NEGATION, AFFIRMATION, DEATH
- Deleuze, Badiou, Brassier -
The philosophical discourses of the 19th and 20th Century modified radically the status of negation. It was in fact the work of Hegel that first elevated the negative act from its circumscription to a mere formalism proper to the logical exertion of the faculty of reason, to an ontological, structuring principle. In the case of Kant, this was provided by the schematic instantiation of contradiction in the famous antinomies of pure reason, with respect to sensible shattering caused by the sublimity of objects Kant called 'cosmological' (God, the Infinity of the Universe, the Soul...) Hegel contended instead that contradiction, and therefore negation, was not a merely regional possibility which obtained on the basis of an schematic individuation of objects. Rather, absolute negativity was to be found at the very heart of the dialectic's deductive necessity. Contradiction became thus not just formal, but essentially metaphysical or taken as the basic ontological structure. So, Hegel was able to claim, against Kant, that "antinomy is found not only in the four particular ob-jects taken from cosmology, but rather in all objects of all kinds, in all representations, concepts, and ideas.” (Hegel E L, Pg. 92)
The philosopher who challenged the primacy of negation in its logico-metaphysical hypostatization with greatest fervor during the 19th Century was perhaps Nietzsche. Nietzsche allots dialectics and its pretentions towards truth to the uniformity of a philosophical discourse that thwarts the affirmative purchase of the Will, and founds in doing so a culture guided by resentment and weakness, finally the common denominator of Platonic philosophy and Christian religion. The philosophical chimera of truth, mobilized through the amputating agency of the negative, is nothing but the obverse of the thwarted will which denies existence through moral-categorical imperatives. This dissolution of the philosophical valence of truth, and therefore also of the epistemological force of representation, becomes also proper to the deconstructive pretensions of the post-phenomenological critique of consciousness initiated by Heidegger, but also of the historicist-hermeneutic line of Gadamer, the destitution of phallogocentism by Derrida, the pragmatism of Rorty, among others. Above all these notable descendants, the most salient inheritor of the Nietzschean avowal of affirmation, along its castigation of the negative, is maybe opened by the work of Gilles Deleuze in his astonishing crossbreeding of Bergson, Simondon, Spinoza and Nietzsche.
In fact, Difference and Repetition, Deleuze's celebrated magnum opus, is crucially an attack on the philosophical primacy of negation, which following Foucault, he identifies as one of the four axes of representation which must be overcome. More specifically, Deleuze reduces negation to the relation of contrariness in the predicative form (A is not-B), so that even in Hegelian dialectics, the oscillation of dynamic becoming is finally subordinated to the identitarian regime of the Concept (Being remains conceptually indistinguishable from Nothing and thus passes over into it, this is the basic unity of becoming which develops into existence, etc). The apparent dynamism of the Concept in fact veils what can only be for Deleuze the spurious monotonous vacuity of hypostasized intellection. For Deleuze, radicalizing the Bergsonist critique, the philosophical task is precisely to destroy the identitarian regime of the Concept in favor of a thinking of pure Difference; to think of a pure becoming which may attest to the immanent morphogenesis of matter without the transcendental constraints of representational thought. Yet this means, at the same time, to overthrow the metaphysical primacy of contradiction, which still operates under the aegis of the Concept. Instead of the purely extensive regime of well partitioned qualitative-quantitative determinations and magnitudes, Deleuze attempts to think of an ontological order of pure multiplicity governed by the principle of what he calls intensive individuation; unequalizable differences of differences, of which the specificity of the actual is merely derived and secondary. This will involve tracking the specification of matter from the virtual to the actual, as opposed to the merely extensive individuation of discrete parts and beings in actual representation.
The theory of intensive individuation is thereby distributed across the three syntheses of time for Deleuze: the passive synthesis of habit in the present, the synthesis of the pure past or memory, and finally the third active synthesis of psychic individuation. And it is only in the latter that the cohort of the representational subject is finally split, and the 'larval selves' of the intensive field are prized free from subjectivist representation. Deleuze associates this third moment, the definitive moment of individuation, with the purely affirmative act of thought whereby the tidy distinctions of the Concept are shattered, and pure difference qua affirmation asserts its primacy. There is a 'mystification' occasioned by the negative, counteracted by the immanentist theory of the intensive. Crucially, this also marks the point at which the bare organic death of the individual, the death of the organism deprived of life, is disavowed in favor of the properly intensive death of the subject; its splitting and dissemination across the virtual field of multiplicities. I quote Deleuze: "it is in quality and extensity that intensity is inverted and appears upside down, and its power of affirming difference is betrayed by the figures of quantitative and qualitative limitation, qualitative and quantitative opposition... The origin of the illusion which subjects difference to the false power of the negative must therefore be sought, not in the sensible world itself, but in that which acts in depth and is incarnated in the sensible world". This depth is constituted by, as we have surmised, the field of positive differential multiplicities, i.e. the Ideal domain which seals Deleuze's vitalist, but also panpsychist urge to escape the cohort of the transcendental philosophies of access. It does so folding thought back into the immanent field of material production, as its psychic medium of individuation. The primacy of contradiction is thus given up in favor of the primacy of the differential, whose formal model is that provided by the differential calculus.
The work of Alain Badiou attempts to wrest Deleuze's materialist ontology of pure multiplicities from its last vestiges of empiricist-phenomenological content. Founded only by the void of being, Badiou's set-theoretical ontology thinks the inconsistent multiple which is constructed on the basis of a transparent axiomatics; that of Zermelo-Fraenkel to be specific. Under this approach, the great fault of the Deleuzean project appears not in its dismantling of representation or in its destitution of the negative straightjacket. Its weakness lies in the incapacity to account for the indifferent genericity of the order of multiple being, as well as the radical disruption brought about by affirmative acts called Events. Change, along thought, is everywhere and nowhere for Deleuze; the pure differentials in becoming only actualize the virtual continuum locally, but the global virtual imbedding space wherein change happens belongs to the singular event, the eventum tantrum, which generates novelty from base repetition. This constituted the famous "body without organs" for Deleuze and Guattari, which, Badiou contends, surrenders the thought of the multiple to the aegis of the One. For Badiou, then, against the paradigm of multiplicity modeled on Riemannian manifolds and differential calculus, the Post-Cantorian set-theoretical paradigm of extensional multiplicities is to be favored. Through the extirpation of all semblance of intensional content, ontology is prized free of its last vestige of empirical transcendence, while the plurality of radical ruptures, of events, is accounted for in a theory of subjectivation and creative production. Set-theoretical ontology subtracts the multiple from any qualitative determination, and so from any vestige of positive content that would surreptitiously Idealize the material field, as is the case for Deleuze through the agency of a 'larval self' infusing matter with thought's distinctive purchase. Rather, Ideality now comes to be in the side of the truth-event, where the subject subtracts itself from the stasis of the ontological regime and the rule of the State's representational count. It signals where affirmation breaks the negative ontological dialectic, dividing "the history of the world in Two", and inaugurating a new Time.
So, in a way, Badiou preserves the affirmationist vocation of Deleuze's thought. But rather than dispersing the affirmative act of thought within the continuity of the field of differential multiplicities in becoming, it tethers becoming to the evental act which disrupts the ontological order. Events are plural, and times are many. The status of the negative in Badiou's discourse is therefore twofold: on the one hand, the extensional regime of ontology and the objectual differentiation proper to phenomenology remains, within the materialist dialectic, subordinated to the power of the negative. A set will be identical to another if and only if there does not exist an element of one which is not an element of another (axiom of extensionality). And any object whose intensity is equal to another in a particular situation is, for all 'intensive' purposes, identical to that object (the function of identity). Negation once again seems to pervade the metaphysical realm, while affirmation seems delegated to the immanent exception of the Evental act, which awakening the militant urgency of the subject, destroys the stable regime of differentiation which articulates the Laws of the World. Death, for its part, remains trivialized, a mere nullification of the intensity of a multiple in a given world reduced to its minimum intensity, meriting no reification to the status of ontological principle of individuation (as in Heidegger's account of being-towards-death, but also Deleuze's account of the intensive death of the self dispersed into the field of intensities). I quote Badiou:
"When thinking of the event as the intensified and continuous result of becoming, Deleuze is an empiricist. And that, when he reabsorbs the event into the One of the unlimited Aion, of the Infinitive in which it subsists and insists, in the always there of the Virtual, he has a tendency to dogmatism. To break with empiricism is to think the event as the advent of what subtracts itself from all experience: the ontologically un-founded and the transcendentally discontinuous. To break with dogmatism is to remove the event from the ascendancy of the One. It is to subtract it from Life, in order to deliver it to the stars." (LOW, pg. 387)
However, subtracting thought from the stability of the multiple and reserving it for the Truth Event, Badiou's thought in a sense is more 'exceptionalist' than Deleuze, it requires an even greater form of exception which this time resembles Kant more than Hegel. For Deleuze, thought is everywhere, and the larval subjects which split the self virally infect the material realm all throughout. Deleuze Idealizes the material directly by wresting thought from the priority of the human to disseminate it across the material. Badiou's bare extensional multiple is, on the other hand, qualitatively empty, without any criterion for transcendental constitution, but also because of this irremediably static. The problem for him therefore becomes that of change; how to account for the disruption of the indifferent field of multiplicities, up to the generic form of truth which must be possible in order to differentiate novelties from reactionary simulacra. And it is there that he must reintroduce, not unlike Kant, the supplementary ethics of the evental act and of the intervention, of a kind of noumenal exception to the Laws of becoming.
So, either affirmation takes purchase, local change is to be found everywhere and we transpose thought into the world, effectively idealizing it; or we subtract thought from the material to the point where its structure is indistinguishable from thought, and negativity asserts its rights to set the regime for ontological determinacy. But in the latter case, the event becomes the prerogative of the subjective act which 'ascends from the 'bare animality' of the world to the Eternity of the Idea; that is, to the productive domain of truths. Without the surreptitious dialectics of the event, the order of being glares forth in its apathy, and its monotony sheds along thought all becoming.
It is at this juncture that the work of the Scottish philosopher Ray Brassier has attempted to radicalize the materialist urgency for disenchantment, while at the same time seeking to render the exceptionality of human thought inoperative. Both Deleuze and Badiou cannot but finally reintroduce the prerogative of the Ideal; either in the panpsychist process of being as becoming (Deleuze), or in the dialectics of change (Badiou). But although Brassier will celebrate the subtractive regime of extensional multiplicities advocated by Badiou, which prized being free of its transcendental burden and expulses any semblance of qualitative sense, he will have no truck with the dialectics of the event. No exception to the meaningless domain of the material limits or interrupts miraculously the disenchantment evinced by formal indifference of scientific factuality. It is through the latter that humanity comes to appear within the cosmological scope, as utterly trivialized. Brassier seeks to unearth a form of non-dialectical negativity, an unilateral index for the Real which is not occasioned by thought and so is not of thought, even if thought is of it. This means that the putative privilege of the temporal over the spatial so characteristic of empiricism, phenomenology and vitalism, must be overcome. And along with them both Deleuze's castigation of the actual, as well as Badiou's evental discontinuities triggered by the subjective, become ripe for evisceration. In their place, Brassier favors the diachronicity of an ontologically univocal space-time where thought's dialectical structure shows its belonging to the Real, while the latter remains completely indifferent to thought. This is the roots of Brassier's 'speculative realist' option which, opposes the dominance of post-Kantian correlationism: the thesis that the world and thought, materiality and ideality, stand in a relation of mutual determination, and so that it is unthinkable to set them apart. Against the correlationist taint which always reifies the subjective, the sapient and the organic, Brassier unilateralizes the determination of thought by the material. In doing so, he argues that: "...speculative realism must uphold the autonomy of a space-time that is independent of the correlation of thinking and being, a space time whose incommensurability with the spans of human or even biological duration is no longer a function of chronological discrepancy but of a diachronicity rooted in the voiding of being-nothing." This entails, for Brassier, following the thought of Wilfrid Sellars', that although the real comprises univocally thoughts and things alike, being is never reducible to thought. Rather, while matter provides the conditional ontological support for the ontogenesis of thought, the latter is construed methodologically as belonging to the normative domain of the logical space of reasons. Matter, in its turn, is impervious to the inferential domain of rational normativity; even if it is only within the conceptual that the methodological separation of concept and object is enacted.
As Badiou determined, the thought of being is dialectical and untethered from any kind of subjective conditions of access; but here we get not the dialectical Nothingness which, like in Hegel's objective Idealism, renders the dialectic of thought indistinct from the Real. The latter's non-dialectical being persists in its indifference to thought's normative purchase. And this way Brassier finds in the inscription of the human within the diachronicity of space-time already an index of its inevitable demise: not in the merely organic death of the individual, or the intensive splitting-of-self which destroys the representational subject. Rather, he finds it in the imminent knowledge of the truth of solar extinction inscribed in the natural-causal material domain which remains intractable to the temporal logic of organic sapience. The index of a death which will eradicate not just the local stupor of life, but the entirety of material existence itself down to its atomic substructure (one trillion, trillion, trillion years from now): assymptotia leaves us with a cemetery of stellar corpses survived only by 'dark energy'. This darkened index for the Real death, which in Brassier's nihilist position, takes the Enlightenment to its ultimate consequences, is notably radically anti-phenomenological, since it can never be of the order of the chronological temporalization of first-person experience. But it is also radically anti-vitalist and anti-panpsychist, deflating thought's negative and affirmative power down to banal transience of those 'clever beasts', which Nietzsche had already announced, would soon perish without having "made a real difference". Solar extinction is precisely a knowledge which flattens thought into the material, and destroys the reification of meaning in its negative or affirmative capacity. It is the knowledge of a death that can never be experienced and which, being-irreducible to the possibility of apprehension within the continuum of temporal duration concomitant with thought, has in a sense happened already: "It is precisely the extinction of meaning that clears the way for the intelligibility of extinction. Senselessness and purposelessness are not merely privative, they represent a gain in intelligibility... "
Bearing the trace of the in-itself which has already destroyed it, the will to know becomes equal to the Real without thereby reinstating the duality of thought and matter and of their co-relation. Global extinction proceeds from an order of necessity utterly foreign to the free affirmation in the event; its Real conditions the thought that thinks it, not the other way around. Surrendering the torment of the death whose trace it bears, thought reveals also that its interests finally do not coincide with those of the living; and the vector of disenchantment opened by the Enlightenment should sedate the passion for subjective exceptionalism which peel off materialism by the lure of the discursive, the organic, the conceptual. Interestingly, this entails, for Brassier, a rehabilitation of the cog of representation against its post-Bergsonist and post-Heideggerean castigation, if only to espouse a revisionary naturalism where a methodological dualism grounds ontological univocity.
I conclude with the following quote, from Brassier again, which announces what is perhaps the crucial philosophical predicament in these three thinkers: that is, to overcome a thought which, still encumbered in the Romantic desire to find itself at ease in the Universe, escapes the Real's vacuous, non-dialectical negativity, which, intractable to the vocabulary of the manifest image celebrating its clever beastliness, cares little for our moribund existence:
"The problem consists in articulating the relation between the dialectical structure of conceptual discourse and the non-dialectical status of the real in such a way as to explain how real negativity fuels dialectics even as it prevents dialectics from incorporating its own negativity. Real negativity splits the logos from within, while from without it splits signification from reality. The goal is to understand how non-conceptual negativity determines dialectical negation while preventing negation in the concept from fusing with real negativity."