Obligatory expression of sentiments (2)

This would require further thinking, but my impression is that contemporary anthropology is not really pursuing Mauss’ question regarding “sentiments”.


For a long time, anthropologists have worked on the “social construction of emotions.” And this is certainly one way in which Mauss’ essay can be read, but in my view, the “obligation” is not necessarily split from its natural embeddedness, on the contrary, it is rooted in it (here is where his interest in psychology lies). More recently, and in an effort to escape this formulation, anthropologists have turned to “affect” in order to either go beyond the “conscious,” or more rarely, the “individual.” And most of all, they tried to go beyond the study of representations. In doing so however, they do not entirely relinquish the idea of being able to study the outer manifestations of an inner feeling, and therefore one cannot argue that they sustain Mauss’ approach in thinking about exteriority. Or maybe they do (I am thinking here of Mauss’ essay on the techniques of the body) but in the form of a habitus, of an acquired set of dispositions. Or they turn to psychology, or neuroscience, to receive the answers they need about the “interior.”


In this regard, Spinoza’s idea of studying affects geometrically, that is to say as if they were lines, surfaces or (solid) bodies, takes us in the opposite direction. 


What is at stake here is not only relinquishing any idea of subjectivity (see for example the work of Frédéric Lordon) but also any temptation to offer “pathetic” accounts of affects, as if by creating a sense of intimacy, or empathy, one could somehow convey a sense of the affects at play. [These (pretended) affective writings aim to reproduce at times the affects of the event, but not sure they make readers understand them better].


Certainly one possible approach is to take what Spinoza is arguing to be nothing but an invocation of science, which in our times would mean turning to neuroscience. But the kinds of questions that anthropology asks are not the same. When anthropology asks “how do poems move?” it asks about the power of poetry, it invites a reflections on the kinds of assemblages that are produced in this encounter between bodies/minds and poetry.


Spinoza conceives affects as “affections” of the body (and mind) through which the power to act of the body (and mind) is either augmented or diminished.


So poetry’s capacity to move body and mind is conceptualized as either augmenting or diminishing the body’s (and mind’s) power to act. For Spinoza these correspond to joy and sadness.

simul: Body and mind, because Spinoza in his definition of affect says that body and mind are “simultaneously” affected: this means at exactly the same time, in exactly the same way. The power of affects is the same in body and mind. 


This suggests that poetry is at once body and mind, extension and thought. One cannot be conceptualized apart from the other.


Spinoza considers the human body (and mind) as composed of many individuals (=singular entities) of different natures: as such it can be affected in many and diverse ways by the same body.


This conception of the power of poetry can be articulated through the following


Variations of potency. Poetry, but more concretely we can think of a poem, has the power to augment or diminish the capacity to act. This is the idea of “movement.” An increase in this capacity is what Spinoza calls “joy,” a decrease, “sadness.” Instead of a view of poetry as constituting a transcendental domain (catharsis), here we have a view of poetry as actually mobilizing body and mind. The notion of a movement here corresponds to the idea of variation. It is an instable field of forces, with increased or diminished power. With additional trajectories:


Power in Spinoza is what constitutes the essence of a being, its striving, its drive. This is not in any way volitional, and has no relationship to consciousness. It is this power that encounters and clashes with other powers in combinations that result in an increased or diminished power to act.


Activity/passivity. For Spinoza an increase in the capacity to act is an increase in activity, a movement towards increased understanding of body and mind, which for him means, a movement towards an increased adequacy in relation to one’s own nature (not only human, but of any being). And viceversa.


Fluctuatio Animi. Everything moves, and feelings (ok, affects) move more than anything, they cannot be controlled (what can a body do?). Mind cannot dictate to the body what to do, maybe it can do so in some respects, sometimes, but not all the time. Spinoza discusses this in terms of two contrary affects operating at the same time. So the notion of habitus as a cultivation of dispositions finds here its limit. Or rather, it can be put into perspective as a disciplining trajectory that can account for a certain and limited (because conscious) sense of “striving towards.” Spinoza here takes to its extremes and turns upside down this stoic tradition (which is also the muslim tradition). No power of the will. Poetry is not ethical. It might be directed at an ethical pupose, but as something that “moves” it can also go elsewhere. Hence, the diffidence of theology and philosophy towards poetry and the discussions about its legitimate and illegitimate uses, which today we find again in discussions about technology.   



The movements of variation in the capacity to act produced by a poem are not linked to specific properties of the poem. Spinoza demonstrates this by arguing that when a body or mind is affected at the same time by two different affects, whenever it will be affected by one, it will also be affected by the other in the same way, hence what matters is not a poem in itself but the kinds of configurations in which it enters. Likewise, if one imagines a poem to be similar to a poem one likes (or hates), one will be affected in the same way as she is affected by the poem she likes (or hates) (see E III P 14,15, 16, 17 and scolii).



As already encountered in Mauss (and Vico) this geometrical approach to affects predicated on their necessity involves a transitional view of these affective movements. Other bodies and minds are affected by what affects a body-mind to the extent that these other bodies are imagined as sharing similar affects.


To put it concretely, if we imagine that someone we imagine similar to us is moved by a poem, we will also be moved by the same poem, in the same way.


In other words, desire is always desire of the other: one’s desire is the desire that someone else’s has. One likes a poem because someone else one likes, likes that poem. And viceversa.


These movements have to be seen as the resultants of combinations, of the play of different forces on heterogeneous bodies/minds, so that each time, it will depend which kind of affects will result to be more powerful in the mix. This is the opposite of “collective effervescence” (Durkheim) if this is considered to be an indistinct communal feeling. This is the conjunctural coming together of singular trajectories.

L'expression obligatoire de sentiments (Marcel Mauss)

Addressing the question “how do poems move people?” implies thinking about affects.


Contemporary discussions of affects in North American anthropology seem to be rather confusing, or not lead to productive and concrete discussions.


Even a very good recent review in the Annual Review of Anthropology, while helpful does not seem to entirely address the question. A major incertitude concerns actual empirical research on affects.


I find it rewarding to return to Mauss short essay on the “obligatory expression of feelings.” (1921). Here is a pdf of the French original, though a few footnotes seem to be missing.


The essay makes two crucial points. They appear basic, but they set an important trajectory to approach affect:

- Weeping (in the Australian ceremonies he is discussing) is not the outer manifestation of an individual interior, but it is a collective phenomenon.

- Weeping is not free, “spontaneous”, but it is obligatory.


Mauss is following Durkheim in establishing the idea of social phenomena/facts. These facts are characterized by their collective and obligatory character.


Mauss specifies the categories of people who are tasked with weeping, certain relatives and women.


He also adds that these “collective expressions” are a language:

“on fait donc plus que de manifester ses sentiments, on les manifeste aux autres, puisqui’il faut les leur manifester. On se le manifeste à soi en les exprimant aux autres et pour le compte des autres.”


This sentence captures what retrospectively can be seen as Mauss’ concern with the idea of reciprocity and exchange as foundational, as opposed to Durkheim’s emphasis on the indistinct whole.


And like in Vico, the obligation stems from the need to explain oneself and explain to others in order to be understood.


“Obligatory” for Mauss (and Durkheim) means socially sanctioned. But as the essay on the gift will make clear, obligation coincides with freedom, to the point where the two are undistinguishable.


Mauss’ argument delineates the specificity of “anthropology” in relation to psychology, but also suggests that the two disciplines work in parallel in analyzing how “obligatory” expression works. One would need to study George Dumas, the psychologist quoted in the article, with whom Mauss was exchanging ideas. The idea of the externality of obligation however can also be considered a step not only in isolating the sui generis character of social facts, but also in approaching “feelings” (sentiments) not as manifestations of individual self, but as natural and social phenomena. (social because natural, natural because social). In this regard it is also interesting to read Mauss review of Willam James’ book on experience.


Affects for Spinoza are not to be condemned but understood. They are not defects to be decried, nor—as it sometimes more common in our times—qualities to be praised. They are part of nature. Humans are not an empire within the empire of nature; they are no different than the rest of nature.


In order to understand affects, Spinoza studies them as lines and points, approaching them as ruled by the laws of nature. This for him means reflecting on the chains of causes and effects that trigger them and on the modifications that they bring to the body.

Jakobson on the poetic function


Jakobson's idea of poetic function as the displacement of equivalence on the axis of combination suggests that:

• Equivalence (the play of similarity and difference) works not unlike the commodity form in Marx, a process in which use value is turned into exchange value. This quality of the poetic has been used in terms of “spatiality” but it also reveals the relationship between semiosis and capitalism.

• Pleasure is a relationship between frustration and fulfilment of expectation, and it is inherently ambiguous. Poetry seems to be about locking into a double bind, a circuit of frustration and fulfilment. It’s a circuit, but it’s also a tautological structure, self-referential that is. Not -he writes- because it is about language, but because it brings forth language as such, and language as such is a play between frustration and fulfilment. There is some Freud hidden in here, but for Jakobson what matters is to articulate the “experience” of language as language.

-- so semiosis/capitalism contains at its core a tautology that animates it. This tautology is a deferral (the axis of combination, the hesitation between sound and sense).