Ethics, Organisation, and Affect in the Creative Industries and Cultural Sector (II)

Posted: August 17, 2017 in Becoming, Creative Industries and Cultural Sector, Deleuze, Diagramming Affective Ethics, Ecology of Sensation, ethics, Method, Organization, Time

Continuing from Ethics, Organisation, and Affect in the Creative Industries and Cultural Sector (I).

In the last post, I raised a slew of issues around ethics, organisation studies, and affect in its relationship to the capitalist capture of creativity. This analysis is informed by work in queer and feminist studies, autonomous marxisms, postcolonial and subaltern studies, and new materialist affect studies.

In this post I want to analyse another journal article in this field: What can bodies do? Reading Spinoza for an affective ethics of organizational life by Torkild Thanem and Louise Wallenberg, in Organization 2015, Vol. 22(2) 235– 250.

Here’s the abstract:

Recent attempts to develop an embodied understanding of ethics in organizations have tended to mobilize a Levinasian and ‘im/possible’ ethics of recognition, which separates ethics and embodiment from politics and organization. We argue that this separation is unrealistic, unsustainable, and an unhelpful starting point for an embodied ethics of organizations. Instead of rescuing and modifying the ethics of recognition, we propose an embodied ethics of organizational life through Spinoza’s affective ethics. Neither a moral rule system nor an infinite duty to recognize the other, Spinoza offers a theory of the good, powerful and joyful life by asking what bodies can do. Rather than an unrestrained, irresponsible and individualistic quest for power and freedom, this suggests that we enhance our capacities to affect and be affected by relating to a variety of different bodies. We first scrutinize recent attempts to develop an ethics of recognition and embodiment in organization studies. We then explore key concepts and central arguments of Spinozian ethics. Finally, we discuss what a Spinozian ethics means for the theory and practice of embodied ethics in organizational life.

Almost point for point, this article is opposed to the article I analysed last time (“The naked manager: The ethical practice of an anti-establishment boss” by Bent Meier Sørensen and Kaspar Villadsen (from the Copenhagen Business School) in Organization 2015, Vol. 22(2) 251– 268). Why? Sorensen and Villadsen proceed from a basic confusion of affect theory with post-structuralism as such. Affect theory, or the political ecology of bodies, is not reducible to the standard tropes of post-structuralism: sign, slippage, discourse, the Imaginary, the Other, etc. Sorensen and Villadsen want to willy nilly combine a Levinasian/Derridean alterity semiotics with what they misconstrue as affect theory. The results are desultory.

Do Thanem and Wallenberg provide a way out of this confusion? I think they do. For Thanem and Wallenberg bodies are related in our strivings to affect and be affected by others, and ethics involves enhancing our affective capacities to do so. This is not unproblematic, nor is it linear. “While this appetite leads individual bodies to seek to enhance their power and freedom, Spinoza suggests that joyful and powerful ethical relations can only be crafted and sustained by communities of reasonable individuals who take responsibility for honouring and nurturing the difference and freedom of others. As we embody terrains within and beyond organizations, this compels us to try and understand the limits of our freedom, take responsibility for how we affect and are affected by others, and pursue encounters that enhance our own and others’ bodily capacities” (pg. 248). There are aspects to this project that are quite compelling; the image of thought in it harkens back to the Beautiful Soul, however.

They begin by critiquing Levinas, and his obvious misinterpretations of Spinoza.

It now seems virtually impossible to engage critically with ethics in organization studies without engaging Levinas’ embodied ethics of recognition. Meanwhile, Levinasian ethics is itself an ethics of impossibility. In pursuit of a proto-ethics, that is, an ethics of ethics, Levinas sought to draw up the limits of ethics and establish the primacy of ethics (Jones, 2003). For Levinas, the ethical encounter between self and other is primordial, preceding ontology and politics. Ethics is a matter of fully recognizing the other, and it is the self’s embodied encounter with the other that enables it to do so—to be unconditionally open to the other, to put the other before the self, and to exercise infinite responsibility for the other without being polluted by politics and without first being-in-itself and being-for-itself. Placing infinite demands on the self to be for the other, Levinasian ethics is an ongoing and impossible project because it can never be fully realized and finally completed. (pg. 236)

An open ethical project of incomplete becoming is also certainly compatible with a Spinozist ethics, but the hinge is different. For Levinas/Derrida/Butler (till about maybe 2000?–certainly Judith Butler has been affected by and has affected the ontological turn?) it is the Other that forms the hinge, or lever for ethics. The Other grounds the self in an always open, never ending negative dialectic. It is irreducibly idealistic and transcedent (all things emanate from the Other/God). For the Spinozist tradition (we know who you are, but do you?), the lever is of a material, durational, empirical, and transcendental nature. Affect is immanent to ecological processes (a very great number of feedback loops), pointing to a transcendental empiricism as method. Affect–which is both qualitative and quantitative at once–is a durational passage from one affection to another (Deleuze, 1968).

Noting that Spinoza was knife-attacked on the steps of the local synagogue and excommunicated for his ‘monstrous deeds’, and that Spinozist organisation theory remains both rudimentary and still under attack (Spoelstra, 2007; Thanem, 2011; Lloyd, 1996; Popkin, 1976), Thanem and Wallenberg argue that

From an affective ethics of the good, powerful and joyful life, Spinoza offers radical ways to rework the possibilities and limits of embodied ethics: to reconsider basic assumptions regarding the relations between rationality and embodiment, ethics, ontology and politics; to rethink key ethical concepts of freedom, responsibility, difference and affectivity; and to re-imagine ethical practices within and around organizations. Rather than a moral rule system or an infinite duty to recognize the other, Spinoza asks what bodies can do. However, this does not imply an unrestrained, irresponsible and individualistic quest for power and freedom, but suggests that we enhance our capacities to affect and be affected by relating to a variety of different bodies. (pg. 236)

This has the virtue of clarity, which we need more of not less. So affect grounds an ethics of capacities to affect and be affected by a very great number of different bodies. But what is affect? I return to that question, but the authors usefully summarise the uses of Spinoza in organisation theory and business ethics:

…we argue that Spinozian ethics, which is inseparable from ontology and politics, enables an affectively embodied ethics of organizations more realistic and sustainable than any ethics of recognition. Doing so, we extend our reading of Spinoza into the philosophical works of Balibar, Deleuze, Gatens and Lloyd. This is no obvious choice. Spinoza’s convoluted style and contradictory arguments have enabled several competing interpretations: (i) Spinoza’s geometric method of logical deduction and discussion of the virtues of reason has led mainstream historians of philosophy and analytic philosophers to view Spinoza as a rationalist (Bennett, 1984; Hampshire, 1951; Koistinen, 2009); (ii) liberalist commentators in political philosophy have taken Spinoza’s emphasis on the freedom of thought as a precurse to the 18th century Enlightenment (Israel, 2007) and economic liberalism (Feuer, 1958; Smith, 1997); (iii) neo- Marxists have celebrated Spinoza’s implicit emphasis on class antagonism (Althusser, 1970) while post-Marxists have reiterated the Spinozian multitude as a subject of political resistance and transformation (Hardt and Negri, 2004); and (iv) the affective turn in cultural and social thought has, among other things, utilized Spinoza to theorize social affect beyond the dualism of personal feelings and collective emotions (Seyfert, 2012) (pg. 237)

This is quite helpful, actually, and I’ve emphasised what seems to me of decisive import. Moving affect beyond feeling, into the preindividual (this is the implication, although the authors don’t engage substantively with Simondon or others on Simondon–Deleuze, Massumi, Manning, Shaviro, Parisi–except Balibar, 1997), through a consideration of antagonisms in politics and resistant forms of organisation in the multitude (we should not loose site of the fact that Hardt and Negri’s 2004 book on the subject has been roundly criticised for its various romanticisms of resistance), Thanem and Wallenberg shift our understanding of affective processes by relating it to ‘another reason’ and the politics of embodiment in actual organisations. (I’m glad I’m blogging again, I’ve missed writing necessarily long, multiply parenthesised, turgid English sentences that really want to be in German/Sanskrit. Ah well.)

Arguing against the normative organisation studies separation between ethics, ontology, and politics, Thanem and Wallenberg argue for an affective ethics, and here we can get a better sense of what they mean by both. “…Deleuze (1992: 41-51) teases out how Spinozian rationality, reason and ethics is entangled with materiality, embodiment and passion, from a starting point where everything is generated by and expressive of one and the same primordial substance (EIP11, P15), the source of all things and ideas, which Spinoza called God but possibly meant Nature (Lloyd, 1996)” (pg. 240). Or as Nicholas of Cusa in On Learned Ignorance put it: “God is the universal complication, in the sense that everything is in him; and the universal explication, in the sense that he is in everything” (qtd. in Deleuze, EiP, pg. 175). Deleuze draws out the implications for a philosophy of immanence, which is the vertigo of philosophy itself, with characteristic brilliance:

Expression comprehends all these aspects: complication, explication, inherence, implication. And these aspects of expression are also the categories of immance. Immanence is revealed as expressive, and expression as immanent, in a system of logical relations within which the two notions are correlative. (EiP, 175)

The authors note what’s at stake for Deleuze in all this: a rejection of the mind-body dualism in favour of a strict parallelism between thought and extension, merely two attributes of an infinite God, or nature; a reformulation of ethics as a “theory of power” (Deleuze, 1988, pg. 104) linking essence to a given organisation of capacities in an embodied assemblage.

Thanem and Wallenberg quote Spinoza thus:

…no one has yet determined what the body can do, that is, experience has not yet taught anyone what the body can do from the laws of Nature alone, insofar as Nature is only considered to be corporeal, and what the body can do only if it is determined by the mind. For no one has yet come to know the structure of the body so accurately that he could explain all its functions […] This shows well enough that the body itself, simply from the laws of its own nature, can do many things which its mind wonders at. (EIIIP2S; pg. 240)

The authors note that Spinoza highlights the dynamic capacities of the body to affect and be affected by other bodies through preindividual, non-conscious processes. Perhaps too quickly, they relate these dynamics to the good, powerful, and joyful life (Nietzsche showed us clearly why the Good is in fact more often than not a sad passion–cf Beyond Good and Evil and the Genealogy of Morals, etc.). They clarify: ‘the body is not striving towards the good, but striving is itself good’ (pg. 241). While this is resonant with aspects of Spinoza’s ethics, my sense is that Spinoza was more concerned with individual and collective (the two are inseparable) emancipation from the sad passions, not a liberation from the body, but rather a strategic, political experimentation with what the body can do to turn passive into active affections.

…there are no causes external to God; God is necessarily the cause of all his affections, and so all these affections can be explained by his nature, and are actions. Such is not the case with existing modes. These do not exist by virtue of their own nature; their existence is composed of extensive parts that are determined and affected from outside, ad infinitum. Every existing mode is thus inevitably affected by modes external to it, and undergoes changes that are not explained by its own nature alone. Its affections are at the outset, and tend to remain, passions. Spinoza remarks that childhood is an abject state, but one common to all of us, in which we depend “very heavily on external causes.” The great question that presents itself in relation to existing finite modes is thus: Can they attain to active affections, and if so, how? This is the “ethical” question, properly so called. But, even supposing that a mode manages to produce active affections, while it exists it cannot eliminate all its passions, but can at best bring it about that its passions occupy only a small part of itself. (Deleuze, EiP, pg. 219)

It is this ‘play’ (but not a Derridean play–see the next post where I discuss Deleuze’s notion of relations and encounters) between active and passive affections as a domain of action that defines a Spinozist ethics, and often the way they are knotted together, interrupting each other, in habits that are not entirely of our own making, is what is crucial it seems to me.

Thanem and Wallenberg point to the important political dimension to this play:

The underlying politics here cannot be exaggerated. Not only is a body’s capacity to exist a result of its power (EIP11S3-4): ‘every right of each one is defined by his [sic] […] power’ (EIVP37; our emphasis), and ‘every natural thing has as much right from Nature as it has power to exist and to act’ (TP2/3). However, this further suggests that power, right and the capacity to affect and be affected is unequally distributed. And since the power of each body is ‘infinitely surpassed by the power of external causes’ (EIVP3), bodies seek to persevere by entering into affective relations with other bodies that enhance their capacities (EIVP38). (pg. 241)

This resonates with Deleuze’s notion of ethical becoming through active passions, but with some caveats. Deleuze points out repeatedly (one wonders how the performance of repetition functions as differentiation in Deleuze’s texts, there’s a literary dissertation in that) that the expressive triad corresponding to finite modes (specific bodies with a very great number of extensive parts) comprises 1. an essence as a degree of power; 2. a characteristic relation in which it expresses itself; 3. and the extensive parts subsumed in this relation, which compose the mode’s existence. In the Ethics, Spinoza develops a strict system of equivalences that leads to a second triad related to the first: 1. an essence as a degree of power; 2. a certain capacity to be affected in which it expresses itself; and 3. the affections that, at each moment, exercise that capacity. (Deleuze, “What Can a Body Do?”, Ch. 14, EiP, page 217).

Thanem and Wallenberg draw out political implications of this ethics of the active affections quite different from a Levinasian ethics, “which defines ethical communities as a pre-rational outcome of embodied difference and alterity” (241).

In contrast, the powerful, joyful and ethical life and community Spinoza outlines requires agreement, harmony, and reason: bodies contrary to our nature cause sadness and diminish our power (EIVP30); bodies that agree with our nature are good and useful to our power (EIVP31). However, it is only by living in accordance with reason that people can agree (EIVP35), ‘live harmoniously’ and ‘be of assistance to one another’ (EIVP37, P40). (pg. 241).

This strikes me as a normalizing ethics striving toward a teleology of balance and equilibrium (even though earlier in the essay the authors explicitly reject teleology in ethics). They acknowledge this danger.

The bodily, social and political aspects at play here are significant. First, a body is reasonable insofar as it knows itself and the diverse bodies in its surroundings. Second, reasonable bodies are able to join with other bodies, despite some disagreement, and compose larger, more powerful, yet more heterogeneous bodies, which incorporate the capacities that made them different in the first place (EIVP38): “For the more the body is capable of affecting, and being affected by, external bodies in a great many ways, the more the mind is capable of thinking.” (EIVApp27) (pg. 243)

I find the search for a composition of reasonable bodies hard to stomach. Spinoza, and certainly Delezue (and Guattari, and many others drawing from this tradition), does something to Cartesian reason. Certainly by rejecting the mind/body dualism, but further by bringing reason into the multiplicity of bodies mattering (as Butler and Cheah have it), Spinoza births forth another reason, a materialist and nonlinear diagrammatics of the composition of bodies with different degrees of power.

Whence these degrees of power? Are they given by God, or nature? Are they ‘naturalised’ degrees of power? This is precisely what Spinozist ethics works against, the supposed transcendence of ethics (pg. 244). While Thanem and Wallenberg, drawing on Gatens and Lloyd (1999), go on to elaborate ‘freedom and responsibility’ as key dimensions of a collectively oriented Spinozist ethics, I want to turn to their consideration of affective ethics in actually existing organisations.

They set the stage thus:

It is more helpful to consider how the questions discussed above are not impossible but real questions with practical implications for embodied ethics in organizational life. They are certainly given a practical and organizational guise in Spinoza’s political writings. Spinoza opens the Political Treatise by promising to show ‘how a community […] should be organised […] if […] the Peace and Freedom of its citizens is to remain inviolate’, and by critiquing political philosophers for ‘conceiv[ing] men [sic] not as they are but as they would like them to be’ and for ‘never work[ing] out a political theory that can have practical application’ (TP1/1). Meanwhile, Spinoza’s Ethics was never ‘just’ an ontological or proto-ethical exercise, but, as Balibar (1998) argues, a foundation and elaboration of his political writings. (pp. 244-45)


Viewing Spinozian ethics in light of these arguments is helpful when considering the implications of Spinozian ethics for the theory and practice of embodied ethics within and around organizations. This does not mean that bringing Spinozian ethics into organizational life is unproblematic. First, Spinoza pursues a dual emphasis on power—as capacity (potentia) in the Ethics (EIP11D2, EIIP3S, EIIIP7Dem) and as authority (potestas) in his political writings (TTP16; TP2) (see Terpstra, 1993)—and it may be argued that applying Spinozian ethics to organizations takes bodies into a setting where power is a matter of authority, of exercising power over others, which undercuts the capacities of bodies to more openly engage in affective relations with others. Second, it may be argued, with Deleuze, that this involves a move from the expressive to the representational, which restricts the expressive capacities of bodies to affect and be affected by others. (pg. 245)

With Deleuze? Where does Deleuze suggest that organisation involves a shift from expression to representation? Indeed, following Hardt’s brilliant Gilles Deleuze: An Apprenticeship in Philosophy (1993) (who the authors cite!), we might say that, for both Spinoza and Deleuze, the question of organisation is precisely and primarily a question of the ontology of capacities distributed through interpenetrating multiplicities and their resonant/disjunctive processes. So Thanem and Wallenberg are pursuing a false problem, or at least a poorly posed one, with a dichotomy that doesn’t come from Spinoza or Deleuze but from inside the confused field of organisation studies itself. This can quickly become ideological obfuscation:

There is no illusion that the self will feel compelled to be completely open to the other, fully recognize the other and take infinite responsibility for the other. Instead, the pursuit of a joyful organizational life requires us to enhance our powers in ways that enhance the powers of more or less agreeable others, for instance by striking alliances with unlikeable colleagues against more unlikeable managers, or getting to know and learn from someone who at first seemed to have nothing in common with us. This may put limits on openness and difference, but also on domination, exploitation and exclusion. (pg. 246).

What does the pursuit of the joyful organisational life mean under heteronormative, patriarchal, and racist capitalism? It’s as if for these authors the problem of Spinozist organisation can be neatly disentangled from the structures of domination and exploitation tied to contemporary capital. Nowhere do they actually mention capital as such, as far as I can tell. Encounter, then, tends to be narrowed to the face to face meetings of individuals, understood precisely as bourgeois ideology would have it, i.e. as isolated atoms colliding. Spinozist categories are abstracted from history, from the material ecologies that give them force and effectivity.

Yet what is maddeningly interesting about this article is that Thanem and Wallenberg seem fully aware of these pitfalls in their own argument! So I’ll end this already too long post in their own, somewhat optimistic, somewhat inspirational, and somewhat naive words.

If Spinozian ethics is misread as a one-way process of crafting harmonious relations by minimizing difference or a selfish quest for freedom, and if too much emphasis is put on his occasional claim that unreasonable people must be forced into reasonable behaviour (TP3/8), it is unlikely to offer much advice for ending unjust practices in organizations. However, if we take seriously the collective responsibility to mutually enhance our own and others’ embodied capacities to affect and be affected, it convinces us that domination, exploitation and exclusion, like individualistic freedom, are not just unethical but unsustainable. As organizations dominate, exploit and exclude people, they treat people in reductionist ways that cut off organizations and those they exclude from opportunities to exercise their full capacities. And as individual employees and managers insist on an unrestrained freedom to do whatever they like, they undermine any fruitful social relations. Excess power and freedom causes harm and suffering and provokes disagreement and resistance, which inevitably decomposes relations between people and organizations. Hence, connections between organizations and people neither can nor should be maintained at all cost. Although excluding initially peaceful others might create further harm and suffering, disagreement and resistance, those same people might gain more power, freedom and joy from cutting or re-negotiating the link. The current resistance against big business, financial institutions and oppressive governments cries out that people are fed up and ready to cut the link with dominant, exploitative, harmful and sad forms of government and organization. And without denying the significance of discursive forms of resistance, it is likely that resistance in organizational life may be reinforced as people feel the pain that these regimes inflict on our bodies—through the poverty they generate, the natural resources they appropriate and pollute, the landscapes they destroy, and the health problems they cause. There are even signs that people again pursue joyful encounters and harmonious relations independently of organizations, whether growing our own vegetables, bartering old clothes and furniture, or exchanging household favours. At the same time, Spinozian ethics sits well with an argument for more diverse organizations— at least insofar as they enhance the capacities of traditionally marginalized groups to affect how things are organized, managed and decided, and not least because marginalized groups tend to have different bodily experiences of joy and suffering, from life, work and organizations. However, such a move is not sufficient to create more joyful and more differently embodied organizations. Institutions and organizations can only become more joyful and sustainable if those who manage them and work in them open ourselves up to be affected by people whose bodies and embodied experiences are truly different from our own. Impossible in homogeneous groups, this instigates us to develop embodied forms of reason in concert with others, which enhance our capacities to remember, critically reflect about and take responsibility for transforming ourselves as well as the conditions that have enabled us to dominate, exploit and exclude others within and around organizations. (pg. 247)

What are the implications of the set of arguments from Part I and Part II of these posts for Creative Industries and the Cultural Sectors? Are the implications the same for both sectors, and if not what is the nature of their differences in regards to ethics, organisation, and affect? Till next time.


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