I begin a PhD on Spinoza

ethics-spinoza

I am very happy to announce that I will be commencing a full-time PhD from January 2013 at Roehampton University, London, on the role of desire in Spinoza’s philosophy. This is a fully-funded studentship with all fees paid, at last giving the space and time to concentrate on my research ideas without having to work full-time or even part-time. Ah! I have had so many ideas and plans generating for a long time, and now I have an opportunity to do something with these. To read, to think, to travel, to write, without having to hold down some gruelling job for 50-60 odd hours a week… yes!

It’ll only be for three years, and there is only so much preparation that can be made for the unforeseen crises, challenges and changes of circumstance that befall each of us over time. But it feels like my lights are now beginning to turn green: I can now drive, Negative Capitalism has a release date, and I’m feeling much better about things, an outcome of a number of personal choices. I now have an opportunity to contribute something interesting towards contemporary thought. This is the original proposal:

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“On lines, planes or bodies”: the problem of desire in contemporary political philosophy analysed in the encounter of Spinoza and Deleuze.

Dept. Humanities, Roehampton University, supervised by Dr Nina Power and Dr Jenny Bunker.

Scope.

Desire has been one of the central problems of contemporary political thought. Politicians, theorists, activists and researchers have each asked: how should government by the people, and local democratic initiatives function? What compromises must be made between collective desires and stability? And especially problematic for critical theory:how can the desire or dissatisfaction of oppressed communities be channelled into alternative social and political organisations?

Desire is an elusive, compelling yet rootless formulation for political theory, presupposing an individual or collective will that becomes the basis of political subjectivities. Yet in an era where politicians are no longer expected to manage or protect ‘the people’, but to provide them with what they want, the endorsement of desire has more problematically led new dangers to democracy: ecological destruction, ever-growing income inequalities, and a return to more fundamentalist religious and nationalist ideas. Is democracy just the facilitation of mass desire, or the careful government by all, for all? This research therefore examines how diverse understandings and applications of ‘desire’ have come to empower or limit political act and thought.

This research proposes to contextualise these readings of desire, and its political application, through the influential thought of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. It advances the hypothesis that Deleuze’s writings on Spinoza, a 17th-century Dutch philosopher, earlier on in his career were enormously significant in shaping his later thought; and that the problems of a purely positive analysis of desire stems from a wilful re-(or mis-) appropriation of Spinoza’s thought. The research intends to demonstrate how Deleuze’s specific, and at times problematic, readings of Spinoza shaped his later political work with Guattari, particularly in his assertion of power as constituted in its own free expression and liberation, rather than exploitation, codification or organisation. Such readings have inspired a far more libertarian political use of Spinoza (Macherey 1979; Negri 1982, 2000, 2004; Balibar 1985; Negri & Hardt 2000).

This research advances the hypothesis that such an ‘autonomist’ or libertarian reading of desire as freedom, and desire as constituent political power, inconsistently equivocates with the freedom of desire and contempt of state power represented by neoliberalism’s celebration of consumer choice determining the equilibrium of free-market capitalism, and of what Foucault calls ‘state-phobia’. Nina Power (2009) too has observed the subtle coercion of power beneath assertions of ‘liberated’ feminism and ‘liberated’ capitalism, in its contemporary neoliberal form. Deleuze’s ‘desire’ is inconsistent with Spinoza’s own account of desire, conatus, and his influential early modern argument for democracy and freedom of speech, honed in the midst of sectarian civil wars tearing across Europe. Spinoza’s ‘desire’ is more cautiously concerned with the effective protection and coordination of democratic power through liberal government, underpinned by a social contract.

The research will lastly analyse Spinoza’s political writings alongside recent psychoanalytic accounts of desire and maturity in democratic political organisations (Damasio 2003; Winnicott 1965) in order to provide a sympathetic, if more nuanced, practical, systemic – ‘Spinozean’ reading of democratic desire after Deleuze.

Method.

The research will carry out a close textual analysis of selected works in philosophy, political theory, and the history of ideas.This will be completed in three years: the first year will focus on reading and developing a conceptual framework around desire, staged in the encounter of Spinoza and Deleuze. The first and second chapters will be completed in year one, with most of the research for the third chapter also undertaken. The third and fourth chapters will be completed in year two, alongside the research for the fifth chapter. In year three the previous chapters will be reorganised and rewritten as required, and the fifth and sixth chapters produced.

The research has been speculatively organised into six chapters below, with indicative research questions.

Chapter 1, The Problem of Desire: Politicising Freedom

  • Contextualising the Spinozean turn: Althusser, Deleuze and Macherey, and the Marxist divergence from Soviet Communism
  • Reclaiming desire and repression as political conceptions
  • How does desire correlate or conflict with historical materialism and the dialectic?

Chapter 2, Deleuze after Spinoza: the Infinity of Philosophical Desire

  • Expressionism: Deleuze’s task of linking immanence and the infinite
  • The ‘new naturalism’: Leibniz and Spinoza’s immanence against the Cartesian mechanism
  • Conatus, or desire, as the ‘existential essence of being’?
  • Spinoza’s affirmation ‘practical philosophy’ as a philosophy of practice and creation?

Chapter 3, The ‘Affirmationist’ Consensus? Desire as Political Subjectivity

  • Desire as lack (idealism) vs. desire as flow (immanence): Deleuze and psychoanalysis
  • Desiring-machines: desire against the social, desire as counter-power?
  • Restoring the multitude: Ranciere and Badiou after Deleuze
  • ‘Affirmationism’: positive political activism vs. critique by negativity

Chapter 4, Spinoza before Deleuze: Sovereignty, Love, and the Sad Passions

  • Clarifying differences into One: the Ethics as a machinic system
  • Conatus, the desire to persist in being – a Machiavellian account?
  • Sad or joyful passions: redirecting desire as the basis of an ethics?

Chapter 5, Spinoza’s Democratic Thought

  • Sovereignty: an equal relation between king and subjects, or a constitutive one?
  • Spinoza as ‘anti-Orwell’? Fanaticism against the rational community
  • The ‘state of nature’ in early modern democratic thought: chaos or freedom
  • Democracy as a continual process, not institution, of self-governing

Chapter 6, The Democracy of Problems: Thinking Desire in Contemporary Critical Theory

  • ‘State-phobia’ and individualism: non-liberal manifestations of collective desire
  • Fundamentalisms, morbidity, ecological collapse: challenges to the ‘general will’
  • Psychoanalytical explanations of collective desire, and alternative philosophical projects of democratic government and ‘rights’ alongside or beyond desire.

Indicative bibliography

  • Althusser, Louis (et al.). Reading Capital (1965)
  • Balibar, Etienne. Spinoza and Politics (1985)
  • Damasio, Anthony. Looking for Spinoza (2003)
  • Deleuze, Gilles. Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza (1968)
  • Deleuze, and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus (1972)
  • Israel, Jonathan. Radical Enlightenment (2001)
  • Macherey, Pierre. Hegel or Spinoza (1979)
  • Matheron, Individu et communaute chez Spinoza (1969)
  • Negri, Antonio. Savage Anomaly (1985)
  • Spinoza. Complete Works (trans. Shirley, 2002)
  • Winnicott, Donald. The Family and Individual Development (1965).
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