places and "general intellect"
order to have a better understanding of the contemporary
notion of multitude, it will be useful to reflect more
profoundly upon which essential resources might be the
ones we can count on for protection from the dangerousness
of the world. I propose to identify these resources
by means of an Aristotelian concept, a linguistic concept
(or, better yet, one pertaining to the art of rhetoric):
the "common places," the topoi koinoi.
we speak today of "common places," we mean,
for the most part, stereotypical expressions, by now
devoid of any meaning, banalities, lifeless metaphors
("morning is golden-mouthed"), trite linguistic
conventions. Certainly this was not the original meaning
of the expression "common places." For Aristotle
(Rhetoric, I, 2, 1358a) the topoi koinoi
are the most generally valid logical and linguistic
forms Of all of our discourse (let us even say, the
skeletal structure of it); they allow for the existence
of every individual expression we use and they give
structure to these expressions as well. Such "places"
are common because no one can do without them
(from the refined orator to the drunkard who mumbles
words hard to understand, from the business person to
the politician). Aristotle points out three of these
"places": the connection between more and
less, the opposition of opposites, and the category
of reciprocity ("If I am her brother, she is my
categories, like every true skeletal structure, never
appear as such. They are the woof of the "life
of the mind," but they are an inconspicuous
woof. What is it, then, that can actually be seen in
the forms of our dis course? The "special places,"
as Aristotle calls them (topoi idioi). These
are ways of saying something - metaphors, witticisms,
allocutions, etc. - which are appropriate in one or
another sphere of associative life. "Special places"
are ways of saying/thinking something which end up being
appropriate at a local political party headquarters,
or in church, or in a university classroom, or among
sports fans of a certain team. And so on. Whether it
be the life of the city or its ethos (shared customs),
these are articulated by means of "special places"
which are different from one another and often incompatible.
A certain expression might function in one situation
and not in another; a certain type of argumentation
might succeed in convincing one audience, but not another,
transformation with which we must come to terms can
be summarized in this way: in today's world, the "special
places" of discourse and of argumentation are perishing
and dissolving, while immediate visibility is being
gained by the "common places," or by generic
logical-linguistic forms which establish the pattern
for all forms of discourse. This means that in order
to get a sense of orientation in the world and to protect
ourselves from its dangers, we can not rely on those
forms of thought, of reasoning, or of discourse which
have their niche in one particular context or another.
The clan of sports fans, the religious community, the
branch of a political party, the workplace: all of these
"places" obviously continue to exist, but
none of them is sufficiently characterized or characterizing
as to be able to offer us a wind rose, or a standard
of orientation, a trustworthy compass, a unity of specific
customs, of specific ways of saying/ thinking things.
Everywhere, and in every situation, we speak/ think
in the same way, on the basis of logical-linguistic
constructs which are as fundamental as they are broadly
general. An ethical-rhetorical topography is disappearing.
The "common places" (these inadequate principles
of the "life of the mind") arc moving to the
forefront: the connection between more and less, the
opposition of opposites, the relationship of reciprocity,
etc. These "common places," and these alone,
are what exist in terms of offering us a standard of
orientation, and thus, some sort of refuge from the
direction in which the world is going.
no longer inconspicuous, but rather having been flung
into the forefront, the "common places" are
the apotropaic resource of the contemporary multitude.
They appear on the surface, like a toolbox containing
things which are immediately useful. What else are they,
these "common places," if not the fundamental
core of the "life of the mind," the epicenter
of that linguistic (in the strictest sense of the word)
animal which is the human animal?
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 ethical-communicative
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.
short while ago I spoke of the "public intellect."
But the expression "public intellect" contradicts
a long tradition according to which thought would be
understood as a secluded and solitary activity, one
which separates us from our peers, an interior action,
devoid of visual manifestations, outside of the handling
of human affairs. It seems that only one thinker takes
exception to this long tradition according to which
the "life of the mind" is resistant to publicness;
in several pages of Marx we see the intellect being
presented as something exterior and collective, as a
public good. In the "Fragment on Machines"
of the Grundrisse, (Notebook VII) Marx speaks
of a general intellect: he uses these words
in English to give emphasis to the expression, as though
he wanted to place them in italics. The notion of "general
intellect" can derive from several sources: perhaps
it is a polemical response to the "general will"
of Rousseau (the intellect, not the will, according
to Marx, is that which joins together those who bring
about production); or perhaps the "general intellect"
is the materialistic renewal of the Aristotelian concept
of nous poietikos (the productive, poietic
intellect). But philology is not what matters here.
What matters is the exterior, collective, social character
which belongs to intellectual activity when this activity
becomes, according to Marx, the true mainspring of the
production of wealth.
the exception of these pages in Marx, I repeat, tradition
has attributed to the intellect those characteristics
which illustrate its insensitivity to, and estrangement
from, the public sphere. In one of the youthful writings
of Aristotle, the Protrepticus, the life of the
thinker is compared to the life of the stranger. Thinkers
must live estranged from their community, must distance
themselves from the buzzing activity of the multitude,
must mute the sounds of the agora. With respect to public
life, to the political-social community, thinkers and
strangers alike do not feel themselves, in the strict
sense of the expression, to be at home. This is a good
point of departure for focusing on the condition of
the contemporary multitude. But it is a good point of
departure only if we agree to draw some other conclusions
from the analogy between the stranger and the thinker.
a stranger, that is to say "not-feeling-at-home,"
is today a condition common to many, an inescapable
and shared condition. So then, those who do not feel
at home, in order to get a sense of orientation and
to protect themselves, must turn to the "common
places," or to the most general categories of the
linguistic intellect; in this sense, strangers are always
thinkers. As you see, I am inverting the direction of
the analogy: it is not the thinkers who become strangers
in the eyes of the community to which the thinkers belong,
but the strangers, the multitude of those "with
no home," who are absolutely obliged to attain
the status of thinkers. Those "without
a home" have no choice but to behave like thinkers:
not in order for them to learn something about biology
or advanced mathematics, but because they turn to the
most essential categories of the abstract intellect
in order to protect themselves from the blows of random
chance, in order to take refuge from contingency and
from the unforeseen.
Aristotle, the thinker is the stranger, yes, but only
provisionally: once he has finished writing the Metaphysics,
he can return to the task of dealingwith common affairs.
In the same way, even the strangers in the strict sense
of the word, the Spartans who have come to Athens, are
strangers for a specific amount of time: sooner or later,
they will be able to return to their country. For the
contemporary multitude, instead, the condition of "not
feeling at home" is permanent and irreversible.
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).
now a secondary observation. Sometimes we speak about
the childishness of contemporary metropolitan
forms of behavior. We speak about it in a deprecatory
tone. Once we have agreed that such deprecation is foolish,
it would be worth it to ask ourselves if there is something
of consistency (in short, a kernel of truth) in the
connection between metropolitan life and childhood.
Perhaps childhood is the ontogenetic matrix of every
subsequent search for protection from the blows of the
surrounding world; it exemplifies the necessity of conquering
a constituent sense of indecision, an original uncertainty
(indecision and uncertainty which at times give way
to shame, a feeling unknown to the non-human "baby"
which knows from the beginning how to behave). The human
baby protects itself by means of repetition
(the same fairy tale, one more time, or the same game,
or the same gesture). Repetition is understood as a
protective strategy in the face of the shock caused
by new and unexpected experiences. So, the problem looks
like this: is it not true that the experience of the
baby is transferred into adult experience, into the
prevalent forms of behavior at the center of the great
urban aggregates (described by Simmel, Benjamin, and
so many others)? The childhood experience of repetition
is prolonged even into adulthood, since it constitutes
the principal form of safe haven in the absence of solidly
established customs, of substantial communities, of
a developed and complete ethos. In traditional
societies (or, if you like, in the experience of the
"people"), the repetition which is so dear
to babies gave way to more complex and articulated forms
of protection: to ethos; that is to say, to
the usages and customs, to the habits which constitute
the base of the substantial communities. Now, in the
age of the multitude, this substitution no longer occurs.
Repetition, far from being replaced, persists. It was
Walter Benjamin who got the point. He dedicated a great
deal of attention to childhood, to childish games, to
the love which a baby has for repetition; and together
with this, he identified the sphere in which new forms
of perception are created with the technical reproducibility
of a work of art (Benjamin, Illuminations). So
then, there is some thing to believe in the idea that
there is a connection between these two facets of thought.
Within the possibility of technical reproduction, the
child's request for "one more time" comes
back again, strengthened; or we might say that the need
for repetition as a form of refuge surfaces again. The
publicness of the mind, the conspicuousness of "common
places," the general intellect - these
are also manifested as forms of the reassuring nature
of repetition. It is true: today's multitude has something
childish in it: but this something is as serious as
without a public sphere
have said that the multitude is defined by the feeling
of not-feeling-athome, just as it was defined by the
consequent familiarity with "common places,"
with the abstract intellect. We need to add, now, that
the dialectic dread-safe haven is rooted precisely in
this familiarity with the abstract intellect. The public
and shared character of the "life of the mind"
is colored with ambivalence: it is also, in and of itself,
the host to negative possibilities, to formidable figures.
The public intellect is the unifying base from which
there can spring forth either forms of ghastly protection
or forms of protection capable of achieving a real sense
of comfort (according to the degree in which, as we
have said, they safeguard us from the former forms of
protection). The public intellect which the multitude
draws upon is the point of departure for opposing developments.
When the fundamental abilities of the human being (thought,
language, self-reflection, the capacity for learning)
come to the forefront, the situation can take on a disquieting
and oppressive appearance; or it can even give way to
a non-public public sphere, to a non-governmental
public sphere, far from the myths and rituals of sovereignty.
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. Freud in the essay "The
Uncanny" (Freud, Collected Papers) shows
how the extrinsic power of thought can take on anguishing
features. He says that people who are ill, for whom
thoughts have an exterior, practical and immediately
operative power, fear becoming conditioned and overwhelmed
by others. It is the same situation, moreover, which
is brought about in a spiritualist seance in which the
participants are bound together in a fused relationship
which seems to nullify every trace of individual identity.
So then, the belief in the "omnipotence of thought,"
studied by Freud, and the extreme situation of the spiritualist
seance exemplify clearly what publicness without
a public sphere can become; what general intellect
can become when it is not articulated within a political
general intellect, or public intellect, if
it does not become a republic, a public sphere,
a political community, drastically increases forms of
submission. To make the point clear, let us think about
contemporary production. The sharing of linguistic
and cognitive habits is the constituent element of the
post-Fordist process of labor. All the workers enter
into production in as much as they are speaking-thinking.
This has nothing to do, mind you, with "professionality"
or with the ancient concept of "skill" or
"craftsmanship": to speak/to think are generic
habits of the human animal, the opposite of any sort
of specialization. This preliminary sharing
in one way characterizes the "many," seen
as being "many," the multitude; in another
way, it is itself the base of today's production. Sharing,
in so far as it is a technical requirement, is opposed
to the division of labor - it contradicts that
division and causes it to crumble. Of course this does
not mean that work loads are no longer subdivided, parceled
out, etc.; rather, it means that the segmentation of
duties no longer answers to objective "technical"
criteria, but is, instead, explicitly arbitrary, reversible,
changeable. As far as capital is concerned, what really
counts is the original sharing of linguistic-cognitive
talents, since it is this sharing which guarantees readiness,
adaptability, etc., in reacting to innovation. So, it
is evident that this sharing of generic cognitive and
linguistic talents within the process of real production
does not become a public sphere, does not become a political
community or a constitutional principle. So then, what
publicness of the intellect, that is to say the sharing
of the intellect, in one sense causes every rigid division
of labor to fall flat on its back; in another sense,
however, it fosters personal dependence. General
intellect, the end of the division of labor, personal
dependency: the three facets are interrelated. The publicness
of the intellect, when it does not take place in a public
sphere, translates into an unchecked proliferation
of hierarchies as groundless as they are thriving.
The dependency is personal in two senses of
the word: in the world of labor one depends on this
person or on that person, not on rules endowed with
anonymous coercive power; moreover, it is the whole
person who is subdued, the person's basic communicative
and cognitive habits.
One for the Many?
point of departure for our analysis was the opposition
between the terms "people" and "multitude."
From what we have discussed up to this point, it remains
clear that the multitude does not rid itself of the
One, of the universal, of the common/shared;
rather, it redefines the One. The One of the multitude
no longer has anything to do with the One constituted
by the State, with the One towards which the people
people are the result of a centripetal movement: from
atomized individuals, to the unity of the "body
politic," to sovereignty. The extreme outcome of
this centripetal movement is the One. The multitude,
on the other hand, is the outcome of a centrifugal movement:
from the One to the Many. But which One is it that serves
as the starting point from which the many differentiate
themselves and remain so? Certainly it can not be the
State; it must have to do with some completely different
form of unity/universality. We can now consider once
again a point to which we referred at the beginning
of our analysis.
unity which the multitude has behind itself is constituted
by the "common places" of the mind, by the
linguistic-cognitive faculties common to the species,
by the general intellect. It has to do with
a unity/universality which is visibly unlike that of
the state. Let us be clear: the cognitive-linguistic
habits of the species do not come to the forefront because
someone decides to make them come to the forefront;
they do so out of necessity, or because they constitute
a form of protection in a society devoid of substantial
communities (or of "special places").
One of the multitude, then, is not the One of the people.
The multitude does not converge into a volonté générale
for one simple reason: because it already has access
to a general intellect. The public intellect,
however, which appears in the post-Ford world as a mere
resource of production, can constitute a different "constitutional
principle"; it can overshadow a non-state public
sphere. The many, in as much as they are many,
use the publicness of the intellect as their base or
pedestal: for better or for worse.
there is a substantial difference between the contemporary
multitude and the multitude which was studied by seventeenth
century philosophers of political thought. At the dawning
of the modern era, the many" coincided with the
citizens of the communal republics prior to the birth
of the great national States. Those "many"
made use of the "right of resistance," of
the jus resistentiae. That right, nonsensically,
does not mean legitimate defense: it is something more
subtle and complicated. The "right of resistance"
consists of validating the prerogatives of an individual
or of a local community, or of a corporation, in contrast
to the central power structure, thus safeguarding forms
of life which have already been affirmed as
free-standing forms, thus protecting practices already
rooted in society. It means, then, defending something
positive: it is a conservative violence (in
the good and noble sense of the word.) Perhaps the jus
resistentiae (or the right to protect something
which is already in place and is worthy of continuing
to exist) is what provides the strongest connection
between the seventeenth century multitudo and
the post-Ford multitude. Even for the latter "multitude,"
it is not a question of "seizing power," of
constructing a new State or a new monopoly of political
decision making; rather, it has to do with defending
plural experiences, forms of non-representative democracy,
of non-governmental usages and customs. As far as the
rest is concerned, it is difficult not to see the differences
between the two "multitudes": the 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.
must hold at bay the demon of the analogy, the short
circuiting between the ancient and the very modern;
we need to delineate in high relief the original historical
traits of the contemporary multitude, while avoiding
to define this multitude as simply a remake of something
which once was. Let me give an example. It is typical
of the post-Ford multitude to foment the collapse of
political representation: not as an anarchic gesture,
but as a means of calmly and realistically searching
for new political forms. Of course Hobbes was already
putting us on alert with reference to the tendency of
the multitude to take on the forms of irregular political
organisms: "in their nature but leagues, or sometimes
mere concourse of people, without union to any particular
design, not by obligation of one to another" (Hobbes,
Leviathan: 154). But it is obvious that non-representative
democracy based upon the general intellect
has an entirely different significance: it is in no
way interstitial, marginal or residual; rather, it is
the concrete appropriation and re-articulation of the
knowledge/power unity which has congealed within the
administrative modern machine of the States.
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. This is obviously the way it is. I have already
said that the "people" prevailed against the
"multitude" in the political-philosophical
thought of the seventeenth century: thus, the "people"
have enjoyed the privilege of a suitable lexicon. With
regard to the multitude, we are left, instead, with
the absolute lack of codification, with the absence
of a clear conceptual vocabulary. But this is a wonderful
challenge for philosophers and sociologists, above all
for doing research in the field. It involves working
on concrete matters, examining them in detail, but,
at the same time deriving theoretical categories from
them. There is a dual movement here, from things to
words, and from words to things: this requires the post-Ford
multitude. And it is, I repeat, an exciting task.
is quite clear that "people" and "multitude"
are two categories which are more in line with political
thought than with sociology; in fact, they signbetween
themselves, alternate forms of political existence.
But it is my opinion that the notion of the multitude
is extraordinarily rich in terms of allowing us to understand,
to assess the modes of being of post-Ford subordinate
labor, to understand some of the forms of behavior of
that labor which at first sight seemed so enigmatic.
As I will try to explain more completely in the second
day of our symposium, this is precisely a category of
political thought which, having been defeated in the
theoretical debate of its time, now presents itself
again as a most valuable instrument for the analysis
of living labor in the post-Ford era. Let us say that
the multitude is an amphibian category: on one hand
it speaks to us of social production based on knowledge
and language; on the other hand, it speaks of the crisis
of the form-of-State. And perhaps there is a strong
connection between these two things. Carl Schmitt is
someone who has grasped the essential nature of the
State and who is the major theoretician of the politics
of the past century; in the Sixties, when he was already
an old man, he wrote a very bitter (for him) statement,
the sense of which is that as the multitude reappears,
the people fade away: "The era of stateness [Staatlichkeit]
is nearing its end [...]. The State as the model of
political unity, the State as the holder of the most
extraordinary of all monopolies, that is to say, of
the monopoly of political decision-making [...] is being
dethroned" (Schmitt. Der Begriff 10 [note:
English translation from the German, by the translators]).
One important addition, however, must be made: this
monopoly of decision making can be truly taken away
from the State only when it ceases for once and for
all to be a monopoly, only when the multitude asserts
its centrifugal character.
would like to conclude this first day of our seminar
by dispelling, as much as I can, a misunderstanding
into which it is easy to fall. It might seem as though
the multitude would mark the end of the labor class.
In the universe of the "many," there is no
longer room for the blue collar workers, all of them
equal, who make up a unified body among them, a body
which is not very sensitive to the kaleidoscope of the
"difference" among them.
is a foolish way of thinking, one which is dear to those
who feel the need to oversimplify questions, to get
high on words meant for effect (to produce electroshocks
for monkeys, as a friend. of mine used to say). Neither
in Marx, nor m the opinion of any serious person, is
labor class equated with certain habits, with certain
usages and customs, etc. The labor class is a theoretical
concept, not a snap-shot photograph kept as a souvenir:
it signifies the subject which produces relative and
absolute surplus value. So then, the contemporary working
class, the current subordinate labor-power and its cognitive-linguistic
collaboration, bear the traits of the multitude, rather
than of the people. However, this multitude no longer
assumes the "popular" vocation to stateness
[statualità] The notion of "multitude"
does not overturn the concept of the working class,
since this concept was not bound by definition to that
of "people." Being "multitude" does
not interfere at all with producing surplus value. Since
the labor class no longer assumes the mode of being
of the people, but rather, that of the multitude, many
things change, of course: the mentality, the forms of
organization and of conflict. Everything becomes complicated.
How much easier it would be to say that there is a multitude
now, that there is no more labor class ... But if we
really want simplicity at all costs, all we have to
do is drink up a bottle of red wine.
the other hand, there are passages even in Marx in which
the labor class loses the appearance of the "people"
and acquires the features of the "multitude."
Just one example: let us think about the pages of the
last chapter of the first book of the Capital,
where Marx analyzes the condition of the labor class
in the United States (Volume 1, Chap. 33, "The
modern theory of colonization"). There is, in that
chapter, some great writing on the subject of the American
West, on the exodus from the East, on the individual
initiative of the "many." The European laborers,
driven away from their own countries by epidemics, famines
and economic crises, go off to work on the East Coast
of the United States. But let us note: they remain there
for a few years, only for a few years. Then
they desert the factory, moving West, towards free lands.
Wage labor is seen as a transitory phase, rather than
as a life sentence. Even if only for a twenty-year period,
the wage laborers had the possibility of planting the
seeds of disorder into the ironclad laws of the labor
market: by renouncing their own initial condition, they
brought about a relative shortage of manpower and thus
a raise in salaries. Marx, in describing this situation,
offers us a very vivid portrait of a labor class which
is also a multitude.
Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, Semiotext(e)