Virno on Human Nature

One of the central arguments of Paolo Virno’s book When Word Becomes Flesh (Semiotext(e), 2015) is that the conditions of possibility of experience can themselves be experienced. There are no transcendental conditions that are ‘out of the frame’ as it were.  The transcendental or ontological “are humbly placed within the world of appearances.” (17)

One demonstration of this argument concerns speech acts, and (as we shall see shortly) a subtle transformation of Saussure’s classic distinction between speech acts (parole) and the ‘transcendental’ structure of language (langue). For Virno, speech is a kind of virtuoso performance, in that it has no extrinsic goal, is an activity outside of work, and that coincides with its own enacting in public rather than being reified into a product. Speech is more like politics than labor. The goals achieved through language can only be conceived through language and are thus goals of language. Drawing on a distinction central to Arendt, “This means that linguistic activity, considered as a whole, is neither production (poiesis) nor cognition (episteme), but action (praxis).” (24)

Language makes its own rules. It isn’t a tool. If it was it would be shaped by its purpose. Language is a self-fulfilling, self-regulating, public activity. Virno: “language is in the nature of man, who did not create it.” (28) Language as a biological organ for public praxis, for politics. It is neither interior nor exterior, but is rather the intermediate zone where both originate. “Linguistic practice rests in the hiatus between the mind and the world, a gap that cannot be filled by a predetermined conduct but needs to be mastered with virtuoso performances and arbitrary rules.” (30)

Language is central to politics and to praxis, which have a theatrical character, a quality of being a virtuoso performance without a product or extrinsic goal, conducted in the presence of others. Virno: “… language and the care for common affairs are in fact the matrix, the universal prototype of any activity without a product.” (40) Our species beings, as language animals, is as political animals. “Politics is not a form of life among many, tied to a specific language game… but is inherent to the very fact of having language.” (41)

In place of Saussure’s double of language and speech act, Virno posits instead a language-faculty and speech acts. The language-faculty is ontological whereas speech acts are merely ontic. The language faculty is both biological and political at the same time – an argument which as we shall see later leads in interesting direction.

Language can reveal its own ontological condition. This happens when the act of speaking itself is what is spoken. The fact of speech is ritual in nature, where ritual means the empirical experience of the transcendental and also biological capacity for speech. Virno’s key example of this is what linguists might call the phatic function, the “absolute performative” of saying “I speak.” (49) This ritual speech act illustrates relation between the logical and biological aspects of the language faculty.

So far, three things emerge as characteristics of Virno’s writing. One is the emphasis on what others (Butler for example) call performativity. A second is that the performance can reveal its conditions of existence, in this case that a speech act can announce what it performs by performing it. A third is that the act at one and the same time reveals material, biological conditions of possibility but at the same time ontological, or transcendental ones.

The emphasis on activity comes perhaps from Virno’s roots in Italian workerism, but where in Hardt and Negri this leads to an emphasis on living labor, in Virno it leads to an emphasis on the speech act, which for Virno is not labor but essentially political. However, Virno does make an interesting argument about labor, which has to do with making a distinction between reification on the one hand, alienation / fetishism on the other.  In this argument, reification appears as a positive attribute of labor in action.

Virno: “We simply want to show the crucial role that reification could play in a truly unrepentant materialism.” (135) Reification is a transformation from the internal to external. It is not the forgetting of being but actually its remembering. A res is always a res publica; a thing is always a public thing. This is where it gets interesting: alienation and reification are opposites. Indeed, reification is the antidote to alienation. The externalization of reification puts the I outside of itself, preventing it from the endless regression into itself, for that would be alienation.

Fetishism is a response to alienation inherent in alienation’s entrapment in interiority. Fetishism invests an external object with an imaginary soul. Where alienation reifies the soul; fetishism spiritualizes the object. The antidote to both is actually reification, indeed, “… a total reification of human nature (or of the transcendental presuppositions of human experience) could stop the infinite proliferation of the fetish.”

Here is the connection to the argument about language: the presuppositions of experience are not external to language but available within it. They can be performed within it. Language points to the possibility of a reification that escapes the externality of the I to the world and the pathological responses, which make the spirit a thing or the thing a spirit. Virno: “Fetishism passes the empirical off as transcendental, while reification results in the empirical revelation of the transcendental…. A Word that would become flesh would be alienating. If the Word is not incarnated, it remains an inaccessible transcendental proposition…” (139)

This turns out to be a species of the argument for politics as ontology. But contra Chantal Mouffe, politics as ontology is not about conflict but the potential for something else. Politics is essentially made of speech acts, a kind of activity that can reveal its own conditions of existence to itself. Reification is the politics of enacting language, or something language-like in the world, whereas fetishism attributes a mysterious power of speech to inert things themselves. Fetishism transforms a relation among humans into a relation among things.

This leads to a curious and risky proposition: “The crucial point, already present in John’s Gospel, is that the flesh of the Word does not come from the muck of the Earth, but from the Word itself. The Word becomes flesh by itself, in itself and for itself. Once again: reification only concerns the objectuality of thought, while fetishism replaces thought with an object.” (140) That which has being is the language-faculty itself. We may encounter some difficulties with this later.

Reification operates in an in-between space, neither the I nor the not-I. For Virno this is akin to Winnicott’s potential space of transitional objects and play, or to what Simondon thinks of as a pre-individual nature. Virno: “only transitional and trans-individual reification can escape the fetishism of the commodity.” (145) In making this connection, Virno is strikingly close to Bernard Steigler.

Like Stiegler, Virno follows Gilbert Simondon in proposing that pre-individual domain that founds collective experience and is the condition of possibility of individuation. Individuals are not opposed to the collective, but products of it. For Virno the properly reified object (which for Stiegler is the pharmakon) is a post-individual, transitional space between world and mind. These are not fetishes, as they embody the among and between.

Strikingly, something like what Simondon calls the technical object could, at least potentially, be a properly reified one, and an antidote to alienation and fetishism. (And here Virno probably departs from Stiegler). In Simondon, technical objects are neither social or psychological, nor are they the same as the labor process. Technology is potentially trans-individual; labor is merely inter-individual. The problem is that under commodity production, the human side of technical objects cannot appear directly, but has to pass through labor. Labor is, curiously enough, a stage of technology, not vice versa. There’s a latent difference between technology as it could be and technology in the form of labor.

What Marx called the general intellect is what tech could be if it did not have to pass through labor. Tech could be a reification emerging out of the space between I and not-I, without passing through the fetish of money which appears in mystified form as if it is the motivating spirit of technology. Virno: “The machine gives a spatio-temporal dimension to the collective, species-specific aspects of human thought. The pre-individual reality present in the human subject, unable to find an adequate expression in the representations of the individual consciousness, is projected in the external world into systems of universally receivable signs, intelligent machines, logical schemes made res.” (147)

But for Virno, the supreme transitional and trans-individual object is always verbal language rather than the technical object. The language faculty, at once biological and transcendental, is capable of revealing its own conditions of possibility. Language too becomes reified, and again, not in a bad way. The reification of language takes the form of ready-made words and commonplace expressions which exist in a trans-individual space. Language becoming common is, interestingly, no bad thing. “A Word that does not become flesh is alienating. The reification of human nature remedies the privations and the misery of an introverted life.” (164)

In Virno as in Marx, mind or consciousness is public rather than private, political rather than individual. And, Virno adds, it is the in-between that is transcendental. “Reification places the transcendental outside the I and by doing so allows it to experience itself directly, preventing it from falling into a state of alienation eternally fluctuating between melancholic asceticism and ironic disenchantment.” (165) And hence: a “critique of fetishism consists in indicating with precision what the Flesh of a certain Word is, so that an arbitrary, idolatrous substitution of an insignificant body for the Word becomes impossible.” (165)

The two paths indicated then for our species-being as language animal are the existing fetishism of money and commodity, or the alternative of a trans-individual reification of the general intellect without labor, money or the commodity form. Even pure consciousness needs an external objectivication if it is not to fold back into alienation or end up impute spirit to mere external things. The condition of possibility of subjectivity and consciousness are external. “A transitional object, just as the action of saying out loud ‘I speak’, are the transcendental res that allow us to experience what concerns us the most, that is, the essential characteristics of human nature.” (168)

This brings us to perhaps the most interesting part of Virno, already suggested by the concept of our species-being as language animal having at once both a biological and an ontological dimension. That is his broaching of the perilous concept of a human nature. He dispenses with the term, found in both Marx and Lukacs, of a second nature. There I think they were trying to grapple with the world-making capacities of labor, with the way it makes what elsewhere Virno calls a pseudo-environment. Virno thinks Marx and Lukacs only ever use second nature critically and sarcastically, as a way of marking-off the tendency of bourgeois sensibility to think of itself as ‘natural.’

I am quite unconvinced by this diminished reading of the category of second nature, but let’s let it go for now. The bold claim in Virno is this: “The nature of ‘natural history’ is only and specifically a first nature.” (172) Virno’s path to this difficult concept is via Adorno: to see the most historical as the way to the most natural, and vice-versa. He thinks the tension between what he broadly proposes are historical variants and biological invariants. (There is, unfortunately, no concept here of the natural having its own distinctive temporalities, including, for example, geological ones. In this sense Virno is rather old-fashioned.)

Virno’s concept of natural history focuses on the prerequisites of the praxis of being human. He thinks a variable relation between biology and history as a relation between eternity and contingency. This is the point where there is a slippage away from nature as the natural sciences would know it (as, for example, having its own temporalities). His concept of nature remains a philosophical one.

Virno’s path into this question is via an interesting reading of a famous encounter – or rather non-encounter, between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. Virno locates the break between naturalist materialism and historical materialism in this moment. (One could move the date back, to western Marxism’s embrace of Kierkegaard and repudiation of Engels and Mach, but no matter). What Virno is after is not a determinism, but a concept of a biological invariant managed by modes of production in historically variable ways. From this point of view, Chomsky was wrong to locate the invariants of grammar in the individual mind; Foucault was wrong to imagine this must mean the human can only be known historically.

Virno wants the meta-historical from Chomsky but not the individualism or determinism. For Chomsky, the biological given of linguistic creativity that is inherent in individuals is already a critique of historical forms of state power. Foucault insisted that discourses on human nature are themselves historical, but for Virno that does not mean there is no human nature at all. The biological invariant cannot be separated from history, but this is not enough to refute the invariant itself. On the other hand, one cannot neglect its different modes of appearance – as an invariant – within different modes of production.

Chomsky absorbs the variable into the invariable. Rather like in Rousseau, the good society is a state of nature against historical distortion. But for Virno, the language-faculty is what actually creates the historicity of the human animal. Chomsky cannot see this, as he erases the trans-individual nature of language. Chomsky – and in his wake cognitive science – think the individual mind can be extracted from politics and history and treated as a natural essence. Foucault subordinates nature to history; Chomsky subordinates history to nature.

Curiously, both paths are liable to leave open a religious dimension. Virno: “Historical materialism, devouring or annihilating natural materialism, shoots itself in the foot: it encourages the apparent de-historicizing of life forms and the re-issuing of the sacred on a mass scale… Only the historic-naturalist reframing of transcendence, not its negation, can confer a logical dimension to atheism… Atheism ceases to be a parasitical and subaltern instance when it articulates differently the relation between biological meta-history and social history… It certainly can’t do so if it retreats into the second term of these oppositions omitting or mocking the first.” (187-8) Conversely, for scientific naturalists, cognitivist ideology plays same role as religious thought, merely substituting cognition for spirit.

The solution to these antimonies for Virno resides in the protean, political character of the language-faculty itself, which comes together in this lovely (partly phatic!) sentence: “To say it in one breath, I am convinced that the existence of a generic faculty, separate from the myriad historical languages, clearly attests to the non-specialized character of the human animal, that is, to its innate familiarity with a dynamis, a potentiality, that can never be fully realized.” (189)

Human nature itself is what determines the contingent nature of political praxis. The linguistic faculty coincides with dynamis or potential, which elsewhere Virno expands out into the condition of possibility of history. Language is both eternal-biological and historical-potential. The language faculty is not quite the same thing as Chomsky’s universal grammar. It is rather an indeterminate potentia loquendi. (Although as Beatriz Preciado has pointed out, this makes our species-being a rather talkative, celibate, masculine kind of being, a bit bereft of bodily frisson, not to mention fluids. Preciado proposes a potentia guardini instead).

Here one can connect Virno’s understanding of species-being to his interest in the more historically specific forms of post-Fordist labor as inherently political, trans-individual and language-based. “The linguistic animal is a potential, non-specialized animal.” (195) What he has elsewhere even called the radical evil of our species-being, its instability and lack of qualities, oscillates towards its openness to life-long learning, its extended adolescence or neoteny.

Virno: “When and how does generic ability-to-speak, different from historical languages, assume a fundamental role within a certain mode of production? Under which economic or ethical guises does neoteny become visible?” (201) The current historical form of this mode of production – be it still capitalism or something stranger – includes a tendency towards the production of a pseudo-environment where all sorts of stimuli provoke new behaviors, prodding the language-faculty in new directions. We are vulnerable to the actual world because of our immunization against it as a result of the adoption of habits inculcated by a pseudo-environment.

There’s something historically novel in this situation. Virno: “… in traditional societies, the biological invariant… acquires an exaggerated historical visibility only when a particular pseudo-habitat is subject to violent transformative pressures. This is why natural history mostly coincides with the history of the state of exception.” (202) But now Virno thinks such precariousness is a whole way of life.  “The world, no longer selectively filtered through a system of cultural habits, shows itself as an amorphous and enigmatic context.” (203)

Such might be a fruitful premise for a theory of the Anthropocene. Which Virno almost grasps, but then misses the mark: “the pre-eminent task of philosophy is to come to terms with the unprecedented superposition of eternity and contingency, of the biological invariant and sociopolitical change that is the unique connotation of our time.” (204) The problem is the superimposition of the philosophical theme of the eternal and contingent onto the problem of the natural and the historical. Nature is not really eternal –  it is just used to taking a long time.

Still, it is an interesting thought, derived once again from Adorno, that the most contingent of historical circumstances might be the point at which to discover something about the nature of species-being.  “Human nature finds itself at the center of attention not because we are finally dealing with biology and no longer with history, but because the biological prerogatives of the human animal have acquired an unprecedented role in today’s productive processes.” (205) In the terms I have used elsewhere which Virno would doubtless reject: this mode of production no longer deploys collective labor to transform nature into second nature, but also second nature into third nature. Where second nature is made of mostly of matter and energy, third nature is made of matter, energy and information. This transformation of the pseudo-environment leads to the construction of new metaphors for grasping what nature can might be and become.

Where I would take a very different tack to Virno is in how the relation between the natural and historical are conceived within that troubled, doubled term, natural history. If one wants to say, in a non-reductive way, that the natural can still be discerned within the historical, then the question is: what kind of sign does nature make within history?

Here Virno relies on the three-fold classification of signs in Charles Pierce: symbol, icon and index, where symbol corresponds to the conventional language that for Saussure takes the double form of language / speech act, and for Virno takes the double form of language-faculty / speech act. Clearly, that can’t be the way the sign of nature shows up within history, for this kind of sign is conventional, and one is stuck arguing in a Foucauldian vien that all of science is historical and contingent, and can say nothing durable about nature, let alone human nature.

And so the sign of nature within history would then have to be either an icon or an index. Virno opts for the icon. An icon is a sign that has some kind of analogy (such as a visual resemblance) but not a causal relationship. Hence, for Virno, post-Fordist flexible labor is an icon of the open, non-specialized quality of our species-being as the animal with a language-faculty.

I think it preferable to imagine that the natural appears within the historical as an index. An index is quite contrary to an icon. It has no resemblance or analogy to that of which it is a sign at all. But it does have some kind of material, sequential relationship. Virno thinks this must lead to reductionism. If the sign of nature appears within history as an index of the natural, then one can subsume historical phenomena under natural causes. And would that be a bad thing? It would be bad for philosophers of course, hence Virno’s resistance.

But fortunately for philosophy, the indexical sign is no causal trace. It is much more like a Humean pattern or sequence.  To say that smoke is an index of fire is not the same thing as saying that fire is a cause of smoke. An indexical sign can give us confidence that we perceive a correlation, but not that we know a cause. Fire may cause smoke, but the mere sign of smoke is not in itself the proof of that.

I think that an expectation that there may be indexical signs of nature in history gives us just the right amount of internal connection between nature and history in a concept of natural history. We are dealing in principle then with one substance, but are cued towards a prudence about asserting any reductionism or causation. But Virno goes in quite a different direction: “Natural history is the materialist, rigorously atheistic version of the theology of revelation.” (212) He has dethroned transcendental philosophy only to make the transcendental immanent to the performance of that of which it is the condition of possibility.

Here I can (almost) agree that one faces this decision: “The relation between eternity and contingency, invariant and change, presuppositions of experience and empirical phenomena can be seriously conceived only according to a transcendental or a historic-naturalistic interpretation.” (213) I would disagree then at the subsequent decision-point, as to how an historical-naturalistic concept is to be mounted. Virno’s method results, I think, in a still too philosophical concept of natural history, and hence of species-being.

The symptom of this is the attempt to retrieve the category of revelation as a way of giving philosophy something to do. Its task becomes the revelation of eternity in contingency, where revelation means something like bringing the background to the fore. For Virno, this is what Marx was alluding to in the 1844 Manuscripts when he canvasses the possibility of human nature itself becoming an object of perception. One could read this whole book as dedicated to putting flesh on that skeleton of an idea of the self-revealing transcendental.

Still, there are gains from Virno’s position. He is able to think historical-natural phenomena as trans-individual, as instances of the language-faculty opening up its space of potential. Unlike in Chomsky, no particular politics is mandated by this view of species-being. It does result however in putting a high value on the political, on a language-based understanding of creativity. Surely this is an example of what Bogdanov called substitution. The particular labor processes of our class are elevated and generalized. Labor as the collective wresting of freedom from necessity and as necessity is devalued.

On the other hand, there is something almost utopian in this concept of the open-ended language faculty, needing no conditions it cannot itself demonstrate to itself, which is held in common, and which could reify itself even into technical objects that are neither fetishes nor alienations. From that point of view, one sees in our post-Fordist era that the innate creativity of the language-faculty is needlessly subordinated to a despotic regime of work and to the fetishes of money and commodity. The inverse product of which is alienated souls trapped in their solipsistic interiors – the symptomatology of which Franco Berardi and Maurizio Lazzarato approach in their own distinctive languages.

There’s some sort of promise on offer in the tension of post-Fordist production, however. Virno: “Subject-less thought, that is, the general intellect, imposes its form on society’s vital processes, instituting hierarchies and power relations. In other words; it is historically qualified pre-individuality.” (227) The historical task might be to liberate the general intellect from alienation (trapped in the I) and from fetishism (treating commodities as spirits).

Even if that glimmer of historical possibility in post-Fordist labor is only an iconic sign of species-being, it is a sign of something that exists already, and lacks for nothing outside its own capacities, that which elsewhere Virno calls the multitude. “The collectivity of the multitude doesn’t enter into any covenant, nor does it transfer its right to a sovereign, because it is composed of individuated singularities: the universal is not a promise, but a premise.” (236)

One might in the end prefer to think with Donna Haraway a continuum within the space marked out by the term natural history, starting from the premise of a multi-species muddle rather than a merely human species-being. In the Haraway worldview, there are only multiple temporalities: geological, biological, historical, and the multiple threads of relations between them. There one really could speak of indexical relations between the natural and historical poles of natural history.

However, it is refreshing to discover the utility of going the other way, of a radical distinction between the historical-contingent and the natural-eternal. A path along which one still avoids the now rather debilitating poles of a scientific naturalism with its closet theology of the cognitive versus the debilitating tick of a constructivism that can concede nothing to the invariants natural science has discovered. The Anthropocene puts the question of natural history back on the agenda. It has to be thought one way or another. Virno offers a highly original return to it.

This is the third in a series of posts on the work of Paolo Virno. The others are:

Virno and History

As the veneer of democracy starts to fade…



McKenzie Wark

Previous post

The Melania/Michelle Mashup: A Critique

Next post

The Grand Ah-whoom: Reflections on Trump and Trumpism Informed by Kurt Vonnegut