Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Doctor of Philosophy


Theory and Criticism


Plug, Jan

2nd Supervisor

Pero, Allan

Joint Supervisor


This dissertation addresses a gap in contemporary negativity studies by examining twentieth-century texts that engage with negativity beyond the subject. Starting with the premise that the concepts of negativity and subjectivity are intertwined, I argue that the predominant tendency in scholarship has been to conceptualize subjectivity as a circular structure that incorporates negativity as its dynamic foundation. However, when negativity is defined in subordination to the subjective circle, its radical features are diminished, resulting in “weak negativity.” In Chapter 1, I exemplify my arguments using the works of Alexandre Kojève, Jean Hyppolite, and Judith Butler. In contrast to weak negativity, radical negativity is a slippery concept that can only be treated obliquely to avoid its incorporation into subjectivity. In the works of Theodor W. Adorno, Roger Caillois, Michel Foucault, Maurice Blanchot, and Manolo Millares, I identify an alternative set of concepts and approaches for tracing a partial definition of radical negativity. In Chapter 2, I show how Adorno employs various techniques in pursuit of non-identity, a correlate of radical negativity, and arrives at the notion of mimesis as a means for conceptualizing radical negativity materially embedded in art. In Chapter 3, I analyze Caillois’s work on mimesis in insects, identifying the notions of worklessness and the outside, as well as the device of the double death, to further outline the conceptual conditions of radical negativity. Foucault’s and Blanchot’s works help steer the discussion of mimesis, along with worklessness, the outside, and double death, back to art and aesthetics grounded in radical negativity. To conclude, I propose that the paintings of Spanish Informalist Manolo Millares can be seen as examples of art that embodies radical negativity without subordinating it to the voracious circularity of the subject.

Summary for Lay Audience

This dissertation examines the notion of radical negativity in twentieth-century philosophy. I argue that radical negativity, which is often associated with death and various other phenomena that threaten a comfortable vision of existence, is opposed to weak negativity, a diluted and simplified version of its radical counterpart that allows one to tame and accept the possibility of one’s own limits and ultimate demise. By examining several referential texts by philosophers Alexandre Kojève, Jean Hyppolite, and Judith Butler, I find that when the notion of negativity is approached by and through the subject, negativity is only possible in its weak form. However, in Chapters 2 and 3, I consider other means for theorizing radical negativity. For example, the notion of mimesis, as developed by Theodor W. Adorno and Roger Caillois, shows how an organism can engage with something that is absent—a process that in this dissertation is called “worklessness.” By analogy, the creative acts of writing and painting, which always start from nothing, highlight that a subject’s communication with an absent other can be used as a way of understanding negativity beyond its weak form. In examining the works of Michel Foucault, Maurice Blanchot, and Manolo Millares, I claim that they create the conceptual conditions for thinking radical negativity without blunting its sharpest and most disconcerting edges. Finally, the purpose of this dissertation, beyond exploring the conceptual conditions of radical negativity, is to show that it is possible to contest the instrumentalization of art and thought for subjective ends by maintaining a space and time in which existence can be approached in all of its bizarre splendour.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.