Monday, December 25, 2023

Philosophy and/as Politics: In Memory of Toni Negri


Like so many I was saddened to learn of the death of Toni Negri. I never really knew him as a person, only very awkwardly meeting him once, but he was someone who fundamentally shaped and transformed philosophy for me. I wrote my first published paper on Negri, a paper that, as is the case with most seminar papers, was an attempt to make sense of the two books I had read, The Savage Anomaly and Marx Beyond Marx.  That it was published is not the important part, really a product of grad school hubris, the important part was that I am not sure if I would have stayed in grad school had I not written it, or found someone willing to read and discuss it with me, shoutout here to Bill Haver. Negri made it possible for me to conjoin doing philosophy and engaging the world politically, to see these as two sides of the same process, the same practice of philosophy. I should mention that this was before Empire, but just barely. I am not saying that to claim that I was into Negri before he was cool, but just that my first encounter with Negri was in some sense with an outsider. He was rarely talked about in classes, and his books were more associated with the para-academic presses of Autonomedia and Semiotexte than the presses that were translating and publishing the big names of theory, Derrida, Deleuze, Lacan, etc.

With the news of his death I started to think about Negri again for the first time in awhile. I had not read anything by Negri in years (the little book on Spinoza was probably the last), nor really engaged with his writings in a long time. Philosophers still have their effects, still shape our thought long after we stop directly reading and writing about them. It just so happened the day that I learned of Negri's death was the day that we met for the Spinoza and Marx seminar. We spent part of the time talking about the importance of Negri's reading. He was not the first Marxist/Spinozist, but Marx-Spinozism would be fundamentally different without him. This is because Negri puts the intersection of metaphysics and politics, ontology and history at the center of his reading of Spinoza  

It is well known that Spinoza interrupted his writing of the Ethics, a book he had worked on for years, to write and publish anonymously the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, as political intervention. For Negri this interruption is also a fundamental transformation: Spinoza’s engagement with politics and history, with the historical force of the imagination, with the politics of affects, and the reality of power, transforms his understanding of imagination, affects, and power in the Ethics. As Negri writes in a passage that I have cited more than once, and returned to again and again. 

"After the development of such a radical pars destruens, after the identification of a solid point of support by which the metaphysical perspective re-opens, the elaboration of the pars construens requires a practical moment. The ethics could not be constituted in a project, in the metaphysics of the mode and of reality, if it were not inserted into history, into politics, into the phenomenology of a single and collective life: if it were not to derive new nourishment from that engagement."

Negri effectively inverted our image of Spinoza, and with it our image of philosophy, it was no longer a matter of detaching oneself from history and politics in order to contemplate the world, of thinking sub specie aeternitas, but of plunging oneself into the historical moment in order to transform philosophy.

In a piece I wrote on Negri that was recently republished in The Production of Subjectivity: Marx and Philosophy I described this transformation as follows:

"While the Theologico-Political Treatise constitutes a fundamental displacement of the problems of the Ethics, from order as metaphysical problem to the historicity of the organization of human desires and beliefs, it does not complete this process. The Theologico-Political Treatise does not supplant the Ethics. Negri argues that the Treatise does not follow through on its most radical insights. It begins with the materiality of the imagination, with the power of constitutive praxis, but it ultimately crashes upon the universals of ‘natural right’ and the ‘natural light of religion’, universals which undermine the constitutive process. The contract subordinates the powers of society to a transcendent order and a pre-constituted end, thereby limiting the constitutive process. However, the results of the Treatise are fundamentally ambiguous: as much as the contract is introduced as an ordering structure of society, it is modified by the idea of power. As Spinoza writes, ‘Nature’s right is co-extensive with her power’. This redefinition of right as power fundamentally undermines two of the constitutive dimensions of natural right that philosophy exemplified by the contract, ‘the absolute conception of the individual foundation and the absolute conception of the contractual passage’. In place of the absolutely individualistic foundation that paves the way for the absolute authority of the sovereign, Spinoza introduces a new theoretical object, the ‘passions of the body social’. Right is coextensive with power: there is no natural state of power nor a final goal, only the historicity of its various organizations. There is thus no transfer of power, no actual passage from potentia to potestas, there is just the organization of potentia, of the striving (conatus), desire (cupiditas), and affects of the multitude. It is precisely this organization that is examined and developed in what Negri calls the ‘second foundation’ of the Ethics, Parts III and IV which develop the logic and sociability of the passions. This second foundation does not only develop the idea of conatus as the essence of each individual (EIIIP7), it also develops the logic of the affects as the determination of this desire. The affects begin with the most immediate, and simple, determinations – pain, pleasure, love and hate – and gradually unfold to encompass the constitutive conditions and constitutive power of subjectivity, which is not an autonomous starting point but is immersed in the power of affects. ‘The nexus of composition, complexity, conflictiveness, and dynamism is a continual nexus of successive dislocations that are neither dialectical nor linear but, rather, discontinuous’. Thus, as much as the Theologico-Political Treatise disrupts the remnants of a metaphysical order, its provocation that the historicity of desire and affects are constitutive of the world, it demands a renewed ontological speculation. It is not the Theologico-Political Treatise or the Ethics that makes up the foundational book of constitutive power, but rather the movement, the displacement, from the one to the other. In Negri’s book on Spinoza this movement continues to a reading of the Political Treatise, thus passing from metaphysics (the Ethics) to politics (the Theological Political Treatise) only to return to politics (Political Treatise) which in turn informs a new metaphysics (the ‘multitude’ as a concept produced in the interstices of the Ethics and the Political Treatise), while at the same time stating that ‘Spinoza’s true politics is his metaphysics’. This statement should be read not as a choice, placing Spinoza’s metaphysical works over his political writings, but as a slogan of displacement. Constitutive power as praxis is developed through a practice of philosophy as a continual displacement that moves from metaphysics to politics and back, and this movement continues beyond a reading of Spinoza."

One can find a similar trajectory of movement in Negri's thought in his reading of Marx in which it is the same concepts, most specifically "living labor" that traverse a line from economics, to ontology, and then to politics. Negri reading of Marx, especially in the book known in the US as Insurgencies, but in the rest of the world as Constituent Power, reads the early Marx's idea of democracy back into the latter Marx. Marx's politics is his metaphysics, is labor as the constitution of the world. As Negri writes, 

"As long as we follow the political Marx, political revolution and social emancipation are two historical matrices that intersect on the same terrain—the constitutional terrain—but still in an external manner, without a metaphysical logic of this intersection being given…This necessity resides at the core of Marx’s theory of capital, where living labor appears as the foundation, and the motor of all production, development, and innovation. This essential source also animates the center of our investigation. Living labor against dead labor, constituent power against constituted power: this single polarity runs through the whole schema of Marxist analysis and resolves it in an entirely original theoretical practical totality."

What I have tried to focus on here is what I have called, following Althusser and Balibar, is Negri's practice of philosophy, his way of doing philosophy (this was also the focus of the essay cited above). It is a trajectory which constantly moves from history and politics into ontology and from ontology into politics and history without ever, it seems to me, using a historical moment to criticize an ontology or developing an ontology that would ground a politics. It is a trajectory of displacement and transformation in which history, politics, and economics transform philosophical speculation, ontology and metaphysics, while at the same time philosophical speculation transform and reimagine the possibility of political practice. It would seem to me that this is the fundamental orientation that defines Negri's thought, and it is this orientation which is eternal, which continues to live, even after the concepts produced by that trajectory pass away, as they would have to being products of a given historical moment. 

(Here I have to recommend Roberto Nigro's little book Antonio Negri: Une Philosophie de la Subversion, which I read in the week since Negri's death. Nigro reminds us that the question of the historical relevance of particular concepts, was in some sense the central political and philosophical trajectory of not just Negri's thought but of what is called autonomist thought or post-autonomist thought. Concepts like the mass worker, the social worker, general intellect, and multitude are not just different theoretical positions, but also attempts to make sense of the shifting and changing nature of capitalism itself.) 

What Negri proposed for philosophy is not easy, and I would even argue that not even Negri always did it well. (In some sense this is a specific version of the general problem of doing philosophy after Marx). It is easy to err on both sides, to simply let a historical, economic, or political transformation stand in for a philosophical analysis, or, on the other side, to dissolve the specificity of a historical moment into a general ontological concept. However, as Spinoza wrote, "all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare." When it is done well such a method of displacement, of pars destruens/pars construens, promises a transformation of both philosophy and politics. (I would say that Negri's Savage Anomaly, Marx Beyond Marx, and the book on constituent power to name a few are nothing less than models of this method). What Negri proposed in his readings of Spinoza and Marx (among others) was nothing less than a transformation of philosophy, to borrow Althusser's formulation, a transformation that would make philosophy radical and materialist--a transformation that is still ongoing, still striving to produce its effects. It is that aspect of Negri's thought which transformed, and continues to transform my approach to philosophy. 

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