Indeterminate Thoughts on Determinate Negation

Note: I have been somewhat pre-empted before finishing this post by NP’s redemption of a promise to write on a similar topic here (see also Sinthome’s reply). Hopefully, there should not be too much redundancy in the content here though.

Given the recent discussions of Zizek’s use of negation (links at antigram), now might be a good time for me to set out some of my own thoughts on this concept. To begin then, consider Steve Shaviro’s suggestion with respect to what is really at stake in the argument:

The crucial point is not to affirm, but to move in new directions. To create.* We need to get out of the trap of merely reversing, or giving the exact opposite of, a dominant discourse. The important thing is not to reverse direction, but to move in another dimension altogether. Any three points describe a plane, a flat field upon which vectors of antagonism may be locked in battle (excuse the mixed metaphors). Obliqueness means, not staying on the plane, but moving off along another axis, in a third spatial dimension.

It is readily understandable how this sentiment might arise in response to Zizek’s often lazy and predictable — if still occasionally electrifying — negative formulations. The pattern is a familiar one, with Zizek’s infamous rhetorical inversion being along these lines: “Amongst all quarters, today there is no more universally acknowledged assumption than this, but is not precisely the opposite the case?” (Incidentally, compare Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said [such-and-such] but I say to you [this-other-thing]”) Thus, we get complaints that Zizek remains parasitic upon the very object of his critique such that he can effect only a mere reversal of an existing element or tendency whilst what must remain unchallenged for him is the thematisation of the field of possibilities into which the critical intervention takes place. The call for ‘obliqueness’ is a call for a creative reconceptualisation of these possibilities that does not remain trapped within the internal logic immanent to an already given individuation of the elements of the situation. Insofar as Zizek’s contrarian impulses remain wedded to such a logic — merely inverting the conclusions arrived at within its strictures — then they are thought to be unable to fashion us with an adequately rich and productive mode of critique.

Setting aside the question of how fair this is as a characterisation of Zizek’s avowed or implicit methodology, we can go on to identify it as being just one form of negation. To cast matters in Hegelian terms, it belongs to the broad class of negativity proper to the dialectic: it is determinate negation. For negation to be determinate is for it to have a content and so for it to be intentional, thus being the negation of one thing but not another.

By way of contrast, indeterminate negation would be negativity without ties to the specific character of the negated object. We might go on to delineate two possible modes of this indeterminate (or ‘mere‘) negation. The first of these would stem from the nature of the normative standard employed in the critique that precludes any real engagement with the determinate features of the object. Here, for example, we might group scepticism, nihilism and ‘Beautiful Soul’-ism, which in their own ways negate the object abstractly — a rejection pre-determined by the very co-ordinates the critique would take place within that entails that no matter what the object is it can never qualify as the True, the Good or the Righteous.

A second mode of mere negation would fail to treat the object with the requisite specificity through a failure to relate it to the conditions that make its appearance a necessity; an error Hegel introduces us to in the very first passages of the Phenomenology (Preface, 2). One of the multiple reasons why this negativity remains shallow is that it is left with meagre resources to explain falsity and semblance. That is, given that the object of critique has been discovered to be somehow inadequate, we are faced with the question of why no-one had realised this heretofore. Is it that people ‘just have’ been mistaken or are stupid or exceedingly gullible? The systematic regularity of such purported ‘errors’ calls for a more precise examination of the conditions undergirding them such that we do not remain content to wield an external critical standard, judging upon truth and falsity without accounting for the necessity (or for the faint-hearted, increased probability) of these so-called mistakes. This will involve critique in the task of determinate negation which proceeds to engage in a qualitative (i.e. more fully ‘contentful’) investigation of the negated object.

With respect to Zizek, I want to raise two intertwined potential criticisms — ones that, for now, remain both hesitantly put forward and very underdeveloped — that would stem from a possible failure of his work to meet the standards immanent to determinate negation (presuming that it is this sort of negation that can be taken to be the correct characterisation of Zizek’s methodology). That is, I want to suggest that there is a mismatch between his existing practice and the standards proper to that practice qua critical determinate negation — that at heart it remains mere negation. (This is a slightly different charge than that Zizek is involved in a simple performative contradiction whereby he does one thing but says he does another: rather, it is a more Hegelian one that does not necessarily shy away from the ‘non-coincidence’ of object and concept of the sort challenged by Sinthome here, although I cannot defend this position fully in this post.) My broader intention in doing so is to mount a limited defence of the concept of negativity, showing that even if Zizek’s employment of negativity is problematic, this may not be too much of an issue for its prospects as a critical concept in general.

Firstly, I want to echo a sentiment often expressed with respect to Zizek — that his analyses are sometimes somehow ‘mechanical’ and overly formulaic — but to try and situate this criticism in terms of falling short of the determinacy required for dialectical negation. As a preliminary, an obvious criticism should be raised that would claim that it was perverse to challenge Zizek over a lack of determinacy in his work; for who spends more time than he does examining concrete phenomena? And this is combined with the eschewing of disengaged philosophical and psychoanalytic abstractions insofar as they remain divorced from the details of pop culture, political history, academic trends and so on ad infinitum. However, taking the recent review of 300 as an example, arguably Zizek does not really thoroughly engage with the content of the film and its leftist analysis, effectively remaining at the level of a formal operation of reversal. In one sense the analysis does involve a determinate negation, taking the conventional leftist wisdom about the film (as homophobic, racist, etc.) and inverting it into its opposite (the film as depicting militant communist struggle, as exemplifying the true political opposition to rightist forces). The result is something determinate — the claim that in a sense the film champions the socialist cause or its central values. Yet, insofar as it remains tied to this formal operation of reversal it reproduces the internal structure of the leftist critique; all the elements of the film read it as a deeply politicised battle between left and right remain in place, only the Master-valency is reversed. Again, the structure remains the same — ‘obliqueness’ is absent.

Thus, there is a limited analogy to be drawn between the first mode of indeterminate negation outlined above and my characterisation of Zizek as often engaging in merely formal operations of reversal. The analogy falls short since there is a determinate result of the critique — its negations are not empty ones but fashion us with a negation-of-something and a specific result, being some sort of ‘reversal’ of the initial object of critique. Yet, the stance embodied has a certain similarity to those of scepticism, nihilism and ‘Beautiful Soul’-ism in that it does not treat its object in its full specificity, in this case merely latching on to its fixed formal relations and not its full content. This means that its results are more-or-less preset, lacking a certain critical flexibility. In this respect this mode of critique is like a mathematical function.

Furthermore, if it is not unreasonable to render this employment of negation as analogous to a function or operation then my second point might begin to be able to be formulated, if still very sketchily. Prompted by some of Hegel’s remarks in the superb Introduction of the Phenomenology, there may be a way of formulating analysis in the form of negativity such that it avoids the criticism of leading to stale, acute and stodgily reactionary results. To see this we can contrast my crude sketch of some of Zizek’s uses of negation with the sort that Hegel seems to point to. So, I have claimed that often Zizek seems stuck on, as it were, a singular ‘field’ of analysis, left to rearrange its ‘elements’ but not to break out of an already-given individuation of those elements. (Evidently I am struggling and failing to find the right vocabulary here!)

The way that Hegel seems to envision the role of negativity within the dialectic is as marking a gap between the object and its essence or concept (Notion, Begriff) — its explicit properties being ‘out of joint’ with its implicit nature. In terms of the forms of consciousness and the world that are met in the Phenomenology this means that they are not ‘identical’ in- and for-themselves (anundfürsich) and so are not ‘at home’ (zu Hause). What arguably prevents this from degenerating into an extravagant metaphysical essentialism is a certain situational embededness (the word ‘perspective’ is inappropriate here for numerous reasons) of the so-called essence; it is somehow relative (or rather, immanent) to the field that the object is individuated within and does not mark a pure thing-in-itself external to this field.

So, one way of casting the difference between what Hegel might want to do and what I have characterised Zizek as sometimes doing would be as follows. For Hegel, negation marks the need to radically transform the analytic field, whereas for Zizek it is often just a move within this fixed field. (Hegel is notoriously sceptical of attempts merely to fix dumb reality so that it matches up with its underlying ideal: deficiencies in objects are deficiencies in their concepts.) So, I would claim that the notion of negativity in play for Hegel implies the need for the very ‘obliqueness’ that can seem lacking in Zizek, requiring upon a discovery of the object failing to meet its essence a reconceptualisation of what the object is, where this involves a transformation of the normative standards by which the object is judged. Yet, in reformulating the problematic in light of such negation we are not left with only the flash of creative genius nor a mad scrabble in the dark for new values. By thematising the conditions that have conditioned the history of critique hitherto we can place previous failures in some sort of developmental process (perhaps even a necessary one) that indicates the most promising successor which would hold the most hope in avoiding previous problems.

A coda: again, my own critical stance seems to be insufficiently situated here according to the criterion I gesture towards — but that will have to wait.