The Rhetorics of Life and Multitude in Michel Foucault and Paolo Virno

Stuart J. Murray

"Go get slaughtered and we promise you a long and pleasant life."[1]

With no small sense of irony, Foucault here apostrophizes the terrifying voice of the Sovereign State. This voice is issued both as a command and as a promise, spoken in the name of a nameless "we" to an equally nameless "you." "You" are at once included in the "we," presumably, and yet distinguished from it in the same way that the "life" that you sacrifice is distinguished from the "life" that you are promised. Certainly the life that is slaughtered and, simultaneously, preserved cannot logically coincide. But even if Foucault's apostrophization makes some kind of perverse sense to us, it nevertheless begs the questions: Whose life is at stake here? And which life? These are undoubtedly different ways of speaking of life, and it is not at all obvious that the singular life that is mine can or ought to be mapped onto a collective national life, a common political life deemed to be universal.

How might we formulate the question of life -- of bios -- itself? This essay discusses some of the contemporary forms in which "life" is emerging as an object of discourse, as political life, social life, and ethical life. What, then, is life? And what does it mean for life to pose as an object of human knowledge? Has life itself become an object to be discussed, known, controlled, and maximized, preserved, or even ransomed and bartered? My approach is rhetorical, that is, I am interested in the ways that we speak about life, its contexts, and how it circulates in discourses from the scientific to the sacred, producing real and often deadly effects. Rather than hammering out yet another definition, I attempt to put this term into play, rhetorically, suggesting that this play itself captures some of the irreducible creativity and mobility of what we mean by life when it is spoken. By continuing to ask the question of life in multiple and shifting ways, we refuse to fix upon a definitional answer (refusing both "objective" and "subjective" definitions). I am wary of such definitions for political reasons: definitions allow us to judge -- sometimes mechanically and unthinkingly -- life from nonlife, the living from the nonliving, and thereby import a normativity that the ethics of this essay will challenge.

More precisely, in a rhetorical vein I fear the fundamentalist collapse of speaking and being. According to such a logic, the word and the thing are joined in a natural and holy matrimony. The word becomes Truth, and those who claim to speak in the name of life would put an immediate end to all further discourse on the matter, speaking as if they themselves were gods. The fundamentalist collapse of speaking and being reduces the plenitude of being -- and life itself -- to an object of knowledge that falls within the compass of our speech. But life is no such thing; it is not an object of knowledge. My argument is therefore a polemical inversion of this fundamentalism: to preserve the ontological mobility and creativity of life while suggesting a form of speech that would be more commensurate with this view on life. This form of speech is rhetorical, a vital speaking that enacts and is enacted by this mobile and creative life-force.

I begin (1) with Michel Foucault's portrayal of the form of life produced through what he calls biopolitics -- that is, life controlled and regulated by the State apparatus. Biopolitics is none other than the collapse of speaking and being, word and thing. Here, life (bios) becomes indistinguishable from political technologies (technai) of control and regulation, our means of understanding life isomorphic with those technical forms through which life is discursively produced. From this problematic, I then discuss ethical life as a rhetorical rejoinder to biopolitical life. Here I deploy (2) Foucault's late work on ethics as the "care of the self," which is characterized as that style of life that unfolds in the self's transformative relation to itself, and which I illustrate (3) with a metaphor. At issue is the ethico-rhetorical aspect of the self's relation both to itself and to the Other, an ethics implicit in the vital differences that rhetorical language puts into play and refuses to foreclose. It is this relational notion of ethical life that I read (4) alongside Italian theorist Paolo Virno's recent work, A Grammar of the Multitude. I demonstrate how Virno expands upon Foucault (5), adding more trenchantly social and political dimensions to the contemporary forms of life he sees unfolding in his conception of "the multitude."

I argue that Virno proposes a "grammar" of sorts -- not a nostalgic or antinomian thrust, but as a way forward, a means of theorizing the emergent life of the subject within and as multitude -- and as a novel agency that resists the mode of life ordained by State biopolitics. Virno opens the possibility for a "post-political politics," shifting the register of politics away from the state, from forms-of-knowledge, and from identity, arguing instead that politics emerges through styles of life, through the art and labour of speech. I suggest that only by keeping Foucault's ethics clearly in sight can we fully grasp the novel political agency that Virno locates in the power of the multitude. This agency is a rhetorical agency, in language itself as it is brought to speech. Thus, in Foucault and Virno we find a mode of ethical life that is rhetorical, intimately woven with the ways that we speak about life, and in a manner that does not reduce life to an object of knowledge. The effect of their thinking is threefold. First, it suggests a subject that must be distinguished from the traditional subject of liberal humanism. Second, this subject now opens onto a new and emergent form of political agency, distinct from traditional models of State Sovereignty. And third, it refuses any fundamentalist collapse of speaking and being, offering a critique of much of the dangerous rhetoric that informs political discourse today.

1. Biopolitical Life in Foucault: From "Taking Life" to "Making Live"

When we think of life (bios) as an object, then life becomes increasingly indistinguishable from the particular ways -- the techniques or technai -- in which it is managed or represented. The modern term "biotechnology" suggests just such a complex, collapsing the terms bios, techné, and logos into a unitary phenomenon. What is the relation between these terms? Is it a "logical" relation? And in the end, how separable are they? Here we might ask: Is the techné designed for life, that is, is it in the service of life itself, imported from the outside, some nonliving apparatus brought to bear on the living, to supplement the living, somehow to sustain the living -- the mechanics of a life-support machine, for instance? Or, is it not more correct to say that the techné is of life itself, a technology of life, an extension of life, a way of life, life's own technique? Will this latter view reduce life to a series of technical and instrumental operations? Have we begun to realize Heidegger's fear that the modern techné is not just the predominant mode by which things are revealed to us, but the mode in which we live, our modus vivendi, the frame or Gestell of our subjective life? In such a view, the techné is not readily distinguishable from life itself, and we can call it definitive for life, a part of life, and in extreme cases, essential to life, that without which life would cease, would cross over into the nonliving. Is the modern techné more vital to life, paradoxically, than life itself? We are, as Heidegger writes, unquestioningly "blind to the essence of technology"[2]; the techné has been naturalized, it fades into the background way we go about our lives, and we living beings are as much its servo-mechanism as it is ours. Therefore, the techné itself cannot be considered nonliving or lifeless in any straightforward sense -- it is not a mere supplement or tool; instead, it is vital to life, and it might even represent the necessary condition for any appearance of life in our age.

The political implications of this situation are legion. In his work on biopolitics from the 1970s, Foucault theorizes life (bios) in relation to the techné of political power. Famously, Foucault charts the movement from a classical mode of sovereignty to a modern, biopolitical one -- a biopolitics that has become the techné of the State. Classically, then, sovereignty was conceived under Roman law as the patria potestas -- the power of the family father who enjoyed "the right to 'dispose' of the life of his children and his slaves."[3] This power is summed up in the following formula: "to take life or let live." Here it was the sovereign's prerogative whether to revoke the life of his subjects or to allow them to live. In an argument that I cannot duplicate here, Foucault claims that this classical model of sovereignty has, in the last two centuries, come to be supplanted by a different model in which the State explicitly and implicitly has seized control over life. Today, he argues, the sovereign State exercises its control by means of life -- through the lives of the living (and the not-yet-dead or dying), which takes the distinct form of regulating life and maximizing or prolonging it. Today, State technologies intervene to affect the population's birth and death rates, ageing, disease, hygiene, public health and welfare, and the like. So, while classical sovereignty is summed up by the formula "to take life or let live," modern biopolitical State sovereignty has its own formula, namely, the technological power "to make live and let die." The shift from the classical to the modern must be stressed: from taking life to making live, and from letting live to letting die. The modern bios has become increasingly indistinguishable from State techné.

In this shift from the classical to the modern, we can trace an important shift in the notion of life itself. Foucault suggests that the classical formulation -- the power to "take life or let live" -- presumes a kind of "life itself," something like a pre-existent life of the individual that was already there on the scene, a life that enjoyed a certain facticity, and upon which sovereign power would act, either negatively or passively, to "let live," or actively, to revoke, to "take life." Foucault writes:

Power in this [the classical] instance was essentially a right of seizure: of things, time, bodies, and ultimately life itself; it culminates in the privilege to seize hold of life in order to suppress it.[4]

Significantly, life -- bios -- was presumed, was there to be "seized" and "suppressed." Thus, in the classical theory of sovereignty, the balance of power "is always tipped in favor of death,"[5] with death as the rubric through which life was understood, almost by default: life as that invisible but pervasive element that was always already there but announced only through its privation -- by death, by the rule of the sword.

In contradistinction, then, the modern theory of power reverses this model, and the balance of power is now tipped in favour of life. Life is now understood differently. Life is no longer presumed as given, but as that which must be produced and constantly tended. We might say that the balance of power is now always tipped in favour of life, such that it is only in modernity, Foucault writes, that we can begin to properly talk about life (curiously, we no longer talk of death). Life is swept up in a discourse, produced in and through discourse, through a discursive power-knowledge, vested by the sovereign State whose technological power is now the power to "make live and let die." In this formulation, again, life is not already there to be "taken"; the living individual no longer "exists" de facto, as paradoxical as this seems, but we must be made to live, subjects whose lives are manufactured, and whose livingness becomes indexed by regulation, control, normativization, and State administration. According to this logic, the State must intervene -- the State must not "let" the subject die, for this life is its precious resource. In modernity, life becomes something else, or more precisely, it becomes an object, some thing -- Heideggerian Bestand ("standing-reserve"). The individual's life now counts merely insomuch as it constitutes a biological member of the population, one biopolitical entity among a mass of others, "man-as-species,"[6] man subject to statistical control concerning rates of birth, death, reproductive and economic productivity, governed by marriage laws, "pro-life" policies, and so on. The "individual" is displaced, no longer even "disciplined," but is, as Foucault says, "regularized" by "a technology in which bodies are replaced by general biological processes."[7]

2. Ethical Life in Foucault: The Self's Relation to Itself

This is certainly a rather grim depiction of life, biopoliticized, mechanized, reduced to bare biological processes, to technique. But it is not Foucault's final word on "life." I turn now to Foucault's late work on ethics or "ethical life" from circa 1979 until his death in 1984. I contend that these late texts constitute a rejoinder, of sorts, a philosophy that goes some way to free the subject from biopolitical State regulation, opening the possibility for a renovated politics through the ethical life of the subject. In other words, in Foucault's late work, there is a shift in emphasis from a discourse on biopolitical power toward a philosophy of the subject, moving from the governmental, political control of the subject toward the possibility of that subject having a hand in her own subjectivation, in her own life. It is ethical life that cannot be reduced to techné. If, under a biopolitical regime, the subject was subjectivated through the technological production of her life -- if she was in some sense "made to live" within the terms of biopolitics -- then here we find a possibility for the subject herself to craft the terms of her own life.

Foucault's ethics constitutes just such a self-crafting, unfolding through a discussion of subjective life and what he has notoriously called, after Socrates, "the care of the self" (epimeleia heautou).[8] The ethical "care of the self" is precisely the relationship the subject has with herself, her "self-self relation," un rapport à soi. Here the self strives to craft a better self for herself, struggles vitally to re-invent the very terms of her own subjectivity, to become other than what she is in the present. Significantly, this is not a relation of knowledge: it is neither cognitive nor conceptual. Therefore, insofar as this ethical relation is a techné, it is one that does not proceed by producing life as an object of knowledge. Specifically, the "care of the self" must not be confused with our modern, post-Cartesian reading of the Delphic injunction to "know thyself" (gnóthi seauton). Care and knowledge represent two incommensurable modes or techniques of self-relation. And in the modern view, Foucault argues, care of the self has become subordinated to a conceptual form of self-knowledge, care denigrated to mere aesthetics, cheerfully cast aside as inessential.

But Foucault returns to Ancient texts in order to reverse this relation, to redeem the importance of care: What if, he asks, care does not depend upon some preceding self-knowledge, as modernity teaches? What if the care of the self -- as a practise -- is not secondary and inessential? What if, contrary to modern thought, care is instead the original basis for any knowledge whatsoever? Foucault argues just this, citing the Platonic-Socratic[9] tradition in which the spiritual exercise of self-care was indeed the condition of possibility for access to truth: spirituality and philosophy not yet torn asunder. Foucault cites Plato's Alcibiades as exemplary in this regard. To clarify, by "care" (epimeleia), Foucault means a practise (in the verbal form): "both exercise and meditation.... a number of actions exercised on the self by the self, actions by which one takes responsibility for oneself and by which one changes, purifies, transforms, and transfigures oneself."[10] These actions form a set of spiritual, rather than strictly philosophical, practises. They bear on the subject herself, ontologically -- "the price to be paid for access to the truth."[11] Foucault sums up by saying, "in and of itself an act of knowledge could never give access to the truth unless it was prepared, accompanied, doubled, and completed by a certain transformation of the subject...."[12] With this, Foucault has effectively turned the history of Western philosophy on its head, challenging the notion that the truth alone will set us free, and that our access to this truth is mental, rather than spiritual.

Foucault has therefore introduced a complex set of relations that is counter-intuitive for the modern intellect. Not only must we admit the necessity for spiritual practises, but within these practises we find the self -- precious source of our subjective life -- as somehow duplicated, the self that works on the self, two selves rather than one. How are we to grasp the spiritual transformation of the self by the self? If we follow Foucault, we cannot begin with conceptual knowledge, but rather with the prior relation of care. Thus, it will be misleading to think of these two selves conceptually, as temporal abstractions, say, the "now-self" and the "future-self." Even if we did, how would we know which "self" is the true source of our agency? Which "self" would be (chronologically or ontologically) prior or would take responsibility for our self-transformation? Which "self" should orchestrate the ethical work on ourselves, and according to whose ethical principles? We might ask ourselves: Is it the "now-self" that decides, or should we not insist instead that it is the "future-self" that solicits my actions, the "future-self" that issues the ethical injunction to work on myself and to become other than what I am right now?

It is certainly not obvious that the vector of our action and desire flows according to a linear temporality. Despite this, we might stubbornly assert that, at the very least, the "future-self" is neither chronologically nor ontologically prior because it is unreal, merely potential or virtual, and not yet located in time or space. But then, if this is true we will be forced to concede that the same can also be said of the so-called "now-self." After all, doesn't the "now-self" take its bearings and derive its meaning from its implicit relation to a "future-self"? Is the "now-self" not implicitly futural in its existential orientation, as Heidegger argues? Moreover, is this "now-self" well and truly in the now, because, at the moment of my knowing it, is it not also already past, is it not also already determined, through my very noetic activity? So if it is true that this "now-self" is evanescent, forever slipping from me, never quite mine, never quite where "I" am in my delayed moment of knowing, then it must be true that this self is also an historical fiction of sorts, and that the philosophical subjectivity that we happily bestow on it is misplaced, because our philosophy comes too late, always a moment behind. Unless the rationalist here seriously posits a regulatory third self that would transcend space and time, we will be forced to admit that we are at an utter loss to say which "self" is really "mine" and within my power; the "two selves" never fully coincide.

But things are more complex still. My self-self relation opens necessarily onto a third term that is in no way a fictional or transcendental "third self": the Other, my interlocutor, my silent or vocal critic, my master (maître), my daim_n. My self-self relation can be said to belong to me only inasmuch as I speak to you, a true alterity; I am the Other to my Other. The terms are inherently relational. Foucault calls the Other an "indispensable mediator": "In the practice of the self, someone else, the other, is an indispensable condition for the form that defines this practice to effectively attain and be filled by its object, that is to say, by the self."[13] The terms by which my self relates to itself are nurtured in the matrix of my caring relation to you: they are a movement, a mode of address. The Socratic dialogues are one example of mastership, according to Foucault. In the Alcibiades, Socrates cares not just for Alcibiades, but for Alcibiades' care of himself, that is, he cares for Alcibiades' self-government, which in turn will bear on Alcibiades' care and government of others. Care has a ripple-effect. But Socrates' address multiplies beyond this scene: behind him stands his author, Plato, behind whom stands a long oral tradition; and before him stands a long line of Plato's students, including Foucault's own iteration, and our very uptake of the word. The genealogy is staggering, and these voices form a kind of multitude, as I will argue below. Thus, the self-self relation is not a relation locked in an alternating dialectic, but the relation resonates further afield, not just in what is said, not in a conceptual content, but in one's very style of life, the example one gives, one's care, one's gestures, one's ethical comportment (ethos).

For this reason, Foucault argues that the practises[14] of the self are intertwined with "the general form of the art of living (tekhné tou biou)."[15] More to the point: "the practice of the self is at one with or merges with life itself."[16] Life -- if a definition is to be ventured from out of this drama -- is the intertwining of spirituality (the subject's own transformation of her mode of being) and philosophy (the subject's own thought concerning truth). Hence, the "art of living," Foucault writes, "turns on the question: How must I transform my own self so as to be able to have access to the truth?"[17] Here, then, a very subtle discourse on life emerges.

The self's vital activity, what we might call the practise of the self's ethical life, thus becomes a problem of language, of logos. Namely, by what terms, in whose voice, and how, will the self transform itself in order to have access to truth? The problem I observed above concerning the increasing indistinguishability of bios and techné is here opened up by the ethical promise of transformation. For a moment, life here escapes those techniques that regulate it, and the self gets free from itself -- the technique itself becomes a practise, a mode of escape and invention. Foucault writes that one must strive to "get free of oneself," to "stray afield" from oneself, to "free thought from what it silently thinks, and so enable it to think differently."[18] The self-self relation therefore offers us a kind of reflexivity that opens outwards onto the world's plenitude, not inwards (as Descartes would have it). In this relational dynamic, we become free to refuse the kind of relation we have to ourselves, free to choose ourselves, to forge new relations, and to invent new terms (logoi).

3. Life in/on the Field of Play: a Metaphor

If it is in language -- in logos -- that the modern indistinguishability of bios and techné begins to falter, and we can once again put these terms into play, it will be necessary to envisage language as not just another techné. What mode of language or of speech will do justice to the kind of ethical life that I am discussing, without collapsing language and life, speaking and being, word and thing? The answer, as I will explain in the remainder of this essay, is rhetorical or metaphorical language. In this section I offer a metaphor both as a performative instance of such language and as an effective way to illustrate what Foucault means by the self-self relation.

It will not be in a logical or "common-sense" language, then, because this would force us to conceive of a grammatical subject of action, with an active verb imagined to be within the subject's control, and a grammatical object that straightforwardly receives this action. (This is what Nietzsche has called the "ruse of grammar," which installs a fictitious "doer behind the deed," in brief, a subject). But I will argue instead that language is a creative and mobile force of its own, rather than one that is fixed and would work to fix the subject in/to her identity. Language is creative because it is not a techné or a tool -- language is not simply within the control of a pre-constituted and knowing subject, but to the contrary, is the very force that constitutes her subjectivity in the first instance, constituting it as creative and mobile, not fixed. It is in this kind of language-relation, loosely understood, that we find the terms within which the self will relate to itself and to the Other. And insofar as we can speak of a "subjective agency" here -- an emergent capacity for the self to craft the terms of the self's own existence -- this too will emerge within the relation itself, rather than from a fixed subject-position. I am suggesting a kind of "linguistic agency" that is at once ours to assume, after a fashion, and even ours to shape, however problematically.

The brief metaphor that I find compelling is a sports metaphor, tactfully deployed by Brian Massumi in his book, Parables for the Virtual. Massumi asks us to consider the soccer game as one such parable: "Put two teams on a grassy field with goals at either end," he writes, "and you have an immediate, palpable tension."[19] He theorizes the field of play not simply in a literal sense, as grassy field, but metaphorically, as "a tensile force-field activated by the presence of bodies within the signed limits."[20] I read the field as a kind of linguistic and rhetorical space in which an agency is realized, enacted, or put into play. For Massumi, the player cannot be conceived as a traditional philosophical subject who would act autonomously or rationally, on the basis of some obvious conceptual end. "When a body is in motion, it does not coincide with itself. It coincides with its own transition: its own variation."[21] Hence, the player is not the originary subject of action in any strict sense, because she is a responsive node in the complex relation taking place in/on the field of play, immediately, immanently -- in relation to her teammates, in relation to the opposing team, in relation to where every player is situated in/on the field, and not least, in relation to where the ball is situated in this nexus.

The player lives these relations in real-time, her body is "geared into" (as Merleau-Ponty would say) the myriad potential plays that are always opening before her, and she immediately senses the trajectories of every term in play, not just where the ball is going. "[T]o think the body in movement thus means accepting the paradox that there is an incorporeal dimension of the body. Of it, but not it."[22] She is incorporeal and yet bodily, opening in an un-mediated fashion, with a future-orientation. But there is more. To this "virtual" aspect of the game, we must add her past experiences, the concretion of failures and victories, her self-awareness and abilities, and the immediate understanding she has built up concerning the capacities of each of her teammates; perhaps she even knows the opposing team, perhaps they won the last three games, but now she has the home field advantage, and their star player is recovering from an injury, and so on. Everything is in flux. And in the moment of play, none of this is explicitly conceptual or ideational.[23] Moreover, just as the player is not a traditional philosophical subject, we must say that the ball is not a traditional object to be handled. We might even reverse the relation, polemically, and say that the players do not play with the ball, but the ball plays with them. The ball is a catalytic force, a "quasi-subject," Massumi writes, and I would suggest that the players borrow its kinetic energy as their own, its "agency" as "theirs" (these quotation marks are mine, indicating a manner of speaking, a rhetorical element that is nevertheless not unreal). "The player's body is a node of expression."[24]

A good game, then, has very little to do with the technical expertise of each individual player, strictly speaking. And while we might say that the rules of the game provide the ontological conditions of play, it is obvious to every spectator that a strict obedience to the rules, regardless of the technical competence involved, will make for a lacklustre performance. If the field is conceived as a linguistic field, the nexus of a language, with rhetorical forces and effects, then what the spectator wants to see is poetry in motion. Importantly, there is an aesthetic component, which Massumi calls "style" -- "more than the perfection of technique."[25] I agree, and see in his idea of style a wonderful resonance with Foucault's ethics and the kind of relational subjectivity that we see in the self-self relation, as the self struggles to craft for herself the terms of her own existence. Foucault suggests that in the subject's ethical relation to herself, there must also be a style, a manner in which the relation becomes a vital force, the mode in which self-transformation proceeds, not technically, according to strict rules or current grammars of self-expression, but rather her self-transformation is enacted stylistically, rhetorically, through what Foucault calls a "style of life."[26]a Like the player, she works from within a field of given possibilities, in relation to herself and to others, to imagine new and creative forms of life. For Massumi, it is the star player who makes the most of this aesthetic style: "The star player is one who modifies expected mechanisms of channeling field-potential. The star plays against the rules but not by breaking them."[27] In other words, the star player "bends" the rules and "bends the ball" itself (as they say), enough to make a difference in the play, really putting into play and actualizing a potentiality that is implicit in the field nexus.

To extend Massumi's analysis, if the ball is the intersection of multiple vectors of potentiality, a surcharged node in the field of play, we might also call it a technology of sorts. By this I do not mean that the ball is a techné or a tool to be taken up and used, but like language, it is that which engages us, actualizing the field-potential, potentially subjectivizing us. Like language to the one who speaks, the ball is that which allows for a relational transformation insofar as it can assume and catalyze a nexus of potential; it is a site of sublimation, and in this respect, always overdetermined. After all, no ball, no game. If we consider the field of play as a linguistic field, the ball is like a mobile and momentary expression, a spoken word that is put into play, a speech act that erupts from and punctuates the linguistic field, and an "agency" that belongs to the player as much as she belongs to it. Dynamically binding and releasing potential, transforming it. This helps to illuminate what Foucault means by ethical self-transformation, because the self's relation to the self is mediated by terms that are similarly in flux, and the self relies on such "technologies" to provide the catalytic vehicle for its own styles of life, engendering a way of being. We might think of how we work on the body through physical exercise (all those hateful machines at the gym), or the project of writing and critique, or engaging in political demonstration and social reform -- all of these might constitute transformative "technologies of the self," the terms by which we might work to fulfill the project of an ethical life. Moreover, this work has the potential to effect lasting change when it is taken up and reflexively transforms the very conditions according to which the self can be expressed or the game can be played -- changing the rules or modifying regimes of meaning and signification. The star player or the star team might, through their aesthetic style, bring the game into ontological crisis with itself, forcing a change in the rules. And in parallel fashion, the subject who strives to reinvent the terms in and by which her subjectivity will be spoken may have a wider socio-cultural impact by influencing the grammar and the very conditions of subjective speech itself. Style should therefore be understood as having far-reaching political consequences.

4. Paolo Virno, The Life of the Multitude

Armed with metaphoricity, we have a grammar of sorts, a strategy with which to turn to the recent work of Paolo Virno,[28] whom I read as extending Foucault's ethics in an explicitly political direction. From the sports metaphor, we can assign a certain privilege to the mobile and creative relations themselves, with subjects constituted and transformed in and by the relation, through a relationality. By emphasizing the mobility of the relation -- as a political power-relation, both aesthetic and ethico-rhetorical -- we free subjects from the imago of a fixed identity, opening instead a plurality of relations that characterizes what Virno calls "the multitude." What is at stake here is not just a new conception of subjectivity, but also a new form of social and political relationality, a new form of agency that emerges from out of these collective relations. Virno works to theorize this collectivity. Like Foucault, and like Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri,[29] with whom he is in dialogue, Virno tries to carve a space distinct from traditional conceptions of political sovereignty, whether this means the sovereignty of the philosophical (Cartesian) subject or the sovereignty of the State. He is critical of the Hobbesian notion of the State, which theorizes a process of civilization in which the individual gives up an originally chaotic "state of nature" to submit himself to the Sovereign. Even though he surrenders his freedom and agency, he does so, according to Hobbes, in order to gain the protection of belonging to that collective unity called "the people." Virno is critical of "the people" because he sees it as too normative and categorical, as violently collapsing the distinctions between individuals in the name of the Sovereign; in this view, the individual must now do the Sovereign's bidding, and is alienated from his own desire, as it were. Moreover, Hobbes must presume the existence of autonomous subjects, thoroughly subordinating the relations that constitute this kind of subject in the first place.

Virno's challenge is to imagine a form of unity and a kind of agency that does not work by collapsing the distinctions between individuals. After all, as Foucault makes clear, these distinctions emerge relationally: the relation will therefore serve as a kind of base or unity. Thus, against the modern, Hobbesian concept of "the people," Hardt, Negri, and Virno propose a collective, perhaps even pre-conceptual, form of life they call "the multitude."[30] The multitude, Virno declares, "does not clash with the One; rather, it redefines it."[31] In effect, Virno turns Hobbes on his head: the One or the unity is no longer a promised point of convergence in the figure of the Sovereign or the State, as it is for Hobbes. The movement is not from some imagined "state of nature" toward "civilization." Instead, for Virno, the multitude is a premise, a kind of origin, which does not transfer rights to the Sovereign. In a Marxian vein, he calls it "the base"; it is "the universal," "the generic," "the shared experience."[32] And it is in the shared commonality of the multitude that we can imagine a new kind of unity, an agency for social and political transformation that emerges from creative and mobile relations -- an agency that does not have its source in an outmoded subject or in the sovereignty of the State. The multitude is a bio-social collectivity, a life form that is irreducible to its contents, which is to say, a form of life implicit in the form itself, in its expression, in its shifting rhetorical dimensions, and not in some abstract content or concept.[33]

The implications for us are legion, not just as potential political agents, but as those whose political lives unfold in a networked world that lacks the traditional moorings of subjectivity and political identity. And by "network," here we must consider not just web environments, new electric modes of communication and activism, but also myriad others, such as terrorist networks. These latter have proven very effective against an ageing and lumbering State Leviathan, for these networks enact an agency and yet they have no true centralized locus of control -- a reality that States are slow to recognize and at a loss to combat in traditional terms. The so-called "War on Terror" is a case in point, since State efforts to combat terrorism have relied on a redoubling of centralized governmental control and surveillance -- a strategy that clearly misses the mark. Like it or not, the terrorist network is a new model of political agency that has a multitudinous force. And in a similar vein, so too do ordinary citizens when they gather to protest the WTO, or the U.S. war in Iraq, or more recently to publicly grieve and protest the terrorist train bombings in Madrid and London. While it is impossible to quantify what kind of global political impact will result from these demonstrations, in them there is undoubtedly some form of subjective emergence, some shared understanding of life that enters the social and political field of play.[34]

The title of Virno's book is A Grammar of the Multitude. And Virno does offer us a grammar of sorts, though to be sure, it is neither a fundamental nor a fundamentalist grammar, not a divine Logos, not language in the "common-sense" sense. Virno will not collapse speaking and being, but will find in their difference a productive tension, a creative and expressive voice, a temporary and mobile site for political agency. His argument is itself "multitudinous," that is, it is a kaleidoscope of argumentational fragments, a bricolage, employing key terms from "Hobbes, Kant, Heidegger, Aristotle..., Marx and Freud,"[35] and drawing equally on the vastly disparate insights of "Hannah Arendt, Glenn Gould, the novelist Luciano Bianciardi, Saussure, Guy Debord...."[36] And this long list is by no means complete. Of course, the trajectory of his small book, comprising three lectures, is impossible to duplicate here, all the more so because his argument is implicitly inductive, rather than deductive. But it has the force of the multitude. The book bears as its subtitle, "For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life," and it is here, with the life form, and with the emergence of a kind of life itself, that I find him at his most persuasive. If the multitude offers us a "grammar," a language that Virno characterizes as "pre-individual,"[37] this suggests a preliminary strategy, at least, for reading how contemporary forms of life are emerging.

5. Rhetorical Life

I am arguing with Foucault and with Virno for a linguistic or grammatical agency that emerges as a mobile and creative force, an agency that is intra-subjective and relational, that is, relating the self both to itself and to others. Yet it will be important to keep Foucault's texts close at hand: specifically, it is by heeding Foucault's ethics that we prevent Virno's multitude from becoming just another form of identity politics, a mechanism, a techné, or a form of biopolitical life. The rhetorical dimension of Foucault's ethics keeps things mobile and creative, keeps things in play, mobilizing Virno's "grammar" when, at times, it appears to stall. So, in this light, how do we make sense of Virno's discourse and of the peculiar rhetorical agency with which it is allied? How is it a form of life?

Interestingly, Virno appeals to Aristotle's rhetoric and the role of topos there.[38] Topos literally means "place," and it is usually translated as "topic." I suggest that we think of this "place" as a linguistic or rhetorical "field" of play, from the soccer metaphor above. Now, as Virno points out, in Aristotle there are two kinds of topics: the common topics and the specific topics. Aristotle's distinction between the common and the specific topics is crucial. While the specific topics are rhetorical strategies to be used for argumentation on a case-by-case basis, according to the requirements of a specific ethical community, the common topics (koinoi topoi) or "commonplaces" are a shared means of invention, what we might call universals. The common topics are the inherently creative or poetic force behind language and meaning, based on what an audience would commonly agree upon as widely accepted.[39] Virno characterizes the common topics as "inconspicuous" or "invisible," whereas the specific topics are "visible." In Aristotle, the common topics are our common modes of understanding, for example, cause and effect, antecedence and consequence, notions of similarity and difference, the possible and the impossible, greater and less, and so on. But Virno immediately complains that today, the distinction between the common and the specific topics has eroded. In effect, his argument is twofold: First, the common topics have become more visible and less effective. "When we speak today of 'common places,' we mean, for the most part, stereotypical expressions, by now devoid of any meaning, banalities, lifeless metaphors..., trite linguistic conventions."[40] And second, due to globalization, the specific topics are becoming obsolete. In other words, the specific topography that once had the power to meaningfully bind together a community is today vanishing in the face of a globalized culture. Culture is fast becoming generic. This situation is meant to describe the current condition of the multitude, which experiences a kind of homelessness, a bios xenikos -- paradoxically, a shared Unheimlichkeit.

In reading Virno, one reads a distinct impulse to salvage the common topics as invisible and inconspicuous, not by returning to Aristotle, of course, but through the appreciation of new, contemporary "common places." The distinct unity of the multitude is to be found here. But to be critical for a moment, I believe the common topics continue to pose the problem they did for Aristotle. How can we account for the commonality of the common topics? In Virno's case, if the multitude allows for an irreducible plurality of individuals, how will we understand the common source of their unity without a highly normative reading, after-the-fact? Arguing that the commonality is "invisible" only begs the question. And so I believe Virno needs Foucault to save him from a normative politics, to put creative and mobile forces into play, and to keep them open, elliptical. The common topics cannot do this work without first understanding life as a political relation that is itself movement and invention. In brief, an ethico-rhetorical play is the necessary condition for life.

By this, I understand rhetoric as enacting ethical possibilities for lived relations. Virno comes close to this in places, such as when he discusses the childlike repetition of the multitude.[41] Like the child who repeatedly probes her world in a tentative and exploratory fashion, the multitude, too, makes such assays as it works to discover and to create new possibilities. Rather than explain this faculty through reference to Aristotle's common topics, Virno's argument would be served best by an explicit discussion of rhetorical or tropological agency. Following this tack, we might exploit the trope as a word or expression that means more than or something other than its literal meaning. Take John Donne's metaphor, "No man is an island," and we have a play between the obvious literal truth of the phrase and its deeper rhetorical value(s). The meaning is not simply rational or even empirical, but is instead also deeply figurative and poetic, depending on how we read it.

There are a plurality of readings, a fact that vexes the literal-minded person, but which opens a field of possibilities for the rhetorician. We must take into consideration who is reading, and how. Given these conditions, the theorist Paul de Man leads us to ask, rhetorically: if both literal and figurative meanings are woven into our language, how do we tell the difference? In other words, on any given occasion, what will authorize us to judge the truth of the literal over the figurative, or vice versa? De Man offers an answer, of sorts:

The grammatical model of the question becomes rhetorical not when we have, on the one hand, a literal meaning and on the other hand a figurative meaning, but when it is impossible to decide by grammatical or other linguistic devices which of the two meanings (that can be entirely compatible) prevails. Rhetoric radically suspends logic and opens up vertiginous possibilities of referential aberration.[42]

Without an appeal to Sovereign authority or to a convention that operates foundationally, we are forced into a profound ambivalence (reminiscent of the ambivalence of Foucault's ethical subject in her self-self relation, literally, a dual valence, or a non-coincidence). Remarkably, rhetoric works here to suspend sovereign logics and, in so doing, displaces the subject who speaks or who reads from the position of authoritative knower. This transports us again into/onto a field of potential signification in which a referential aberration is put into play, ensuring that meaning is constituted dynamically and rhetorically, and that it is irreducible to any grammatical or linguistic "foundation." The word circulates, even proliferates, because it never captures the thing. Speech never perfectly coincides with being, just as the self never coincides with itself -- I am always other than or not quite what I say I am in any given moment, in any given expression. In this dynamic, the word acts as a metaphor, opening us onto something "new and fresh," according to Aristotle, who writes that there are three kinds of words -- the strange, the ordinary, and the metaphorical. "Strange words simple puzzle us; ordinary words convey what we know already; it is from metaphor that we get a hold of something new and fresh."[43]

At play here is not what language says -- after all, we cannot know except through other linguistic referents, ad infinitum -- but more precisely, what is at play is what language does and how it does it. By privileging the rhetorical conditions of linguistic utterance we glimpse a creative and mobile force that is the substance of our relations, the insubstantial substance of our communication and our creative commonality. Virno calls this "the life of the mind," or, borrowing terms from Marx, "the general intellect" -- a common and shared source of knowledge, a shared form of life. For Virno, this common sphere includes shared linguistic and communicative faculties, but also ethics, aesthetic tastes, affects, emotions, and contemporary post-Fordist (post-assembly line) conditions of human labour (where "work" has come to consume "life"). All of these vital relations inform the bio-social being-in-common of the multitude, while ostensibly respecting the plurality of human singularities that it fosters.[44] In Virno's words: "An entire gamut of considerable phenomena -- linguistic games, forms of life, ethical inclinations, salient characterizations of production in today's world -- will end up to be only slightly, or not at all, comprehensible, unless understood as originating from the mode of being of the many."[45]

I believe that language and tropes work here much like the quasi-subjectivity of the ball in the above soccer metaphor, polarizing the bodily and intellectual tasks of the players and their respective teams, enabling a field of play, and making it possible to re-invent the very terms of our relations -- because language and tropes originate "from the mode of being of the many," offering both a site of proliferation and a rhetorical means of unification.[46] If the multitude is a pre-conceptual "base," "the universal," or a "generic" and "pre-individual" "shared experience," as Virno contends, and if this underwrites the unity of the many singularities that emerge from it, there can be no "return" to origins, no "return" to the unity of this shared, universal source. The ethical movement is forward, not backward, and any unity must be realized as a rhetorical possibility -- and as a rhetoric that avows itself as such, that is, as mobile, open-ended, incomplete, temporary. The moment this inventive, ethico-rhetorical element is disavowed, we are on the road to fundamentalism, to the collapse of speaking and being, word and thing.


I have argued for rhetoric as a mobile and creative force, both in Foucault's ethics and in the dynamic relationality that characterizes Virno's idea of the multitude. I would like to close this essay with a reflection on the words of the poet William Butler Yeats, whose essay, "Emotion of Multitude," captures something of the life I am trying to convey, a poetry in motion. Yeats writes: "The Greek drama has got the emotion of multitude from its chorus, which called up famous sorrows, even all the gods and all heroes, to witness, as it were, some well-ordered fable, some action separated but for this from all but itself."[47] I read Yeats as saying that the action and the fable are separated only through the voice of the chorus, which binds us to the multitude through emotion and ritual and myth. Emotion of multitude is aligned with "poetry and imagination, always the children of far-off multitudinous things."[48] Yeats then claims that modern French plays lack this because they lack the chorus, lack the emotion of multitude. In French plays, he writes, emotion of multitude "must of necessity grow less important than the mere will."[49] But without the chorus, what will serve the imagination, and what will act as a binding force? The answer is rhetoric: modern drama compensates rhetorically. Yeats permits himself a rhetorical question as a conclusion: "what is rhetoric but the will trying to do the work of the imagination?"[50] In other words, rhetoric is said to enact the will in ways that align it with the emotion of multitude, with a kind of belonging that is emotional, affective.

The rhetorical figure for the Greek chorus is instructive here, for it illustrates how the chorus does what it does, and how a rhetorical agency might emerge -- not through what is said, not in any conceptual content, but in the ways it is said, in its style, and in the speaking itself. The original figure of the Greek chorus is parabasis, from the Greek verb parabainein, which means a going aside, a digression, or, literally, to step aside or step forward. The OED defines parabasis as follows:

In ancient Greek comedy, a part sung by the chorus, addressed to the audience in the poet's name, and unconnected with the action of the drama. Also trans., any digression in which the author addresses the audience on personal or topical matters.[51]

The parabasis is, therefore, an address. It is a location and a speech act, doing something from a certain place, "in the poet's name," yet "sung by the chorus." The address of the address, its location, is therefore unclear, ever displaced. It has a staggering genealogy, referencing famous sorrows, heroes, gods, and fables, as Yeats writes, conveying the force of the multitude. It is fictional and yet not quite, occurs off-stage perhaps, spoken in unison by the chorus, hence spoken by no one localizable actor-subject, is received in the audience, and is taken home and passed on; it is "in the poet's name," but actors' voices ventriloquizing a poet who is absent or even dead, and often also in the name of countless others, of social mores, received wisdom, prophesy, or the gods. The parabasis is an address by no proper "subject"; and while it is spoken "aside" from the diegesis, a temporal break in the dramatic action, it is often both timely and timeless, suggesting more universal truths or values reflected outside the narrative, and yet bearing on that narrative in direct or indirect ways. A grammar of the multitude.

In Paul de Man's early essay, "The Concept of Irony," parabasis is aligned with irony -- with a rhetoric that effects an interruption or a disruption, a break in the narrative, a rupture that frustrates our conceptual or cognitive understanding, making way for emotion, affect, and multitude. In de Man's words, "Irony is the permanent parabasis of the allegory of tropes."[52] To parse de Man's phraseology: parabasis is an interruption, an interruption of narrative, of our narrative expectations. But de Man takes things one step further when he adds, "...of the allegory of tropes." I would call this a meta-interruption. It is not simply an interruption of the narrative plain and simple, but an interruption of the rhetorical elements that traditionally hold the narrative together for us -- an interruption of assigned meaning. He writes: "The allegory of tropes has its own narrative coherence, its own systematicity, and it is that coherence, that systematicity, which irony interrupts, disrupts."[53] Ironically, he adds, this also means the disruption of any theory of irony, which suspends once and for all our conceptual moorings, setting us adrift on a sea of possibility, of unallegorizable tropes that will never find a fixed address. As Yeats concludes, at work here are "vague symbols that set the mind wandering from idea to idea, emotion to emotion."[54]

Finally, then, if rhetoric is a kind of poetry in motion, a site of linguistic agency that has the power to renovate our notions of philosophical subjectivity and political engagement, I am not here endorsing such a view as a political programme. This ethic is neither normative nor prescriptive in the traditional sense. Indeed, this essay is nothing if it is not a polemic against such norms and prescriptions, against such outmoded forms of life -- including the subject of liberal humanism and the kind of political sovereignty with which it is allied. But I hope this essay is something more. I hope that it, too, serves as a creative and mobile force. This creativity must go hand-in-hand with de-constructive critique: criticism and creation are not necessarily at odds; they are not competing enterprises. New, viable forms of life must emerge as the old forms go under, expire.

I suggested above that we might think of the ball in the soccer metaphor as a quasi-technology, as that site where multitudinous forces are catalyzed and converge. Neither subject nor object in the traditional sense, the ball acts much like language when we are sensitive to the ethico-rhetorical dimensions of linguistic performance. Language, too, mobilizes a game in/on a field of play; it is the original technology[55] that catalyzes a dynamic relation between life and art, bios and techné, nature and culture, between Being and human symbolization, between words and things. Catalyzing, but not collapsing, this distinction. And as we saw from Foucault, this relation is implicitly ethical because it presumes a catalytic and dynamic relation between the self and itself, in the ways the self relates to itself, and to others. Without vigilant critique, without an ethics of difference, we readily succumb to the most dangerous fundamentalism, to the collapse of speaking and being. It is only in the space of difference that we find some purchase for critique and for social and political renovation, the re-invention of ethical life. If there is a grammar of the multitude, it must work to open what de Man calls "vertiginous possibilities of referential aberration." Indeed, there is no life without this ethico-rhetorical play, without the freedom to invent and test ever-new possibilities of being and becoming.


[1] Foucault, Michel. "The Political Technology of Individuals," Power, ed. James D. Faubion, New York: New Press, 2000, p. 405.

[2] Heidegger, Martin. "The Question Concerning Technology," The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt, New York: Harper & Row, 1977, p. 4.

[3] Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, trans. Robert Hurley, New York: Vintage Books, 1978, p. 135.

[4] Ibid, p. 135, emphasis mine.

[5] Foucault, Michel. "Society Must Be Defended": Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76, trans. David Macey, eds. Alessandro Fontana and Mauro Bertani, New York: Picador, 2003, p. 240.

[6] Ibid, pp. 246-47.

[7] Ibid, p. 249.

[8] See Michel Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1981-82, trans. Graham Burchell, ed. Frédéric Gros, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005; and Fearless Speech, ed. Joseph Pearson, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001, pp. 91ff.

[9] I am focusing here on the Platonic-Socratic care of the self, which implicitly refers to the polis, as I remark below. Foucault also discusses a later form, the Hellenic-Roman, in which the care of the self is exercised for its own sake.

[10] Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, p. 11.

[11] Ibid, p. 15.

[12] Ibid, p. 16.

[13] Ibid, p. 127.

[14] A note is in order in my use of practise/practice. "Practise" with an s is the verbal form; it designates an action or a capability. It is an important distinction that, to my knowledge, is lost in American English, which favours the s-form. The same distinction exists in words such as defence/defense and licence/license. I may possess a driver's licence (a noun-thing), but this indicates that I, the driver, have the license (the verbal form) to drive. Similarly, James Bond is "licensed to kill." In this context, the "practises of the self" are verbal, they are a set of activities indistinguishable from he who performs them. They are not simply practices (things) to be taken up and perfected, but the embodied and lived manner in which the activity unfolds, is practised. Thus, "practices of the self" are really of the self, they are vital to it. In an Aristotelian vein, they are praxes -- inherently political actions that do not result in independent products, as poiesis does (cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, VI, 1140b).

[15] Foucault, The Hermeneutics of the Subject, p. 125.

[16] Ibid, p. 126.

[17] Ibid, p. 178.

[18] Foucault, Michel. The Use of Pleasure, trans. Robert Hurley, New York: Vintage, 1985, pp. 8-9.

[19] Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Durham, NC and London, UK: Duke University Press, 2002, p. 72.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid, p. 4.

[22] Ibid, p. 5.

[23] For a description of non-cognitive, embodied expertise which applies to the soccer player, see Hubert Dreyfus, On the Internet, New York and London: Routledge, 2001, esp. pp. 27-49. Notably, Dreyfus's analysis relies on Merleau-Ponty.

[24] Massumi, p. 74.

[25] Ibid, p. 77.

[26] See Foucault, Fearless Speech, pp. 84-85, 106.

[27] Massumi, p. 77.

[28] "Currently a professor at the University of Cosenza, Virno was formed in the intersection of the philosophy of language and political theory, poetic experimentation and Marxist workerist militance. Together with Giorgio Agamben he founded the journal Luogo Comune. Today he is a referent for the 'new left' together with Toni Negri and Michael Hardt...." Cited from "'Between Disobedience and Exodous,' Flavia Costa Interviews Paolo Virno," 5 October 2004, InterActivist Info Exchange, nested&tid=9, accessed 28 February 2005.

[29] See Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Cambridge, MA and London, UK: Harvard University Press, 2000; "Globalization and Democracy," Implicating Empire: Globalization and Resistance in the 21st Century World Order, eds. Stanley Aronowitz and Heather Gautney, New York: Basic Books, 2003, pp. 109-21; and Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

[30] The term comes from Spinoza's multitudo. For a discussion see Antonio Negri, "Reliqua Desiderantur: A Conjecture for a Definition of the Concept of Democracy in the Final Spinoza," The New Spinoza, trans. Ted Stolze, eds. Ted Stolze and Warren Montag, Minneapolis, MN and London, UK: University of Minnesota Press, 1997, pp. 219-47; and Time for Revolution, trans. Matteo Mardarini, New York: Continuum, 2003. For an opposing view, see Étienne Balibar, "Jus-Pactum-Lex: On the Constitution of the Subject in the Theologico-Political Treatise," The New Spinoza, pp. 171-205. Negri privileges a reading of Spinoza's posthumously published (and incomplete) Tractatus Politicus, whereas Balibar privileges a reading of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus.

[31] Virno, Paolo. A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, trans. Isabella Bertoletti, James Cascaito and Andrea Casson, New York: Semiotext(e), 2004, p. 25.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Foucault's model of ethical subjectivity, with its elaboration of the self-self relation, might offer a way to reconceive the classic problem of the "two selves" in political theory, in philosophers such as Rousseau, Hobbes, Bodin, Hegel, and Marx. At issue is the relation between sovereignty and subjection, or in other words, the relation between the self which is part of the sovereign (the citizen) and therefore free, and the self that is subject to the sovereign, in a state of subjection (the subject). These coincide in the same human person, but imply two distinct juridical subjects. Such an application of Foucaultian theory is outside the scope of this essay. For an overview of this problem in political science, see Étienne Balibar, We the People of Europe? Reflections on Transnational Citizenship, trans. James Swenson, Princeton, NJ and Oxford, UK: Princeton University Press, 2004, esp. chapter 8, "Prolegomena to Sovereignty," pp. 133-54.

[34] This sort of connectivity has far-reaching political implications, as we saw in the Philippines in January 2001, where the use of cell phones and SMS text messaging technology was instrumental in precipitating or catalyzing the civilian-backed coup of President Estrada. See, for example, Vicente Rafael, "The Cell Phone and the Crowd: Messianic Politics in the Contemporary Philippines," Public Culture 15.3 (2003),, accessed 25 February 2005.

[35] Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, p. 75.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid, p. 77.

[38] The reader might find a brief summary of Hardt and Negri of use here in situating Virno's work.

In 2004, Hardt and Negri published Multitude, the sequel to their successful book, Empire. Multitude picks up where Empire ends, this time with a sustained analysis of the multitude as the counterpower to Empire, and as the great promise of popular liberation. While the multitude remained undertheorized in Empire, it takes on a more determinate -- if nevertheless still poetic -- form in Multitude. The multitude, we are told, is a multiplicity, a set of seemingly irreducible singularities who are nevertheless unified by what they share in common. Although the authors insist that with the multitude, individual differences -- such as race, gender, and sexuality -- really matter, the multitude nevertheless forms a "living flesh" (Multitude, p. 100), united through communication, knowledge, and affects (ibid, p. 101). Virno shares this characterization, at least in principle. Paradoxically, perhaps, at some points Hardt and Negri insist that the very differences in the multitude are what they share, whether these are differences are social, economic, differences in gender or sexuality, and so on. They will declare: "Multitude is a class concept" (ibid, p. 103), and the commonality of the multitude defined through biopolitical class struggles. Here we find a revolutionary and messianic element at work. "The question to ask, in other words, is not 'What is the multitude?' but rather 'What can the multitude become?'" (ibid, p. 105). This recalls their revolutionary stance, expressed earlier in Empire: "only a radical act of resistance can recapture the productive sense of the new mobility and hybridity of subjects and realize their liberation" (Empire, pp. 363-64).

Here we are presented with a temporal dimension that goes unexamined, presumably relying on the Marxian notion of revolution and liberation to come. Despite this quasi-messianic temporality, which might have led them to a fruitful consideration of Benjamin, Heidegger, or Derrida (to name but three), Hardt and Negri rely on spatial metaphors, and even their historical analyses work toward a conception of the multitude that is unabashedly spatial and spatializing. The trajectory of their argument in Multitude is worth noting because, I argue, Virno takes us in another direction. Hardt and Negri's argument proceeds from what they call topology to topography (Multitude, p. 102) -- in other words, from "the topology of exploitation" (ibid, p. 159), which always concerns a "specific site" which is "determinate and concrete" (ibid, p. 102), to a more global and indeed globalizing topography that "will map the hierarchies of the system of power and its unequal relations..." (ibid, p. 159). In philosophical terms, this is a movement from the particular to the universal. In the movement from topology totopography, they rely on the generalization from logos to graphein: the logos of Empire, in its specific locus of exploitation, yields, then, to the graphic inscription of what, through sleight of hand, becomes a common, global and globalizing exploitation -- the glue that binds the multitude into unity.

We might pause here to wonder about the logic of this movement itself, or the logical priority of the individual, if not the ontological priority operating in their argument. However, I turn here instead to Virno, who offers us a model that is subtly distinct from Hardt and Negri's. He turns them on their head, as it were, presuming the existence of the multitude, rather than arriving at it as revolutionary telos (cf. Sylvère Lotringer, "We, the Multitude," the excellent Foreword to Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, pp. 7-19). Rather than moving from topology to topography, as Hardt and Negri do, Virno focuses less on the logos or the graphein: after all, it might be argued that these old-fashioned terms force us to import a traditional notion of subjectivity and agency, because logos implies a knowing subject just as much as graphein presumes one who would write or be written, along with an object of writing. Less on the logic or the graphic inscription of power, then, Virno simply focuses on the common term: topos.

[39] Cf. Aristotle, Topics and Rhetoric, 2.18-2.26.

[40] Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, p. 35.

[41] Ibid, pp. 39-40.

[42] De Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke and Proust, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1979, p. 10, emphasis mine. De Man offers his reader what is for us a dated, but nonetheless humorous, example taken from the popular 1970s sitcom, "All in the Family": "Asked by his wife [Edith] whether he wants to have his bowling shoes laced over or laced under, Archie Bunker answers with a question: 'What's the difference?' Being a reader of sublime simplicity, his wife replies by patiently explaining the difference between lacing over and lacing under... but provokes only ire. 'What's the difference?' did not ask for the difference but means instead 'I don't give a damn what the difference is'" (p. 9).

[43] Cf. Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1410b, 10-13.

[44] The aesthetic aspect is of the essence. Marshall McLuhan makes this point, which he borrows from the artist-writer Wyndham Lewis: "Without the artist's intervention man merely adapts to his technologies and become [sic] their servo-mechanism" (Marshall McLuhan & Eric McLuhan, Laws of Media: The New Science, Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press, 1988, p. 98). Moreover, the common forms of life that characterize the multitude, as Virno sees them, have been discussed by McLuhan as the changes wrought in the Western general intellect by means of electric information. In his Take Today: The Executive as Drop-out, this transformation is analyzed according to three main themes: from hardware to software, from job-structure to role-playing (Virno's post-Fordist labour), and from centralism to decentralism (cf. Marshall McLuhan & Barrington Nevitt, Take Today: The Executive as Drop-Out, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972).

[45] Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, p. 22.

[46] Another way of proceeding would be to stress allegory or allegorical narrative as the trope of unity, which I touch upon in my conclusion. This would work much like I am arguing, but more complexly, since a greater number of rhetorical figures would be put into play. Through allegorical identification, which draws on ethics, aesthetic tastes, emotions (such as fear or existential Angst), beliefs and vague cosmologies, etc., the many can speak with one voice. A case in point is the rise of the Christian Right in the U.S. political scene, and the way that the Republican Party in particular is effective in mobilizing religious allegories to persuade constituents to vote against their very own patently economic -- and perhaps socio-political -- interests. In this regard, U.S. evangelicals, who represent the single largest voting bloc, might be considered to behave like a "multitude." George W. Bush is the allegorical leader par excellence, a charismatic combination of folksy wisdom (or so they say) and a man whose own story of salvation through Jesus Christ overdetermines every speech and every action politically, in an eschatological frame. "Jesus" is the floating signifier behind his presidency, the overwhelming allegorical force behind not just Bush's "mission," but by sovereign association, the State's, and God's. Of course, when Bush speaks "in God's name," declaring what is good and what is evil, this equation is allegorical, rather than "rational" or "real." One 2004 Bush-Cheyney campaign sign expressed this metalepsis perfectly, declaring the voter's intention when he/she votes for Bush: "I'm voting for Jesus!"

[47] Yeats, William Butler. Essays and Introductions, London: Macmillan, 1961, p. 215.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed., 1989,, accessed 08 March 2004.

[52] De Man, Paul. "The Concept of Irony," Aesthetic Ideology, ed. Andrzej Warminski, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996, p. 179.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Yeats, p. 216.

[55] This is Marshall McLuhan's insight, taken up most recently by his successor, Derrick de Kerckhove (cf. Derrick de Kerckhove, The Skin of Culture: Investigating the New Electronic Reality, Toronto: Somerville House, 1995; and de Kerckhove & Charles J. Lumsden, eds., The Alphabet and the Brain: The Lateralilzation of Writing, Berlin and New York: Springer-Verlag, 1988).

Stuart J. Murray received his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently at the University of Toronto, where he is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in Philosophy and a Senior McLuhan Fellow at the McLuhan Program in Culture & Technology.

The author would like to thank Sarah K. Burgess and the anonymous CTheory reviewers, who commented extensively on earlier drafts of this essay. An earlier version was presented at the Pacific Centre for Technology and Culture at the University of Victoria on 16 March 2005.