The Power of Proximity

P9: An affect whose cause we imagine to be with us in the present is stronger than if we did not imagine it to be with us.

P10: We are affected more intensely towards a future thing which we imagine will quickly be present, than if we imagine the time when it will exist to be further from the present. We are also affected more intensely by the memory of the thing we imagine to be not long past, than if we imagined it to be long past. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 121)

Spinoza recognizes that the affects affect us much more powerfully when they are “near” us either in time or space, or both. For the teacher, this means he/she should consider the affects of actually having physical bodies in the room with him/her. A physical body being present in the company of a teacher creates many powerful affects which disappear when that body is not present. It sounds like an obvious point but it is not really. Think of infinite complexity of affects that being with someone creates upon you: their dress, their age, their status, their ethnicity, their size, their smell, the look in their eyes etc. all needs to be processed and absorbed. That person has a much bigger impact upon you when they are there in front of you than when they are gone, unless for some reason the affect of their physical presence has been replaced by a more powerful affect emanating from them, e.g. they have said they love you, or want to kill you etc. Part of releasing oneself from the bondage of the affects is understanding the “power of proximity”; understanding how things that are near us create affects upon us.

This diagram shows visually the power of proximity: how things that are near impact much more greatly upon the human subject than if they are far away. This true not only of physical proximity but also temporal proximity; immediate events generate more powerful affects upon us than if they are far away in time.

In an effort to utilise the power of the proximity affect, I try now to answer emails immediately, to get projects and proposals written early, to mark work immediately; then these are done, and they don’t “hang over” you, lingering at the back of your mind as a nagging worry, not a huge worry, but a worry nevertheless. Doing things immediately has the affect of “clearing the decks”. I found that my happiness as a teacher depended deeply upon this. At the end of the day, instead of leaving my marking/admin until later, I would do it all in school, marking my books at my desk and leaving later as a result, but not taking the work home with me. This made a huge difference to my well-being I noticed. I’ve spoken to other “happy” teachers who have said similar things: they’ve all completed the work they’d rather not do very early, doing it efficiently but not “over-exerting” themselves with it, which has then left them to do the things that they want to do. I suppose these teachers have had a deep sense of their own priorities. They are aware of what is important to them and that’s enabled them to get on with things that they don’t like as much quickly and efficiently. In this sense, they’ve overcome the “worry affect” of having lots of fiddling, nasty jobs hanging over them by doing them quickly because they have an adequate idea of what they enjoy and this has driven their desire to get the horrible jobs done.

This diagram shows how doing the “near” and “nasty” jobs quickly increases one’s powers of action. If you do the nasty jobs which are near quickly, you don’t forget to do them and they don’t hang over you.

Counter-acting the affects

False Ideas are not Necessarily removed by telling the truth

Nothing positive which a false idea has is removed by the presence of the true insofar as it is true. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 117, P1)

For example, when we look at the sun, we imagine it to be about two hundred feet away from us. In this we are deceived so long as we are ignorant of its true distance; but when its distance is known, the error is removed, not the imagination, that is, the idea of the sun, which explains its nature only so far as the body is affected by it. And so, although we come to know the true distance, we shall nevertheless imagine it as near us. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 118)

It happens, of course, when we wrongly fear some evil, that the fear disappears on our hearing news of the truth. But on the other hand, it also happens, when we fear an evil which is certain to come, that the fear vanishes on our hearing false news. So imaginations do not disappear through the presence of the true insofar as it is true, but because there occur others, stronger than them, which exclude the present existence of the things we imagine, as we showed in IIP17. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 118, P1 Schol)

This is especially true with regards to teaching to the test. The teacher knows the right method for students to learn is to learn to work it out for themselves, but the fear of the students of failing is a powerful affect, and the teacher finds that it is easier to neutralise this affect by “spoon feeding”, a false idea of learning. The student learns to copy and imitate, not to think.

External Causes are much more Powerful than an Individual

The teacher is expected to be God, to have control over how children learn, what they learn and how they are expected to achieve in exams and their work generally. Spinoza teaches us that the power of external causes is much more powerful than the individual. The teacher has limited power over learners. External causes are much more powerful.

For given a man, there is something else, say A, more powerful. And given A, there is something else again, say B, more powerful than A, and so on, to infinity. (pp. 118, Schol)

The Passions are More Powerful than Individuals

The force and growth of any passion, and its perseverance in existing, are defined by the power of an external cause compared with our own (by P5). And so (by P3) it can surpass the power of a man, and so on, q.e.d. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 120, P6 Dem)

A repeated idea in Spinoza is that the passions can overwhelm us. This is particularly true in school. The concept of school is invested with numerous affects: historical, geographical, pedagogical, psychological etc. In particular, there is the “you-must-do-well affect” which is passed through schools on many levels, imparted in the way teachers/students talk to each other, a school’s results, the displays on the walls, prize for the “top” students etc. This affect is tremendously powerful, far more powerful than individuals; it is a collective social affect. This means that when you feel you’re not doing well, it is almost impossible not to feel some variant of Spinozist sadness: anger, hatred, depression etc.

Journey into Joy

What are the really powerful affects in school settings? Some thoughts: “I-Must-Do-Well affect”; “I’m-Better-Than-You Affect”; “I’m/You’re-Stupid Affect”.

Negative Feelings Are Contagious

Following on from this point, we can see how Spinoza is arguing that the affects are “contagious” in the sense that if we believe that someone is criticising us, that “criticising-affect” is very easily passed on to us; we internalise that feeling quickly because that “critical affect” is already powerfully present in many other bodies: other teachers, students, the school, the society, the media etc.

We feel sadness, and then pass on that sadness to someone else in another context. For example, the student who has been criticised in class by a teacher may well go home and be angry with his/her parents/siblings etc., but not show that sadness to the teacher him/herself.

Journey into Joy

When have you been criticised and then felt sad/angry/insecure? What did you do with that “affect”? Where do you think that “criticising-affect” came from?

What are the most contagious affects in school settings and in your career?

Affects can be counter-acted by More Powerful Ones

P7: An affect cannot be restrained or taken away except by an affect opposite to, and stronger than, the affect to be restrained. (Spinoza, 1994a, p. 120)

This is a very important lesson for teachers and explains why (some) teachers so commonly shout. A noisy class enters the classroom and the teacher shouts for them to be quiet. An everyday occurrence which endorses this maxim. The affect of the “noisy class”, which as a body is riven with all the different passions of its members, joy, sadness, fear, boredom, distraction etc.; the teacher restrains and removes these multiple affects by providing the jolting, jarring affect of the “shout”, which carries with it all the connotations of authority, control and fear/lack of control. It involves the whole body of the teacher, the breath issuing through the throat, the blood rushing to the teacher’s head, the tensing of the body, the striving for order, for obedience. The affect of the shout is an “event”, a necessary performance of “becoming-teacher”. It works by surprise value. When it loses this, and students become habituated to the teacher always shouting, they more often than not ignore the teacher and the shout loses its power to restrain.

This is true of other teacher threats such as: the threat of detentions, of sending a student out of the room, of reporting them to another teacher, their parent/guardian etc.

Affects Can Be Counter-Acted By Reason

P59: To every action to which we are determined from an affect which is a passion, we can be determined by reason, without that affect. (p. 147)

I used to take criticism very badly. For example, I would have my teaching observed by a senior manager and would get very angry and upset if he/she was critical. The “You’re-Not-Good-Enough” affect would overwhelm me, drowning my sense of what I was doing. But recently, Spinoza’s philosophy has helped me use reason to deal better with criticism. I have been criticised, like most people, quite a bit in my life: my talents as a writer, teacher and organiser have been called into question by various sources. I have been better able to deal with them because I have gained a more adequate idea of a few things: the importance of what I am doing, the overall context of the society I am living in, the sorts of people, affects and ideas I dealing with, who I am as a person and what I want from my life. This is not to say I have not felt angry and sad about being heavily criticised – I have! – but I also realise that these feelings are almost inevitable – they’re encoded in my being – but this said, I have realised what gives me joy and determined that I wish to persist with these things because I believe them to be “noble”: I want to communicate with people my enthusiasm for learning and work with people to discover ways in which we might make our lives joyful. This overall sense of purpose has overridden my feelings of inadequacy generated by the criticism and rejection. This is what I take Spinoza to mean as “reason”.

All learning is subject to the passions of joy and sadness

…the mind can undergo great changes, and pass now to a greater, now to a lesser perfection. These passions, indeed, explain to us the affects of joy and sadness. By joy, therefore, I shall understand in what follows that passion by which the mind passes to a greater perfection. And by sadness, that passion by which it passes to a lesser perfection. The affect of joy which is related to the mind and body at once I call pleasure or cheerfulness, and that of sadness, pain or melancholy. (Spinoza, 1994a, pp. 77, P11 Schol.)

Spinoza argues that our mind are the victims of the two central affects of joy and sadness. When we feel joy we move to a more perfect or “real” state of mind, while sadness creates more imperfect states of mind. Therefore, we can say that the Spinozist learner should seek joy, but reason will inform him/her that their learning will involve times of sadness, pain and melancholy. This is inevitable and no adequate idea of learning could not take into account these difficult moments. Indeed, one could argue that there is no pleasure without pain: the nature of our finitude means we will always be subject to external causes and passive affects. However, Spinoza’s affective model is not “binary”: pleasure and pain are not opposites, but are on a continuum which we constantly move along.

This diagram shows that sadness exists within “joy” as an affect because sadness is the diminishing of the power of acting, a lessening of the affect of joy; it is not the opposite of joy at all, but a subset of it, and a necessary part of joy. The conatus, the striving is at the heart of the diagram, striving to preserve its being in whatever way it can. The arrow shows how the conatus moves up and down the sliding scale of the affects depending upon to what degree the affects of joy and sadness are shaping how the subject feels. Spinoza compares us to being like waves on the sea in the way we are victims of our external causes:

…we are driven about in many ways by external causes, and that, like waves on the sea, driven by contrary winds, we toss about, not knowing our outcome and fate. (pp. 103 P59, Schol.)

The affects have both internal and external causes, and can operate like “contrary winds” if we do not have an adequate understanding of them; they can sweep through us, created by the infinity of forces that bring each moment into being (Deleuze, 1988, p. 50).

JOURNEY INTO JOY
When have you felt “tossed about” by the contrary winds of joy and sadness?

Feeling joy

Spinoza’s philosophy makes us re-think what joy is because he views joy as both an emotional and intellectual process: a feeling and a thought; a passion and a concept.

Let’s look at joy as an emotional process first. There are many times in our lives when joy is “visited upon us”: we watch a movie that we greatly enjoy; we eat some chocolate; the sun comes out; a person we like smiles at us; we learn that we’ve done very well in our exams etc. All these examples are for Spinoza “passions” because they happen to us. Spinoza has a precise definition of “passion”: it is a feeling which acts upon us. When joy is a passion, we are, to some extent, its “victim” in that we have limited control over whether we feel it or not.

Let’s examine cake as an example. Eating a cake is a “passion” in that you are, ultimately, putting yourself at the mercy of the cake: you have to trust that it will provide what Spinoza calls the “affect” of joy. The word “affect” is important in Spinoza because it is more than just a feeling, but is both a thought and a feeling. The “cake affect” involves both the feelings of pleasure that you have when you eat the cake and the ideas that it creates in your mind. This is partly why the advertising is so successful because it encourages your mind to generate positive ideas about a particular product that it is selling: for example, Salman Rushdie’s famous slogan “Naughty but nice!” sold the idea that the sensation of eating a cream cake was transgressive. When you eat a cake, all the ideas and feelings that you have about eating cakes, and much else – your situation when you eat the cake, your age, your degree of hunger etc. – will combine to produce a “passion”, a “cake affect”. While you may feel that you are “in control” of the joy you feel when you eat the cake – i.e. you think that you will definitely feel joy when you eat the cake – in actual fact, you are not in control: the unique concatenation of circumstances will have produced the “passion” of joy. You are not in control in the way you think you are.

So, this is joy as a “passion”: as something that happens to you. We live in a world which bombards us with joyful affects. Indeed, the psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek (The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology, 2012) argues that our consumerist, capitalistic culture is constantly exhorting us to “enjoy” ourselves. It is almost an imperative of modern life. And he points out that this is oppressive and has the net effect of actually making us not enjoy anything because we’re constantly worrying about whether we’re enjoying it or not.

This was not Spinoza’s attitude at all. In Ethics, he does not demand that we “enjoy” ourselves, rather he says that if we thinks deeply and adequately about things, we will inevitably feel joy: it is the necessary effect of adequate thinking. This is a mind-blowing and important idea that I believe teachers need to get their heads around because it has profound implications for the way we teach. It provides a deep and profound purpose to education. Spinoza is effectively saying if we educate our children properly, they will feel joy, and vice versa.