Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Governed as It Were by Chance: Monstrous Infinitude and the Problem of Nature in the Work of Spinoza

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

Governed as It Were by Chance: Monstrous Infinitude and the Problem of Nature in the Work of Spinoza

Article excerpt

To the degree that the world is now made up of divergent series . . . crapshooting replaces the game of Plenitude.-Gilles Deleuze1


When Spinoza wrote The Ethics in the 1600s the world was largely a wild place. Intense human settlement occupied only a quarter of the globe.2 We now live in a very different world. In the 1600s the world was largely comprised of biomes: "contiguous area[s] with similar climatic conditions, and communities of plants, animals, and soil organisms."3 By the year 2000, only 20 percent of the world might be considered "semi-natural" and 25 percent "wild." But no place is leftuntouched by anthropogenic transformations; we live in a world of anthromes.4 Spinoza was largely concerned with questions of association between humans as they relate to a causal understanding of the human body.5 Today, forms of governance, indeed the choice between socialism or barbarism, is an ever more pressing question, but it is complicated by concerns about species extinction, loss of biodiversity and anthropogenic threats to global stability, unevenly felt in the global north and global south. With these concerns in mind, many scholars are calling for a reframing of the question of association to include our relations to non-human others.6

In this paper I explore the question of the ways we might form enabling assemblages with non-human others, by returning to Spinoza's theory of the composite individual. The challenge, as I see it, is less that of a need to move beyond a romanticized view of Nature as a harmonious whole, Nature as a perpetual threat, or Nature as motivated by a final cause (whether good or evil). The problem that confronts us, rather, is a problem of composition-which Nature do we ally with, what components? How do we understand or define, much less defend, localized ecosystems which are supported (and threatened) by a dizzying and infinite array of intensive and extensive properties? This is a problem of the monstrous infinite.

To outline the contours of the problem I turn to a brief description of the Baroque to mark its coordinates, specifically the ways in which monstrous infinitude surfaces as an "ontological horizon" first in the seventeenth and again in the twenty-first century. Drawing on a Deleuzian distinction between the Baroque strategy of closure and the neo-Baroque strategy of capture as different responses to this monstrous infinitude, I explore a growing contemporary movement around "the rights of nature" which, though laudable, illustrates the dimensions of the problem by virtue of its current limitations. My premise is that a restrictive vision of a "rights of nature" is in a sense inadequate, an inadequate idea-a "baroque" response to a "neo-baroque" world: it is predicated on a strategy of closure, the idea that a harmony of nature might be restored, re-established against the infinite incursions of human indiscretion. My argument simply put is this: that those who attempt to "protect" nature and those who would simply exploit "natural systems" while envisioning, even generating incompossible worlds, partake of the same presumption of a human-nature divide (in Deleuzian terms an aleatory point in a disjunctive synthesis).

In order to investigate what capture might look like I explore the premises of this movement through a Spinozist lens, turning to the writings of Baruch Spinoza-not as a Baroque thinker but rather a "thinker of the Baroque."7 We might ask-why turn to Spinoza? Genevieve Lloyd for instance declares, "Anyone who looks to the Ethics for a viable, coherent metaphysical system to ground a belief in the rights of the non-human will look in vain."8 And Spinoza himself was somewhat disparaging in his attitude towards non-human others.9

Spinoza's usefulness here lies not in his writings on humans or non-human nature per se, but his thinking about the composite individual. The few short passages on the composite individual are a heavily contested terrain, a battleground between neo-liberal scholars who enlist Spinoza in their promotion of a vision of methodological individualism and thinkers of more complex collaborations in the relation between individuation as a process and individuals as the effect of that process. …

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