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 In many ways, although he is in a certain sense out of date, and although he was criticizing the managed fordist society of the 1950s and 1960s, which ironically now seems both freer and more egalitarian than the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.
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 â€œthe power of being the cause, through oneâ€™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 â€œinsufficient,â€ so that the corporeal forces it calls on are unable to fully actualize its object, there is still a positive â€œcausal relationâ€ 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).