Sunday, April 12, 2009

Anthropogenesis Part Three: Reification Reconsidered

This is a third in a series of posts on what I am calling, for lack of a better word, “Left-Simondonians”: A term that I define simply as philosophers/theorists who use the work of Simondon to understand and critique the current conjuncture. I do not know of any “Right-Simondonians,” and the term is obviously a slightly humorous allusion to post Hegelian thought. If the term has any justification at all it is in the fact that Simondon’s investigations of transindividuality and technology seem to be a necessary reorientation of thought in an age so mediated by technology but so lacking in collectivity. Now, I am not saying that he is our Hegel, just that we are desperately in need of new ways of thinking.

As I promised earlier, a while ago, actually, having written on Bernard Stiegler, I now want to focus on Paolo Virno. As an interview in Radical Philosophy makes clear, Virno’s has kept up a sustained engagement with Simondon’s work in terms of writing, editing, and teaching.

It seems to me that Virno’s engagement with the concept of the “transindividual” is situated between his engagement with Simondon and themes developed from Marx and the work of Alfred Sohn-Rethel. What I am interested is the point of intersection of those themes. First, Virno revives Marx’s notion of the social individual to describe not just an ontological fact, that people can only be individuated through society, but an economic reality, that social relations and shared capacities are at the center of contemporary productive relations. Second, and more importantly, here is how Virno offers a redefinition of the central Marxist concepts of reification and alienation through Simondon’s idea of preindividual reality:

“Reification is what I call the process through which preindividual reality becomes an external thing, a res that appears as a manifest phenomenon, a set of public institutions. By alienation I understand the situation in which the preindividual remains an internal component of the subject but one that the subject is unable to command. The preindividual reality that remains implicit, like a presupposition that conditions us but that we are unable to grasp, is alienated.”

With the exception of the use of the word “preindividual” Virno’s definition of reification is standard, almost textbook. Virno deviates from this standard definition, however, in making a distinction between reification and fetishism. In the standard Marxist version, developed from Marx to Lukacs, commodity fetishism is an example of reification or reification is developed on the basis of commodity fetishism. In the same interview Virno defines fetishism as follows, ‘Fetishism means assigning to something—for example to money—characteristics that belong to the human mind (sociality, capacity for abstraction and communication, etc.).’ The distinction that Virno makes here seems to be another way of cleaving through the real abstraction.

Virno develops the idea of real abstraction from the work of Alfred Sohn-Rethel. For Sohn-Rethel the real abstraction refers back to Marx’s analysis of the commodity form and money, abstractions that are all the more real because their realized through action, rather than thought. Exchange value is entirely abstract, having no basis in use value, but it is an abstraction that is effected through the practical activity of exchange. In Virno’s earlier works he made a distinction between money, or the general equivalent, as a real abstraction and the “general intellect,” Marx’s description of the productive powers of science in the Grundrisse made famous by the autonomist tradition. In those texts the relevant distinction was between a real abstraction predicated on equality, money, commodities, even labor must be rendered interchangeable, and a real abstraction predicated on difference and flexibility, the paradigms and language games of the general intellect, which can always be replaced. This is Virno’s version of the transition from formal to real subsumption; a transition that has profound effects on the tonality of modern existence. In the first equality still retains some force while the second is associated with the rise of cynicism, with acceptance of the groundless nature of rules and structures. In the context of his discussion of Simondon, however, Virno makes a different distinction: alienation, fetishism, and reification are different ways of relating to the preindividual conditions of subjectivity (which Virno identifies as language, habits, and productive relations). Thus it is given that subjectivity is constituted by these preindividual conditions, which always exceed it, what differs is how it relates to these conditions, to its presuppositions. (In this way we are perhaps not that far from Hegel)

Virno’s definition of alienation, a presupposition that cannot be conditioned, comes closest to Stiegler’s critique of the “industrialization of memory.” I think each of these theoretical perspectives are perhaps different ways of comprehending the increased commodification of the preindividual. The preindividual conditions of language, habits, and productive relations, what we could call culture, comes to us now in the form of commodities rather than traditions. Commodities are pre-packaged, their conditions of production are inaccessible to us. Virno differs from Stiegler in adding to this the exploitation of the transindividual. Virno’s definintion of fetish and reification reflect the way in which the transindividual relations have become incorporated into structures and relations. The difference is that in reification the relational dimension remains explicit, while in the fetish these relations are obscured by a thing that takes on the qualities of the relation, the abstraction and relations. As Marx once put it, “money is the alienated ability of mankind.” If money is the paradigmatic of fetishization, then what is the corresponding instance of reification in Virno’s sense. Virno’s answer would seem to be the general intellect, but the general intellect remains largely obscured, appearing only in the texts that discuss it. As Marx argued the more labor becomes social and dependent on knowledge, the more it appears as the power of capital. Virno sometimes refers to this reification as a “non-state” public sphere, as the collective powers of social relations acting outside of the state. However, it seems that this is what needs to be produced.


  1. The Virno interview you refer to, is that the one from issue 136, 'Transindividuality and Reification', or something more recent? Just checking as will be writing a short essay along these lines soon...

  2. Yes, that is the one. I meant to include a link, but I could not access it on the Radical Philosophy website.