Elizabeth Grosz is a feminist philosopher and Professor of Women’s Studies at Duke University. Her work has been important for geographers because of its engagements with spatial practices, volatile and sexed bodies, and the arts of cosmic engagement. More recently, audiences have turned to Grosz’ work because of its explicit engagement with the inhuman forces of the earth and the explication of the forms of “geopower“. In this interview Grosz discusses her new book about questions of ontology and ethics, which draws on the philosophies of the Stoics, Spinoza, Nietzsche to address materialist idealism. A recent panel on “Geopower” based on Grosz’ book Chaos, Territory and Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (Columbia University Press 2008) is available from Environment and Planning D: Society and Space here).
Kathryn Yusoff: After, your last three books on Bergson, Nietzsche and Darwin-–Time Travels: Feminism, Nature, Power (2005), Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely (2004), Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art (2011) (all Duke University Press)—you are now turning to Spinoza and the Stoics for your next book. Can you tell our readers what has motivated this engagement?
Elizabeth Grosz: I am currently working on a book, sort of on ethics, but more directly about questions of ontology. The book will include a chapter each on the Stoics, Spinoza, Nietzsche (who I can’t seem to stop writing about), Deleuze, Gilbert Simondon and Raymond Ruyer. It doesn’t have a title yet but I am nearing the end, slowly. What I am interested in is thinking about ethics, not in terms of morality, a code of conduct or a set of principles to regulate conduct from the outside, but in terms of the exploration of becoming, what kind of a new ontology – an ontogenesis – we must develop in order to understanding the becomings that underlie and make being possible. Each chapter addresses a philosopher, or a group of philosophers (in the case of the Stoics) who articulates a world-view, an analysis of what is or can be, in which the question of the limits, mortality, and smallness of the human relative to the vast and powerful laws of the universe is the primary focus. Moreover, each of these philosophers, while appearing to be materialists, and addressing questions about the world through materialism, remain attached to a concept of the ideal, ideality, or conceptuality that is irreducible to anything material. Each can be considered, in the limited terms of any binarisation of mind and body, as an paradoxical idealist materialist or materialist idealist. In other words, each articulates what a pure materialism is unable to explain; each remains committed to the activity of ideas and their direct impact on and transformation of matter through their energetic and informational flows into forms of knowledge as well, without understanding or reducing ideas to simply bodily or neurological movements. Each thus established the non-material reality of ideas, the way in which the universe generates orders, orientations, directions or sense as it elaborates its own complexities. Taken together, these thinkers establish a kind of genealogy of thinking about informed matter and the relations to life forms that depend on it and extend it each in their own ways.
Thomas Hirschhorn Spinoza Monument (Amsterdam 1999)
KY: When I think of Spinoza, I think of him as a lens grinder, and his philosophy as a form of focal work. Without wanting to overemphasis the biographical conditions of labour, how much do you think Spinoza’s practical life gave rise to certain philosophical approaches to materiality?
EG: Well, I think in the case of all the philosophers I am addressing that something like this is true: that each worked quietly and (with the exception of the Stoics) alone, more or less without a pregiven audience, each wrote (or spoke – as did the Stoics) about a world from a particular angle, from a perspective in which the place of human action and thought can extend and magnify itself through its encounters with the world. In Spinoza’s case, he wanted to understand the universe as a single substance, a divine substance, a substance immanent in God, or Nature (this equation of God with nature – Deus sive natura – was the cause of Spinoza’s ‘expulsion’ from his religious community and the beginning of the accusation of atheism) which can be understood by us, as limited humans, under the attributes of extension and thought. Every material act, every body, every relation between bodies is also a relation of ideas, the ideas of those bodies and the encounters they generate. Ontology – the orders of being – entails an ethics, a manner in which to live, a capacity to enhance or diminish oneself through these encounters. Good and bad are nothing but measures of the effect of such encounters: those that are good enhance me, are good for me; those which diminish me, are bad. Spinoza’s question, on which much of Deleuze’s work depends, is how to acquire a knowledge of the world and its immanent forces, not from the angle of human consciousness, but from the point of view of eternity.
Significantly, not only was Spinoza a lens grinder, who died of consumption aged 44, Descartes too, his more or less contemporary who sent philosophy in an entirely different and binarised direction, worked as a lens grinder! Perhaps there is a question of focus for both of them!
KY: If I understand correctly, Spinoza says quite directly that materialism is ontological; ‘Existence appertains to the nature of substance. A substance cannot be produced from anything else: it will therefore be its own cause, that is its essence necessarily involves existence, or, existence appertains to its nature’ (Ethics, Part I, Proposition VII, Proof).
He also suggests that ‘Human power is considerably limited and infinitely surpassed by the power of external causes, and therefore we do not have absolute power of adapting things which are outside us for our use. But we shall bear with equanimity those things which happen to us contrary to that which a regard for advantage postulates, if we are conscious that we have done that which we ought, and that we could not have extended the power we have to such an extent as to avoid those things, and moreover, that we are part of nature as a whole, whose order we follow. If we understand this clearly and distinctly, that part of us which is defined by our understanding, that is, the best part of us, will be wholly contented, and will endeavour to persist in that contentment… the endeavour of the best part of us agrees with the order of the whole of nature’ (Ethics, Part IV, Appendix, Paragraph 32).
This seems to suggest a very different kind of subjectivity, affect and materialism than that which has characterised critical thought recently. How might Spinoza help us understand the materialities of environmental change and geologic forces, of following after climate change for example, in ways that suggest how to persist better within natural forces? And, in relation to this, how does his notion of a multiplicity of individuals within a body, and the reliance of the human body for its perseverance on other bodies (from which it is continuously regenerating) shift more agentic accounts of subjectivity?
Thomas Hirschhorn Spinoza Monument (1999)
EG: There has been a quite remarkable return to Spinoza, as a kind of counter to Descartes and the relentless movements of Cartesianism even in the present. Cartesianism and its offshoots seem to mark not only much of contemporary (analytic) philosophy but also many branches of the study of cognition and the brain. Spinoza’s work was reread by many French philosophers, from around the 1950s on, and with increasing urgency in an attempt to problematize the mind/ body dualism central to Cartesianism – this is explicit in the work of Althusser, Balibar, Foucault, Derrida, Negri and especially in the work of Deleuze, and Deleuze and Guattari, and has, more recently been the object of much feminist discussion, from the work of Irigaray to the various feminist anthologies on his work.
It is not, as I understand it, that Spinoza’s ontology is materialist. It isn’t. That is why it is interesting. What exists is God, or Nature in its complexity. What exists is not just material, but also ideal, the two orders of attribute under which any thing may be understood by us. Mind is not a separate substance than matter, but the always accompaniment of any material process. What is in part appealing about Spinoza, unlike Descartes, is Spinoza’s acknowledgement that humans, and indeed life itself as we know of, are a very small and relatively powerless part of the universe that has mistakenly taken themselves for the centre, in identifying themselves with God or above all, by seeing God as a kind of grandiose human. In living a concept of life attuned to nature – its own and that of its world – Spinoza invented the model for an ethics that is ontologically founded and that directs itself to ontology. Humans can at best understand events, but they very often do not control such events, including the capacities of their own bodies. There is no sense that through human understanding we can come to understand the universe and its regulative principles. Instead, Spinoza provides us with an account of the human body’s capacity to affect and be affected, its actions and passions, its movements and concepts, which is the basis of the ethics he develops. The human is not an agent, but is a complex pattern of agency and reactivity, of encounters that enhance one’s capacities and those which diminish one’s capacities, of actions and passions. A body relies on many bodies, just as concepts rely on a milieu of other concepts, for these two orders always function inseparably. This work does shift our concept of agency very much – indeed it is not longer clear that what acts, is an agent, or is acted upon, a patient. Every form of life is both.
KY: In terms of the Stoics, how might their approach to “dying well” offer us some resources for thinking amidst our current scene of ecological reorganisation that is named the Anthropocene?
EG: The Stoic concept of ‘dying well’ is immensely important not only when we consider the effects of imminent social collapse on each of us and our possible responses, but also when we consider that we are placed in an immensely vast universe where the call to ‘live well, according to one’s principles’ provides us with a connection to the universe, a fully material universe, as the Stoics understand it, which is nevertheless ordered and framed by an order they call ‘incorporeal’. To live well is to live, not according to the opinions and values of others – what we cannot control – but according to one’s own rational sense of one’s place in the world, according to actions we can control. To live well is to live according to what one can control, one’s own inner states, one’s own bodily behaviour, one’s own principles. This position is fundamentally anti-egoistic: it is directed to a knowledge of the world and one’s place in it. However, as a psychical attitude – perseverance, acceptance, self-reliance – I suspect that Stoicism is perhaps not the best psychology for struggle, as the devastation of many of the earth’s resources draws closer. Nietzsche understood that in times of violence, the Stoics were immensely life-affirming in their fortitude, but that in times of peace and plenty, he prefers the Epicureans (The Gay Science #306). The Stoics affirm that we are the subjects of destiny, which is indifferent to our needs and interests. The task of a reasoned or reflective life, a life lived in according with what is beneficial to one’s nature (according to one’s own understanding) is a life able to fully affirm its destiny, a life that seeks to be worthy of what befalls it, even as it has little or no control of such a destiny.
KY: In your previous books you have thought several philosophers together, often against the grain of their own thought to realise something that was a virtual possibility within their thought, but not yet fully realised (this is extremely powerful in your work on Darwin and Nietzsche, for example). How are the Spinoza and the Stoics involved (or not!) in a comparable mode of searching? How do they come together, as it were?
EG: This is correct, in my own experience of writing. And with this new book too. The question is less what is a particular philosopher saying that is of significance, but what resonates and differentiates a tradition, especially a minor tradition – really a tradition of the ‘losers’ of various philosophical battles – in their differences. The Stoics are interesting in themselves; so is Spinoza. And Nietzsche. But putting them together, seeing them as a wayward and sometimes indirect lineage beyond the frames of Platonism, Aristotelianism, Cartesianism, Kantianism, and Hegelianism often brings out what is truly radical that they share. The figures I want to address as a lineage are figures often considered as materialists, but in each case, I have attempted to show that any commitment to a thorough-going materialism inevitably ends up dabbling in and committed also to an idealism.
KY: ‘When an external state involves an increase in our power of acting, it is joined by another state that depends on this very power’ (Deleuze 1988, page 40). In this way Spinoza’s thought is not unlike Alfred Lord Whitehead’s in its development of an idea of “agreement” or composition between an organism and its environment that allows it to persist until such point that that composition fails. Deleuze suggests that, “In this sense, existence is a test. But it is a physical or chemical test, an experiment, the contrary of Judgement.’ (Deleuze 1988, page 40). This seems like a provocative way to think about the possibilities of ecological relations after the Anthropocene, and to understand the need to experiment with new compositions that might be in better agreement with the forces of the earth. What role does affect and art have in this composition of forces?
EG: This is a great question. I do think that there is a direct lineage between Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bersgon, Whitehead, and William James, and Deleuze, that is linked to the organism’s emergence from the world or milieu in which it depends, from which it gains its qualities, and to which it contributes in its own way. In this, I think that Deleuze has taken a lot particularly from the work of Gilbert Simondon on individuation. For Simondon, life is a response to a problem that comes from outside. This problem – there are many intractable problems that we must address: how to live with others, which food to eat, which relations to engage it or remove oneself from – each involves the invention of possible solutions and thus the changes that occur to subject and environment as these problems, one by one are addressed, or not. Invention is experimentation, not only scientific but equally aesthetic and ethical. Existence is an experiment in which invention and transformation are ongoing necessities: not only are affects the objects of such experiments, perhaps more significantly, the body and its relations to other bodies, living or not, is an intensification of this necessary experiment, whose lives are marked by its force. Art, and ethics, are different ways of addressing problems than those posed by science and knowledge. They provide no solutions to the incompatibilities , tensions, in how to live, but perhaps they develop ways of living creatively with problems, providing new modes of addressing or dealing with them.
With the Anthropocene, however, I have less faith. It is without doubt a considerable and growing problem – man’s effects on climates and milieux – but the problem presses on us, not in its abstraction which can always be deflected, but only in its local effects on our bodies. To the extent that we live climate differently, to the extent that we experience it as an increasing burden that we must address, this is always local. While climate change and the age of the anthropocene are cited as problems, people remain to be convinced (not to mention sinister forces of commercial production directed at the obscuring of any real problems) and while this occurs, the problem remains unaddressed.
KY: Finally, can I ask you what are your hopes for this new book? I ask this not just in terms of what hopes there are for thinking and writing the meaning of worlds, but also in the context of Spinoza and the Stoics own thinking/writing practices.
EG: I hope to show that terms that we consider opposites – mind and body, self and other, reason and passion, male and female, ideality and materiality – cannot be considered as opposed. There are no oppositions in the real but only differences, productive differences to the extent that difference is not assimilated into an oppositional form itself (as, say, identity). I wanted to show that this is not an original idea at all but that it has marked the history of Western thought intermittently, from the time of the earliest origins of Greek philosophy, in the Presocratics through to the present. What this tradition has established is a new place for philosophy, or thought more generally, not in the creation of truth but in rethinking the (internal) relations of thought to things. Thought is not a mirror of the real, but its own processes of living. There is something of thought that lives beyond the expanse of materiality, something that the Stoics, Spinoza and even Nietzsche understood as touching eternity. I want to give a secular understanding to this divine (or for Nietzsche, demonic) impulse to aspire to the eternal, to think the eternal and to act in accordance with it. This has a decidedly old fashioned tinge, but I believe that in fact the contemporary emphasis on materiality has missed this element of the eternity of thought and will.