Monday, September 24, 2007

Cupiditas est ipsa hominis essentia

Should we speak of desire in the singular or the plural? Tengelyi may be able to shed some light on this problem, but first let's take a look at the Ethics of Spinoza (the latin is here), which is a starting point for some of the ideas Tengelyi considers. Part III, Proposition VII, reads, "The endeavour, wherewith everything endeavours to persist in its own being, is nothing else but the actual essence of the thing in question" (Conatus, quo unaquaeque res in suo esse perseverare conatur, nihil est praeter ipsius rei actualem essentiam). In the note to Proposition IX, Spinoza explains that conatus when refered to the mind alone may be called will, and when it is refered to the mind and body together it may be called appetite. Appetite is essentially the same as desire (cupiditas) except that in desire there is a consciousness of appetite, and it is therefore the correct term to apply to humans. Spinoza says, in the beginning of his discussion of the emotions, "Desire is the essence of humans themselves, insofar as it is conceptualized as determined to some agendum by howsoever given affection of itself" (C u p i d i t a s est ipsa hominis essentia, quatenus ex data quacumque eius affectione determinata concipitur ad aliquid agendum). Elwes has translated affectione as "modification," which captures one meaning of the word, but obscures some others. The Lewis and Short entry for affectio offers two main definitions: (1) "the relation to or disposition toward a thing produced in a person by some influence," and (2) "a change in the state or condition of body or mind, a state or frame of mind, feeling (only transient, while habitus is lasting)." They note under the second definiton that affectio can especially mean "a favorable disposition toward any one, love, affection, good-will." Is the conative desire to persevere in one's own being equivalent to desire determined to some agendum by some affection of itself? Is perseverance in ones own being an agendum one must take a (temporary or permanent?) disposition towards? Is one affected towards one's own perseverance the same way one is affected towards objects?


In Tengelyi's discussion of conatus, chiefly covering the works of Paul Ricoeur and Jean Nabert, the conative desire is shortened to a "desire to be." In the words of Ricouer, "I posit myself as already posited in my desire to be" (De l'interpr├ętation: Essai sur Freud, p. 443, IN The Wild Region, p. 146). This is the basis for speaking of "wounded" cogito. This shortening of the conatus, however, cuts off the question of what it means to abide by one's own being. When we pull desire out of the realm of the subject, which is where Tengelyi is leading us, the affection of and towards one's own perseverance is more intriguing than a simple desire to be. Let me put it this way: must we imagine the endeavor to abide by one's own being as a persistence of the same? Is there not also a sense of the be-coming of being implied by the endeavor to persevere in one's own being? And isn't self-preservation, especially in the case of humans, a matter of assuefaction? In our endeavor to persevere "our" affections are precisely a problem for us.


Tengelyi makes a partial appropriation of Lacan. He takes up the idea that the law of discourse creates a split in desire (p. 152). "The shift in meaning that necessarily occurs in a diactritical system of the demand's signifiers [Lacanian metonymy] results, at the same time, in the continuous transformation of the object of the desire as well. Desire wanders from one object to the other" (p. 154, Tengelyi's emphasis). I'm tempted to say that the conative desire also wanders. However, if we allow that the object of desire has never never actually been lost, is our desire to persevere in our own being likewise a search to find what has never been lost? Is there a Wiederholungszwang ("compulsion to repeat," Tengelyi renders this as "constraint of repetition") expressed in the desire to find again the lost object? I feel that this would be misleading conceptualization of what it means to desire to abide by one's own being, but I'm throwing it out there. Would it be desire itself that wanders in our endeavor to persevere or would it be the consciousness of an appetite to persevere that wanders? It will take a minute to work through that last question.


As I said, Tengelyi only partially appropriates Lacan. In addition to, or in contradisctinction to, desire as lack, Tengelyi offers Bernhard Waldenfels' idea of the responsive desire. Here we are speaking of the Levinisian desire of the appeal: "an alien appeal, which has its origins precisely in desire, will not restrict my desire but will–almost literally–appeal to it: the appeal will turn to and count on it. Thus the response we may give as a reaction to an alien appeal grows necessarily out of desire" (p. 160, Tengelyi's emphasis). Thus for Levinas there is a split in desire, but it is the split between all of the self's desires and the desire of the other. "Desire, it might be claimed, gets multiplied because it does not 'arise purely by itself' but as a result of appeals coming from alien desires, or to put it more simply, it arrives as a response to the desire of the other" (p. 161). There is then a sense in which responsive desire involves a desire for the undesirable: "our desires, constantly marking out the lack of complete satisfaction, keep shifting and transforming along the lines of associations of linguistic origin, but also . . . here desire bumps into something which is nondesirable" (p. 162, Tengelyi's emphasis). Now I'd like to think this split or any split in desire in terms of a Levinisian fissibility of the self. Tengelyi writes:


Indeed, where no orginal unity can be taken for granted, there can be no question of an orginal scission, either. However, it is not difficult to see that the idea of an original unity of consciousness does not apply to the relationship between appeal and response. This relationship may rightly be characterized as an intertwinement, an entrelacs, that is, as a connection which, precisely, does not take away the heterogeneity of its elements. In addition, here the connection of the elements is made by reply and correspondence rather than by a synthesis. It is only afterward that appeal and response can be united in a single consciousness; at the moment when they arise they are separated from each other by an unbridgeable gap.


(p. 181, Tengelyi's emphasis)


If there is no orginal unity of consciousness, does it make sense to speak of an original unity of desire in Spinozist terms, even of the desire to persevere in one's own being? We can also question the orginal unity of an appetite for living. Certainly our affections testify to a certain mutability of our desires, probably including our desire to persevere. My feelings about abiding by my own being differ from day to day. Why would I think of my endeavor to persevere as a constant desire, or as testifying to a constancy? Spinoza rightly says (Part III, Proposition VIII) that the conatus involves an indefinite time. Being open to this indefiniteness implies a desire other than the desire to conserve one's own being, if that's what the conatus amounts to. The difficulty here is to think the fissibility of desire without obliterating the heterogeneity of its elements.


At this point I think we are past the notion that desire resides exclusively in the self. I don't know whether that helps us decide whether desire should be spoken of in the singular or in the plural. My inclination is to want to think desire in the plural, but the idea of scission in desire, and thus the postulation of an orginal desire is not something I can rule out entirely. All I have are questions.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:23 AM.

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