- Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization by Hasana Sharp
Placing politics in an ecological perspective that discerns an inextricable connection between human political agency and the forces of nonhuman nature would seem to be a difficult task. While we have grown accustomed to understanding our personal capacities for thought and action as well as the shape of our intimate relations as aspects of our natural inheritance, our political life and reflection remain rife with human exceptionalism. We understand animals to have rudimentary reasoning skills and physical capabilities incredible to us. We also understand some animals gather in social groupings held together by [End Page 192] mutual dependence for fulfilling affective needs. But it is difficult to imagine that animals have politics, understood as a form of social life driven by legitimation and representation for the sake of governing an emplaced population. Indeed, this way of posing the issue is already a form of exceptionalism, since it excludes botanical or geological perspectives. Hasana Sharp's ambition is to reorient our political conceptualization so as to recognize human agency as natural, ecologically integrated into an interdependent complex that includes animals, plants, rocks, weather, as well as cyborgs and landfills. She does so by teasing out the political ramifications of Spinoza's naturalism as expressed primarily in his Ethics, rather than appealing directly to his political writings. Rather than offer Spinoza as a political theoretical alternative to founding figures like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, Sharp's project is to show how Spinoza provides a way of conceiving political life and reflection as an expression of what she calls philanthropic posthumanism, "a collective project by which we can come to love ourselves and one another as parts of nature" (4-5). This involves developing an impersonal perspective on politics, a politics of renaturalization, aimed at minimizing the hatred that results from misunderstanding the true character of humanity.
Sharp articulates this politics of renaturalization by rendering productive a tension she discerns in Spinoza's naturalism. On the one hand, Spinoza denies supernatural qualities to humanity (and God), arguing that all volitional power can only operate within the natural order of cause and effect. Substituting a mind/body dualism with a mind/body parallelism, whereby thought and extension are irreducible to each other yet both subject to natural causation, Spinoza avoids the issue of compatibilism between freedom and determinism, which tends to picture us as divine minds stuck in animal bodies. All natural beings have minds, according to Spinoza, so while thought is distinct from extension, this does not express a distinction between humanity-divinity and nature. On the other hand, and this is where Sharp understands herself to be acutely contributing to Spinoza scholarship, he denies that humans are subnatural; he refuses to elevate nature to the sort of norm that would require us to deny our human distinctiveness. Humans are not distinct from other natural beings because we are minded, but we are distinct nevertheless. Moreover, our distinctiveness is natural: human agency that affirms its natural character eschews supernatural aspirations but affirms distinctly human ones. Only thus can human political agency be effective.
Sharp differentiates the politics of renaturalization from two recent trends in political theory: denaturalization and recognition. Denaturalization refers to the critical theoretical task of unveiling the socially constructed character of ideologies that purport to be natural and so unalterable. While recognizing the role [End Page 193] this task plays in feminist, antiracist, and postcolonial struggles, Sharp argues that it is insufficient. By understanding mind and thought as thoroughly natural, we can understand that the ideas we produce as natural beings are "vulnerable" and "require care, cultivation, and nourishment in order to grow enough for their virtues or vices to be revealed" (74). Beyond unmasking and denouncing damaging ideas, the politics of renaturalization demands that critical ideas be promoted by producing supporting ideas that create a vital conceptual environment for critical ones, thereby changing the ecological conditions that make damaging ideas seen true. To use Sharp's example: it is not enough to demonstrate that women undergoing plastic...