- Negativity and Difference: On Gilles Deleuze’s Criticism of Dialectics
In the late sixties, the positions in Paris are clear: the theory of difference and the theory of identity fall into two clearly distinguishable and irreconcilable camps. The analysis of linguistic meaning, the self, and social processes takes a turn that runs counter to the almost simultaneous paradigm shift from the philosophy of consciousness to the philosophy of language in the wake of Wittgenstein. Theoretical motifs of difference, which have time and again appeared and disappeared in the course of the history of science, are brought together in the work of Deleuze and Derrida in a way that is not just rhetorically, but also conceptually impressive. That productive heterological, or identity-critical approaches like Rickert’s, Cassirer’s, and Adorno’s are not taken into consideration does not at all lessen the importance of this work. Yet, even though Deleuze and Derrida undermine the central metaphysical and positivist dichotomies, they also draw a line that makes it easy to distinguish between friend and foe. Thought that remains directed toward the priority of the identical is charged with having fallen prey to an illusion, be it necessary (Derrida) 1 or an avoidable one (Deleuze), 2 that obscures and falsifies the originary as well as [End Page 463] originless play of difference, its traces (Derrida) and identityless couplings (Deleuze).
Among the diverse views that, according to Derrida and Deleuze, have fallen prey to this illusion, two particularly influential and unassailable positions stand out: namely, affirmative and negative dialectics. Affirmative dialectics (under this rubric, Hegel and his direct followers are named), conceives of the genesis of linguistic meaning, self-consciousness, the morally responsible subject, and the totality of social relations as a process that ultimately leads to a unified formation (via figures of limitation, opposition and contradiction). Negative dialectics (here Sartre, Adorno, and Lacan are given as examples) turns lack, conflict, and non-reconciliation into anthropological or social signatures whose sublation is either completely unthinkable or, at best, possible in the distant future. In the first case, difference is a function of an always attainable identity; in the second, difference is only the negative image of an identity that remains the withdrawn and heavily veiled anchorage of all conceptualizations. From this perspective, even variations on a negative dialectics turn out to be theories that have yet to break loose from the reigns of identity-logical thinking.
At the beginning of the eighties, the German social scientist Niklas Luhmann reinforces the clear division between the camps. Under the programmatic formula “difference of identity and difference,” 3 his theory of social systems assumes a position forcefully opposed to the concepts of every imaginable reconciliatory philosophy (whether of Hegelian, Marxist, consensus-theoretical, or communitarian descent).
In the meantime, however, this famous-infamous formula of demarcation seems to have lost its efficacy as a legible boundary. On the one hand, recent interpretations of Hegel lay claim to the discovery of a difference-theoretical and almost pre-deconstructive potential in the Science of Logic, 4 especially its second part. On the other, Luhmann’s theory itself has suddenly come under fire, been boiled down to its allegedly [End Page 464] identity-logical foundations, and panned along with a very conventionally read Hegel. 5 According to such interpretations, Luhmann’s concept of “world” constitutes a pre-reflexive unity. Likewise, the difference fundamental to systems theory between system and environment is reduced to an oppositional construction that furtively avails itself of some third, unifying element.
Does neo-structuralism need to revise its views on the dialectical figure of negation? 6 Can systems-theoretical sociology continue to set out with a programmatic differentiation that, at first, tones down its own paradoxicality only to reincorporate it when the time seems right (i.e., when enough complexity has been built up)? Has the hour of confusion come for adherents and detractors of difference theory alike?
In this complex situation, it is advisable to scrutinize the criteria according to which sheep and goats are separated into hostile camps and to ask how the relation of identity and difference ought to be construed in theories that conceive of...