My Spinoza is a bit rusty but I recall that Spinoza, in Book II of the Ethics, says that the order and connection among ideas is the same as the order and connection of bodies. This would be Spinoza’s famous parallelism. For every event that takes place in the mind (thought, feeling, emotion, etc.), there will also be a parallel event that takes place in the body. This is mirrored later in Spinoza’s definition of affects in Book III. Upon hearing the word “affect” our tendency is to think “emotion”. Yet for Spinoza, this is not what an affect is. For Spinoza, affects are the capacity to affect and to be affected and all entities, whether living or not, possess affects. There is also an idea that accompanies affects. It is this that we usually refer to as feelings and emotions (it would be very different for nonliving things). Thus, on the one hand you have the bodily dimension of affect (the capacity to affect and be affected), while on the other hand you have the mental dimension of affect (feelings, emotions).

What fascinates me about all of this is the manner in which we can get confused about the causes of our affects. It is this confusion about causes that Spinoza is at pains to untangle in Book III of the Ethics. His thesis is that we’re often deeply mistaken about the causes of the mental dimension of our affects. It might be that you have to be addicted to something in order to understand what Spinoza is getting at. Fortunately I smoke far less than I used to, but I still chew nicotine gum. There will be days when I forget to chew any nicotine gum, going hours without the nicotine without realizing it. Now something curious happens to me in these circumstances. I will find myself getting angry and irritated with circumstances around me, lashing out at others or these circumstances. Now what’s interesting here is that when this happens I don’t associate my anger with the absence of nicotine at all. Rather, in these circumstances I am convinced that the other person or circumstances are the cause of my anger.

This is a perfect exactly of what Spinoza is getting at with his parallelism. There is a shared order and connection of events in the body and mind, yet at the latter level (which is all we have access to in our consciousness) we can be wildly mistaken about the cause of our feeling or emotion. I think that it is the other person that has caused my anger when, in fact, my anger is the result of poor neuro-conduction produced as a consequence of the absence of nicotine in my system. If I had nicotine in my system it would never occur to me to take the speech and action in an antagonistic way requiring a hostile response. The case is similar with anxiety. In many instances your anxiety might merely be the result of some current emotional imbalance in your neural system. Yet you know nothing about this. All you know is that you’re haunted by a horrible feeling in which you’re unable to sit still, where everything looks fearful, and where you feel the overwhelming need to escape. At the conscious level you then begin to cast about for the cause of this anxiety and center on things in your relationships with others, maybe your finances, your future, etc., despite the fact that your anxiety might have nothing to do with any of these things. How often have I had moments where, feeling this way, I pop a few vitamin B capsules only to have my anxiety disappear within half an hour? Would this be possible were my anxiety the result of the things I just listed? I don’t know.

I am not making the case that it is this way with all emotions and emotional reactions. There are certainly cases where the world provokes anxiety, where others provoke anger, and all the rest. Two things interest me here. First, it is interesting to note just how withdrawn we are from even ourselves. In many respects I find Spinoza’s thesis about the opacity of our affects terrifying. We never quite know whether it’s just some weird chemical response that’s precipitating our conscious affective states (a chemical imbalance, having eaten the wrong thing, etc) or whether it truly is these other things in the world (other people, our future, our circumstances). We can be certain that we are experiencing these particular emotional states– perhaps (how often are relations we tell ourselves are friendly or romantic really pervaded by passive aggressiveness?) –but it is extremely difficult to disentangle the causes of these emotional states (and all the more so because ideas can also cause changes in physical states of my brain, e.g., happy thoughts, perhaps, can generate the production of more dopamines producing more happy thoughts). This leads to a second point of interest, one that might lead me to find greater peace of mind: before jumping to any conclusions as to another person causing my dismay and before believing that I have any insight into their motives and psychic states, I should remind myself that reading the words and actions of other people is a bit like seeing images in a cloud or an ink blot. My interpretation of this other person might very well say more about what’s going on in me than anything going on in the other person, and could result from something as simple as what I ate last night or the absence of nicotine in my system. If I tell myself this then perhaps I will have better relations with others and be less inclined to jump to conclusions about them. This is part of what Lacan is talking about, I think, when he talks about moving beyond Imaginary mirroring relations. It’s not quite yet traversing the fantasy or discovering that the big Other doesn’t exist, but is nonetheless an important step.

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