Wednesday, June 18, 2008

“Unruly” and “insatiable,” this living social flesh breaks free of organic limits; it is “expansive” and endlessly “productive”

Monstrous Flesh from The Pinocchio Theory by Steven Shaviro

Hardt and Negri tell us that, in postmodern society, “characterized by the dissolution of traditional social bodies,” what we experience instead is “a kind of social flesh, a flesh that is not a body, a flesh that is common, living substance” (2004,190, 192). Traditional social bodies were organic ones; the supposedly hierarchical organization of biological organisms was taken as a model for the proper hierarchical organization of society and State. Think of Hobbes’ Leviathan, or of Menenius Agrippa’s parable of the body in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. In these traditional social bodies, there is always a clear chain of command, and a clear division of labor among the society’s organs and members. Agrippa tells the plebians that they must always defer to the Senate, just as the other portions of the body must always defer to the belly, allowing it to appropriate the food that is the product of all their labors.

In contrast to this classical image of the well-ordered body, the postmodern image of “this living social flesh that is not a body can easily appear monstrous” (192). For the living flesh is “unruly” and “insatiable”(193); it “always exceeds the measure of any traditional social bodies” (196). In the postmodern world, “the old standards of measure no longer hold. . . old social bodies decompose and their remains fertilize the new production of social flesh”(196). This new flesh breaks free of organic limits; instead, it is “expansive” and endlessly “productive” (197).

Hardt and Negri see this monstrous flesh as a figure of the multitude: that is to say, of a humanity that produces things in common, and that in fact produces the common altogether (xv). The multitude is irreducibly diverse: it cannot be identified according to any criterion of identity politics, or even of social class. At the same time, the multitude cannot be divided into factions or fractions, because its very existence is a matter of “communication, collaboration, and cooperation on an ever-expanding scale” (xv), across all boundaries, and through the mobilization of what Marx called “general intellect.” Thus the monstrous flesh “is common. It is elemental like air, fire, earth, and water” (193). At the same time, monstrosity is never just one. There are always a variety of monsters, which “testify to the fact that we are all singular, and our differences cannot be reduced to any unitary social body” (193-194). The multitude, with its ceaseless creativity and “constant innovation” (193), produces the social world that we live in today. And Capital,or Empire, only preys upon, and parasitically lives off of, this productivity of the multitude. Under capitalism, “the mutations of artificial life [are] transformed into commodities,” and the “metamorphoses of nature” performed by the multitude are “put up for sale” (196). Hardt and Negri urge us always to remember that the monstrous multitude is the true productive force; and that Capital, with its normalizing appropriations of this boundless productivity, is only secondary,reactive, and parasitic.

Hardt and Negri’s logic is in full accord with Marx’s analysis of surplus value.Marx describes the way that “capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks” (1992, 342).Alternatively, in the Spinozian terms the Hardt and Negri share with Deleuze, capitalism operates by separating the living flesh from what it can do, and by accumulating and reinvesting the fruits of this separation. This process corresponds to the workings of what Deleuze and Guattari call the Body without Organs: “an enchanted recording or inscribing surface that arrogates to itself all the productive forces and all the organs of production (1983, 11-12). The Body without Organs is “a full body that functions as a socius. . . It falls back on (il se rabat sur) all production, constituting a surface over which the forces and agents of production are distributed, thereby appropriating for itself all surplus production and arrogating to itself both the whole and the parts of the process, which now seem to emanate from it as a quasi cause” (10). The socius is the monstrous body of capital, an entirely reactive force of “antiproduction” and repulsion (8), that nonetheless appropriates all production to itself by organizing and distributing it, according to a logic of “points of disjunction, between which an entire network of new syntheses is now woven, marking the surface off into co-ordinates, like a grid” (12). Thus the appropriation of surplus value is also its circulation and distribution, leading to the organization of what we know today as the “network society.”

In terms of how they describe social production, Hardt and Negri – like Deleuze and Guattari – are entirely in accord with Marxist capital logic. Against the mythology of mainstream economics, with its self-congratulatory tales of risky investments and heroic entrepreneurs, they recognize that capital is not in itself creative, and in fact originates nothing. Rather, capital privatizes the results of what is actually a common, and public, process. Through its ownership of the “means of production” (that is, of the fruits of past production that it has already appropriated), it is able to control and appropriate all new production, and to appear as if it were the source of that new production. But every patent, every copyright, every act of creativity, is only possible because we already stand on the shoulders of giants. And every private investment, every organized venture of art or science or technology, is rooted in the prior products of common labor and general intellect.

However, even as Hardt and Negri follow Marx’s logic, they invert his metaphors. Where Marx describes capitalist appropriation as monstrous and vampiric, Hardt and Negri reclaim the image of the vampire (2004, 193), and the term of monstrosity, for the primary producers themselves, the multitude. And where Deleuze and Guattari present the Body without Organs as a monstrous body of appropriation,which “produces surplus value” even as it “reproduces itself, puts forth shoots, and branches out to the farthest corners of the universe” (Deleuze and Guattari 1983,10), Hardt and Negri regard the multitude itself as a monstrous flesh that metastasizes indefinitely. They celebrate the multitude’s tireless productivity, “producing in excess of every traditional political-economic theory of value” (192), and its drive to push beyond all limits and violate all norms. “The concept of the multitude forces us to enter a new world in which we can only understand ourselves as monsters. . . Today we need new giants and new monsters to put together nature and history, labor and politics, art and invention in order to demonstrate the new power that is being born in the multitude” (194).

To a certain extent, Hardt and Negri’s motivation for this metaphorical reversal is a good one. They seek to undo the traditional hatred of democracy, and disdain for the “mob,” that is endemic to so much Western political theory, from Plato through Hobbes and on into the twentieth century. They hope to reverse capitalism’s reduction of everything to the status of private property by affirming the radical impropriety, and therefore the monstrosity, of the common within a capitalist framework. And they wish to demonstrate that the “productive flesh,”with its carnivalesque frenzies and excesses, “does not create chaos and disorder,”but rather produces new forms of communication and connection (196-197). That is why they insist upon celebrating, rather than execrating, what has long been described as monstrous and dangerous. They urge us to greet the unpredictable transformations of life that are going on all around us today with wonder instead of dread (195-196). Above all, they cultivate hope for a future filled with potential,instead of resigning themselves to the grim prospects of accelerating exploitation and ecological collapse. In all these ways, monstrosity is a figure of hope.

Nonetheless, Hardt and Negri’s reversal is not entirely convincing. It seems too much of a forcible imposition. The vision of a monstrous multitude, with its joyous excess of uncontrollable flesh, is an inspiring fiction; but it is one that we can only bring ourselves to believe through a sheer act of will. For this vision fails to give sufficient weight to the harsh conditions of actually-existing capitalism. You wouldn’t know, from reading Hardt and Negri’s paeans to the creativity of the multitude, about the extreme degree to which our “habits and performances”(197ff.), and our “ability to adapt constantly to new contexts,” and to “solve problems, create relationships, generate ideas, and so forth” (201), are continually being incited, channeled, micromanaged, and packaged into saleable products – not just during the working day, but increasingly 24/7. Hardt and Negri write as if the creativity of the multitude came first, as if it were only at the last moment that capital stepped in, to appropriate this creativity and sell it in commodified form. But in fact, capital is always already there, always already monitoring and regulating everything that we do, even before the creative process begins.

It is true that the old Taylorist, hierarchical style of business management has largely been abandoned – at least in the developed world. But the new management style that has replaced it, with its emphasis on local autonomy and responsibility, and on horizontal networks rather than vertical, hierarchical chains of command, is not in any sense more open and liberating. What the creativity of the multitude comes down to, in postmodern globalized capitalism, is this. Today capitalism demands of its workers not just physical exertion, but mental exertion as well. In order to survive, we are forced to sell, not just our “labor power” (as Marx called it), but also our affective and cognitive powers, our abilities to think and feel and create, our aesthetic sensibility and our capacity for enjoyment. Capitalism does not just steal the fruits of these powers from us. It also organizes our very expression of these powers in the first place.

This is why we must finally regard capital – rather than the multitude – as monstrous. Indeed, the monstrous qualities that Hardt and Negri attribute to the multitude – its impropriety, its ceaseless productivity, and its continual breaking of taboos and transgression of all limits – are themselves really qualities of capitalism itself, which Marx and Engels long ago described as having “burst asunder” all that stood in its way (1968, 40), and as possessing a “voracious appetite” not for any particular “useful products,” but for “the production of surplus value itself” (Marx 1992, 344-345). Only capitalism values productivity for its own sake,without regard to the nature of what is produced. And only capitalism exhibits a radical impropriety, because this is simply the other side of its own property fetish.By reclaiming monstrosity for the multitude, Hardt and Negri inadvertently erase the monstrosity of capital itself.

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