Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Negativity Employed: Benjamin Noys’ The Persistence of the Negative

Ben Noys’ The Persistence of the Negative is interesting to me for at least two reasons. 1) As someone whose introduction to philosophy, or theory, if you prefer, was through the intersecting texts of Deleuze, Spinoza, and Negri, I am firmly within the strain of affirmative thought that Noys critiques. Thus, the text constitutes something of a critical reckoning with my own philosophical consciousness. 2) Noys text is not just an argument for or against a particular theoretical perspective, but is ultimately concerned with a larger problem; namely, the relationship between history and theory, or, more precisely, between the real abstractions of capital and the abstraction of thought.

I initially approached the book thinking that it would be the first aspect that would be most interesting. My own particular trajectory of thinking as of late has been somewhat away from my affirmationist roots (more on this particular terminology in a little bit) and towards a reconsideration of dialectical thought, towards the problem of a materialist dialectic. However, Noys book is less about that than I imagined. Noys book is less an argument for “The Dialectic,” especially in its more rigid form, as it is concerned with the question of negativity, within and beyond its dialectical role. While this revalorization of the negative is interesting, and timely, just think of the trajectory from Adorno to Deleuze, it is Noys’ particular understanding of the intersection of theoretical positions and the vicissitudes of history that make the book particularly compelling.

As much as Noys will offer a very developed criticism of Negri in the final pages in his text, he begins with a quote from Negri, which situates the intersection of theory and politics. As Negri writes, “The clash between productive forces and capitalist relations of production, both in reality and in representation (theoretical and metaphysical, scientific and historiographical) is always linked to events, to relationships of forces, to the creative capacity of historical subjects.” It is from this overdetermined, for lack of a better word, intersection that Noys makes sense of “accelerationism.” Accelerationism is the position attributed to Lyotard, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari in which capital itself is identified with its own forces of dissolution, or deterritorialization, constantly overcoming itself. It does not create its gravediggers but is its own pallbearer. One only has to step out of its way, or push it along. Noys argues that this position is in some sense what remains after May ’68, when there is revolution but no revolutionary subject: one retains the revolutionary idea of desire, of overcoming every moral and social constraint, but one projects this onto the social forces themselves, or an indeterminate subject such as the “schizo.” On this reading accelerationism exhausts itself as the various deterritorializations of norms seem to be less and less capitalism’s undoing than its perpetual reinvention. What is the nineteen-eighties, and the rise of neoliberalism, but history’s revenge against accelerationism?

(As something of an aside, I should say that I am less than comfortable with these labels, accelerationism, weak and strong affirmation, etc. I understand their tactical value, but, to take Anti-Oedipus as an example, I have always thought that it offers more for thinking about subjectivity and capitalism than its dubious claims about the revolutionary schizophrenic tendencies of capital. If, as Walter Benjamin argues, the work is the death mask of its conception then the classification can only be its corpse. However, I do stress the tactical importance, and it is possible that these new terms, distinct from the old classifications of post-structuralism, Marxism, etc., reflect a more engaged mode of thought.)

If accelerationism can be understood as a response to a particular historical situation, a particular position of the French ultra-left, affirmationism is more ambiguous. Defined broadly it encompasses the work of Derrida, Deleuze, Latour, Negri, and Badiou, all of whom have eschewed the dialectic, negative, and critique in favor of multiplicity, affirmation, and constitution. However, if, as Noys argues, the French (and Italians) pursued metaphysics as politics, then it must be said that metaphysics makes even stranger bedfellows than politics. Affirmation joins disparate figures of thought. Most suggestive in this regard is the connections that Noys sketches between Latour, whose insistence on the ontology of networks is explicitly aimed against the reductions, criticisms, and totalizations of Marxism, and Negri for whom the networks of immaterial labor are the ontology of communism to come.

“In many ways Negri (with or with Hardt) offers the flip side of Latour’s modeling of networks. Both agree on the fundamental positivity of networks, but while Latour uses this to constrain political activity and to resist any conceptualization of capital, Negri simply takes it as a sign of an immanent and imminent communism to come. This is not only an ontologically flattened network, but also a politically flattened network. In the case of Negri it functions to give capitalism a false consistency to all the while accrue the true consistency of the side of the multitude. ‘Power is everywhere’ is a banal truism, especially when it leave us with a multitude that is everywhere without intervening anywhere.”

Noys critique of Latour is devasting in revealing the “reactionary” political positions that underlie the alluring ontology of networks. The connection to Negri then, is perhaps no less devastating. However, as the last sentences of the passages above make clear, Noys real target is less affirmation itself, than the way in which affirmation, the assertion that power, the multitude, or difference is everywhere, forecloses any real thought that would locate points of tension and transformation. For Noys affirmation is not even complicit with capitalism, since capital has its own negativity, alienations, and separations, rather it is complicit with capitalisms ideological image of itself, with the flows and networks the dominate adds for Microsoft.

Noys says less about some of the theoretical positions that would be opposed to this broad affirmationist trend, but he has some incisive remarks about the way in which finitude has functioned as a kind of alibi and justification for negation. As Noys writes:

“The inscription of negativity in the subject, usually in the form of a constitutive finitude is taken as a sign of what allows the subject to always escape or evade capitalist capture. We have a symmetrical affirmation and ontologization of resistance to high affirmationism, simply recast in different terms. The deflationary concept of the subject, however, leaves mysterious the process by which the failure of the subject will be converted into active and successful resistance.”

I wish Noys said more about this particular rendering of negativity, if only because it is so dominant in Anglo-American continental philosophy. However, that is not why I cite the passage here. The symmetry that Noys points to (as well as the symmetry to the quote about Negri above) reveals that Noys is not interested in positing an ontology of negativity against the ontologies of affirmation. Negativity is a practice, not a principle, a destruction of existing positivities.

In the end I think that it is possible to read Noys’ insistence on the negative as a practice to be an insistence on localizing thought and practices, resisting both an ontology of affirmation and an ontology of finitude. As such it is not to be confused with a simple invocation of context, the injunction to “always historicize.” This is because Noys takes seriously Sohn-Rethel’s (and others) fundamental point regarding real abstractions, the abstractions of value, the commodity form, and money. These abstractions are real in that they are constituted through practice, not just through thought, and as such they frame our world. Thus, in contemporary capitalism we cannot simply refer to the Marx’s “activity and material conditions of real individuals” in order to contextualize or specify thinking or practice because our present is defined less by the concrete content of our experience than the abstractions that evade it. In this context negativity cannot be grounded on some supposed element of finite transcendence, the insurmountable facticity of death or finitude, but nor cannot it be an ontological principle. It can only be the situated détournement, the rupture of the existing positivities. This is Noys idea of agency, of transformation, but I will argue that what is perhaps more interesting, at least to me, is the way that he makes “real abstractions” not just some point of reference for understanding capitalist society, but for understanding “theory.”

Theory has come under abuse as of late, and there has been much talk of a return to good old fashion philosophy and ethics. What Noys’ book demonstrates that at its best theory, and debates within theory, are situated at that obscure point where the contradictions of historical forces pass into thought and vice versa.


unemployed negativity said...

Ben Noys has responded to some of my remarks here:

(I also added his blog to the blog roll).

I should say that I never meant to imply that his categorizations were irresponsible, nothing even approaching the use of the term postmodernism. I perhaps went too far with my corpse quip, but I couldn't resist the turn of phrase.

My only point was to suggest that there is always something in each text which exceeds its category.

On that note, I would like to say that I wish that I said more about Noys reading of Deleuze, which is quite engaging. Specifically, I was very interested in the attention that he brought to the following footnote (45) in Deleuze's book on Foucault.

It is an interesting comment, and one that breaks with the many of the dominant categorizations of Deleuze.

Finally, I would like to say more about production/representation, but will save that for an actual post.

unemployed negativity said...

More response from Posthegemony (

Saturday, January 08, 2011
Jason read has written a very interesting commentary on Benjamin Noys's book The Persistence of the Negative. It makes me all the more eager to read it--if only it weren't so damn expensive--even though (or perhaps especially because) my tendency, like Read's, is towards what we might call the philosophy of affirmation.

But in Read's words, Noys "is not interested in positing an ontology of negativity against the ontologies of affirmation. Negativity is a practice, not a principle, a destruction of existing positivities." And here I sense I agree with Noys. I'm likewise far from convinced by (say) Negri's unremitting championing of the multitude. As I point out in Posthegemony, we still need to be able to distinguish between good multitudes and bad, and to be able to discern when the multitude turns bad.

Or to put this another way: a philosophy of affirmation does not for all that have to be unrelentingly affirmative. Not everything is to be affirmed.

I agree also that the problem with Latour (and, I would add, Delanda) is that they present something of a mirror image of Negrian affirmation, in which it is rather contemporary capitalist relations (instead of the coming Communist utopia) which is relentlessly affirmed. Where Negri claims that "What ought to be, is," Latour and Delanda simply affirm that "What is, is what ought to be." Either way, critique is discarded.

And I am happy to agree in principle with the notion of negativity as "an insistence on localizing thought and practices, resisting both an ontology of affirmation and an ontology of finitude." Again, in large part, this is what I aim to show with the Latin American case studies in Posthegemony.

Benjamin said...

Dear Jason,
Thanks again so much for the review. On the classifications I can see what you mean, but I did think I had (polemically) found new commonalities and wanted to push the classifications as far as they go. I'm quite amused that the only new critical terms I've coined are 'negative', ie critical,... anti-affirmationism in practice. I would also quite like them to be 'death masks'; perhaps a critical corpse making is required... better than neo-vitalist 'giving life'.
Thanks also to the reference from post-hegemony, I've commented to offer them a copy.

Brian said...

Thanks for your review Jason.

It seems to me that affirmationism and accelerationism should be situated within the conditions of the Keynesian-Fordist state, with its integration of labor movements. For those struggling against state capital, any force of dissolution seemed positive. The Anti-Oedipus pits deterritorializing capital against the state as "the integral of power formations" (Guattari's phrase). Along with the Derridean exaltation of differance, plus Lyotard's ravings and the aesthetic cooptation of the derive, all that coalesced into a cultural trend that was favorable to the transnational redeployment of capital in the 1980s. These are undesired consequences, Noys is right.

I analyzed that ten years ago in a text called "The Flexible Personality," where I argued for a "renewal of the negative." However, I didn't take the route of "The New Spirit of Capitalism," which laments the decline of the old workers' movements. The forms of resistance have to change, not only according to the redeployments of capital, but also according to grassroots consciousness. The decentering of subjectivity beyond the hegemonic figures of the white bourgeois male and the industrial proletarian is not something you can just throw away. Also, let's not forget how much Empire revealed about labor and exploitation in a network society. At least its "affirmationism" pointed to some real struggle, subversion and grassroots solidarities. Still, after five years with the journal Multitudes, I saw the limits of the thinking that Noys denounces, not in Negri and Lazzarato but in Yann Moulier-Boutang, who in his book on Capitalisme Cognitif describes the network society as "the communism of capital." I agree with Noys: the promise that an internal contradiction of informational capital would result in the dissolution of its oppressive characteristics has not been fulfilled, much the opposite.

However, from what I can glean of Noys' analyses, they appear to simplify some things. A Thousand Plateaus is not reducible to the exaltation of nomadism. It has a strong analysis of the emergent forms of transnational networked and financialized capitalism. In a text called "Recapturing Subversion" I show that it provides the conceptual tools for understanding the reconstitution of a "megamachine" in cybernetic form, which integrates broad swathes of the world's population. ATP is great because it opens up the ambiguity of the networked society, its potentials (which are what we have to work with) and its formidable capacity to reconstitute a trap on a much larger scale.

The problem is, most left theorists today don't analyze the labor process, i.e. the relation between technology and organizational forms. Neither labor nor consumption today is just about the adventitious "capture" of fundamentally free and fleeing energies. Subjectivity is directly formed within controlled and coercive environments. This is why we need a renewal of negative dialectics. Yet it's not enough to quote Adorno, who said “dialectics is the ontology of the wrong state of things. The right state of things would be free of it: neither a system nor a contradiction.” The thing is to characterize the new machine system and its subjects, caught in a new governmentality under new transnational state structures and subject to a new money-form (floating electronic currencies). Only by understanding the deeply coercive nature of contemporary capitalism can you first of all experience its meaninglessness and pain, then provoke some kind of break and begin working on possible transformations of the machines and the organizational system. Noys talks about the power of destruction. Yes. But whether you call it a positive or a negative act, you have to confront the system itself, in its material granularity and its conceptual unity, its "real abstraction" as you say.

ciao, Brian Holmes