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Paolo Virno “A Grammar of the Multitude”

Virno, Paolo 2004. A Grammar of the Multitude. For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. Los Angeles; New York: Semiotext(e).



For Spinoza, the multitudo indicates a plurality which persists as such in the public scene, in collective action, in the handling of communal affairs, without converging into a One, without evaporating within a centripetal form of motion. Multitude is the form of social and political existence for the many, seen as being many: a permanent form, not an episodic or interstitial form. For Spinoza, the multitudo is the architrave of civil liberties (Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus). (21)


Hobbes detests – and I am usinge here, after due consideration, a passionate, not very scientific word – the multitude; he rages against it. In the social and political existence of the many, seen as being many, in the plurality of which does not converge into a synthetic unity, he sees the greatest danger of a „supreme empire“; that is to say, for the monopoly of political decision-making which is the State. (22)


In the De Cive, in which the horror of the multitude is exposed far and wide, we read: „The People us somewhat that is one, having one will, and to whom one action may be attributed“ (Hobbes, De Cive, ch XII, section VIII). The multitude, for Hobbes, is inherent in the „state of nature“; therefore, it is inherent in that which precdes the „body politic“. (22)


In liberal thought, the uneasiness provoked by the „many“ is toned down by means of having recourse to the pairing of the terms public-private. The multitude, which is the polar opposite of the people, takes on the slightly ghostly and mortifying features of the so-called private. (23)


„Private“ signifies not only something personal, not only something which conerns the inner life of this person or that; private signifies, above all, deprived of: deprived of a voice, deprived of a public presence. In liberal thought, the multitude survives as a private dimension. (24)


The contemporary multitude is composed neither of „citizens“ nor of „producers“; it occupies a middle region between „individual and collective“; for the multitude, then, the distinction between „public“ and „private“ is in no way validated. (25)


Forms of Dread and Refuge: Day One

Where is it that one can find unconditional refuge? Kant answers: in the moral “I”, since it is precisely there that one finds something of the non-contingent, or of the realm above the mundane. The transcendent moral law protects my person in an absolute way, since it places the value which is due to it above finite existence and its numerous dangers. The feeling of the sublime (or at least one of its incarnations) consists of taking the relief I feel for having enjoyed a fortuitous place of refuge and transforming it into a search for the unconditional security which only the moral “I” can guarantee. (31)


Two forms of protection (and of security) correspond to these two forms of risk (and of dread). In the presence of a real disaster, there are concrete remedies (for example, the mountain refuge when the snowslide comes crashing down). Absolute danger, instead, requires protection from… the world itself. But let us note that the “world” of the human animal can not be put on the same level as the environment of the non-human animal, or rather, of the circumscribed habitat in which the latter animal finds its way around perfectly well on the basis of specialized instincts. There is always something indefinite about the world; it is laden with contingencies and surprises; it is a vital context which is never mastered once and for all; for this reason, it is a source of permanent insecurity. While relative dangers have a “first and last name,” absolute dangerousness has no exact face and no unambiguous content. (32)


The Kantian distinction between the two types of risk and security is drawn out in the distinction, traced by Heidegger, between fear and anguish. Fear refers to a very specific fact, to the familiar snowslide or to the loss of one’s job; anguish, instead, has no clear cause which sparks it off. (32)


Outside of the community, fear is ubiquitous, unforeseeable, constant; in short, anguish-ridden. The counterpart of fear is that security which the community can, in principle, guarantee; the counterpart of anguish (or of its showing itself to the world as such) is the shelter procured from religious experience. (32)


One could say, perhaps, that “not feeling at home” is in fact a distinctive trait of the concept of the multitude, while the separation between the “inside” and the “outside,” between fear and anguish, is what earmarked the Hobbesian (and not only Hobbesian) idea of people. The people are one, because the substantial community collaborates in order to sedate the fears which spring from circumscribed dangers. The multitude, instead, is united by the risk which derives from not feeling at home, from being exposed omnilaterally to the world. (34)


[…] we could say that the “life of the mind” becomes, in itself, public. We turn to the most general categories in order to equip ourselves for the most varied specific situations, no longer having at our disposal any “special” or sectorial ethicalcommunicative codes. The feeling of not-feeling-at-home and the preeminence of the “common places” go hand in hand. The intellect as such, the pure intellect, becomes the concrete compass wherever the substantial communities fail, and we are always exposed to the world in its totality. The intellect, even in its most rarefied functions, is presented as something common and conspicuous. The “common places” are no longer an unnoticed background, they are no longer concealed by the springing forth of “special places.” The “life of the mind” is the One which lies beneath the mode of being of the multitude. Let me repeat, and I must insist upon this: the movement to the forefront on the part of the intellect as such, the fact that the most general and abstract linguistic structures are becoming instruments for orienting one’s  own conduct-this situation, in my opinion, is one of the conditions which define the contemporary multitude. (37)


The absence of a substantial community and of any connected “special places” makes it such that the life of the stranger, the not-feeling-at-home, the bios xenikos, are unavoidable and lasting experiences. The multitude of those “without a home” places its trust in the intellect, in the “common places:” in its own way, then, it is a multitude of thinkers (even if these thinkers have only an elementary school education and never read a book, not even under torture). (39)


My thesis, in extremely concise form, is this: if the publicness of the intellect does not yield to the realm of a public sphere, of a political space in which the many can tend to common affairs, then it produces terrifying effects.A publicness without a public sphere: here is the negative side — the evil, if you wish — of the experience of the multitude. (40)


[…] contemporary multitude is fundamentally based upon the presumption of a One which is more, not less, universal than the State: public intellect, language, “common places” (just think, if you will, about the World-wide Web…). Furthermore, the contemporary multitude carries with it the history of capitalism and is closely bound to the needs of the labor class. (43)


When we speak of “multitude,” we run up against a complex problem: we must confront a concept without a history, without a lexicon, whereas the concept of “people” is a completely codified concept for which we have appropriate words and nuances of every sort. (43)


  1. Labor, Action, Intellect

Labor is the organic exchange with nature, the production of new objects, a repetitive and foreseeable process. The pure intellect has a solitary and inconspicuous character: the meditation of the thinker escapes the notice of others; theoretical reflection mutes the world of appearances. Differently from Labor, political Action comes between social relations, not between natural materials; it has to do with the possible and the unforeseen; it does not obstruct, with ulterior motives, the context in which it operates; rather, it modifies this very context. Differently from the Intellect, political Action is public, consigned to exteriority, to contingency, to the buzzing of the “many;” it involves, to use the words of Hannah, “the presence of others” (Human Condition, Chap. V, “Action”). The concept of political Action can be deduced by opposition with respect to the other two spheres. (50)


Contemporary labor has introjected into itself many characteristics which originally marked the experience of politics. Poiesis has taken on numerous aspects of praxis. This is the first aspect of the most general form of hybridization which I would like to address. (50)


I maintain that things have gone in the opposite direction from what Arendt seems to believe: it is not that politics has conformed to labor; it is rather that labor has acquired the traditional features of political action. My reasoning is opposite and symmetrical with respect to that of Arendt. I maintain that it is in the world of contemporary labor that we find the “being in the presence of others,” the relationship with the presence of others, the beginning of new processes, and the constitutive familiarity with contingency, the unforeseen and the possible. I maintain that post-Fordist labor, the productive labor of surplus, subordinate labor, brings into play the talents and the qualifications  which, according to a secular tradition, had more to do with political action. (51)


The inclusion of certain structural features of political praxis in contemporary production helps us to understand why the post-Ford multitude might be seen, today, as a de-politicized multitude. There is already too much politics in the world of wage labor (in as much as it is wage labor) in order for politics as such to continue to enjoy an autonomous dignity. (51)


Let us consider carefully what defines the activity of virtuosos, of performing artists. First of all, theirs isan activity which finds its own fulfillment (that is, its own purpose) in itself, without objectifying itself into an end product, without settling into a “finished product,” or into an object which would survive the performance. Secondly, it is an activity which requires the presence of others, which exists only in the presence of an audience. (52)


One could say that every political action is virtuosic. Every political action, in fact, shares with virtuosity a sense of contingency, the absence of a “finished product,” the immediate and unavoidable presence of others. On the one hand, all virtuosity is intrinsically political. (53)


Where there is an end product, an autonomous product, there is labor, no longer virtuosity, nor, for that reason, politics. (53)


[…] where an autonomous finished product is lacking, for the most part one cannot speak of productive (surplus-value) labor. Marx virtually accepts the equation work-without-end-product = personal services. In conclusion, virtuosic labor, for Marx, is a form of wage labor which is not, at the same time, productive labor (Theories of Surplus-value: 410-411). (54)


Language is “without end product.” Every utterance is a virtuosic performance. And this is so, also because, obviously, utterance is connected (directly or indirectly) to the presence of others. Language presupposes and, at the same time, institutes once again the “publicly organized space” which Arendt speaks about. (55)


There is more to the story. The speaker alone — unlike the pianist, the dancer or the actor— can do without a script or a score. The speaker’s virtuosity is twofold: not only does it not produce an end product which is distinguishable from performance, but it does not even leave behind an end product which could be actualized by means of performance. In fact, the act of parole makes use only of the potentiality of language, or better yet, of the generic faculty of language: not of a pre-established text in detail. The virtuosity of the speaker is the prototype and apex of all other forms of virtuosity, precisely because it includes within itself the potential/act relationship, whereas ordinary or derivative virtuosity, instead, presupposes a determined act (as in Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, let us say), which can be relived over and over again. (56)


It is enough to say, for now, that contemporary production becomes “virtuosic” (and thus political) precisely because it includes within itself linguistic experience as such. If this is so, the matrix of post-Fordism can be found in the industrial sectors in which there is “production of communication by means of communication”; hence, in the culture industry. (56)


In the culture industry, that is to say, it was therefore necessary to maintain a certain space that was informal, not programmed, one which was open to the unforeseen spark, to communicative and creative improvisation: not in order to favor human creativity, naturally, but in order to achieve satisfactory levels of corporate productivity. However, for the Frankfurt School, these aspects were nothing but un-influential remnants, remains of the past, waste. What counted was the general Fordization of the culture industry. Now, it seems to me, from our present perspective, that it is not difficult to recognize that these purported remnants (with a certain space granted to the informal, to the unexpected, to the “unplanned”) were, after all, loaded with future possibilities.These were not remnants, but anticipatory omens. The informality of communicative behavior, the competitive interaction typical of a meeting, the abrupt diversion that can enliven a television program (in general, everything which it would have been dysfunctional to rigidify and regulate beyond a certain threshold), has become now, in the post-Ford era, a typical trait of the entire realm of social production. (59)


On one hand, spectacle is the specific product of a specific industry, the so-called culture industry, in fact. On the other hand, in the post-Ford era, human communication is also an essential ingredient of productive cooperation in general; thus, it is the reigning productive force, something that goes beyond the domain of its own sphere, pertaining, instead, to the industry as a whole, to poiesis in its totality. In the spectacle we find exhibited, in a separate and fetishized form, the most relevant productive forces of society, those productive forces on which every contemporary work process must draw: linguistic competence, knowledge, imagination, etc. Thus, the spectacle has a double nature: a specific product of a particular industry, but also, at the same time, the quintessence of the mode of production in its entirety. (60)


My hypothesis is that the communication industry (or rather, the spectacle, or even yet, the culture industry) is an industry among others, with its specific techniques, its particular procedures, its peculiar profits, etc.; on the other hand, it also plays the role of industry of the means of production. (61)


Up to this point we have discussed the juxtaposition between Labor and Politics. Now, however, the third facet of human experience comes into play, Intellect. It is the “score” which is always performed, over and again, by the workers-virtuosos. I believe that the hybridization between the different spheres (pure thought, political life and labor) begins precisely when the Intellect, as principal productive force, becomes public. Only then does labor assume a virtuosic (or communicative) semblance, and, thus, it colors itself with “political” hues. (64)


With the infinite potential of one’s own linguistic faculty as the only “score,” a locutor (any locutor) articulates determined acts of speech: so then, the faculty of language is the opposite of a determined script, of an end product with these or those unmistakable characteristics. Virtuosity for the post-Fordist multitude is one and the same as the virtuosity of the speaker: virtuosity without a script, or rather, based on the premise of a script that coincides with pure and simple dynamis, with pure and simple potential. (66)


The general intellect is the foundation of a social cooperation broader than that cooperation which is specifically related to labor. Broader and, at the same time, totally heterogeneous. We go back to one of the themes addressed during the first day of our seminar. While the connections of the productive process are based on a technical and hierarchical division of tasks, the acting in concert which hinges upon the general intellect moves from common participation to “life of the mind,” that is, from the preliminary sharing of communicative and cognitive abilities. However,

cooperation in excess of the Intellect, instead of annulling the co-actions of capitalistic production, figures as its most eminent resource. Its heterogeneity has neither voice nor visibility. On the contrary, since the appearance of the Intellect becomes the technical prerequisite of Labor, the acting in concert beyond labor which it brings about is in turn subsumed into the criteria and hierarchies which characterize the regime of the factory. (67)


The crucial question goes like this: is it possible to split that which today is united, that is, the Intellect (the general intellect) and (wage) Labor, and to unite that which today is divided, that is, Intellect and political Action? Is it possible to move from the “ancient alliance” of Intellect/Labor to a “new alliance” of Intellect/political Action? (68)


  1. Multitude as Subjectivity

The predicates we will attribute to the grammatical subject of “multitude” are: a) the principle of individuation, that is, the ancient philosophical question which hinges onwhat enables singularity to be singular and an indi vidual to be individual; b)Foucault’s notion of “bio-politics”: c) emotional tonalities, or Stimmungen, which define, today, the forms of life of the “many:”opportunism and cynicism (let us note, however: by emotional tonality I do not mean a passing psychological rippling, but a characteristic relation with one’s own being in the world); d) lastly, two phenomena, which, analyzed also by Augustine and byPascal, rise to the rank of philosophical themes in Heidegger’s Being and Time: idle talk and curiosity. (75-76)


Multitude signifies: plurality — literally: being-many — as a lasting form of social and political existence, as opposed to the cohesive unity of the people. Thus, multitude consists of a network of individuals; the many are a singularity. (76)


When we speak of a process, or a principle, of individuation, we should keep clearly in mind what precedes individuation itself. This has to do, first of all, with a preindividual reality, that is to say, something common, universal and undifferentiated. The process which produces singularity has a non-individual, pre-individual incipit. (76)


Two of Simondon’s theses are particularly fitting to any discussion of subjectivity in the era of the multitude. The first thesis states that individuation is never concluded, that the pre-individual is never fully translated into singularity. Consequently, according to Simondon, the subject consists of the permanent interweaving of preindividual elements and individuated characteristics; moreover, the subject is this interweaving. (78)


The subject is a battlefield. Not infrequently do pre-individual characteristics seem to call into question the act of individuation: the latter reveals itself to be a precarious, always reversible, result. At other times, on the other hand, it is the precise and exact “I” which appears to endeavor to reduce for itself, with feverish voracity, all of the pre-individual aspects of our experience. (78)


According to Simondon, within the collective we endeavor to refine our singularity, to bring it to its climax. Only within the collective, certainly not within the isolated subject, can perception, language, and productive forces take on the shape of an individuated experience. This thesis allows us to have a better understanding of the opposition between “people” and “multitude.” For the multitude, the collective is not centripetal or coalescent. It is not the locus in which the “general will” is formed and state unity is prefigured. Since the collective experience of the multitude radicalizes, rather than dulling, the process of individuation, the idea that from such experience one could extrapolate a homogeneous trait is to be excluded as a matter of principle; it is also to be excluded that one could “delegate” or “transfer” something to the sovereign. The collective of the multitude, seen as ulterior or second degree individuation, establishes the feasibility of a non-representational democracy. Conversely, we can define a “non-representational democracy” as an individuation of the historical-social pre-individual: science, knowledge, productive cooperation, and general intellect. (79)


In my opinion, to comprehend the rational core of the term “bio-politics,” we should begin with a different concept, a much more complicated concept from a philosophical standpoint: that of labor power. (81)


What does “labor-power” mean? It means potential to produce. Potential, that is to say, aptitude, capacity, dynamis. Generic, undetermined potential: where one particular type of labor or another has not been designated, but any kind of labor is taking place, be it the manufacturing of a car door, or the harvesting of pears, the babble of someone calling in to a phone “party-line,” or the work of a proofreader. Labor-power is “the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in the physical form, the living personality, of a human being” (Capital, Volume l: 270). (81)


The living body becomes an object to be governed not for its intrinsic value, but because it is the substratum of what really matters: labor-power as the aggregate of the most diverse human faculties (the potential for speaking, for thinking, for remembering, for acting, etc.). Life lies at the center of politics when the prize to be won is immaterial (and in itself non-present) labor-power. (83)


It is not a question, here, of the productivity of actual labor, but of the exchangeability of the potential to work. By the mere fact that it can be bought and sold, this potential calls into question the repository from which it is indistinguishable, that is, the living body. (83)


In fact, “labor-power” does not designate one specific faculty, but the entirety of human faculties in as much as they are involved in productive praxis. “Labor-power” is not a proper noun; it is a common noun. (84)


During the twentieth century, nihilism seemed to be a collateral counterpoint to the processes of rationalization both of production and of the State. That is to say: on one side, labor, on the other, the precariousness and changeable nature of urban life. Now, however, nihilism (the practice of not having established practices, etc.) has entered into production, has become a professional qualification, and has been put to work. (85)


Let us begin with this idle talk which positions itself in the preeminent role of social communication, with its independence from every bond or presupposition, with its full autonomy. Autonomy from predefined goals, from limiting tasks, from the obligation of giving a faithful reproduction of the truth. With idle talk the denotative correspondence between things and words reaches a new low. Discourse no longer requires an external legitimization,based upon the events which it concerns. It constitutes in itself an event consisting of itself, which is justified solely by the fact that it happens. (89-90)


Idle talk damages the referential paradigm. The crisis of this paradigm lies at the origin of the mass media. Once they have been freed from the burden of corresponding point by point to the non-linguistic world, terms can multiply indefinitely, generating one from the other. Idle talk has no foundation. This lack of foundation explains the fleeting, and at times vacuous, character of daily interaction. Nevertheless, this same lack of foundation authorizes invention and the experimentation of new discourses at every moment. (90)


It seems to me that idle talk makes up the primary subject of the post-Fordist virtuosity discussed in the second day of our seminar. Virtuosos, as you will recall, are those who produce something which is not distinguishable, nor even separable, from the act of production itself. Virtuosos are simple locuters par excellence. But, now I would add to this definition the non-referenced speakers; that is, the speakers who, while speaking, reflect neither one nor another state of affairs, but determine new states of affairs by means of their very own words: those who, according to Heidegger, engage in idle talk. This idle talk is performative: words determine  acts, events, states of affairs (Austin, How to Do Things with Words). Or, if you wish, it is in idle talk that it is possible to recognize the fundamental nature of performance: not “I bet.” or “I swear,” or “I take this woman as my wife,” but, above all, “I speak.” In the assertion “I speak,” I do something by saying these words; moreover, I declare what it is that I do while I do it. (90)


It goes without saying that distraction is an obstacle to intellectual learning. Things change radically, however, if sensory learning is put into play: this type of learning is absolutely favored and empowered by distraction; it lays claim to a certain level of dispersion and inconstancy. Thus, mass media curiosity is the sensory learning of technically reproducible artifices, the immediate perception of intellectual products, the corporeal vision of scientific paradigms. The senses — or better, the “greed of sight” — succeed in appropriating an abstract reality, that is to say, concepts materialized in technology; and they do so not leaning forward with curiosity butmaking a showy display of distraction. Thus, (absent-minded) curiosity and (non-referential) idle talk are attributes of the contemporary multitude: attributes loaded with ambivalence. naturally; but unavoidable attributes. (93)

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