Andrew Bevan — Refounding Philosophy from Self-Affection

My project engages with the fields of affect theory, new materialism(s) and neurobiology through the problem of the identity or difference of the concepts ‘affect’ and ‘emotion’. Today, all these fields agree that we need to be affected – whether this ‘we’ being the subject, the brain or matter itself – that we and the world touch one another in a reciprocally affecting encounter but few can agree on what this ‘affecting’ means.

My thesis is that a non-anthropocentric affect lies at the heart of the dynamics of materialization as the means by which space-time-matter relations are continually reconfigured. I thus seek a concept of affect separate from Heidegger’s conception of time as pure self-affection. As Irigaray has argued, the Western philosophical tradition links the feminine subject more with the body, and thus with space, whereas the masculine subject neglects the body for focusing on time. In a way, time is used to overcome the body. I ask whether ‘affect’ conceived solely according to time could be an example of how, as Irigaray argues in The Return, man ‘immolated affectivity, desire and even life itself to a mental mastery’.

I examine one example of such mental mastery. In To Be Born, Irigaray writes that Socrates injunction to ‘know thyself’ amounts to ‘an injunction to begin dying while living’ (41). Knowing oneself, she maintains, ‘can only occur through one’s work and the return to oneself as the place where life is preserved and from which it can still germinate’ (41). This return to oneself requires a being-with-oneself freed from any knowledge already determined. Yet such knowledge, as an idea or a constructed entity of the human being, usually directs our cultivation of us as humans. But a human as a living being is always already differentiated, especially by its sexuation. Omitting sexuate difference in the constructed identity that acts as a model for the education of the child  thus amounts, as Irigaray writes, to ‘removing it from the natural dynamism which allows it to accomplish itself’ (41). The children then become a kind of fabricated product, ‘the functioning of which is ruled by supra sensitive patterns and ideals extraneous to their real being and which are impracticable by them’ (38). Such a process only ends in separating the soul or spirit from the body.

A paradigmatic example of this separation of soul or spirit from the body is given by Socrates in the Phaedo. In the dialogue, Socrates states that people do not realize that ‘the only aim of those who practice philosophy in the proper manner is to practice it towards dying and death’ (64a). The real meaning of death, he says, is ‘the separation of the soul from the body’ (64c). For Socrates, the true philosopher must thus free the soul from its link with the body because only when the soul is freed from the sensations of the body can it completely perceive truth. Socrates, in his desire to prepare for this separation, begins to separate life from his body while still alive. And this is how we can understand Irigaray’s statement that Socrates begins dying whilst still living.

Socrates’ discussion is framed by pairs of opposites which turn into each other – the hot from the cold, the living from the nonliving. And these opposites imply an active/passive distinction. For instance, Socrates says, ‘when the soul and the body are together, nature orders the one to be subjected and to be ruled, and the other to rule and master’. But an emphasis on the active and the passive suggests more a struggle between opponents than a search of a loving union. We can see how this way of thinking of the active and the passive operates in Socrates’  conception of the togetherness of soul and body – one must be master and the other slave.

Contrary to the separation of life from the body, this dying while living, I turn instead to the words of Luce Irigaray on self-affection in To Be Born to do the very thing Socrates claims we should not do, that is, to actually effect the bindings of soul to body. I will do that through a focus on breath and meditative practices. For Indian philosophy, in the Upanishads and the practice of Yoga for example, the idea of binding and particularly of binding soul to body is less negative than it is for Socrates. It is in this way that we can leave the alternative, resulting from a mental construction, between processes which would be either active or passive, for processes that would be not only ruled by the mind, which happen within ourself and include the body.

Irigaray offers a further way thanks to which we can overcome a mere active/passive binary pair and she does that through a discussion about lexical and grammatical forms in Ancient Greek, forms that we have now lost. The middle voice, for example, escapes the alternative between the active and passive, notably by locating the process into the speakers, including their body, thus not only their actions but also their passions.

To clarify this idea, I make a short detour through what is meant by affection in self-affection? What does it mean affecting oneself? What is affect? And what about the difference between affect and other concepts such as emotion, passion or sensation? The proliferation of these terms, according to me, arises in part from the translation of Greek, especially Greek philosophy, into Latin and the term that is chosen to translate the Greek πάθος, which let understand that the latter is only passively undergone or experienced.

I explore on this subject the difference between the Eastern and the Western traditions but also the convergence between them notably through the common Proto-Indo-European root of πάθος (pathos) meaning ‘to bind’, and I wonder whether this binding through affecting oneself could also be applied to the relation that Socrates identified between the active soul and the passive body. Could we instead link the soul with the body, go another path to bind the soul to the body to generate a dynamis of our own, a dynamis freed from any model or imposed construction?