Think Negative!

By Tom Eyers, 7 April 2011

In his book, The Persistence of the Negative, Benjamin Noys tarries with the ‘affirmationism' of recent continental theory, in an attempt to prise the political potential from ontology. Review by Tom Eyers

Recent critical theory, at least since the dawn of what has been erroneously called ‘post-Marxism', has tended to polarise depending on the position taken on the question of the ‘negative'. This tendency is underpinned by a more or less thorough adoption by Left theory of the questions of ontology, of politics as it is incorporated within wider philosophical questions of being and existence. Western Marxism, of course, has always maintained a wary but active relationship with Continental philosophical thought, but the last 30 years or so have seen a deeper alliance between the terms of European philosophy, especially in its French structuralist and post-structuralist guises, and the political project to undermine the movements of capital. Within this tendency, the lingering legacy of Hegel in his relation to Marx, and the broader question of whether the dialectical legacy has subsumed ontological difference under the sign of identity, has brought to the fore the age-old philosophical relation between the ‘negative' and negation, and positivity, with those most critical of the dialectic asserting ontological singularity and difference as the keystones to any viable militant politics. Gilles Deleuze's critique of the derivation of difference from identity, central to his project of constructing a metaphysics of affirmative positivity and becoming, has provided the philosophical heft for the most influential of the partisans of the anti-negative, with Hardt and Negri's Empire acting as something of a bible for those wishing to assert a non-dialectical politics of positivity and ‘multitude'.

In recent years, the debate between advocates of ontological negativity and those of positivity has stalled, with the appearance of polemics that unhelpfully reduce the opposite side to caricature. Those thinkers most associated with the materialism of the post-Marxist tradition and with the legacy of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan have painted Deleuze in terms that tend to reduce his subtle reconfiguration of the link between the virtual and the actual, and that neglect those inevitable moments of negativity that signpost his particular brand of constructivism.1 More egregiously perhaps, the important link between contemporary and historical manifestations of the friction between politics and philosophy, dialectics and positive ontology, have been neglected. For instance, debates between anarchist and Marxist thinkers have, in the past, ranged over remarkably similar concerns to those of contemporary theorists, with Marxists pitching the importance of negation and critique at those who would prefer to emphasise decentralisation and creativity as the tactics most appropriate to the contemporary world of abstract and immaterial labour. Benjamin Noys' important new book The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory singularly reverses the recent tendency toward caricature in its fine-grained readings of the contemporary thinkers of what he terms ‘affirmationism', but in its general avoidance of those older debates, Noys misses a chance to more firmly implant his philosophical narrative in the grit and motion of political actuality.

Noys' book discusses Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour, Antonio Negri and Alain Badiou as the prime exemplars of what Noys calls ‘affirmationism'. This tendency, Noys writes, with characteristic precision, ‘challenges the notion of difference as constituting a possible counter-ontology to capital, insisting on the need for a positive point of orientation to truly disrupt the void or absence of determinations at the heart of capitalism.'According to this model, the particular nature of contemporary capitalism - its tendency towards relentless expansion, its commodification of increasingly ‘non-material' services and sectors, its lack of a definable ‘centre' - requires a theory that avoids replicating the very negativity and indetermination that capital thrives on, the tendency of capital to cannibalise itself in the search for ever more sources of profit. Noys would be the first to acknowledge that not all, and perhaps none, of the thinkers he engages would unhesitatingly endorse such a critique of the negative to the letter, but he insists nonetheless that the consequences of their ‘replace[ment] of one form of affirmationism with another', even as they might set out to restore or ‘positivise' the negative in one of its many forms, amounts to a reduction of the space of immanent critique. Crucially, however, Noys' aim is not to simply replace the contemporary affirmation of the positive with an ontology of negativity; as he writes, ‘negativity is not intended to function as a replacement ontological principle to affirmationism, whether that be coded as an absolute or total negativity [...] or some intrinsic and fading "weak negativity" with which we must always come to terms.' Instead, ‘negativity only operates in the expropriation of positivities as a relation of rupture.'

Noys goes on to articulate this insistence on the immanent, negative identification of ‘points of rupture' with the concept of agency. For Noys, the affirmationist conflation of the space of capital - all encompassing, unmediated - with the space of critique, with both coded in terms of a positive, creative and infinite becoming, has led to a reduction in the potential of theory to understand the means required to disrupt the status quo. Whilst the social sciences have continued to employ the concept of ‘agency' to theorise the relation between determination and self-determination, critical theory has largely steered clear of the term out of a fear of valorising the self-present subject of liberalism. The concept's repeated appearance in Noys' book is refreshing then, not least because Noys is careful not to restrict agency to the subject conceived along individual lines. Nonetheless, we might ask whether Noys might have provided us with more of a sense of his own alternative to the affirmationist consensus; what, for instance, marks out his own strategy of ‘expropriation' from all those other critical accounts of the contemporary conjuncture that locate themselves consciously within the lineage of dialectical materialism? I'll return to this question below.

The appearance of a chapter on Jacques Derrida in a book intended to critique anti-negative Continental theory will strike many as strange, a fact Noys readily acknowledges. Derrida's project of dismantling the pretensions of metaphysics through a revelation of inevitable slippages in the attempt to capture ontological presence seems, after all, to privilege a precisely ‘negative' operation of critique, one that insists simultaneously on the ineluctability of difference as the condition of all reality, and the impossibility of any final abandonment of the metaphysical architecture that deconstruction scrutinizes. In an original reading, however, Noys proposes an alternative understanding of deconstruction, with an ‘affirmative opening to alterity' posited as the central claim of Derrida's oeuvre. Derrida's ‘différance', as the endless deferral and difference that serves as reality's quasi-transcendental horizon, is on this reading only the secondary result of a primary affirmation, an opening to the non-identity of the Other as it displaces every presence. This assertion of alterity, Noys insists, is shielded by Derrida from his otherwise scrupulously critical gaze, such that the many references to negativity and aporia that litter the landscape of Derrida's work are always-already (to coin a phrase) mitigated by the affirmation of Otherness which underwrites and transcends them. Further, any claims as to the anti-systematicity of Derrida's work as a possible index of its resistance of ontological affirmation are undermined, Noys claims, in his ‘systematic fidelity to the necessity for inventive inscriptions of this affirmation.' Thus, the proliferating language of deferral and displacement that seems to guarantee a lack of philosophical closure in Derrida's work in fact results in a systematic ontology, in so far as those very same terms are reliant on a repeated affirmation of alterity as their condition of possibility. The inevitable conclusion, Noys argues, is that Derrida should be seen as a ‘weak affirmationist'; weak to the extent that his system permits negativity, even insists on it, albeit in a register of political impotence, and at the service of a prior positivity.

What are we to make of Noys' arguments here? The chapter on Derrida may well prove the most controversial of all of Noys' readings, and the boldness of including Derrida within the affirmationist camp makes an assessment of the chapter crucial for an assessment of the wider claims of the book. In Noys' terms, Derrida acts as a way into any contemporary coming to terms with affirmationism, in so far as his only ‘weak' commitment to positivity results in the post-deconstructive opening to the banishing of the negative in those thinkers who define themselves against deconstruction. Further, Derrida's project entails the identification of those forms of ontological negativity that permit mere stasis when situated in a political context. Thus, Noys quotes Derrida's Cogito and the History of Madness (1964) as invoking ‘a negativity so negative that it could not even be called such anymore', and thus a negativity that, in its very extremity and implacability, succumbs to the prior affirmation that is, we are told, its persistent condition. For Noys, in other words, there are multiple ways in which negativity can be deployed philosophically; Derrida falls into the temptation to valorise the negative to the extent that it becomes its opposite.

But why choose this ‘affirmative opening to alterity' as the loadstone of Derrida's philosophy? Isn't it conceivable that it is precisely ‘différance', as the quasi-transcendental becoming time of space and the becoming space of time, that forms the primary ontological co-ordinates of Derrida's anti-system? To this extent, the opening to the Other would be less an absolute horizon of the logic of the trace, and more the spatial and temporal production of any recognition of différance's constitutivity. Conceived in this way, deconstruction seems less like the opening salvo of an affirmationist attack and more like what it surely is: a metaphysical philosophy (despite its consistent antagonism towards metaphysics), situated squarely within the post-Heideggerean landscape of European thought, and thus primarily concerned with an apolitical reflection on ontology. Despite the late Derrida's gestures towards politics, almost always of an impeccably liberal, which is to say reactionary, vintage, his philosophy has rather less to do with any genealogy of the political affirmation of ontology than Noys suggests. Where it is clear that, for the likes of Negri, an explicit focus on the creativity and potentiality inherent in different forms of life must mark the beginning of any genuinely oppositional philosophy, there are no such guarantees or absolutes in Derrida's work. By attempting to wrest Derrida's multifaceted reflections on both the impossibility and persistence of forms of metaphysical presence into a uniform mould of affirmation, Noys misses that which is arguably most dialectically negative, if in a largely non-political sense, in deconstruction, namely the modulated derivation of the positive opening to the Other from the primary negative spacing of différance.

If Noys' treatment of Derrida creaks under the weight of the wider argumentative structure of the book, his treatment of Deleuze is both incisive and admirably non-polemical. As I've already noted, there remains a tendency in contemporary theory, especially from those such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek most opposed to an evacuation of the negative from ontology, to caricature Deleuze's work, such that it begins to resemble an uncritical and repetitive celebration of non-dialectical difference. Whilst Noys acknowledges the ‘strikin[g] consistency' in Deleuze's commitment to affirmationism, he also seeks out those moments in Deleuze's corpus where a certain conception of negativity gains ground. To this extent, Noys' strategy of reading suggestively mirrors his own program for identifying points of tension, of potential contradiction, within an existing situation, a strategy that mirrors, in turn, Deleuze's own habit of immanently restructuring an existing body of philosophical work according to his own metaphysical priorities. In an illuminating reading of Deleuze's 1967 essay ‘How Do We Recognize Structuralism?', Noys identifies the philosopher's willingness ‘to accept the inscription of a particular form of negativity, as an instance of "lack" that opens a point of intervention.' Deleuze, argues Noys, identifies this instance of lack as the situation of the subject as described by structuralism, an identification that Deleuze will not unequivocally disavow, despite his broader commitment to a vitalist ontology of life.

Deleuze returns to the question of revolutionary subjectivity in the final chapter of his Foucault, a chapter that seeks to, as Noys explains, ‘addres[s] the problem [of] Foucault's affirmationist conception of power as a multiplicity of productive points [that] see[m] to leave the subject as a mere product of power' (Noys' emphasis). Deleuze achieves this by stressing ‘the malleability and variability of the historical conditions of subjectivation', and through a striking and unexpected alliance with Lukács. Ultimately however, Deleuze ducks back to his insistence on the positive when describing the conditions of such a rethinking of subjectivity, where the traits of non-negative difference, variation and metamorphosis gain the highest billing.

Nonetheless, Noys has uncovered a side of Deleuze's reflections on politics that usefully complicates any straightforward critique of his reliance on a Bergsonian ontology of the ‘élan vital', and that productively restages the dividing lines of contemporary theory. It is in this force of rigorous realignment that one can firmly locate the relevance and achievement of Noys' book, over and above his own proposal of a philosophy of imminent rupture. We can also thank Noys for his entertainingly brisk and forthright denunciation of Bruno Latour, a sociologist whose work has proved especially influential in the fields of social anthropology and the sociology of science, but whose ‘flat ontology' of human and non-human ‘actants' mitigates against an understanding of radical change. Noys puts it well, if polemically, when he writes that Latour's ‘commitment to ontological equality, figured as the positivity of all objects, lacks the ability to grasp capitalism's ontology of real abstraction.' The abstractions that subsist in late capitalism require strategies of interpretation and of resistance that themselves make use of the power of abstraction, but in a necessarily negative moment of critique. Even more, Noys accuses Latour of harbouring anti-left politics, a bias that is said to infect perhaps his central philosophical contention, namely that modernism's separation of nature from culture fails to capture the inherently ‘hybrid' nature of things, of their incessant networking and association. Latour's explicit target is the very concept of an oppositional, and in particular Marxist, critique, which can only proceed by drawing lines of separation and contestation., in precisely the movement of critical abstraction I mention above. If Noys' inclusion of Jacques Derrida and deconstruction in a critique of contemporary theoretical positivity seems strained, his attacks on Latour, perhaps the most unashamedly anti-dialectical of all contemporary thinkers, seem well made. There is a richness to Latour's ethnographic reflections on the work of scientists in the field that Noys ignores, but the philosophical and political underpinnings of ‘flat ontology' are usefully pilloried here.

Further chapters on Negri and Badiou convincingly extend Noys' argument, with the chapter on Badiou in particular setting up a final, conclusive section that makes a little clearer some of Noys' own theoretical commitments. In fact, one could argue that it is, more than anything, Badiou's subtractive philosophy that underpins much of Noys' own critical stance on positivity, and there are points in the text where I feel Noys relies a little too much on reading some of Badiou's ontological commitments back onto thinkers too far removed from such a position. Noys' conclusion, however, usefully distinguishes his own concern for negativity from abstraction as such, thus rendering it more clearly distinct from the abstractions that power contemporary capitalism. Rather, it is a certain negativity's potential to abstract, to render clear those points of torsion or rupture imminent to capital, that concern Noys. This is a negativity ‘that is suspensive and preservative', and that ‘refuses the identification of negativity with the supposed "abstractions" of an ideologically-determined revolutionary politics [...] and the symmetrical displacement of such a politics onto capital as a perpetual-motion device driven by negativity.'

It is in the nature of theoretical works such as Noys' to leave the question of what kind of politics one should fight for relatively open; indeed, implicit in Noys' commitment to dialectical materialism is the insistence that it is in praxis, in the militant working through of practices and ideas that any model of a new society might emerge. Badiou and Žižek's recent call for a rethinking of the ‘Idea' of Communism has threatened to render opaque this importance of practice to the dialectical tradition, and Noys' conclusive reference to a ‘new contemporary communism' that is ‘neither sadist nor masochist, republican nor agrarian' is frustratingly, if not unexpectedly, vague. Most crucial for Noys is the ‘traversal' of the real abstractions of capital, a term that he borrows from Lacan, a thinker whose innovative reconfiguring of the dialectic between positivity and negativity Noys otherwise largely ignores. Such a traversal ‘is not only negative, in the usual sense, but also preservative - hence ‘positive'.' Negativity, then, ‘is [...] not simply correlated with the violent dissolution of existing positivities, but also with the ruptural preservation of past and existing negations of capitalist relations.'

The notion of ‘ruptural preservation' is a particularly striking image for thinking the back and forth of dialectical change, and one looks forward to its further elaboration. I'd like to conclude this review, however, by identifying a tension that both animates and problematises Noys' subtle and far-reaching critique of contemporary theory. As I noted in my introduction, contemporary critical thought has, in recent decades, embraced the questions of philosophical ontology, and much of Noys' reflections are within this register. Nonetheless, one of the more forceful criticisms that Noys evinces against the affirmationist tendency is precisely its over-reliance on ontology, and especially the theory of the subject. In a striking formulation, Noys writes: ‘The constant focus on the production of the subject or subjectivation, coupled to some irrepressible ontological power, reproduces the nature of the capitalist value-form, in which value production rests on the positing of labour-power as the inexhaustible source of value' (Noys' emphasis). The Marxist credentials of this critique are impeccable, and the equation here of theory's tendency to posit the question of the subject in terms of production with capital's own urge to incessant value-production is genuinely novel, but given Noys' own ontological commitments, precisely where should one draw the line between ontological speculation and political critique? Despite his repeated attempts to calibrate his own concept of negativity in opposition to prevailing ontological certainties, I wonder whether Noys has fully thought through the relation between his own critique of ontology, and the precisely ontological work of negative ‘traversal' that he proposes. That he has raised these complex and important questions in such a deft, clearly written and intellectually generous fashion is cause for celebration nonetheless.


Tom Eyers <thomaseyers AT> is completing his PhD at the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy, Kingston University


Benjamin Noys, The Persistence of the Negative : A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2010

1 Slavoj Žižek, Bodies Without Organs : Deleuze and Consequences, New York, Routledge, 2003; Alain Badiou, Deleuze : The Clamor of Being, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1999