Necropolitics and Anti-democracy


Reading Response: Hardt and Negri: Multitude, Selections.


Gabriel Piser

While doubtably crucial for dispersing important ideas to a wider auidence, H+N have come under fire from a number of related corners for reasons that are disconcerting perhaps, but valuable to consider seriously. Most salient are the criticisms of their positive or affirmative biopolitics (see Esposito 2008 for a troubling example of this reading of biopolitics) and their attempt to reclaim democracy. The concept of necropolitics is developed by Achille Mbembe and Jared Sexton among others. The interventions in An Introduction to Civil War, This is not a Program, and The Cybernetic Hypothesis confront problems with the concept of the democracy of the multitude. A larger project would be to trace connections and disjunctions among a triad made from these criticisms to work by Negri (inclusive of his works with Michael Hardt). In this case, I simply offer a brief summary of some of the key elements of the more incisive and important interventions. In case my position is unclear, I value many of the interventions made by Hardt and Negri in explaining the world, but am very wary of the unacknowledged presence of race in thier vitalist discourse, and of the deintensifying power of democracy as a concept.

Necropolitical critique of affirmative biopolitics:

The central assertion here is of the centrality of the need for a “racial discourse of life philosophy”. Donna Jones has written a book (2011) under that title, centered on the theses that vitalist thought is inseparable from discourses of race and nationalism, as well as that black thought is made meaningful through contact with the vitalist tradition. The idea expresses the notion that a “living flesh which rules itself” (Multitude 100) is a only intelligible through the systematic production of flesh that is dead and governable. More broadly, we might consider how the universality, vitalism, and utopian optimism reflected in some European philosophy from the enlightenment onward is connected to the creation of abjected and racialized populations via colonialism. This lends an odd valence to passages, in Multitude, where “…despite their poverty and lack of material resources, food, housing and so-forth, the poor do have an enormous wealth in their knowledge and powers of creation.” (135)

Against Democracy:

(This literature has a lot online, so I have included more links and content from elsewhere)

The writings of Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee strive to reposition the field of struggle against empire. They confront the concept of the Multitude as well as argue against a reclaiming of democracy. Tiqqun’s Cybernetic Hypothesis (summarized here) asserts that the operations of empire require a transparent and rationally managed flow of information. The democracy of the Multitude can be seens as the highpoint of post-fordist self-managment when everyone expresses themselves openly (Multitude 100), resulting in ‘optimum’ outcomes.The recuperation of swarm intelligence as a “rational”, and democracy as “everyone ruled by everyone” leave little room for the forms of resistance that are needed to confront empire. I am not thrilled with the following formulation, but the central issue is essentially that the fundamental assumption of democrazy is the externalization of power, the objectification of one’s desire, and therefor is always representative and never ‘direct’.

But that also means that its first objective must be to resist all attempts to reduce it away with demands for representation. Fog is a vital response to the imperative of clarity, transparency, which is the first imprint of imperial power on bodies. To become foglike means that I finally take up the part of the shadows that command me and prevent me from believing all the fictions of direct democracy insofar as they intend to ritualize the transparency of each person in their own interests, and of all persons in the interests of all. …

What Foucault would later call (in a playful tone) “the death of Mankind,” is none other than the devastation brought about by these two kinds of skepticism, the one directed at individuals, and the other at society, and brought about by the Thirty Years’ War which had so effected the course of Europe and the world in the first half of the last century. The problem posed by the Zeitgeist of those years was once again how to “defend society” against the forces driving it towards decomposition, how to restore the social totality in spite of a general crisis of presence afflicting it in its every atom.  The cybernetic hypothesis corresponds, consequently, to a desire for order and certitude, both in the natural and social sciences.

—The Cybernetic Hypothesis

From the summary link above, the last two section suggest forms of resistance which are adequate to the task of confronting biopolitical democracies and cybernetic captialism:

Section ten develops the author(s) tactics for countering cybernetic capitalism, through the application of slowness, disruptive rhythms, and the possibilities that arise from encounters with others. The cybernetic system is a politics of rhythm which thrives on speed for stability (as was discussed in section four) and a range of predictability. The guerilla strategy is therefore one of dissonant tempos, improvisation and ‘wobbly’ rhythmic action.

Section eleven is a final attempt to define the key categories of struggle against the domination of cybernetic capitalism. These can be summarily listed as slowness, invisibility, fog, haze, interference, encounters, zones of opacity, noise, panic, rhythm/reverberation/amplification/momentum and finally, autonomy. Combined, these constitute an offensive practice against the requirement and expectation of cybernetics for transparency/clarity, predictability, and speed in terms of the information communicated and regulation of its feedbacks. The author(s) do not reject the cybernetic system outright but rather see the possibility for autonomous zones of opacity from which the invisible revolt can reverberate outwards and lead to a collapse of the cybernetic hypothesis and the rise of communism.

Lastly, it is worth bringing up Mario Tronti’s critique of democracy in the recently released collection “The Italian Difference: Between Nihilism and Biopolitics” translated by Alberto Toscano. In this article he claims that democracy is anti-revolutionary because it is “pervaded”, “impelled”, and “stabilized” by a process of neutralization through identification with the soveriegn. One question is if the figure of the Multitude provides a figure for this identification. If empire today is indeed a scientifically managed “democratic empire”, we would do well to remain suspicious of calls for a ”new science of democracy.”


Below is a short extract from a great post on Matt Applegate’s old blog. He is speaking on a panel of Binghamton University Comparative Literature students on Monday at 2:00 in the same room where we meet for class. His talk is “The Micro-Politics of Guerilla Discourse: Black Mask and the Production of Living Culture.”

…Varying somewhat wildly between biting invective and concise critique, Tiqqun’s engagement with Negri’s thought begins with a critique of citizenship:

The accidents and the rationality that produce the citizen all point to the heart of the imperial enterprise: to attenuate forms-of-life, to neutralize bodies; and the citizen advances this enterprise by self-annulling the risk he represents to the imperial environment . . . There is therefore a factory of the citizen, whose long-term implantation is Empire’s major victory; not social, or political, or economic but anthropological victory . . . The objective [is] to purge the productive center of a society in which production was becoming militarized, to purge it of all the ‘deviants,’ of all the at-risk individuals, of all the agents of the Imaginary Party. (103-104)

It is of this understanding of the citizen and the mechanism by which society is sanitized or purged that Tiqqun refutes Negri on questions of bio-politics and the multitude:

The three watchwords typical of political Negrism–for all its strength lies in its ability to provide informal neo-militants with issues on which to focus their demands–are the ‘citizens dividend,’ the right to free movement (‘Papers for everyone!’), and the right to creativity, especially if computer-assisted. In this sense, the Negrist perspective is in no way different from the imperial perspective but rather a mere instance of perfectionism within it . . . Hence political Negrism’s incestuous relationship with imperial pacification: it wants reality but not its realism. It wants Biopolitics without police, communication without Spectacle, peace without having to wage war to get it. Strictly speaking, Negrism does not coincide with imperial thought; it is simply the idealist face of political thought. (117-118)

So, the importance of a redefinition of partisanship comes to the fore. Not only does Tiqqun consider class to be an antiquated and inadequate means of framing partisan relations in the contemporary moment, articulating a concept of partisanship that distinguishes itself from Negri’s multitude is what remains vital; where the multitude exists as a reconceptualized form of citizenship, citizenship in either local or cosmopolitan iterations must be refused precisely because of its status as an idealized imperial socio-political composition.


Multitude and Desire, or What does Rain Want?

Mark Fisher reminds us in Capitalist Realism that, “To reclaim a real political agency means first of all accepting our insertion at the level of desire in the remorseless meat-grinder of Capital” (15). In thinking through Hardt and Negri’s conceptualizations of political agency: what would it mean to give attention to the desire of the multitude?

Rain falls because the material conditions in the atmosphere force its hand—it only ever gushes forth when the meteorological conditions are right.

But watching rain land on a hard surface–like cement–is a chance to witness individual drops move in ways that the sky had not intended for them to move—as we all know, rain’s natural vocation is to soak into the dirt, subsuming itself back into the ecological conditions that keep the cycle going. Thus, we see the odd potential of droplets when they land on cement and talk back to the sky. The ripples that these individual drops create as they dance on the cement illustrate, therefore, a certain refusal by rain to be resorbed back into its earthly destination.

And yet, these individual droplets that refuse ‘proper’ vocation by choosing cement remain just that—individual droplets; each with their own size; their own rhythm; their own modality of refusal.

How then, are we to appreciate these renegade rain drops, who not only refuse to land in the alienating mounds of grass that the sky has intended for them , but who eagerly look for the cement as they are falling from the sky in search of excess room to reverberate?

We could, of course, try to make the entire world cement, thereby subverting the sky with a uniform society of refusal. But we’ve tried this before and the world is not quite ready for the dreary gray of Leninist cement.

We could also try talk about networks, using sidewalk chalk to connect the dots between individual droplets in order to construct a multitude of resistant rain. Alas, the natural intractability of these wet droplets wash away any attempt by sidewalk chalk to draw a lucid and lasting network.

To this end, precisely because the ripples of these cement rain drops only resist their natural vocation on the cement for an instant–the dancing ripples on the cement soon die off and are replaced by new ones–we should be careful not to mistake them for answers.

Perhaps then, in the final analysis, we should appreciate the raindrops on the cement for what they are—vanishing mediators between the material conditions of the atmosphere and another world that has yet to appear.

We should also appreciate the fact that cement still occupies a tiny lot on earth and that therefore rain’s repudiation is very rare. Indeed, there is something inspirational about the carnival of refusal that rain drops share on cement—what we need to do is figure out what these defecting drops were thinking on the way down.

Communication and Spatial Relation to Capital in Hardt & Negri

Here are my initial responses to Hardt’s and Negri’s Multitude:

Firstly, Hardt and Negri spend a lot of time to discuss the importance of communication for both neoliberal capital and the multitude. For example, they write: “The common does not refer to traditional notions of either the community or the public; it is based on the communication among singularities and emerges through the collaborative social processes of production.” (p. 204) However, it seemed that they never define what they mean by communication or examine its different modalities. They do talk about “linguistic hierarchies” and state that “the contradiction between linguistic hierarchies and linguistic production and commonality is what makes language today such a powerful site of conflict and resistance” (p. 132) but seem to leave this discussion on language on very general level. Can communication be understood as anything that happens between (human) singularities and involves some kind of social social relationship (smalltalk, moaning, singing a hymn, catcalling, etc)? What about singularities and (non-human) objects (an artwork, a handgun, a pile of burnt books, a lonely shoe on the street)? How does one draw lines between different forms of communication as part of the biopolitical activity of the multitude?

Secondly, on the page 192 they write: “[T]he flesh of the multitude is an elemental power that continuously expands social being, producing in excess of every traditional political-economic measure of value.” Later, they state that “the common marks a new form of sovereignty, a democratic sovereignty (or, more precisely, a form of social organization that displaces sovereignty) in which the social singularities control through their own biopolitical activity those goods and services that allow for the reproduction of the multitude itself.” (p. 206) As I understand this, there is always an excess (or surplus) that multitude produces through its labor (material or immaterial) and that it is vital for revolutionary struggle to remove this surplus from the circulation of capital and direct it to only by the multitude itself. Although Hardt & Negri trouble the distinction inside/outside in political activity and state that “today network movements are able to address [within, inside/outside, outside] simultaneously” (p. 88) I seem to have hard time to get my head around the relationship between the multitude, the capital, and the (potentially revolutionary) surplus that the multitude produces without putting them in a spatial relation with each other (e.g. the multitude can break “out” from the circulation of capital). Am I just missing the point or could we discuss about this relation with different terms? My concern is that the dichotomy inside capital/outside capital has not, I think, been very productive when it comes to theorizing new forms of resistance. But, I do have to acknowledge that it is very difficult to think some other form of relation…



“How are we to understand the autonomy that multitudes enjoy but crowds do not?” (711)

“A crowd thinks in images, and the image itself immediately calls up a series of other images, having no logical connection with the first” (703)

Inadequate knowledge, recalling Spinoza and the proposition that states that we draw a correlation between unlike things… “The crowd’s desperate desire for a shared focus…stems from a constant collective anxiety about its own disintegration.” (704)  Mazzy points to a clear ‘shift’ in attitudes with regards to a group of individuals, in which the crowd-cum-multitude has agency, or rather, “it takes the collective rather than the individual as the site of freedom, but – it turns out – only if the multitude’s emergent energies remain pure, uncompromised by actually existing in social institutions.”  Or perhaps, “emergent integrity of collectivities.” (707) Painted as a site of potential, the multitude thus offers a possible world in which, presumably, the heady singularities are dialed in to their desires and collective energy.

Not having read Le Bon, I cannot speak to his handling of the text, but Mazzy states, “Le Bon remarks that crowds act ‘far more under the influence of the spinal cord than of the brain.’” I can’t help but compare that unreasoned pure response to stimuli to pure ‘emergent energies’ that presumably act not from reason, but rather an unspoken surge of collective desire. How can we discern whether this collective desire is ‘desperate’ or ‘pure’?” And how do we know whether the gathering is ‘inert’ or has a ‘vital spark’? And recalling the Holland article, does this leave room for the ‘incorporeal transformations’ that may be taking place, but not immediately visible?

And not having read Multitude, I cannot speak to Mazzy’s mishandling of that either. But, in the spirit of discussion (given my ‘not having read’ state of being), where this thought experiment takes me is two places, the first one being language. Wikipedia makes a distinction between  ‘a crowd’ and ‘the crowd’, in which one suggests a located group of individuals in time and space (though not necessarily) while the latter suggests an amorphous collection of mindless bodies. A multitude is equally amorphous ‘singularities’, though decidedly painted in terms that offer greater potential. Mazzy suggests that we are in the ‘age’ of the Multitude, and I cannot help but wonder, just because the language has changed, has the state of being?

The other place it takes me is to D & G, and the idea of a neutral concept. They repeatedly make the distinction between puissance and pouvoir. Both address notions of power, but how that power is manifested or actualized is radically different, whereas the former yields productive potential, the latter is negative, dominating. I cannot help but think of both the crowd and the multitude as possibly offering the same kind of distinction, regardless of terms. Might they not offer both a similar positive and negative manifestation? If it is accurate that the “multitudes express and produce, first of all, habit: ‘Habit is the common in practice…Habits create a nature that serves as the basis of life.’” (709-10) it seems it would be wise to regard multitudes somewhat suspiciously, given how pernicious habits can be in their negative manifestations.

Multitude and Mediation

Along with Mark and Gene, I found Mazzarella’s “third way” less than compelling, but it nevertheless piqued my attention with respect to what the author calls the “all-too-familiar zero-sum opposition between potentiality and domination, between emergence and mediation” (714). Perhaps I’m guilty of seeking my own third way, but my inclination is to snap the latter emergence-mediation dichotomy, and try to think about how a relationship between the two could give us a way to think about how a practical multitude might be constituted.

In contrast to Mazzaralla’s attempt to develop “a theory that would not pit ‘order against desire’ but would rather be able to track their dialectical co-constitution” (716), I am thinking more along the lines of Rancière in The Emancipated Spectator. For him, the theater is undoubtedly an externality, but he is quick to point out that this does not make it a Debordian spectacle, because the spectacle is, by definition, contemplated as an appearance divorced from its truth. If, instead, theatrical performances – or mediations, in the present discussion – seek “to teach their spectators ways of ceasing to be spectators and becoming agents of a collective practice,” (7-8) then it seems that mediation can actually become a locus about which a multitude can form (the reading list that serves as the basis for the discussions on this blog is a perfect example).

It’s important to note too that, in Rancière’s formulation, singularity is not diminished. Instead, individual difference is cherished and cultivated, while the emergence of the collective is based on shared experiences relating to the externality:

“The collective power shared by spectators does not stem from the fact that they are members of a collective body or from some specific form of interactivity. It is the power each of them has to translate what she perceives in her own way, to link it to the unique intellectual adventure that makes her similar to all the rest in as much as this adventure is not like any other. This shared power of the equality of intelligence links individuals, makes them exchange their intellectual adventures, in so far as it keeps them separate from one another, equally capable of using the power everyone has to plot her own path” (16-17).

Rancière actually calls the performance itself a vanishing mediation, but after reading Arditi’s piece, I’m also inclined to grant the mediation an existence of its own, even if it’s only residual. To require it to vanish in the formation of a collectivity reeks of a dialectical aufhebun, which seems apt if Jameson is indeed the original theorist of the vanishing mediator (as Arditi suggests). Instead, why not acknowledge what Guattari calls the “stickiness” of affects evoked by mediations, and use them as common building blocks to construct the multitude in the way that Rancière suggests?

E-mail Subscribe

Hi all,

Quick announcement.  I added a “Follow Blog Via Email” link on the right sidebar.  When you click the “follow” button, it will send you an email whenever there is a new post.  Also, when you click the “follow” button, the dialog will change to “You are following this blog”.  You can then click “manage,” and then in the list that appears click “edit” next to Nomad Scholarship, and there you can ask it to send you an email whenever there are comments too.  That way you can keep track effectively of both posts and comments via email, if you want…

There’s mediation and there’s mediation…

Like Mark, I didn’t much care for the Mazzarella piece either, although it does raise interesting questions.  But what bothered me wasn’t so much his reference to “structures of representation and institutionalization” (what he actually referenced was a “subtle dialectic between emergence (immanence) and institutionalization (mediation) [as a] fundamental principle of social life” [722], which is not too different, it seems to me, from someone like Negri’s dialectic of constituent power and constituted power {not that I’m a great fan of dialectics}).  What I didn’t like was the middle ground he tries to find between Le Bon and the crowd and H&N and the multitude.  For one thing, he takes Le Bon too much at face value: despite what Le Bon says, language is not the product of a crowd, but of a multitude (the “language-community”), in which communication among individuals is “mediated” by the language-system without either (a) those individuals necessarily losing their individuality or (b) the system being imposed from the top down.  Crowds (in the strong sense) owe their existence to a leader, and participating in a crowd cancels out and homogenizes the individuality of the participants: their singularity is irrelevant to/extinguished by the crowd.  (We can debate the role of dictionaries and grammarians in attempting to control language from the top down, but language can work perfectly well without them.)  Mazarella also misses important aspects of Canetti, especially when he (M) opposes emergence to mediation [722 and passim].  What counts is not whether there is mediation or not, but the quality of the mediation.  A symphony orchestra performing classical music is top-down mediated – twice: the musicians are reproducing a pre-written score, and they are playing at the command of a conductor.  The performance of a jazz band improvising on a standard may be mediated by a chord-chart, but it doesn’t have to be mediated by a conductor or band-leader – and in free jazz, the performance is not even mediated by a chord-chart or familiar tune: it is “self-mediating” (self-organizing, emergent), produced (rather than reproduced) at the initiative of the musicians themselves, on the spot.  In other words, pace Mazzarella, a multitude can self-organize or self-mediate – and language, music, markets, and the internet are some of the vehicles by which this happens.