More on negation, affirmation, and desire

Part of the problem with discussions of affirmation and negation is that the words are being used in too many different senses. On the one hand, for instance, there is Herbert Marcuse’s prescient critique of “affirmative culture” (prescient, since what he meant is something that is more obnoxiously and oppressively ubiquitous today than it was in Marcuse’s own time) and (echoing Adorno, and ultimately a certain side of Hegel) his call for a practice of negativity to expose what is lacking in these social affirmations. In many ways, although he is in a certain sense out of date, and although he was criticizing the managed fordist society of the 1950s and 1960s, which ironically now seems both freer and more egalitarian than the neoliberal society we live in today — despite all this, Marcuse’s arguments for negativity in certain ways seem fresher than ZIzek’s.

On the other hand, there is Deleuze’s critique of the negative, which is really an criticism of Kojeve’s reading of Hegel as being about the “labor of the negative,” the idea that negation is a form — indeed the form — of work and creativity and the movement of history. (When a carpenter makes a chair, he/she is “negating” the piece of wood out of which the chair is made. The French revolution “negated” the monarchy. Etc.). Deleuze’s argument against negation is really an argument that this “negation” is an extremely impoverished way to look at creativity (which Deleuze describes rather as the actualization of the virtual, a process in which something New is created). It is also an argument against the related Kojeve/Lacan idea that desire equals lack, so that the movement of desire would be the same as the work of negation throughout history. Deleuze programatically rejects this on both the personal and the social/historical levels. (I will return to this in a moment).

So the Adorno/Marcuse version of negativity is really rather different from the negativity that Deleuze rejects — they come out of very different ways of reading Hegel, and they refer to very different processes. Deleuze rejects the Kojeve/Hegel view of negativity as the proper form of production; but the negativity of Adorno and Marcuse is not a form of production or of labor; to the contrary, it is something that resists the capitalist world’s relentless drive to production. (This role of negativity as resistance corresponds to the Body without Organs in Deleuze and Guattari’s thought: the BwO is their attempt to think non-production or anti-production in an alternative way to that of negativity).

Now, Zizek’s negative, I think, fuses elements of both of the strains that I have just described. Via Lacan, Zizek goes back to Kojeve’s labor of the negative, which Lacan transforms into the idea that desire equals lack. But Zizek, unlike Lacan, also wants this negative to work socially/historically/politically in the ways that Adorno and Marcuse want it to, as something that disrupts and subverts the facade of “false totality” and “affirmative culture” we are faced with today. Both of these strands come out of Hegel, but do they really fit together?

I am inclined to think that they do not. Because, once you have defined desire as lack, you are committed to a whole metaphysics of (economic) scarcity and (psychological) unfulfillment. These end up being conceived (as they are by Zizek) as bedrock conditions that will exist in any social formation whatsoever; anything that says otherwise is condemned as delusive fantasy, as a denial of the fundamental antagonism of the Real, or a denial of the knot of castration, or what have you.

Now, I tend to be as leery as anyone of utopian thought (at least, insofar as “utopian” means a vision of static perfection, without any sort of tension or difficulty or dissatisfaction — the actual use of the idea of “utopia,” in a theorist like Ernst Bloch, is actually much more complex than this). But I think that Zizek’s militant anti-utopianism goes further than this, and that it makes difficult, or impossible, the very sort of negativity, with its critical and transformative function, that we find in Adorno and Marcuse. This is why — as per the discussions on this blog, and others, over the last week or so, in regard to Zizek’s reading of 300 — the only negativity Zizek can think of in the current political context is a fetishization of “discipline” and “sacrifice” in opposition to the alleged hegemony, in our neoliberal culture, of “hedonistic permissivity [sic]”. For all Marcuse’s criticisms of the pseudo-satisfactions of consumer society, and even for all his advocacy of a dose of straightforward political repression in order to oppose the “repressive tolerance” and “repressive desublimation” of American bourgeois society — for all of this, I cannot imagine Marcuse finding the jouissance that Zizek does in discipline and sacrifice. This is because he has a more sharply honed vision of Hegelian negativity than Zizek does.

This gets back to a point I was trying to make before, in the previous post; which is that the critique of desire-as-lack in Deleuze should not mean a regime, instead, of unlimited affirmation — while Deleuze opposes affirmation to negation in his Nietzsche book, his later work gives the critique of negation without posing affirmation per se as its alternative.

Metastable Equilibrium sheds useful light on this whole question by quoting Dan Smith on desire and ethics in Deleuze:

Your drives have been constructed, assembled, and arranged in such a manner that your desire is positively invested in the system that allows you to have this particular interest. This is why Deleuze can say that desire as such is always positive. Normally, we tend to think of desire in terms of lack: if we desire something, it is because we lack it. But Deleuze reconfigures the concept of desire: what we desire, what we invest our desire in, is a social formation, and in this sense desire is always positive. Lack appears only at the level of interest, because the social formation, the infrastructure in which we have already invested our desire has in turn produced that lack. The result of this analysis is that we can now determine the proper object of a purely immanent ethics, which is neither my conscious will, or my conscious decisions, but neither is it my pre-conscious interests (say, my class interest, in the Marxist sense). The true object of an immanent ethics is the drives, and thus it entails, as both Spinoza and Nietzsche know, an entire theory of affectivity at the basis of any theory of ethics.

To all which, I would add that the whole issue really goes back to Kant, and to Kant’s understanding of desire, which is very different from the Hegelian account of desire as lack or negativity with which we are so familiar. Kant defines desire as “the power of being the cause, through one’s presentations, of the actuality of the objects of these presentations.” That is to say, desire, for Kant, is what determines the will. It cannot be understood in terms of negativity and absence, for it is an active, autonomous power of the mind. The ‘object of desire’ is not something that the subject lacks; to the contrary, it is what the subject imagines and creates. The act of desiring is the cause, and the existence of the desired object is the effect. This means that, as Deleuze and Guattari put it, desire produces the real. Anti-Oedipus is, in this respect, a rigorously Kantian book, and Deleuze’s critique of desire-as-negativity is really an elaboration of what you might call Kant’s implicit response to the way that Hegel hijacked and assimilated his work.

Now, of course most of our desires are not fulfilled. But Kant insists that the empirical existence of failed and unfulfilled desires does not contradict his formulation of desire as productive. For even when a desire turns out to be “insufficient,” so that the corporeal forces it calls on are unable to fully actualize its object, there is still a positive “causal relation” between the desire as a mobilization of force, and the effect towards which it was striving. It is only in this sense that there is “lack”; and this is why Deleuze and Guattari insist that lack only exists insofar as it is “counter-produced” by the social system in which our positive desires are invested. Capitalism, for instance, creates abundance on an unprecedented scale. But capitalism also needs to produce lack — to deny that very abundance it produces to the very people who produce it — in order to perpetuate itself, since its entire logic (what Deleuze and Guattari call its “axiomatics”) is grounded in the notion of perpetual competition over perpetually scarce resources. That a tiny capitalist class thus gets to appropriate the surplus that is taken away from everyone else is only a sort of side-benefit; it’s what happens when the supreme goal of a society is capital accumulation rather than expenditure or even just pleasure. This is also why consumer society, no matter how vehemently it exhorts us to spend money, or to “enjoy,” is never so fully hedonistic as Zizek seems to think. Zizek’s notion of the superego imperative to enjoy does capture something of the way that consumer spending is in fact deeply “disciplinary” and disciplined, as Roger says in his comments on my previous post. But the superego theory is utterly unable to illuminate the deeper, productivist logic of capitalism that stands behind this compulsion — for that we need, dare I say, Marx rather than Freud or Lacan, and a Kantian/Deleuzian understanding of the structure of desire rather than a Hegelian/Lacanian one.

The remaining question, for me, is this. If we accept, as I think we should, Deleuze’s critique of Hegelian negativity in the forms of desire-as-lack and the Kojevian labor-of-the-negative, to what extent can we still deploy negativity in the Adorno and Marcuse sense? I think that this is possible — which is also to say that the Frankfurt School’s version of Hegel can be reconciled with Kant in a way that Kojeve’s version of Hegel cannot — but the way of doing this is still something that needs to be worked out. (And, though I know that my current tendency to drag Whitehead into everything must be wearying to some people, I can’t help wondering if Whitehead’s logic of relations — which is very different from Hegel’s logic — isn’t a good place to start).

17 thoughts on “More on negation, affirmation, and desire”

  1. I think the distinction you make between negativity as a mode of critique of affirmative culture in Adorno and Marcuse versus negativity as the ontological basis of desire or creativity is a useful one.
    But let me just throw out a couple of things that complicate the Deleuze/Kant versus Hegel/Lacan opposition.
    Lacan’s schema is tripartite and even if desire is understood as a constitutive lack, his ethics is oriented toward when desire meets the drive and I would describe it in very similar terms to how Dan Smith describes ethics in Deleuze in the quotation you use. Ethics for Lacan opposes what he calls the “service of goods” which is an ethics oriented around interest as opposed to where desire encounters the drive. There is no negation in the drive. As Freud says, the unconscious knows no “no.” Alenka Zupancic does an excellent job of drawing out the Kantian basis of Lacan’s ethics of the real. Ethics for Lacan is not about fulfilling lack. The constitutive lack in the subject only means that the subject can only be conceived of as becoming. I don’t want to make it sound like I am conflating Lacan and Deleuze/Guattari–there are important differences–but I think that they are closer than you make it sound here.

  2. Riley, I don’t really disagree with what you say here. From my Deleuzian point of view, I would phrase it that the concentration on the Real (instead of the Symbolic) and the theory of the drive (in contrast to the theory of desire) is what most interests me in Lacan, and in the Zizek/Dolar/Zupancic reading of Lacan.

    As Deleuze and Guattari themselves write in Anti-Oedipus(footnote on page 27):

    Lacan’s admirable theory of desire appears to us to have two poles: one related to “the object small a” as a desiring machine, which defines desire in terms of a real production, thus going beyond both any idea of need and any idea of fantasy; and the other related to the “great Other” as a signifier, which reintroduces a certain notion of lack.

    I do think, however, that the difference between Kantian and Hegelian notions of desire, as well as between the two ways of talking about negation that I have mentioned here, is very much operative in contemporary theory debates. (And obviously, however much I would like to get beyond such debates, I am positioned on the Deleuze/Guattari side as opposed to the Zizek/Lacanian side in current discussions). One of Zizek’s most frequent tropes is to rehearse Hegel’s critique of Kant in the Encyclopedia Logic: which is to say, basically, that when Kant postulates a limit, or a gap, beyond which thought cannot go (i.e. from phenomena to noumena) he fails to realize that thought itself is what has posited this gap, and that therefore it is not that the realm of noumena is real but inaccessible, but rather that such inaccessibility is precisely the real form in which noumena exist. Obviously Kant, being already dead, never wrote a response to Hegel’s critique; but I think that the anti-Hegelian moments in French theory or philosophy of the last fifty or sixty years (Deleuze especially, but also aspects of Foucault and others) in fact do constitute a Kantian response to the Hegelian argument that Zizek takes up. Which is to say that the Hegelian inversion — by which the inaccessibility of something real becomes, instead, the reality of inaccessibility itself, and by which the experience of thought being exceeded becomes, instead, a thinking of that excess — that this inversion is precisely the dogmatism, the overweening idealism (putting thought at the center of everything), and the illusion of Reason, that Kant was so urgently concerned to warn us against. And what I am criticizing as the bad version of negativity is an example of this.

    So I agree that there are moments in Zizek, Zupancic, etc. where the kind of direction that I am urging does come up (and I do value highly Zupancic’s book on Kant), but it gets lost in the insistence on subjective lack, on the gap, and so on.

  3. “For even when a desire turns out to be “insufficient,” so that the corporeal forces it calls on are unable to fully actualize its object, there is still a positive “causal relation” between the desire as a mobilization of force, and the effect towards which it was striving.”

    positive “causal relation” = quasi-cause!

    So actualisation of desire as event with constant feedback and feed forward loops between the mobilisation of force (affect) and the fuzzy field of its pure effect (singularity, event). this is what I was gettting at with reference to massumi’s notion of possibilization during the process of ‘in connection’ there is a constant attunement between on the one hand the excess of potential and the ‘possible’.

    also are you familiar with silvan tomkins work, specifically on the distinction between the drives and the affect system? he talks about the drives as ‘digital’ and the affects as ‘analogue’. Sedgwick has a good essay about it (the ‘cybernetic fold’ essay) in a journal somewhere and in the tomkins reader she co-edited.

  4. Glen,
    thanks for the distinctions you make in your comment. Indeed, in the chapter I am in the middle of writing right now — on the parallels and differences between Deleuze and Whitehead, I am precisely trying to think about how the “quasi-cause” works in relation to desire and to the virtual, and what this might have to do with Whitehead’s discussion of potentiality in terms of “eternal objects.” (a lot, I think, but I am still struggling through how to articulate this).

    & yes, I have read Tompkins and I think that is relevant.

  5. I had a thought while reading this post–and it had mostly to do with Karatani’s Marxist reading of Kant in _Transcritique_, in which he offers the following quotation from Kant’s _Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View_ where Kant argues that one should refrain from excess “not with the Stocial intention of complete abstinence, but with the refined Epicurean intention of having in view an ever-growing pleasure” (qtd 215).

    Now, Karatani argues that the Kantian seeker of the sublime (if a Kantian would, indeed, seek the sublime) would seek it like a “the ‘rational miser,’ insatiably looking after the pleasure of sustaining and expanding the right of direct exchangeability rather than that of actual consumption” (215).

    BUT–your Deleuzian reading of Kant would make this reading (and Kojeve’s reading of Hegel) something akin to Nietzschean ressentiment. (There are limited resources and limited “sublime” experiences and so I should just abstain.) I wonder, though, with Kant–what place “refinement” occupies in everything. It would seem that via Deleuze and Guattari, the word would be misplaced at the very least–unless we take into consideration Deleuze’s reading of the Stoics. I’m curious about Karatani’s (or Kant’s?) stereotype of the Stoic in that quotation, one that Deleuze would almost certainly reject in favor of the Stoic conception of the spermatikos logos: the god, fire, pneumena as an immanent generative principle.

    Also, where did you get the quote about Kant’s definition of desire?

  6. Roger, thanks for this. I will have to think about the quotation from Karatani. All in all, I am very interested in Karatani, and I generally find his reading of Kant compatible with, and indeed close to, the reading of Kant in relation to Deleuze that I am trying to work out. But the economy of the sublime is not very central to this discussion — as far as I am concerned, the economy of the beautiful is much more relevant. Or put it this way: Karatani links the sublime to the psychology of the capitalist concerned with capital accumulation above all else. But the beautiful is more fundamental, in that it highlights the problem of exchange — how can a universal equivalent be created for something singular? — that is the precondition for capital and capital accumulation themselves.

    I am not sure what to think about “refinement.”

    The Kant citation comes from the Third Critique — a footnote to page 177 (using the standard pagination that is in the margins of all the translations. It appears on page 16 of the Pluhar translation, which is the one I have been using).

  7. Well I can’t exactly follow you through Whitehead at the moment given that my last attempted reading of him was *Process and Reality* about eight or so years ago as a freshman in art school. It might be time for me to try that book again. I suppose my own lense at the moment is ‘Badiousian’ alongside Deleuze. What I don’t think has been mentioned yet are the relationships between, say, vitalism and rationalism, potential and actual infinity, or the intuitionist vs. the classical paradigms of mathematics. As for the latter, implicating the others, Zachary Fraser has an excellent article, “The Law of the Subject: Alain Badiou, Luitzen Brouwer and the Kripkean Analyses of Forcing and the Heyting Calculus” here:, where the following citation of Badiou appears:

    ‘in forcing’, badiou observes, ‘the concept of negation has something modal about it: it is possible to deny once one is not constrained to affirm’; the certainty of non-constraint always being deferred until the sequence is completed. ‘This modality of the negative’, badiou continues, ‘is characteristic
    of subjective or post-evental negation’ (be 415)”.

    It is also interesting to note here how the notion of ‘discipline’ appears in relation the the subjective termporal acts of the mathematician within the intuitionist paradigm.
    As for the fundamentality of the ‘beautiful’, well…I would just submit that this idea needs to be completely reworked/reworded, if not dropped altogether. An understanding of contemporary artistic practices would not likely be sustained by way of it.

  8. Hi Steve. Long time reader, first time commenter. Just wondering if you know where I could find an english translation of the Marcuse essay on affirmative culture? Thanks

  9. Herbert Marcuse, “The Affirmative Character of Culture,” Negations: Essays in Critical Theory, trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro (Boston, 1968), pp. 88–133.

    This book seems to be out of print currently, but it should be available in libraries, etc.

  10. “how can a universal equivalent be created for something singular?”

    Not by selling material commodities, sign-commodities, or determined ephemeral experience-commodities, but through the contingency of events, perhaps? And then necessary material and incorporeal infrastructure required for such a capacity (affects)… The singularity belongs to an individuation/process, which has the heterogeneous materiality of the problematic, so the question would be more like, what are the necessary problematic conditions for the contingency of ‘beauty’ as intensive movement?

    that is what I am arguing in my diss about my car dudes, they experiement in capacities (literally!) to enable certain contingent events.

    (isn’t this what happens in the stockmarket, but there it uncovers the contingency of the ‘universal equivalent’? trading as the art of contingency)

    but I don’t know Kant that well

  11. Glen, if I am understanding you correctly, your diss is about how to singularize objects (in this case cars) that are produced as commodities under the realm of universal equivalence?

    Which is the opposite of the foundational question of capitalism, which is, how does heterogeneous (singularize) production become normalized, or captured by the code of universal equivalence (money) that makes these heterogeneous things interchangeable? — which latter is foreshadowed in Kant’s antinomy of beauty, which is how to communicate universally, and demand universal assent for, judgments which have no cognitive or other objective basis, and are hence all singular and heterogeneous to one another?

    This is where, I suspect, possibly, the quasi-cause might come in (capital as BwO or quasi-cause).

  12. I think only a true masochist would actually ENJOY a visit to the supermarket, where from every angle you’re faced with an oppressive faux-choice between an increasingly meaningless and ever expanding plenitude of labels and colorful images necessitating also a lot of labor in the Bellerian sense in the whole disciplined spectacle of choosing, sorting, placing in the cart, calculating the expense, and bringing that to a line consisting of depressed Calvinist consumers where one would much rather read philosophy books or see a good movie or have sex.

    There isn’t any Dyonisian hedonism in the act of shopping, it’s dreary bland and boring or its disadvantages outweigh the aesthetic jouissance that some people possibly find in packaging (for me an endless parade of oppressive Disney kitch).

    I think dr. Zizek is talking about his own hedonism, typical for envious Slovenians who look up to the West because over there everything is so colorful and bright. But I remembered an excellent queer movie called HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY ITCH, which interestingly is premised on a discussion of lack, where the hero (who migrated from East Germany to the West) realizes that he allowed himself to be literally castrated just because the Gummi bears from West Berlin had better packaging than the ones from the East.

  13. In Calvinist countries like Holland you even get a collector’s book which when filled with food stamps (rationing) serve to fill up the Lack, the Scarcity, in a stunningly ironic denial of the oppressive plenitude that the supermarket actually offers. Ergo, the Lack is produced, fabricated, just like Deleuze says.

  14. So I think capitalism perpetues this same dreary and masochistic Calvinist narrative about the Lack looming behind every corner, which forces the Calvinist to work manically so as to compensate for a fantasmatic threat, until the production switches to the ”cinematic mode” and begins to clone and reproduce Lack as an entirely spectral entity, devoid of any reference to reality.

  15. Hello,

    We are a French refelxive group and we are very interesting about this subject. And also about everything about Adorno, Marcuse, Deleuze, Foucault, and other critical authors. We are also interested in lots of topics as Social Control, ideology, Utopia, Environnement and Technology

    We wanted to ask you if you had written some french translations of your articles, and if no, do you allow us to translate some of these, particulary this one? We wanted to publish it in your website and we needed your name or pseudo to put it at the end.



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