Spinoza, Religious Affects, and Aesthetic Formations

8 July, 2019

The conference ‘Spinoza and Identity’ took place on June 30 and July 1, 2019, at Erasmus University in Rotterdam and in Rijnsburg, where Spinoza once lived. This conference was part of the Netherlanders and Israelis Spinoza Seminar series, focusing on conflicting readings of Spinoza’s view of essences and their impact on our understanding of Spinoza’s concept of identity in metaphysics, anthropology, and moral and political theory. The following is the slightly edited text of the talk given by Pooyan Tamimi Arab. References and page numbers have been omitted, some concepts are not unpacked because of the intended audience interested in Spinoza. For queries or comments, please send an e-mail to p.tamimiarab@uu.nl.

Spinoza, Religious Affects, and Aesthetic Formations

It is a pleasure to be here in Rijnsburg with so many Spinoza-enthusiasts, a welcome diversion from the usual work that I do, which is on Islam, aesthetics, and politics in Europe. However, Spinoza’s ideas reverberate through the social sciences and the humanities, and in disciplines that I am currently involved in like cultural anthropology and religious studies. Today, I will speak about Spinoza’s importance for a related interdisciplinary field called material religion.

Material religion is the study of religions as constituted by objects, foods, images, and other tangible phenomena that mediate religious beliefs and practices. The conjoined “material” plus “religion” refers to these phenomena themselves as well as to a methodology or a way of seeing which increasingly attracted scholarship since the 1990s. An important moment that brought together academics of different fields to further develop the approach was the founding of the journal Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief, in 2005, followed by various volumes and monographs. I am currently co-editing the Routledge Handbook of Material Religion, and we have organized the volume to start with reflections on the approach’s ancestors. My own chapter in the first part will be on material religion in Spinoza.

The theories that inform the material religion approach are clearly derived from older scientific endeavors to study religion as a human, historical, or even natural phenomenon; they are informed by the Enlightenment and by 19th century materialist, historicist, and political critiques of religion, which led to a perspective that methodologically excludes the idea of transcendence from science. Simultaneously, colonial empires facilitated the anthropological examination of diverse peoples’ experiences – thanks to the power of the imagination, as we know from Spinoza – of something that they may call God, spirits, the sacred, or the transcendent.

To stay with the topic of this conference, what I am going to do here is reflect on the ways in which the material religion approach relates to essentialism, anti-essentialism, and identity in Spinoza. My sketch of the field will happen in two steps.

First, I look at essentialism and anti-essentialism on the level of the subject. I discuss the so-called affective turn, and how Spinoza-inspired ideas of criticizing an excessive focus on language and beliefs are crucial for the material religion approach. By commenting on the recent work done by Donovan Schaefer in religious studies, I suggest that tensions between essentialist and anti-essentialist readings of the human subject can be overcome by placing Spinoza and religious affects in a line that connects the humanities with modern biology.

I then go on, secondly, to look at essentialism and anti-essentialism in Spinoza on the level of collective, religious practices. I will argue that the material religion approach is reminiscent of Spinoza’s analysis of imagined religious affects and their social functions – notwithstanding his criticisms of ceremonies – which he argued to be nothing less than essential for producing strong group identities.

Religious Affects

So, I now begin with the idea of the human subject who is moved by religious affects. Contributors to the material religion approach turned towards affect theory to safeguard the theoretical significance of bodies: the subject is an embodied subject. From 20th century thought, for example, Mauss, Merleau-Ponty, and Bourdieu are often cited, on body-techniques, the embodied nature of the mind, and habits and aesthetics that distinguish people from each other. The point of material religion scholars in doing so was not to replace the importance of religious texts and beliefs with an emphasis on emotions and practices, but merely to correct an overemphasis on texts and beliefs in religious studies. For other colleagues, art historians for example, who always already dealt with objects, the importance of materiality was more evident. Likewise, cultural anthropologists also have a long tradition of engaging with rituals, objects, and forms of power that cannot be fully comprehended through an analysis of texts, beliefs, or private religious experiences alone. Nevertheless, it is possible to speak of a material turn in anthropology too, in works by Latour, Miller, Ingold, and Keane.

In a nutshell, as in the title of a book by the scholar of religion Manuel Vásquez, a materialist theory of religion implies that religion is More Than Belief. Scholars such as Vásquez sought to escape seeing religion from a Protestant-influenced perspective, which tends to separate religious contents and forms, inner beliefs from outer rituals, and a religious essence from mere secondary phenomena – distinctions that haunt anthropology and religious studies, since they were effective in dividing the rational and civilized from the savage and primitive in colonial times. We could say that religious studies and anthropology, in which such debates go back to Asad and others, have come to share similar concerns.

A fine illustration of a 21st century ethnographic study along these theoretical lines is The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics. In this book, the anthropologist Charles Hirschkind not only analyzes what is said in a sermon, or how it relates to a textual Islamic tradition, but especially in relation to the audience’s embodied practices of listening. He describes how audience members of the Muslim Brotherhood learned to become “receptacles” for certain emotional states, which the pious believer experiences upon hearing a passionate sermon.

What is gained through such methodologies, in my view, is not the juxtaposition of Islam and Protestantism, since in historical or actually existing Protestant traditions the senses matter a great deal too. The argument is, rather, that there is no way to understand religions without attending to particularly situated religious “affects,” a term Hirschkind uses throughout his book, which are always produced by unique and changing combinations of multisensory practices.

Despite a robust influence of Spinoza, especially via Deleuze, or via Massumi, who are cited by scholars such as Hirschkind, it is surprising that Spinoza himself is named only twice in the fifteen volumes of the journal Material Religion, once in 2007, and in volume 3 of this year in an article on materiality, affect, and the self in Afro-Cuban Espiritismo, again via Deleuze rather than the works of Spinoza himself. I agree with Sally Promey who notes in the introduction to her 2014 edited volume Sensational Religion: Sensory Cultures in Material Practice that Spinoza’s philosophy should be paid more attention to by scholars of material religion, since his Ethics disrupts easy schemas of Western thought as separating mind from body, a hallmark of the material religion approach.

Spinoza is discussed in greater detail in another recent body of literature called New Materalisms, which has been given shape by feminist scholars who were also inspired by Deleuze. To the extent that I am familiar with this literature, it seems to play with an exaggerated pantheism, or even better, pan-psychism as it was put by Han van der Ruler yesterday. For example, Jane Bennet takes Spinoza’s concept of conatus to mean that all bodies in the universe possess vitality, that matter is vibrant. This is, in my view, an anthropomorphism which actually goes against the spirit of what Spinoza is arguing for in the specific context of the seventeenth century. His point is, namely, not that matter is vibrant, but that the human mind is not superior to the body and cannot be disentangled from it. Whether Spinoza himself truly attributed minds to non-organic objects is an interpretative question that depends on what is meant by mind, and by object, and has been discussed in detail by the previous speakers.

In addition to the emphasis on bodies subjected to affects, the appropriated Spinozist conception of the subject is radically anti-essentialist. In a recent publication, Religious Affects: Animality, Evolution, and Power, Donovan Schaefer gives an overview of how Spinoza’s subject is interpreted throughout the humanities as having no fixed essence. And, what further makes Spinoza’s view of the subject attractive to a variety of scholars to this day is that it is, in Schaefer’s explanation, a differentiated or fragmented view of the subject. The subject is made out of forces, as Spinoza writes, which can be studied as if “it were a question of lines, planes, and bodies.” When taken to the extreme, observes Schaefer, this interpretation sees affect as being always in flux: “the plasticity and endless reshaping of substance through the reformation of its infinite attributes. Affect in this sense images bodies as sand castles, granulated conglomerates that are susceptible to radical reformation by the action of multidirectional waves washing over them.” It is not hard to see why, if the aim is to criticize a societal injustice, or to defend a radical environmentalist agenda, such a strongly anti-essentialist reading can be captivating. But Schaefer thinks that readers of Spinoza who are critical of biological determinism, then, make the mistake of exaggerating to its complete opposite – not unlike the behaviorists of the 1950s – going from biological determinism to a “hyperplasticity” in which it seems that anything is possible. This view, which Schaefer attributes to certain readers of Spinoza such as Deleuze and his followers, is then contrasted with Darwin, directing us to biological, living, organisms, rather than all physical bodies. My own view is that Spinoza and Darwin are not necessarily at odds with each other. And, moreover, in works like The Logic of Sensation, on the paintings of Francis Bacon, it appears that Deleuze himself was greatly interested in the human as an animal. This idea, that the human being is a something that resists it transcending itself by sheer acts of will, is already present in Spinoza himself. As Daniel Schneider explained yesterday, Spinoza explicitly speaks of a Homo Liber, not an endlessly becoming Liber. The significance of the concept of human in Spinoza, which enables human desires but also delimits them, should not be underestimated.

It is a shame that Yirmiyahu Yovel passed away and is not with us today. When I once took a class with him, he remarked that Darwin’s empirical approach upset cherished ideas about God and Nature, and, therefore, about Man himself. Although Yovel did not write a separate chapter on Darwin in his book subtitled The Adventures of Immanence, on Spinoza’s influence on the likes of Feuerbach, Marx, and Freud, it is clear from his writings that he did believe that information entering from modern biology must shape any contemporary understanding of what Spinoza’s fragmented human subject really is. It’s not a very hopeful vision, I’m afraid, for Yovel believed that we will fail to understand Spinoza’s philosophy without seeing him as a key figure of a Dark Enlightenment, from Machiavelli and Hobbes to Darwin and Freud.

If we see Spinoza and Darwin as complementing each other, then it can be said that the turn towards affects signifies, in the words of Schaefer, the “animalization of theory.” This means, against metaphysical essentialism: that nature is indeed in flux, producing time-dependent affects; but also against radical anti-essentialism: that we should not understand evolved human subjects from a hyperfluid-anything-goes perspective either. To explain this stance, Schaefer develops the concept of “intransigence” as the biological condition of possibility not just for affects in general, but for examples of religious affects that he wants to understand in particular. These “intransigent structures,” he writes, “are susceptible to reconfiguration without being so flexible as to lack consistency … these forms are shared among bodies in ways that step across local cultural histories.” In other words, our ancient biological history, our animality, is inescapable to us. This biological history is depicted by Schaefer as “reefs that subsist below the level of rational control, linguistic sedimentation, or affective flux but nonetheless shape our encounters with power.”

Consequences of this view are, for example, that we are governed by “compulsion”: our bodies cannot be simply turned on and off by sovereign selves, and Spinoza’s critique of free will anticipates this. Hence, when we violently engage with other humans, our politics of exclusion are not merely matters of culture and ideology, which they are, but also on a deeper level of “primatology.” These are pre-linguistic or paralinguistic components of animality. For example, the anthropologist Jojada Verrips studied scandals of offensive imagery in very different cultural and historical contexts. And yet, he came to the realization that there ultimately is, in his words, “a system to the madness.” People turn out to be offended by a limited number of similar violations, involving the triad of sex and reproduction, death, and what groups consider to be sacred – the gods, or the nation. Verrips calls this the “eternal triangle of existential neuralgic points, able to trigger very negative sentiments, thoughts, and behavior toward imagery that people experience as transgressive, as well as toward its producers and their potential supporters.” If we turn to Schaefer, this is due to the fact that the culturally situated meanings that are required to understand a particular experience of religious offense are enabled by deeper biological histories that we experience as stable. That explains why, in most cases, we cannot observe anything truly new under the sun.

And so, I now think that it is, to conclude this first part, futile to want to choose between essentialism and anti-essentialism. I cannot get into the intricacies of Schaefer’s arguments here, on various interpretations of evolution in the 20th century, but will just say that in his book he combines the humanities and biology in a remarkable way, arguing in favor of rehabilitating essence as a concept, “by viewing it as a long-term pattern expressing a slow-motion trajectory of change within an expansive evolutionary dynamic. Basic emotions have histories, but these histories move at a time scale that vastly exceeds human experience, let alone human history. The varieties of animal affect fall into this category of semistable forms emerging out of shapeshifting embodied histories.”

Aesthetic Formations

For the second part of this presentation, I now turn from the embodied subject to the power of the imagination to form diverse groups through religious aesthetics, or as my colleague the anthropologist Birgit Meyer calls it, through aesthetic formations.

From the perspective I just sketched, it makes sense that anxieties about religious others and minority groups center around affects that are aroused by specific aesthetic formations. For example, in the Europe of the 21st century, anxieties about Islam are not just about competing ideas or beliefs, but triggered by and directed to mosque construction, graveyards, so-called ritual slaughter, sounds out of place such as the amplified call to prayer, and commotions about kissing, sex, and feelings of desire, or feelings of disgust, shaking hands, looking at each other, laughing or not laughing (that is, showing one’s teeth, or not), and eating together or not eating together. To put it mildly, it is not a very rational process. Understanding what religious tolerance is, empirically, then cannot simply mean to engage in arguments about justifying this or that concept. For these reasons, in my book Amplifying Islam in the European Soundscape, I looked at how the Dutch state regulates Islamic, audible presence and regulates competing sentiments about religion, culture, and citizenship. Although in that case study I do not discuss Spinoza, I did depart from the idea that, basically, the state actively manages or regulates the passions of “the multitude.”

With Schaefer, I share a slightly more pessimistic view of affects than Spinoza, since according to the Ethics it is still possible to examine which encounters (as Deleuze emphasizes in his 1978 lecture on Spinoza’s concept of affect) lead to greater joy, and to give those encounters greater normative priority, whereas if we are moved by potentially violent and weird biological compulsions, looking at what brings joy to the human being is not a reliable source for ethics and politics, though it cannot, of course, be dismissed either.

In the TTP, however, Spinoza presents a cautious vision, in which the human multitudes cannot be expected to become fully rational, let alone use rationality effectively to self-regulate the affects or emotions I do not distinguish them here. Therefore, he argues, a sort of semi-rationality must be inculcated in them, by the state’s harnessing and redirecting of the power of religious affects. Spinoza wishes to undermine theocratic forces, but by opting for his own theological mode of governance. The book is called, after all, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.

To understand why collective religious affects are essential to this theological mode of governance, I suggest that we can artificially separate the Spinoza who criticizes material, religious, practices as deluded superstitions from the Spinoza who studies the power of such practices impartially, although the two projects – critique and understanding – are fused in his political philosophy.

As a scholar of actually existing religions, Spinoza explains that religious groups are moved by superstitions, confused beliefs in omens, and human fabrications. But even these confused beliefs can serve a purpose: they assist prophets who wish that their people behave in accordance with justice, even if they do not live under the guidance of reason. For this political end, the prophets received revelations as words, holy signs, images, and visions, not by accident, but because all such spiritual matters require corporeal expressions to be understood by the unknowing multitudes, for, Spinoza writes, such corporeal language is “well suited to the nature of our imagination.”

For Spinoza, and here most material religion scholars appear to resonate with him in the present, the implication of these thoughts is that human groups make religion. Spinoza clarifies this in a fascinating passage in which he explains what he means by the sacred:

Words acquire a particular meaning simply from their usage Verba ex solo usu certam habent significationem. Words deployed in accordance with this usage in such a way that, on reading them, people are moved to devotion will be sacred words, and any book written with words so used will also be sacred. But if that usage later dies out so that the words lose their earlier meaning, or if the book becomes wholly neglected … then both words and book will then likewise have neither use nor sanctity … From this it follows that nothing is sacred, profane, or impure, absolutely and independently of the mind but only in relation to the mind Ex quo sequitur, nihil extra mentem absolute, sed tantum respective ad ipsam sacrum aut profanum aut impurum esse.”

This is a social understanding of the sacred, which reminded me of both Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. I mean, for example, that Durkheim writes that in principle, anything can become considered sacred: a stone, a book, a river, certain foods, a person, etc., depending on practices, which, importantly, need to be repeatable – otherwise it is difficult to ritually transmit sacrality and to socially structure time itself, to give shape to what Durkheim called collective representations.

To illustrate, when Moses broke the first tablets, he merely broke the stones. Something that had been sacred was, writes Spinoza, no longer sacred because the people were more interested in the Golden Calf: “the stones no longer possessed any sanctity whatever.”

Spinoza employs this view of religion, as combining the imagination and emotions through unique social practices, or ceremonies, to describe religious diversity diversitas as a fact of human life. The TTP shows that he is aware of dream interpretations, hearing things, or looking for signs in the intestines of animals – a practice dating to antiquity, when a seer or haruspex, would “read” the liver of an animal. Spinoza also knew about different sorts of sacrifices, and different sartorial practices. Similarly, books can be a form of material religion, he writes, nothing more or less than socially sacralized ink and paper.

Despite his critique of diverse religious traditions as superstitious, of which exist an “infinite number,” and which are based on “extraordinary interpretations of nature,” “pomp and ceremony,” and “external rituals,” such collective representations are crucial to establish and maintain a society. They work thanks to varying methods and styles, Spinoza explains, that are “calculated to inspire wonder.” When style, devotion, and imagination are brought together, they produce powerful beliefs, for example in miracles, which become part of repeatable religious practices. Hence, it can be said that Spinoza advances a perspective that is worked out by anthropologists of religion in the 20th century, for example by Marrett and Geertz, who have theorized the role of aesthetics in the construction of a lived and experienced religious reality.

There is no doubt that Spinoza, not as an impartial spectator but as a philosopher of the Enlightenment, wished to separate true religion from false superstition, and for political reasons suggest a religious core or essence: being kind to each other and believing in a limited number of dogmas. From this Enlightenment perspective, which can also be read as a radicalization of Protestant sensibilities, certain rituals and beliefs can be said to be secondary: they are adiaphorous, or non-essential. Yet, Spinoza does not come up with a true universal religion because he believes all of its dogmas are actually true, but because he thinks that – in combination with the power of the imagination – these can help to overcome political violence enabled by religious differences. He wished to create a tolerant society by taming religious diversity, which he saw as a natural, human, phenomenon that requires politically organized containment.

About the Jews, for instance, he complains that “they brought the resentment of all men upon themselves, not only because of their external rites which are contrary to the rites of other nations, but also by the sign of circumcision which they zealously maintain.” In this passage, a practice which may be considered inessential from an Enlightened perspective, becomes essential in Spinoza’s analysis of circumcision as a social, emotional, practice: “I think that the sign of circumcision has such great importance as almost to persuade me that this thing alone will preserve their nation forever.” The political problem, for Spinoza, is not the violation of the body of a child, as in current disputes about circumcision in various European countries. His concern is rather that particular rituals and body techniques create and maintain specific identities that refuse to assimilate into the identity of a differently behaving majority. Obviously, the question is whether the current debates about circumcising boys in Europe are not infected by a similar exclusivist style of reasoning.

Spinoza also gives other examples such as a specific Chinese hairstyle, of which he says that it preserved a unique Chinese identity for thousands of years. Stephen Nadler is a bit embarrassed, it appears, by these stereotypes, since he remarks in A Book Forged in Hell that we should not take them too seriously. From my material religion inspired reading, though, I think that Spinoza’s examples reveal his confidence in the power of aesthetic formations, the social manipulation of the body and objects, to create imagined communities.

It may be objected that all Spinoza merely thinks is that certain rituals are inessential to morality, for example when he writes that members of the Dutch VOC in Japan could live morally upright lives without performing Christian rituals. The Dutch, too, when doing business in another nation, should simply adapt themselves to the new situation and not worry too much about Japanese religious prohibitions, forbidding any Christian symbols or rituals. Conveniently, Spinoza does not mention that Dutch Protestants had competed in Japan with the Catholic Portuguese, and that the Tokugawa Shogunate strictly regulated religious presence for the sake of securing its power position against European missionary activities. Not totally unlike the Japanese theological politics he briefly mentions, for Spinoza too it can be said that particularistic identities threaten the peace and order of the state. To deal with this problem of religious diversity, the state, Spinoza suggests, should regulate the emotions of the people, by instilling in them fear of punishment, hope of reward, love of country, and other passions, even as he warns that the state cannot be too violent if it wishes to survive. In other words, while Spinoza defends the freedom to philosophize, his ideal state must actively regulate religious affects. It can do so by promoting certain material forms, not as ends in themselves but at the expense of others, for example by organizing specific, nationally unifying, festivals. In a passage that recalls Durkheim’s notion of collective effervescence – the thrill that the group feels when it is in the grip of religious affects – Spinoza writes: “I do not think anything can be devised which is more effective than this for swaying men’s minds. Nothing captivates minds more effectively than the cheerfulness arising from devotion, i.e., from love and wonder together.”


I must now come to a conclusion. We, living in an age of ever-expanding mass media, must worry about the political implementation of such dark thoughts, whether concerning individual subjects or their coming together as collectives. Readers of Spinoza such as Yovel, but also Rainer Forst, warn that Spinoza’s will to regulate the diverse multitude through soft manipulation and discipline goes far by contemporary liberal-democratic standards. In the later Tractatus Politicus, Spinoza writes about the importance of producing citizens who behave as if they were moved by a single mind. And, as he already states in the TTP, to be able to achieve this mental and emotional state, the state must obtain nothing less than all rights concerning religious matters, the so-called jus circa sacra. The effect is that houses of worship belonging to minorities, according to Spinoza, should be visibly smaller and politically less significant than the buildings that represent the established religion in that country, which should be large and costly.

I am aware that there are some philosophers, who try to argue that Spinoza’s religio patriae should be seen as a precursor to an enlightened civil religion, rather than an old-fashioned seventeenth century phenomenon, that the religion of the ruler should be the religion of the state. I think that these charitable interpretations can make sense, as long as we steer away from apologetics. It is pretty clear that Spinoza’s early modern views conflict with the liberal-democratic standards of our time. The model to emulate in the present is, undeniably, disestablishment of religion from the state, and a certain homogenization of laws, for example through the Treaty of Rome. This is pertinent, I would say, since even weak forms of establishment of religion, as in many European countries, have proven to be useful to racist xenophobes, as well as to secular citizens who wish to promote not a religion but a culture over the liberal concept of civil rights, or to orthodox believers still clinging to a religion that was or still is historically dominant. If we shift to a normative analysis of Spinoza for our time, I cannot fully agree here with Spinoza’s prioritization of state power over the Lockean concept of civil rights, since I think that these civil rights can be made powerful too, although, ultimately, not without a state that regulates the passions of the multitude. Moreover, anthropology after colonialism has revealed the dangers of a state wishing to determine the boundaries of inessential superstition and essential religion. The liberal-democratic state has, given our place in history as the heirs of unmendable pasts, very good reasons to show restraint in excluding practices from the definition of what counts as religious. Historians, religious studies scholars, and anthropologists have shown that these distinctions can be effectively used to discriminate, to argue that the native-American ghost dance does not fall under freedom and equality, that Catholics should not be allowed to ring their church bells, or that Jews should not be allowed to ritually slaughter animals. Especially in the second half of the twentieth century, the ideal of religious freedom has indeed been fortunately expanded to include a great diversity of beliefs and practices, from the Hare Krishna chants in Amsterdam to speaking in defense of the rights of persecuted minorities such as the Iranian Bahai’s. We should, however, have no illusions about the fact that the idea of religious freedom can also be applied in ways that exclude and stifle, rather than liberate.

In sum, what I believe we can take from Spinoza in the present is that questions about what is essential or not essential to religions, or about how diverse religious identities can be tolerated in a peaceful society, cannot be easily settled through rational debate, or settled at all. Instead, we should take notice of the varieties of material religion in societies, and continuously and critically follow the state’s management or mismanagement of our unavoidably primitive religious affects.

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