A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Break Stuff: Negation, Totality, and the Project of Rhetorical Theory

James Rushing Daniel, University of Washington

(Published March 15, 2022)

In his 2021 polemic, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, activist and human ecology scholar Andreas Malm stages a defense of sabotage in the context of climate change. Framing capitalism’s rapacious appetite for energy as the primary source of environmental ruin, Malm asks, “When do we conclude that the time has come to also try something different? When do we start physically attacking the things that consume our planet and destroy them with our own hands?” (8). He responds that destructive acts against the organs of climate change are the only means left for activists wishing to blunt the most devastating ecological scenarios: “Damage and destroy new CO2-emetting devices. Put them out of commission. Pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed” (67). Malm justifies this defense on the grounds that the climate change movement, while it has largely evaded prosecution because of its longstanding commitment to moral pacifism, has nevertheless failed to restrain climate change in any substantive way (24).

Many have raised concerns regarding Malm’s proposal. Benjamin Kunkel, for example, muses that “peaceful protest and technocratic undertakings” may be adequate to realize necessary climate policies. Ezra Klein further notes that Malm offers “no answers for those who fear the probable political consequences” of such action. These criticisms notwithstanding, I regard Malm’s text as a kairotic response to contemporary impasses for its boldness with respect to comprehensive inaction on climate change and for the way that it defends negation, the cornerstone of Hegelian philosophy and a concept central to Marx’s dialectical materialism. Indeed, while certainly not framed in such terms, Malm offers a remarkable defense of negation as a tool of liberation. Negation’s associated ethics of resistance, protest, and conflict have steadily become ignored in theoretical circles over the past several decades as scholars have questioned the cogency of strict oppositions imposed by dialectics. Malm’s adherence to this strategy, accordingly, aligns his text with a small group of contemporary critics currently seeking to reappraise negation as a viable method (Han, Holloway, Magun, Noys, Žižek).

Looking to Malm’s urgent call for “something different” in the context of climate change activism, this article explores negation’s effective absence in contemporary rhetorical studies (8). As I argue, because rhetoric remains largely imbedded in theoretical traditions that question the utility of direct conflict or opposition[i], it remains poorly positioned to consider the value of Malm’s approach. As Pezzullo and Striphas acknowledge, the field of rhetoric has had “a fraught relationship” to the concept of resistance and has devoted “limited interest” to it (306, 309). Considering these various aversions, I seek to negate the field’s dismissal of negation, locating contradictions in dominant attempts to void the concept, and to reevaluate its instrumental role in political intervention and political praxis. Following Bruce McComiskey’s assertion that rhetoric, at times, must be “negative, oppositional, and, yes, maybe even dangerous”[ii], I claim that rhetoric requires a robust sense of negation (68). In this argument, I utilize theorist Benjamin Noys’s framing of negativity as a necessary site of collective opposition, a means of opening “ruptural points in-built to capitalism as a field of antagonism” (172).

In what follows, I provide context on the gradual disappearance of negation from the rhetorical lexicon, diagnosing this shift, following Jamie Merchant, as a flight from totality more broadly. I then work through leading disciplinary arguments for abandoning negation, arguing that each argument’s attempt to move beyond the concept amounts to a vexed endeavor to constrict the terrain of the political and to unsuccessfully attempt to pass “beyond the dialectic” (Muckelbauer 10). This reading is not intended to dismiss these arguments but, rather, to reinterrogate the utility of a neglected perspective and insist that negation holds a crucial place in the project of rhetorical theory. I subsequently turn to the work of Benjamin Noys to demonstrate the rhetorical value of negation based in “disruptive ‘preservation’” (170). I conclude by discussing key interventions in rhetorical theory, particularly Karma R. Chávez’s, that align with Noys’s construction and that demonstrate the importance of negation as a ruptural praxis.

Not Nothing: Lineages of Negation, Negativity, and Totality

Before moving forward, the distinction between negation and negativity must be carefully parsed. Negation denotes a praxis, one that may indeed strive toward negativity, but that may be complexly utilized to seek other ends, all not necessarily negative. Indeed, negation, as many critics allege, may be undergirded by a negative logic but may have wholly productive or affirmative effects. This view, indeed, is precisely the movement of Hegel’s dialectic. As Kelly Pender observes, in Hegel, “dialectic is positivity (i.e., progress, development) through negativity” (15). A similar logic undergirds many contemporary theoretical engagements with negation. Philosopher Paolo Virno, for example, defends negation as a semantic operator necessary for both language and politics, locating his conception of negation in katéchon or what St. Paul in his second letter to the Thessalonians calls the “‘force that holds back’” (qtd. in Virno 20). Virno argues that negation is the logic that sustains the public sphere insofar as it is based in a negative suspension, a holding at bay, of “the catastrophe of non-recognition” (20).

Negativity, as Diana Coole argues, is the “more complex term,” one that subsumes negation as well as critique and stands in opposition to positivity (Coole 2). Negativity relies on an extensive set of structural assumptions, most vitally that negation can achieve a stable, lasting, or even simply extant form of negativity. Coole, for example, doubts such a lasting modality and, hence, favors a dialectical model of politics, arguing that negativity is inherently generative (6). This logical directionality is, notably, the crux of many a critique of negation within rhetoric, particularly Victor Vitanza’s rejection of dialectical reasoning on the grounds that “determinate negation,” originally a Hegelian concept, produces “expected returns” and, hence, “must die” (83, 309). Noys’s intervention is particularly incisive in this regard insofar as he theorizes a possibility beyond the dialectical framework. As I will subsequently detail, Noys argues that negativity may remain negative as “a relation of rupture,” a site of generative fissure that retains vestiges of past struggles, thus enabling a proliferation of continual rupture rather than positivity (100). This potential, I argue, offers rhetoric a compelling solution to the supposed reductivism of negation.

Two theoretical shifts largely account for such a pejorative characterization of negativity and negation. The first is the declining currency of Marxism and its associated methodologies in theoretical circles. Dana Cloud historicizes this trend, arguing that after the defeats of 1968, critical theory’s once emancipatory project contracted as “an increasingly elite group of intellectuals became detached from actual political practice during the long post-war boom in liberal democratic societies” (329). Having rejected Marxism’s investment in totality, post-structuralist thought, Cloud argues, became grounded in an increasingly circumscribed critical terrain, shifting conceptions of agency from a matter of class struggle to a “micropolitical techne” (336). As Philippe Dardot and Christian Laval historicize this movement, the 1970s saw the revolutionary rhetoric of May 1968 become “stigmatized and branded outdated” (79). Like Cloud, they observe that critical theory dispensed with the concerns of class struggle and overcoming capitalism, reframing Marx “as Derrida read Plato or Descartes, or any other philosopher of the past” (80). Catherine Liu explains the shift even more starkly, characterizing the contraction of the postmodernists’ theoretical project, from totality to the terrain of discourse, as concession to capitalism’s dominance. Such a position, she claims, came to see the broad brush of Marxism as itself imbued with objectionable logics of domination: “there’s something actually totalitarian about totality.”

The second movement concerns a similar trajectory within rhetorical theory in which the long departure from totality foreclosed the theorization of historical antagonisms, such as those between capital and labor, and dissuaded critical engagement with capitalism. As Joshua Gunn and Dana Cloud contend, beginning in the 1970s, the discipline incorporated trace elements of Marxist critique through its engagement with post-structuralism and its adoption of the concept of ideology but, crucially, in keeping with broader theoretical trends, remained removed from core Marxist ideas. Such a transition, they argue, moved the discipline away from Marxist understandings of power as superstructural, binary, and negative toward the exploration of “micro-power,” according to Biesecker’s understanding of Foucault’s contributions as expressed in the matrix of converging discourses (413). Jamie Merchant, while seeking to recuperate Foucault as a thinker of totality ultimately compatible with Marx[iii], offers a similar diagnosis of an “immanent turn” in rhetorical studies (30). The movement toward immanentism, according to Merchant, “forecloses on the concept of totality” while insisting upon a subject produced through “contingent articulations of various discourses, knowledges, and practices” (230). With Merchant, I view the recovery of totality and, more significantly, the recuperation of the value of negation as crucial for orienting rhetoric toward necessary antagonism in contexts governed by global capitalism.

In the next section, I review three texts from distinct points along rhetorical theory’s slow abandonment of negation. As I argue, each seeks to foreclose the potential of radical intervention such as that proposed by Malm yet—crucially—each nevertheless retains trace elements of a negative approach.

Goodbye Mr. Negation

Vitanza’s Negation, Subjectivity, and the History of Rhetoric, published in 1996, emerged at a period in rhetorical theory’s recent history when immanentism, along with the abandonment of totality, was gaining prominence (Ballif; Biesecker “Michel Foucault,” “Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation”; Mountford and Reynolds). Negativity during this time was associated with the broad brush of Marxism and widely dismissed as reductive, even dangerous. Raymie McKerrow’s 1989 essay, “Critical Rhetoric: Theory and Praxis,” makes such a point, advocating for the analysis of power’s inscription within discourse practices and eschewing direct confrontation. As McKerrow argues, “the subject is already interpolated within the dominant ideology. Actions towards change will tend to be conducive to power maintenance rather than to its removal” (94). Similarly, Diane Davis’s Breaking Up (at) Totality: A Rhetoric of Laughter, published just four years after Negation, Subjectivity, and the History of Rhetoric, takes up many of the same questions through a third sophistic lens, offering an equally forceful assessment of negation’s exclusionary function (2).

Vitanza’s intervention may hence be contextualized as part of a trend primarily striving to apply an immanentist, postmodern sensibility to both theoretical and cultural discussions of the day and to cast negation as an inherent danger. Negation, Subjectivity, and the History of Rhetoric, indeed, extends one of the most rigorous assessments of negation in contemporary rhetorical theory, reframing rhetorical history and the enterprise of rhetoric through the metrics of desire and multiplicity instead of through conflict or negation. As Vitanza suggests, negation imposes a divisive and often violent worldview upon subjects and cannot be recuperated or repurposed for egalitarian ends. He is particularly critical of dominant forms of historicism, which he argues are “predicated on the principles of negative dialectic… negative essentializing” (Vitanza 11). His critique isolates determinate negation as the site of such exclusion and shows that it served as the guiding intellectual principle of Nazism, particularly for its capacity to promote “negative essentializing” (64).

For Vitanza, identity politics, specifically Susan Jarratt’s reification of the male/female binary, operates by a similar exclusionary logic. Vitanza claims, “there is always the danger in using words like ‘men’ and ‘women,’ ‘male’ and ‘female,’ in reactionary thinking, and engaging in a dividing practice (diaresis), in a negative essentializing, that would further drive a counterwedge between two sets of the human species” (231). Equating feminism’s negative essentializing of women with the negative logic of Nazism, Vitanza charges feminism with an untenable, exclusionary violence that must, accordingly, be remade (or reincluded) through the ethic of “nonpositive affirmation,” a concept that “denegates negations by way of reincluding” (63). While such a critique offers a carefully reasoned solution to the problem of exclusionary logic, it delimits the field of political intervention while glossing the material and historical conditions by which groups retain power. Vitanza appears to deflect this criticism by noting that historicism itself is dominated by negative essentializing, but such a critique cannot entirely dismiss evidence that subordinated groups, regardless of historical codification, have survived, thrived, and become reincluded through acts of negation (11). Women’s suffrage in the United States, to cite an obvious example, was not achieved through acts that resemble Vitanza’s nonpositive affirmation, but through protests, arrests, hunger strikes, and an extensive, prolonged critique of patriarchy (Wagner).

More significantly, Vitanza’s argument is disturbed by a methodological reliance on negation to critique identity politics. While Vitanza resolutely defends a model of radical inclusion, or “nonpositive affirmation,” his methodology is one of prioritization insofar as this method is inevitably privileged over those that rest in negation or affirmation (63). This aspect of Vitanza’s approach is most evident in his deployment of Nazism as an illustrative expression of negation’s ultimate tendencies. Nazism, utilized as a signifier demonstrating the dangers of negative essentializing, functions as a veritable critique of negation insofar as it maligns what Vitanza considers unacceptable. Vitanza’s tracing of a logical relation between feminism and Nazism, while ultimately seeking to reinclude the former, negates feminism insofar as it is conceptually associated (even if distantly) to the stain of genocide (231). As Toril Moi notes, numerous prominent conservative figures of the 1990s, including Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh, waged a campaign against feminism, with Limbaugh popularizing the term “‘feminazis’” (1736). As Moi argues, the term casts feminists as perpetrators of evil, “nazis, gleefully fueling the holocaust of unborn children” while, more broadly, denigrating any women who resist critiques of what Limbaugh terms “‘militant feminism’” (qtd. in Moi 1737). Vitanza’s deployment of a related, though not strictly speaking analogous, argument troubles subsequent reinclusion and complicates his approach. This inconsistency, however, should not detract from the ethical value of Vitanza’s project, which laudably engages in the systematic thinking through of the problematic of exclusion as one inevitably expressed through acts of social cleavage or group solidarity. However, the indefatigable nature of negation lingers within Vitanza’s argument, suggesting that negation, despite its capacity to alienate[iv], is a stubborn and necessary component of discourse and political engagement.

John Muckelbauer’s The Future of Invention: Rhetoric, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Change, published nearly a decade after Negation, Subjectivity, and the History of Rhetoric, emerged at a time when the critique of totality initiated by Vitanza and Davis had become more comprehensively integrated into the field. Rhetoricians in the early aughts, building on a rich foundation of engagement with postmodern and post-structuralist ideas, continued to explore rhetoric’s tessellation with agency, subjectivity, alterity, invention, and other closely related subjects and began to engage with an increasingly broad array of critical theorists (Davis Inessential Solidarity; Lundberg and Gunn; Kaplan). Several scholars of the period, Muckelbauer among them, moved to theorize a variety of social practices in the context of the instantiation of postmodern paradigms, specifically the question of invention in a theoretical context that had dismissed the notions of negation and totality. Effectively, it could be said that scholars at the time were following Davis’s exhortation to “write differently” (Breaking Up [at] Totality). Thomas Rickert’s 2007 book, Enjoyment: Rhetoric, Žižek, and the Return of the Subject, takes up this charge, employing a suite of psychoanalytic and postmodern perspectives to frame the writer as a complex and irresolvable concatenation of drives, relations, beliefs, and fantasies constantly “in motion” to develop a model of composition departing from critique and resting in “transvaluation… achieved through production” (30, 170).

Muckelbauer similarly engages the problem of invention, interrogating change and human collaboration in the context of rhetoric’s embrace of immanentism. More emphatically than Vitanza, Muckelbauer departs from a notion of negation, embracing a productive notion of “an ‘affirmative’ sense of change” rooted in the work of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri (x). In his view, negative acts and articulations reverberate within the play of affirmative resonance, not only unable to produce true novelty but insisting upon a binary form of power (5). Muckelbauer extends his reframing of invention to the subject of human collaboration and community through the concept of doxa in the interest of engaging the question of innovation. Drawing from Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy?, Muckelbauer claims that the formation of groups rests in two contradictory doxastic movements: politics and marketing. In politics, an identification with “a singular extraction” creates a group in which individual responses to stimuli are translated into group ethos (156). The essence of political coalitions, in other words, lies in doxa itself, a mechanism that “seems to consist of nothing other than the attempt to increase its own territory through identification” (156). “[M]arketing” is a process in which “collective identification” conditions singular extraction, or how one experiences the world (157).

This understanding of doxa’s double movement allows Muckelbauer to retheorize the essence of group formation through “the common,” “an immanent social function within the dynamic of identification itself” (159-60). In his construction, doxa is not merely an operator of intersubjectivity but an organizer of the prospect of communality (160). This analysis offers a forceful dethroning of political praxis as worthy of unique esteem and supports a deeply skeptical view of human gathering as a unique site of invention or change. As an alternative to these models, Muckelbauer favors an algorithmic modality of gathering, finding an exemplar in an algorithm developed by IDEO, a leading design and consulting firm. As Muckelbauer shows, the algorithm organized collaborative work within the company, stressing “the function of the common within the collective” and working “to ‘abolish the “they”’ within the group” (163). This model suggests possibilities for understanding the paradigms of collectivity with respect to future innovations, according to Muckelbauer: “the common hints at a future—a future of invention—that is both unrecognizable and nevertheless only actualized through recognition” (Muckelbauer 165).

Limitations to this approach appear, however, when one considers that not all forms of human collectivity are indeed reducible to doxa or, as Maurice Charland frames it, “constituted in discourse” (136). To put a Marxist twist on a critique utilized by object-oriented critics of such perspectives, Muckelbauer neglects the extensive array of material conditions and factors that contribute to and manage identity and politics. Social class is one example in which a communal body emerges from the material conditions of exploitation, not of belief. György Lukács argues that “[i]n Marxism the division of society into classes is determined by position within the process of production” (46; emphasis added). For Lukács, the doxastic aspects of social class arise only after class stratification, when class consciousness emerges as a means of realizing material class interests and long-term goals.[v] However, while class consciousness is indeed related to the movement of doxa, class as a component of social totality is grounded in and emerges from the material situation of exploitation. Lukács explicitly notes that class consciousness is not a matter of individual or group psychology, but rather “the sense… of the historical role of class” (73). Doxa, to be sure, is operative here, both in the cognitive aspects of class consciousness and in the broader epistemic categorization of Western Marxism. The implication of a material basis for collectivity is that Muckelbauer’s reframing of collective politics and, accordingly, his troubling of negation, are undercut by the demonstrably empirical basis of class and class politics.

Muckelbauer’s deconstruction of the political is further troubled by a subtle reliance on negation. Muckelbauer is arguably more circumspect in his development of an affirmative sense of change than Vitanza, effectively obviating the possibility of rendering a negative critique through denying the possibility of a decisive break with tradition. Nevertheless, in drawing attention to the false promise of change that advocacy, critique, and synthesis offer, and concomitantly praising the incisiveness of an algorithm capacitating invention by wresting much of what constitutes the social from humans, Muckelbauer engages in an approach not unlike what he seeks to leave behind (6-9, 163). Advocacy, critique, and synthesis, as Mucklebauer argues, repeat “the ethical and political dangers” of the structure of negation (9). Yet, while Muckelbauer does not explicitly strive to negate them, only to venture “beyond the dialectic,” his characterization of them as dangers is, in fact, a kind of prohibition, a form of critique, and an attempt “to change things by critiquing the conservative position” (10, 7). However, as with Vitanza, this latent reliance on negation far from invalidates the critique. Indeed, Muckelbauer’s assertion that true novelty is ultimately unrealizable, whether through negation or other means, is difficult to deny. Nevertheless, as Muckelbauer relies, albeit obliquely, on a sense of negation to make this claim, he demonstrates that negation bears some value even to those who would seek to deny it.

A third intervention in the disciplinary lineage of negation’s vanishing is evinced by scholars working in the overlapping theoretical traditions of new materialist rhetoric, object-oriented rhetoric, and post-humanism. Appearing relatively recently, scholars working in these areas generally ground their theoretical orientations in a break from postmodernism’s dismissal of materiality (Barnett and Boyle, Boyle; Lynch and Rivers; Rickert, Ambient Rhetoric), an approach not dissimilar from Horkheimer and Adorno. However, rather than turning to Marxist conceptions of materiality, such scholars, influenced by the work of Bruno Latour, Graham Harman, Quentin Meillassoux, and other contemporary philosophers, have adopted broad, ontological schemas that strive to take account of the vast terrain of object relations beyond the immediate context of human lifeways, attending to what Meillassoux terms “the great outdoors” (26). As humanist frameworks are overturned by such a perspective, negation is likewise dethroned and reconceptualized as a mere symbolic construction. While departing from immanentism, rhetoricians in the new materialist tradition follow Vitanza and Muckelbauer in regarding the prominence once afforded to negation as a grave mistake, a faulty prioritization of the symbolic, or an instantiation of hubris that woefully neglects materiality. In a recent, emblematic example, Jeff Rice’s Authentic Writing seeks to reexamine critique as the de facto academic stance uniquely invested with both legitimacy and authenticity. Rice questions the utility of the hermeneutic, postmodern position of Fredric Jameson, turning instead to the work of Bruno Latour and others to theorize a form of personal writing not beholden to illuminating “the holy trinity of race, class, and gender” but, rather, to expressing and reflecting on “what we already know” (14). In seeking to relegate critique, he also relegates negation as a feature of orthodox academic practice instead of an endemic aspect of the personal and the authentic.

While many texts might have served as the basis for an examination of negation’s positioning within this matrix of critical orientation—indeed, Byron Hawk’s A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity explicitly aims to move beyond a dominant notion of negation—I focus here on Nathan Rivers’s “Deep Ambivalence and Wild Objects: Toward a Strange Environmental Rhetoric.” Two justifications undergird this choice. First, while the text does not offer anything resembling the emphatic reconsideration of negation that Vitanza and Muckelbauer undertake, Rivers offers a uniquely resonant and extensively theorized analysis of mastery as a site of planetary harm. Mastery, as I approach the concept, represents an instantiation of human hubris that affirms a negative, binary approach to humans and their relation to nature. Second, Rivers provides rhetoric’s clearest counterstatement to Malm on the issue of human intervention in the context of climate change, reflecting the discipline’s general resistance to negation in the context of ecological interventions.

In the text, Rivers undermines traditional environmental discourses that demarcate a strict division between “humans” and “wilderness,” positions that he suggests are steeped in untenable human conceptions of mastery over the environment. For Rivers, comprehensive action in the preservation of wilderness (what could be understood as negative action against humans’ presence) is unsound because of its actualization of binary demarcations of humans as distinct from nature. Rivers specifically critiques the pervasive assumption that human must be removed from the wilderness entirely insofar as this position institutes a fictive separation between human and nonhuman and, more problematically, insists upon human dominance over the environment. In his view, rhetoricians must adopt an “ambivalent” stance toward the environment—and, though unstated—without negative binarism. Retreating from the demarcation of hard distinctions and broad prohibitions, Rivers advocates “a strange environmental rhetoric” that rests in an understanding of the world as unruly and unknowable (421-22). He cautions against recuperative acts that would seek to save the Earth through intervening in the “natural” world, even in the well-intentioned work of conventional environmentalism. As he writes, “By giving ourselves the responsibility to save or fix the planet, we have over-invested in our own agency, enacting the same hubris that results in dispositions toward the non-human nature that environmentalists might very well (and rightly) condemn” (423).

For Rivers, the dethroning of the human as agent and master entails humans’ recognition of their own ultimately negligible position in the world. Each case of intervention, he reasons, must be carefully considered through an ambivalent means rather than enacted through environmental binarism (421). Comportment toward the environment, Rivers argues, must be “determined on the merits of the case rather than some ontological dualism that establishes principles such as preservation, conversation, exploitation, hierarchy, which in turn demand axiomatic responses” (436). What is needed, in his view, rather than the broad brush of a climate change regime based on faulty demarcations, is more engagement based in an understanding of entanglement: “avoiding footprints is both impossible and ethically suspect; ethics is about relations, and relations are about living in the world” (438). In this solution, Rivers does not decry conflict or negation as such, but rather excoriates the negative and uncompromising valence of comprehensive human interventions. He further insists, “[t]here cannot, finally, be a path laid out ahead of us that allows us to save and fix the world” (437).

Such a claim, it must be clearly acknowledged, is an important diagnosis of humans’ endless self-regard and an ethical consideration of the logics that have indeed produced climate change. The assumption of human responsibility for climate salvation is indeed a potentially dangerous supposition as it potentially caters to the unbroken continuity of human dominance that, as Rivers rightly acknowledges, produced climate change in the first place. Bill Gates’s various climate change solutions, most notably a proposal to spray calcium-carbonate into the atmosphere to dim the sun, are particularly troubling in this respect (Murdock). Not only would such an action instantiate the dominance of a billionaire whose rise is profoundly entangled with global capitalism, it could, as environmentalists fear, offer justification for carbon emitters to carry on as usual (Cohen). Nevertheless, Rivers could concede more ground to the manifest capacity of humans to collectively change the world in ways that respond to existential threats. In this assertion, my understanding of capacity draws from Nathan Stormer and Brian McGreavy’s framing of the concept as “magnitude, maximal potential” in contrast to “agency,” what they define as “a state of being in action, exerting power” (5). While humans are not the only beings vested with agency, they are endowed with unique capacities in terms of climate change. Rivers may be correct here about how standard environmental claims bear the problematic logic of mastery and that humans “cannot fully know what our responsibility will look like,” yet it is compelling that on a purely pragmatic stratum humans can materially curb climate change and are essentially the only actors vested with such a decisive capacity (437). This may indeed not be our responsibility—who can say? It is, nevertheless, in our power to preserve human and nonhuman life and to act on behalf of vulnerable ecosystems. It is difficult to deny that this task is indeed in our interest and very likely in the interest of other living things despite its relation to troubling logics.

Rivers, not without justification, questions humans’ capacity to make such determinations, arguing that rhetoric must turn to more complex structures of decision-making and evaluation to chart our course. Environmental destruction, according to Rivers, prompts us to ask, “[w]hat sorts of agoras do we need?” (433). A pragmatic answer, however, might suggest that, from the perspective of climate activists, ambivalence regarding the accelerating ruin of the planet feels like an insufficient choice when the capacities for halting the mechanisms of climate change are, as Malm suggests, ready-to-hand. To intervene on behalf of “nature” may indeed be reductive, but in such a case one might weigh the violence of mastery against the hazard of ambivalence[vi]. While Rivers, who is certainly not an opponent of climate change policy, supports the work of the political in ways that surpass both Vitanza and Muckelbauer, his construction of the capacity of the human decision-making process is ultimately restrained insofar as approaches negating global capitalism’s extractive project in the interest of sustaining living beings and vital environments are rendered as mastery. There is a crucial difference, however, between the approaches of Gates and Malm. While both are striving to save the world through a negative logic, Gates seeks to negate climate change while affirming the destructive project of global capitalism. Such a solution should not simply be seen as cynical but, as Grace Blakeley argues, nothing more than a bit of entrepreneurial theater: “any intervention large enough to solve the problem… would disrupt accumulation too deeply to be entertained.” Malm, by contrast, seeks to negate capitalism itself and eliminate a crucial source of planetary ruin. While Malm is indeed hubristic and unambivalent, elevating the human as uniquely capable of saving the world, he celebrates the political and material utility of negation as an operator of change, particularly in the context of neoliberalism.

Like with Vitanza and Muckelbauer, remnants of negation likewise remain in Rivers’ argument. It must again be noted that Rivers, unlike Vitanza and Muckelbauer, does not explicitly seek to obviate the concept of negation as such but rather to illuminate the logic of human mastery in demarcations of wilderness. Indeed, as Pezzullo and Striphas contend, Rivers, along with similarly aligned critics, belongs to “an effort to rethink the relationship between rhetoric, agents, agency, and research methods” that includes theorization of the capacity of the nonhuman to resist our ability to conceptualize or master it (310). In a sense, Rivers might be said to accord objects the capacity to negate us—his largely implicit objection to negation lies not with the material valence of resistance or negation, but rather in the logic of a negative gesture that would seek to categorize or demarcate the infinitely receding terrain of the nonhuman. Nevertheless, in favoring complexity in contexts of such judgement, Rivers extends the disciplinary critique of negation, claiming that binary thinking on human presence in nature is reductive and pernicious. His use of the film Trollhunter to elucidate “a strange environmental rhetoric” illustrates a continued adherence to the concept (435).

The film concerns a group of Norwegian researchers who discover that trolls exist—a crucial plot point involves the discovery that the trolls have rabies. Rivers uses the example to point toward conditions in which “human beings are not the whole show—we are not the end all and be all of the earth” (435). In other words, the vast world of wild things beyond our comprehension and control is not necessarily our doing or our business. It is just there, as are we. The climactic killing of a rabid troll, according to Rivers, is not some speciesist maneuver but a reasoned, measured, and ecologically contentious act: “[t]he decision… is kairotic, and the justness of this act must be determined on the merits of the case” (436). This approach is indeed more nuanced than a dualism of “human” and “wild,” yet Rivers nevertheless draws upon a kind of negative logic. The human frameworks of kairos and ambivalence, as well as the human decision-making process, are now framed as preferable arbiters of how and when humans may act toward environments. Humans, in other words, still decide based on the human metric of judgment. Rivers is careful, of course, to remind us that our responsibility is unclear, yet he suggests that a judicious process of divining our responsibility through assessing the “merits of the case” offers a means out of our agential bind. But is this not just another form of mastery? In Rivers’s construction, one method with a totalizing logic of non-intervention is replaced by another model that, while arguably kairotic, nevertheless elevates the human logic of prohibition as superior. Do this, not that. This assertion, once again, is not to disparage the work of an important text that aims to think through the implications of a decentered humanism with respect to climate change but to suggest that negation is deeply imbedded in the rhetorical project.

In this section, I have argued that rhetoric’s slow departure from negation has been fraught by a concomitant constriction of political action and an inability to thoroughly dismiss negative logic. For Vitanza and Muckelbauer, these shifts are a product of embracing immanentism and rejecting the political, social, and rhetorical consequentiality of the outside while seeking to retheorize the work of rhetoric through reinclusion or the common, respectively. As I have argued, both approaches distinctly neglect the inherently negative operation of politics and the effectively unavoidable presence of the negative as a logical operator. Rivers and other similarly aligned critics seek to dismiss the primacy of discourse and look to material operations as the essential terrain of rhetoric. While distinct in focus from Vitanza and Muckelbauer, I have argued that this approach extends the disciplinary trend of enacting an ultimately incomplete departure from negation and, further, renders rhetoric less equipped to respond to Malm’s call for comprehensive action on behalf of the planet. As I will discuss in the following section, Benjamin Noys’s notion of a ruptural sense of negation offers a means of recognizing and operationalizing the negative force that courses through the field.

Hostile Recuperations—Toward a Negative Rhetoric

While the dominant arguments in rhetorical studies provide a variety of justifications for moving away from negation and its purportedly limiting effects, contemporary philosophers and critical theorists are returning to the question of negation after decades of neglect. Some, like Hass and Somers-Hall, have initiated reappraisals of totality and Hegelian negation while others have begun framing negation as a politically expedient construct (Brassier, Han, Holloway, Magun, Noys, Virno, Žižek). Among these theoretical reengagements, a variety of potential positions could offer rhetoric the capacity to (re)consider the concept.

Slavoj Žižek, whom Dana Cloud notes is “interested in recovering the possibility of an instrumental challenge to the capitalist system,” is arguably the most prominent figure in contemporary critical theory engaged in a productive theorization of negation (335). In Defense of Lost Causes reconstructs a lineage of such failed radical movements as Nazism and Stalinism, showing, polemically, that these movements were not “radical enough” (151) insofar as they did not “dare disturb the basic structure of the modern capitalist social space” (151). Žižek accordingly strives to retain a radical, anti-capitalist sense of negation. He pushes such negation toward complete transformation and, indeed, toward self-negation as a means to negate capitalism (194). In another important contribution, political theorist and philosopher Artemy Magun asserts that negation is “inherently impure” and, hence, bears the potential to meaningfully vitiate dominant power structures insofar as it “uncovers a hidden obverse side under the dogmatic appearance of a status quo” and demonstrates the possibility of critique (226, 82). Yet another position is evinced by John Holloway, who argues that negation is a generative alternative to capitalist dominance: “We negate, but out of our negation grows a creation, an other-doing, an activity that is not determined by money, an activity that is not shaped by the rules of power” (3). Each approach offers a means of breaking out of the violent and reductive representation of negation previously discussed and, instead, positions negation as a generative concept primed to confront contemporary capitalist dominance. Ultimately, Benjamin Noys offers the most fully realized and carefully constructed perspective with respect to rhetorical theory, particularly as a mode of social critique that avoids reliance on the dialectic.

In constructing negation as a “new contemporary communism” that evades both the “monism of capital” as well as the potential of a correlative negative monism, Noys effectively provides an alternative response to what Muckelbauer terms “‘the problem of change,’” offering a sense of agency that emerges and rests in the negation of dominant forms (164-5, ix-x). Rather than constructing a model of negation that would remain determinate, Noys proposes a form with an “aporetical structure” that opens the possibility for differential agency and invention (162). Noys’s approach is fundamentally grounded in a critique of contemporary critical theory, which he polemically suggests is comprehensively engaged in the project of sustaining capitalism due to its embrace of “affirmationism,” a stance that elevates inclusion and connection while concomitantly abandoning negation. Noys’s critique poses the capitalist system as the enactment of “‘real abstraction,’” the detachment of labor “from its pre-capitalist grounding” (x, 10). In other words, capitalism, in effecting such abstractions, removes the basis for a material and historical understanding of labor and class conflict.

Noys’s solution is a modality of persistent negativity, a praxis that evades the logics of capitalist affirmation and domesticating inclusion while also dodging the sanctification of a productive form of negativity that he sees in conventional dialectics, specifically the work of Diana Coole (16). Fundamental in this model is an understanding of negation as asymmetrical, not an equal counterpart to affirmation capable of offering an alternative to capitalism, but “the condition for re-articulating a thinking of agency (74, 13). For Noys, such a sense of agency is constructed as a model of socially enacted instrumentality insofar as negation opens a “field of antagonism,” a gathering place for opposition. In other words, for Noys, acts of negation are not sites of differential repetition, but expressions of negative praxis against capitalism with the capacity of having a “fissuring effect” through which negativity can be sustained (172, 74).

Three linked concepts at the core of Noys’s critique are critical for understanding precisely how such a terrain may be opened. The first is Lacan’s concept of “traversal,” referring to “traversing of the fundamental fantasy” (Fink 167, 61) through the eradication of desire. Noys operationalizes the concept in casting acts of negation in terms of a traversal of capitalism’s real abstractions. In other words, Noys aims not for abyssal destruction of capitalism but a critical and relational engagement with (and retention of) capitalism’s real. As he contends, “[i]t is a matter of probing the ‘truth’ of real abstractions as concrete appearances through their negation” (167). Such an approach understands acts of negation not necessarily as direct and militant attacks on capitalism itself, but an obviation of its project. Noys’s own method adopts such a strategy of traversing the affirmationist core of critical theory, deriving from it critical principles to expose capitalism’s scheme. Noys additionally borrows the Situationist International's concept of détournement, literally deflection, distortion, or hijacking, to illuminate negativity as a model of ruptural preservation. As Guy Debord and Gil J. Wolman define the term, “any elements, no matter where they are taken from, can be used to make new combinations.” These new combinations are not reproductive but generative. They illuminate “new aspects of talent” and serve as “a powerful cultural weapon in the service of a real class struggle.” Conceiving of negativity through this concept, Noys understands critical acts not as a radical invention or an eruption of difference ex nihilo, but rather acts that “contest the universalising power of the abstract from within, employing elements ready-to-hand to unbind capitalist affirmation (166). Negativity, accordingly, is a site of maintenance, retaining “the memories and re-actualisations of forms and modes of struggle” (169). In Noys’s view, opposition to capitalism retains the potential to stay open as a place of continual rupture. Finally, Noys adopts Virno’s conception of katéchon, previously discussed as a negative modality of abeyance, but extends the concept to refer to “the disruptive ‘preservation’ of those social forms that restrict and erode the colonisation of the life-world by real abstractions” (170). In other words, by preserving the lineage of opposition to capitalism in its negation of capitalism, negativity as katéchon holds the subject in abeyance from capitalist appropriation and, perhaps more significantly, functions as a clearing, opening “‘a new horizon’” for negation to take place (169).

To return to this article’s opening example, Noys’s intervention offers rhetoricians a way to approach Andreas Malm’s strategy as a substantive, negative, and nuanced rhetorical intervention worthy of consideration rather than dismissal. Malm exhorts a traversal of neoliberal fantasies of growth by eradicating capitalist desire or “the ‘truth’ of real abstractions” (Noys 167). As Malm argues, “[l]et the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed” (67). In other words, the blowing up of pipelines is not an end of capitalism as such, but a diminishing of its extractive motives. Additionally, in the sense that blowing up pipelines aims to indefinitely forestall the destruction of the planet, Malm exhorts a form of negative katéchon against planetary ruin, holding climate catastrophe in abeyance and offering an opportunity for activists to act within the space of the rupture. Malm’s exhortation, understood as a détournement, also seems to defend a mode of ruptural preservation of legacies of ecological and anti-capitalist dissent. Indeed, such an event is posed as an escalation, or reworking, of the climate change movement that conserves the collective will and communal spirit of a movement that was long stymied by “the endless accumulation of capital” (Malm 8). Through such a preservation, Malm’s project hints at the possibility of a future of negation, not, to be clear, a future that Muckelbauer envisions in which the political is no longer a site of change, but a ruptural future of continual resistance enabled through preservation of critical potential (163-4).

Conclusion: Rediscovering Resistance

While many contemporary rhetoricians remain indebted to perspectives that depart from negative methodologies, a slim but important body of recent rhetorical scholarship retains a vibrant conception of negation, particularly one that aligns with Noys’s conception of negation as a means of holding open “social forms that restrict and erode the colonisation of the life-world by real abstractions” (Noys 170). In one example, Ethan Stoneman extracts from Jacques Rancière a model of “rhetorical indecorum,” an “emancipatory and self-suasory” mode of address capable of fomenting political communities (145). Noor Ghazal Aswad calls for rhetoric’s deeper investment in what she terms the “radical subject,” an active, political subject imbued with agency and “able to discern the exigencies of oppressive rhetorical situations” (208-9). In Aswad’s construction, while the radical subject is informed by historical and material conditions, she is, nevertheless, an actor who defies the restrictive characterizations of subjectivity theorized by McKerrow and whose autonomy and agency emerge from their “prediscursive ontological positioning anchored in historical, political, and social location” (211-12). Effectively, Asward theorizes the radical subject as capacitated by their material and embodied autonomy to enact political change through critical, or negative, action. The most significant recuperations of negation in recent years, however, have been those undertaken by Karma R. Chávez on radical coalitional politics.

In her latest book, The Borders of AIDS: Race, Quarantine, and Resistance, Chávez explores the intersections of the AIDS epidemic and migrancy, investigating how migrants became a scapegoat for American policymakers and how intersectional and coalitional resistance countered this rhetoric. One chapter analyzes the boycotting and protesting of meetings of the International AIDS Conference (IAC) between 1989 and 2002 in response to U.S. law at the time banning the entry of HIV-positive people. As Chávez details, the boycotts “opened space for scientists to move into the political realm” and focalized the discriminatory nature of U.S. policies (105). Rather than simply functioning as a negative strategy that proves effective when a minority confronts a site of relative power, boycotts, Chávez argues, “create rhetorical space that would not otherwise exist” (129). Chávez also investigates activist media as a critical site of disputation that “challenged alienizing logic that manifested in dominant media representations of people living with AIDS” (133). Such a form of explicitly disputative activism, according to Chávez, also provided a vital avenue of social solidarity among two marginalized groups, namely the gay community in the United States and Haitians, who were often depicted as disease vectors (136). Crucially, Chávez acknowledges the exclusionary risk that a negatively oriented coalitional politics takes on: “coalitional gestures are impure because even in extending them, they, too, can alienize” (158-9). However, rather than dismiss negation as a political tactic, Chávez regards the alienized as themselves sites of potential solidarity. She accordingly defends the concept of the alien as a coalitional subject that can foreground exclusionary politics: “alien may serve as an analytic to help us challenge the pernicious logic and practices of alienizing” (159).

Chávez’s analysis closely parallels Noys’s critique, elegantly demonstrating the utility of negation as enacted rupture. As she suggests, protests, boycotts, and activist media functioned to combat, or traverse, the myth of the diseased migrant (136). As Chávez insists, such forms of solidaristic negation, through refusal and fighting back, challenged “alienizing logics” (166). She likewise advances a notion of solidarity akin to Noys’s conception of detournement, a form of hijacking employing “new combinations” to “contest the universalising power of the abstract from within” (Debord and Wolfman; Noys 166). In the context of AIDS activism, American gay rights activists found common cause with migrants, “an alienized group of which many were not a part,” forming unstable and imperfect yet potent coalitions in defiance of the American logics of prejudice (15). She likewise suggests that activists’ boycotts enacted a form of negative rupture akin to katéchon, a “rhetorical space” held open in which activism could take place (117). Cumulatively, while critical, militant, oppositional, and combative, the discourses and actions Chávez describes were also solidaristic and transformative with respect to excluded and maligned populations. Indeed, little evidence of the dangers or risks seen by Vitanza, Muckelbauer, and Rivers is apparent in Chávez’s analysis—rather, negation, collectively enacted, offers a vital pathway towards radical political change and the reframing of excluded and marginalized populations. Chávez thus points toward a future of rhetorical theory that recognizes the deep utility of negation.

To conclude with the subject of climate change, it may well transpire that Malm’s proposals, as militant and uncompromising as they are, remain too sanguine with respect to the emergent climate disaster. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2021, a 1.5-degree temperature rise is now guaranteed regardless of future emissions reductions (Fountain). While the Earth could well expect to see between 3 and 6 degrees of change by the end of the century without meaningful action, a truly catastrophic prospect, some argue that the threshold for so called “climate tipping points” may be met by a 1.5 degree rise or, indeed, have been met already (Fountain; Wunderling et al.). What is valuable about Malm’s position, then, is not necessarily its concrete proposals but its sensibility regarding negation and its challenge to prohibitions against radicalism that have calcified under late capitalism. For rhetorical theory, a field that has long been docked to conceptions of affirmation, Malm encourages “something different,” namely a critical sensibility that understands vital material change to issue from negation (8).

[i] There are indeed some notable exceptions to this reticence. In her analysis of the tiny house movement as a form of resistance on the context of neoliberalism, Crystal Colombini praises “the inherent value of confrontation” (465).

[ii] McComiskey, notably, also offers a critique of Vitanza and Muckelbauer (as well as Byron Hawk) in Dialectical Rhetoric. While McComiskey indeed acknowledges the value of negation, his broader critique, which I break with here, calls for a reconceptualized relationship to dialectic on the part of rhetoric that, while retaining a dialectical methodology, favors increased connection over conflict. In this article, I take an opposed position, arguing that conflict, particularly in its capacity to open spaces of engagement (Noys), is an indispensable operator of change.

[iii] Merchant claims that Foucault’s late work encourages a view of the immanent turn as “as a historically specific effect of neoliberal governmentality” (236).

[iv] See Chavez.

[v] For Lukács, these two forces are dialectically opposed and must be “inwardly overcome” (73).

[vi] This, to be clear, is not to equate ambivalence with apathy or inaction, but to suggest that that ambivalence, in Rivers’ construction, cautions against negative acts that would comprehensively seek to preserve or act on behalf of a reified conception of nature and, accordingly, characterizes such action as reductive and hubristic.

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