The Problem with Descartes: It’s Not Dualism

Some people, a lot of people, treat René Descartes as a sort of bogeyman of modern philosophy. Somehow, in the first half of the seventeenth century, Descartes sundered the seamless fabric of Being into two factions, mind and body, a thinking thing and an extended thing, res cogitans and res extensa. With that dualism set in place, soul was thereby evacuated from the universe…except for a tiny piece of property that soul could rent out in the human head, accessed through a steep driveway in the pineal gland. In a universe devoid of soul, humans lost any motivation or justification for caring about anything beyond the solipsistic ego. Thanks a lot, René! There’s no concern for other humans, for community, or for the natural world. Mechanistic thinking thus spurred the rapacious destruction of ecosocial integrity through the development of industrial technologies and market economies. Now, as humans are sawing off the environmental limb that we’re sitting on, it’s more urgent than ever to overcome Cartesian dualism and find a way back into the seamless interconnectivity of existence. No, not really. Something is very wrong with that story. “In order to seek truth,” as Descartes says in his Principles of Philosophy, “it is necessary once in the course of our life to doubt, as far as possible, of all things.” Well, one of the things of which I’m doubtful is the idea that dualism is what’s wrong with Descartes.

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Cosmopolitics of Bodies: Participatory Ecologies

Still thinking of bodies, remembering Spinoza’s point that no one has yet determined what a body can do.  This is a crucial point for ontological accounts of bodies as well as for ethicopolitical interactions with bodies.  Don’t just create new determinations of what bodies are.  Create open situations for the activation of the virtual capacities harbored in the unfathomable indeterminacy of bodies.

Still thinking of bodies, colliding and colluding with the “participatory ecologies” of the distributed, complex, relational body articulated in Erin Manning’s new work of philosophical choreography, Always More Than One: Individuation’s Dance (Duke, 2013), p. 110-122.

More-than its taking-form, “body” is an ecology of processes (and practices, as Isabelle Stengers might say) always in co-constellation with the environmentality of which it is part.  A body is a complex activated through phases in collision and collusion, phasings in and out of processes of individuation that are transformed—transduced—to create new iterations not of what a body is but of what a body can do.  What we tend to call “body” and what is experienced as the wholeness of a form is simply one remarkable point, one instance of a collusion materializing as this or that. [..] Continuity and discontinuity commingling to activate the singular in a field of difference. (p. 19)

The inventive task of the ecology of practices that Stengers calls “cosmopolitics” is not simply to map relations of difference, but to activate virtual singularities….

Singularities of the cosmos unite!

Atheism = philosophy of religion

One of Deleuze’s greatest (and most frequently cited) questions: “Why is philosophy so compromised with God?”   The question comes from a course on Spinoza in 1980.

Throughout most of its history, philosophy has been so involved with discussions of God that the philosophy-theology boundary seems extremely vague.  Why do philosophers focus so extensively on God and God-talk?  He responds to the question through an analogy with the prevalence of God in modern painting.

Why is there so much focus on God in modern painting?  One way of thinking about it is this: the artistic activity of painting wells up out of religious feeling, such that painting inevitably expresses some religious dependence on or devotion to divinity.  In that case, religion is an inevitable constraint on art: the necessary dependence of art on human-divine relationships.  Deleuze isn’t interested in that way of thinking about it.  He risks another hypothesis.

For modern painters, God is not a necessary constraint, but is a site of “maximum emancipation.”  With God, the painter can do things that can’t be done with humans or other creatures.  With God, painting finds “a kind of freedom for itself that it would never have found otherwise.” This means that a pious and impious painter “are not opposed to each other because the way painting invests the divine is a way which is nothing but pictorial,” which is to say, nothing but artistic conditions for the “racial emancipation” of the painter and of the lines, colors, and forms of the world.

“With God, everything is permitted.”  God allows the painter to break with the paradigm of representation: “to achieve a liberation of forms, to push the forms to the point where the forms have nothing to do with an illustration. […] the lines and colors lose all necessity to be verisimilar […] to resemble something. It’s the great enfranchisement of lines and colors […].”  This liberation from representation means that the use of God also liberates painting from religion, theology…and God.  “So much so that, in a sense, atheism has never been external to religion: atheism is the artistic power [puissance] at work on [travaille] religion.”

Just as painters used God to liberate percepts and affects, philosophers are so compromised with God because they are using God to liberate concepts from representation (thus liberating concepts from any representation of God and, mutatis mutandis, having done with the judgments of God).  Atheism is the conceptual puissance at work on religion. Spinoza’s pantheistic atheism is a case in point.

This is not postsecular or postmodern theology cleverly defining itself as atheism.  In this Spinoza course, Deleuze is explicitly affirming atheism, secularism, and modernity for their subordination of God to the demands of speculative philosophical invention.  Atheism is the philosophy of religion.