Bad Encounters
Crisis, death, extinction, and the end of the World as we know it

Gaye Çankaya Eksen

The end of every singular thing can be explained with a bad encounter. An encounter that decomposes the arrangement enabling us to understand that singular thing as a unique bodily individuality and the unique motion-rest proportion between parts constituting that singularity, is a bad encounter. Also, an encounter that is not powerful enough to decompose the unique manner of existence of a body, but that can disempower or decrease that body’s power to persevere in its being, is a bad encounter. Death is the limit of the bad encounter. What happens during an encounter that causes the dissolution of the actual existence of a bodily individual to the point that it ceases to be that individual? For instance, what happens at the moment of death of an organism whose vital functions are dragged to crisis and stop, due to poisoning? Deleuze explains this in his lecture on Spinoza dated 24 January 1978 with a striking example: “An example: if I knew enough about the characteristic relation of the body named arsenic and the characteristic relation of the human body, I could form a notion of the disagreement of these two relations to the point that the arsenic, under its characteristic relation, destroys the characteristic relation of my body. I am poisoned, I die... [...] When I am poisoned, the body of arsenic has induced the parts of my body to enter into a relation other than the one which characterizes me. At that moment, the parts of my body enter into a new relation induced by the arsenic, which is perfectly combined with the arsenic. [...] It has induced the parts of my body to enter into a relation which is combined with its own, the arsenic’s.” Conceiving Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza, our first observation on the experience of a body dying of arsenic poisoning would be the following: arsenic poisoning of a man and his death is a consequence of an encounter of two bodies and their interaction. Every encounter has an effect on the parties involved in this encounter; every encounter is a scene of re-arrangement of characteristic structures of singularities. A good encounter for this or that body leads to a re-arrangement supporting the power to persevere in its being and the power of acting of that body. That is exactly what Spinoza calls joy: Increase in the power of acting of a singularity thing under some external effect, following an encounter. And sadness is just the opposite, i.e. diminution of the power of acting. Once we define joy and sadness in this way in the context of Spinoza’s theory of affects, we try to understand everything within the extensional structures of existence: joyful encounters refer to a transition of a body to a greater perfection compared to its current existence, whereas sad encounters refer to a transition to a lesser degree of perfection. As Spinoza states in the Introduction to Chapter IV of Ethics:

For the main thing to note is that when I say that someone passes from a lesser to a greater perfection, and the opposite, I do not understand that he is changed from one essence, or form, to another. For example, a horse is destroyed as much if it is changed into a man as if it is changed into an insect. Rather, we conceive that his power of acting, insofar as it is understood through his nature, is increased or diminished.²

Here Spinoza warns us against confusion: Transition of a body to a greater or a lesser state of perfection is something it experiences by keeping a unique characteristic. Complete “ transformation” of a simple body into a more complex body than its own (if that is possible at all!) is not a perfection but a destruction. A horse leaving being a horse, becoming a human, is not a perfection, but is dissolution of singularity of being a horse, its vanishing. Though Spinoza is not interested at all whether such radical changes are possible or not; his thought is more concentrated on the processes of composition and decomposition of actually existing singularities and on the experiences of increase and decrease of power of these extensional individualities through their existences. Then what exactly Spinoza refers to when he says “individual” to express the characteristic structure, the unique extended nature of a body?Extension is the relational network explained with continuous encounters, unions or dissolutions of bodies, and this material network in which singularities with a variety of degrees of complexities keep uniting and dissolving, is one of the two attitudes of a unique Substance –as we experience it– that is called by Spinoza as “God or Nature,” i.e. that eternal power of production. . And the countless variations of “God or Nature” -that is the unique cause of itself- under the attribute of Extension are bodies, i.e. extended things. According to Spinoza, there is nothing that is has not a composite structure among those bodies constituting this material network. And Spinoza uses the concept of “individual” to explain the extensional singularities each of which is “the unity of a multitude.” He affirms that Nature continuously creates individuals and explains the “individual” in his Ethics with the following extremely simple theory of physics:³

When a number of bodies, whether of the same or of different size, are so constrained by other bodies that they lie upon one another, or it they so move, whether with the same degree or different degrees of speed, that they communicate their motions to each other in a certain fixed manner, we shall say that those bodies are united with one another and that they all together compose one body or individual, which is distinguished from the others by this union of bodies.

detail, Skins, 2019

Therefore, what Spinoza understands of the “individual” is but the existence of a multitude of bodies compounded with a certain motion-rest proportion, forming a characteristic union separate than all other things. In other words, what we, in the context of Spinoza, must understand is nothing but a compound of bodies. And what refers to the unique nature of every bodily singularity that we call individual is a motion-rest proportion emerging from this simple physics and the effort towards sustaining this proportion, this union as it is, in short the power of persevere in its being.Spinoza’s conception of bodily singularity expressed with the concept of individual, embracing both organic and inorganic unities, was an important philosophical leap in his times. And what is that philosophical leap? It is a move towards getting rid of conceiving organic and inorganic singularities as comprising of mechanic togetherness of their parts, as a closed machine system... The monist metaphysics of Spinoza tells us that all kinds of bodies correspond to a complex idea to the extend of their own material complexity and that they are “animated” to that degree. And in that metaphysics, what we make sense of mind/soul and animation can only be manifested by understanding the compound physical structure of extended singularities. When we recognize this, we can affirm that understanding organic or inorganic singularities or more complex totalities consisting of their compounds, is possible by analyzing a single order, i.e. the order and connection of bodies. In that particular sense, it can be said that Spinoza needs physics rather than biology or chemistry. In the final analysis, what we learn from the simple physics theory in the Book II of Ethics can be summarized as follows: Number of bodies forming a body can increase or decrease4, grow or lessen5, but we can keep saying that same individual is preserved as long as the motion-rest proportion between bodies forming that individual is preserved. Following this idea, we can also refer to Spinoza’s conception of conatus of all kinds of individuals -including the organic ones- as a power to persevere in being determined by their particular bodily complexion and also as a certain strategy of existing or as a particular physical proportion that can be sustained despite some changes or rearrangements in their composite material structure. In this sense, we can argue that what defines the unique characteristics of every individual is more the way of relation established and sustained between those bodies, than bodily parts that constitute it.6 And death is, as in Deleuze’s arsenic example, deterioration of the proportion between parts constituting an individual. In the case of arsenic poisoning of a human, this deterioration is manifested as a complete dissolution, a clear fragmentation triggered by the body that encounters with the arsenic and becomes non-functioning as before. On the other hand, Spinoza invites us to reflect on death in more detail:7

But there it should be noted that I understand the body to die when its parts are so disposed that they acquire a different proportion of motion and rest to one another. For I dare not deny that –even though the circulation of the blood is maintained, as well as the other [signs] on account of which the body is thought to be alive– the human body can nevertheless be changed into another nature entirely different from its own. For no reason compels me to maintain that the body does not die unless it is changed into a corpse.

And, indeed, experience seems to urge a different conclusion.Sometimes a man undergoes such changes that I should hardly have said he was the same man.I have heard stories, for example, of a spanish poet who suffered an illness; though he recovered, he was left so oblivious to his past life that he did not believe the tales and tragedies he had written were his own. He could surely have taken for a grown-up infant if he had also forgotten his native language.8

Kerem Ozan Bayraktar, Respiration, 2019 Animation, 5’24”, link to video

Let us continue from this striking example of Spinoza, in line with his approach determining his definition of individuality: Death can be considered as the complete bodily deterioration and decomposition of the unique individuality of a body. Yet, we can also think of the state of the body in which relation between its parts is radically changed, in other words, parts constituting the body are now in a totally different inter-relation, a state in which the characteristic relation that defines that body is completely changed, as a kind of death. Deterioration of the characteristic relation between parts constituting the body also means –according to Spinozistic idea of mind-body unity– deterioration of the idea corresponding to that body, a complete re-arrangement of it. The Spanish poet in Spinoza’s example had a condition that apparently caused his intellectual faculty start to function in a completely new manner, causing him remember nothing of his earlier experiences. Amnesia is an apparent consequence of the serious illness experienced by the Spanish poet (who probably encountered with the germs of a highly powerful contagious disease) that radically changed the poet’s way of survival. This manner of existence of the poet doesn’t follow a similar path with the gradual development of an infant;9 so according to Spinoza, it is rather an abrupt rupture, in that sense, an issue open to be conceived as a rapid deterioration and death rather than development. This disease is the death of the Spanish poet as his relatives, readers know him, and the beginning of another man’s existence. Can’t we think of the radical change from the poet who once wrote those tragedies, tales, to the poet whose manner of existence is determined by few inputs as in the case of an inexperienced infant, with the arrival of the disease, as a passage to a lesser degree of perfection, of power of action and thinking? The way Spinoza gives this example makes us think that he doesn’t see such a radical change as a diminution in the degree of perfection, but a complete change/deterioration.  And now a leap of thought: How can we make sense of historical changes and transformations of the bodily totality that we call World (Earth)? If we take the World in a Spinozistic sense, as a form of bodily singularity, as an individual, then what would be radical changes such as “the end of the World”? It is extremely easy to say that collapse of an asteroid with a mass much bigger than the World’s, causing the break of the World to pieces is the end, the death of the World. And can we say that the end of the World as we know it has come and a new World was formed as the result of big chemical and biological events that almost totally change the inherent mode of relation of the bodily structure of the World, for instance, as the result of Great Oxidation Event that caused the extinction of 90 percent of life on the World following the “Crisis” related to the oxygen generation of cyanobacteria millions of years ago? Or, was the change of the World occurred through a process such as Great Oxidation Event that triggered a massive extinction, a regeneration or a destruction? How should we express the end of a World on which 90 percent of life consists of anaerobic organisms, if we try to understand the World as an extremely complex bodily singularity? Can we say that radical changes in the fauna and flora occurring due to global warming that emerges as the result of today’s manners of existence of humans, are leading to the “end of the World”? Or, are those critical and destructive transformations from a human perspective, in the extremely complex bodily totality that we call the World, not a big rupture in the continuity of the existence of the singularity of the World but just the end of “the World as we know”?It can be stated that a significant dimension of our relation to the Worldthat we inhabit is “understanding” or trying to have a proper knowledge about it. Apparently, main effort for everyone dealing with the idea of “the end of the World” is an effort towards comprehending and explaining what the World is. When we talk about the end of the World as we know today, we basically talk about a World explained with inputs obtained in the search of “the World as a body providing proper conditions for the sustaining of human life.” And reflecting on the theme of “the end of the World” does not go –not always, but generally– beyond reflecting the end of the World where human life can be sustained. And is it possible to go beyond that? Is it possible to achieve a definition, an idea of a World that is not anthropocentric? If we ask this question in the context of Spinoza we have another question: Is it possible to have an adequate idea of the bodily totality that we call the World? Following Spinoza who states that God or Nature is not a transcendental will full of mysteries, but an extensional and thinking thing that can completely be conceived to the extent that the proper cause-and-effect relations are understood,10 it can be stated that the singularity of the World is an extremely complex extensional thing, a bodily totality inherent to God, a totality that has its adequate idea in God. If we can have the adequate idea of the World that corresponds to a complex idea matching to the degree of its bodily complexity (we’ll call it soul/mind of the World), it would be possible to say that we understand it as a bodily form of singularity arising from the togetherness of all its constituents, beyond anthropocentricdefinitions of the World. And in order to form an adequate idea going beyond anthropocentricconception of the World, schemes like Great Oxidation Event should infinitely be extended, coherently combined, and detailed; and compulsory operation of the matter within intertwined biological, chemical, and physical cause-and-effect relations should be mapped.

1 (last accessed: 31.07.2019).

2 Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley, Princeton University Press, 1994. p. 200.

3  The Definition in Ethics II, before Axiom III, at the end of Lemma III following Proposition XIII (Spinoza Reader, p. 126). Proposition XIII is the first landmark of Spinoza’s thought on mind-body unity. In this Proposition, Spinoza states that «The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body, or a certain mode of extension which actually exists, and nothing else» (Spinoza Reader, p. 123) and gives his Lemmas and Axioms with which he lays out a simple motion-rest physics answering the question «What is body?»,then comes six Postulates related to human body.

4 Book II, Lemma IV: “If, of a body, or of an individual, which is composed of a number of bodies, some are removed, and at the same time as many others of the same nature take their place, the [NS: body, or the] individual will retain its nature, as before, without any change of its form” (Spinoza Reader, p. 126).

5 Book II, Lemma VI: “If certain bodies composing an individual are compelled to alter the motion they have from one direction to another, but so that they can continue their motions and communicate them to each other in the same ratio as before, the individual will likewise retain its nature, without any change of form” (Spinoza Reader, p. 127).

6 For a commentary on organic singularities in the context of Spinoza’s conception of individual, see Hans Jonas, a thinker working in the area of philosophical biology: “Spinoza and the Theory of Organism,” Journal of the History of Philosophy, Vol. 3, 1965. Jonas makes an existantialist and phenomologic analysis on biological phenomena.

7 E IV, Proposition 39, (Spinoza Reader, p. 221-222).

8 Spinoza’s example of Spanish poet has been a controvertial issue among Spinoza scholars. For different perspectives see E. Curley, Behind the Geometrical Method. A Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics, Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 86; L. Rice, “Spinoza on Individuation”, The Monist, 55 (4), 1971, p. 640-659; F. Ablondi, “Individual Identity in Descartes and Spinoza”, Studia Spinozana: An International and Interdisciplinary Series, 10, 1994, p. 69-92; S. Barbone, “What Counts as an Individual for Spinoza?”, Spinoza: Metaphysical Themes, Olli Koistinen & J. I. Biro (eds.), Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 89-112.

9 Big change from childhood to adulthood is also a tough subject matter for Spinoza. He mentions this at the end of the Note where he gives the Spanish poet example and closes the subject stating that he prefers leaving this debate incomplete.

10 Extension and Thought, among infinite attributes of God (or Nature), are two that we can experience, we can know. To understand the attribute of Extension, to have adequate ideas of the order and connection of bodies is to understand the power of God who continuously produces motion and rest relations. And to understand the attribute of Thought, is to understand the operation of Godly power with its continuous idea generating aspect. Book I and II of Ethics are dedicated to the explanation of this metaphysical frame.

July 2019, Brussels
translated by Çiçek Öztek
in Rocks and Winds, Germs and Words
ed. Kevser Güler, 2019, Sanatorium

pdf (book) version