One from the Archives: Negativity

Although I’m working on other things at the moment (though very slowly, due to this rotten cold), it occurred to me that I’ve got a bunch of material lying around in my email account from various conversations I’ve had with terribly interesting individuals. Some of this is fairly easy just to copy and paste onto the blog, so there’s no good reason not to do so. I’m going to post them pretty much as is, and any necessary corrections or revisions will appear in ‘[…]’.

To start with, here’s something I wrote in response to a really excellent question from Alex Williams on my understanding of the relation between politics and negativity. It doesn’t really talk about politics much, but rather tries to disambiguate various ways in which the concept of negativity can be deployed philosophically. Hope you enjoy.

I haven’t read Benjamin Noys book on the matter, which I suspect I should, but I’m generally very skeptical of the way ‘negativity’ and ‘positivity’ get used in much of mainstream continental philosophical discourse. It’s one of my pet peeves actually, because it often ends up running together logical and metaphysical issues with metaphorics of affectivity (‘we must be positive’ or ‘we must be negative’, etc.). That said, I’ll try and disentangle the bits I think something can be said about as best as I can.

There’s basically three different registers in which talk of negativity is relevant: philosophy of logic, philosophy of subjectivity, and metaphysics. These overlap insofar as subjects can be conceived as necessarily having the capacity for reasoning (which is made explicit using logical vocabulary) and insofar as there are questions about the subjects place within reality (and the relation between logical and metaphysical structure more broadly). To understand the relations between these different ways of talking about negativity I’d like to trace a few historical debates running through Spinoza, Hegel, Deleuze, Heidegger, Sartre and Brandom.

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Comments on Capitalist Realism (Part 1)

I recently finished reading Mark Fisher‘s Capitalist Realism. I’m very sorry it took me so long. Now I’m at the end of my thesis I’m starting to finally do things I’ve been putting off for a long time. Mark really must be praised for writing such an accessible and yet eminently perceptive and persuasive book. It touches on a number of issues I’ve been thinking about myself for a long time, and gives names to several phenomena that have been on the edge of my intellectual awareness for even longer. I don’t agree with all of it, and I can see numerous points where the discussion needs to be taken further, but these are merely signs of how thought provoking and well-written the book is.

As I’ve said, now I’m at the end of the thesis, I’m starting to pick up things I’ve put off, and start new projects again. Politics is what originally got me into philosophy. Specifically, I was motivated to take up theoretical philosophy by precisely what demotivated me to engage in practical political action: the problem of how it is possible to change anything in the current environment (an environment Mark so perspicuously circumscribes). I remember attending the big anti-war march just before the beginning of the Iraq war in London, the biggest peace protest in history at the time (I think), and seeing how easily it was assimilated and dissipated by the media-democratic complex. It struck me that a smaller number of people (with a smaller amount of public support behind them) brought down the Vietnam war, and yet this did precisely nothing. I was 17 at the time, and hoping to go into politics. That event disrupted my perspective and made me want to understand why it did nothing, and how it would be possible to do something. I’ve spent the last 7 years or so on a journey into high theory, acquiring a number of abstract theoretical tools along the way, and I think I’m finally ready to make my descent back toward concrete political issues. Capitalist Realism has only reinforced my resolve on this front.

To this end, I’m in the early stages of starting a new blog to discuss more concrete political issues. Deontologistics has always been very much a blog about abstract issues, and although I’ve touched on the odd bit of political and ethical theory here and there, that’s never been its purpose. The arrangements for the new blog are still coming together though (it doesn’t even have a name yet), so watch this space. The one thing I can tell you is that if there is one phrase that sums up its modus operandi, it’s this: political rationalism. Given all this, I feel that it’s a good idea for me to write up my thoughts on Capitalist Realism (or CR), as a preliminary to the work I’m hoping to undertake. This will be less of a summary of the book’s core ideas than an exploration of the terrain it covers from within my own theoretical perspective. This means adding some theoretical supplements and using these to sketch the ways in which I think some of Mark’s ideas can be developed. The other qualification to add here is that I’m not as well versed in political theory as I’d like, and so it’s quite possible that I’ll reinvent some theoretical wheels as I’m going here (especially with regard to Marx and Habermas). I’m very happy to have this pointed out to me.

As should be no surprise to regular readers, this will be a long post (this part is 16,000, which I believe is a new record). It started out life as an email to Mark and became somewhat excessive. It’s gotten so long that I’ve actually had to split it up into parts (the second has yet to be completed). Here is the first part, which involves more theoretical supplementation than political musing. The second part should get more concrete, or at least, as concrete as I am known to get.

Anyway, here we go…

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Rating Philosophers

The underrated and overrated philosopher meme is going round again, and though I don’t normally join in such things, I had a good think about it on the bus today and figured I may as well put down my thoughts. The question of the most underrated is actually more difficult for me, because, even though the figures I’m most influenced by don’t obviously make for great bedfellows (Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, Deleuze, Wittgenstein, Quine, Brandom), they’re generally held in fairly high regard. An odd bunch, but hardly a minor tradition. Obviously one could say that some are underrated by certain philosophical traditions, Deleuze by the analytic tradition (despite Delanda’s fine work), or Quine by the continental tradition (despite Badiou’s scattered comments). Hegel certainly has been underrated at times, but isn’t anymore in either tradition. The only person who comes close to properly being underrated is Brandom (surprise surprise). He is becoming more popular, but I think he deserves a bit more recognition yet. He’s very popular in bits of Europe, but not so much in the US and seemingly even less in the UK (alas). I won’t go over his virtues again here, as I’ve done that plenty elsewhere.

Anyway, it seems somewhat of a cheat to pick a living philosopher, so I’ll have to make a different, if not so well informed choice: Wilfrid Sellars. I haven’t read much Sellars, but I’ve read a number of people who’re strongly influenced by him, and I’m increasingly reading more about him, largely thanks to the advice of Ray Brassier. Sellars strikes me as somewhat of the Captain Beefheart of philosophy, few people read (or listen) to him, but his influence is pervasive (at least in the analytic tradition). He has played a central role in shaping debates around rationality, normativity, perception, functionalism, naturalism, and scientific realism, and there are still potentially new insights to be found within his work. Moreover, much like Beefheart, despite his wide influence in a number of spheres, no one seems to be quite like him in the synoptic breadth of his concerns. As Ray has noted (following O’Shea I think), Sellarsians seem to split into right and left camps, either championing his metaphysical naturalism or his complex normative account of thought and action, but rarely do they adopt both at once. All in all, I intend to spend more time getting acquainted with him in the future.

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