Negative affirmation

The long and difficult section on the unconscious in the long and difficult chapter on repetition in Difference and Repetition is Deleuze’s description of the site of the “passive synthesis” that occurs in the contemplating mind. The name for this passive synthesis is habit, “the foundation from which all other psychic phenomena derive.” Deleuze insists on passivity because the goal of active synthesis is “global integration,” in the form of representation and unity. Only passive synthesis can maintain multiplicity, because it does not dissolve the “thousands of habits of which we are composed” into a unified subject.

For Deleuze, Freud’s (and Jung’s) theory of the unconscious is wrong because it reverses the relationship between habit and pleasure, making the former dependent on the latter. But, appearances nothwithstanding, “habit, in the form of a passive binding synthesis, precedes the pleasure principle and renders it possible.” For psychoanalysis, however, repetition is caused by repression (“We repeat because we repress,” Freud would say), and the “whole theory of repetition is thereby subordinated to the requirements of simple representation, from the standpoint of its realism, materialism and subjectivism.” At heart, the problem with this theory is its negativity.

The phenomena of the unconscious cannot be understood in the overly simple form of opposition or conflict….The negative…expresses only within consciousness the shadow of fundamentally unconscious questions and problems, and owes its apparent power to the inevitable place of the ‘false’ in the natural positing of these problems and questions.

Instead of appearing “as a power of negation or as an element of an opposition,” the productive unconscious acts as “a questioning, problematising and searching force.” The questions it poses and problems it discovers “are not speculative acts, and as such completely provisional and indicative of the momentary ignorance of an empirical subject,” but are “living acts…, investing special objectivities and destined to survive in the provisional and partial state characteristic of answers and solutions.” Deleuze’s goal is not to prescribe a philosophy of happy-go-luckyism but to show that problematizing and questioning don’t acknowledge forces of limitation and that negativity necessarily bounds the unconscious to the parameters of the opposing object. In this way, thought is experimentation and risk-taking, a denial of limits and boundaries.

Deleuze does not deny that there are oppositions and conflicts, but he says these “are felt in consciousness.” The unconscious, however, like repetition, is “for itself.” Negativity and positivity and strategies of refusal have been the topics of several blog conversations lately. Some participants have tended to see “I prefer not to” and denial as pure negativity, as advocating a complete blankness. But using Deleuze as a guide, it’s possible, I think, to see refusal not as a negation but as an affirmation–a conscious/political assertion of the unconscious’s/multiple’s autonomous existence, to stretch the terms a bit (probably beyond reason). The negative act of refusal, then, is both a rejection of limits placed on the self and an insistence on its positive potential.


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