Pleasure, Affect, Deleuze & Spinoza

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by Max Mosscrop for the Pleasure Centre Symposium at De Montfort University, 25th June 2012.

Over the course of this afternoon we will be thinking about pleasure at the intersection of philosophy, science and art. In “What is Philosophy”, the last book that Gilles Deleuze wrote with his collaborator Felix Guattari, these three disciplines are defined as forms of creative thought: philosophy as the creation of concepts, science as the creation of functions, and art as the creation of affects. Insisting equally that all three disciplines are forms of invention, the scientist, the philosopher and the artist are thus characterised equally as makers. Each of these definitions is, in its own way, deeply controversial. To insist on the essentially inventive operation of philosophy and science is to deny them a privileged access to the truth. We may be more accustomed to the creative dimension in art, but Deleuze is insistent that art is only truly creative in its production of affects, a claim which would seem at odds with many contemporary debates which foreground the conceptual content of artworks and practices.

It is this idea of art as an affective experience that I would like to pursue today. A theory of affects can provide a conceptual framework that might help to illuminate the nature of this thing called pleasure. Furthermore, such a theory provides a conceptual model which promises a different way of thinking about the experience and practice of art.

In 2003 & 4, with my colleague Adam Gillam, I organised two exhibitions, the first called With Pleasure, the second called Doubtful Pleasures. I hesitate to claim they were about pleasure, resisting the idea that exhibitions, as collections of objects or experiences, are ever representational in such a simple way as being ‘about’ something. Considering pleasure and the notion of affectivity prompts us instead to think about the experience of art in non-representational terms, in terms of what it does, how it affects and transforms us, rather than what it might signify or refer to. Organising theses exhibitions lead me to search for some kind of conceptual or philosophical framework for pleasure, which became an amateur’s foray into the philosophical world of Gilles Deleuze, and via Deleuze into the philosophical wonder which is Spinoza’s Ethics. The key role of affect in Deleuze derives from his reading of Spinoza.

Spinoza’s ethics, published after his death in 1677, is surely one of the greatest and most formidable inventions in the history of philosophy. Henri Bergson described it as like a battleship of the dreadnought class. It’s been described elsewhere as like a great wind, the experience of reading it like a ride on a witch’s broom, while its central concept of a single nature unifying all of existence has been referred to as the white sun of substance. The Ethics is a difficult work, explicated via the “geometric method” through an elaborate series of definitions, axioms, propositions, demonstrations, corollaries, and appendices, and using terminology that can appear archaic and obscure. Although written some 350 years ago, the Ethics still feels like a radical challenge to think and to live differently, much of it running counter to conventional habits of thought, or what we might call common sense. The Ethics has, as Deleuze has emphasised, a practical aim: to help us to live well, to live in such a way to maximise life by maximising joy and minimising sadness. Spinoza was writing in Latin, and used the term Laetitia, sometimes translated as joy, sometimes as pleasure. Joy or pleasure, sadness or pain – these are the fundamental affects, and Spinoza defines all other emotions as derivatives of these.

The Ethics is an account of existence in which all the parts, all the terms, form a unified system of elaborate relationships. In order to begin to understand the nature of pleasure and affect in Spinoza, it is necessary to have some understanding of his entire ontology. I’m far from being an expert in this, and I know that my fascination with the Ethics is largely a measure of how much of it eludes my grasp, but I’m going to attempt to provide a brief account of Spinoza as refracted through Deleuze.

Spinoza’s philosophy is univocal: being speaks with one voice. All existence is a modification of a single underlying substance which Spinoza calls God or Nature, and which Deleuze refers to as the plane of immanence. Thought – the world of ideas and minds – and extension – the world of bodies extended in time and space – are not substantially different, but are conceived as different attributes of the same substance, analogous to a sheet of paper seen now from one side, as thought, now from the other, as extension. Spinoza gives us the intriguing definition of the mind as the idea of the body. This is Spinoza’s theory of parallelism, according to which an event in thought is simultaneously an event in extension, every reality in extension has an equivalent reality in thought. There is no primacy of thought over extension, mind over matter, or vice versa. Nor is there any causality between thought and extension. The mind can’t cause the body to act, and neither can the body cause ideas in the mind, but idea and action arise as two parallel and equivalent simultaneous events. Consciousness appears as the site of an illusion: I take in what happens to my body, what happens to my mind, and I generate the illusion that my ideas are determining my actions – the illusion of free will.

There exists a common plane of immanence on which all bodies and all minds are situated. All individuals, whether as minds or as bodies, are collections, aggregates, composed of an infinite number of particles. All individuals are composed of other individuals, and are in turn parts of still other individuals. It’s all a matter of perspective. A ‘body’ can mean the human body, what we might call the whole body, but this in turn is made up of other bodies, organs and systems – eye, liver, blood – but the term might also refer to a collection of bodies – a crowd at a football match. A body, an individual, can be anything: an animal, a herd, a body of sounds, a film, a painting, an ocean. According to Spinoza a body is defined not by form or function, but by the relations of motion and rest, speed and slowness, between its particles.

Now these bodies and minds, these individuals, as sets of living parts, continuously have encounters with other bodies, other minds. In these encounters, these living parts either enter into composition with one another, or decompose one another. One body encounters another whose relations are in agreement with its own, and the two bodies combine to form a new composition, and in doing so they increase their level of reality and move to a state of greater perfection, with a correspondingly greater capacity to act, a correspondingly greater power of existence. The same body encounters another whose relations are in disagreement with its own, and the second body threatens the coherence of the first and decomposes it – a diminution of reality and power of existence. Bodies and minds are in Spinoza the same things from different perspectives, under different attributes. Just as bodies undergo a continual series of encounters, so do minds. Ideas happen to us, continually. And just as bodies have different degrees of perfection, different degrees of reality (reality and perfection are the same thing in Spinoza), so do ideas.

The effects of these encounters are experienced as affects. Here we have a definition of affect: the affect is the experience of the transition between one state and another as the result of an encounter between bodies. Joy or pleasure is the experience, in mind and body alike, of a body encountering another in such a way that they enter into a relation and move to a state of greater perfection, greater power of existence: a spider eats a fly and composes a fatter stronger spider. Sadness or pain is the experience of a body encountering another in such a way that its own coherence is threatened and decomposed, and moves to a state of lesser perfection: the fly gets eaten by the spider. Notice how the same event could be simultaneously joyful (for the spider) and painful (for the fly), simultaneously good and bad; again, it’s all a question of perspective. In Spinoza, ethics is never morality: the good and the bad are always relative; it’s never a question of Good and Evil.

“The passage to a greater perfection, or the increase of the power of acting, is called an affect, or feeling, of joy; the passage to lesser perfection or the diminution of the power of acting is called sadness”

Bodies and minds are in Spinoza the same things from different perspectives, under different attributes. Just as bodies undergo a continual series of encounters, so do minds. Ideas happen to us, continually. And just as bodies have different degrees of perfection, different degrees of reality (reality and perfection are the same thing in Spinoza), so do ideas. Life is a continual series of encounters, experienced as a succession of ideas and affects. We exist as spiritual automata, our ideas succeed each other constantly; one idea chases another, one idea replaces another, and this succession of ideas is accompanied by a continual transition between states, between degrees of reality or perfection, experienced as a melodic line of continuous variation, a continuous modulation of existence. So we have a conception of life as a series of encounters in which bodies and ideas mix to form ever new compositions and decompositions, experienced as a continuous modulation of affect, a continuous variation on the pleasure / pain spectrum.

In Spinoza there is the important concept of the conatus. Conatus is something like life-force, an individual’s endeavour to persist in being, to continue or to increase in its existence, its degree of reality and perfection. Pleasure or joy is the experience of the successful activity of this force or desire, and as such is the experience of life itself. Pleasure is thus not a thing amongst others, but the very stuff of life itself.

So, what happens when we apply this model to the encounter with art, an encounter in the world like any other? There isn’t time today to explore this in any detail, but there are some things we can say fairly briefly:

The triangular matrix: artist / art object / spectator is reconfigured, the individuality of each term called in to question. Encounters in art are always mixtures.

One is never a remote spectator. The term spectator implies too much distance, too much separation. One is neither a disinterested contemplative and remote spectator as conceived by traditional aesthetics, nor a critical reader of art as textuality as conceived post-structuralism. The encounter is always a contact, a mixture of bodies, a mixture of ideas, through which art and spectator merge to form an assemblage in which both are recomposed. In the encounter with the artwork, which like me is simultaneously a body and a mind, I mix myself with it and remake it and myself, as an entirely new re-composition. Through the artwork I become something else.

The artist similarly mixes with materials, equipment, or collaborators, forming new compositions, new machinic aggregates which extend the artist’s powers and capacities. He or she does not simply do something or use something, but becomes other through these encounters with others and with matter. An art practice might become, along with the Spinozist practice of life, a question of finding and organising joyful encounters, encounters which strengthen ones capacity for feeling, for thinking and for doing. Art is an expansive operation, a search for connectivity with the world.

It’s not that the artist makes and the audience receives: both are involved in active encounters with the world. The joy or pleasure that might accompany this is not essentially different for the one than for the other, it’s always the accompaniment to an increase in the power of acting, thinking, feeling. The more active the participation in this the greater the pleasure. It’s no longer just a question of interpretations, readings, decodings. The encounter is experienced also as an affect, and affects are non-representational, intensive qualities, operating on an a-signifying register, always present beneath or alongside representation. In considering affect, one considers how the encounter feels, the non-depictive, non-signifying aspects of an experience. We are concerned here with intensities, movements and dynamics, speeds and slowness, vibration and rhythm, openings and closings, risings and fallings. One must ask not what a work means, but what kind of forces and velocities it forms with us, and how we are transformed through this.

As a transition between one unique state and another, an affect is always unique, singular, ephemeral and immaterial. As transitions or passages they are durational, taking place as changes in time. They occupy time and cannot be considered outside the temporal dimension. To think affect is to think in time: how is my time taken up, distributed, what kind of velocity and rhythm is imparted to it?

Such affective accounts of the role of pleasure in art might seem to fit most easily with the more interactive or immersive end of the range of contemporary practices. Deleuze wrote two books called Cinema 1 and cinema 2. We can easily recognise a loss of separation and self-identity through immersion in the fluid, dynamic, visual and sonic encounter of cinema. I wonder, though, how such a conception of art and encounters and the joy that accompanies them might allow us to think differently about all manner of practices.

I began today by referring to the notion of science, philosophy and art as creative disciplines. Perhaps one implication of this is that all understanding is in fact a creative act. In Spinoza there is a kind of hierarchy of ideas, from those that are confused and inadequate, right up to the infinite idea of God or Nature in which the whole of existence is fully comprehended as a kind of divine intuition. The more understanding one has, the more one’s ideas become acts of the mind. Such acts of mind are accompanied by affects which are actions rather than passions, and as such represent a higher form of joy. Perhaps this is a kind of common ground between the disciplines, as acts of joyful creativity.