Tag Archives: Spinoza

Nature and its Discontents

Walden 2.0

Ben has some thoughts up on Zizek’s “Unbehangen in der Natur.” I was talking about this for Jockey Club on Friday so I thought I’d just make a couple of comments. Like Ben, I have some serious problems with Zizek’s piece as well as his conception of nature. For Ben this seems to be the imposition of a transcendental subjectivity but for me it is the concepts of alienation and rupture.

There is a clear connection between this piece and Freud’s “Unbehagen in der Kultur” (“Civilization and its Discontents”, uneasiness in culture). It is not the case that fro Freud most of us socialize normally but some people “don’t quite make it” and so must be normalized. It is rather that culture as such, in order to appear normal, ordered, etc., involves a whole series of distortions, manipulations, and pathologies. We are then “uneasy” in culture as such. One of the goals of Zizek’s work on ecology is to show this as true for nature as well, that we are uneasy, homesick, in nature itself.

This is the alienation of subjectivity, which is essential to Lacanianism. The subject only exists as alienated, through alienation. But is it the case that the human being is fundamentally alienated from nature-as-such? Part of Zizek’s structuralist narrative that he inherits from Lacan, Levi-Strauss, Rousseau, etc., is the dichotomy of nature and culture, that there was some sort of transcendental rupture in reality when human beings developed the capacity for language and suddenly we went from being apes to human beings. In this process we began instantly to supplant nature with culture, imposing ourselves on the chaos of nature, ordering it. Is this the case? Isn’t it rather that the human being, and human culture, developed slowly out of nature? Zizek wants us to believe that either there is a radical break with culture or we are New Age obscurantists who want to naively go “back to nature.” There is surely a middle ground to this ridiculous dichotomy, one that will say that culture is thoroughly “natural,” while still being (clearly) different, in the same way that both animals and minerals are natural but different.

Where does this supposed alienation from nature come from? Zizek doesn’t tell us. He wants us to think that nature is terrifying and horrible, and certainly it can be though isn’t always, that we are fundamentally afraid of it. Now, I didn’t grow up in an industrial centre or a big city; I grew up in the woods of south eastern New Brunswick, we had deer and wolves and bears in the area, sometimes in our backyard. As a child, I was never “alienated” from my surroundings, I was at home. I’m reminded of Erazim Kohak’s Embers and the Stars, one of the few works of phenomenology that I really truly like. Kohak abandons his life in Boston to live in the woods and essentially writes a phenomenology of nature. He doesn’t feel alienated either, but at home in the wilderness. Of course, he isn’t living in a cave or anything, he builds a cabin, but still. He lives with the rhythms of nature, he feels a kinship to a family of porcupines who live down river. Nature is not terrifying.


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Some Thoughts on The System of Nature and the Ethics of Survivalism

In one of Reid’s recent posts, he linked to the following TEDTalk given by Michael Pollan:

There is so much I love about this Michael Pollan piece. First is his claim of coevolution and his disdain for Descartes. I also appreciate his “from the plants perspective” methodology which I shared with Graham some time ago as a potential OOP-pairing. Though I wonder now if it isn’t closer to a vitalism than OOP would like. One of my problems with OOP has been with its lack of conatus, will, or drive. While Graham has gone to great lengths to explain how change can occur, arguing against the changeless relationists, he provides no reason why change occurs. This is why I begin with a system of drive, with the idea that things perpetuate themselves. Reid’s recent posts on genes, memes, and temes (a general theory of memetics) are helpful here.

Repetition, perpetuation, is a property of existence.

This outlines exactly what I was trying to convey in my recent post on Camazotz. As I have said numerous times before, I am an avowed anti-humanist, both in the sense that I am against the essentialism of humanism (that there is a fixed human nature), but also in the sense that I do not accept that humanity is the height of nature. The example Pollan gives of rice is excellent in this respect; we are not “more evolved” than rice simply because we have consciousness (indeed, the idea of anything being more or less evolved is ridiculous).


There is no “top” to nature, no king of the hill. This is why an ethic of domination (a la Nietzsche and the stereotype of vitalism in general) is inadequate and simply empirically wrongheaded. A true vitalism ethic would be one of mutual survival, not a species-centric will to power. It is for this reason that I have provisionally dubbed such an ethic survivalism. Of course, the term is already in use, though not philosophically. From Wikipedia:

Survivalism is a commonly used term for the preparedness strategy and subculture of individuals or groups anticipating and making preparations for future possible disruptions in local, regional, national, or international social or political order.

I have adopted this term because I think it is rather fitting. Vitalism is a system of order, of systematics themselves. Survivalism as the preparedness and anticipation of chaos or disruptions to order would work in much the same way philosophically as an ethic of networking, of rebuilding order in chaos, or conversely, could likely become more widespread in the sense of becoming a political tool for sustainability. This would be an ethic of creativity, productivity, repetition, and growth. It would be inherently anti-fascistic in the sense that by taking nature as its example (since it is an outgrowth of nature), it must be cooperative (nature is an egalitarian system of flows, no one is on top).

This of course is entirely natural, though it may seem to go against standard human behaviour. We see such systems of cooperation in nature all the time. The above photo of the bee provides one of the most obvious examples. Though it is human-made, my favourite example of cooperation (though I don’t know why…) is that of the Three Sisters (beans, squash, and corn), who form their own tight-little-system of cooperation and mutual prosperity. Native Americans found these foods desirable and also found that through companion planting, the three plants all benefit each other. Not only that, but the combination of the three benefits the human caretaker by providing him or her with a balanced and healthy diet. Survivalism could be exactly such a system-building system, one which seeks out sustainability and grows more nature.


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The Jouissance Beyond Life (and Death)

Kevin writes:

“The loosening is both a re/lease of limbs and song, but also a death.”

And is this not jouissance as “plus-de jouir,” that is, as sur-plus, more (more!) pleasure and also a lack of pleasure? There is a reason why an orgasm in French is a “petit mort” or “little death,” as the pleasure, the love, the life grows, its border with death and inertia shrinks. There is infinite pleasure to be found in the infinite circlings a-round and a-round by the ghosts in their drives, each time a joy-ride and a near-death experience rolled into one.

This is exactly where the connection lies between the drives, and where Zizek brushes with vitalism. There is an odd relation between Life and Death, pleasure and pain, expansion and contraction, as all us transitory beings fade in and out of being, flickering with life for a short while to collapse into dust while our ghostly selves continue to be pushed and pulled about the cosmos and involved, still, with life and death.

There is only the death drive, the drive to infinity, and all things are this death drive as all things collapse and fade in and out and in again finding the pleasure of this fading, though it is by definition unbearable…


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Voluntarism vs. Intellectualism

Graham has an interesting post up on viewing the history of philosophy in oppositional dualisms. One of the things I like about Graham is his ability to cut these problems down to their essential components.

In this case, the opposition he’s talking about is Occasionalism vs. Skepticism. I’m not going to talk about his post, so much as the general idea at work, so go read it.

I always find these sorts of oppositions interesting. I have a prof who seems to see everything according to either Voluntarism or Intellectualism / Rationalism (metaphysical not epistemological). “What is primary, Will or Intellect?”

This debate also goes back to Neo-Platonism (“What emanates out of the One first, Nous or World-Soul?”), and has found its way into more recent philosophy as well (with people like Schelling, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche [and their followers] taking up the voluntarist cause against people like Hegel). Spinoza poses an interesting problem with this dichotomy: thought and extension are the attributes of substance that we are aware of, yet he also claims that all bodies strive (conatus) and all minds will (voluntas). So what is the relation of Will (generally) for Spinoza? I remember from reading Schopenhauer that he thought Spinoza got it backwards, and that Will is primary, but is this really fair to Spinoza? Maybe someone who knows more about Spinozism can help me out here.

Are there any other such dichotomies that people want to draw?


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Deleuze on Being

Found a great piece up over at Space, Power, and Geography. They’ve posted some of Deleuze’s lecture notes on Univocity, Equivocity, and Analogy when it comes to Being.

The medieval scholar inside of me quite enjoyed his views on this age old debate.

Note, they’ve also uploaded the first few chapters of Deleuze’s book on Spinoza which is well worth the read.

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