Monstrous Flesh

Hardt and Negri tell us that, in postmodern society, “characterized by the dissolution of traditional social bodies,” what we experience instead is “a kind of social flesh, a flesh that is not a body, a flesh that is common, living substance” (2004,190, 192). Traditional social bodies were organic ones; the supposedly hierarchical organization of biological organisms was taken as a model for the proper hierarchical organization of society and State. Think of Hobbes’ Leviathan, or of Menenius Agrippa’s parable of the body in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. In these traditional social bodies, there is always a clear chain of command, and a clear division of labor among the society’s organs and members. Agrippa tells the plebians that they must always defer to the Senate, just as the other portions of the body must always defer to the belly, allowing it to appropriate the food that is the product of all their labors. In contrast to this classical image of the well-ordered body, the postmodern image of “this living social flesh that is not a body can easily appear monstrous” (192). For the living flesh is “unruly” and “insatiable”(193); it “always exceeds the measure of any traditional social bodies” (196). In the postmodern world, “the old standards of measure no longer hold. . . old social bodies decompose and their remains fertilize the new production of social flesh”(196). This new flesh breaks free of organic limits; instead, it is “expansive” and endlessly “productive” (197).

Hardt and Negri see this monstrous flesh as a figure of the multitude: that is to say, of a humanity that produces things in common, and that in fact produces the common altogether (xv). The multitude is irreducibly diverse: it cannot be identified according to any criterion of identity politics, or even of social class. At the same time, the multitude cannot be divided into factions or fractions, because its very existence is a matter of “communication, collaboration, and cooperation on an ever-expanding scale” (xv), across all boundaries, and through the mobilization of what Marx called “general intellect.” Thus the monstrous flesh “is common. It is elemental like air, fire, earth, and water” (193). At the same time, monstrosity is never just one. There are always a variety of monsters, which “testify to the fact that we are all singular, and our differences cannot be reduced to any unitary social body” (193-194). The multitude, with its ceaseless creativity and “constant innovation” (193), produces the social world that we live in today. And Capital,or Empire, only preys upon, and parasitically lives off of, this productivity of the multitude. Under capitalism, “the mutations of artificial life [are] transformed into commodities,” and the “metamorphoses of nature” performed by the multitude are “put up for sale” (196). Hardt and Negri urge us always to remember that the monstrous multitude is the true productive force; and that Capital, with its normalizing appropriations of this boundless productivity, is only secondary,reactive, and parasitic.

Hardt and Negri’s logic is in full accord with Marx’s analysis of surplus value.Marx describes the way that “capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks” (1992, 342).Alternatively, in the Spinozian terms the Hardt and Negri share with Deleuze, capitalism operates by separating the living flesh from what it can do, and by accumulating and reinvesting the fruits of this separation. This process corresponds to the workings of what Deleuze and Guattari call the Body without Organs: “an enchanted recording or inscribing surface that arrogates to itself all the productive forces and all the organs of production (1983, 11-12). The Body without Organs is “a full body that functions as a socius. . . It falls back on (il se rabat sur) all production, constituting a surface over which the forces and agents of production are distributed, thereby appropriating for itself all surplus production and arrogating to itself both the whole and the parts of the process, which now seem to emanate from it as a quasi cause” (10). The socius is the monstrous body of capital, an entirely reactive force of “antiproduction” and repulsion (8), that nonetheless appropriates all production to itself by organizing and distributing it, according to a logic of “points of disjunction, between which an entire network of new syntheses is now woven, marking the surface off into co-ordinates, like a grid” (12). Thus the appropriation of surplus value is also its circulation and distribution, leading to the organization of what we know today as the “network society.”

In terms of how they describe social production, Hardt and Negri – like Deleuze and Guattari – are entirely in accord with Marxist capital logic. Against the mythology of mainstream economics, with its self-congratulatory tales of risky investments and heroic entrepreneurs, they recognize that capital is not in itself creative, and in fact originates nothing. Rather, capital privatizes the results of what is actually a common, and public, process. Through its ownership of the “means of production” (that is, of the fruits of past production that it has already appropriated), it is able to control and appropriate all new production, and to appear as if it were the source of that new production. But every patent, every copyright, every act of creativity, is only possible because we already stand on the shoulders of giants. And every private investment, every organized venture of art or science or technology, is rooted in the prior products of common labor and general intellect.

However, even as Hardt and Negri follow Marx’s logic, they invert his metaphors. Where Marx describes capitalist appropriation as monstrous and vampiric, Hardt and Negri reclaim the image of the vampire (2004, 193), and the term of monstrosity, for the primary producers themselves, the multitude. And where Deleuze and Guattari present the Body without Organs as a monstrous body of appropriation,which “produces surplus value” even as it “reproduces itself, puts forth shoots, and branches out to the farthest corners of the universe” (Deleuze and Guattari 1983,10), Hardt and Negri regard the multitude itself as a monstrous flesh that metastasizes indefinitely. They celebrate the multitude’s tireless productivity, “producing in excess of every traditional political-economic theory of value” (192), and its drive to push beyond all limits and violate all norms. “The concept of the multitude forces us to enter a new world in which we can only understand ourselves as monsters. . . Today we need new giants and new monsters to put together nature and history, labor and politics, art and invention in order to demonstrate the new power that is being born in the multitude” (194).

To a certain extent, Hardt and Negri’s motivation for this metaphorical reversal is a good one. They seek to undo the traditional hatred of democracy, and disdain for the “mob,” that is endemic to so much Western political theory, from Plato through Hobbes and on into the twentieth century. They hope to reverse capitalism’s reduction of everything to the status of private property by affirming the radical impropriety, and therefore the monstrosity, of the common within a capitalist framework. And they wish to demonstrate that the “productive flesh,”with its carnivalesque frenzies and excesses, “does not create chaos and disorder,”but rather produces new forms of communication and connection (196-197). That is why they insist upon celebrating, rather than execrating, what has long been described as monstrous and dangerous. They urge us to greet the unpredictable transformations of life that are going on all around us today with wonder instead of dread (195-196). Above all, they cultivate hope for a future filled with potential,instead of resigning themselves to the grim prospects of accelerating exploitation and ecological collapse. In all these ways, monstrosity is a figure of hope.

Nonetheless, Hardt and Negri’s reversal is not entirely convincing. It seems too much of a forcible imposition. The vision of a monstrous multitude, with its joyous excess of uncontrollable flesh, is an inspiring fiction; but it is one that we can only bring ourselves to believe through a sheer act of will. For this vision fails to give sufficient weight to the harsh conditions of actually-existing capitalism. You wouldn’t know, from reading Hardt and Negri’s paeans to the creativity of the multitude, about the extreme degree to which our “habits and performances”(197ff.), and our “ability to adapt constantly to new contexts,” and to “solve problems, create relationships, generate ideas, and so forth” (201), are continually being incited, channeled, micromanaged, and packaged into saleable products – not just during the working day, but increasingly 24/7. Hardt and Negri write as if the creativity of the multitude came first, as if it were only at the last moment that capital stepped in, to appropriate this creativity and sell it in commodified form. But in fact, capital is always already there, always already monitoring and regulating everything that we do, even before the creative process begins.

It is true that the old Taylorist, hierarchical style of business management has largely been abandoned – at least in the developed world. But the new management style that has replaced it, with its emphasis on local autonomy and responsibility, and on horizontal networks rather than vertical, hierarchical chains of command, is not in any sense more open and liberating. What the creativity of the multitude comes down to, in postmodern globalized capitalism, is this. Today capitalism demands of its workers not just physical exertion, but mental exertion as well. In order to survive, we are forced to sell, not just our “labor power” (as Marx called it), but also our affective and cognitive powers, our abilities to think and feel and create, our aesthetic sensibility and our capacity for enjoyment. Capitalism does not just steal the fruits of these powers from us. It also organizes our very expression of these powers in the first place.

This is why we must finally regard capital – rather than the multitude – as monstrous. Indeed, the monstrous qualities that Hardt and Negri attribute to the multitude – its impropriety, its ceaseless productivity, and its continual breaking of taboos and transgression of all limits – are themselves really qualities of capitalism itself, which Marx and Engels long ago described as having “burst asunder” all that stood in its way (1968, 40), and as possessing a “voracious appetite” not for any particular “useful products,” but for “the production of surplus value itself” (Marx 1992, 344-345). Only capitalism values productivity for its own sake,without regard to the nature of what is produced. And only capitalism exhibits a radical impropriety, because this is simply the other side of its own property fetish.By reclaiming monstrosity for the multitude, Hardt and Negri inadvertently erase the monstrosity of capital itself.

8 thoughts on “Monstrous Flesh”

  1. Hardt was a signer of the Duke 88 document that prejudged the lacrosse trio (since exonerated, while the prosecutor has now lost his law license).

    Would Marx have signed that document?

    I can’t understand what Marx thought about law. In actual existing communist societies only the party had access to the law, but even within the party there was a lot of scapegoating (under Stalin, under Mao, under Pol Pot, etc.).

    I suppose that instead of thinking about mobs, vampyres, and other inchoate assemblages and so on, I think it is clearer to think instead about the law, about equality before the law, and whether the law itself is adequate to building a fairer and more just society.

    I can’t find any legal thought in D & G, or in H & N, and there isn’t much in M & E.

    Why not?

    At any rate, that’s why I prefer Madison, Locke, and Mill. The English and Anglophone tradition never abandoned the law, but always tried to work within it, and with it.

    Without clear and fair laws to which everyone has access you have either Cambodia under Pol Pot or Haiti under Papa Doc. Either one is a disaster.

    Duke under the group of 88 would be as bad or either.

    So I think it’s the law that matters in terms of creating a fair and equitable society for all, and for some reason Marxists have simply relinquished this area of inquiry and in doing so rendered themselves incoherent and beside the point within Anglophone communities.

  2. Interesting post. A few issues I have.

    (1) The Task of Philosophy:
    I think that whatever problems there are in Empire and Multitude (and sure, there are many), these books are not just works trying to describe a political situation, they are also trying to produce a political ontology. As Deleuze and Guattari put it in What Is Philosophy? “We lack creation. We lack resistance to the present. The creation of concepts in itself calls for a future form, for a new earth and people that do not yet exist” (p. 108). Empire and Multitude is about calling forth this new people, this multitude. I think we have to judge the exuberance of these two books partially upon a criteria of a “becoming-political of philosophy” (as Alliez puts it in The Signature of the World).

    (2) On subsumption:

    Few people have done more to advance the knowledge of transitions from formal subsumption to real subsumption than Negri. Indeed, one can see in the works of both Negri and Hardt a thorough look at capitalism’s move to a cognitive and affective capitalism. We can see the increasing disciplinarization and normalization of capitalism. Read Negri’s The Politics of Subversion for merely my favorite work on this issue. Also, a good read (if you haven’t already) is Jason Read’s The Micro-politics of Capital, which synthesizes the work of Negri and other autonomists and french political theory. The switch from formal subsumption to real subsumption and the rise of immaterial labor is clearly at stake in both Empire and Multitude, why then does your post imply that somehow it isn’t acknowledged? Your post implies that they somehow think that the categories of immaterial labor and real subsumption are somehow less oppressive. I don’t think they ever imply that (though maybe, in the general sense, that they imply that Empire is less oppressive than the days of nationalism). What they do argue in those texts (and perhaps more forcefully in other works) is that the stage of real subsumption is a stage of contestability. Similar to Foucault, if capitalism now inhabits every moment of our life, then every moment of life is a possibility to fight capitalism. The antagonism against real subsumption becomes the constitutive reality of the multitude.

    (3) Monstrosity:
    It is the question of constitutive possibilities that seems to be real break you make with Negri and Hardt. Does capitalism contain creative, constitutive powers itself? Does it have poesies and potentia? The argument of Negri is unambiguous on this point, capitalism does not and cannot. (It is here that Agamben makes his criticism against Negri). If capitalism does not have its own constitutive powers, than it proceeds based upon control and normalization (and those words should be not be heard too far outside of their Deleuzian and Foucauldian registers). Perhaps then we should also hear the word monstrosity in its Foucauldian register. Foucault devoted an extensive amount of time to the idea of monstrosity, particular in his lectures on The Abnormal. In there we find that “the monster is essentially a mixture” (p. 63). But it is not enough for the monster to be a mixture. “There is monstrosity only when the confusion comes up against, overturns, or disturbs civil, canon, or religious law” (ibid). If capitalism is only parasitic, if it only has potestas and not potentia, if it has only constituted and not constitutive power, if it only can own the means of production but cannot produce itself; then it needs normalization and control. Capitalism may break taboos (may indeed depend on it), but only to create a new normal. Monstrous bodies are still bodies that need to be controlled or killed in our society. When Hardt and Negri align the multitude with a monstrous flesh, this is actually a very important moment. First of all, it sets up the antagonism between the multitude and those societies of control (deleuze)/societies of normalization (Foucault). Second of all, it contends that the common of the multitude will not be one of normalization. Communism is not and cannot be soviet socialism, it cannot be another way of normalizing, rather, the common of the multitude must be the monstrous. The singularity of the monstrous body, the creativity and productivity of the multitude against the normalizing control of capitalism.

    That post makes me sound like I am in the tank for hardt and negri, which surely isn’t the case. It also didn’t express enough that I liked your post.

  3. Thanks for the comments, SCU. Actually, I think that our responses to Hardt & Negri are more similar than the tone of my posting might make it seem. I do find Hardt & Negri’s understanding of real subsumption, and of the new affective capitalism, to be vitally important. And I greatly admire Jason Read’s book, to which you refer. I do, however, remain a bit dissatisfied with the distinction between constitutive and constituted powers — I think that the opposition breaks down in disturbing ways that are not a mere matter of “deconstruction.” And I think it is important to think about how contemporary capitalism lays such great emphasis upon “creativity” and “innovation” — to say that it only fosters false versions of these is true, but insufficient. It has to do with the way that “postmodern” capitalism has found a way to extract surplus value from, and accumulate capital on the basis of, precisely, singularization, de-normalization, etc. Today, we are *encouraged* to be singular and creative, because this is precisely the way that we can be induced to work harder and longer for less remuneration. This needs to be taken into account, and “normalization” is not an adequate way to theorize it.

  4. I think I understand what you are saying (correct me if I get this wrong). That we are all unique and special is one of the primary forms of selling and advertising. Get the right color of laptop to go with your personality! Customize your wheels! et cetera. And of course it isn’t just the way we are interpellated as consumers, but as you point out, the way to extract surplus value. Our emphasis on creativity, individuality, innovation are all key methods for an ever increasing blurring of leisure time and work time. Look at the way google functions, particularly
    You want to maintain something along the lines of when Virno argues, “Nobody is as poor as those who see their own relation to the presence of others, that is to say, their own communicative faculty, their own possession of a language, reduced to wage labor.” (grammar of a multitude, p. 63).

    Is that something along the lines of what you are arguing?

    I guess I have a few points still along the original lines of monstrosity. I agree we probably have a very different relationship to monstrosity than the type that Foucault describes in Abnormal. However, terrorists are still killed, the intersexed are still ‘fixed’, and racism is still alive and well. The violent mechanisms of control and normalization are still alive and well. I don’t think you deny this, but monstrosity still seems like the right word for all those bodies that are abjected. It also seems to me that a need for a type of self-valorization is necessary for antagonism, and that also means that we need to be on the side of monsters.
    I was going to put in an analysis of x-men 3 to give an example of the need for self-valorization and being on the side of monsters, but it was getting long.

    I totally agree we need to theorize the ways that cognitive capitalism and affective labor work, but I don’t want to end up erasing the other forms of violence that still continue. You know, it’s like how for a while there seemed to be a real academic push to theorize everything from the standpoint of societies of control (maybe I only think that because that’s what my master’s was on). And again and again in writings about societies of control there was a push not to take earlier forms of power (like disciplinary power) seriously. Considering we live in a age when more people are locked up than every before, that seems like a silly attitude to take. I’m not saying you are taking this attitude, but I think in our trying to talk about immaterial labor, we also need to keep in mind that violent methods of normalization against “monsters” are still going on. A balance rhetorically, philosophically, and politically needs to be struck from on the one hand Hardt and Negri’s sometimes naive stance and also a stance that doesn’t take into account the old forms of normalization still in function. Though I also believe you are right that we are fundamentally in agreement. (Bill Haver once said that academics tendency to find the smallest amount of disagreement and explode it made us all look like monkeys trying to de-lice each other. I hope not to come across that way).

    Lastly, I guess I also have a lot of sympathy for Virno’s conclusion from that chapter I quoted from earlier. It seems to me that if we live in an age of aesthetics (I like that tile, btw), then the possibilities of the general intellect are more at stack than ever before.

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