‘The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory’ reviewed by Tom Bunyard

The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory

Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2010, 212pp., £60 hb
ISBN 9780748638635

Reviewed by Tom Bunyard

About the reviewer

Tom Bunyard works at the University of Brighton and is currently writing a book on the theoretical …


Benjamin Noys begins his The Persistence of the Negative with the following statement of intent: the book aims, he explains, to ‘rehabilitate a thinking of negativity through an immanent critique of contemporary Continental theory’ (ix). For Noys, the latter is currently dominated by what he refers to as affirmationism: a tendency characterised by a commitment to the assertion of creativity, desire, productive potential and the importance of novelty. Such emphases on the primacy of affirmative, creative constitution are said to have cast negativity as secondary and reactive. This for Noys is politically problematic: as affirmationism is often linked to the assertion of anti-capitalist possibilities, the denigration of negativity has furthered the neglect of issues pertaining to resistance and opposition. He thus sets out to ‘excavate’ (13) a new notion of negativity from affirmationism; a negativity geared towards locating and actualising points of ‘rupture’ (4) within capitalist society.

There is much that is appealing about this project. For Noys, optimistic affirmationist depictions of a parasitical capitalism that can be shrugged off through the assertion of collective, constitutive power ‘ontologise resistance’, leaving it ‘vulnerable to the cunning of capitalist reason’ (xi). His consequent attempt to link negativity to themes of agency and strategy seems pertinent, and by presenting it through a critique of affirmationism’s key figures (Noys selects Derrida, Deleuze, Latour, Negri and Badiou) the book makes a significant intervention into contemporary debate. Noys’ claims as to the need for such a negativity are persuasive, and I was impressed by the manner in which he demonstrates that need through the book’s critical readings; I am however rather more sceptical towards the virtues of actually extracting that negativity from affirmationist theory. This latter move rests on Noys’ contention that contemporary capitalism should be understood in terms of real abstraction (a position according to which society’s real, particular differences are mediated and generated by the abstract universality of value).

The task of locating ‘the neuralgic points of capitalism’ (171) might seem to imply the critique of political economy rather than a critique of Continental theory. Yet as for Noys real abstraction has rendered capitalism an ‘ontological, metaphysical and philosophical form’ (173), affirmationism’s tendency to present political resistance in terms of what he refers to as ‘counter-ontology’ (10) are of obvious interest. The problem, however, is that affirmationism’s emphasis on productivity and creativity entail that this counter-ontology can mirror that of capitalism itself; and whilst Noys does not present an ‘isomorphism’ (11) between theory and capital, he does indicate that a critique of the former might consequently offer purchase on the latter. This point seems to rest on the contention that basing critique and opposition on an authentic position located outside or beneath capital’s appearances is a ‘naïveté’ (85): instead, one should ‘work on and against’ (10) the abstractions that one finds oneself within. Hence the book’s attempt to extract a negativity from the positivity of affirmationism that might be suited to the task of traversing capitalism’s ‘ontological terrain’ (86). I’ll return to these points below.

Noys begins with a reading of Derrida that introduces the need to de-reify negativity, and argues, by way of Nietzsche, that a negative politics involves the disruption of accumulation and power. Deleuze’s interest in points of mutation are then used to connect this to strategy and intervention, and Latour’s rejection of radical politics is employed, often humorously, to indicate the need to think negativity as practice. This is followed by a particularly successful discussion of Negri, whose Spinozist monism is said to paralyse the identification of strategic points of attack. Noys then uses Badiou to suggest that negativity might be linked to agency rather than to subjectivity – a point that I’ll also return to below – before closing with a conclusion that ties the resultant elements together.

The negativity that results can be qualified by noting Noys’ excellent introduction, which describes affirmationism’s emergence from two prior theoretical trends. Firstly, a nihilistic, post-1968 tendency to align emancipatory potential with the unleashing of capital flows (linked to the early 1970’s work of Baudrillard, Deleuze and Lyotard). Having been rendered untenable by the realities of 1980’s neo-liberalism, this gave rise to a subsequent interest in linking opposition to transcendence, difference, and otherness. Affirmationism’s concerns with immanent, but also oppositional forms synthesise these two tendencies, and Noys is similarly concerned to avoid associating negativity with either immanence or transcendence: he contends that a focus on the generation of immanent difference would echo the operation of real abstraction, whilst transcendent externality mirrors the ‘void’ of abstract value itself. Noys’ account of negativity as ‘immanent rupture’ (17) avoids association with either pole: it is ‘internal’ (128) to the positivity that it contests, but exists in a ‘relation of rupture’ (172) with it.

This rupture is linked to Noys’ interests in agency, which he does not associate with the individual subject (169), but rather – whilst quoting David Harvey – with ‘leverage points within the system’ (18) (the identification of which might sit oddly with the book’s thematic interest in theoretical reflections of capital’s logics: as social relations can only be addressed through theoretical abstraction, Noys argues that combating real abstraction requires not less, but rather ‘greater abstraction’ (167)). The identification and actualisation of these points relates to his notion of traversal, which is in part a reference to Lacan (by way of Žižek): revealing the ‘structural absence of the subject’ (169) to be the necessary gap within real abstraction’s symbolic chain exposes the nature of an economic order that has grown independent of the subjects that it dominates. Rupture is thus a break from capital that reveals one’s own purely abstract, functional status within it.

This is a negativity that avoids association with pure identity or externality, and which links something akin to self-consciouness to political action. It is even cautiously associated with determinate negation (74) and historical awareness (albeit figured as the continuity of a political project (169)), and in consequence Noys’ dismissal of Hegelian negativity as congruent with real abstraction’s own positive generation of determinacy feels a little abrupt: for given these homologies, could this negativity have been derived from an excavation of Hegelian currents rather than from affirmationism?

This returns us to the question of source material, and thereby to Noys’ views on real abstraction. His deliberate ‘downgrading’ (169) of the subject and refusal of any external opposition to capital seems connected to the sense in which his points of rupture are not (solely) those of traditional Marxism: there are no concrete proletarians opposed to a merely false and apparent regime of value. Noys seems to accept the labour theory of value, and thus capital’s basis in the wage relation, but he contends that the latter’s centrality to capitalism renders its identification with emancipatory potential politically ‘retrograde’ (166). Yet if the wage relation is no longer the focal point of resistance to capital, what then is capital, and on what grounds are these other points of opposition to be located? Noys contends at one point that Badiou’s moves towards a politicised negative are undermined by a ‘relative blindness to questions of political economy’ (139); yet doesn’t deriving the beginnings of his own negativity from affirmationism tend towards this very problem? The danger would then be that of replicating the error that Noys ascribes so convincingly to Negri: namely, an inability to identify how and where capital might be stategically attacked (127).

I don’t wish to attribute this problem to Noys’ book; his interests lie in broadening political action beyond that classical point of antagonism, not in doing away with it altogether. However, casting a focus on the wage relation as retrograde does raise this issue, and the resultant question of locating political opposition is linked, via his understanding of real abstraction and rejection of externality, to the book’s apparent contention that one might learn how to engage with capitalism by criticising the theories that reflect it. Certainly, Noys is indicating the beginnings of an approach, not practical prescriptions per se; even so, this apparent equation of the critique of ideology to that of economics might seem unsteady ground for a strategic engagement.

Yet despite my concerns as to the route that the book takes towards those recommendations and conclusions, the latter are themselves both pertinent and persuasive. After all, the book seems intended as an intervention into contemporary debates, and thus ultimately as a prompt for further work; to suggest that its views on negativity imply further economic or sociological research is thus in a sense in keeping with its own intentions. Noys’ contention that the present political context requires a reconsideration of negativity is convincing, and his claim that it should be linked to agency, practice and strategy is particularly attractive. Furthermore, Noys’ critical readings of the book’s selected theorists are useful and informative in their own right. This is thus an impressive work, and should be recommended to anyone concerned with the political dimensions of Continental philosophy and theory, or to those intrigued by philosophical approaches to negativity.

7 February 2011

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