[SydPhil] CMSA Seminar 2014 #7 : Oliver Feltham on the politics of the multitude: Wednesday, 13 August, 5-6.30 p.m.

Joanne Faulkner j.faulkner at unsw.edu.au
Mon Jul 28 10:05:46 AEST 2014

Professor Oliver Feltham
"Political Judgement in the Void: Spinoza's and Hobbes' multitudes"


Robert Goodsell LG19, Robert Goodsell Building
University of New South Wales, Kensington Campus
Wednesday, 13 August, 5 p.m. to 6.30 p.m.

"Political Judgement in the Void: Spinoza’s and Hobbes’ multitudes"

The choice between a Hobbesian or Spinozist multitude has come to function in critical theory as a simplistic litmus test. For Hobbes the multitude are formless and passive until the sovereign imposes identity upon them. No crowd can act but is rather subject to hysterical passion. Spinoza’s multitude, on the other hand, has been interpreted as a creative force sustaining all social practices and containing the potential to overthrow the restrictive constraints of capitalism and the state. In the Manichaen drama of critical theory, either one is Hobbesian and the people are monstrous from the point of view of the state, or one is Spinozist and the state (and/or capital) is monstrous from the point of view of the people. Yet if one returns to the texts, if one returns to the core of political modernity, these monsters – the people, the state, capital – turn out to be the grotesques of an aging ghost train ride. The horror lies elsewhere: in the grounds of the exercise of judgement.

In the Engagement Controversy that erupted with the birth of the English Republic Hobbes’ position was clear. One’s allegiance to the sovereign was based purely on a rational calculation of whether that sovereign guaranteed public safety at that moment in time. Any historical relation between individual conscience and the sovereign was thus severed, replaced by a functionalist framework that allowed political obligation to be switched on or off as an automatic consequence of a global judgement based on a single criterion: public safety. Functionalism evacuates both poles of the relationship – subject and state – of any historical content: and so a void is introduced into the heart of the political field.

In Spinoza’s argument for democracy as the most absolute of constitutions, the multitude englobes all social positions, contains all divisions and alliances, creates and dissolves social practices, acts and actively limits the power of the sovereign. There is no position of judgement or decision that lies outside the reach of the multitude. According to Spinoza’s ontology, the multitude is also a certain power, where any individual’s power is understood as conatus, as the power to act, increased or decreased by the network of affects in which it finds itself as theorized in Book III of the Ethics. A political judgement, itself, is an action that reconfigures an individual’s affect network: as such it has no grounds but rather has effects, the effects of its naked existence in a relational multiplicity understood as an ongoing power to act. The effects of a political judgement, however, concern that particular individual which is the multitude as a whole: how can its capacity to act be evaluated? Void or relational multiplicity: the task of this paper is to rethink the existence of political judgement – beyond its ‘grounds’ – in the light of Spinoza and Hobbes.

Oliver Feltham is Professor of Philosophy at the American University of Paris. Specializing in critical theory, contemporary French philosophy and early modern philosophy, he has translated and written extensively on Alain Badiou, and is currently developing a counter-history of political action.


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