Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Paolo Virno's "Notes on the 'General Intellect' "

In Marxism Beyond Marxism, Saree Makdisi, Cesare Casarino, Rebecca Karl, Eds.

Virno ruminates over the significance of Marx's Fragment on Machines, from Grundrisse. He focuses on the notion of "general intellect" and what that implies about the productivity inherent in subjectivation. The general intellect, or mass intellectuality, Virno writes, can be found "in different functions within labor, but above all at the level of metropolitan habits, in linguistic usages, in cultural consumption." Sounds like he is talking about creative-class hipsters to me, regarding them as paradigmatic for all of the laboring class as old-school "hard labor" moves offshore. "Nonetheless," he continues, "it is precisely when production no longer seems to offer an identity that it projects itself onto each and every aspect of experience, that it beats into submission linguistic abilities, ethical propensities, and the nuances of subjectivity." So thanks to the general intellect's role in production, you can't use language (or do anything else in "everyday life" or "at leisure") without it being a kind of expropriatable labor. The general intellect "constitutes the fundamental component of contemporary capitalist accumulation" -- presumably in the sense of generating marketable data, commodified meanings, experiences, affects, enriched by contextual links supplied by individual consumers.

I don't quite follow the argument, but he argues that the general intellect constitutes a different "real abstraction" from the ones that previously dominated capitalism, namely money, which instantiates a principle of commensurability. As the general intellect comes to govern production, the equivalence principle is lost: "it prevents any unified representation of the productive social process; it capsizes the very foundations of political representation." This prompts, according to Virno, contemporary cynicism, which "relinquishes right away the search for an intersubjective foundation to its praxis, just as it also relinquishes the demand for a common criterion of moral evaluation." I think what he is getting at here is the way individual identity in its specificity has become productive, and this undermines the formation of a disgruntled class who can agitate for change in work conditions. Instead everyone is isolated in their particularity and goes along with existing work conditions in a sort of bad faith. But that is honestly just a guess. The idea makes more sense to me if I think about market anonymity and consumption rather than equivalence of productive labor. (Everything consumed is attached to a unique and discrete individual identity and used to place that individual within social relations.)

This is what strikes me as the key passage:
The collapse of the principle of equivalence, which is so intimately linked to exchange and the commodity form, manifests itself in the behavior of the cynic as a renunciation "without sorrow" of the possibility of equality to the very point that self-affirmation will take place precisely through the multiplying and making fluid of hierarchies and inequalities.

That is, cynics accept as inevitable the desperate scramble for a status hierarchy they can dominate and embrace social forms that mobilize hierarchies and offer new grounds in which to compete with other isolated individuals in zero-sum status games. The general intellect is the sum of these competitions, as opposed to some manifestation of a collective spirit through a collectivized subject. In other words the prevalence of the general intellect in late capitalism doesn't imply that it is producing a collective subject that will overthrow it. Worse, under this general condition, we form our identities precisely to be competitive; our subjectivity is conditioned by a need to dominate a niche. (Kind of like picking a specialization in graduate school.) We "affirm" ourselves through inequality, which makes political aspirations of reducing inequality always already hypocritical or at least open to suspicion. The burden of proof is never on the cynics.

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