ON DESTROYING WHAT DESTROYS YOU: Hostis interviews Thomas Nail

'Close The Detention Centers!' - Sans Papiers Image

An interview with Thomas Nail. For original piece click here.

Hostis: One may see the aims of Hostis and feel a tinge of moral discomfort when it begins to ask questions regarding the status of migrants, of refugees, and of exiles [1], if only for the very reason that there remains some commitment on our part to the idea that to be content with a politics of recognition and a strategy of representation perpetuates the illusion of emancipation when all that can be achieved is Statist inclusion. In other words, once recognition as political strategy is exhausted, the very people who are indexed by this representation are left wanting. In this same vein, then, we might say that the question of representation, recognition, and the figure of the migrant forces us to go one step furtherto say that “the real content of the demand ‘citizenship papers for all!’ could also be formulated as: everyone must have citizenship papers so that we can all burn them.”[2] How does your concept of “migrant cosmopolitanism deal with the potential merits and many shortcomings of this exhaustive and truncated application of Statist inclusion?

Thomas Nail: Historically, there have been numerous figures of the migrant. For example, the nomad, the barbarian, the vagabond, and the proletariat are four major kinds of migratory figures. For me, the figure of the migrant is not a class or identity; it is a vector (a position in motion). As such, anyone can move into and out of it as territorial, political, juridical, and economic factors change. This position is one defined by the primacy of movement and can be formulated in the following way: the figure of the migrant is the political figure who is socially expelled or dispossessed as a result, or as the cause, of their mobility. The migrant is the collective name for all the political figures in history who have been territorially, politically, juridically, and economically displaced as a condition of the social expansion of power.

Migrants are the true movers of history and political transformation, but this does not mean their movements are immune from cooptation by states, capital, or other forms of expulsion. In fact, it is their captured motion that is the very condition of social power in the first place (slavery, serfdom, waged labor, and so on). In this sense I think it is too simplistic to say that all of their movements are either antistate or reformist, in part because the difference between reformist acts and revolutionary acts is not an essential or formal one, it is a contingent and material one. An act is revolutionary when it results in revolution. Burning passports may or may not be revolutionary; it depends on the collective effects.

However, what is interesting to me about the figure of the migrant is that it has produced some pretty incredible collective effects that are completely outside territorial, statist, juridical, and capitalist circuits of social motion (slave and maroon societies, vagabond collectives, workers communes, and so on). If we want to think seriously about the possibilities of some kind of social organization distinct from the reactionary forces of territorial nation-states and capitalism, then we should start with those historically invented by migrants. Cosmopolitanism is the name often taken by the reactionary forces of states toward “including” migrants. This is not the worst thing that could happen, but it also does not accurately describe the tendency of what I am calling “migrant cosmopolitanism” to create nonexpulsive social structures outside such structures of representation.

H: Do you see “migrant cosmopolitanism as something distinct from more reformist and liberal notions of seeking the inclusion of, and the granting of rights to undocumented persons? The occupation of the Saint Bernard church, which you have thought a lot about and which lasted from June 28 to August 23, 1996, strikes one as being something more than a politics of recognition. You also mention the No One Is Illegal migrant justice group based in Toronto as embodying the subversive and more radical aspects of the struggles around immigration, political refugees, and exiles. Obviously the tenacity of these struggles came from their level of self-organization and their ability to gain various forms of popular support, both materially and symbolically. What is it about these examples of migrant struggles that point beyond the shortcomings of a type of liberal approach to piecemeal reformism?

TN: What is so exciting to me about these movements is that they are not just asking for rights, they are demanding the abolition of citizenship altogether in a very specific way: by creating autonomous communities open to anyone regardless of their status. The slogan “Status for All” can be interpreted in two ways: “Everyone who lives here should have legal status within the juridical nation-state” or “If everyone has status, no one has status.” The latter is consistent with No One is Illegal’s demand for the abolition of nation-states and borders. Universal status undermines the territorial and national aspects of the state, and therefore undermines the state tout court. I have written elsewhere about the details of their Solidarity City campaign in Toronto.[3] The aim of this campaign is to bypass the state altogether and organize migrants, social service providers, and allies into mutually supportive relations, regardless of status. Another example I have written about in Returning to Revolution is the Zapatistas.[4] The Zapatistas are indigenous people in Mexico expelled from their land. As migrants in their own country, they have decided to not simply demand rights from the state or migrate to the United States, but to build autonomous communes with their own nonexpulsive social structure.

H: Between 2008-2010 there was some publicity around the notion of migrant struggles taking up the idea of “demanding the right to stay home.”[5] This idea of trying to force a situation on the State where migrants don’t have to leave, don’t have to live the vicissitudes of migration itself also strikes us as something of interest, primarily for two reasons. First, the demand is situated in terms of an initial refusal to migrate, the demand to not be forced to live the life and fate of migrants moving from the global south to the global north; and second, because this initial refusal also refuses what capitalism has increasingly gained ahold of, namely, public imagination and a people’s way of investing and/or desiring a certain future. As Guattari said, “In my view, this huge factory, this mighty capitalistic machine also produces what happens to us when we dream, when we daydream, when we fantasize, when we fall in love, and so on.”[6] So this initial refusal of being forced into the life of a migrant also acts as a refusal of investing in a future that coincides with whatever capitalism codes and reformulates as a desirable life for everyonemoving to a Western country, living a suburban lifestyle, replicating the heteronormative narratives found in Hollywood/Blockbuster cinema in one’s own personal life, or what have you. Simply put, this “demand for the right to stay home fights at the level of “forms-of-life, and not simply at the level of Statist recognition of certain rights. What, if anything, has your work on these issues helped you clarify for yourself and others regarding this difference between struggling for State inclusion versus struggling for a ‘form-of-life’? Or do you perhaps find this distinction unhelpful, outdated, conceptually ineffective, and so on?

TN: This is a great example and I deal with it at more length in The Figure of the Migrant.[7] But in short, let me make two points. First, the “right to stay home” is a migrant movement and not the rejection of migration. Most folks involved in this movement are people who have already been expelled from their homes at one point or another. “The right to stay home” could just as easily be called “the right to return home” since most are already migrants. Take for example the millions of Mexican migrants in the United States who would much rather be back home in Mexico with their families. Or think of the millions of indigenous people around the world who are being expelled from their land by the capitalist accumulation of agricultural land. Even if they are not yet territorially expelled, they are already juridically, politically, and economically expelled from their social status in order to facilitate their geographical displacement. Even if some people are allowed to stay, what does this mean if everything around them has been destroyed by mining companies, monocrop farms, hydroelectric dams, and so on. One can become a migrant even if it is only the environment that changes.

Second, the idea of a migrant social movement around the right to stay or return home is a very old one. This strategy was the invention of the ancient figure of the migrant: the barbarian. The ancient world (Sumer, Greece, Egypt, Rome) is absolutely filled with slave revolts by captured barbarians, only a fraction of which were recorded in any detail, unfortunately. The primary demand of almost all of these revolts was the same: to return home or find a new home. In fact, this is the etymological meaning of the world “revolt” in the context of mass slavery: to return home. There is a fascinating reason why this becomes the dominant form of counterpower in the ancient world. For me this is less an issue of “form-of-life” than the “form-of-motion” proper to the migrant.

H: In Means Without End, Agamben presents the refugee as a figure of the threshold. Agamben’s other chosen figures are quite tragic, the most famous being Bartleby and the muselmann of the camp. This is all to say that theoretical takes of the refugee routinely associate them with the power of incapacity. We’re curious about why popular media seems all too ready to also characterize them in this way. Most high-profile news events, such as the recent migrant boat disasters in the Mediterranean, depict them as helpless. What is the form of power you find most useful in your analysis?

TN: Ah, yes. Agamben has this great line in his essay “Beyond Human Rights” that is very inspiring to me. He says, “It is even possible that, if we want to be equal to the absolutely new tasks ahead, we will have to abandon decidedly, without reservation, the fundamental concepts through which we have so far represented the subjects of the political (Man, the Citizen and its rights, but also the sovereign people, the worker, and so forth) and build our political philosophy anew starting from the one and only figure of the refugee.”[8] It’s too bad he never followed up on this claim. I agree with the spirit of his point but I disagree about the content and method of this claim. This quote is one of the reasons I wanted to write The Figure of the Migrant. Agamben is on the right track, but he does not see the refugee as only one among many other figures of the migrant as I do, and therefore as part of a much larger philosophical project focusing on political motion and migrant counterpower.

But to your question: The refugee is an ancient figure of the migrant related to the barbarian. The two emerge at roughly the same time in history in the context of widespread slave revolts. Only when there is barbarism and slavery can there be the escaped slave who seeks asylum. The refugee (from the Latin word fugere) is the one who reflees: first being forced to flee one’s homeland as a captured slave, and then having to flee one’s captor in favor of the refugium, or ἄσυλον (asulon, asylum). But the political limit of the figure of the refugee is that it does not follow the same imperative to revolt or “return home” as with barbarians like Spartacus, the Goths, and others who tried to fight their way to freedom. Instead, the refugee remains tied to the refugium. In this way the refugee was simply bound to a new master: the god, temple, and priests that managed all the first refugee asylums for escaped slaves in the ancient world.

Of course, I do not want to say that this means all refugees are helpless! My point is simply that the political figure of the refugee has a long genealogy that is still active today and tends to imply in its genealogy someone who is simply looking for a new master, a new nation-state, church, or refuge. Nation-states prefer dealing with this figure and would like to keep this historical meaning. Compare this to the refugee’s historical twin, the barbarian! The barbarian is wild, chaotic, destructive, mobile, active, powerful, and so on: the destroyer of civilization. Historically, the barbarian is to be feared and the refugee is to be pitied by the gods. On this point I am against Agamben and on the side of Nietzsche, Benjamin, Hardt, Negri, and many of the anarchists of the nineteenth century: we need a new barbarism.

H: We are quite inspired by migrants’ penchant for burning down the detention centers in which they are held captive. High-profile events include riots where inmates have taken over or destroyed large parts of facilities, as in Texas, Australia, and across the EU. Most political commentators have nothing positive to say about these events, though sometimes a litany of abusive practices come to light. Hostis is happy to celebrate these moments as a collective demonstration of the anarchist principle “destroy what destroys you.” What do you see in this insistent desire to rebel?

TN: This brings us to another figure of the migrant: the vagabond. The masterless men and women of the Middle Ages (serfs, peasants, beggars, witches, rogues, and so on) significantly developed the migrant art of rebellion in its strictly etymological sense: turning back in direct violence. Since barbarians are kidnapped from their home, their counterpower is related to their desire to return home. All violence is a means to the ends of escape. While barbarian slaves could potentially escape the limits of their empires, by the Middle Ages there were fewer and fewer places left to flee outside the jurisdiction of some lord or another. Thus, vagabonds increasingly began to directly confront authority from within, by rebelling. This is not to say that there were not also raids or revolts of some kind, or that direct violence was missing from raids and revolts in previous ages, but simply that during the Middle Ages the primary goal of most migrant counterpower was less about supplies (raiding) or radical escape (revolt) than about direct assassination, political murder, burning, revenge, and desecration from within society without the goal of leaving it. Today the figure of the vagabond persists in migrant attacks on detention centers, the burning of passports, squatting, theft of electricity, property destruction, violent battles with police, and so on.

H: To hazard a deceptively straightforward postcolonial question: what does the migrant tell us about ourselves?

TN: Well, for one, we are all becoming migrants.[9] People today relocate to greater distances more frequently than ever before in human history. While many people may not move across a regional or international border, they tend to change jobs more often, commute longer and farther to work,[10] change their residence repeatedly, and tour internationally more often.[11] Some of these phenomena are directly related to recent events, such as the impoverishment of middle classes in certain rich countries after the financial crisis of 2008, subsequent austerity cuts to social welfare programs, and rising unemployment. The subprime mortgage crisis led to the expulsion of millions of people from their homes worldwide, 9 million in the United States alone. Foreign investors and governments have acquired 540 million acres since 2006, resulting in the eviction of millions of small farmers in poor countries; and mining practices have become increasingly destructive around the world, including hydraulic fracturing and tar sands. This general increase in human mobility and expulsion is now widely recognized as a defining feature of the twenty-first century.[12] “A specter haunts the world and it is the specter of migration.”[13]

However, not all migrants are alike in their movement.[14] For some, movement offers opportunity, recreation, and profit with only a temporary expulsion. For others, movement is dangerous and constrained, and their social expulsions are much more severe and permanent. Today most people fall somewhere on this migratory spectrum between the two poles of “inconvenience” and “incapacitation.” But what all migrants on this spectrum share, at some point, is the experience that their movement results in a certain degree of expulsion from their territorial, political, juridical, or economic status. Even if the end result of migration is a relative increase in money, power, or enjoyment, the process of migration itself almost always involves an insecurity of some kind and duration: the removal of territorial ownership or access, the loss of the political right to vote or to receive social welfare, the loss of legal status to work or drive, or the financial loss associated with transportation or change in residence. For all these reasons, the migrant is becoming the political figure of our time.

Thomas Nail is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver and author of The Figure of the Migrant (Stanford University Press, 2015) and Returning to Revolution: Deleuze, Guattari, and Zapatismo (Edinburgh University Press, 2012). His publications can be accessed at: udenver.academia.edu/ThomasNail

Hostis is a journal of negation. Fed up with the search for a social solution to the present crisis, it aspires to be attacked wildly and painted as utterly black without a single virtue. Hostis Issue 1: Cruelty is available from Little Black Cart. It is currently accepting submissions on the topic of “Beyond Recognition.” More information can be found at incivility​.org.

 

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Endnotes

1. For instance, in the CFP for issue 2 we begin by asserting the following: “Seeking recognition is always servile. We have little interest in visibility, consciousness raising, or populist pandering.”
2.Tiqqun, Untitled Notes on Immigration
3. Thomas Nail, “Building Sanctuary City: No One is Illegal–Toronto on Non-Status Migrant Justice Organizing,” Upping the Anti: A Journal of Theory and Action no. 11 (2010): 149–162.
4.Thomas Nail, Returning to Revolution: Deleuze, Guattari, and Zapatismo (Edinburgh University Press, 2012).
5. See David Bacon’s 2008 article ‘Immigration and the Right to Stay Home’ (http://www.alternet.org/story/92639/immigration_and_the_right_to_stay_home) & his 2010 piece ‘All Over the World, Migrants Demand the Right to Stay Home’ (http://inthesetimes.com/article/15793/all_over_the_world_migrants_demand_the_right_to_stay_at_home)
6. Félix Guattari, Molecular Revolutions in Brazil
7. Thomas Nail, The Figure of the Migrant (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015).
8. Giorgio Agamben, “Beyond Human Rights” in Means Without Ends (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 16.
9. With the rise of home foreclosure and unemployment people today are beginning to have much more in common with migrants than with certain notions of citizenship (grounded in certain social, legal, and political rights). “All people may now be wanderers”: Zygmunt Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 87. “Migration must be understood in a broad sense”: Nikos Papastergiadis, The Turbulence of Migration: Globalization, Deterritorialization, and Hybridity (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2000), 2.
10. World Bank’s World Development Indicators 2005: Section 3 Environment, Table 3.11, http://www.worldmapper.org/display.php?selected=141.
11.International annual tourist arrivals exceeded 1 billion globally for the first time in history in 2012. World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), “World Tourism Barometer,” vol. 11, 2013, http://dtxtq4w60xqpw.cloudfront.net/sites/all/files/pdf/unwto_barom13_01_jan_excerpt_0.pdf.
12. I use the word “expulsion” here in the same sense in which Saskia Sassen uses it to indicate a general dispossession or deprivation of social status. See Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), 1–2. Many scholars have noted a similar trend. For an excellent review of the “mobilities” literature on migration, see Alison Blunt, “Cultural Geographies of Migration: Mobility, Transnationality and Diaspora,” Progress in Human Geography 31 (2007): 684–94.
13.Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 213.
14. Bauman, Globalization.

Between Badiou and Spinoza: On Epistemic Conditioning and The Doctrine of Parallelism

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“The true is generic, even when being is the power of singularities.”

— Alain Badiou, ‘Spinoza’s Closed Ontology’

(short essay currently in progress…)

0. Intro

In a short essay from the 1990’s, Alain Badiou addresses the persuasive force and fundamental shortcoming of Spinoza’s philosophy: it’s force, says Badiou, is that Spinoza has thoroughly proven that ‘Being can only be thought more geometrico.’ Spinoza’s shortcoming, however, stems from his treatment of Being independent from temporal determination by way of the Event. It is for this reason that Badiou claims that a theory of the event is the necessary supplement to Spinozism, in order to account for categories such as ‘indeterminacy, difference, subject, undecidability…” and so on. In a certain sense, Badiou’s criticism of Spinoza is reminiscent of the charge leveled by Hegel, which claimed that while philosophy must begin with Spinozism since it directs thought toward the Absolute, Spinoza must be rendered as a moment within the progression of dialectical thought since Spinoza’s Substance, by itself, remains static. Badiou formulates the criticism in the following manner: “The true is generic, even when being is the power of singularities.” In other words, the problem of Spinozism is how to account for the movement from the Infinite to the finite, from infinite intellect to finite intellect, and from substance to subject. However, what I want to show is that Badiou’s critique of Spinoza rests on several reconceptualizations of Spinoza’s own concepts; some reconceptualizations which are justifiable and some which remain untenable from the perspective of Spinozism.

Badiou will insist on treating the infinite intellect and extended things as separate, and on claiming that infinite intellection has an additional form of determination that is not found in extended things. Additionally, Badiou insists that there are three additional assumptions behind the arguments for the status of substance, substance’s relation to itself and things in the world, and its essence: namely, what is assumed in substance is a ‘proof of difference,’ what is assumed regarding the relation of substance and its modes additional to causality is ‘coupling’ and ‘inclusion,’ and what is assumed in the essence, or identity, of substance is an exceptional subject that is ‘heterogenous’ to Being itself. By reconstructing how this critique proceeds, we will be able to see that while it appears to be plausible that we can justifiably treat the infinite intellect and extended things as separate and coupled, Badiou’s claim that an infinite intellect has an additional form of determination that is not found in extended things misses all the necessary theoretical justifications found in the doctrine of parallelism; a mistake on Badiou’s part that at the same time grounds his entire critique.

1. The Implicit Assumption Of A ‘Proof of Difference’

Problems arise for Spinoza with the status of the relationship between substance and its attributes. That is, what underlies the relationship between substance and its attributes isn’t simply logical identity (e.g., substance is its attributes). Rather, this relation is constituted by some notion of difference, which gives rational grounding for the existence of an infinite number of attributes. This notion of difference is defined in two main ways. Implicit in Spinoza’s thought, this idea of ‘infinite substance’ conveys what Badiou calls a ‘determination of the indeterminate.’ That is, the role played by the term Infinite is one of Substances own internal determinations of itself, by virtue of its essence (causa sui). Second, the infinite nature of substance is expressed, numerically/quantitatively, through an infinite number of attributes. This means, then, that each attribute must be different in kind from, and therefore cannot be collapsed back into, every other attribute.

Now, while it might not seem like a real obstacle given the implication of difference in kind between the attributes of substance, Badiou underscores that the problem of the relation between attributes and substance arises because of how Spinoza conceives of attributes themselves; namely, as “operations of the intellect” that “give meaning to God’s existential singularization as infinite substance.” That is to say, if attributes are simply the conceptual mediators which arise from the intellects attempt to know and understand Substance, what is it about the intellect itself that gives it this specific function and capacity? That is, in Badiou’s own words, “the intellect is operative, but what is the ontological status of its operation?” It is by raising the question of the metaphysical status of the intellect itself that Badiou will build his critique of Spinoza.

In order to do this, Badiou begins by affirming Spinoza’s own definition of the intellect as a mode of the attribute of thought, and by affirming that the infinite intellect is a mode, also infinite, and follows logically and necessarily from the attribute of thought itself. Additionally, the intellect functions as a ‘measure of the power of God’ insofar as God is a thinking thing, and when considered under the attribute of Thought, God’s power is understood to be infinite: ‘All the things that it can intellect…are held to exist.’ However, Badiou takes this idea of God’s infinite intellection being equivalent to the infinite power of God as being separable and distinct from any other attribute of substance. It is this claim that sets up Badiou’s critique and should be quoted at length:

“Clearly, no other infinite mode imaginable by us posses such a capacity for measuring God’s power. This holds in particular for the other example of an immediate infinite mode given by Spinoza, movement and rest, which is supposed to be the correlate of infinite intellect on the side of extension. For it is obvious that no general prescription about God’s power follows from the pure concept of movement and rest.”

What is the possible justification for Badiou’s claim that it is only the powers of the infinite intellect that can serve as an adequate, and true, measure of God’s power? It is, for Badiou, the fact that what differentiates the metaphysical status of infinite modes of Thought from those infinite modes Extension is that an “infinite intellect presupposes an entirely different determination, one which is extrinsic. For the intellect, whose components are ideas, is equally well determined by what it intellects, or by what the idea is an idea of. ” Badiou’s reading is in fact corroborated by Spinoza in Part II of the Ethics in the propositions where he deals with the nature of the mind as the idea we have of our body (extended thing) in its relation to other bodies (extended things). For Spinoza, it is true that the ideas we have of bodies are conditioned by their relation to my own body and their relations to other extended things: “A human mind perceives the nature of many bodies together with the nature of its own body” (EIIP16Cor1); “The ideas that we have of external bodies are more informative about the condition of our own body than about the nature of the external bodies. I have explained this by many examples in the Appendix of Part I” (EIIP16Cor2).

In other words, on Badiou’s reading, the intellect is privileged precisely because it exists as a mode which is determined internally according to its attribute and externally according to the objects of the intellect. Here we begin to see what is at stake in beginning with the relationship between substance and its attributes: if the attributes are the conceptual mediators through which the intellect gains knowledge of substance, and if the infinite number of attributes are truly distinct from one another, then there will be certain properties of each attribute that cannot be found in others. In this case, the property that is specific to the infinite intellect is being determined by the attribute to which it belongs (Thought) and by the object of its activity (extended things). However, as we will see, it is from this idea that there is a type of extrinsic conditioning of the mind by extended things in the operations of the intellect that give Badiou the suspicion that the doctrine of parallelism is untenable since it fails to correctly thematize the minds dependence on extended things.

2. ‘Coupling’ contra Parallelism

Now, even if we are to accept this reading of the relationship between the infinite intellect and things in the world, the first major critique leveled against Spinoza by Badiou, is the following: while Spinoza’s argument for the parallelism between ideas and things seems to ensure the unity between the mind and the body, between our knowledge of the world and the essence of the world itself, Badiou insists that what grounds this union must be found in something other than the essential form of relation that substance has with itself; namely, causality. In other words, Badiou’s first major criticism of Spinoza regards the very connection between ideas and things themselves and is built upon his first claim that the mind is not only internally determined by the attribute of Thought but also extrinsically determined by the attribute of Extension. If Spinoza has barred any causal relation between Thought and Extension (since substance is the only true cause of things), and if causality is the essential and necessary way in which substance relates to itself, then how do the attributes of Thought and Extension relate to one another if not through a causal connection?

Regarding this problem of the unity of the attributes of substance, Badiou posits that what needs to supplement the thesis of parallelism is what he terms ‘coupling.’ This term, which is derived from Spinoza’s claim that a true idea is an idea that agrees with its object (EIA6), suggests that while Spinoza does not have an explicit account for how thought and extension are united, Spinoza holds the belief that what gives an idea its truth-value is an ideas agreement with its ideatum. It is because this argument hinges on the term agreement that Badiou will call ‘coupling’ a normative practice. That is, the coupling of mind and body is normative insofar as the criteria for the truth-value of ideas is their ‘agreement’ with their objects. Here we arrive at Badiou’s second major criticism: it is because the norm of agreement, which constitutes a true ideas, cannot be said to have a causal relationship with an infinite intellect that the idea of ‘coupling’ becomes necessary.

Now, if this operation of ‘coupling’ becomes necessary for an infinite intellect, then this underscores the fact of the difference in kind between attributes and gives Badiou reason to conclude that there is something specific to the infinite intellect that cannot be found in any other attribute. That is, if the thesis of parallelism were in fact true – that the same order and connection underlies both ideas and things – then the process of coupling with its norm of agreement would not be necessary. The fact of its necessity in Spinoza’s account leads Badiou to claim that

“…it is impossible to conceive of (or for the intellect to represent) a structure isomorphic with that of the intellect itself in any attribute other than thought. Consequently, the attribute of thought is not isomorphic with any of the other attributes, not even in terms of the relation of causality alone.”

Therefore, on Badiou’s reading of Spinoza, not only does the parallelism thesis fail at the level of uniting the attributes of substance with substance itself; Spinoza’s argument for parallelism even fails to overcome what many have thought Spinoza of resolving: namely, the existence of a difference in kind between mind and body, between res cogita and res extensa. On the Badiouian reading, the difference which guarantees that each attribute of substance is not simply interchangeable with every other one ensures that each attribute of substance will have something particular to itself. It is from these specific determinations proper to each attribute, and from Spinoza’s refutation of the idea that any two attributes have a causal relationship to one another, that the unity of the mind with the body, of Thought with Extension in substance, cannot be rationalized in the form of causality and must be said to be a relation of ‘coupling.’

3. Substance’s Heterogeneity

The third and final criticism of Spinoza regards the passage from the infinite to the finite; a problem, which according to Badiou, “constitutes the greatest impediment for Spinozist ontology.” In connection with the prior discussion regarding the infinite intellect, Badiou’s suspicion regarding this passage from the infinite to the finite can be formulated in the following way: Spinoza provides his understanding of the passage from the finite to the infinite, via the intellect, in part II of the Ethics. In propositions 38 to 40, Spinoza argues that what constitutes ‘reason’ is the construction of common notions; whose characteristic of being ‘common’ is derived from the shared properties of various things in the world. That is to say, on the basis of these common notions, rational activity is made possible. However, says Badiou, the status of truth in this Spinozist view ultimately renders Truth itself general and universal. As Badiou writes, “there is no true knowledge of that singular body of which our mind is the idea. But the finite intellect necessarily has a true idea of what is common to all bodies, and consequently of what is not singular, as soon as it is able to couple with it.”

While the claim that Spinozist truth is only ever general and universal may be seen, from within Spinoza’s system, as a virtue, it is here where Badiou’s ultimate objection can be understood. If truth can never be said of singular, finite, and particular things (Badiou’s claim that being is the power of singularities) and only of those things which are ‘most common’ to all things, then Spinoza has merely demonstrated the basic determinations of substance – infinite, eternal, etc. – without having given us the reasons, or causes, by which we can think and understand the particularity of things. It is for this reason that Badiou gives the title of a ‘closed ontology’ to his essay on Spinoza and concludes, in a critical light: ‘All truth is generic. Alternatively: what is thinkable of being is mathematical.’ Thus, when Badiou criticizes Spinoza for assuming that Substance is in fact heterogenous to Being itself, it is to indicate how the general and universal determinations of things via the second kind of knowledge (reason) do not in fact give us access to Substance itself. Rather, the type of knowledge derived through ‘common notions’ can only be said in a general manner, excluding the possibility of us having knowledge of particular and singular things on their own terms.

4. Critiquing Badiou’s Critique

What should be clear by now is that Badiou’s critique of Spinoza rests, fundamentally, on his disagreement with the sufficiency of Spinoza’s understanding of the relationship between the attributes of Thought and Extension and how their relationship is played out in terms of the doctrine of parallelism. For Badiou, while no two attributes of substance can be interchangeable with any other, Badiou’s argument is that what is true of the attribute of Thought (intrinsic and extrinsic determination) is not true of Extension (mere extrinsic determination). It is Thoughts dual determination – internally via its attribute and externally via the bodies it cognizes – that renders suspect the doctrine of parallelism since parallelism appears to claim that what is true of Thought is also true of Extension. It is the same order and connection of things which is found, each time, whether we consider things from the vantage point of Thought or from the perspective of Extension. However, this cannot be the case for Badiou since Thought appears to have an additional form of determination viz-á-viz extended things and thus, what is true for Thought cannot be said to be true for Extension. Thus, for Badiou, a more robust theory of ‘coupling’ will need to supplant Spinoza’s theory of parallelism. Now, very quickly, I want to underscore that while Badiou’s criticisms are persuasive, they overlook crucial features of Spinoza’s doctrine of parallelism and thus lead more to a misunderstanding between Badiou and Spinoza than any type of critique proper.

The reason why Badiou’s critique of Spinoza’s parallelism leads to so many misunderstandings is due to a certain type of confusion, or a certain equivocation between what Badiou calls ‘determination’ and what Spinoza calls ‘causality’. For Badiou, as we saw, Thought is determined in two directions while Extension is merely determined according to its own attribute. However, the claim that the mind is determined both by its attribute and by the modes of Extension in no way contradict Spinoza’s thesis of parallelism since what Spinoza denies in terms of the relationship between the mind and extended things is not ‘determination’ understood as conditions for thoughts operations. Rather, what Spinoza denies is any ‘causal’ connection between the mind and extended things, where ‘causality’ here means nothing other than ‘the reasons for why something exists’. That is, the body does not cause the mind nor does the mind cause the body simply because neither one nor the other brings their correlate into existence. In other words, the very fact that human cognition is conditioned by the very nature of cognitive activity as well as by the objects of its activity is explicitly affirmed and accepted by Spinoza unproblematically since this plurality of conditionality does not give us the reasons, or the causal connections adequate for understanding things from the point of view of Substance, for what gives existence to thought and extension respectively. Thus, the thesis of parallelism is less a thesis about the co-constituting, or co-conditioning, of the mind and the body and rather a thesis about how each term in the relation is not what gives existence to the other (to assume that one term in fact gives existence to its correlate is to move from Spinoza to Descartes, since for Descartes it was the operations of the mind that explained the nature of the body).