The better half

Benjamin Noys, The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2010. 196 pp.,£60.00 hb., 978 0 74863 863 5.

Knox Peden

There’s an old Ziggy cartoon that finds the eponymous misanthrope standing waist-deep in water in a flooded basement, remarking to nobody in particular: ‘I wonder if this is one of those times an optimist would say it’s half-empty?’ Acerbic as ever, Ziggy here delivers a signal lesson on the essential pliability of the negative and the positive as ideological categories, as well as their mutual implication as concepts. If the positive and the negative are complementary forces in any given situation, then the question of which is more manifest is often times a matter of perspective. In other words, if the relation between the positive and negative is arguably metaphysical ‘in itself’, then our knowledge of that relation as well as our assessment of it must be primarily epistemological. But as Ziggy shows us, sometimes it can be surprising to discernwhat is negative and what is positive in a unique case. Even worse, sometimes the negative is what turns out to be most positive; indeed the negative is what is most desirable in the last instance.

The desire to recuperate a practicable concept of negativity that does not immediately transmogrify into positivity is the driving force of Benjamin Noys’s The Persistence of the Negative, an intervention which serves as a sharp corrective to the tendency towards what Noys calls ‘affirmationism’ in contemporary Continental theory. Against those who welcome the flood and insist that the best we can do is ride its waves to the ceiling, Noys insists on maintaining the ‘half-empty’ part to forestall the rising tide of globalized capitalism. Closely related to his concept of affirmationism (the welcoming of the flood) is the pathology Noys deems accelerationism (the desire for it to flood faster). This is the idea that the worse it gets, the better it gets. In other words, if we can allow a state of utter destitution to come about – be it through total capitalist saturation or apocalyptic collapse – then and only then will we get the emancipation we deserve. It is often the ironic sign of a critique’s success that its object so often seems unworthy of criticism after the fact. It should be evident that uncritically affirming the present state of affairs not only prolongs it; it sanctifies and intensifies it. That Noys renders this obvious is one of the book’s major successes.

And yet, fortunately for his subjects, as well as his readers, exasperated dismissal is not Noys’s intellectual mode. Instead, he presents us with an immanent critique of the contemporary thinkers of affirmationism, isolating and cultivating the moments of negativity in their respective projects. For example, Noys focuses on Antonio Negri’s early writings to emphasize the moment of the negative that permits the emergence of constituent power, the potenza that is always opposed to the potentia of constituted power – that is, the state. Similarly, with Deleuze, ‘the affirmative philosopher par excellence’, we find crucial moments of determinant negation in his 1967 essay on structuralism. The key notion here is moments, in the plural. Rather than the appeal to a ‘teeming mass’ or an absolute ‘Void’ that provides a groundless, though still singular, ground of infinite differentiation, what we find in Deleuze’s assessment of structuralism is an emphasis on the plurality of ‘points’ where negativity is in play, shaping and determining a variety of sequences. It is such moments of negativity that are crucial for Noys,whose ultimate aim is not simply to erect a dam against affirmationist currents but to develop a thinking of negation (rather than, his book’s title notwithstanding, a reified ‘negative’) that might yield a more robust practice of localized negativities.

Here, however, the conceptual slipperiness of the negative/positive relation makes Noys’s own assessments problematic. For in the final analysis the problem that Noys has with Deleuze and Negri is not so much their affective disinclination towardsthe negative, but simply the fact that its moment is passed over too quickly in their projects. The result is that Noys seeks a more durable negativity, one that is ‘modest’ and ‘patient’ and that correlates with the ‘ruptural preservation of past and existing negations of capitalist relations’. The puzzle of ‘ruptural preservation’ names the problem in that it is unclear how Noys can truly maintain his negativist stripes when he seems rather quick to affirm past moments of negativity. To be sure, Noys avoids a cloying deference to May ’68 and other instances of revolt; and yet his commitment to a Marxist-cum-Benjaminian conception of political praxis means tagging these revolts as cumulative instances in a metahistory of revolutionary advance. The complicating tendencies of this affirmative stance are compounded by the fact that the relation between myriad points of negativity and Noys’s commitment to making these points more ‘durable’, effectively converting them from points to lines, is theoretically underdeveloped. One of the signal virtues of the book is its desire to decouple negativity as a practice from ruminations on negativity as a metaphysical force. But the manner in which Noys insists upon the tenacity of past moments of negativity serves to reinscribe a metaphysical pathos within them; they cease to be historical instances of negation and become instead episodes in the History of the Negative.

This equivocation points to a more fundamental one at the heart of Noys’s analysis, but before addressing it further it should first be noted that each of Noys’s readings – of Derrida, Latour and Badiou, in addition to Deleuze and Negri – is remarkably illuminating in its own right. His assessment of Badiou in particular manages to distil the intellectual trajectory of the thinker’s four decades (and counting) in an incisive critique of the essentially passive role the subject plays for Badiou, as a vehicle for the consequences of evental truths. As with Negri and Deleuze, Noys is frustrated by how quickly the negation that brokers events gives way to the affirmation of the event itself, and the consequent conversion of a negating agent into a servile yes-man to the indiscernible. Badiou has been heralded for bringing the subject back into structuralism and poststructuralism, presently and retrospectively. But Noys shows us the cost. Breaking with the linguistic play generated by the equivocal sujet, which ultimately tends towards the passive, Noys invites us to rethink agency even as he realizes that agents are, as Perry Anderson has noted, often subject to the same active/passive equivocation as subjects (e.g. ‘free agents’ or ‘agents of a foreign power’).

Still, Noys prefers agency to subjectivity because the latter ‘tend[s] to ontologize or substantialize agency as a capacity of the subject’. This instance is one among several in the book where Noys makes clear his antipathy to ontology and metaphysics. Indeed, in many respects his immanent critique is classically Marxist in its rejection of idealist vanities in favour of a more pointed focus on practice, sensuous or otherwise. There is nevertheless a way in which Noys’s own equivocation regarding ontology could stand a little more critique, not as the metaphysical unleashing of the negative, but in precisely the more mundane sense that Noys also wants to see deployed in political practice. For subtending Noys’s immanent critique of affirmationism is an understanding of capitalism as a historical phenomenon that consists, in its essentials, of‘real abstractions’. The paradox is of course the point,and here Noys’s work enters into productive dialogue with the recent efforts of Moishe Postone, Alberto Toscano and others to stop lamenting abstraction so that we might engage the machinations of capital on its own ground, which is, precisely, the abstract. The main virtue of this move is apparent; critiques of the abstract tend to criticize it in the name of something more real that is obscured by abstraction. But in so far as capitalism operates via the abstraction of the value form,there is no putative real value that is obscured and that is thereby waiting to be recuperated. Treating the abstractions of capitalism as real thus forestalls the nostalgia of primitivism. And yet, crucial to the disagreement between Alfred Sohn-Rethel, the source of much renewed thinking on the subject, and his erstwhile interlocutors of the Frankfurt School was the question of whether or not these ‘real abstractions’ were historically dependent upon the advent of capitalism as a social form, or instead were part and parcel of a more generalized epistemology indifferent to historical epochs. In this latter vision, capitalism becomes a variant rather than a basis, and it is for this reason that Sohn-Rethel conceived of his project as a wholesale Marxist critique of Kantian epistemology. But by historicizing abstraction he also managed to ‘ontologize’ it, which is to say he made our knowledge of abstraction dependent upon a prior abstraction inherent in our historical modality of being. The result is not so much a Marxist epistemology as a Marxist metaphysics.

This dispute eclipses an alternative, which Noys’s work gestures towards but never fully articulates. It is clear that Noys seeks to develop a thinking of the practical negations of the ‘real abstractions’ of capitalism. Time and again, he describes these ‘real abstractions’ as the ‘ontology’ of capital; abstraction is simply capital’s way of being in the world. But instead of engaging these abstractions epistemologically – that is, by negating their appeals to some kind of deeper ontological integrity or basis – Noys grants too much to the discursive terrain of ontology as such. For example,the concluding paragraph of his book addresses the ‘aporia of agency’ as the most urgent problem to consider. Here Noys writes: ‘Part of the necessity for the posing of this problem is to regard capitalism itself as an ontological, metaphysical and philosophical form. In this way we can more accurately assess our own philosophical and theoretical concepts of agency.’ Just because capitalism’s ‘agents’ – whether they know it or not – experience or regard it as ‘an ontological, metaphysical and philosophical form’ does not mean that I have to as a critic of it. Perhaps a first step in negating the depredations of capitalist reification might be to stop reifying capitalism as a ‘form’. Noys cautions that if ‘we do not think capitalism then capitalism will certainly think us’. Setting aside the substantialization of capitalism’s subjectivity here, which may be rhetorically astute but which goes against the grain of Noys’s own distrust of such manoeuvres, the question nevertheless insists: must we think capitalism on capitalism’s own terms? Immanent critique is all well and good up to a point, but it becomes self-defeating when it serves to reinforce the nominally ontological soundness of a structure rather than making manifest its essentially epistemological flimsiness.

To be clear, what is advanced here is not a new accelerationism that would bring about a socio-political collapse of the structure – Noys is to be commended, incidentally, for recognizing certain virtues of the state-form – but a robust critical negativity that might bring about the collapse of epistemic appeals to ontological ground. The rendering passive of agents or subjects is Noys’s primary concern, and he clearly wants to hold capitalism to blame. But the actual stuff of his critique focuses on discursive appeals to ontology and metaphysics that render subjects inert. In other words, his book is not about how capitalism makes us passive via its real abstractions, but about how theorists render us passive in their artful constructions of capitalism and the ways to engage it. To be sure, the ‘real abstractions’ of capitalism must be criticized in thought and practice. But arguably the most fundamental error of the targets of Noys’s immanent critique is that they ontologize these abstractions when it is more urgent that they be banalized. For negating an abstraction, capitalist or otherwise,is a quintessentially theoretical practice. Indeed, an epistemological critique makes it clear that the flood doesn’t actually care whether the house is half-empty or half-full and that our own assessment in such terms gains nothing from absolutizing the contrast as an instance of metaphysics or historical ontology. Ultimately the most profound lesson of Noys’s volume is that negativity is only viable, indeed is only a virtue,when it is decoupled from metaphysical reifications of the negative and conceived as the non-generalizable effects of discrete agents levelling local interventions. Noys will thus surely recognize the compliment in the critique: in this respect, The Persistence of the Negative is not persistent or negative enough.