Spinoza Contemporaries

February 17, 2012


From Rembrandt to Spinoza, the Golden Age of the Netherlands casts its long shadow into the 21st century. Candle light flickered and the sand in the timer flowed silently but he barely noticed, he was so engrossed in his reading. With his left hand he held unto the globe while all around him in the darkness others slept deeply. The work of these candle-lit-scientists continues to be honoured today. Indeed their century, the 17th century is now recognised as one that was crowded with genius [2].

Spinoza Contemporaries

Spinoza Contemporaries,
originally uploaded by ocean.flynn.

Damasio chose a reproduction of this painting by Dutch artist Gerrit Dou entitled Astronomer by Candlelight (c.1665) for the cover of his splendid,insightful book1 (2003)entitled Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain in which he combines his own research as head of neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center with the writings of Spinoza, a contemporary of Rembrandt.

In Chapter 6, “A Visit to Spinoza,” Damasio revisited the historical period which he calls a century of genius in which Spinoza’s life unfolded. He noted that it was in the Netherlands in the 17th century that the makings of contemporary justice through such enlightened minds as that of Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) who introduced modern concepts of international law (1625). It was also during this period that modern capitalism emerged in the Netherlands (2003:231).

While he lived in the most tolerant country of the 17th century Spinoza’s iconoclastic ideas regarding truth claims and legitimization of truth were too radical even for Holland.

Spinoza was born into a prosperous family of Sephardic Jewish merchants who had fled Portugal during the Inquisition shortly before Spinoza was born.

Their acquired wealth from trade in sugar, spices, dried fruit and Brazilian wood was Spinoza’s inheritance. But he valued his intellectual independence more than money and learned to live frugally even refusing professorial positions so as not to have his time or thinking compromised. He never owned his own home preferring to occupy only a bedroom and study. In that bedroom was the one object upon which Spinoza fixated. This was the four-poster, canopied and curtained bed where he was conceived, birthed and in which he finally died. It is called a ledikant and contrasted sharply with the armoire or cupboard bed that was more common in Amsterdam homes of the 17th century (to be continued p.229). Other than that he only needed paper, ink, glass, tobacco and money for room and board. He reminds me in some ways of our contemporary Russian mathematician Perelman who learned to live on $100 a month to devote himself solely to the elevated apolitical study of pure mathematics.

Damasio chose a reproduction of this painting by Dutch artist and Rembrandt (1606–1669) student from 1627 to 1628, Gerrit Dou (1613 – 1675) entitled Astronomer by Candlelight (c.1665) for the cover of his splendid, insightful book in which he combines his own research as head of neurology at the University of Iowa Medical Center with the writings of Spinoza, a contemporary of Rembrandt.

In Chapter 6, “A Visit to Spinoza,” Damasio revisited the historical period which he calls a century of genius [5] in which Spinoza’s life unfolded. He noted that it was in the Netherlands in the 17th century that the makings of contemporary justice through such enlightened minds as that of Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) who introduced modern concepts of international law (1625). It was also during this period that modern capitalism emerged in the Netherlands (2003:231).

Notes

See also this timeline entitled “Before, During and After Spinoza’s Time (Building on Damasio 2003) / based on Damasio’s book (2003) Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain.

Continued at Before, During and After Spinoza’s Life (Building on Damasio 2003) and at Google Docs


Digitage on Barbara Kruger's Nature/Culture Barbara Krueger’s (1983) “We Won’t Play Nature to your Culture” somehow comes to mind when reading Žižek on nature/culture.

During breaks I would walk through empty rooms to discover changes curators had made in their spaces. I was a teenager when I began to feel at home in the silent, often light-filled buildings that held public art collections. I was annoyed by, resented, then was intrigued by, read about, studied, spent time with pieces that came to be my favourites. Visual artists were deeply informed about and experimenting with emerging, complex theories, cultural studies, political philosophy . . . academics did their best to avoid them until it became impossible to do so.

Reading Slavoj Žižek’s Organs without Bodies is a lot like my non-linear NGC meanderings in the 1990s. His writing provokes me but there is enough brilliance there that makes me keep his book in the reading stand beside my monitor, opened at different pages on different days. He is not a lazy thinker. Each page is like a hypertext reader indexing a myriad of artists, philosophers, scientists and entrepreneurs. He discusses Hawkins, Hegel, Heidegger and Hitchcock with equal comfort because he has actually ‘read’ and analysed’ their work.

I was drawn to his chapter section on hyphen-ethics more because of the probing, unsettling questions it raises than because of his conclusions. It will be one of those recurring themes that will be part of my own lifelong teaching, learning and research.

“What is false with todays discussion concerning the ethical consequences of biogenetics is that it is rapidly turning into what Germans call Bindenstrich-Ethik, the ethics of the hyphen – technology-ethics, environment-ethics, and so on. This ethics does have a role to play, a role homologous to that of the provisional ethic Descartes mentions at the beginning of his Discourse on Method: when we engage on a new path, full of dangers and shattering new insights, we need to stick to old established rules as a practical guide for our daily lives, although we are well aware that the new insights will compel us to provide a fresh foundation for our entire ethical edifice (in Descartes case, this new foundation was provided by Kant, in his ethics of subjective autonomy). Today, we are in the same predicament: the provisional ethics cannot replace the need for a thorough reflection of the emerging New (Žižek 2004:123).”

“In short, what gets lost here, in this hyphen-ethics, is simply ethics as such. The problem is not that universal ethics gets dissolved in particular topics but, on the contrary, that particular scientific breakthroughs are directly confronted with the old humanist “values” (say, how biogenetics affects our sense of dignity and autonomy). This, then, is the choice we are confronting today: either we choose the typically postmodern stance of reticence (let’s not go to the end, let’s keep a proper distance toward the scientific Thing so that this Thing will not draw us into a black hole, destroying all our moral and human notions), or we dare to “tarry with the negative (das Verweilen beim Negativen),” that is, we dare to fully examine the consequences of scientific modernity with the wager that “our Mind is a genome” will also function as an infinite judgment (Žižek 2004:123-4).”

“The main consequence of the scientific breakthrough in biogenetics is the end of nature. Once we know the rules of its construction, natural organisms are transformed into objects amenable to manipulation. Nature, human and inhuman, is thus “desubstantialized,” deprived of its impenetrable density, of what Heidegger called “earth.” Biogenetics, with its reduction of the human psyche itself to an object of technological manipulation, is therefore effectively a kind of empirical instantiation of what Heidegger perceived as the “danger” inherent to modern technology. Crucial here is the interdepedence of man and nature: by reducing man to just another object whose properties can be manipulated, what we lose is not (only) humanity but nature itself. In this sense, Francis Fukuyama is right. Humanity itself relies on some notion of “human nature” as what we inherited and was simply given to us, the impenetrable dimension in/of ourselves into which we are born/thrown. The paradox is thus that there is man only insofar as there is inhuman nature (Heidegger’s “earth”). (Žižek 2004:124).”

Notes
Slavoj Žižek is a dialectical-materialist philosopher and psychoanalyst. He also co-directs the International Centre for Humanities at Birkbeck College. The Parallax View appeared last year.

Webliography and Bibliography

Žižek, Slavoj. 2004. “Against hyphen-ethics.” Organs without Bodies: on Deleuze and Consequences. New York/London: Routledge. pp. 123-132.

Titles >> Subtitles: Organs without Bodies >> on Deleuze and Consequences >> Consequences >> Science >> Cognitivism with Freud, Autopoiesis, Memes, Memes Everywhere, Against Hyphen-Ethics, Cognitive Closure?, “Little Jolts of Enjoyment”,

folksonomy: cultural studies, theory, philosophy, Deleuze, globalization, democracy, democratization, war on terror, Joan Copjec, biogenetics, hyphen-ethics, capitalism, Richard Dawkins, Jacques Derrida, Daniel Dennett, ethics, Ethical turn, Habermas, Kant, Laclau, Levinas, Lacan, Varela, religion, Pascal, Spinoza, The Quite American, Hegel, Heidegger, Massumi, Fukuyama, liberal democracy, Self, personhood, ethics, mind/brain, mind body, psychoanalysis, nature/culture, technology, mind and consciousness,

More by Slavoj Žižek:

Žižek, Slavoj. 2003. “Bring me my Philips Mental Jacket: Slavoj Žižek welcomes the prospect of biogenetic intervention.” London Review of Books. 25:10. May.

Žižek, Slavoj. 1999. “Attempts to Escape the Logic of Capitalism.” Review of Vaclav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts by John Keane.” London Review of Books. 21:21. October 28.

Žižek, Slavoj. 1999. ‘You May!’ London Review of Books. 21:6. 18 March.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 57 other followers