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Re: <nettime> On Empire
Kermit Snelson on Sat, 1 Jun 2002 06:49:15 +0200 (CEST)


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Re: <nettime> On Empire


> Had they chosen to look at the development of
> intellectual property law, H+N might have come
> closer to a revival of class analysis.

True enough, but there's a very good reason why Negri (forget about Hardt,
for he knows not what he does) didn't talk about IP law in Empire.  It's
because the entire book is one grand apotheosis of the legal fiction upon
which IP law is based.  In fact, it generalizes the basic idea of IP law to
a level of ontological totality.  The faint and pale term "intellectual
property" simply wouldn't have done it justice.

This basic idea, this legal fiction, is what educated people call "primitive
word magic".  Empire, on the other hand, calls it "the linguistic production
of reality" [34].  Or as Negri says elsewhere in his let's- wow- the-
undergrads mode:  "The production of commodities tends to be accomplished
entirely through language, where by language we mean machines of
intelligence that are continuously renovated by the affects and subjective
passions" [366].

The first real-world implication of all this, which Negri develops at
length, is that labor is now "immaterial" and "beyond measure".  A kid who
lights a joint, puts a ring through her nose and throws a rubbish bin
through a Starbucks window is working just as hard as a steelworker and so
deserves a "social wage" [401-3] as compensation for her valuable time.
Except, of course, for the fact that "time" is itself a corrupt term,
produced by the "violence of power" and "capital's colonization of
communicative sociality" [404].  The multitude, having realized that seizing
"control over linguistic sense and meaning" is the "first aspect of the
telos of the multitude" [404] now prefers the phrase "biopolitical
production of new temporalities". [cf 401]  Now THERE's a slogan that will
set the masses in motion!

Such considerations lead Negri directly to the second real-world implication
of his revival of primitive word magic:  that the most urgent revolutionary
task is "free access and control over knowledge, information, communication,
and affects."  [407]  Again, the term "intellectual property" simply
wouldn't have done justice to such a totalizing ideal.  Sure, Negri talks
about all of this as a "commons" [300-3,358]  But that recurring word
"control" reveals that he's not against IP rights.  He's simply saying that
We should control information, not They.  And by We, he doesn't mean some
diffuse concept such as humanity or the proletariat.  He's talking about a
"postmodern posse" that results from "the construction, or rather the
insurgence, of a powerful organization" [411].

After all, Negri's no anarchist.  In his own words, "we are not anarchists
but communists who have seen how much repression and destruction of humanity
have been wrought by liberal and socialist big governments" [350].  It would
be understandable to conclude from this that "communists" are people who
talk like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.  But that would be incorrect.
To understand what Negri's really saying, read Sorel's 1908 "Reflections on
Violence".  Negri has done nothing except to recast that book into today's
inelegant academic idiom.  And then read up a little on what Sorel's
disciples went on to do.  A few recent comments on nettime have delicately
pointed out that Negri's concept of "multitude" may need a little more work
if it is to shed the whiff of fascism.  I respectfully disagree.  Negri's
work is as worked out as it's ever going to get, and that whiff of fascism
about it is actually an unbearably noxious reek.

But the most effective and appropriate response to Negri's nonsense is
simply to laugh at it.  Reading Empire is a lot like reading Aristotle.  It
is almost as if, paraphrasing Marx, all great ideas happen twice:  the first
time as genius, the second time as stupidity.  You find yourself immersed in
page after page of almost unparseable sentences about time and motion and
material teleology, of generation and corruption, of actuality and
potentiality and virtuality.  And on the next page, you're solemnly informed
that goats breathe through their ears.  Caveat lector.  Or, as they say in
today's university vernacular, don't believe the hype.

Kermit Snelson

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