Noys – Persistence of the Negative

In Noys on March 15, 2012 at 11:54 am

Reviewed by: Tom Bunyard, Goldsmiths, University of London

Benjamin Noys, The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2010, 212pp., £60 hb, ISBN 9780748638635

Benjamin Noys’ The Persistence of the Negative  is an attempt, as he explains at its outset, 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 towards 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, and 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 contemporary affirmationism; a negativity that will provide a means of strategically      locating and actualising points of ‘rupture’ (4) within capitalist society.

For Noys, optimistic and 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 the manner in which he supports them through the book’s critical interpretations of its selected theorists is particularly impressive. The virtues of actually extracting that negativity from affirmationist theory itself – a move that rests on Noys’ contention that contemporary capitalism should be understood in terms of real abstraction – do however invite a little more scepticism, as the task of locating ‘the neuralgic points of capitalism’ (171) might seem to imply a 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: for affirmationism’s emphasis on productivity and creativity entails that its counter-ontology can mirror the ontology of capitalism itself (Noys draws attention here to the free flow of capital, the so-called creative industries, etc.), and whilst he does not present a simple ‘isomorphism’ (11) between affirmationist theory and capital, he does indicate that a critique of the former might offer purchase on the latter. This tactic seems to be much informed by the book’s contention that basing critique and opposition on a purportedly authentic position located outside or beneath capital’s appearances is a ‘naïveté’ (85), and that one should instead ‘work on and against’ (10) the abstractions that one finds oneself within.

Noys begins with a reading of Derrida that introduces the need to de-reify negativity, and he then argues, by way of Nietzsche, that a negative politics involves the disruption of accumulation and power. Deleuze’s interest in points of mutation is 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, before closing with a conclusion that ties the resultant elements together.

The negativity that results from this line of argument can be qualified by way of Noys’ excellent introduction, which describes affirmationism’s emergence from two prior theoretical trends. The first of these trends is 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); but having been rendered untenable by the realities of 1980’s neo-liberalism, this is said to have given rise to a subsequent interest in linking opposition to transcendence, difference, and otherness. Affirmationism’s concerns with immanent, but also oppositional forms synthesised these two tendencies, and Noys shares its consequent avoidance of associating oppositional 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. His account of negativity as ‘immanent rupture’ (17) is not associated with either pole: it is ‘internal’ (128) to the positivity that it contests, but it exists in a ‘relation of rupture’ (172) with it.

This rupture is linked to… continue reading: Noys review last part



[this review first appeared in the Marx and Philosophy Society Review of Books in January 2011, here:http://marxandphilosophy.org.uk/reviewofbooks/reviews/2011/264]

  1. […] Benjamin Noys, The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory. Edin… […]

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