[printer friendly version ]

ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 3, Number 1 (January 2006)

Book Review:  Paolo Virno’s “New Seventeenth Century”.

Paolo Virno. A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life.

Translated by Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito and Andrea Casson. New York: Semiotext (e), 2004.

Reviewed by Craig McFarlane
(Doctoral Program in Sociology, York University, Toronto, Canada).

            A book whose title includes the word “grammar” suggests the reader should pay close attention to language: its uses, its significations, and its rules. A book, ostensibly one that is a grammar of the multitude suggests a particular meaning of grammar. Paolo Virno, however, leaves this relationship unstressed and undeveloped. The reader cannot help but notice how ambivalent Virno is towards his goal of describing (or developing?) this grammar. Language, in the form of a grammar only enters into the work in two places: once at the beginning and again at the end. However, these appearances are neither introductory nor concluding remarks. The first instance, in the Introduction, reads as follows: “today, we are perhaps living in …an age in which the old categories are falling apart and we need to coin new ones”.1 And, the second instance, in the penultimate chapter: “The predicates we will attribute to the grammatical subject of 'multitude' are…”.2 However, the “predicates”, from the second passage, and the “categories”, from the first passage, are the same. One is left with the impression that possibly nothing has happened during the course of the book.  How can this be?

            But, maybe, I am getting ahead of myself. Perhaps, instead of beginning with the title of the book, I should begin with the book itself. A Grammar of the Multitude is a short work “written” by Paolo Virno. I mark “written” for a particular reason. The book is not a monograph, but rather a series of seminars given at the University of Calabria in 2001 collected as a single work. In other words, a potentially artificial unity has been imposed on this work. The book contains four chapters and an introduction: “Forms of Dread and Refuge”, “Labour, Action, Intellect”, “Multitude as Subjectivity” and “Ten Theses on the Multitude and Post-Fordist Capitalism”.  Each of the chapters contains a subtitle: “Day One” through “Day Four”. Only the Introduction is missing a marker of its time: presumably, like all introductions, it was written at the end, maybe when the seminars were being gathered for the purpose of publication.

            But, then, maybe I am not getting ahead of myself.  A grammar is often used to mean the system of rules comprising a given language, especially insofar as those rules produce “grammatical” sentences (i.e., sentences that a native speaker of that language would accept as correct). In this sense, a grammar could be seen as referring to “the predicates we will attribute to the grammatical subject of ‘multitude’”. The Oxford English Dictionary, however, identifies an older meaning of the term: “The fundamental principles or rules of an art or science. A book presenting these in methodical form. (Now rare; formerly common in the titles of books”.)  In this different, older sense, “grammar” takes on a clearer meaning. Virno, clearly, has both senses in mind. This work, then, is literally an enigma: “A short composition in prose or verse, in which something is described by intentionally obscure metaphors, in order to afford an exercise for the ingenuity of the reader or hearer in guessing what is meant; a riddle”.3  There is no shortage of metaphors in Virno’s book: dread, fear, anguish, refuge, refusal, exit, labour, action, intellect, biopolitics, …, the list goes on. This word, metaphor, is the key to unraveling Virno’s metaphor: a metaphor is to language as representation is to politics. Through his games with language, Virno is indicating the possibility of a critique of representation. Representation and not a grammar of the multitude is the subject of this book.

            Prefaced in such a way, it is possible to re-orient Virno’s book along an admittedly idiosyncratic axis emphasizing what I find to be most interesting in Virno’s work: the critique of the representative form of “the One” (the nation or the people) and the defense of “the Many” (the multitude).4 This re-orientation, however, does not imply a rejection of the other aspects of the work.5

            We can then return to the ellipsis in the first passage: “today, we are perhaps living in a new seventeenth century, or in an age in which the old categories are falling apart and we need to coin new ones”.6 This “new seventeenth century” elevates Hobbes and Spinoza to the rung of our most esteemed philosophers, for it is in a battle between these two where the decisive conflict took place between “the One” and “the Many”. “One must keep in mind that the choice between ‘people’ and ‘multitude’ was at the heart of the practical controversies (the establishment of centralized modern States, religious wars, etc.) and of the theoretical-philosophical controversies of the seventeenth century”.7  Clearly, Spinoza’s multitude lost, but, due to popular demand, another round is called for. As in the original contest, Spinoza and his supporters are at a disadvantage. After all, Hobbes and his supporters have had a virtual monopoly on the language, grammar and vocabulary of political theory for over three centuries. “When 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”.8 Virno, therefore, must make a strong case.

            First, what is “the One” that he repeatedly speaks about and for which Hobbes is credited with defending? According to Virno, the decisive moment for Hobbes is not the transition from the “state of nature” to “the commonwealth”, but rather the means through which this transition takes place. In other words, the point is the form that the relation between the subject and the form of the society takes. If this subject is improperly chosen, the fear of and the possibility of reverting to the “state of nature” (or, at least, back into the English Civil War) is always on the horizon. Hobbes, therefore, proposes a relation between ruled (“the people”) and ruler (“Leviathan”, or State). “The concept of people, according to Hobbes, is strictly correlated to the existence of the State; furthermore, it is a reverberation, a reflection of the State: if there is a State, then there are people.  In the absence of the State, there are no people”.9 Thus, “before the State, there were the many; after the establishment of the State, there is the One-people, endowed with a single will”.10 

            It is worth spending a few lines working through this argument. The “state of nature” (which is to say the “state of war”) is the domain of the many. It is a plethora of wills having no necessary point of convergence. For Hobbes, this plurality of wills results in war: there is nothing to control or hold back the passions of the multitude. The multitude, seeing the danger it is in, will willingly enter into a single collective body: the people. The people form a single, general will and thus can have action attributed to them. Without a single will, there is no possibility of action because a single, unified entity cannot operate in multiple, contradictory ways at once. (This is why the general will is associated with a social body.) The people, as a collective actor, can act in a collective fashion.  The unity of “the one” exists both at the collective level and at the level of each individual. An individual acts as a member of the people and the people act as the totality of individuals. But, in order for this occur, the primitive right to war (or, more accurately: to resistance) must be alienated from the multitude and cannot find a home in the people. This exceptional moment – of violence, power, and resistance – must be transferred to the State who then, in turn, uses this power against external enemies and as a silent threat against people. A relationship is thus constructed between the ruled people and the ruling Leviathan: strict obedience in return for protection.  What one would ordinarily take as the prerogative of democracy – the right to disagree and the right to resist – in fact does not exist in the people.  Democracy, it seems, is antithetical to the people and the State.

            We can then see the potential significance of “the many” or multitude through reversing the polarity of the theses ascribed to Hobbes: “if there are people, there is no multitude; if there is a multitude, there are no people”.11 If Hobbes is correct, then there is another correlate unmentioned by Virno: if there is a multitude, then there is no state. Where the people obeyed, the multitude resists; where the people united as on, the multitude persists in difference; and where the people forms the state, the multitude forms the…? It is at this point that the associative form of life of the multitude comes into question. In other words, if no people and no state, and if we have a multitude, what will we have?

            It is at this point that Virno’s argument breaks down.12 There is no attempt to construct a positive political project or even an attempt to hypothesize what one might look like.13 Thus, shifting terrain from Virno’s book to Hardt and Negri’s Empire, if it is "the Communist Manifesto for the twenty-first century", they forgot to include a list of demands! And, to this extent, Virno’s book remains an enigma.14


1 Paolo Virno. A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. New York: Semiotext(e), 2004:24.

2 Ibid.:75.

3 Oxford English Dictionary.

4 From my perspective, this is the essential contribution to political theory of  “autonomist” Marxism: the attack upon “the One”. This attack, while forming the most interesting and powerful aspect of these works (for instance, Antonio Negri’s The Savage Anomaly and Insurgencies, along with his co-authored works with Michael Hardt, Empire and Multitude), it is also one of the least developed ideas.  “One” could only hope that Hardt, Negri, or Virno have a detailed book-length treatment of the subject up their sleeve!

5 At this point the distinction between the “written” and “spoken” parts of Virno’s book becomes relevant: the primary sections on his critique of representation are to be found in the “written” Introduction (pages 21-6) and mostly disappear in the “spoken” (pages 41-5, 69-71) transcripts of the seminar. These passages will receive an unfair attention over the rest of the book. 

6 Paolo Virno. A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. New York: Semiotext(e), 2004:24.

7 Ibid.:21. It is disappointing that history remains an after thought for Virno. History is a list left in parentheses: “(the establishment of centralized modern States, religious wars, etc.)”.  Why did “the people” win? What happened practically and theoretically to ensure this victory? What circumstances led to the question in the first place? Virno, like Hardt and Negri, is mostly silent on these questions. 

8 Ibid.:43.

9 Ibid. 22.

10 Ibid.:23.

11 Ibid.

12 Coincidently, it is at this point where Hardt and Negri’s discourse also breaks down.  After constructing the theoretical object of the multitude and destroying the form of associative life of “the one”, Hardt, Negri and Virno alike are unable to articulate a positive vision of the future.  It is nice (almost utopian) to say that the multitude autonomously constructs its own form of associative life under the conditions of post-Fordism (all three make this claim), but if post-Fordism is the end of multitude’s political vision, it seems to me that this is entirely unsatisfactory.  Perhaps the post-Fordist dead end is why Hardt and Negri resort to messianism and eschatology to lead the multitude beyond Empire.

13 Editor’s Note: An important part of the difficulties experienced by thinkers who seek a positive project involves what Baudrillard refers to as: “a kind of implosion of meaning”. Our sense of a point of view from which to criticize meaning from a place external to the space of meaning has disappeared. As Baudrillard puts it:  

There’s a kind of immanence of the hyperreal and we are caught in it: there’s a kind of confusion of the negative and positive poles, there are no longer any intellectual positions in the traditional sense. There are no longer any positions of knowledge or evaluation which are outside of the hyperreal, and it’s that fact which constitutes the end of critical analysis. It’s not possible to make a judgment. ...it’s neither optimistic nor pessimistic but I myself am making a hyperreal theory, about the hyperreal space. Jean Baudrillard. Interview with Judith Williamson, Translated by Brand Thumin, Block 15, 1989:17).

14 Editor’s note: There is similarly, a sense of the enigmatic which wraps itself around the texts of Giorgio Agamben and his sense of a “politics to come”. See: Giorgio Agamben (and the Introduction by Gerry Coulter). “Form of Life” in International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. Volume 2, Number 2, July 2005. See: http://www.ubishops.ca/baudrillardstudies/vol2_2/agamben.htm


©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2006)

[Main Page]   [Contents]   [Editorial Board]   [Submissions]