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The Sensuous Religion of the Multitude: Art and Abstraction in Negri
Alberto Toscano Available online: 04 Aug 2009

To cite this article: Alberto Toscano (2009): The Sensuous Religion of the Multitude: Art and Abstraction in Negri, Third Text, 23:4, 369-382 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09528820903007651

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as quoted in Antonio Negri. available at: http:// www. 369–382 The Sensuous Religion of the Multitude Art and Abstraction in Negri Downloaded by [University of Glasgow] at 08:10 23 February 2012 Alberto Toscano At the same time. Peter Osborne. ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’ (1978) 1. available at http://www.org/t/ stormingheaven. it must become a mythology of reason. postworkerism and autonomist Marxism see Sergio Bologna. 23. co-organiser of the ‘Art and Immaterial Labour’ conference at Tate Britain: With the decline of independent Left political-intellectual cultures. Antonio Negri and the ‘tradition’ or ‘school’ of Italian autonomist or post-workerist Marxism1 have recently made their appearance in all of these London venues. Monotheism of reason and of the heart. and where these debates can be transformed.uk/journals DOI: 10. Not just the great masses.1080/09528820903007651 . Issue 4. The Oldest System-Programme of German Idealism (1796–1797).2 It is difficult to gainsay the idea that the presence of Negri in the ‘artworld’ bears some relation to said ‘decline’. 2009.co. A more affirmative (malgré soi) view of art as a point of transit. eliciting in some the disabused aperçu that revolutionary theory has become yet another domain to be incorporated and digested by an increasingly omnivorous curatorial practice. Vol.asp?channel_id= 2188&editorial_id=23279.htm. this mythology however must stand in the service of the ideas. this is what we need! Here first I shall speak of an idea which. Strategies: Journal of Theory. Fabbriche del soggetto (1987) Something in Italy is keeping us all alive.generationonline. we hear so often that the great masses must have a sensuous religion. the Serpentine Gallery… In a phenomenon now so common as to pass almost unremarked. ‘What is to be Done? (Education)’. 2. as far as I know. ‘A Review of Storming Heaven: Class Composition and Struggle in Italian Autonomist Marxism by Steve Wright’. Negri himself has irreverently noted Third Text ISSN 0952-8822 print/ISSN 1475-5297 online © Third Text (2009) http://www.Third Text. the philosopher needs it too. The ICA.tandf.co m/default. Radical Philosophy 141. rather than a terminus. 2003. 16:2. Tate Britain. polytheism of the imagination and of art. of political thinking and practice has been proposed by Peter Osborne. for all its intellectual foibles.radicalphilosophy. Scritti Politti. July. For a persuasive questioning of the idea of a continuum spanning workerism. the main place beyond the institutions of higher education where intellectual and political aspects of social and cultural practices can be debated. has never before entered anyone’s mind – we must have a new mythology. the artworld remains. Culture & Politics.

London and New York. 1987. [1990]. Political Descartes: Reason. protesi. not just for the angle they might afford on the metamorphoses of his work. or even defeat.7 which dramatises the search by a defeated class (the bourgeoisie. but for the indications they might harbour for an attempt to think through the politicising and depoliticising potentialities of the recent ‘turn’ to art by a number of prominent radical theorists. straddling aesthetics. Arte e Multitudo remains. and their more recent sequels. transiti. not entirely alien from the much-debated turn to religion. and in this instance confronts itself with the prospect of a political annihilation of ontology itself in the guise of nuclear conflict. In this respect. to all intents and purposes. Fabbriche del soggetto. in that case) for a theoretical foothold whence action may be taken up again within a hostile world. If the likes of Negri. 4. I will be quoting from the French edition: Toni Negri. is significantly entitled ‘No Future’. the production of artworks and artefacts. a turn. This might be an apt adage for the handful of contemporary radical theorists from the 1960s levy (1950s. a term that recurs throughout Negri’s writing of the 1980s. XXI Secolo. without a passport or a proper work permit.6 ‘Ethics’. paradossi.3 the disparate philosophical maquis of the 1980s might still hold some lessons for those of us who still feel the chill of the neoliberal offensive. 2002 6. trans and introduction Matteo Mandarini and Alberto Toscano. Il lavoro di Giobbe. 2005. Those circumstances notwithstanding. Verso. 2007 that his main piece of writing on art.5 not a pessimistic book but a book in which the revolutionary imagination is steeped in the realities of suffering and despair. it evinces the way in which the problems of art (in a rather polysemic way.4 In particular. and the manner in which it opens up a horizon of ethical and political contingency. Profili. one might maliciously and parenthetically note. a world where one’s adversaries. stripped of the traditional platforms for transformative and emancipatory politics. hold sway. Ideology and the Bourgeois Project. Art et multitude. sistemi. The chapter of Fabbriche del soggetto concerned with the radicality of this ontological negation. 7. and even a theory of the productive imagination) represent a testing-ground for a revolutionary political thought which seeks to reconstitute itself in the midst of a situation that appears. is there a way of approaching the politico-philosophical concern with art in ways that do not reduce it to a surrogate for politics. Rome. has something to do with it. the letters from December 1988 collected in the 1990 volume Arte e Multitudo. In exile. 5. Neuf lettres sur l’art. or Alain Badiou. sovversioni. indeed.370 3. or Jacques Rancière attract deserved interest and admiration today. of remuneration)? Tell me how you survived the 1980s and I’ll tell you who you are. where the very memory of struggle has been scoured from the minds and bodies of a pulverised and disconnected multitude. Livorno. Downloaded by [University of Glasgow] at 08:10 23 February 2012 . is a fascinating and instructive document. in Negri’s case) who have garnered such attention in the last decade from younger generations learning to cope with and contest neoliberalism. If we do accept that the issue of decline. I think it is worth delving further into these writings of Negri. is perhaps the name for this constitution of hope in the midst of social devastation and political defeat – a theme that Negri had already broached in his Political Descartes. Paris. Interestingly. was principally spurred by financial concerns. potenze: appunti per un dispositivo ontologico. macchine. passaggi. And. a last refuge or redoubt for radicals bereft of a horizon of realisation (or. writing on art was also a matter of expediency. L’inverno è finito is the title of a collection of Negri’s writings edited by Giuseppe Caccia and published by Castelvecchi in 1996. it is also because they managed to invent conceptual configurations that permitted them to traverse a period of punishing reaction that either destroyed or co-opted many of their erstwhile comrades. translated into French with the addition of two letters (1999. for the time being. Arte e Multitudo. Antonio Negri. Manifestolibri. Atelier/EPEL. 2001) and a presentation (from 2004). together with texts like his Labour of Job and Factories of the Subject. though Negri above all has been led to declare that ‘the winter [of reaction and counter-revolution] is over’. Antonio Negri. or worse.

and associated with phenomena like ‘Mao-Dadaism’. Venice’s radicalised school of architecture. The Biennale then returns in the letter from 2001. addressed to the artist Manfredo Massironi. especially in Bologna with the journal A/traverso. 8. turned violently in a demystifying manner against the dominant powers. in a world that has been conquered by absolute immanence. 9. echoing the Brecht of 1937. trans M B DeBevoise. active in Padua between 1959 and 1964. published in Time on 28 June 1968: Gone altogether were the champagne glasses. is linked to a dissemination of .10 The whole experience is likened to walking through a cemetery. ‘Strategies in Metropolitan Merz: Manfredo Tafuri and Italian Workerism’. the so-called libertarian tendency within autonomism – coming to the fore in the movement of 1977. which the Time article comically refers to as ‘the art world’s equivalent of the Olympics’. in which Negri narrates his astonishment during a visit at ‘such a void of formal invention’. the opening of the 34th Venice Biennale had become a social and artistic shambles. also features in Arte e Multitudo.9 To get a sense of the occasion. the attention to the existentially transformative dimension of the movement. for instance. In his recent Du Retour: Abécédaire Biopolitique. artworks can still exist?’11 Though Negri does not tackle it head on. a contributor to the Op Art movement. with reference to Robert Rauschenberg’s exhibition in 1963. a strand within his own political universe. 133. its ‘ethicoaesthetic’ tendency. In the editorials of A/traverso. London. freeing it from aesthetic or market-driven mystifications. Radical Philosophy. the busy art politicking and the horde of wealthy patrons who normally flock to the chic pre-opening parties in the palazzos along the Grand Canal. in the blocking of the Venice Biennale. human substance of labour. Routledge. it is worth quoting the mainstream account in an article entitled ‘Violence Kills Culture’. to cite Guattari. The so-called ‘desiring’ and ‘creative’ side of the movement was driven by a heady mix of heretical Marxism. 2004. given the importance of Venice in Negri’s political biography. In one of the letters that make up the book. On the relations between IUAV and workerism. Ibid Unsurprisingly. animated by Franco Berardi (Bifo). and the practice of making art non-mysterious by demonstrating its productive character. p 168 10. This dubious achievement was yet another milestone in this spring’s overlong marathon of student rebellion. alongside the Communist composer Luigi Nono and the painter Emilio Vedova. a rather sombre if stoically revolutionary text. the ‘metropolitan Indians’ and free radios – could be seen as an openly negative response to this question. and a passion for new technologies. articulating criticisms of the Leninism of Autonomia organizzata which Negri would later metabolise. p 7 11. the Biennale.371 Downloaded by [University of Glasgow] at 08:10 23 February 2012 Before immersing ourselves in Arte e Multitudo. Deleuze and Guattari. op cit. Negri. what is it?’. Antonio Negri. 2005. identified as a moment when reality could be held fast and. Instead. Negri on Negri. see Gail Day. such an absence of the force of beauty – ‘and if the beautiful is not form. This ‘deconstruction’ of art is portrayed as revealing the living. he reminisces about his connections in the 1960s with the IUAV.8 and about his participation. with Anne Dufourmantelle. it is pertinent to note that Negri was already no stranger to the domain of art. but also linked to a problem and preoccupation arising from Negri’s thinking of the real subsumption of society under capitalism: ‘How is it possible that. Art et multitude. First. He speaks of their experiments with the ‘orgiastic Taylorisation of art’. and to the latter’s imbrications with politics. he alludes to his collaboration with the ‘Gruppo N’.

2004. The examples provided of the ‘strategy of desire’ are instructive. Leninist revival and libertarian carnival). understood as ‘the composition of desiring flows in a direction which is that of liberation’. Ibid As the 1977 movement bursts onto the scene. in Settantasette. As one can read in an A/traverso article from 1975: Capitalism as a system of domination is destined to continue living for a very long historical period. This does not mean that communism is pushed forward in time. the editors of A/ raverso write. leaving the machinations of control and the exigencies of management to a power that becomes almost self-referential. ‘staging her rage at her unemployment’. someone else reads out a Surrealist newspaper. having broken with the classical schemas of party militancy. creation of ‘other spaces’ that would force systemic transformations without any dialectic of recognition. second edition. with all of its well-known contradictions (resistance of the industrial working class and anticipation of a network society. Ibid. The seemingly a.372 militancy across the social factory. p 185 15. ‘“A/traverso” (Quattro frammenti)’. as the organisation of social forces in liberation.16 This strategy seems to involve a withdrawal from political representation. and not as a government over the whole of society. 182 13. in and against. But it is not communism that resolves problems: it tables with urgency the questions that the system is forced to respond to in order to survive. eds Sergio Bianchi and Lanfranco Caminiti. or even mythopoietic: ‘A writing capable of giving body to the tendency. who tried to account for the illegibility of the movement’s political codes for the . in unmistakably Deleuzo-Guattarian language. p 187 16. and more specifically the transformations within (political) language itself.or anti-political is recoded as a politicisation of the entire sphere of collective life: Dissolution is the innovative form of social action… Appropriation and liberation of the body. such a strategic and libidinal aestheticisation of politics was the object of some famous observations by Umberto Eco. Ibid. At the time.15 The question that arises then is of knowing whether. p 182 14.’13 The vision forwarded by this section of the movement was one of autonomy qua secession and sedition. DeriveApprodi.12 Downloaded by [University of Glasgow] at 08:10 23 February 2012 Political writing itself becomes infused with aesthetic. This power as partisan autonomy. the very notion of politics is more and more put into question. to incarnate the tendency as desire. a woman gets up and shouts ‘I sell wallets!’. losing its grip on society and life. ‘Politics’. is the power that we should exercise. pp 181. collective transformation of interpersonal relations are the way in which today we reconstruct a project against factory work. the PCI daily. it restores the dictatorship of the Signifier in the face of the desiring web of a-signifying desire’. La rivoluzione che viene. to write into collective life the possibility of liberation. farther away: communism lives contemporaneously. as they all concern the sensible forms of political action. A/ traverso tells of a political assembly where the juxtaposition of reformists and revolutionaries is broken by a militant who re-enacts the suicide of a young proletarian who had been confined to a madhouse. even demiurgic content. Ibid. Roma. a ‘strategy of desire’ is possible. it becomes poetic. ‘is reductive. only to reveal that he is quoting from L’Unità. against any order founded on performance and exploitation. as the form of their liberation. no longer simply the production of the right slogan and the reflection on the correct line.14 12.

op cit. than between Beckett and Céline. Franco Berardi (Bifo). in Nanni Balestrini and Primo Moroni.nadir. co-option and dissipation of the transformative élan crystallised in that tumultuous year. Negri’s Arte e Multitudo. available at: http:// www. alongside other texts of this period. Negri himself points to the importance of punk in Art et multitude: ‘Punk is a very high moment of hallucinated realist affirmation. ed Sergio Bianchi. ‘the tendency’ – was in many respects at odds with Negri’s political and theoretical practice of the late 1970s? In part. anti-political and consumerist desert of the 1980s is understood as the perverted co-option of the very possibilities – for cooperation. ambiguously positioned between the ‘desperate resistance of forms of sociality that emerged in the period of industrial maturity’ and ‘the first awareness and representation of a transformation in a “mental” direction of working activity and of the overall social cycle’. p 77. 19. but seemingly depoliticising.18 Why take this detour. p 173 This also explains why most of the formal and existential innovations of the movement of 1977 did not have the ‘artworld’ as their arena. the multiplicity of languages) of the avant-garde. . High culture strove to identify the trajectories of avant-garde language. or between a discussion in an assembly of marginals and a Beckett drama. in Settantasette. above all. as does their garbled name. Faber & Faber. and [mainstream artistic and theatrical events] on the other. as the transition-point to a postmodern phase. l’italo-indiano’. op cit. the dialogues of Cochi and Renato. The punk dystopia is the sensation of a possible catharsis and the certainty of the impossibility of its execution’. the counter-revolutionary. on the one hand. Also Keir. cultural upheaval. modelled his vocal experimentations on the Antonin Artaud of To Have Done with the Judgement of God. 1977 appears as a watershed.17 Downloaded by [University of Glasgow] at 08:10 23 February 2012 17. and the walls of the city more and more resembled a painting by Cy Twombly… There are now more analogies between a songwriter’s lyrics and Céline. Antonio Gramsci). Accordingly. in terms not devoid of the parochial Italo-centric rhetoric that sometimes afflicts the autonomist left.373 traditional establishment. See Simon Reynolds. abstraction and imagination. L’orda d’oro. re the link between the Italian 1977 and the AngloAmerican punk 1977. ‘Pour en finir avec le jugement de dieu’. looking for them where they had lost themselves in dead ends. See Mauro Trotta. both left and right. Almost as a verification of the workerist thesis of the productive primacy of proletarian struggle. 1968–1977. especially as the ‘creative’ wing of 1977 – despite its frequent reference to recognisably ‘Negrian’ notions. The new generations speak and live in their everyday practice the language (i. The movement in Bologna also registered in post-punk. Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984. Demetrio Stratos. and a new political anthropology of desires and needs – that the movement of 1977 had anticipated in all its contradictoriness. to quote Bifo. technological change. the songs of Jannacci. and were more likely to be found in the dark exuberance of Andrea Pazienza’s comics or in the prog-jazz of Area.e.org. ‘When Two Sevens Clash’.html. can thus be read as an attempt to recover the constituent energies of 1977 in the midst of a period of crushing defeat and of rapid. the psychedelic images of Yellow Submarine. whose Greek-born lead singer. Milano. because the aesthetic reflections that occupied Negri at the close of the 1980s are difficult to understand without the experience of the repression. La grande ondata rivoluzionaria e creativa. as John Cage and Stockhausen were filtered through the fusion of rock and Indian music.uk/ punk. ‘Andrea Pazienza o le straordinarie avventure del desiderio’. Eco explicitly links the ‘illegibility’ of the movement to the illegibility of the avant-gardes in previous historical moments. Feltrinelli. 1997. p 610 18. politica ed esistenziale. art galleries.19 The year 1977 is also viewed. in Settantasette. while the practice of the subversive manipulation of languages and behaviours had abandoned limited editions. ‘C’é un’altra lingua. Umberto Eco. But he goes further. as evidenced by Scritti Politti’s 1978 single ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’ (with the ‘bloc’ irreverently referencing. arthouse cinemas and had cut itself a path with the music of the Beatles. I want to consider Negri’s contribution in terms of three axes: periodisation. sundered between ‘hypermodernist projection’ and ‘resistance against the hypermodern nightmare’. 2005. The generation that has burst on the scene in ‘Year 9’ (post-1968) has both sublated and relayed an otherwise exhausted avant-garde culture. London.

p 254 22. The periodising drive in Negri’s work has been the subject of much critical attention. The Commoner.23 Despite what might at first appear as a kind of reductivism of relations of (artistic) production to the mode of production. axiomatically. but can even qualify an actual aesthetic experience. p 63 23. op cit. April 2008. At its most elementary. University of Michigan Press. is itself modelled on a particular interpretation of artistic modernism.uk/ ?p=33 21. centred on the professional worker and aesthetically dominated by realism. See David Graeber’s critical review of the ‘Art and Immaterial Labour’ conference. of the soviets. Negri’s specificity lies perhaps in the emphasis that he openly puts on the mythopoietic character of this operation. and revolutionary thought more broadly). [1924]. and to the Downloaded by [University of Glasgow] at 08:10 23 February 2012 . following his attendance at a performance of Pina Bausch and a production of Hamlet by Nekrosius.org. 1968 to the present: art is politically opened onto the problems of the social worker and becomes inseparable from a political aesthetics of experience. Negri maintains a fidelity to the ‘biopolitical’ theme of the ‘new man’ that brought together artistic modernism and revolutionary politics (think of the infamous invocation of the radical transformation of ‘the coagulated Homo sapiens’ in Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution). but to recompose or even summon forth the very subject it is describing. Literature and Revolution. capital’s reaction against increasing contestation intensifying the division of labour. but also developing into mass art and accompanying the Fordist figure of the ‘mass worker’. immaterial labourer. 1960. Likewise. its embodied apotheosis). Some have even regarded it as a form of prophetism – a verdict to which we shall return. the victory of the Russian Revolution. ‘an abstraction which is a representation of and participation in the abstraction of labour’22. cognitive worker. allows him to posit the ‘objective’ leverage-point in the tendencies of capitalist production for a revolutionary offensive which is irreducible to structural determinations but which must nevertheless always. while workers develop ideologies of self-management. and impressionism is the dominant aesthetic for the depiction and analysis of experience. 1871–1914. which in turn synthesise the mutations of production and the potentialities of politics. and thus anticipate the capitalist counter-offensive. being variously faulted for its partiality. mass worker. There is nothing particularly unique in this mix of social description and political prescription in Negri (in varying guises it accompanies the whole of Marxism. strike at the strongest link in the capitalist chain. and even shares with some theories of modernism a certain logic of purification. the rise of a workers’ movement. Negri. We could even hazard that the upsurge of new emblematic figures. It is interesting to note that periodisation for Negri is not just a form of cognitive mapping. Art et multitude.21 Negri’s periodisation of the modern correlation of art/labour/politics. p 16. teleology and one-dimensionality. multitude (with the last three or even four in many ways melding together into the ‘postmodern’ figure of antagonism).commoner. Ann Arbor. its role is not just to capture the tendency. 1917–1929. ‘The transition is over’. which he recognises is nothing if not schematic. Leon Trotsky. social worker. Negri notes such an epiphany of periodisation when he declares. acceleration and/or extremisation (such that the contemporary immaterial labourer would be the most unencumbered manifestation of living labour.20 Negri’s work is indeed identifiable with a parade of hegemonic figures of antagonistic labour-power: professional worker. as enacted by Negri. 1929–1968 sees this abstraction becoming analytic. ‘The Sadness of Post-Workerism’. the gesture of periodisation. is as follows: 1848– 1870.374 20. heralds a period of expressionist and experimental abstraction. abstraction. available at http:// www. This periodisation always exceeds the merely sociological or politicaleconomic. That Negri’s approach should be well-suited to the joint periodisation of art and politics – witness both Arte e Multitudo and his more recent intervention at the ‘Art and Immaterial Labour’ colloquium – is also not mysterious.

‘Metamorphoses’. In more recent writings. p 57 25. the simplification of the artistic gesture and the geometric destructuring of the Downloaded by [University of Glasgow] at 08:10 23 February 2012 . irreducible to the control that seeks to ply it. but a manifestation of an ontology of labour. colours. and the key date. so to speak. As he notes in ‘Metamorphoses’. Antonio Negri. trans Alberto Toscano. op cit. Datanews. May–June 2008. its matter is an abstract labour. it is in turn exceeded by the ontological dimension of power: ‘Our power is greater than our capacity to express ourselves’. inasmuch as this ontological character of labour is understood not just as production but as linguistic communication and cooperative creativity. Art et multitude. it is clear that the principle of correlation here is not that of base/superstructure. is granted an irrepressible political positivity: ‘Art is.’28 But periodisation is inextricable from a gamble on the present. pp 69-70. Art et multitude. or even of ‘creativity’ or ‘life’ tout court. the abstraction of the image and the use of the most varied materials. It is at this point that the upsurge of abstraction that Negri had associated with the period between the Wall Street crash and the events of May switches into something else. p 220 protagonists of the labour-process in particular. for instance his text on Rem Koolhaas’s Junkspace. and its form-giving fire. it is the ontological valence of art as labour that subtends the vagaries of periodisation. Negri. constructing varieties of exodus and ‘red bases’ of experience and sensation. art. this excess of living over dead labour is explicitly linked to the ‘biopolitical power of the multitude’: ‘All available energies are put to work. is 1968. As Negri writes in a more recent text that returns to the thematics (and periodisations) of Arte e Multitudo. it is the positing of a dimension of creativity always in excess of the measures of capital and command – even when capital tries to capture in distribution what escapes it in production – which subtends Negri’s periodisation. and also what makes him so impervious to the warnings of critical theory against affirmative culture. Radical Philosophy 149. always democratic – its productive mechanism is democratic in the sense that it produces language. ‘Presentazione di Junkspace di Rem Koolhaas’. Art et multitude. The thesis of a conflictual coexistence between living labour and its deadening capture in the mesh of capitalist valorisation is what leads Negri to try to track the modes through which such labour might separate itself. Antonio Negri. like labour. This is also why staggered periodisations that would treat art as a memory or mourning of moments of politicisation have no attraction for Negri. In this exploited totality. As Negri declares: ‘Art is a collective labour. words. p 21 26. Negri. op cit. conceived as a mobile ground in which both art and politics find their source. ‘It is in labour that the world is dissolved and reconstructed – and possibly the artworld too. 2008. from an estimation of the affordances that action may find in the phase or the conjuncture.26 What is more. to the extent that art ’refers us back to this creative act that constitutes labour in its originary essence’. but rather stems from an expressive ontology of labour. in Dalla fabbrica alla metropolis: Saggi politici. 27. Negri’s periodisation is no different. which tends toward the indiscernibility between work. Though art is often described by Negri in terms of excess. the 1929–1968 period is one: … in which abstraction and production are intertwined: the abstraction of the current mode of production and the representation of possible worlds. In this approach. that ‘artistic work is the index of man’s inexhaustible capacity to turn being into excess and to free labour’. that expresses itself in these correlations of art and politics. unsurprisingly. Negri. society is put to work: Junkspace equals society of work. political work and the artwork.’24 It is labour. art is not a special reservoir of autonomy. in this injunction to labour.’27 Thus. there lives an intransitive freedom.375 24. Rome. into new communities.’25 In other words. p 13. sounds that cluster together into communities. op cit. p 71 28.

op cit. more triumphant works – that the leitmotiv of the disappearance of the outside. According to Negri. and that it is only really with 1977 that an aestheticisation of politics and the everyday. with an all-consuming politicisation taking centre-stage until the mid-1970s. 31. Art et multitude. Beuys and Fontana. which in turn give rise to the kind of post-Leninist molecular avant-garde embodied and celebrated by Bifo and A/traverso. only an alternative in the world. however. Negri. A new subject and an abstract object: a subject capable of demystifying the fetishised destiny imposed by capital. Negri. which Negri insists on adopting even now. as well as a diffuse experimentalism in youth and mass culture. Just as Negri split the period of ‘abstraction’ into expressionist and analytic variants. Ibid. really comes to the fore. the surging forth of ‘the last avant-garde’. p 34 But this period. it also seems to represent a spatialisation of experience. op cit. when its discursive fortunes have considerably waned. Rauschenberg and Christo: we recognise in them artists sharing the same creative experience. p 69 32. Picasso and Klee. which Negri had defined as ‘analytic’ – just as analytic was the practice of the Gruppo N which he himself described as a ‘Taylorisation’ of art – is terminated by the events of ’68. the postmodern – which is explicitly coded as global – is a modernity that has detached itself from the progressive teleologies and functionalism of modernisation (though he will try to re-infuse it with the temporality of the event. an annihilation of revolutionary time by capitalist space). so too we might think he proceeds to a similar internal periodisation of a post-1968 period. ‘The origins of the debt crisis of the 1980s may be traced back to and through the lurching efforts of the world’s governments to cope with the economic instabilities of the 1970s … [including the] monetary contraction in the United States (the ‘Volcker Shock’) that brought a sharp rise in world interest rates and a sustained appreciation of the dollar. As Negri puts it: ‘I subscribe to the postmodern to the extent that I think its experience as the truth of abstraction. to cite Eco. It is this last moment that I want to consider in more depth. with 1929 as the watershed.’ Paul Volcker was the head of the US Federal Reserve from 1979 to 1987. For it is in glancing back at the period which followed the counter-revolutionary offensive of 1979 (a year bringing together the Volcker shock and Negri’s own incarceration at the height of the Italian state’s repressive onslaught)30 that Negri’s letters of the late 1980s affirm the pertinence of the category of the postmodern – a term. [‘Metamorphoses’]. But this ‘abstract second nature’31 is to be assumed: its world of artifice and surfaces is the only ‘real’. and the metabolisation and corruption of this moment in the benighted 1980s and what Negri’s letters refer to as ‘this tired epoch’. in and around 1977. The ‘ontologisation’ of the Downloaded by [University of Glasgow] at 08:10 23 February 2012 . that in the Italian case – given the consuming draw of often political militancy and of clashes with the state – the biunivocal correlation between the artistic and the political suggested by Negri’s periodisation does not entirely materialise. and so on and so forth. it should be noted. p 22 30.376 real. For Negri. Duchamp and Malevich. the recognition of abstraction as a condition of experience’. it is with 1968 that a whole new set of questions opens up for contemporary art: ‘How does the event arise? How can passion and the desire for transformation develop here and now? How is the revolution configured? How can man be remade? How can the abstract become subject? What world does man desire and how does he desire it? What are the forms of life taken by this extreme gesture of transformation?’29 One might note. 29. It is difficult to know if ‘contemporary art’ has much of a role to play. of an inexorable immanence is broached.32 There is no alternative from the world. It is here – though in considerably more tentative tones than in the later.

as a ‘a gigantic spectacle of absolute indifference’. life and bodies could be recreated. to be replaced by the commodity abstraction alone. but here in particular Negri wishes to signal a caesura with the succession of periods. There is no longer ‘reconstruction’ but only ‘constitution’ in this ateleological. atomised. p 38 How then is one to confront the derealisation that marks the 1980s. disorienting space. while the second affirm it. the loss of any measure of value. the overturning of Baudrillardian hyper-reality into a field of struggle and transformation that may still be fundamentally schematised through the Trontian lens of a primacy of working-class resistance and autonomy – this is Negri’s programme following the defeat and counter-revolution of the 1980s. The difference between reactionaries and revolutionaries consists in this: the first deny the massive ontological emptiness of the world. Ibid. and in many respects the clue to his further trajectory. of an abandonment and absence that put us once again in contact with the other.33 and it is this dimension that explains Negri’s interest in artistic labour and experimentation as resources for the reconstitution of a revolutionary terrain in the midst of defeat. Ibid. with the now dissipated real – to accept the abstraction of the world. p 45 34. the disjunction of sign and meaning.’35 But the ‘dead calm’ of the 1980s is the bearer of a form of abstraction where ‘every collective antagonistic subject [has] definitively disappeared’. p 36 36. Periodisation is always marked by decisions of discontinuity. the desert of the passions. but a true world. Ibid. including in Empire.377 Downloaded by [University of Glasgow] at 08:10 23 February 2012 postmodern. p 48 38.34 But it is a deepening to be delineated in the harsh light of reaction. reinvented. to allow for the ‘deepening of our soul in the abstract’. p 37 35. Ibid. The language itself is unmistakable: ‘We have to live and suffer the defeat of the truth. gathering enough strength to reinvent the very possibility of reinvention. scouring the seemingly meaningless surfaces of capitalism for elements that might allow for a recomposition of antagonistic class politics: The postmodern is therefore the market. p 37 39. of our truth. is to be accepted as a ‘true abstraction of the real’.’39 The postmodern. ‘meaningless’ abstraction of postmodernity. an American surrealism: even more.37 33. The world belonged to us. with the abandoned friend. that revolutionary thinking needs to install itself.’38 And further: ‘Here is an authentic Christian moment in our existence: to be capable of a radical break with our reality. to endure its coldness. now that the world emphatically seems not to belong to ‘us’ (or indeed when the us itself has been disseminated. We take the postmodern for what it is – a destiny of dejection – and the postmodern as its own abstract and strong limit – the only world that is possible today… A world of ghosts. and turn it into something . pulverised)? It is here that Negri’s reflections dramatise a kind of postmodern passion in an openly Christian sense. which for Negri seems to affect being itself. Ibid. by the tautological dominion of the market – that ‘great circulatory machine’ which ‘produces the nothing of subjectivity’. and its seemingly de-ontologising thrust. But postmodern abstraction is first of all experienced as a desert and a defeat. p 44 37. Resistance had become alternative. Ibid. but in order to then reconstitute the real on this desert of experience itself. in full awareness of the defeat of the ‘red decade’ as a period that Negri tellingly describes as a ‘hyperrealist delirium. The main challenge for a resurgent constituent power is this: to take on the seemingly nihilistic.36 It is the midst of this rout. Ibid.

Art et multitude. inasmuch as the latter is. have been entirely replaced by art. it showed a new quality of being. p 39 46. p 42 41. even a method: ‘Reality is shown in its abstraction.378 40. Stock/ IMEC. p 88 42.) But if abstraction – the ‘real abstraction’ of capitalism – is the horizon of postmodernity. Writing to Balestrini.43 The quandary of art in the postmodern would thus lie for Negri in the invention of an unprecedented realism. p 77 43. Ibid. With the invention of the abstract. Tome II. there is a clear operational direction to his proposal. ‘abstract labour’. ‘socially necessary labour as . p 74 44.’42 This passage is from Negri’s letter to Nanni Balestrini. Art has always anticipated the determinations of valorisation: it has therefore become abstract by following a real development. Ibid. in Écrits philosophiques et politiques. or his collaboration with Nono. paintre de l’abstrait’. or even think the event. which formulates a hermeneutics of art as a privileged domain for thinking through the politicisation of labour. There are echoes here of one of Louis Althusser’s most intriguing texts. art does not need a concrete being. and finally reconstructed according to lines of semantic reorientation. an abstract community. Negri acknowledges the political inspiration that may be drawn from the history of abstract art. op cit. ‘Contrappunto dialettico alla mente’. other than a counter-revolutionary ‘passage to powerlessness’. Paris. the passage from cooperation to communism: I love art from the moment it made itself abstract – ever since.40 (It is interesting here that in Arte e Multitudo Negri praises the ‘early’ Baudrillard of the catastrophe of signs and the collapse of value. it seems that Negri’s design is to transmute a passive into an active postmodernism. a crucial figure for the melding of the postwar Italian avantgarde and the heretical Marxism heralded by Negri (see in particular Balestrini’s Vogliamo Tutto and Blackout. creating a new world through abstraction. that is real relations which qua relations are necessarily abstract. Ibid.46 Downloaded by [University of Glasgow] at 08:10 23 February 2012 Crucially. this participation of the labour of each singularity and its interchangeability. the participation of the singularities of labour in a single ensemble. Louis Althusser. the short essay on Luigi Cremonini which investigates the passage from ‘abstract painting’ to ‘painting the real abstract’. meaning ‘let us not consume/use up Marx’). potent collages of political antagonism.’45 And it is here that. Ibid. Ibid. p 596 45.44 Abstraction is no longer an operation but the very element in which politics and labour operate: ‘The abstract is our nature. a non-representational realism. ‘Cremonini. which is precisely an abstract ensemble. Arte e Multitudo contains a crucial declaration. in abstraction. Negri praises the nouveau roman as ‘a realism of the abstract’. p 33. capable of rearticulating the present into something other than a system of global indifference. the abstract is the only community in which we exist. followed by Nono’s own Non consumiamo Marx. when it comes to the thematic of abstraction. however. what kind of foothold can there be for revolutionary action? As Negri puts it: ‘How can we construct. on this abstract terrain which is the only one we frequent?’41 To paraphrase Nietzsche’s notes on European nihilism. despite the cautions about the impossibility of reconstruction in postmodernity. the world. Negri. ‘the modern that has detached itself from modernisation’. which Marx had qualified in terms of its commensurability and homogeneity. as already noted. wishing to maintain his subversive charge and forestall the turn to paralysing calm and implosion in the French theorist’s work of the 1980s. the abstract is the quality of our labour. In order to be an ontological experience. Despite the denial of teleology. The modern here is not simply juxtaposed or antecedent to the postmodern. In this respect. nature. then critically emptied of meaning. The modern is this abstraction.

this exemplar ‘is irreducible to the idea. ie a multitude. use-value seems to have become obsolescent). Art et multitude. 36: 1. as the ‘ontological singularity of art’ is envisaged in terms of ‘a Platonic idea that constructs itself and exhibits. but in terms of the passage from the ideal to the singular. Penguin. if any. p 992 48.379 47. this transfiguration of abstraction which displaces it from the domain of commensurability. of this passage from ideality to singularity. Art is irreducible to mediation… Art is both the creation and reproduction of the singular absolute. 1976. Volume I.47 is transubstantiated into the bearer of ‘singularities’ that are living but not necessarily ‘concrete’ (since.’49 There would be much to say about these dense and somewhat perplexing passages. While the motif of a communism that would not be founded on a normative or organic commensuration of its components is a potent one – and shared. Negri. Karl Marx. the world without an outside of ‘real subsumption’. trans Ben Fowkes. at this baseline level. homogeneity and calculability towards the idea of a composition or ‘community’ of singularities. What I want to underscore is the significance. The aversion to sundry political naturalisms and normative humanisms is not mysterious. Ibid. if not the definition. an exemplar’. to use a term very dear to Negri. op cit. this emphasis on the composition of singularities into an abstract community. But. what is the ontological consistency of this paradoxical notion of singularity – whose very definition or specification would ipso facto dissipate it? And what criterion. because it develops the singular. On the ‘monstruous’ in. as he goes on to explain. London. p 54 calculated in exchange-value’. It is on these grounds that Negri declares that ‘art is the anti-market to the extent that it opposes the multitude of singularity to uniqueness reduced to a price’. pp 48–55. p 55. In the letter addressed to Giorgio Agamben. 2007. and bears a noble and distinguished pedigree. a commonality of differences devoid of a common measure. which is also evident in Negri’s more explicitly political writings. 49. affirmative and potent singularities from their simulation and circulation by Downloaded by [University of Glasgow] at 08:10 23 February 2012 . the void and power… Art is the hieroglyph of power [puissance]. then at least the function or physiognomy of ‘singularity’ as the crux of this discourse. or as.50 In a manner that is not really spelled out by Arte e Multitudo. but how is this concept of singularity not either to regenerate an inevitably mystical limit or smuggle in a political anthropology of the individual? If nature and mediation are to be equally eschewed. in this ‘abstract second nature’. Negri insists on the possibility of thinking the escape from this hegemony. 51.48 ‘Singularity’ is the pivotal notion here. through its extension into matter. art. The overcoming or neutralisation of the postmodern – understood as the meaningless hegemony of the market – depends on the possibility of passing from an indifferent abstraction to a singular abstraction. ‘Art and Culture in the Age of Empire and the Time of the Multitudes’. see Antonio Negri. Jacques Derrida or Jean-Luc Nancy – what remains opaque is. by thinkers as distant as Badiou. a ‘monstrous’ community.’51 As Negri’s work has developed over the two decades after his original letters on art. p 54 50. Capital. SubStance 112. can demarcate true. has become ever more insistent. trans Max Henninger. Or why ‘art is formally as open as a true and radical democracy’. Abstract art (a term whose precise extension in Negri’s account is difficult to pin down) would thus allow us a way into thinking the political constitution of a community stripped of natural determinants. art would thus hint towards the possibility of another abstraction: ‘Abstract painting is a parable for the ever-renewed pursuit of being. or of the sublime. which is born in the midst of a fully socialised world. no longer in the guise of the limit. Here Negri seems to revive a Schellingian philosophy of art. Ibid.

p 52 55. as in the letter to Agamben. it is not the outcome of a transition). making contact with the ‘materiality of the true’. the more it becomes indifferent. Alma Venus.’ In an experience that intermingles ‘the globality of production. a transcendental aesthetic that would not be trapped in the nets of an extorted mediation’.52 Imagination is what manages to turn the meaningless of capitalism into something ‘monstrous’. Another text from the 1980s.55 pervades Negri’s letters. writes Negri. In the midst of an epoch where the only available meaning is reduced to a kind of empty tautology. a ‘cosmic palpitation’. plays for Negri is best understood in terms of another dimension of his work of the 1980s: the concern with ethics. albeit one which would serve as the prelude for a renascent revolutionary politics. p 49 53. Ibid. p 51 54. even if we accept the obsolescence of the culture industry and the passage to cognitive capitalism? But perhaps the idea of another abstraction and of the role that art. op cit. Negri. the more it matures and perfects itself. is not given ‘dialectically. this is put starkly: the ‘lightning-flash of liberation’. understood as the practice of communism here and now (‘communism comes first’. but mystically’.54 This non-dialectical attempt of the imagination to conjure the event and break the spell of global indifference. decreeing that the only way out of the seemingly inescapable horizon of a terminal defeat lies in ‘the attempt to identify what today could be a new mythology of reason. Ibid. though they never really abandon the methods of tendency and class composition which innervate Negri’s mature work. in Arte e Multitudo Negri is trying to present us with an ‘ethico-aesthetic paradigm’. the senselessness of communication and the absolute contingency of action’. p 53 56. ethics. In the midst of the panorama of postmodern indifference that Negri paints.56 Once again.380 52. At times. they display in such a stark and extreme manner the seeming chasm between the inanity of the market. Or rather ethics is the name for the very activity of recomposing the basis for a radical transformative politics.53 What is striking about these texts is that. The faculty linking ethics to politics by way of aesthetics is imagination – a concept that bears the traces. where the vanishing of measure also heralds the dissipation of revolutionary energies. broadly construed. of Heidegger’s reading of Kant. Ibid. Ibid. is there not a proliferation of pseudo-singularities now. is articulated as the response to a postmodernity which is depicted as a nihilist evacuation of meaning in the market-driven circulation of signs: ‘Indifference is the tendency. and anticipates the formulations of books like Kairos. The more this world develops. where counter-revolutionary capitalism is like an arid desert criss-crossed by rocky ranges. p 31 the market? Just as Horkheimer and Adorno spoke of pseudo-individuality. Fabbriche del soggetto. on the one hand. Fabbriche del soggetto. writes Negri. further excavates this question of ethics. in which nuclear warfare or MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) has made possible ‘the destruction of being’ itself. and the unlikely upsurge of an antagonistic alternative on the other. ‘we move on these planes looking for impossible ruptures’. Like his friend and comrade Guattari. revealing the importance of the inaugural and revolutionary insights of German idealism for the Negri of this period. in Negri’s work. of freedom. Multitudo. Negri turns to the ‘Oldest System programme of German Idealism’. Imagination is the power that traverses the seeming void of market abstraction ‘in order to determine an event of rupture’. the constitution Downloaded by [University of Glasgow] at 08:10 23 February 2012 .

helping us to construct that multiple paradigm in which being for the other. Pluto.60 The unreconciled dialectic of artistic and political autonomy. Ibid. See also ‘Metamorphoses’. Verso. and by revolutionary will at the apex of the becomingswarm. With the postmodern. 45. p 25. with ‘an abstract power that becomes a prosthesis of the body’. Ibid. [that abstraction has become] the living matter (that is the content and the motor) of each of our expressions. but the problem posed by Negri is certainly worthy of the attention of anyone concerned with the present fate of political aesthetics: how is a communist politics (and political aesthetics) born amid a system of real abstractions which seems to tend to indifference? What forms of sensation and creation can withstand capital’s corrosion. art thus could (perhaps it simply must) give ethical meaning to this predicament. See also Graeber.62 What I have tried to do in these reading notes to Arte e Multitudo is simply to identify what I think is their dominant theme. triumphs… Art defines itself as form of life. we are. according to Negri. it is this non-dialectical transubstantiation of the postmodern.381 of an ethical base is for Negri the only way to begin to reconstitute experience. being in the common.57 Later. Written at a political nadir. seemingly concretising an otherwise undefinable term in a phenomenological direction. but in a manner which is strangely entangled with the very dimension of abstraction. the holder (and producer) of its own law’. so central to the critical aesthetic theory of Adorno and his epigones. pp 210–15. this ‘ethico-aesthetic’ preamble to a resurrection of politics will be given a specifically corporeal inflection. corporeality emerging as an irreducible multitude. Negri. 2008. especially since we are seemingly bereft of criteria – other than those of a kind of poetic phenomenology of potentia – to discern true singularity from its mere simulacrum and. which leaves the most questions pending in Negri’s encounter with art. and construct the autonomy of living labour. the previously vain avant-garde desire for the dissolution of aesthetics into a universal poetics of bodies or a politics of art is ‘today’ a mutation-in-progress. here it is indexed on the body. ‘The Sadness of PostWorkerism’. see John Roberts. life has subsumed the abstract.58 Downloaded by [University of Glasgow] at 08:10 23 February 2012 57. 2007. What was always already at stake (the form-giving fire of labour) only now attains to its full power. in labour’s epochal ‘passage from the massive abstraction of its value to the immaterial singularisation of its expressive power’. without devolving into nostalgia or furthering that selfsame indifference? There is. as the postmodern mutates into ‘singularity which imposes itself on universality. p 29. characterised by poverty at its base. The Intangibilities of Form: Skill and Deskilling in Art After the Readymade. 24 61. is abolished by Negri in favour of a kind of ontological self-legislation (or self-valorisation) of living labour. London. of ‘a determinate appropriation of the abstract totality’. that of the resurrection of an emancipatory politics in the midst of postmodern abstraction. pp 21. pp 43. a tool of the becoming-concrete of the abstract’. On the ontology that underlies this model of periodisation. alongside other texts of the . Art et multitude. op cit. where Negri also stresses the ethical moment: ‘By recapitulating the productive and the ontological. on the edge of Spinozist intellectual love. London and New York. This is Negri’s postmodernity: ‘poetics becomes an ontological power. to conceive of how the generalisation of singularity avoids collapsing into the indifference of abstraction. Vol 2: Revolution in Theory. the event and the common. Whereas in Deleuze singularity appears as a stringently inhuman and sub-representational notion. in The Philosophy of Antonio Negri. op cit. 62. much to contest both in the ontology and in the periodisation of labour that subtend Negri’s treatment of art. perhaps more importantly.59 Thus. determined and concrete… There where the abstract subsumed life. pp 17–18 59. eds T Murphy and A K Mustapha. crystallised in the notion of singularity. The queries are many. Ibid. p 19 60. Negri explicitly declares that: … we postmoderns [know that the body] is the machine in which production and art are inscribed. Ibid. see my ‘Always Already Only Now: Negri and the Biopolitical’. needless to say. these letters.61 As I have already noted. to give birth to a ‘new transcendental aesthetic’.’ 58. For some very important critical remarks on the relevance of Negri’s autonomism to a thinking of art after the readymade which identify his principal limitations in the ‘postivisation of the negative power of labour’.

in a period that is perhaps more akin to Negri’s ‘winter years’ than he would wish to countenance. Downloaded by [University of Glasgow] at 08:10 23 February 2012 . on the need to fashion a ‘sensuous religion’ for a people to come. does not just reveal an important dimension of his thinking – whose prophetic or performative element has been often noted but rarely examined – it allows us. are unique in displaying the peculiar relationship of politics to art in periods of reflux or defeat.382 period. and the menace that collective agency will remain fettered to those forms of abstraction that capital subsumes. Negri’s emphasis on ethics and the mythology of reason. to think through the very ambivalence that haunts the notion of an ‘abstract community’: at once the promise of a politics à hauteur du capital.

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