A Spinozist Aesthetics of Affect and Its Political Implications

In Gábor Boros, Judit Szalai & Oliver Istvan Toth (eds.), The Concept of Affectivity in Early Modern Philosophy. Budapest, Hungary: Eötvös Loránd University Press. pp. 185-206 (2017)
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Spinoza rarely refers to art. However, there are extensive resources for a Spinozist aesthetics in his discussion of health in the Ethics and of social affects in his political works. There have been recently been a few essays linking Spinoza and art, but this essay additionally fuses Spinoza’s politics to an affective aesthetics. Spinoza’s statements that art makes us healthier (Ethics 4p54Sch; Emendation section 17) form the foundation of an aesthetics. In Spinoza’s definition, “health” is caused by external objects that maintain our power to act in a variety of ways. Humans need such objects because our complex bodies constantly lose or consume many parts necessary to our overall functioning. Notably, Spinoza defines humans’ bodies through this complexity (2p13Sch), so health as maintenance of complexity is a distinctly human endeavor. Further, while art is not the only healthy activity, I argue that art is a particularly potent cure, which explains Spinoza’s otherwise opaque comment that music can cure melancholy (by which he meant a near-total inability to act, akin to death). Rather than only causing frivolous pleasures, art may be as essential to human flourishing as are other human beings in general; other people are “most useful” because of the variety of actions they make possible (4p35Cor & Sch1). Art’s production of a dizzying variety of affects is likewise most useful for health. Having established how art in general affects the individual, I then explain the role of artists in shaping social groups. Artists use vivid and highly charged affective techniques, as do political sovereigns and religious prophets (TTP chapters 1-2 & 15-16). However, sovereigns and prophets are concerned exclusively with “morality,” defined by Spinoza as the use of affects (primarily based on fear and hope) to produce “obedience” in the generic multitude or people at large. An artist, however, rarely causes affects in the whole nation, affecting instead only a smaller niche or “sub-genre” of people. The affects produced in this group are also not identical to those used by sovereigns, since artists do not primarily deploy sad affects of hope and fear but instead use a wide variety of joyful affects. Further, in Spinoza’s analysis of ceremonies (TTP chapter 5), we see how small groups exposed to repeated ceremonies or social practices eventually develop new strengths which they lacked before. Repeated exposure to shared aesthetic “ceremonies” (e.g., live music performances) of the same sub-genre will over time create the capacity of new powers in the sub-genre of people, which distinguishes them from the masses. Spinoza says sovereigns forge a “second nature” for the generic people through affects; we can then affirm that smaller groups exposed to a distinct sub-genre of art can acquire a new “third nature” which will contain unique powers extending beyond healthy maintenance of their existing bodies. That is, art in general is necessary to flourish and remain whole (maintaining health), but it can also occasionally expand what one is to unforeseen heights (through specific artistic sub-genres).

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Christopher Davidson
Ball State University


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