Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri: Irreducible Innovation

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri: Irreducible Innovation

William Smith Wilson

William Smith Wilson injects the transcendentals of aesthetic illusions into Hardt and Negri’s immanent materialism.

The text that follows is a draft, presented in December of 2005 along with four other essays on the recent work of Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri. A fuller version is under way, with more extensive citations from the texts of Empire and Multitude.


Empire ends, “This is a revolution that no power will control - because biopower and communism, cooperation and revolution remain together, in love, simplicity, and also innocence. This is the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist.” “Communist” is perhaps the last claim a reader expects in a book written a decade after the disintegration of Soviet Communism. Their use of “communism” is an extreme illustration of their renovations of words and concepts as part of their theory of possibility. To understand Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (hereafter H&N), the reader must be prepared to entertain ideas of the positive and the possible rather than of necessity and negation. To them, an apparent necessity is an illusion, because as one system closes in necessity, another system opens possibilities. By repressing the negative and the necessary, and by affirming the positive and the possible, H&N remove the burden and the gloom of the history of communism, and thereby enjoy the lightness and joy of being able to point toward the “… irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist.”

For Empire to be read on its own terms, the reader should expect an innovative logic, thought of as material and functional. Scholastic logic, which they see as abstract and a priori, is treated as an illusion, which for them is a negation of materiality. Both illusions and negations, not to be found in materiality, are avoided. Because they see the negative and the necessary as less real than the positive and the possible, they are wary of dialectic as a method of reaching an illusory necessity. Thus the reader must entertain several perspectives: an improbable embrace of possibility as a value; a materiality that constructs a physical continuum; and a disillusionment with illusions, even aesthetic illusions. The myths and rituals that have been used to patch discontinuities in existence become superfluous, and so are retired. By searching for continuities, H&N find positive material effects concealed or neglected in illusory events and practices. Much of their process is prepared for in their statement about Max Weber:

The logic that characterizes this neo-Weberian perspective would be functional rather than mathematical, and rhizomatic and undulatory rather than inductive or deductive. It would deal with the management of linguistic sequences as sets of machinic sequences of denotation and at the same time of creative, colloquial, and irreducible innovation (Empire 41).

With Hardt and Negri, their co-authorship, as a lateral relation, is an elaboration of their content and of their themes. Negri, moving himself into an overlap, has co-authored an essay with Eric Alliez, “War and Peace.” Together they use the word “chaosmosis,” borrowing James Joyce’s portmanteau word “chaosmosis” from a book by Felix Guattari, with whom Negri co-authored, Communists like Us. Negri and Alliez write of “… the bellicose illusion of pentagon-capitalism,” borrowing from Paul Virilio a hybrid term that three writers now share in peaceful horizontal commonality, rather than in the competitive individuality of lone vertical geniuses. These hybridities in authorship and in language are not in themselves a path, yet they can help to construct a possible path for trail-blazing bootstrapping nomadic bricoleurs whose collateral love aspires to omni-lateral love, the condition of freedom and universal citizenship.

The tone of H&N is optimistic, which follows from their method of looking for positive possibilities in negative necessities. They associate necessity with negations which are necessary to construct transcendental necessity, but negation, transcendence and necessity are illusions in their world, because they are not material or immanent. The opposition between the transcendental and the immanent is illustrated with spatial diagrams like the vertical and the horizontal. The vertical is associated with transcendence, as though the transcendental is above our heads (ideas and images of transcendence do appear in our minds, which seem to be in our heads). The horizontal is associated with the immanent and the lateral, as with two authors working side by side passing ideas from brain to brain.

H&N’s methods of thinking, their style of writing, and the content of their thoughts all imply each other, as with their openness to hybrids and miscegenation. Their books are self-exemplifying, and as such stand as autonomous poetic structures. They write from within, and in behalf of, a world-design that is radically different from the world-designs of most of their critics. Their materialist world-design should be thought of as their world-poem, surely reflecting their life-poems, yet not the tragedy but the comedy, La Vita Nuova. Any argument with their books must understand that for them scholastic Aristotelian logic is an illusion that uses negations to elevate a hierarchy of transcendental concepts. In their resistance to transcendentals of any kind, they are writing to purge illusions of any kind, most negations, and all social hierarchies. Thus they must suspend Aristotelian logic, if only because it requires a prior foundation that transcends experience. They use a functional logic that will construct a foundation under itself by the weight of structures built upon it, at least if the structures stand.

H&N use a materialist logic, following their assumption that scholastic logic differentiates and negates in behalf of pure essences that are transcendental, illusory, and hierarchical. In contrast, “materialist logic” suggests that logic is to be used to work out the implications immanent to situations, that is, to material objects and forces. Because an illusion is not material, but is an absence of materiality, questions arise about illusion as such. An illusion negates materiality. Thus the logic of their materialism supports the implication that negation is an illusion, and that an illusion is a negation. Their logic dictates that they are not to grant power to illusions, not even aesthetic illusions, but are to look for actual effects of aesthetic illusions. Negations must be turned over in order to show that the other side of an illusory negative impossibility is a positive possibility.

History shows H&N that illusory negations and destructive illusions have been used to devise pyramidal social hierarchies, built vertically in a demonstration of transcendence, especially of sovereignty. Therefore their emerging argument against sovereignty is that sovereignty, as the transcending peak of a governmental hierarchy, is an illusion constructed by negating the power and freedom of the individuals who are represented by the sovereign. If the negations that support sovereignty and hierarchy are set aside, then vertical hierarchies will collapse into horizontal immanences, precisely where H&N see the multitude of people that has always already been waiting for the possibilities of democracy.

If two people thinking co-operatively and collaterally decide that negation is an illusion for materialists, then every concept, function or meaning that negation overlaps will be affected. In the realm of myths, and of religions, the person who is to qualify as a shaman, priest or prophet, that is, the person who is to mediate between two full realms, must be negated or self-negated (Claude Levi-Strauss should be consulted on this point). With negations and self-negations, mediation is possible between two realms, for example, between the plane of transcendence and the plane of immanence; between the true and the provable; between illusions and realities; or between ideas and materials. But because H&N ignore the existence of the plane of the spiritual, mediation becomes unnecessary, even impossible. Thus the authors do not have to use self-negations in order to qualify to mediate between the material and the spiritual, and therefore their optimistic tone. Again and again, H&N turn the negative into the positive, look into absence for presence, and reinterpret loss as the finding of unexpected possibilities. The practice of their philosophy allies H&N with pragmatism, praxis and Dao, and overlaps any other construction of positive experience from within negative experience, sans intercessors.

Do we need priestly mediators between familiar immanences and remote transcendentals? Not if materialism, because it does not allow discontinuities in physical or historical experience, does not need transcendentals, and therefore does not need priestly mediators. In our history, discontinuities in experience have been patched with transcendental concepts, in some cases myths, those stories of adventures within a transcendental continuum. H&N’s way to obviate the use of transcendental patches on the discontinuities of immanence is not to allow discontinuities. They construct and preserve a continuum by overlapping concepts, with a benefit for materialist immanence because overlapping concepts do not need an a priori foundation. Also, these overlapping concepts are neither pure not immutable. Any two concepts have moved into the relation of overlapping, and they continue to move. Thus with concepts that are in motion and overlapping, thoughts can move from one floating concept onto an overlapping concept, like a long-legged water-insect making its path across water-lily leaves floating on the surface of a pond.

H&N avoid the appearance of holes that negations make in experience, because their materialism allows no holes or gaps in their total historical and physical field. Obviously, people have had destructive intentions so negative that they can be adjudged to have been evil. But because intentions are not material and often fail of their purposes, H&N do not look at the intentional purposes behind events. They look at the purposes that can be served. So when they see destruction, they wonder how that destruction can become useful in construction and reconstruction. In this present, when we know that we have done as we should not have done, questions of agenda arise: What should we do now? H&N by example suggest that we should change the way we think, reversing negatives into positives. “Sweet are the uses of adversity.”

H&N think less with the scholastic logic of the Law of the Excluded Middle than they do with the Law of the Included Middle. The middle is constructed when two concepts are pulled together into conceptual hybrids like “biopolitics.” For a concept to be viable, it must be able to be set in motion toward other concepts, where it must be able to impart its motion to those concepts as it receives motion from them. When two concepts are in motion, while also overlapping, then neither concept can be seen to have an essence. A hybrid or miscegenated concept precludes idealism in the sense that no immutable and timeless ideal form can exist for such a mixture. And when the concepts do overlap, their emerging and self-developing complexity can be used to convert negatives into positives, to collapse hierarchies, and to redistribute sovereignty from monarchs and presidents to the multitude of people.

The multitude consists of people who are not truly represented by the people who act as their representatives, because being represented entails being negated. These common people, regardless of religions and superstitions, have learned the lessons taught by material scarcities. They are non-hierarchical, or will be after the vertical hierarchies have collapsed from the weight of the negations built into their structures. Such negatives have supported the illusions of transcendental planes like the sovereign powers these people have been prompted to look up to. But when their gaze turns from vertical transcendence toward horizontal immanence, these common people become the multitude of people in the world who have the most in common among themselves, and who thereby create the commons.

Not only is negation not material, an illusion is not material, so art can be brought up on charges of transcendence. A strange blunt fact about these two large books is that visual and verbal arts are largely ignored, along with religion and mathematics. H&N will not think with a theatrical play like The Tempest except insofar as it has already been used as material in a thought. They mention a philosopher, Schopenhauer, who uses Caliban, a unique hybrid character, as a type, making “Caliban” a concept that is both concrete and universal. In their use of Robert Musil’s novel, The Man without Qualities, Count Leinsdorf is less the aesthetic illusion of a character with the livingness of a person, than he is another concrete universal, a specific character who bodies forth a type of person found in Europe at a specific moment.

H&N, having committed themselves to materiality, and questioning relations between materials and illusions, do not differentiate true illusions from false illusions, usually called delusions. When various kinds of illusion are allowed to overlap, each of them is in effect a negation of materiality, like the poignant “… illusory faith in Soviet modernization” (Empire 379). Such illusions would negate materialities, yet because negations are not derived from the physical field, but are imposed upon experience from without, they must not be allowed material efficacy. And because illusions of various kinds overlap, the concept of “illusion” overlies art as aesthetic illusion.

Art, insofar as it is illusory and is not material, exists in consciousness of the work of art, and such consciousness of aesthetic illusion negates materiality. Obviously materialists like H&N are going to have trouble with art because to think about a work of art is to think about the substance of an aesthetic illusion. Their witty strategy is not to think about art, but to think with art, thereby subordinating aesthetic illusionism to utilitarianism. The practical way in which H&N use art ignores aesthetic illusion, thereby rendering the work sufficiently materialist and efficacious. Like Soviet Konstructivists and Productivists, they hope that usefulness will cover up illusoriness. In what is by now the tradition of writers and poets from Anton Chekhov to Bertolt Brecht, they would detheatricalize the theater. Yet H&N seem unaware of aesthetic anti-illusion in visual arts, of materialist poetry, and of other detheatricalizations that overlap their anti-illusionism.

Painters have constructed aesthetic illusions that subsume the materialities in the painterly illusion. With efficient consistency, when H&N mention painters, they do not acknowledge the aesthetic illusions, they mark the practical use of the paintings in an “… ideological campaign to promote the leading role of the United States in the postwar world” (Empire 382). H&N show no appreciation of the peculiar strength, force, and endurance of aesthetic illusions, nor do they acknowledge the philosophic importance of a work of art, that is, an aesthetic illusion to which one can return, later, perhaps to experience more than one experienced earlier. The “more” that is seen later has been there the whole time, so that the painting, that is, the aesthetic illusion, is not exhausted by the sum of its appearances. The painting that can yield more, later, is a model for the experience of an object that transcends our perceptions of the object. Such a painting, as an aesthetic illusion, can be said to have a reality of its own quite different from the painting as a material object. The illusion of a work of art is evidence against the materialism of H&N. Their materialism is itself fecund, but it is an illusion.

H&N do not allow an independent reality to the aesthetic illusion of a work of art. They must not allow any kind of transcendence to art, because, given the overlaps among concepts, one kind of transcendence lets in many other kinds of transcendence. They ignore aesthetic illusion, because an illusion is a negation of materiality, but they appreciate the use of physical paintings as propaganda by a hierarchical sovereign government. Post-World War II abstract paintings were “… on the same footing as American economic and military strength” (Serge Guilbert, quoted in Empire 382). However, in their rush toward material forces, H&N overlook the fact that the force of a painting is conveyed by a non-material illusion that subsumes physical materials. H&N appropriate the theme, “New York stole the idea of modern art” (Empire 382), but they don’t notice that the paintings of modern art had the force that only an illusion can have.

The “Americanism” in art that “… penetrated into the heart of even its strongest adversary” (Empire 383), did so with the strength, I would say the truth, of a generalized constructivism, where what was constructed was an aesthetic illusion. With the help of many immigrants and refugees, that “Americanism” achieved its effects through a style of action that is constructivist in the sense of not attempting to participate in an essence, and not representing an ideal form, but trusting to authentic feelings and ideas held in good faith to produce emergent novelties such as had never existed before. In learning-by-doing, the painters constructed art that emerged from acts of construction with materials, bringing the process of painting close to the product of painting. Their commitments to investigating the act of painting as a process brought forth the unforeseeable products of the process. Such paintings subordinate materials to non-material interrelations among parts, that is, they subordinate materials to aesthetic illusions, even if only the illusion of aesthetic wholeness. Such paintings drew close to the threshold of materiality, non-illusion and anti-illusion, but their power remains that of aesthetic illusions. In my view, because aesthetic wholeness is itself an aesthetic illusion, anti-illusionist art can reach the threshold of materiality, but can’t cross that threshold into pure materiality.

The same pattern of thought is apparent in a reference to the Society of Jesus, but not to Jesus. For H&N the word “soul” is as awkward as the word “mind.” They quote Robert Musil on “the production of soul” (Empire 285; 289), but then translate “the production of soul” into “the process of becoming human.” H&N are thinking about billions of people, yet they rarely mention religious faith, although they remark on historical efficacies of religions. A transcendental faith can produce miraculous illusions that annihilate experience of this material world. In contrast, H&N want a materialism that is in no way nihilistic. Thus they cannot even say “no” to religion, because such negation would insert a discontinuity within continuous material historical existence. Then the discontinuity would need to be patched with something mythic or transcendental. Instead, they remain positive and constructive, expecting forces that are already in motion to turn from negative to positive by setting in motion counter-forces that will construct freedom and democracy.

H&N can see that historically people have attempted mediations between themselves and God or Allah, sometimes employing the mediations of priests, shamans and mystics. Their principle is, the fewer the mediations and representations, the more the democracy, until a complete democracy would neither need nor use mediators and representatives of the people. Priests who have mediated between God and humans have acted in behalf of illusions, but their actions have had material effects, serving purposes far beyond their intentions. H&N call attention to John of Damascus in his defense of ikons. Ikons are images that can be used by people to mediate between their human powers and transcendental powers, without the mediations of priests. Through an ikon, words of prayer reach a transcendental plane, and then powers on a transcendental plane can act at a distance through the ikon, affecting the plane of immanence with miracles. However, in accord with their axioms, H&N credit John of Damascus with shifting attention from the transcendental image of God the Father to the image of the incarnated Son, “… and the material connection humanity has with God made flesh, which because material can be represented” (Multitude 327).

Since Christ is both fully God and fully Man, which is fully transcendental and fully immanent, Christian churches have long answered charges of transcendental nihilism with appreciations of immanence in the person of Jesus, and then the immanence of the church and its communicants as the living body of Christ. H&N subtract all transcendence as they understand it, and then reread the ikons as objects the use of which freed people from the power of the priestly mediators with the Absolute. For them, the individual act of praying to ikons does not transcend the material world, but opens “… the imagination to the love for freedom” (Multitude 327). The democratic use of ikons reclaims from priests “… the power of social invention and the legitimation of values and free existence” (Multitude 327). H&N think of ikons as material objects, but the physical ikon is the vehicle of aesthetic illusions that can be stronger than materials. The ikons are part of the proof of transcendence, because the way in which the aesthetic illusions in religious art exist is a model for the way religious entities like angels exist, still transcending materiality after all these centuries.

H&N, by overlapping in order to construct hybrids, almost elude idealism as criticism of the actual in behalf of a pure immutable form. But the fact remains that people can hold actual forms to be answerable to ideal forms without their becoming annihilatory idealists. A triangle sketched hastily on a napkin by an architect while eating lunch is answerable to the ideal triangle conceived with Euclid, although the architect may defend and preserve the trembles in the hand-drawn triangles. Statements about the soul and mind are answerable to the body, but statements about the body are just as answerable to the soul and/or mind. Finally, while H&N have made transcendence answerable to immanence, immanence remains answerable to transcendence. Each sets in motion the other that reciprocally sets it in motion, all within the processes of both mutual resistance of transcendence and immanence, and constructive reciprocal modification of transcendence and immanence. The transcendental challenge the immanent as a materialism reluctant to acknowledge aesthetic illusions. Now, by allowing illusions, we can understand and appreciate Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s optimistic, positive, constructive, innovative, and gleeful illusions. These two co-authors, thinking collaterally on their way toward omni-laterality, are enviably “… of imagination all compact.” Together they can overlap “cooperation and revolution” into a novel hybrid, and then, apparently disburdened of logic, necessity, and negation, they can float their last words: “… cooperation and revolution remain together, in love, simplicity, and also innocence. This is the irrepressible lightness and joy of being communist.”

Works Cited

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

—. Multitude. New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.