Notes on Virno’s “Notes on The General Intellect”

Page numbers are from Marxism Beyond Marxism.

Marx’s “Fragment on Machines” (The Grundrisse) is often read literally as a way to understand technology, robots, computers, etc., but Virno insists that its unique insight is: “abstract knowledge – scientific knowledge in the first place, but not exclusively – tends to become, precisely by virtue of its autonomy from production, nothing less than the principal productive force, thus relegating repetitive and compartmentalized labor to a residual position” (265). Knowledge thus becomes ossified/objectified/reified in machines (fixed capital). In Harvey’s “The Urban Process Under Capitalism,” he distinguishes between fixed capital that is part of the production process (machines) and that “which functions as the physical framework for production” (built environment, pg. 96 in pdf). Using Virno’s insight, we can see how abstract knowledge (planning, architecture, engineering, finance, etc.) is objectified in the built environment.

In SLU: physical framework houses all sorts of abstract knowledge (biotech research, amazon, design, etc)[cf Hardt and Negri on immaterial labor (language, affects, etc)].

Nous poietikos – “distinctive and impassive, productive intellect” in A’s De Anima.

For marx, value is still measured by labor time…so the actual root of crisis is between production that relies on knowledge and value determined by quantity of labor. However, “[t]he disproportion between the role played by knowledge which has been objectified in machines and the decreasing importance of labor time has given rise not to hotbeds of crisis, but rather to new and stable forms of domination” (267; cf article from Mitchell’s geog class on ‘getting Foucault and marx in bed together’). Virno considers the “Fragement” to be a diagnostic tool “rather than as an incitement to the overcoming of (e) conditions” (267).

Two essential tasks:

1) define traits of capital based on general intellect

a) vanishing labor society

b) new real abstractions

2) more importantly: find driving force of conflictuality & radical critique at present…must confront mass intellectuality

Labor time – negligible part of life; labor as a “moment of existence” rather than constituting identity. As usual for Marx/Marxist scholarship, this is a tendency…not really productive to say that there are people that really do depend on hard labor. The idea is that overall it is reducing, though this doesn’t leave it open to other critiques (seems especially pertinent w/r/t concrete instances, immanence, etc.). Production rest on “science, information, linguistic communication, and knowledge in general” (267).

“The disappearance of labor society takes the various forms prescribed by a social system based upon wage labor” (268)…a strange sentence, Virno concedes, but it helps me to think of the latter as a socius: what actually exists is a social system based on wage labor so any dissolution of that system (at least) begins with those forms…Virno mentions:

1) Non-labor time is considered to be a loss, a lack.

2) Entire employed labor force permanently functions as industrial reserve corps (typical conception of industrial reserve corps constituted by laborer only?)

So, central question is not one of struggle over labor hours, but rather an explicit tendency (labor vanishing), practices of domination, and new possibilities of radical transformation.

We will always have too much time; the question is what form will it take? (“too much” b/c we do not have to spend as much time laboring as before?). Virno proclaims the end of a left that is based on the vanishing of labor society and a struggle over time (268).

General intellect is “a real abstraction endowed with material modalities” (269). It is constituted by “objective concretizations of knowledge” but is different from typical modern real abstractions inspired by principal of equivalence…example:

Money establishes commensurate exchange (of labor, products, subjects) but the general intellect “establishes the analytical premise of all praxis.” No measure of equivalence but rather models of knowledge as “immediate productive force” and “heterogeneous operative possibilities.” Knowledge: not for measuring or representing but rather constructive principles (potential to affect (Spinoza, Deleuze).

Change in ethos; autonomy of abstract intellect is origin of cynicism (269 – not sure what this means). General intellect destroys commensurability and “gives the impression of making the “vital worlds,” as well as the forms of communication, intransitive.” Again, because there is no commensurability, no unit that permits comparison (full alienation? This also evokes Agamben on communication in The Coming Community). Cyncism blocks communication in advance; renounces equivalent exchange “to the point that self-affirmation will take place precisely through the multiplying and making fluid of hierarchies and inequality” (270…does this mean bolstering competition and making it possible for anyone to succeed; an entrepreneurial society that doesn’t shatter hierarchy but opens the path to the top to all innovators, creators, etc?)

Critique of the “Fragment”: Marx only considers knowledge objectified in machines; he neglects living labor – knowledge that structures communication and impel mass intellectual labor –  which is, per Virno, “the decisive aspect today.” Knowledge/production is articulated through concrete subjects (as they articulate knowledge – a practice – are they constituted as new subjects…Foucault, D&G). General intellect understands codes, etc.: “constellations of concepts…function all by themselves as productive ‘machines.’”

Mass intellectuality: living labor in its function as the determining articulation of the “general intellect…the repository of the indivisible knowledges of living subjects and their linguistic cooperation” (270). This knowledge “constitute[s] a reality produced exactly by the unconditional assertion and acceptance of the abstract “general intellect” (270). It takes living relationships btwn knowledge and labor to create these unconditional assertions and acceptances (such as taking some aspect for granted: in SLU, perhaps something like ‘Tech, creativity, and innovation are paths to a sustainable future…’ or whatever.

MI is not an ‘ensemble of roles’ but “a quality and distinctive sign of the whole social labor force in the post-Fordist era – that is, the era in which information and communication play an essential role in each unfolding of the process of production, the era in which language itself has been put to work, in which language itself has becme wage labor…” (270-271; affects too, not just language).

Locate main characteristics of MI:

1) at level of metropolitan habits

2) in linguistic usages

3) in cultural consumption (271)

(‘it all comes together in SLU’…both their slogan and a perfect assessment of these qualities).

Hard to describe MI in econ/prod terms – it is the “fundamental component of contemporary capitalist accumulation” (271); it experiements on itself; demands a nonecon critique of political econ.

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