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Politics and Negation

Towards an Affirmative Philosophy

Roberto Esposito

Translated by Zakiya Hanafi



Don’t you know that “No” is the wildest word we consign to language?

Emily Dickinson


1. To this day we lack a broad-ranging reflection on the relationship between politics and negation. Although each of these categories has been the focus of an almost interminable series of studies, we still await an integrated analysis of their relationship. Ever since its beginnings, philosophy has inquired into the structure of negation and has been divided over its meaning and function. It might even be said that, all the way from Parmenides through Plato and Aristotle and up to Hegel and twentieth-century thought, philosophy has thought about nothing else, overcoming even the canonical hurdles between analytic and continental thinkers. The philosophical works of Heidegger and Wittgenstein – to take the high points of these traditions – both focus on the problem of the negative, albeit in entirely different ways. But neither of them connects the issue organically to an inquiry into politics. Generally speaking, what remains wanting is a comprehensive survey that can interrelate the various grammars of negation, which for the most part are confined inside differing disciplinary fields. When browsing through the endless bibliography on the topic, one is struck by the resoluteness of the boundaries that separate them, as if they were incomparable perspectives. Apart from a few laudable exceptions, rarely do studies on the function of the “not” in linguistic denotation connect with work done in logic on the judgment of attribution, or with work in ontology on the status of nothingness. And when this does happen, it is often put down to an undue confusion between heterogeneous languages, as Carnap objected to Heidegger in a hatchet job that reflects poorly on its author. Let us be clear about this. The very premise of this book is that the different modes of negation need to be kept rigorously distinct. However, this must be done in a way that does not lose track of the mutual implication between them and that even makes it central to the analysis – because the transition of the negative from a linguistic to a logical use, and from this to an ontological one, to arrive at a performative use is exactly the same passage along which its metapolitical effect can be understood.

From the other corner of the quadrant, reflection on politics has also failed to engage adequately with the paradigm of negation. There is no lack of reflection on the negative outcomes of certain policies (a widespread topic), or even on political action as such, when it comes to achieving particular objectives. However, we have yet to identify the structurally negative character of modern political categories – negative in relation to the ancient ones, for which they generally aim to serve as confutation; but also negative vis-à-vis their own stated ends, whose logic and effects are contradicted by the very way those categories are formulated. It is true that the four major political philosophers of the twentieth century – Max Weber, Carl Schmitt, Hannah Arendt, and Michel Foucault – have all, in various ways, noted the progressive contraction of the political space, which has dried up to the point of flipping over into its opposite. Bureaucratization, neutralization, depoliticization, and thanatopolitics are the names they have given to this eclipse of the political, which affects political practice as much as the categories that have long interpreted it. Weber, Schmitt, Arendt, and Foucault have, in their respective ways, examined critically the concepts of power, authority, representation, and freedom. However, they did not focus enough on the metaphysical device that causes these concepts to negate what they affirm: the negative register that runs through them secretly, undermining their internal coherence and functional effectiveness – until one day, sometime between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the entire machine of thought that had produced them broke down, with the disintegrative consequences that we know.


2. “Nihilism” is the name generally given to this development, in an interpretative perspective that united politics and negation perhaps for the first time. But even in this case there was no recognition of the origins and intensity of the bond that ties them together. Nihilism was generally viewed as what produced such a predicament rather than as its inevitable result. Most of its commentators saw it as a relatively recent event, originating in the disintegration of Hegelianism, which repudiated the ethical goals and epistemological protocols of modernity. This is why the paradigm of nihilism presupposed a relationship between politics and negation and yet, in spite of this, interpreted it as an encounter that at a certain point melded together two logically and developmentally independent categories. This led not only to the reduction but even to the distortion of a phenomenon of a very different nature. As Nietzsche and Heidegger showed before anyone else, in their different ways, what appeared to be the origin of a process was in reality one of its effects: not the sudden unfolding of nothingness onto a previously affirmative horizon, but the folding back on itself of a negativity that was already present at the source of our conceptual lexicon. Nihilism is not the negation of being – as one often keeps hearing – but the destruction of the difference that inhabits being. Its principal contribution has not been the production of the negative but the negation of the negative – and therefore its doubling. By negating the negative that has always permeated our experience, what we call nihilism ended up strengthening it exponentially, consigning us to its destructive reproduction. For this reason, it also affected overtly positive philosophies that were inclined to eliminate the negative before engaging in any critical confrontation with it.

The presence of the negative in the constitutive processes of the real had already been theorized by Hegel. Although in a highly problematic fashion, he grasped its productivity for the constitution of subjectivity itself – both individual and collective. In this sense, negation has a literally constitutive role. Language, knowledge, and action would not be possible outside a relationship with the negative. Its function consists in distinguishing, determining, and separating – subjective consciousness not only from the object, but also from itself; hence the pain due to the loss of the original identity, severed by a difference that never loses contact with it nonetheless. In this sense, the negative is the wound, but also the soul, of the real. The negative is inseparable from life – it generates and empowers it, courses through it, and makes it fruitful. Meaning arises in the empty spaces of language, just as judgment is enabled only by a break in indistinctiveness. Is it not from the shadows that light springs forth, as great painting teaches us? Even what we perceive to be the greatest negativity – our mortality – is somehow necessary to the breath of life. Certainly, in Hegel this dynamic lends itself to different interpretations, specifically regarding the relationship between negation and affirmation – what he himself defines as dialectics. The affirmative character of negation is implicit in the concept of determined negation. The fact that negation is determined and not absolute is what maintains its relationship with affirmation. But what does it mean for Hegel “to affirm” when the affirmation arises from the negation of the negation? Is the negation thus affirmed or negated? Ultimately our entire relationship with Hegel hinges on this fundamental question. Because an answer to this question is impossible to arrive at from within his own language, one is prompted to try, usually unsuccessfully, to escape outside that language – and yet without losing sight of the question of the negative, which Hegel introduced with unparalleled theoretical power.


3. It cannot be said that this is what always happened. Instead, what took place after Hegel, culminating in the last few decades, was not the further development of his perspective but its crumbling. Different political cultures born out of the disintegration of Hegelianism ended up losing contact with the problem of the negative, in the ill-fated illusion that it could be exhausted. It was from the depths of this blind spot that nothingness, having been suppressed or excluded, resurfaced more than a century later, with unprecedented destructive power, in the form of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism does not represent the insinuation of negation into the forms of the political, as is still suggested, since this took place much earlier; rather it is the attempt to eliminate negation by characterizing as universal a political, social, or racial type of particularity. The category of totality, from which totalitarianism takes its name, was nothing but the device used by those who aimed to eliminate anything that did not fit into their own self-affirmation. This is how affirmation, by liquidating anything that did not obey an identity-based logic, became the brutal mask of negation and was brought to the height of its destructive power.

Not even the defeat of totalitarianism at the end of World War II served to loosen the bonds between politics and negation. On the contrary, the idea of the end of history – another idea that came from Hegelianism – was the most explicit expression of the persistence of this bond. In Kojève’s perspective, for that matter, the exhaustion of the negative conjured up not so much a liberation as the crushing of humankind back into its animal layer. Equally lethal results followed from a theory of globalization that seemed to signal the closing of spatial distance, along with that of time, between the various points on the earth. As soon as these endings – of time and space – were proclaimed, they produced their own reversals. At the end of the twentieth century, time and space began once again to grind out negativity, tearing down the illusions that grew from the collapse of what seemed to be the last wall, and divided through new lines of separation a world that had sought to unify itself. Such a forceful return of the negative, which in reality had never gone away, resulted from the pretense of negating it without confronting it. What takes shape today in sinister fashion, in the spread of violence, is a backlash internal to the logic of negation: the explosion of an immanence so full of itself that it falls to pieces, like a body devastated by its own immune system. The logic of immunization has kicked back on itself, with the lethal effects of an autoimmune disease. Once the negative was expelled as a part – the last of which was identified as the communist bloc – it came back to spread through the whole, so that it has become the very structure of our contemporary world, which is increasingly similar to a sort of global civil war. One might view this as the simultaneous outcome of the absence and presence of the negative – of its expansion to a global level that was caused by its local elimination. The apparently intractable phenomenon of jihadist terrorism is the sinister countereffect of expelling a negation that was politically manageable up to a certain point, and then became absolute. “Absolute” because, unlike all the other cases, including Nazism, this terrorism cannot be fought in the open battlefield or negotiated with, seeing as its followers not only do not fear death, they call for it. The reassuring interpretations of this situation – its reduction to a problem of international policing – are proof of a deeply rooted incapacity to grasp the ultimate meaning of what is taking place.


4. The powerlessness of modern politics to escape from the negative circle in which it remains caught exposes its metaphysical nerve. Even the grand current of thought that sought to acknowledge its status – from Hobbes to Schmitt – ended up being captured by it. The fact that Hobbes looks for the secret of politics in order and Schmitt in conflict is in the end secondary to the element that unites them like the two sides of the same sheet. On this sheet is inscribed the inevitability of that relationship between politics and negation from which we began and about which something more must now be said. Politics and negation must not be viewed as heterogeneous categories that only meet up at a certain point. The metaphysical core of the question concerns their long-lived co-belonging – the political character of negation and the negative determination of the political. If the first two sections of this book approach this core separately – the first in connection to a few twentieth-century writers and the second in connection to the major modern political categories – this is due purely to expository requirements. The same issue is at stake in both cases, being set up by the metaphysical machine that makes negation the form of the political and the political the content of negation.

Let us begin with the first point. What is meant by the political character, or politicization, of negation? This is the transition of negation – easily recognizable in some of the great twentieth-century texts coming out of different lexical spheres – from a linguistic status to a logical, then to an ontological, and finally to a performative status that seeks to exclude whatever is negated. This is when the negative operator – which is required for logical–linguistic determination – becomes the negation of something or somebody, thereby passing from the plane of language and thought to the plane of being. Despite obvious differences in the categories they use, in all the authors involved – Schmitt, Saussure, Freud, Heidegger, and Kojève – one witnesses a sort of intensification of the negative that slips from the sphere of judgment into the ontological sphere of “nothingness,” eventually crossing over into the semantics of annihilation. This outcome should not be understood as a conscious decision on the part of these authors but, rather, more like a given that they registered thanks to their extraordinary seismographic sensitivity – in some cases analyzing it down to its internal folds and in others ultimately reinforcing it. A crucial figure in this gradual slippage is the enemy, who figures most prominently in Schmitt but also, in different ways, in Heidegger and Kojève. In each of them, the construct passes quickly from a logical premise to a vector of meaning that orients the entire discourse in an exclusionary direction. Schmitt in particular argues that the enemy is nothing but an indispensable counterpoint for conceiving of the friend – as if “enemy” can only be conceived of in relation to “friend.” But the logical symmetry between friend and enemy that he asserts breaks down in his analysis in favor of the enemy, ultimately pushing the friend into the sphere of the negative as well. Since the enemy is such insofar as it is not-friend, similarly, the friend is defined solely by its being not-enemy. In this way everyone, friends and enemies, ends up inscribed in the negative horizon of enmity. This first transition is followed by a second, even more significant one, which passes from the plane of possibility to that of effectual reality. Thus, what is initially presented as a pure logical eventuality – war – becomes an inevitable mode of political action. But, if in politics everyone always relates ultimately to enmity, then the “not” is anything but a logical presupposition: it is the real effect of a nullification destined to become annihilation. Not surprisingly, if in Kojève “being for death” explicitly merges with “being for putting to death,” in Heidegger, with respect to what is defined as “not-people,” the ontological lack can be translated into the figure of self-annihilation.


5. To the politicization of negation there corresponds, as cause and effect, the negative turn taken by modern politics and anticipated by Christian political theology. Early on, the secularization that political thought brought to a few theological concepts generated a negative duplication of them. A weak mode of negation came to be transformed into another, more radical mode. Hobbes’s substitution of the Aristotelian figure of privatio with that of annihilatio signals a qualitative leap between the two paradigms. At issue is the relationship between natural state and political state. While Aristotle views the political state as a necessary complement to the natural state, Hobbes severs their relationship and makes the possibility of a political order conditional upon the negation of the natural order. Just as God created the world out of nothing, politics can be born only out of the annihilation of nature. This is how a negation-lack is taken over by a negation-annihilation. Just as, for Descartes, the establishment of modern science requires all previous knowledge to be made tabula rasa, so the Hobbesian political state, too, can be born only out of a complete destruction of the natural state. In this radically negative perspective, all the political categories we use acquire meaning as the negation of their opposite rather than for being what they are, on the basis of their affirmative content. Thus, if the category of sovereignty requires that natural conflict be abrogated, that of property originates in the division of the world given in common. Similarly, all through the modern era the idea of a “people” develops in contrast to the negative figures of the plebs, the multitude, and the masses. Of course, this negative conversion does not take place without consequences for the meaning and destiny of the modern concepts – which are chained to their opposites in a sort of indistinctness that causes them to negate what they affirm. So, having become “negative,” freedom ends up entering into the orbit of the same necessity from which it sought to pull away. What else is freedom but not-necessity, not-constriction, and not-domination?


6. As mentioned earlier, there is no way to negate this negative route without empowering it at the same time – since the product of two negatives is not an affirmation but a surplus of negation. Reversals or denials of the negative always remain inside of that which they negate. The only non-counterproductive way to save oneself from the negative is by separating it from itself, thereby deactivating what the metaphysical machine had produced. If this path continually produces a politicization of negation and a negativity of politics, the avenue described here passes through a disarticulation of politics and negation. By disconnecting them, politics regains its affirmative power and negation is restored to its logical character of determination and to its ontological character of limit. Only in the determination of its own constitutive limit can human experience live the negative in a positive form, without being oppressed by negation or suffocated by an absolute affirmation. Total darkness and light without shadow produce the same blinding effect.

Conversely, the third chapter uses a problematic and experimental approach to attempt an affirmative adoption of the negative. This does not involve a spurious reversal of negation into its opposite – something that has been attempted with counterfactual results, even by a current of thought that views itself as critical. Instead, the aim is to trace out the affirmative figures that lie within negation itself, by working inside its fault lines: not from a dialectical viewpoint, expecting a positive outcome from the use of the negative, but by conceiving affirmatively of negation itself. Of course, this attempt does not come out of nowhere. It benefits greatly from a series of authors and texts from the philosophical tradition. Machiavelli, Spinoza, Kant, Nietzsche, and Foucault belong to this alternative current in various ways; and, given Deleuze’s ambivalence between affirming and eliminating the negative, his work represents its shifting margin. But this indecision is exactly what continues to make his contribution so pivotal. Indeed, the first affirmative figure of the negative – namely difference, identified early on in Plato’s Sophist as the positive mode of negation – is associated with Deleuze. The category of difference does not negate negation; rather difference rescues the affirmative potential of negation by breaking the Parmenidean prohibition, but without plummeting into the mythology of a becoming without form.

Something similar but also different can be said about the second affirmative figure of negation, that of determination, as conceived by Spinoza. In its differential identity between substance and its modes, determination is what rescues the first great affirmative philosophy from the nihilistic threat of negating negation. The fact that negation cannot be negated – that it must be handled without removing negation, and even by welcoming its vital aspect – is demonstrated especially by its third affirmative mode, that of opposition. Opposition is tied, even through its etymon, to the positivity of what is posited – and not necessarily counterposed – in the face of the contrary position. As such, it is perhaps the most productive figure of the negative, because it incorporates the negative’s potential for movement and transformation, thereby preventing one term from excluding the other. Remote from the monotheism of the “one” and from the spineless polytheism of the “multiple,” it defends the persistence of the “two.” It requires the permanence of both opposites of which it consists. The value that Machiavelli gave to conflict as a central mechanism operating inside order; Kant’s concept of the real opposition between contrary forces, both of which are positive; the affirmative dialectics between action and reaction, as Nietzsche conceived of it; the co-belonging of power and resistance theorized by Foucault; the understanding of immune processes as an internal threshold of the community – all these are ways of understanding and practicing the “affirmativity” of the negative. None of them, taken by itself, can block the lethal machine of negation, let alone identify with certainty the forms of its possible positive conversion. However, all of them allude to the need, as yet obscure, to break the connection between negation and politics in which the metaphysical pulse of western politics continues to beat.



Agreement between scholars is unanimous as far as the absolute importance of negation goes – and not only for the way we express ourselves but for all human experience. The use of the negative is the trait that, possibly more than any other, distinguishes human language from that of other animal species. As Laurence R. Horn points out in A Natural History of Negation – perhaps the most complete overview of the topic – “all human systems of communication contain a representation of denial, while no system of animal communication includes it.”1 Animals are incapable of lying or deceiving; nor are they able to negate. Whether one interprets this as a privilege or as a curse, only in humans does facultas loquendi, the capacity to speak, coincide with facultas negandi, the capacity to deny – also because anyone intending to negate the exercise of negation would in reality be practicing it. As Hegel explained once and for all, negation does not stop simply at excluding: it is a figure of relation that is impossible to negate, so much so that even the not-relation has been defined as “one of the simplest and most fundamental relations known to the human mind.”2

Although Bertrand Russell argued that “the world may be described without making use of the word no,”3 even he had to admit that one would still need to find an adequate way to replace it. No matter what strategy one adopts, it is impossible to exclude the term “negation” from our vocabulary. Having established this, what philosophers and linguists disagree over is the kind of relation that exists between negation and affirmation: Which one prevails over the other? For several of them, negation has a lower status than affirmation, to which it is subordinate. Negation seems to be less original, less objective, and less informative than affirmation. This assessment, which was still uncertain in the philosophy of ancient Greece, is deeply rooted in Christianity. Thomas Aquinas believed that the inferiority of the negative assertion pertains just as much to the logical order as it is does to the ontological:

With respect to thought, the affirmative assertion, which signifies composition by the intellect, is prior to the negative, which signifies division […]. With respect to the thing, the affirmative assertion, which signifies “to be,” is prior to the negative, which signifies “not to be,” as the having of something is naturally prior to the privation of it.4

Influenced by this theological tradition, Francis Bacon also declared:

To God, truly, the Giver and Architect of Forms, and it may be to the angels and higher intelligences, it belongs to have an affirmative knowledge of forms immediately, and from the first contemplation. But this assuredly is more than man can do, to whom it is granted only to proceed at first by negatives, and at last to end in affirmatives, after exclusion has been exhausted.5

Negation thus becomes at the same time an obstacle and a step towards an affirmative knowledge, which, as such, is unattainable for the finite intellect of human beings. This is because the human mind, marked by falsities and error, bears the diabolical trace of Cain’s sin. A secularized echo of this notion can be heard once again in Frederick Heinemann’s proposition that “[n]egation is indispensable for a finite mind.”6

Not all thinkers agree with this assessment, though. Wittgenstein, for example – and Austin and Quine too, although in a different form – established a symmetrical relationship between affirmation and negation: negation presupposes affirmation just as affirmation presupposes negation. They dispute the idea that negation is a second-order category with respect to its opposite, or even that it can be assimilated to falsity. Just as the being of a thought does not consist in its being true, falsity does not imply its not-being – on the contrary, falsity proves its existence, negatively. Otherwise, if the thought did not exist, what would be false? Rather than nullifying the thought, the “not” of the statement actually attests it. As Frege argues in his essay on negation,

A false thought is not a thought that has no being – not even if we take “being” to mean “not needing an owner.” A false thought must be admitted, not indeed as true, but as sometimes indispensable: first, as the sense of an interrogative sentence; secondly, as part of a hypothetical thought-complex; thirdly, in negation.7

What appears to some as a defect or limitation, to others seems a surplus of meaning. The linguist Joseph Greenberg argued that the negative is semantically superior to the positive rather than inferior or subordinate, because it is more expressive, in the same way in which “lioness,” for example, is a more marked term than “lion.”8 The fact that negation adds something – the particle “not” – to the simple position makes it more incisive than the latter, if only because, unlike affirmation, it presents a wide range of potentialities that go beyond the sphere of judgment, pushing towards the adjacent but diverse areas of denial, suppression, and exclusion. “Negation,” Wittgenstein remarked, “is a gesture of exclusion, of rejection. But such a gesture is used in a great variety of cases.”9

Throughout this book, this slippage – from the linguistic to the ontological and from the ontological to the performative planes10 – will be interpreted from a metapolitical perspective. To get a sense of this transfer, one need only think about the (undue) passing from negative judgment to rejection of the object. To judge something negatively is not tantamount to rejecting or excluding it. Nevertheless, semantic transitions between the various meanings of negation occur not infrequently. Indeed, this is an almost natural effect of the dispositif in which we have been caught for some time now, one that is both metaphysical and political. On the basis of this device, the more affirmation and negation are pushed towards contrasting polarities aimed at mutually negating each other, the more the politicization of the “not” becomes inescapable. To deactivate this destructive short-circuit, first of all the distinction between the various forms of the negative must be kept firm; secondly, the negative must be placed on a hermeneutically affirmative horizon. The negative is not necessarily “the enemy” of the positive; the negative is also a secret resource of the positive, one that needs to be brought to the surface. When the linguist Carl Abel ventured to argue, amid general skepticism, that the fundamental words of a language contain in them their opposite, he came close, whether intentionally or not, to satisfying this need.11


An attempt to interrupt the metapolitical machine of negation by reversing the passage of the negative from the sphere of judgment to the procedure of rejection has been made by the Polish linguist Anna Wierzbicka. Drawing her inspiration from Leibniz’s Alphabetum cogitationum humanarum, Wierzbicka identified a series of basic elements with a similar meaning that are present in all languages. She starts out with the premise that there exists a universally shared semantic nucleus that can be condensed into roughly sixty words. These include the verb “to sense” (as in “to perceive”); the nouns “body,” “power,” “time”; the adverb “many”; the evaluators “good” and “bad,” and so on. Negation, considered to be one of the least controversial “primitives,” obviously appears among these “chromosomes of thought,” which were selected intuitively by Weirzbicka but then tested empirically in existing languages. But the most interesting fact as far as my investigation is concerned lies in how its definition changes over the years in Weirzbicka’s works. Negation is not represented from the outset by the particle “not” – or by its counterparts in various languages. It does not appear in the list of Semantic Primitives of 197212 or in Lingua mentalis of 1980.13 In both classifications it is expressed instead by the locution “I don’t want” or by the even clearer “I diswant.” Weirzbicka herself justifies this choice through the more marked character of these expressions. Unlike the proposition “I don’t know,” or even “I don’t,” “I don’t want” displays a semantic surplus that goes beyond the negative assertion, crossing over into the illocutionary act of rejection. Not only does the semantics of rejection prevail over that of judgment; the negative assertion acquires the tone of an exclusionary decision. It refers not to the mere possibility that I don’t want, but to its effectuality. This way, explains Wierzbicka, I am saying in no uncertain terms that “I reject something or someone.”

Later on, realizing that “non wanting” was too intense – too specific to encompass all the tones of the negative – the linguist went back on her choice, both moderating and generalizing it at once. Thus, in the most recent Semantics: Primes and Universals, in the place of “I don’t want” or “I diswant,” there appears for the first time the particle “not.” “Undoubtedly, acts of ‘rejection’ (‘I don’t want this!’) play an important role in human life […] this does not necessarily mean that ‘rejection’ is a simple semantic notion, which can be said to underlie all negation.”14 What is even more symptomatic about “I don’t want” being discontinued is the reason Wierzbicka gives for the change. According to her, the change stems from her study of childhood language acquisition, on which she embarked at some point in her research and which made apparent to her the reductionism of her first choice. In the first two years of a child’s life negation takes on a variety of registers, which cannot be reduced to the bare “don’t want.” For an infant who has just begun to speak, “no box” can mean that there aren’t enough boxes, that a box is not needed at the moment, or that the infant is rejecting the box. But this last option is only one of the many possibilities implicit in the “no.” In short, rejection is only one of the possible modes of negation and not the presupposition for its use – it represents the fine point on a line that includes various segments. Whatever enters into the order of negation does not necessarily have to be rejected. Unlike “I don’t want,” “‘not’ is simply ‘not,’ and […] it cannot be reduced to anything else.”15


Part I