require further thinking, but my impression is that contemporary anthropology
is not really pursuing Mauss’ question regarding “sentiments”.
For a long
time, anthropologists have worked on the “social construction of emotions.” And
this is certainly one way in which Mauss’ essay can be read, but in my view,
the “obligation” is not necessarily split from its natural embeddedness, on the
contrary, it is rooted in it (here is where his interest in psychology lies).
More recently, and in an effort to escape this formulation, anthropologists
have turned to “affect” in order to either go beyond the “conscious,” or more
rarely, the “individual.” And most of all, they tried to go beyond the study of
representations. In doing so however, they do not entirely relinquish the idea
of being able to study the outer manifestations of an inner feeling, and
therefore one cannot argue that they sustain Mauss’ approach in thinking about
exteriority. Or maybe they do (I am thinking here of Mauss’ essay on the
techniques of the body) but in the form of a habitus, of an acquired set of
dispositions. Or they turn to psychology, or neuroscience, to receive the
answers they need about the “interior.”
In this regard,
Spinoza’s idea of studying affects geometrically, that is to say as if they
were lines, surfaces or (solid) bodies, takes us in the opposite direction.
What is at
stake here is not only relinquishing any idea of subjectivity (see for example
the work of Frédéric Lordon) but also any temptation to offer “pathetic”
accounts of affects, as if by creating a sense of intimacy,
or empathy, one could somehow convey a sense of the affects at play. [These (pretended) affective writings aim to reproduce at times the affects of the event, but not sure they make readers understand them better].
possible approach is to take what Spinoza is arguing to be nothing but an
invocation of science, which in our times would mean turning to neuroscience. But
the kinds of questions that anthropology asks are not the same. When
anthropology asks “how do poems move?” it asks about the power of poetry, it
invites a reflections on the kinds of assemblages that are produced in this
encounter between bodies/minds and poetry.
conceives affects as “affections” of the body (and mind) through which the
power to act of the body (and mind) is either augmented or diminished.
capacity to move body and mind is conceptualized as either augmenting or
diminishing the body’s (and mind’s) power to act. For Spinoza these correspond
to joy and sadness.
simul: Body and mind, because Spinoza in his definition
of affect says that body and mind are “simultaneously” affected: this means at
exactly the same time, in exactly the same way. The power of affects is the
same in body and mind.
This suggests that poetry is at once body and mind, extension and
thought. One cannot be conceptualized apart from the other.
Spinoza considers the human body (and mind) as composed of many
individuals (=singular entities) of different natures: as such it can be
affected in many and diverse ways by the same body.
of the power of poetry can be articulated through the following
potency. Poetry, but more concretely we can think of a poem, has the power to
augment or diminish the capacity to act. This is the idea of “movement.” An increase
in this capacity is what Spinoza calls “joy,” a decrease, “sadness.” Instead of
a view of poetry as constituting a transcendental domain (catharsis), here we
have a view of poetry as actually mobilizing body and mind. The notion of a
movement here corresponds to the idea of variation. It is an instable field of
forces, with increased or diminished power. With additional trajectories:
Power in Spinoza is what constitutes the essence of a being, its
striving, its drive. This is not in any way volitional, and has no relationship
to consciousness. It is this power that encounters and clashes with other
powers in combinations that result in an increased or diminished power to act.
Activity/passivity. For Spinoza an increase in the capacity to act is an
increase in activity, a movement towards increased understanding of body and
mind, which for him means, a movement towards an increased adequacy in relation
to one’s own nature (not only human, but of any being). And viceversa.
Fluctuatio Animi. Everything moves, and feelings (ok, affects) move more
than anything, they cannot be controlled (what can a body do?). Mind cannot
dictate to the body what to do, maybe it can do so in some respects, sometimes,
but not all the time. Spinoza discusses this in terms of two contrary affects
operating at the same time. So the notion of habitus as a cultivation of
dispositions finds here its limit. Or rather, it can be put into perspective as
a disciplining trajectory that can account for a certain and limited (because
conscious) sense of “striving towards.” Spinoza here takes to its extremes and
turns upside down this stoic tradition (which is also the muslim tradition). No
power of the will. Poetry is not ethical. It might be directed at an ethical
pupose, but as something that “moves” it can also go elsewhere. Hence, the
diffidence of theology and philosophy towards poetry and the discussions about
its legitimate and illegitimate uses, which today we find again in discussions
of variation in the capacity to act produced by a poem are not linked to
specific properties of the poem. Spinoza demonstrates this by arguing that when
a body or mind is affected at the same time by two different affects, whenever
it will be affected by one, it will also be affected by the other in the same
way, hence what matters is not a poem in itself but the kinds of configurations
in which it enters. Likewise, if one imagines a poem to be similar to a poem
one likes (or hates), one will be affected in the same way as she is affected
by the poem she likes (or hates) (see E III P 14,15, 16, 17 and scolii).
encountered in Mauss (and Vico) this geometrical approach to affects predicated
on their necessity involves a transitional view of these affective movements.
Other bodies and minds are affected by what affects a body-mind to the
extent that these other bodies are imagined as sharing similar affects.
To put it
concretely, if we imagine that someone we imagine similar to us is moved by a
poem, we will also be moved by the same poem, in the same way.
In other words,
desire is always desire of the other: one’s desire is the desire that someone
else’s has. One likes a poem because someone else one likes, likes that poem.
have to be seen as the resultants of combinations, of the play of different
forces on heterogeneous bodies/minds, so that each time, it will depend which
kind of affects will result to be more powerful in the mix. This is the
opposite of “collective effervescence” (Durkheim) if this is considered to be
an indistinct communal feeling. This is the conjunctural coming together of
question “how do poems move people?” implies thinking about affects.
discussions of affects in North American anthropology seem to be rather
confusing, or not lead to productive and concrete discussions.
Even a very
good recent review in the Annual Review of Anthropology, while helpful does not
seem to entirely address the question. A major incertitude concerns actual
empirical research on affects.
I find it
rewarding to return to Mauss short essay on the “obligatory expression of
feelings.” (1921). Here is a pdf of the French original, though a few footnotes seem to
The essay makes
two crucial points. They appear basic, but they set an important trajectory to
- Weeping (in
the Australian ceremonies he is discussing) is not the outer manifestation of
an individual interior, but it is a collective phenomenon.
- Weeping is
not free, “spontaneous”, but it is obligatory.
following Durkheim in establishing the idea of social phenomena/facts. These
facts are characterized by their collective and obligatory character.
the categories of people who are tasked with weeping, certain relatives and
He also adds
that these “collective expressions” are a language:
“on fait donc
plus que de manifester ses sentiments, on les manifeste aux autres, puisqui’il
faut les leur manifester. On se le manifeste à soi en les exprimant aux autres
et pour le compte des autres.”
captures what retrospectively can be seen as Mauss’ concern with the idea of
reciprocity and exchange as foundational, as opposed to Durkheim’s emphasis on
the indistinct whole.
And like in
Vico, the obligation stems from the need to explain oneself and explain to
others in order to be understood.
for Mauss (and Durkheim) means socially sanctioned. But as the essay on the
gift will make clear, obligation coincides with freedom, to the point where the
two are undistinguishable.
delineates the specificity of “anthropology” in relation to psychology, but
also suggests that the two disciplines work in parallel in analyzing how
“obligatory” expression works. One would need to study George Dumas, the
psychologist quoted in the article, with whom Mauss was exchanging ideas. The
idea of the externality of obligation however can also be considered a step not
only in isolating the sui generis
character of social facts, but also in approaching “feelings” (sentiments) not
as manifestations of individual self, but as natural and social phenomena.
(social because natural, natural because social). In this regard it is also
interesting to read Mauss review of Willam James’ book on experience.
Spinoza are not to be condemned but understood. They are not defects to be
decried, nor—as it sometimes more common in our times—qualities to be praised.
They are part of nature. Humans are not an empire within the empire of nature;
they are no different than the rest of nature.
In order to
understand affects, Spinoza studies them as lines and points, approaching them
as ruled by the laws of nature. This for him means reflecting on the chains of
causes and effects that trigger them and on the modifications that they bring
to the body.
of poetic function as the displacement of equivalence on the axis of
combination suggests that:
(the play of similarity and difference) works not unlike the commodity form in
Marx, a process in which use value is turned into exchange value. This quality
of the poetic has been used in terms of “spatiality” but it also reveals the
relationship between semiosis and capitalism.
• Pleasure is
a relationship between frustration and fulfilment of expectation, and it is
inherently ambiguous. Poetry seems to be about locking into a double bind, a
circuit of frustration and fulfilment. It’s a circuit, but it’s also a
tautological structure, self-referential that is. Not -he writes- because it
is about language, but because it
brings forth language as such, and language as such is a play between
frustration and fulfilment. There is some Freud hidden in here, but for
Jakobson what matters is to articulate the “experience” of language as
semiosis/capitalism contains at its core a tautology that animates it. This
tautology is a deferral (the axis of combination, the hesitation between sound