Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch
cbertsch

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Before I Forget: Review of Hardt and Negri's Multitude

Soon the new issue of Tikkun magazine will be out, which means that the long review I wrote for the last one on Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Multitude, together with Negri's Time For Revolution, will soon be withdrawn from the website. Obviously, it would be great if you could go buy a copy. Since the newsstands have been out of the issue for weeks, however, I can draw your attention to the electronic version with a clear conscience. Read it, if you have the time and inclination, and tell me what you think. It was a large, furry omnivore to write.

Please bear in mind that the necessary HTML tags were not inserted during the process of its becoming digital, so anything that should be in italics won't be. In the interest of making my favorite part of the piece easier to read, however, I've reformatted it for you:
The relative fleshlessness of the book’s “living flesh” underscores its principal weakness. Although Multitude depends heavily on a few key metaphors, Hardt and Negri rarely push them far enough to provoke readers into making connections between the language of politics and the politics of language. “The organs of the political body are really primarily economic divisions, and thus a critique of political economy is necessary to understand the body’s anatomy.” The language of this sentence, like so many in Multitude, fits seamlessly into the very tradition with which the book seeks to break. It’s one thing to argue that “the global political body is not merely a national body grown overlarge. It has a new physiology.” Making that newness come alive is a task of a different order.

Imagine if, following the inspiration of Anti-Oedipus, Hardt and Negri had used passages from literature to reinforce their theoretical points. The concept of “living flesh,” for example, becomes a great deal more compelling when illustrated with the famous sketch about the talking asshole in William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch:
Nothing did any good and the asshole said to him: "It’s you who will shut up in the end. Not me. Because we don’t need you around here any more. I can talk and eat and shit.’ After that he began waking up in the morning with a transparent jelly like a tadpole’s tail all over his mouth. This jelly was what the scientists call un-D.T., Undifferentiated Tissue, which can grow into any kind of flesh on the human body.
The passage is revolting. But there’s a reason why that word is the twin of “revolution.” Had Hardt and Negri taken the risk, they could have made this point and then moved on to a discussion of stem-cell research, which played such an important role in the recent elections in the United States precisely because so many Americans fear the possibilities latent in “living flesh.”

The abstractness of Multitude also deprives us of a chance to understand where its authors are coming from. Because the metaphors they do use have been purified to the point where geographic and cultural markers are imperceptible, readers are discouraged from identifying with them as individuals. And that, in turn, has the effect of making their forceful first-person plural seem like an eraser of singularities. Their “we,” in short, ends up sounding a lot like the “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union” of the Constitution. To be fair, much of the blame for this perception rests with the nature of Hardt and Negri’s co-authorship. Because the two men are separated by so many factors—age, national origin, institutional affiliation—they are always writing across a divide that renders the personal an afterthought.
I go on to argue that the preface to Time For Revolution, in which Negri refers to his time as a political prisoner, places the amorphousness of Multitude in a better light. Even if the former book is harder to read, the fact that it is framed by a reference to personal experience makes its abstractness seem more grounded.

I'm still not sure how much I agree with the Hardt and Negri line in Multitude and its predecessor Empire, but I'm glad that they are around to stimulate conversations that might otherwise never occur. Frankly, the more leftist political theory people are reading, the better. While I prefer more practical, accessible approaches to the problems of our day, I also realize that my thinking about them is more lucid for having thought so hard about Multitude and Time For Revolution
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