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Before I Forget: Review of Hardt and Negri's Multitude - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
cbertsch
cbertsch
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the last one on Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's Multitude, together with Negri's Time For Revolution, will soon be withdrawn from the website.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

Mode: allergy-challenged
Muse: Seven A.M. - The Constantines - The Constantines

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Comments
art_thirst From: art_thirst Date: March 4th, 2005 12:00 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I like your style. I always feel lacking when I read others writing that I like. I try to do my best, using my own voice. In that way I maintain my authenticity. But, I always or, usually, feel that I could write in a way that makes me feel more accomplished as a writer. Maybe I need to write more but, I don't like to force myself, even though one has to do that at times. Reading poetry definitely helps my writing though. I think putting together a string of words for non-fiction that has some of those qualities is good. At least, that's what I strive for.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: March 4th, 2005 03:25 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Thanks! I like your style a lot too. As I've said before, I'm really impressed with the prose-image entries you've been doing.
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 26th, 2005 11:00 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Negri & Hardt's lateral horizontal immanence

"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"

The co-authorship is thematic in that while one writer might achieve heroic stature, and that so vertical as to approach transcendence, two writers colaborating have a lateral horizontal relation entirely within immanences (like Christo and Jeanne-Claude getting immanence and horizontality up where transcendence as aspiring verticality used to be: "horizontal but high immanence"). The "divide," and the width of the divide between H. & N., is also thematic, in that each thinker must become elastic in order to stretch across the divide while remaining capable of resuming his functional shape: elasticity does not have a pure platonic ideal form. A divide, as a discontinuity, offers a place for adventures in crossing or patching a divide---in behalf of a constructed continuity, rather than the continuity of the transcendental continuum that is reached by vertical ascent. As you experiment in integrating past and present, will you participate in vertical transcendences as in seeing God's plan for you, a divine continuity with divine ironies ("but God meant it unto good"), or continue to construct a self-developing self-organizing constructivist life answerable to no transcendental ideal? ("Tikkun" suggests diagonals, or at least the transcendental and the immanent answerable to each other, like kosher at the table, but stay out of the kitchen).

Neither Socrates nor Jesus seems to have written, and both transcended with some verticality. Even those individuals who wrote about them seem not to have collaborated in co-operative writing (however much using each other's texts), and with Jesus, they all became saints, most of whom seem to go toward Heaven one by vertical one. H & N. had to cooperate in order to elude vertical transcendence and to remain dwelling under house-arrest among immanences. Their philosophy would not permit them to negate transcendence, but to elude it. They had to enact a shift of love from verticals to horizontals, their hybrid love and love of hybridity. Your own emigrations from some states and immigrations into other states looks like horizontal adventures toward a place to dwell in the world with as few negations of prior places (department of birthplace security), and as few negations of healthy robust physical life as possible. H & N exaggerate immanences, and fail to elude transcendentals, so inescapable tensions between the horizontals and the verticals continue to construct diagonals with interior trembles. Meanwhile, you explore toward the sky, wondering what to teach your daughter about it, while thinking about people resisting pulls,that is, people like you...
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: March 27th, 2005 01:17 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: Negri & Hardt's lateral horizontal immanence

Wow! That's beautiful.

Much more prosaically, I agree that the collaborative aspect of their work is special. I'm very into collaborative writing, precisely because it is so hard to pull off. Still, there's something about a solo writer's particularity that makes for stronger identification in my experience.

May I ask who you are?
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 27th, 2005 01:18 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Re: Negri & Hardt's lateral horizontal immanence

Anonymous, only for the moment (a note by me about H&N might be published on-line): because of your interest in identity, I uncharacteristically withhold my identity while thinking with some of your thoughts (including the identity of the individual writer), in order to think without the bother of self. In this experiment, I am collaborating at least as a co-laborer, wondering about lateral relations, spreading thoughts horizontally, & studying the sincerity H&N seem to omit, although sincerity is the condition of meaningfulness. Can two co-operating writers both be sincere? Equally sincere? Can a team achieve identical commitments, perhaps identical because aligned by the process of collaboration (note critical condescensions to Michael Hardt, as though treating him as equal to Antonio Negri satirizes him, the way a mistake in equivalence satirizes that which is not equal). In terms of your self-identity and questions of your authenticity and sincerity, as you judge those values by your self-set standards---could you sincerely collaborate? Are you ever authentic while co-operating? Do you imagine yourself in a commune that constructs communication with the aura of free love among people free to love? Do you offer your uncommodified communal communication as a model for people, closed within self-enclosing capitalisms, to learn to teach themselves the value of a conversation that is free speech because it is among people treating each other as equals? (I am gathering that a Web Log is a calling toward non-commoditized communications, a summoning toward a calling of oneself toward oneself, with questions of quite what names to call oneself in this state of ownership). Perhaps H&N's problem with sincerity is that sincere commitments divisively negate alternative or rival sincere commitments. So many negations are necessary to uphold vertical self-identity of the writer who does not absorb into the Multitude by osmosis--& H&N axiomatically abnegate negations as much as possible, or at least so underplay them that they elude negations of negations, and outwit dialectic in the sense of reciprocal modifications between a negative and a positive that ascend as though vertically toward a transcendental reconciliation:---something like an epiphany revealing an ideal, rather than allowing the next novelty to emerge by not being negative and by not doing that violence that both the determination to be sincere and to be authentic cause within a group of people otherwise of mutual good will. (Since negations as reductions to nothing cannot occur within the horizontal immanences, negations seem vertical transcendences, and thus with H&N have no where to go [they abhor a social vacuum]). On self-identity, writing, negation and viscosities: perhaps you would like to overcome some negations, & sense that co-operative writing would encourage you to open laterally toward well-opened other people, not looking vertically toward the transcendentals that would separate you because of your commitments, but rather opening or reopening your system---which you might feel is in danger of closing down over itself suffocatingly, at least if any revered dialectic seems stalled like a snake zigzagging with its tail in its mouth. Would collaboration become the reciprocal opening of systems that threaten to close down viscously?
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 27th, 2005 01:22 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)

Hardt & Negri: I hadn't finished

The Multitude, as the Precarious of the earth, are people who are negated in this era of commodified communications, but their communications, as imagined by H&N, could become a model for the communications to be looked for in the midst of (our) pathlessness. Aporia becomes attractive as a theme—“But their way,/ Lies through the perplexed paths of this drear wood…”---while at least nomads construct paths. Watch peasants in airports. Watch La India Maria films, and see La India Maria Phone Cards advertised in the community as La India Maria Calling Cards, where the word “calling” calls forth several suggestions, like a visiting card left by James Joyce with a woman who has opened a door. A “Protestant” who is not a Christian may have nowhere transcendental to go, but a hybrid Zen-Protestant can jump up for the moment of haiku—“a ball/ a basket/ splash!”—confident that jumping up precedes jumping down. Beyond viscosities, H&N's books do glow from within because they are self-exemplifying. Their styles and methods of writing are literary elaborations of their social, economic and political values, the quality you want in the organization of your website as a model for your politics. Marx had figured that a completed materialist analysis, turned upside down, would look like an idealist analysis: that is, a perfected material process would look like an a priori product. But Empire and Multitude, as flows of spreading hybridic thoughts, can't be composed as products that can be turned upside down. The upside of upside down would be too vertical for H&N, entailing too many negations, while their horizontal sprawl, going hyphen by hyphen, shapes itself to resistances, yet continues to find places for partners in political prose to dwell while constructing their constructivisms.
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