Virno and History

“Hear the sound, not the music, hear the speech, not the words. Death is the imminent thing. My fire is unquenchable.” So read a note left behind by the great jazz saxophonist and co-inventor of bebop, Charlie Parker.

He could have been talking about something that goes by many names in Paolo Virno’s Déjà Vu and the End of History, (Verso Futures, 2015). Sometimes Virno calls it potential, or the virtual, or memory, or faculty, or disposition, or even labor-power. This unquenchable fire is for Virno the source of historical possibility.

And yet many writers – from Frances Fukuyama to Jean Baudrillard – would insist that history has ended. Virno’s book is not only a refutation of that thesis, it is also a meditation on a philosophy of time that might meet the challenges of being fully historical and materialist. I am not entirely sure he accomplishes that goal, or if it is even achievable. But he certainly offers a powerful challenge to those who would argue either that history is dead, or in a Heideggerian vein that history is oriented towards death.

Virno begins with a meditation on history and memory, but not memory as an individual attribute. Like ‘will’ in Rousseau and ‘general intellect’ in Marx, Virno thinks memory, an otherwise personal category, as social. (To extend this list, I have been interested in how Mach and Bogdanov likewise think ‘sensation’ outside the prison-house of the individual.)

A strange trick of memory that individuals can experience, yet which might have a wider significance, is déjà vu. It is like watching ourselves live, as if we are spectators to our own actions, the script laid down, prompting apathy, fatalism, and indifference to the future. Baudrillard saw this as the spirit of the times, an affect corresponding to a foreclosure of history and an immersion in a saturated environment of unanchored information.

Virno takes another tack. He sees déjà vu as a “moment of truth” of how memory works. (11) As Henri Bergson would have it, memory and perception capture the same current moment, but in different ways. Usually, the sensation of remembering what is happening while it is happening can’t be sensed. Memory and perception are simultaneous but heterogeneous to each other.

For Bergson, memory is on the side of the virtual and perception on the side of the actual. Virno: “Bergson refutes the mainstream opinion according to which a) the possibility precedes the real, its substitute in embryo; b) it is something less than the real, since eve if it fully resembles it, it lacks the decisive requisite of existence.” (15) As reality comes into existence, its image is cast behind into an indefinite past. The virtual is more, not less than the actual. “Memory is the mechanism that confers a potential (incomplete, contingent) character on the actual reality by throwing it back into the past.” (16-17)

Déjà vu is an experience of the virtual as a kind of bleed-though of memory into perception. “Déjà vu arises when the past-form, applied to the present, is exchange for a past-content, which the present will repeat with obsessive loyalty – that is to say, when a possible-present is exchanged for a real-past.” (18) For Virno this experience can point in two directions, however. Déjà vu can either close or open the relation between memory and perception, the virtual and the actual. Usually experienced as a closing-off, Virno thinks it is more an experience which leads to possibility.

What can be experienced in déjà vu is not particular pasts, but a kind of past-in-general, a sort of generative space of possible events. “The past-in-general accompanies every actuality like an aura.” (19) And in déjà vu the aura can be detected, as if as a memory, bleeding through into perception of the actual present. This memory is a memory of a past that was never actual, but rather “the pure form of the previous.” (23)

This past that memory recalls is made of language and labor, but as faculties or capacities. Sometimes it is misrecognized, and a possible ‘now’ is passed off as a real ‘back-then.’ That would be the disabling form of déjà vu. But perhaps it is just one of two forms of anachronism. The formal anachronism is when what appears in the present lets its conditions of possibility leak through. This would be the good kind of déjà vu: “The difference between the simultaneous potential ‘now’ and real ‘now’, the present of the faculty and the present of the performance, is the fulcrum of all truly historical experience…” (28)

In the real anachronism, it is not the aura of the potential-past appearing around the actual-now, rather it is the actual-now foreclosing the potential-past. “In the real anachronism, the past-form – which confers a virtual character on the present – is systematically reduced to a past fact, and the present provides a coterminous copy of it.” (30) The past in narrowed down to particulars, which seem then endlessly to repeat. History – as change, possibility, etc – is foreclosed. “There would be no history, then, if the instant that I am living through were only perceived, rather than also being remembered as I experience it…” (29)

This kind of bad déjà vu, a kind of end-of-History feeling, might indeed be a way of describing a certain pathology in the contemporary culture of the over-developed world. Virno: “The condition of possibility of an event is represented as another event, is outdated original version. The disposition towards pleasure is totally identified with pleasures already enjoyed, the intellect coincides with a series of particular understandings, labor-power becomes indistinguishable from labor that has been carried out, and only the already-loved is loveable.” (30)

Hence the real anachronism de-historicizes. Ever action becomes a copy, a quotation. “We become epigones or spectators, but epigones or spectators of our very own potential-to-be.” (32) It is precisely the potential being present alongside the actual that enables us to confuse it with particular things already experienced in the first place. The novelty of Virno’s line of thought is to insist that the bad déjà vu of real anachronism is only possible as a misrecognition of the formal anachronism, where the actual exists within the aura of the possible. In short: the sensation of the end-of-history is thus only possible when the conditions of history itself are actually present.

A test for such a line of thought would be to consider how it might open up a reading of Alexandre Kojève’s influential version of the Hegelian thesis of the end-of-history. For Hegel the end was foreshadowed by the French revolution; for Kojève in the overdeveloped postwar world it had actually arrived. The postwar Fordist world had supposedly put an end to struggle for recognition, and hence to war – at least between the old Westphalian states. It had also supposedly put an end to the struggle against nature – a theme which curiously enough plays almost no role in Virno’s analysis at all.

In a famous footnote added later to his lectures on Hegel, Kojève offered two solutions to living out the end of history. In America, man becomes an animal, whereas in Japan it is possible to avoid this fate by living out the lifestyle of the snob. In America man becomes an animal perfectly adapted to an environment. The split between the subject’s desire and the object world is foreclosed. One can be neither human nor historical.

The snob can at least be human if not historical, and does so via a ritual separation of form and content. Kojève seems to have been as fascinated by the Japanese of the 1960s era of the economic miracle as I was as a small boy. In every other respect so ‘modern’, the exchange students I met could still pull off an apparently perfect tea ceremony, while carefully explaining the ritual significance of every little detail. The form of the act was kept rigidly apart from the content – the imbibing of a caffeinated drink.

By carefully separating the form of the act from its content, the snob is able to reopen the split between the human subject and the object world. The snob can be human, but not historical. For Virno, the ‘American’ who is becoming animal is living through the real anachronism, where the memory of the generic capacities of the possible is foreclose. The ‘Japanese’ snob is living through the formal anachronism, where attention to form opens up towards those very generic capacities and faculties – the actual drinking of the tea is but one instance of how it could be.

For Virno, that ‘snobbery’ is actually the precondition of history itself. The formal anachronism is the memory of the autonomy of forms with respect to contents. It touches on the capacities of language and labor. Snobbery is a praxis aware of historicity. The post-historical animal sticks to the content of its action, whereas the snob takes up a distance from any particular content and pays attention to form.

Moreover, the ‘American’, Fordist life of the becoming-animal only reveals itself as an existential possibility on the basis of the snob’s awareness of the capacities and possibilities against which it appears as an actuality. Virno: “the snob tries to live at the level of this fracture, understanding that the source of history is to be found within it; the post-historical animal, conversely, makes the over-population of forms into an environment at one remove.” (37)

It would be interesting to compare this reading of Kojève to that of Hiroki Azuma, in Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals (Minnesota, 2009). For Azuma, becoming-animal happened in Japan too, and did indeed lead to a foreclosure of historicity. But the response of what he calls otaku culture was a quite different kind of formalism: to substitute attention to the synchronic or database dimension of culture rather than the diachronic or narrative aspect. Perhaps one could call it a structural anachronism, in that it is interested solely in the generative space of semiotic elements, not as a resource for art but as the art itself. It would be a sort of inverse of Virno’s real anachronism: rather than collapse the potential into the actual, it collapses the actual into the potential.

Virno’s point still holds, however: such a structural anachronism, like the real anachronism, is only detectable against the background of the formal anachronism, which senses the difference between potential and actual. The end-of-history experience of a real (or structural) anachronism is only even thinkable as a foreclosing of the memory of the possible. Ours is actually a “hyper-historical epoch,” but one in denial.

The formal anarchonism is constantly removing the environment, which for Virno appears to be a sort of given and particular space. The formal anachronism puts a potential remembered present up against the real perceived present, drawing attention to the gap, which I think one could term a denaturing of the environment in the name of capacities and faculties of language and labor that have no particular form or place.

In sum, Virno arrives at a stunningly counter-intuitive thesis: “… the end of history is a state of mind that takes root precisely where the very historicity of experience has come into relief, precisely where even the genesis of historical time is in question.” (40) In a further test of this, Virno considers Nietzsche, for whom action requires forgetting. Indeed, too much attention to the particulars of the past can inhibit action in the present. The call to historicity in Virno is not the same as a wallowing in the arcana of eBay purchases. Rather, “The paralysis of action, often accompanied by an ironic disillusionment, derives above all from the inability to bear the experience of the possible.” (47)

The formal anachronism allows one to glimpse the virtual in the actual, the reserves of language and labor as pure form: “language is never realized by the sum of words spoken… labor-power cannot be equated to the sum of completed labors…” (48) Thus, the end of history is not the result of an excess of memory, but rather by its obfuscation. It is not a Nietzschian active forgetting that is called for, other than in the sense of putting aside the details of particular pasts to grasp the generative world of the past in general. If anything, the formal anachronism is an active remembering of the virtual. Hence “Learning to experience the memory of the present means to attain the possibility of a fully historical existence.” (50)

Of Nietzsche’s three kinds of historical thought: the critical and monumental might idolize or moralize the past, but these are not real dangers. The antiquarian mode is what is damaging, as it reduces the past to an inventory of things to be preserved and venerated. As such it is usually the actual present smuggled back into the past, a form of disabling nostalgia.

Virno also diagnoses a complimentary historical pathology, what he calls modernariat. This is a doubling of the present in an illusory always-been. It is characterized by a mania to collect the specific residues of a past that seems to confirm this present. It is quite different to Walter Benjamin’s collector, who brings lost and marginal pasts back to life. Modernariat insists that those now victorious were always so.

As such, it is the characteristic aesthetic mode of the spectacle. “The society of the spectacle offers people the ‘world’s fair’ of their own capacity to do, to speak and to be – but reduced to already-performed actions, already-spoken phrases and already-complete events.” (55) Modernariat is a world of quotation. Virno does not mention Guy Debord’s contrasting concept to spectacle – détournement, but I think the formal anachronism could be a way of thinking détournement. In détournement, past language is a commons belonging to all.

Détournement sees past culture as a whole that belongs to the proletariat as a whole, free from being cut up into private property. This is Debord’s way of thinking how we become alienated from our own potential. What Virno says of the memory of the present could also be said of détournement: “The memory of the present allows us, then, to grasp within the event now underway both the act and the potential, both the generic faculty and its specific execution.” (60)

For Virno, “… we can only explain the ‘end of History’ if we devote ourselves to naming the fundamental conditions that give a ‘historical’ character to so-called ‘historical events.’” (59) The second part of Déjà Vu and the End of History, moves on to an assessment of how the concepts of actual and potential play out through Aristotle, Augustine and Kant, in a critical inquiry into the history of the concept of historicity itself.

In brief, his concern is with how to think the potential and the actual in relation to time. If the actual coincided with the potential, there would be no change, growth, decay. But are potential and actual in time or do they structure time? There seems to be a constitutive ambiguity between these two options. Considered from the point of view of chronological progression, actual and potential are in time; considered from the point of view of temporal order, they are without.

In relation to the actual, the potential is a not-now that can be seen as either structural or temporal. Either way, for Virno, potential escapes calculation. “What chronological measurement would be able to calculate the constant not-now of which potential consists? What place would be taken in the flow of ‘nows’ by the capacity to work or to build, the faculty of thinking or speaking, or the disposition to… take pleasure from something?” (68)

In a revealing metaphor, Augustine compared the totality of time to a readable text, and determinate time to the reading from it. This might give us some clue as to where – in Bogdanovite terms – the basic metaphor is coming from here in terms of the kinds of labor process that are its model.

Aristotle makes potential and act into a sequence of cause and effect. Causality is a sequence of acts, but potential fits rather strangely here, as it is not an act that causes another, but more a space of generation of any possible act. Aristotle also insists in the priority of the act over potential, in the form of the ‘first mover.’ For Aristotle, in the temporal order, the act comes first, the prime mover; while in the chronological progression, potential is anterior. But as Virno insists, potential is not a potential act. It does not exist in the temporal order. It is a “persistent never-actuality.” And “the not-now is not an almost-now.” (82)

As in Aristotle, it is revealing that the basic metaphor in Virno comes from the labor of working on language. As much as he insists that potential could be the faculty for language, or labor power, or the disposition for pleasure, language remains the basic metaphor. “Only in the linguistic field do potential acts constitute a cohesive and homogeneous system, endowed with certain limits.” (83) Which makes one wonder whether labor, for example, can really be thought on the template of the same basic metaphor.

Curiously, Virno finds that in Saussure, as in Aristotle, the act comes first. In Saussure’s case it is the speech act, which he still thinks of as primary in relation to language in the way Aristotle thinks the prime mover come first in relation to potential. (This is what others might call his logo- or phono-centrism). But neither really address the temporal relation of potential and act, which in Saussure is the relation of the faculty for language with the speech act.

For Virno, it is crucial that acts do not fulfill potential. Utterances do not translate the infinity inherent in the faculty for speech into their own order. Acts do not exhaust potential. Hence: “What must be put in question is the very concept of ‘realization.’” (87) The act does not actually realize potential in Virno: “Far from realizing potential, the act negates it. It is not its development or metamorphosis, but its limit.” (87)

Here we see this relation thought very much on the basic metaphor of language, for the same can hardly be said of labor-power – that other major figure for potential in Virno. Labor for Virno is rather like it sometimes is in Marx, spirit negating matter, bringing form to it. But Marx hovered between this sense of labor and another, one less congenial to the notion of labor as potential: labor as thermodynamics, as a specific quantity of energy. It is true enough that this image of labor power is still one of potential, but it is no longer an inexhaustible one. It would be very much a potential that is realized, exhausted and reproduced rather than one negated by the actual ‘now’.

Perhaps Virno has brought theological concepts down to earth rather than replacing them with a more thorough-going materialism. One sees this in his concept of inexhaustible, unrealizable potential. But perhaps too it lurks in the residual concept of environment. “The environment is an uninterrupted presence, the ‘now’ destined to constant repetition; the lack of this gives rise to the not-now, which appears in the form of an irreversible non-actuality.” (88) There is a strangely ungrounded quality to this. Environments are for animals and becoming-animals. In Virno, to be human is to aspire to something that still has a whiff of the divine – the inexhaustible capacity to create.

Animals do specific things in specific environments and don’t grasp the inexhaustible domain of potential with its placeless, generic capacities. They don’t grasp the formal anachronism that makes us human. They aren’t subjects at odds with the object of their desire. Or so runs the assumption here. Much hinges on the skyhook of a prior and unexamined distinction between human and animal which makes this text seem less than contemporary.

This is then connected to another exclusion, where only the most general of capacities can count as fully human. Virno: “… we must exclude from the ranks of authentic faculties those specialized instincts through which animals participate in a circumscribed and untransformable ‘vital sphere’. But we must also exclude those typically human technical capacities and behavioral habits which, filling in for the absence of univocal adaptive impulses, produce an artificial semblance of a stable ‘environment.’” (88) All of this follows quite naturally from the basic metaphor – repeated from Augustine – where potential is to actual as text is to its reading. This is the never-ending story of the scribal class.

To be fair, it is not just language that stands-in for potential. Other than language, we find in the text general intellect, memory, labor-power, disposition towards pleasure. These are the authentic potentials, because they are not bound by the particulars of environment and are not divisible in advance into specific responses, be they the result of instinct or techne. But perhaps if one is to reconnect history with natural history – that signal agenda item of our times – one might want to pay more attention to environment, instinct, techne and specific relations via which pasts shape presents.

For Virno, potential is its own generic world, devoid of any environmental belongings. To experience the world – rather than environment – is to know something raw and unrealized and outside of chronological succession. But what marks this as a rather dated text, not really equipped for the twenty-first century, is that everything pushes forwards from the recollection of human potential, figured as language and labor. Environment – nature – never pushes back.

It is as if Virno, like Kojève, still thought nature no longer put up any resistance. Nor is there any sense – so presciently anatomized by Sartre – of the practico-inert, of how praxis shapes a second nature even more resistant that the first, pushing actual historical action into the shape of a passivity molded in the form of inaction by previous layers of alienated work. Actually, the Sartrean version of the end of history, in which what memory might find as a generic category is not potential but non-potential, a resistant, inert, worked-over second nature, is not addressed at all.

We are rather in that more optimistic space bequeathed to us by Deleuze, the space not of foreclosure but where a metaphysical becoming still yields the possibility of a human and historical one: “The relation between potential and act, not-now and ‘now’, non-actuality and presence, has an amphibious character. It participates in becoming, and at the same time, also constitutes the cornerstone and framework of becoming itself.” (132) Virno claims that his is an approach to time that tries to resist “drawing on the resources provided by theology.” (135) But one wonders whether it is rather an immanent rather than a transcendent theology, a humanism of potential as self-affirming rather than a Sartrean humanism of nothingness and negation.

Setting such objections aside, there is some powerful work that Virno gets his concepts to perform, and the actual results point to further potential reserves. The third part of the book brings us back to more historical considerations. However much capitalism might foster the bad déjà vu of the end of history meme, in reality capital does quite the opposite. “Mature capitalism… is the epoch in which the radical anachronism on which the historicity of experience itself depends comes to the surface, brought into relief as a most concrete phenomenon.” (141)

It is in capitalist times that we come to realize that: “The historical moment is unsaturated. Incomplete, lacking. Nestling within it is an unrealized core: potential, the non-chronological ‘past.’” (142) This might be suggested already by Benjamin’s desire to redeem a suppressed past. This could be an intimation of something inherent in capitalism itself. “The fulcrum of the ‘dialectical image’ of which Benjamin speaks is the relation between the two types of past: factual past and non-chronological (potential, unrealized) past.” (144)

To get to the historical potential of capitalism would require avoiding two kinds of fetishism: “If I attribute the features of today’s potential to an act which took place in times past, then inevitably I will venerate this past act as an origin charged with destiny, one on which I will continue to depend. Equally, if I attribute the task of exhausting potential to a future act, then I am passing it off as the end towards which the whole of becoming is tending.” (145)

Not the least virtue of Virno’s text is his delightful inversion of Heidegger, for whom history is being toward death, and where death can only be a figure of potential, that which no living soul has known. Virno thinks Heidegger has this upside-down. We have to deal with the permanent possibility of death only because we exist historically. History’s roots are in potential not-now, not a death to come.

Virno also neatly circumscribes the category of biopolitics in a quick analysis of its object. Why does governmentality have to keep its subjects alive? That which capital buys from the workers is not labor but labor-power, a potential-to-labor. How can one set a price on a potential? The wage relation returns to the worker enough money to buy the commodities to live. But it is the body that lives, that needs sustenance. Capital has no interest in bodies, as these are the mere infrastructure for what capital actually wants to purchase, the body’s labor-power. Thus biopolitics supports that in which capital has no interest, actual bodies. Capital’s interest is in a potential – labor power.

One sees here Virno’s crowning argument: that historicity itself becomes an historical fact under capitalism, but capital reduces the generic potential of labor to a commodity. “Meta-history irrupts into ordinary history in the none-too-sublime guise of labor power.” (162) Capitalism – as Debord argued in a related vein – makes all of time historical. In Virno’s reading, it does so by directly commodifying potential itself – labor-power. “The moment of alienation is the moment in which the not-now as such… is wedged into empirical history.” (164)

Thus, far from being at the end-of-history, we are rather in a meta-historical era. “The buying and selling of labor-power attests to the fact that meta-history has established itself within the very heart of contemporary history. The division between potential and act, the hidden cornerstone of historical praxis, assumes unprecedented prominence when potential appears in and by itself – separated from the act – as the eminent content of an economic transaction.” (168)

It is a beautiful argument. One limit is that labor keeps getting reduced in Virno to the language faculty. This is what he thinks is meant by Marx’s prescient understanding of the changing role of labor in the era of machine production, where labor becomes “watchman and regulator.” The proto-cybernetic quality of ‘regulator’ here escapes him. (A regulator is a negative feedback device). Unlike (say) Terranova, Virno is still thinking through the categories of language and speech act rather than those of information, noise, probability and entropy.

Still, it is a powerful argument. Virno shows why capitalism is both meta-historical and yet denies its historicity. “Capitalism is the first fully historical form of social organization. But it is also the only one that has been able to pass itself off, from the outset and ever anew, as the end of History.” (171) Formal anachronism rules, leading to a series of fetishistic relations between past and present particulars.

Virno: “The Revelation is exchanged for an Epilogue. The conditions of possibility of history are taken for given facts, recurrent and ahistorical ones. Capitalism, for which the conditions of possibility of history become a productive resource, thus seems to represent only certain invariant elements of human praxis. The society that appeals to ‘production in general’ (and literally profits from the fundamental difference between potential and act) keenly boasts its post-historical pedigree.” (172)

In sum, where others have followed the thread of Marx’s general intellect, thought as a non-individual quality, to the actualities of labor in our times, Virno has followed memory as non-individual quality to think the potential of labor in our times. On the one hand, it is this very potential which is the object of capital. On the other, this bringing of potential into history may have only just begun. There might still be something a bit theological about this potential for me – something akin to a humanist vision of creation. And it seems oblivious to how collective labor now acts in a world with definite and very material limits. Yet it remains a powerful argument for history — unquenchable fire — and a passionate refutation of all who would deny it.

McKenzie Wark

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