Branden W. Joseph, "Interview with Paolo Virno"

Interview with Paolo Virno

Branden W. Joseph

Responses Translated by Alessia Ricciardi

Branden W. Joseph: You are currently a university professor of communications.
Perhaps it would be worth outlining a little of your personal and
intellectual trajectory. How do you understand the relation between your
academic work and your work with Autonomia?

Paolo Virno: The decisive experience of my youth was the revolutionary
struggle in a developed capitalist country. I insist: developed. A country, that
is, in which physical survival was guaranteed, consumption relatively high,
with by that time widespread scholastic instruction. I did not participate in
an uprising against misery or dictatorship but in a radical conflict aiming at
abolishing that modern form of barbarism: wage labor. We were not “thirdworldist”
but “Americanist.” Fighting at Fiat of Turin, we were thinking of
Detroit, not Cuba or Algiers. Only where capitalist development has reached
its height is there a question of the anticapitalist revolution. This setup has
allowed us to read Marx without “Marxism”—to read Marx, putting him in
direct contact with the most radical social fights and on the other hand intertwining
the reading of him with the great authors of bourgeois modernity
(Weber, Keynes, Nietzsche, Heidegger, etc.).

I participated in the group Potere
Operaio (among whose directors was also Toni Negri), contributing as much
as I could to organize fierce strikes at Fiat and the occupation of unrented
houses in Rome. In 1979 I was arrested in the trial of Autonomia Operaia—
three years of preventive jail, one of house arrest, finally (in 1987), full exoneration
in the appeals process.

I have always occupied myself with philosophy, and I have always written
about it. I was hard pressed to work on a nonreductionist, broadly conceived
materialism capable of explaining rationally all that a “linguistic animal”
(which is to say, a human being) does, thinks, desires.

The first book was published
in 1986 and is entitled Convenzione e materialismo [Convention and
]; the latest in 2003 is entitled Quando il verbo si fa carne. Linguaggio
e natura umana
[When the Verb Becomes Flesh: Language and Human Nature].
At the end of the 1980s, I was engaged with others in tracing the fundamental
traits of “post-Fordism”: the intellectual labor of the masses, flexibility, and so
on. From 1990 to 1993, I contributed to the journal Luogo Comune, afterward
to the journal Derive Approdi.

When it comes to my job at the university . . . well, I have been doing it
only for six or seven years. And I am still a professor on a temporary contract.
Until the age of forty-five, though I was writing books of philosophy, I worked
at the most disparate sorts of jobs in the culture industry: cartoon scriptwriter,
journalist, editor for publishing houses, and so on. University has been a
casual choice, not a vocation or a destiny. It represented the possibility of
earning a better salary and having more time left for writing. Having published
different books, I could give it a try. I won a competition. My life has
not changed. And it goes well this way.BWJ: The 1960s and 1970s have been characterized as the period of social
and political experimentation on which current theory reflects. If so, how
would you characterize the most important distinctions between the experiments
in Europe and those in the United States? It seems that the situation
in Italy remained radical and experimental for a longer period than in the
United States, which entered what you have called “counterrevolution” by
the midpoint of the later decade.

PV: During the 1960s and 1970s in the USA, the counterculture had a lot of
influence and a large tendency to secession, which is to say to constructing
fragments of an alternative society. And, naturally, there was the political
emergence of the different “minorities.” The great working struggles of the
1960s had minor visibility, at least here in Europe; at any rate, they did not
have the ability to unify the ensemble of the movements. Today, taking a
retrospective look, it seems to me that the 1960s and 1970s in the USA was
the epoch in which the modern multitude affirmed itself: no longer a unitary
people but a plurality of heterogeneous subjects, proud of their specificity,
resisting a univocal synthesis.

In Italy, on the other hand, from the beginning of the 1960s to the end of
the 1970s everything revolved around the struggles of new, unskilled, mobile
workers who detested their job and the factory. The struggles of these workers,
external to the unions, were the connective fabric of all conflicts. Even feminism
(at least at first), even doctors, the precarious professors at the university,
and the Sardininan shepherds all had as a point of reference “the great
disorder” in the factories. What mattered was not a working identity with its
values and traditions but instead the hatred of the working condition, the
intention to suppress commodity labor-power.

The official Italian labor movement (PCI and unions) has always mistrusted
the working struggles in the USA and has never understood them. For
a very good reason: because it attributed to the workers, even to the unqualified ones of Fordist factories, the task of defending the “general interest” (of the country, of the economy, and so on). Thus, facing the “egotistical” insubodination
of the Detroit workers, which was geared toward affirming their
own material interests, our Left was scandalized. But young Italian workers
in those years were in turn becoming “egotists,” deciding to earn more and
work less, without much chatter about the “general interest” and socialism.

In this sense, the official Italian labor movement, not understanding
the proletariat in the USA, could not even understand its own. The 1960s
and 1970s laid the grounds for surpassing more than a century of divergence
between the American radical movements and the European radical

BWJ: Much of your work reflects upon a post-Fordist paradigm of immaterial
labor. Yet, many Leftist intellectuals don’t accept the analytical
significance of post-Fordism. So-called post-Fordism, they say, actually
depends on older industrial paradigms, now out of sight of the first world;
immaterial labor can’t be hegemonic in the same way that industrial labor
was described by Marx. For you, however, post-Fordism is not only important
but characterizable as an ethics, a pervasive way of life. Do arguments
that rely on more traditional Marxist paradigms of industrial labor still
hold any weight?

PV: I have never used the expression “immaterial labor”; to me it seems
equivocal and theoretically inconsistent. Post-Fordism certainly cannot be
reduced to a set of particular professional figures characterized by intellectual
refinement or “creative” gifts. It is obvious that workers in the media,
researchers, engineers, ecological operators, and so on, are and will be only a
minority. By “post-Fordism,” I mean instead a set of characteristics that are
related to the entire contemporary workforce, including fruit pickers and the
poorest of immigrants. Here are some of them: the ability to react in a timely
manner to the continual innovations in techniques and organizational
models, a remarkable “opportunism” in negotiating among the different possibilities
offered by the job market, familiarity with what is possible and
unforeseeable, that minimal entrepreneurial attitude that makes it possible
to decide what is the “right thing” to do within a nonlinear productive fluctuation,
a certain familiarity with the web of communications and information.

As one can see, these are generically human gifts, not the result of
“specialization.” What I hold true is that post-Fordism mobilizes all the faculties
that characterize our species: language, abstract thinking, disposition
toward learning, plasticity, the habit of not having solid habits. When I speak
of a “mass intellectuality,” I am certainly not referring to biologists, artists,
mathematicians, and so on, but to the human intellect in general, to the fact that it has been put to work as never before.

If we look carefully, post-Fordism takes advantage of abilities learned
before and independently of entrance into the workplace: abilities brought
forth by the uncertainty of metropolitan life, by uprootedness, by the preceptual
shocks of technological mutations, even by video games and the use
of cellular phones. All this is at the base of post-Fordist “flexibility.” These
experiences outside the workplace become afterward, in the production system
known as “just in time,” authentic and proper professional requirements.

Great European thought, from Nietzsche to Heidegger, described the “nihilism”
that characterizes the forms of life outside the stringent rationality of the
productive process: instability, disenchantment, anonymity, and so on. Well,
with post-Fordism, the nihilistic mentality enters into production, constitutes
in fact one of its precious ingredients. To work profitably in offices and
factories, what is necessary today is a great familiarity with the situation and
the fragility of every state of things.

BWJ: I’m interested in the Italian reception of the Frankfurt School. The
work of Walter Benjamin, foremost, but also of Max Horkheimer and
Theodor Adorno, seems to play a more central role in Italian thought than,
say, in France, where its reception was selective. At the same time, particularly
in your work, the insights of the Frankfurt School are often inverted,
as when you argue that the creative communicative abilities Horkheimer
and Adorno regarded in The Dialectic of Enlightenment as “un-influential
remnants” of an exploited cultural sphere were, in fact, “loaded with future
possibilities.”1 I am curious, first, as to how the Frankfurt School was
received by the Italian Left? And, second, what is the status of their insights—
which were forged from a perspective of monopoly capitalism—if we are
now within a period of global post-Fordism?

PV: I earned my degree with a thesis on Adorno, on the relationship that his
work establishes between criticism of knowledge and criticism of political
economy. When it comes to Benjamin, he is and remains for me a decisive
point of reference. I believe that his “On the Concept of History” is the fundamental
text for a discussion of a specifically human temporality. One of my
books, Il ricordo del presente. Saggio sul tempo storico [The Memory of the
Present: An Essay on Historical Time
], attempts to advance on the path forged
by Benjamin. But Benjamin distinguishes himself from Adorno, and even
more so from the other members of the Frankfurt School, because he tries to
disentangle the question of emancipation even in what Brecht defined as the
“bad new,” for example, in technical reproduction or in the emotional poverty
of the metropolitan experience. Adorno and the others, on the other hand, condemned the “bad new” as a whole. That is why their discourse on the
culture industry, though certainly acute and suggestive, does not catch the
essential; which is to say, the fact that the productive methods of the culture
industry, more than imitating Fordist homogeneity, anticipate the flexible
position of post-Fordism, the use that the latter makes of the communicative
performance and even improvisation.

The Italian reception of the Frankfurt
School has never been such a great thing. The accent was placed on the critique
of consumer society or (with reference to Marcuse) on the supposed integration
of the working class. The accent was placed, in the end, on utterly wrong
things, leaving aside the critique of the “thought aimed at identity” developed
by Adorno in Negative Dialectics. The call of the Frankfurt School, in
Italy, has often represented an alibi to refuse to act and to put off indefintely
the risks of praxis.

I maintain that today what is possible and should be written is a contemporary
version of Benjamin’s essay on technical reproduction, assuming one
has the background from which it is possible to appreciate all that is singular
and unrepeatable in every human existence. If reproduction once suppressed
the aura linked to the uniqueness of the work, today it is necessary to think
the link between the technical reproduction of every aspect of experience and
the emergence of a uniqueness without aura. Moreover, in the epoch of the
intellectual work of the masses, it seems to me important to reread (and, certainly,
to develop) the analysis of Alfred Sohn-Rethel, an outsider of the
Frankfurt School (to whom, however, Adorno owes a great debt), in the book
Intellectual and Manual Labour.2

BWJ: You have described “general intellect” as an externalized, communal
interrelation of thought and language patterns. This, you’ve observed, can
lead in two directions: toward a new form of public sphere, born out of the
“growing time of nonwork,” or toward a “publicness without a public
sphere,” a more total form of oppression. Is this second, more nefarious
possibility related to what Gilles Deleuze described as control society—
“direct social engineering, leaving no gap at all between itself and the social
sphere . . . social engineering in its purest form,” a realm in which the very
forms of “speech and communication have been corrupted?”3

PV: I agree. The Deleuzian concept of a “society of control” aptly describes
the situation in which the “general intellect” of which Marx speaks (knowledge,
science, communication) has become, yes, the new principal productive force,
but does not yet represent a political resource, which is to say, the foundation
of a new public sphere.

It is not difficult to identify the forms of resistance within and to the “society of control.” After Seattle, Genoa, and Porto Alegre, we have seen the emergence
of a “new social and productive species,” mass intellectuality, which is to
say, that multitude of men and women who, using thought and language
as tool and raw material, form the authentic pillar of the wealth of nations.

Migrants, precarious workers of every kind, border-laborers between employment
and unemployment, seasonal employees at McDonald’s, customer
support representatives on chat lines, researchers and information experts:
all these people are, in their full value, the “general intellect” of which Marx
speaks. That general intellect (knowledge, the subjective spirit of initiative,
invention-power) that is at once the main productive force of post-Fordist
capitalism and the material basis for bringing an end to commodity society
and to the state as a sinister “monopoly of political decisions.” At the end of
the nineteenth century, typographers, tanners, textile workers—in sum, the
members of the numerous trade associations—discovered what united them:
being, all, abstract expenditure of psychophysic energy, labor in general.

Today, a multitude of “social individuals”—who grow prouder of their
unrepeatable singularity the more they correlate to each other in a dense web
of cooperative interaction—recognize themselves as the general intellect
of society. The “general intellect”—“the thinking that desires and the desire
that thinks,” to employ Aristotle’s beautiful expression—shows its political
face with the reasonable demand of a universal basic income and with the
refusal of any copyright on products of that common resource that is the
human mind.

We are left with the thorniest of problems: how to organize a plurality of
“social individuals” that, at the moment, seems fragmented, constitutionally
exposed to blackmail—in short, unorganizable? Mass intellectuality finds it
hard to reverse its own productive power into political power.

The first question
on the agenda is that of the forms of struggle. Whoever believes that identifying
the modalities of struggle (such as the strike, sabotage, and so on) is
only a technical problem, a simple corollary of a political program, is stupid.

On the contrary, the discussion of forms of struggle is the most intricate, real
benchmark of any political theory with a certain spirit. Entrepreneurialism,
shared knowledge, the ability to relate and interact: these “professional gifts”
of the post-Fordist multitude must become terrible instruments of pressure.
The basic claims—in short, the “what we want”—depend entirely on “how
we can act” to modify the relations of force within this social organization of
time and space. Everything depends, that is, on the broad-minded invention
of the new “picketings” and new “internal protests” that might be equal to
the predominant flexibility and to the model of accumulation based on the
general intellect.

BWJ: If communication itself, as well as affects and modes of being, are now
parts of immaterial labor, what happens to notions of the autonomy or semiautonomy
of either individuals or of realms of culture, such as art?

PV: Today what has always been true has become evident: the individual
(with his or her autonomy) is a point of eventful arrival, not an incontrovertible
point of departure. He or she is the point of arrival of a complex process
of individuation, the individuation of universal productive forces, anonymous
structures, preindividual modes of being. The autonomy of the individual is, if
you want, the result of the political struggle, the stakes of the class conflict in

For what concerns cultures and art . . . they are an integral part of human
praxis. If you like, they are the place in which praxis reflects on itself and
results in self-representation. But human praxis as a whole is included, today,
in the productive process. Because of this, contemporary production has,
sometimes, cultural-aesthetic aspects. To ask what might be the destiny of art
and culture in general means to ask what form human praxis can take beyond
the epoch of wage labor.

Culture and art have become productive resources.
But, exactly like the “general intellect,” they can transform themselves into
political resources for the multitude.

BWJ: In A Grammar of the Multitude you discuss the notion of “virtuosity”
through the example of the pianist Glenn Gould, who eschewed public
performance and adopted the role of a laborer producing recordings. A
counterexample might be John Cage, who, despite having made a good
many recordings, consistently denigrated them as no more than commodities,
seeking to replace them with ongoing performative processes. My question
is: from the perspective of a political “virtuosity,” what happens to the
more traditional notions of reification? Is it that all communication becomes
reified, structured like a commodity? Or is it that the form of the commodity
no longer holds as such even in the economic realm?

PV: It is true; John Cage is the reversed image of Glenn Gould. Whereas Gould
detests the exposure to other people’s eyes and wants to produce “works,”
Cage desires instead to switch to that activity without work that is performance.
Taken together, they aptly illustrate the difference between the
sphere of production (poiesis, the Greeks called it) and the sphere of public
action (praxis).

When it comes to reification, I propose to go back to the original meaning
of the word. Res in Latin does not mean only “thing,” but also “fact,” “event,”
“visible reaction,” “action.” In light of this broad meaning, “reification” could
mean that one or another of these faculties of the human mind manifests itself in the world of phenomena, becomes conspicuous, offers itself to be
seen in the public sphere.

In this sense, “reification” seems to me a good
thing. It is a remedy for the “myth of interiority.” I would oppose “reification”
to “alienation”; the latter is privation, dispossession. A suitable reification
(that is, the fact that “the life of the mind” becomes fact or perceivable
actions) could be a means of fighting post-Fordist alienation. All contemporary
comunication is a battleground between a suitable reification and a
dreadful alienation.

BWJ: You have described, forcefully, the means by which new modes of
thought and behavior, even “a new common sense,” were forged by the neoconservative
reaction of the 1980s and 1990s.4 Now that we are faced, on
the one hand with a very real possibility of terrorist attacks—9/11 in New
York and more recently those in Spain and Russia—and, on the other, with
overzealous state security measures, do you see a particularly intense
period of restructuring mentalities, habits, and behaviors? Are we entering
a new cycle of oppositional experimentation, after what you called the
“long intermezzo” of conterrevolution?

PV: It seems to me that we have entered a new seventeenth century. What I
mean by this is an epoch of terrible uprisings in which all the categories of
public life are newly redefined. In 1600, in the heart of the civil and religious
wars, while passing through the revolts of the peasants and artisans, with the
impetuous flourishing of the first capitalist economy, the political lexicon in
force until yesterday was coined. Terms such as sovereignity, the central state,
legitimate/legal, the social pact, and so on, received, at that time, the meaning
that seems obvious to us today. Well, perhaps a long period has begun,
surely a tragic one, in which the compasses and the key political concepts are
changing. What matters is to understand if in the “new seventeenth century”
the last word will belong to Leviathan or to Exodus.

BWJ: Commentators on the recent protests in New York (against the Republican
National Convention) expressed frustration at not being able to determine,
at times, what the protest groups “represented.” It seems, however, that
many activities could be understood in terms of a collective refusal of the
behaviors and limitations the city wanted to impose: thus, carnival in the
face of fear, mobility in the face of restrictions of movement. But how does one
get from active behavior to political effect?

PV: The global movement ever since Seattle resembles a half-functioning
voltaic battery: it accumulates energy without rest but does not know
how and where to discharge it. We face a marvelous hoarding to which no adequate investments correspond at this time. Or do we face a new technological
apparatus, powerful and refined, for which we, however, ignore the
instructions? The symbolic-media dimension has been at once a propitious
occasion and a limit. On the one hand, it has guaranteed the accumulation of
energy; on the other, it has hindered or deferred to infinity its application.

Every activist is aware of this: the global movement does not yet manage to
have an effect—I mean, to have an effect with the grace of corrosive acid—on the
current capitalist accumulation. From where is the difficulty born? Because
neither the profit margin nor the functioning of constitutive powers have
been disturbed more than a tiny bit by the new global movement? To what is
this paradoxical “double bind” due on which basis the symbolic-communicative
sphere is both an authentic springboard and the source of paralysis?

The impasse that seizes the global movement comes from its inherent
implication in the modes of production. Not from its estrangement or marginality,
as some people think. The movement is the conflictual interface of
the post-Fordist working process. It is precisely because, rather than in spite,
of this fact that it presents itself on the public scene as an ethical movement.

Let me explain. Contemporary capitalist production mobilizes to its advantage
all the attitudes characterizing our species, putting to work life as such.
Now, if it is true that post-Fordist production appropriates “life”—that is to
say, the totality of specifically human faculties—it is fairly obvious that
insubordination against it is going to rest on the same basic datum of fact.

life involved in flexible production is opposed the instance of a “good life.”
And the search for a good life is indeed the theme of ethics.
Here is at once the difficulty and the extraordinarily interesting challenge.
The primacy of ethics is the direct result of the material relations of production.
But at first glance this primacy seems to get away from what, all the
same, has provoked it. An ethical movement finds it hard to interfere with
the way in which surplus value is formed today. The workforce that is at
the heart of globalized post-Fordism—precarious, flexible border-workers
between employment and unemployment—defends some very general principles
related to the “human condition”: freedom of language, sharing of
that common good that is knowledge, peace, the safeguarding of the natural
environment, justice and solidarity, aspiration to a public sphere in which
might be valorized the uniqueness and unrepeatability of every single existence.

The ethical instance, while taking root in the social working day, flies
over it at a great height without altering the relations of force that operate at
its interior.
Whoever mistrusts the movement’s ethical attack, rebuking it for disregarding
the class struggle against exploitation is wrong. But for symmetrical reasons, they are also wrong who, pleased by this ethical attack, believe that
the latter might put aside categories such as “exploitation” and “the class
struggle.” In both cases, one lets slip the decisive point: the polemical link
between the instance of the “good life” (embodied by Genoa and Porto Alegre)
and life put to work (the fulcrum of the post-Fordist enterprise).


1. Paolo Virno, Grammatica della moltitudine. Per una analisi delle forme di vita contemporanee
(Rome: Derive Approdi, 2003). Published in English as A Grammar of the Multitude:
For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life,
trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito, and
Andrea Casson (New York: Semiotext(e), 2004), 59.

2. Alfred Sohn-Rethel, Geistige und körperliche Arbeit. Zur Theorie der gesellschaftlichen
(Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1970). Published in English as Intellectual and Manual Labour:
A Critique of Epistemology,
trans. Martin Sohn-Rethel (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities
Press, 1978).

3. Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations, 1972–1990, trans. Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia
University Press, 1995), 74, 175.

4. Paolo Virno, “Do You Remember Counterrevolution?” in Radical Thought in Italy: A
Potential Politics,
ed. Paolo Virno and Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1996), 241.