The power of negative thinking

by Rob Horning

28 September 2005


I’ll admit it: My first impulse when confronted with the celebration of “optimism” or “fun” is to cringe and then to mount a skeptical attack on whatever subject is basking in that warm and fuzzy glow. This may seem to be a pretty stupid, contrarian thing to do, and I’ll also admit it often seems that way to me, too. But Jameson’s account of Marcuse’s philosophy in Marxism and Form offers a highly dialectical and erudite-sounding defense of negative thinking (which I find very reassuring).  According to Marcuse, we are on the far side of postindustrial capitalism, in which greater freedom and access to culture have become mere smokescreens, or worse, have become the surreptitious means for implemening inescapable social control—inescapable because we volunteer to subject ourselves to it (it operates on us without our knowing), because it caters to our vanity (we are unique individuals, our pleasure is more important than society, etc.)  and because it has effaced through the media and advertising and rampant hedonism all “sense of the negative” (abundance means one should simply shut up and be happy, even if that also means a mechanistic trudging through life while dogged with a sense of emptiness). In this situation it becomes harder to imagine any alternatives to what already exists. As Jameson explains, “thus it is that the happier we are, the more surely we are given over, without even being aware of it, into the power of the socio-economic system itself.” In order to break out of this hermetic system requires the ability to imagine something different, but lacking the material to even fashion such an imagining, to posit such a utopia (our deeply internalized “reality principle” makes it impossible to imagine a world not driven by consumer capitalism—instead we think we’ve achieved the End of History, and alternatives range from wildly “impractical” to plain absurd) we must make recourse to straight negation of what is. “It is only when individual happiness, subjective contentment, is not positive (in the sense of ultimate satiation by the consumer’s society), but rather negative, as a symbolic refusal of everything which that society has to offer, that happiness can recover its right to be thought of as a measure and an enlargement of human possibilities.” In other words, being happy by this society’s terms is to shut off the human species’ chance to develop and enlarge itself, to broaden the terms of happiness and extend it to everyone. How utopian is that?

What matters are acts of resistance, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant—not laughing when the laugh track cues you, not saying “have a nice day” when you don’t mean it, adopting a stubborn literalism in the face of “witty” ads trying to win you to their snarky side, etc. One can help but be implicated in the consumerist system—one can’t simply stop shopping unless one has survival resources that extend beyond what the typical American habitus equips one for. But one can begin to seek out the sorts of tactics Michel de Certeau writes about in The Practice of Everyday Life, the subversive moves wherein the producer’s intentions are subverted by the consumers in an effort to manifest a sense of life outside of the market hegemony. Debord advocated cultural detournement, taking cultural artifacts and parodying them, using them in ways opposite to how they are intended. Sontag called it camp, approaching culture with an incisive irony that turned the consumer society’s soporifics and stupefiers against it. All of these are semi-idealistic, optimistic ways to be negative.

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