, outside of history. A position, it should be said, that Spinoza also famously contested in his Theological and Political Treatise.
The brilliance of Vico's study, in part, is that this apparent place of honor is actually a justification for ignoring biblical verities, precisely on the grounds that they are outside of history. All of the real movement in his book, all that demands our interest and draws us in, lies in what is purportedly only left over after establishing the exalted character of the chosen. Let the chosen have God, he seems to say, for the rest of us we have men and women, who are much more interesting, and in the end, more consequential. This is the basis upon which his providential history is built, the complete and radical non-priority of any people.
If what I've been saying suggests Vico's relevance for the present, if that's persuasive, let us now examine some of Spinoza's legacy, which are genuinely mixed, not at all all negative, but simply different. Let's try to grasp that.
Spinoza gave his major philosophical undertaking, The Ethics-- first published in 1677, after Spinoza's death-- he gave that book a paradoxical title, since his work is primarily about epistemology, and not morals or ethics as we understand them. For Spinoza, the supreme good consists in the enjoyment of a human nature, which, because perfectly aware of its place in, and unity with, the natural order of things, accepts the inevitability and necessity of that order.
Moral perfection consists in getting beyond the contingency of the affections, which is to say we go wrong, according to Spinoza, when we seek to impose a narrative of redemption on the powers we do not possess, or to invent religious mythologies of deliverance that seek an interventionary god, willing this world to be what it is, while being capable of willing it another way. From the point of view of the regeneration of political theory, that part of his message sounds entirely welcome.
But he's also saying that nature is the expression of the perfection that is God. Perfection, to put this another way, is not a normative state, but the recognition of, and surrender to, necessity. We reach this moral perfection when, by the act of intellection, we come to concede our becoming necessary. Our freedom is freedom from error. To be free is to recognize the impossibility of voluntourism, or the imagination of other states of being than that of nature.
For Spinoza, to know what can and must be thought is to know what can and must exist. Thinking is acting. This line of argument leads to the following Spinozist paradoxes.
One, his materialism can, with justice, be seen as an idealism so extreme that the idea itself has become concrete in imminent transcendence. Similarly, his atheism can be justly taken as an extreme monotheism, where a blank and dispassionate nature is supersaturated with a god too much with us, one who may not be jealous or scheming, as in the Old Testament, but whose laws, even if they are not normative, can never be violated either, and by definition.
Even in this brief allusion to Spinoza's Ethics, one can appreciate the ironies embedded in his contemporary celebration as the godfather of the radical Enlightenment. Spinoza's scholastic, mathematical, propositional form begins with definitions from which he deduces axioms, propositions, and corollaries. The entire architecture of his argument is an interconnected series of logical coordinates based on primary definitions that are originally simply posited, and then continually alluded to, in The Ethics as proofs of more complicated propositions as the argument develops exactly on the model of Euclidean geometry, which was his explicit model.
Two features follow from such a method. First, it deals with existent objects as though they were inertly cut off from our conceptualizations of them, separating thought from the material world as a different mode in his vocabulary. It is, in other words, very much like that of a traditional theory that Max Horkheimer discusses as the hallmark of positivism in his essay Traditional and Critical Theory. In other words, there's no sense of contradiction in Spinoza, no sense of active negation.
There are, then, ironies in the enlistment of Spinoza for the project of an anti-Hegelian neo-Marxism. This project properly began with more or less instrumentalist intentions. Louis Althusser's campaign to expunge Hegel's influence from Marxism by way of conceiving of history as a process without a subject, and to see social change as caused by structural shifts in the mode of production, rather than as the result of what Althusser called expressive causality, which is to say, conscious actors, either classes or individuals,
In his wake, thinkers like Deleuze, Negri, and Balibar found a way to defeat Hegel by transporting us to a 17th century that did not know him. And the temporal distance alone, as well as the strangeness of Spinoza's method, were invitations to signify on the philosopher in politically inviting displays of subversive adaptation. Spinoza's radicalism can, in this way, explode historical communism from within, and undermine it precisely by assuming its name, so that it now signals a strategic passivity and a virtuous recoil from all political engagement or controversy.
The very thinker who, as we saw, stood for an airtight and enclosed system of inflexible laws is invoked by the 68ist philosophers as the champion of the open-ended productive force, and positive potential of the human to develop outside any social plan. What, for Spinoza, was the purest victory of the intellect over the affections, becomes in these philosophical militants a jouissance for what Negri called the passionate relations of society, whose primary mode of production is, in Negri's terms, love.
The Spinozian Marxists, similarly, conflate a historical telos with the telos of nature. They latch onto the idea that Spinoza rejects teleology, and they give us a profound ethical emphasis when preferring him to the teleological Hegel. But Spinoza's point, of course, is not this at all. He's saying to religious dogmatists of his time that there is no eschatological plan, making the world of things a mere stage for a transcendent afterlife, or the world of mere utility of man provided by God during the brief moment of human life, conceiving man falsely as a dominion within a dominion, called nature.
In other words, Spinoza was quarreling with the religious thinkers who had recourse to the argument from design. He has nothing to say about human progressive betterment in history, which is what the teleology of Hegel and Vico is all about. The very philosopher who banished the imagination from the adequate idea becomes for them, as Althusser puts it, the materialist of the imaginary.
The most extreme forms of anarchist freedom from all law and restraint is found by the 68ist thinkers, and the philosopher who vanquishes freedom in the name of a liberating recognition of our impassive place as beings that think in a complex of beings without priority. What came to be known in 68ist theory as anti-humanism is indeed found in gestation in Spinoza's philosophy, but this is perhaps one of the few attributions that survive scrutiny.
It is from Spinoza's concept of the immanence of God in nature that this theory appropriates the term immanence and improvises on it, making of it, as in Deleuze, a flattened, consistent terrain without opposition or contradiction, and without the agency of the mind to enforce or enact; a formless, univocal, self-organizing process without development; a world without subjects, only affects and individualizations of affect.
This improvisation on Spinoza is transformed by Macherey, and later Negri, into a parallel vision of law and sovereignty, where immanence now refers to the happy absence of any logic, principle, or form of rule, that can be used to govern. They see society as a collection of human singularities, a multitude of singular subjects that cannot, or should not, be prescribed to by any external force. Government, therefore, always entails for them a limiting of creative freedom-- that is, any government-- whereas Spinoza was quite explicit about the deep reasonableness of the self-limitations on freedom assumed by subjects in acknowledgment of the necessity of government and the protections that are derived from them.
Spinoza was at least, arguably, an advocate of the power and right of the unprivileged in a Europe still characterized by monarchy. However, he argued in his Political Treatise just as forcefully for monarchy and aristocracy as he does for democracy, provided these forms devise policies that account for the interests of the multitude. He's indifferent, in other words, to whether the form of government is monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy, provided that the interests of the multitude are taken into account by the sovereign within the dominion. He's very clear about this.
But he also wrote within a country that during his lifetime saw the emergence of powerful social sectors in the trades and in merchant life that called forth this particular emphasis. And Spinoza's democratic model was extremely modest by today's standards, failing to include under its suffrage a majority of the population on grounds of their being foreigners, criminals, women, or poor. And yet the Spinoza revival in recent decades is led by philosophers who argue that all governments rely on a notion of constituted power, which is to say a legal edifice of rights and restrictions.
They, the 68ist philosophers, by contrast, opposed this concept, recognizing only constituent power, which, for them, means that all power arises from procedure, and the monopoly of force belongs to the set of subjects as constituted by them, and is therefore immanent in them, even though they never meet, discuss, or propose anything. This is fundamentally different from Spinoza's position, which is that some form of state is inevitable, and that the multitude may immanently possess power, but is highly benighted in the way it expresses it. And so unity and order are the watchwords of Spinoza's Political Treatise, and he returns to that again and again as the only final political goods of any dominion.
It is not easy to concede that a 17th century concept like de multitude, which developed in a small, underpopulated European nation during the early phases of capitalism, empire, and enlightenment; a concept forged prior to the French Revolution, ignorant of the rise of socialism, and unprepared for future anti-colonial liberation movements, that a concept like this could claim any adequacy whatsoever when applied to a mediatized, compulsively massified, modern society like our own. This point alone should be devastating to any claims of its adequacy in Spinoza's neo-Marxism.
But since the advocates of the position are unlikely to be persuaded by recourse to the actualities of history rather than the potentialities of philosophy, for the reasons that I described at the beginning, let us move to a different kind of point. The recapture of the past, brought rudely into the present, portrays the political theory of Hobbes as the anti-Spinoza. Hobbes' famous hatred of the concept of multitude is made, then, in these circles, indistinguishable from his approval of a strong, centralized state. In this way, one is prevented from asking what other demurs unrelated to Hobbes' now four-centuries-old reservations are possible with a concept like de multitude.
Isn't it obvious, for example, that the particular attraction of the idea for Spinoza has mutated and come to stand for a different set of values than he could have foreseen? Precisely the term's lack of precision, its unwillingness to name the distinct social interests at war, its air of being a majority that silently exerts its power from below, and, of course, it's religio-utopic connotations. All of those aspects, in other words, in Spinoza's context of battling church dogma appear inviting.
But how can one miss that it uncomfortably echoes the prevailing contemporary rhetoric of empire? That is, the classless society of upward mobility, the supposed leveling of interests offered by recent technological inventions like internet publishing, and political forms like the decentered power of offshore finance, et cetera?
I'm not, of course, saying that the neo-Spinozist revival promotes these values in these forms. Only that the underdeveloped concept of the political in their writing, and the reductive theory of the state that they employ, renders their analysis vulnerable to the appropriative powers of the atmospheric present of imperial power. To control the state means in a very real sense to control the bi-ways traveled by all but the most careful dissidents under its sway, a point that this Spinozist invention continually fails to acknowledge or to assess.
To oppose all authority only serves the interests of power, not only because the extremism of the claim and its diffuseness dissipate energies, but because it forecloses in advance the policy of formulating a better power attracted by better allegiances. It forgets that safeguarding a protective role of the state, as Spinoza emphasized it.
The new Spinozists believe they clinch their case by pointing to the manifest brutality of the state, whose principles in the abstract-- unity, strength, coercion-- are nullified by the abstract qualities of the multitude-- dispersal, plenitude, horizontal rather than vertical relations, et cetera. In fact, these abstract qualities are the very center and heart of the current state dogmatism deployed on behalf of the work of the corporation.
We've seen that the Althusserian enlistment of Spinoza was greatly motivated by the perception that his philosophy obliterated, in Althusser's words, the imaginary illusion-- the subject-- and thereby reached into the very heart of bourgeois philosophy, which, since the 14th century, had been built on the foundation of the legal theory of the subject. As Montag, as I say, the best of the critics of the revival, expresses it, Spinoza's refusal to set the human apart from nature, mind from body, thought from action, thus makes him perhaps the most thoroughgoing anti-humanist in the history of philosophy. But it does no such thing.
For one thing, it is not true that Spinoza equates the human with nature. Rather, he equates God with nature. Therefore, the human is a part of nature. Or better, partial, and therefore imperfect nature. His is rather an appeal to the use-- by conscious will and choice, one must suppose-- of adequate reason in order to free the mind of illusions about the nature of inquiry, so that it might arrive at more accurate correspondences.
In other words, one can be a part of nature and not above it, or outside of it, or transcending it, while being separable from nature as a whole in all its manifestations, which is a characteristic of God alone-- Spinoza. This particular being within nature that is man is quite privileged in The Ethics, as indeed it must be, written as it was by a man, and for man. It is, moreover, the supreme confidence of the controlling mind that permeates the spirit of Spinoza's project, which seeks to discipline confusion and fence in error by means of a vigorous, even pitiless, display of the mind's capacity to suppress and tame unruly thoughts.
Vico, it seems to me, takes us out of this particular impasse. He regarded the secularity of civil society as something that is frequently expressed metaphorically, in religious garb even. He did not so much want to purge reason of myth, as to see in myth a poetic understanding of the physical and social world that has a logic appropriate to its time. It is on precisely this kind of point that Vico disparages Spinoza, saying that he, Spinoza, acts like society is composed entirely of small businessmen, small shopkeepers.
Whereas Spinoza sees the people as infinitely manipulable, the reservoir of gullibility and self-interest, Vico stresses the movements from below that have throughout history forged a new order of sovereignty onto reluctant owners, leaders, and potentates. His defense of the study of historical, of the study of history, providing a theory of the human that predates recorded time, is governed by bulled principles of cyclical recurrence-- his famous corsi and recorsi-- and whose story of the past is in every sense of the word universal, that is, explicitly not an apologia for a specific nation or event, but working on behalf of everyone.
More than anything, Vico's riposte to Cartesianism was a methodological coup, that is, it zeroed in on the instruments of inquiry used in truth-telling that could claim the status of science, although, in this case, finally, not a science enslaved to the model of the barren rationalism coupled with a naive concept of the inert objectivity of the physical. These instruments of inquiry for Vico were primarily linguistic, or better, philological. For that reason, they're also real, rather than abstractly imputed.
If today, we have learned in one corner of our minds to privilege forms of experience and materiality, Vico's thinking brings these values into being, even if their roots are now remote. As Vico memorably puts it, mathematics and physics fall short of perfect science. Mathematics falls short because its objects are fictions. Physics, because the scope of our experiments can never encompass nature as a whole.
As a result, Vico was drawn to the discordant, accretive, unpredictable richness of social life, rather than to an empty utopian promise of futurity. He's fascinated, for instance, by what he calls the robust ignorance of earlier peoples, from the age of gods and heroes, who did what they did by virtue of a holy corporeal imagination. And because it was quite corporeal, says Vico, they did it with marvelous sublimity, a sublimity such and so great that it excessively perturbed the very persons who, by imagining, did the creating for what they were called poets, which is Greek for creators.
It is interesting in this context that Vico does not find the political concept of the common to be wholly positive in its connotations. He reminds us that the communione denotes a complete absence of system prior to all institutions. Since one of the great achievements of mankind on its road to civil institutions was the idea of marriage, which allowed fathers and mothers to form a bond with their children as certain and definite offspring, he associates the term with an earlier barbaric expression of animalistic desire.
Similarly, common sense for him is a judgment without reflection shared by an entire class, nation, or race. It is the philologist's familiarity with the logic of metaphor that allows him to see through what Vico called the conceit of the scholars, the notion that human nature is fixed and static, unchanging from age to age, such that people in the far past of history had mental powers and outlooks much like our own, which he denies. Only the historian as philologist is truly scientific, for, like the natural scientist, they arrive at universal principles on the basis of first causes, following matters back to their origins.
Unlike Cartesianism, they do so on a surer footing, consulting what humans themselves have made. The historian, by virtue of being human, is capable of grasping and understanding them in a distinctly intimate way. As he memorably puts it, mathematics and physics fall short.
This characteristic appeal of Vico to philology is one that places him in contrast to the Spinozist tradition that I've been outlining, and places him centrally in a particular interpretation and devisement, you might even say, of an approach to the study of empire in the fields of post-colonial studies in world literature. I've been suggesting that the resurrection of Spinoza is a product of the fear of what I would like to call here at the end 20th century enlightenment, that is, the radical social programs from the early 20th century found, among others, in the Weimar Republic, in the Mexican Revolution, and in the early Soviet Union.
Spinozism is a way to invoke a radicalism now safely entombed in an earlier age, a mentality whose severity, because of the relative modesty of his goals when measured by 21st century needs, is inseparable from its serenity, and whose individual intellectual heroism at a time when his bourgeois enclave was still vulnerable and unstable, has a great deal to do with its present appeal.
Vico cannot be credited with the more radical vision of the early 20th century I just outlined, but he certainly would have understood it. For the struggle not simply in, but for, social institutions is Vico's story, and the patterns of thought he set in motion are those that fed the 19th century utopian socialists who are the most direct precursors of 20th century enlightenment. But even more directly, for Vico, historical time is cyclical, or rather spiral, rather than apocalyptic or linear.
The emergence, again, after great effort of that which had been roundly defeated earlier, is not simply possible, but wholly logical, in this particular mapping of human time. But because history is never exactly repeated, it will appear interestingly and in forms we cannot yet imagine. Thanks.
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Timothy Brennan, professor of comparative literature, cultural studies, and English at the University of Minnesota, discusses the philosophical showdown between Giambattista Vico and his near-contemporary Baruch Spinoza, and what it reveals about current debates over empire and democracy. The event was sponsored by the School of Criticism and Theory.