The Use-Value of Ethics: Antonio Negri’s Hopeful Time

This post emerges out of a close reading I did of one of Negri’s toughest texts, “The Constitution of Time,” which is in the Time for Revolution book put out by Continuum. I’m referencing the hardback edition, which has different pagination than the paperback edition. My thanks to Adam, Anthony, and Brad for hosting the post at AUFS.

I’d suggest that Negri’s “The Constitution of Time” can be understood as part of a contemporary ethical project. I am using “ethics” here in the sense of a way of life, and it’s how I understand Negri’s usage of “the practice of theory,” such as the following statement: “When the practice of theory is directed simply towards the constitution of the transcendent, time is non-existence. Time is multiplicity. Time is a theological scandal.” (30) I think that his (uneven) attempt to chart out a materialist theory of time is more readily understandable in these terms, and I’d like to  draw out the main contours of this ethics in order to clarify his pervasive recourse to the language of hope. Given Negri’s grounding of his own project in Spinoza, this is something I’ve found a bit troubling, even though I’m willing to entertain the idea that Negri does the some kind of rewriting to terms like hope that Spinoza famously does with God. Nevertheless, reading through “The Constitution of Time” was a bit of a revelation for me in my study of Negri, and despite the fact that this text is at times even more difficult than The Savage Anomaly, I’ve found it pretty helpful for getting a sense of what he’s up to in terms of his own ethics.

The first place that Negri’s ethics can be detected is in his polemical opposition to the “re-equilibrating calculus” of Keynes and Polanyi. (41) The fundamental distinction in Negri’s text is between the empty, reversible, measuring time of capitalism, and the constitutive, composing, open time of communism. Negri suggests that the second has been made possible by the first, which for him is why the “overcoming of capitalism occurs on the basis of needs constructed by capitalism.” (26) The more that capital has expanded on a global scale, the more difficult it becomes to measure labor with time. When capital has expanded far enough, when it “invests the whole of life,” then “time is not the measure of life, but is life itself.” (35) This paradox is one way to describe real subsumption; in conquering life, capital has seemingly become victorious once and for all. There is no longer an alternative to the M-C-M’ relation. Continue reading “The Use-Value of Ethics: Antonio Negri’s Hopeful Time”

Spinoza and Bodies Audio

The Spinoza Research Network has posted the audio from the recent Spinoza and Bodies conference. You can hear my paper amongst the other excellent ones that were given. The Q&A was one of those rare experiences where people actually asked good questions that challenged me and also allowed me to develop the piece further. Sadly this isn’t included with the audio. I will say I did not write the paper for hardcore Spinoza scholars, instead aiming to deliver a kind of generalist paper that showed how working with Spinoza can be of use for ecology in its scientific and social forms.

Audio of “Nature is not…”: An Apophatic Critique of Nature

As promised, though coming sort of late, here is audio of my AAR presentation and the Q&A time. The quality varies, but for interested parties there it is. A word of warning regarding the Q&A, it is for all three papers and so you may feel lost at times. Commenters discard and Old Doug Johnson can be heard during the Q&A though, so that’s fun.

AAR presentation of “Nature is not…”: An Apophatic Critique of Nature


Comments welcomed, but not encouraged.

Observations on Early Moderns

Leibniz and Berkeley both seem to me to be absolutely right in most of their critiques of Locke, taken simply as critiques. Even Berkeley’s bold claim that matter doesn’t exist, if we limit “matter” to what Locke and his contemporaries thought “matter” was, now seems to be basically true. Their alternative systems, however, contain significant crackpot elements. The sheer amount of work “God” has to do in each should have tipped them off that they were cheating.

Looking at the index of Process and Reality, I see that Whitehead makes copious references to Locke and Hume, but only a few to Leibniz and Berkeley — despite the fact that his system seems to bear more resemblance to the latter. In fact, for all Whitehead’s love of Locke, it is difficult for me to discern the relationship between the two. So why the insistence on Locke and Hume? Is it a “political” move, to try to convince his logical positivist friends that he’s working out of the modern tradition? If so, it didn’t work.

Spinoza seems to me to be miles ahead of any of these guys. I’m not ready to sign on and become a Spinozan, but he’s clearly the true radical.

The Distance to the Sun

In the Ethics, Spinoza says more than once that the sun appears to us to be about 200 feet away and that it continues to appear that way even when we have become aware of its true distance. For reference, 200 feet is about a third of a standard city block (at least in Chicago), and that seems to me to be much too close.

How might Spinoza have arrived at the figure of 200 feet? Can we come up with a better estimate?

The Complication of Nature and Grace in Aquinas

Most contemporary debates in Continental philosophy of religion revolve around the debate between positions of transcendence and immanence. Arguments from immanence begin with the axiom that the world is enough to understand the world, while arguments from transcendence begin with the axiom that the world can only be understood by the not-World (i.e. a Creator God, though this is not necessarily the personal God of Christianity or any other religion). Thus the debate between these two positions has to deal with how we are to understand God, ourselves, the rest of nature and, indeed, if we can understand any of these things. Proponents of each position have their own tactics of evangelization, but deciding between the two appears to be more a matter of decision than certainty through reason (whatever its mode or relationship to faith).

Some would argue that philosophers of immanence are the philosophical allies of theologians of pure nature. At the same time, philosophers appealing to transcendence are under fire from the “other camp” for giving too much to religion and trading in obscurity and mysticism. The debate rarely moves past this point and there have been very few attempts to move beyond the two terms. In the interest of dissolving the debate, or at least making the story less simplistic, it may be helpful to look at the work of Aquinas. The story told by those who appeal to transcendence normally goes that the writings of Augustine and Aquinas allowed Christian theology to complete and perfect pagan philosophy. This prefection is then lost with the philosophical theology of Duns Scotus who argues that the being of God and the being of everything is univocally said; leading then to theologies and philosophies of pure nature that radically separated the divine from the non-divine leading to other dichotomies of various kinds. Whether or not this is true is not at issue in this paper. Rather it surveys the writings of Aquinas to show that his own views on nature and grace (or immanence and transcendence) are not so easily aligned with either camp.

Looking to the Aquinas’ Summa Theologia we must note that he affirms the goodness of anything that exists in so far as its being is dependent upon its relation to God. We can take this to mean quite clearly that nature is good, even if corrupted by the fall of humanity. This creates the sense that nature is sufficient for itself apart from the grace of God. The narrative that puts Aquinas at the beginning of a tradition of natural theology that eventually gives itself over to philosophy proper certainly understands this in such a way. Not without reason, according to Fergus Kerr who says that it is tempting to think that the inner coherence of the Summa Theologia lies in the concept of nature and that this is indeed a plausible reading.

Aquinas’ notion of nature does seem to be quite central to his theological works, but it doesn’t appear, even though nature is good, that this good nature is a truly separate domain from grace. One only needs to look to this striking remark for such a view to be put into question:

‘By faith alone do we hold, and by no demonstration can it be proved, that the world did not always exist, as was said above of the mystery of the Trinity. The reason of this is that the newness of the world cannot be demonstrated on the part of the world itself. For the principle of demonstration is the essence of a thing. Now everything according to its species is abstracted from “here” and “now”; whence it is said that universals are everywhere and always. Hence it cannot be demonstrated that man, or heaven, or a stone were not always. […] The reason of this is that the newness of the world cannot be demonstrated on the part of the world itself.’

Even knowledge of the world is dependent in some part on grace already given by God, such that even the knowledge that the world came to be, and was not always simply there, has some relation to grace given by faith. This may give some comfort to Barthians who believe that Aquinas gives everything to natural reason at the expense of grace.

Even this is more complicated than it would seem for Aquinas holds that humanity needs the assistance of the Divine to know any truth while at the same time he qualifies this by stating, ‘But he does not need a new light added to his natural light, in order to know the truth in all things, but only in some that surpass his natural knowledge.’ Indeed it is within our natural capabilities to search after God, the supernatural: ‘[…] whatever man desire, he desires under the aspect of good. And if he desire it, not as his perfect good, which is the last end, he must, of necessity, desire it as tending to the perfect good’. It may seem somewhat strange that we can only affirm on faith that the world has a beginning, but yet our natural abilities allow us to search after God.

To make sense of this it may help to think that we may know things without knowing them fully, in that we can sense some strangeness and recognize it as strange (and thus as being real) without having any deeper knowledge of it. This may go some way towards explaining why human societies appear to deal with questions of the Divine before considering questions of cosmology – the strangeness in or surrounding nature (which appears to include experience of the Divine) is known more than the more obscure strangeness of a world being new. This may be what Aquinas is suggesting when he writes:

‘When it is said that nature cannot rise above itself, we must not understand this as if it could not be drawn to any object above itself, for it is clear that our intellect by its natural knowledge can know things above itself, as is shown in our natural knowledge of God. But we are to understand nature cannot rise to an act exceeding the proportion of its strength. Now to love God above all things is not such an act; for it is natural to every creature, as was said above.’

To understand nature in its fullness may be an act exceeding the strength of the human intellect, while it is obviously outside the human ability to know God completely. Rather, Aquinas seems to suggest, both God and nature can only be understand imperfectly, perhaps only obliquely, as something that is strangely there.

This has been a very inadequate tour through a few passages that, it seems to me, complicates any simple understanding of nature and grace, or immanence and transcendence. Many would suggest that transcendence is primary in Aquinas, but a transcendence which is inherent in everything that exists (literally then everything) seems to be higher order immanence. This is not all that different from when Spinoza’s philosophy of immanence appears to be a series of relatively expressed attributes and modes with the ultimate transcendence being the substance which is eternal and uncreated. This would suggest that the debate between immanence and transcendence is predicated on too little difference between the two positions. For instance attempts to fill out transcendence via participation are matched by immanence via expression, two positions which appear formally identical.

Aquinas does not offer a way out of such an impasse due to the fact that his own position is more complicated than the competing narratives present. Allowing his work to appear in all its due complication may at least allow those interested in the debate to admit that one cannot use Aquinas as a trump card. Rather we should follow his example and spirit in giving all due religious attention to problems both ecclesial and secular.