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Notes on Paolo Virno in Buenos Aires

Notes on Paolo Virno in Buenos Aires

Maribel Casas-Cortés + Sebastián Cobarrubias (part of the Notas Rojas Translation Network)

Federico Geller

Virno’s visit to Buenos Aires in September 2006, invited by Colectivo Situaciones and Tinta Limon press, brought new perspectives into a public space characterized by the lack of a radical critique to the state. This absence is due in part to the notable recovery, although incomplete, of the institutional legitimacy of the state in Argentina and neighboring countries.

His porteño* debut was at the School of Philosophy and Humanities at the University of Buenos Aires focusing on the general intellect and its political potential as the main topic. Later, he presented his most recent book, Ambivalencia de la multitud (The Ambivalence of the Multitude), at the National Library where Virno followed his own argument elaborated in the chapter of that book: El llamado 'mal' y la crítica del estado (So-called “evil” and the critique of the State). At the Latin American School of Social Sciences he dissected the encounter between Foucault and Chomsky focusing on the issue of human nature. All three events were well attended.

Three questions from the audience, made at different moments during his presentations, give a rough idea of the context of these events:

1) In light of the fact that nothing remains from the processes that emerged in 2001 in Argentina, the fall of the EZLN and the strengthening of Lopez Obrador in Mexico, what do you think about the critique that Rosa Luxembourg made of Lenin and the Bolsheviks when they abolished the constituent in favor of the soviets? It is clear that a problem of discontinuity and repetition exists in movements: there is no antidote to this fragileness yet. Virno expressed his agreement with Rosa Luxembourg: both constituents and committees are required: “Movements must learn to create norms and to get out of the rhetoric of impotence!”

2) How can we think of the Multitude’s enemy?
The enemy is the Pharaoh: those who recreate the form of the statist “One”. The whisperings of the many in the Exodus. The Superdome in New Orleans. The strength of the many: the intent to recreate the “people” as a technical category opposed to the Multitude.

3) Do you believe in the possibility for alliances between the State and social movements in South America?
Virno answered that he has heard many positive things as well as many negative things about the progressive governments of South America. He wants to know more, but believes that: (i) they definitely represent a global contradiction that is important to take into account and (ii) governments producing liberation is not to be believed, but it is worth asking whether governments can open spaces so that movements can produce liberation, in their spaces of everyday life and in the world of work.

According to Virno, an entirely post-fordist world would be unworkable, but the intellectual faculties of the human animal become the fundamental resource for processes of production, which in and of itself exceeds the time and space of a workshop or factory, in the same way that the general intellect exceed the machine and technological tools, constituting ‘live work’.

The question is: “how this grouping of natural abilities, today presented to us as productive capacities, can turn into institutional forms contrary to the State?”

To respond to this it is necessary to abandon the juvenile contempt for the word “institution”: an activist collective that invents its own norms and is guided by them is also an institution. It’s an issue of animals protecting themselves form danger.

There is an enormous gap between the productive system and the intent to create a political order at the level of that productive process. Our challenge is to translate the diverse forms of the general intellect into spatiality. Without space there is not politics.

In 1932, Carl Schmitt, a nazi philosopher, presented a challenge about the relations between Theories of State and their anthropological base. For Schmitt, the hostility that anarchists have towards the State presupposed the innate goodness of human beings, however the majority of what was understood as political theory supposed that human beings were “bad” and problematic. This then justified the necessity of a “monopoly of political decision-making”.

In the words of Hobbes, the problem is posed as an opposition between the “civil state” and the “state of nature”: the monopoly over political decision-making would constitute the pseudo-environment able to contain the multitude, disregarded by Hobbes as a reoccurrence of the state of nature within the civil state.

In the famous disagreement between Chomsky and Foucault in 1971, Chomsky followed the argument of the anarchists, justifying the need to struggle against state hierarchies and capitalism due to their oppression of the collective creativity of our species, this capacity being the result of a supposedly universal grammatical structure that is written into our DNA. Foucault, denied discussing the existence of a human nature, considering the concept as a mere epistemological indicator of the changing relations between disciplines at distinct moments of history. According to Virno, “that night, the two teachers showed the worst of themselves”.

Virno doesn’t want to escape from an investigation into human nature. But his vision of the bio-anthropological redundancies does not establish an inclination of our species towards “good” or “bad”, rather it posits our ambivalence: it is the image of a “neoténico” animal confronted with the absence of a defined environment, which would imply a constant “openness towards the world”, a source of potential and dangerous instability. Virno suggest that this instability –denominated “bad/evil”— could be the pedestal for a “radical hostility toward the State”.

Differing form Chomsky, Virno considers the role of language to be that of opening possibilities for ambivalence. He takes the work of the Italian neurobiologist Gallese on mirror neurons into consideration. These neurons, hypothetically, constitute the physiological base of recognition between like beings. Virno suggests that the capacity for negation allows one to hide the natural recognition amongst similar being as well as recover it. In this schema, our unchanging aspects are transformed from top to bottom by our verbal capacity.

His proposal –recognizing the escape from a state of nature as impossible— is to take up the concept of the Katechon, which appears in St. Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians: the force that can contain “evil”, confronting but not eliminating it.

His question: what non-state and anti-monopolist institutions, what normative systems, can confront, without proposing annulment, the return to infinitude, compulsory repetition, the state of nature which has become a civil state through the process of a globalizing world? He suggests retaking Wittgenstein’s carta magna: “A proposition could be treated, one time, as a proposition to revise, and another time as a rule for revisions.” Our contempt should be directed towards the pre-ordained obedience to norms, not towards the existence of norms that may be considered, in a dynamic way, as de jure and de facto questions.

Virno, concludes that it is of vital political importance to construct a cautious bridge over the chasm that separates the sciences of matter from the sciences of spirit. This is an invitation to build our own natural history, in a way that can take into account both the evolutionary narratives that explain the invariable aspects of the human species, as well as the historical narrative of the contingencies in which those invariable aspects express themselves.

[* Translators’ note: porteño = from Buenos Aires.]