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Sunday, May 12, 2013

Spinning off Spinoza One Last (And Perilous) Time: Dangerous Emotions

This past Thursday we concluded our six part salon series organized around the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza with a trek down the rocky road of emotions. Considering that Spinoza saw emotion as 'suffering' - albeit suffering which could, when carefully examined, pave the way to unfettered joy - we were not without trepidation as we set out on this last leg of our Spinozist journey together. Attaching 'dangerous' to the venture did little to quell our fears. On the other hand, we were well aware that poor old peace-loving Spinoza - though wary of conflict and prepared to do almost anything to avert a quarrel - still succeeded in scandalizing his contemporaries and turning philosophy into that most 'dangerous' of pursuits both during his lifetime and for centuries afterwards. What to do with this cruel twist of fate? we asked ourselves. We decided that in a world where you just can't win, you don't have much to lose. We went for it.

Taking a deep breath, we plunged headlong into the emotional quagmire: grappling first with Aristotle's approach to 'educating' the emotions so as to tame them, master them, and put them at the service of less volatile reason; comparing this to Spinoza's somewhat more holistic way of dealing with those pesky passions, which was to accept that you were stuck with the damn things, do all you could to form "a clear and precise picture of them," and use what you had learned about yourself and nature more generally through this exercise in active thinking to inch your way towards blissful and eternal life. In Spinoza's simple no-nonsense words: "Do not weep; do not wax indignant. Understand."

With Spinoza's infinitely practical approach to those 'inadequate' yet inevitable and ultimately salvageable emotional highs and lows in mind, we re-visited our take home exercise from last month's 'unleashed traveler' salon evening. Participants had been asked to take two walks in the company of their Deleuze and Guattarian Body without Organs or BwO...Using this portable little experimental milieu that each of us is born with (it's our risk-taking, system-bashing side!) to test out the differences between tracing a familiar route and mapping out an unknown route as an affected and affecting body moving through time, space and a whole host of other affected and affecting bodies.

Okay, so it sounds complicated...Perhaps you had to be there...But for those who were, interesting light was shed on the exercise when we looked back at it through emotion-tinged spectacles and wondered how to reconcile this ambulatory attempt to 'lose the self' in nomadic movement with the shaken and stirred 'moving out of oneself' suggested by the Latin origins of the word, e-motion. A walk in the park taken by Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway provided some additional food for thought as we considered what it meant to "slice like a knife through everything" and to no longer be able to say with any degree of certainty, "I am this" or "I am that."

And yet, in spite of Virginia's best laid plans, here we still all were...Trying to make meaning of our emotions and feeling, in the process, more like pottering potato peelers than cut-throat knives. We found our way to "the mattering map" - an alternative way of exploring what it's all about which, unlike the more constricted terrain of meaning, can stretch itself to "encompass and enfold, to embrace meaning and caring, mind and heart, feelings and ideas" (Ellyn Kaschak, 2011). Interestingly, this feminist 'construct' or 'tool' for working with what Kaschak calls the "complexity, multiplicity and motion or morphing of the energetic field of mattering" also led us back to where we had started out on our Spinozist journey: to Rebecca Goldstein, our first literary touchstone for exploring Spinoza's life and ideas, and also the thinker behind "the mattering map."

Bringing this emphasis on 'what matters' together with ethno-philosopher Alphonso Lingis's (2000) intriguing suggestion that the source of our emotions lies in the environment - in the "troubled ocean currents...the continental plates shifting and creaking...the whimsical fluttering of butterflies" (18) - we explored Lingis's insistence that our emotions, in turn, are "forces we discharge" and which, at the end of the day, are more visibly present to others than our body's own physical contours. If all this talk of forces and energy fields connected us back  to Spinoza insofar as he treats the nature and strength of the emotions in terms of motile and geometric lines, vectors and planes, the time had also come to get down to work: designing our own personal Spinoza-style signet ring reminiscent of the one he wore; incorporating into our designs the image each of us felt best illustrated our way of being in the world (Spinoza’s chosen image was the thorny rose) and our personal ‘watchword’ for getting through life (Spinoza’s was ‘Caute’ – ‘Cautiously’). 

Using this exercise as a springboard to pinpointing the ‘dangerous emotions’ which we felt most curtailed our personal passage to greater perfection (joy) and most encouraged our passage to lesser perfection (sorrow) - Spinoza’s were doubt-filled ‘hope’ and ‘fear’ respectively - we brought the series to a close with a revealing exploration of our selves as emotional beings: striving in true Spinozist fashion to understand the nature of those forces which threaten to rob us of our vitality and put a damper on our joy; finding in our very striving a possible road map towards greater fulfillment and happiness. It has been a challenging, exciting  and life-enhancing journey with you all over these past few months, and it has been a joy to discover Baruch Spinoza in your company. Thank you.