Grammar of the Multitude

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Paolo Virno in his book Grammar of the Multitudes:

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A presentation of Paolo Virno's Grammar of the Multitudes and his genealogy on the concept of the Multitude.

"Virno's challenge is to imagine a form of unity and a kind of agency that does not work by collapsing the distinctions between individuals. After all, as Foucault makes clear, these distinctions emerge relationally: the relation will therefore serve as a kind of base or unity. Thus, against the modern, Hobbesian concept of "the people," Hardt, Negri, and Virno propose a collective, perhaps even pre-conceptual, form of life they call "the multitude." The multitude, Virno declares, "does not clash with the One; rather, it redefines it." In effect, Virno turns Hobbes on his head: the One or the unity is no longer a promised point of convergence in the figure of the Sovereign or the State, as it is for Hobbes. The movement is not from some imagined "state of nature" toward "civilization." Instead, for Virno, the multitude is a premise, a kind of origin, which does not transfer rights to the Sovereign. In a Marxian vein, he calls it "the base"; it is "the universal," "the generic," "the shared experience." And it is in the shared commonality of the multitude that we can imagine a new kind of unity, an agency for social and political transformation that emerges from creative and mobile relations -- an agency that does not have its source in an outmoded subject or in the sovereignty of the State. The multitude is a bio-social collectivity, a life form that is irreducible to its contents, which is to say, a form of life implicit in the form itself, in its expression, in its shifting rhetorical dimensions, and not in some abstract content or concept. The implications for us are legion, not just as potential political agents, but as those whose political lives unfold in a networked world that lacks the traditional moorings of subjectivity and political identity. And by "network," here we must consider not just web environments, new electric modes of communication and activism, but also myriad others, such as terrorist networks. These latter have proven very effective against an ageing and lumbering State Leviathan, for these networks enact an agency and yet they have no true centralized locus of control -- a reality that States are slow to recognize and at a loss to combat in traditional terms. The so-called "War on Terror" is a case in point, since State efforts to combat terrorism have relied on a redoubling of centralized governmental control and surveillance -- a strategy that clearly misses the mark. Like it or not, the terrorist network is a new model of political agency that has a multitudinous force. And in a similar vein, so too do ordinary citizens when they gather to protest the WTO, or the U.S. war in Iraq, or more recently to publicly grieve and protest the terrorist train bombings in Madrid and London. While it is impossible to quantify what kind of global political impact will result from these demonstrations, in them there is undoubtedly some form of subjective emergence, some shared understanding of life that enters the social and political field of play.

The title of Virno's book is A Grammar of the Multitude. And Virno does offer us a grammar of sorts, though to be sure, it is neither a fundamental nor a fundamentalist grammar, not a divine Logos, not language in the "common-sense" sense. Virno will not collapse speaking and being, but will find in their difference a productive tension, a creative and expressive voice, a temporary and mobile site for political agency. His argument is itself "multitudinous," that is, it is a kaleidoscope of argumentational fragments, a bricolage, employing key terms from "Hobbes, Kant, Heidegger, Aristotle..., Marx and Freud," and drawing equally on the vastly disparate insights of "Hannah Arendt, Glenn Gould, the novelist Luciano Bianciardi, Saussure, Guy Debord...." And this long list is by no means complete. Of course, the trajectory of his small book, comprising three lectures, is impossible to duplicate here, all the more so because his argument is implicitly inductive, rather than deductive. But it has the force of the multitude. The book bears as its subtitle, "For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life," and it is here, with the life form, and with the emergence of a kind of life itself, that I find him at his most persuasive. If the multitude offers us a "grammar," a language that Virno characterizes as "pre-individual," this suggests a preliminary strategy, at least, for reading how contemporary forms of life are emerging."