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.

More Dangerous Thinkers, Please


It seems to me there is a developing trend in political theory/radical studies that I would want to identify as broadly pragmatist.  It tends to like Dewey, it tends to be almost entirely negative in its critical account of other thought, and what positive visions it does offer tend to be very limited in their political ambition. The structure of the typical sentence seems to be something like: “neither extreme conservative strawperson x or extreme radical strawperson y, but rather my own moderate, reasonable, unassuming option z” (q.v. Mazzarella, p. 727).  Z of course avoids the terrible old ways of x, but it also avoids the supposed starry-eyed extremism of y, or whatever the most au currant radical theory is.  The author, in this tradition, takes absolutely no risks.  S/he critiques strawpersons, or the most extreme bits of a theory, the reader passively agrees, and then the author charts out an unobjectionable middle ground that seems pleasant and mild. The author can only seem smart, thoughtful, rigorous, and their ideas are almost entirely insulated from critique.

I don’t like this approach really at all.  I certainly don’t like the strawperson stuff, which usually is just a condemnation of an argument the theorist-of-the-moment never made anyway.  And I don’t find anything delicious in the mild–or really, bland–alternatives on offer.  The modern pragmatists, just for example, manage to write entire tracts without ever saying anything explicitly about (let alone decrying) capitalism or class domination.  (Of course there are improvements to be made to the class-reductionism of so much Marxism, but avoiding the entire issue is no solution–or rather, it is a pro-capitalist solution).

Similarly with Mazzarella.  I’ll take H&N’s challenge to continually find ways to flee structures of representation and institutionalization, thank you very much, rather than Mazzarella’s undefended acceptance of those structues as “fundamental” (p. 722) and subsequent agenda to merely add to “the richness of our investment in them” (p. 727).

What is this trend away from dangerous, tightrope-walking thinkers (whether they be Nietzsche or Kant) and toward safe, mild-mannered ones (like Dewey or Habermas)?  Better I think to be confronted with the thrilling challenge of Kant’s argument, and then decide what to do with it, rather than be drugged by someone like Mazzarella’s unobjectionable middle ground.

Welcome PSU urban studies students

In the spirit of transversal communication on this site, I’d like to welcome Anthony, Dillon, and Michael from the Portland State University Urban Studies program. You can find OSU’s original (through week 6) and updated reading schedules above, and can add your own bio page too. As you know, the Seattle group is reading and discussing every other Friday at 2 pm (this week we’re on week 6). OSU is posting their thoughts on Wednesdays and we’re reading them before our meetings and discussing before posting our own thoughts.