Deleuze, Spinoza, and Zadie Smith

“That is why Spinoza calls out to us in the way he does: you do not know beforehand what good or bad you are capable of; you do not know beforehand what a body or mind can do, in a given encounter, a given arrangement, a given combination.”

Gilles Deleuze. Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. San Francisco: City Lights Books (1988); p. 125.

Confession: I’m not exactly a rigorous Deleuzian. Deleuze and Guattari are handy tools for my thesis, but I’m not immersed in either of their oeuvres. I’m not a hardcore philosopher, so I’ve never really delved into the ramifications of their work in light of their philosophical influences and debts, and I wouldn’t really recognise a Hegelian, Nietzschean, Heideggerian, or Spinozan argument if it flapped in front of my face. Of course Deleuze has a book on Spinoza. Of course there are connections. None of this will come as a surprise to a proper Deleuzian or a proper Spinozan (and there’s my inferiority complex again).

The point is this: ultimately, this post is probably shot from way behind the eight-ball and is primarily lifted from Zadie Smith, anyway. Hopefully that doesn’t make it valueless.

In Smith’s essay ‘Middlemarch and Everybody’ she briefly discusses Spinoza’s notion of conatus, which she describes as ‘striving’, the compulsion towards that which is good for us. For Spinoza, and for Smith’s discussion, this is about a human drive, and there’s always a risk in anthropomorphising rhizomatic structures, given how much rhizomatic functioning relies on drives, movement, desire, and change. However, I think this ties in closely to what Stuart Mouthrop, in describing the rhizome, has called “promiscuity”. The rhizome’s promiscuity comes from this striving, towards those other elements or systems that will strengthen it, empower it, give it the functions that it requires. To step back into biology, briefly, it is the striving of a chlorophyllic organism towards the sunlight, the osmotic transmission of sugars across a membrane from an area of density to an area of scarcity*.

What are the implications? Discussing rhizomatic systems in terms of striving might be slightly more valuable than adopting Moulthrop’s term: ‘promiscuity’ seems awkwardly allied to the desire-based philosophies of poststructuralism, which can have benefits and drawbacks in different situations. Conversely, linking the rhizome and conatus acknowledges the scholarship Deleuze undertook on Spinoza’s Ethics, and makes the rhizome seem less like an idiosyncratic offshoot of poststructuralism and more like a link in a larger philosophical history.

I’m not entirely sure whether these are worthy goals or not, but it’s definitely fascinating, and indicative of the vast wealth of academic writing that I’ve missed by Deleuze and Guattari alone.

(Tangentally, Zadie Smith’s book of essays, Changing My Mind, is a fantastically interesting read–aside from the piece on Middlemarch, which I read without knowing the first thing about George Eliot, the essay on Barthes and Nabokov is a brilliant survey of both.)

* my science is even worse than my philosophy but I’m fairly confident that’s how osmosis works. If not, my excuse is that I’ve been sick all week and I’m too lightheaded to do proper research.


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