Art Against Empire (On Alliez & Negri’s ‘Peace and War’)

Sur art24, rub22, rub26Unlike law, which acknowledges in the « decision » determined by place and time a metaphysical category that gives it a claim to critical evaluation, a consideration of the police institution encounters nothing essential at all. Its power is formless, like its nowhere-tangible, all-pervasive, ghostly presence in the life of civilized states. And though the police may, in particulars, appear the same everywhere, it cannot finally be denied that in absolute monarchy, where they represent the power of a ruler in which legislative and executive supremacy are united, their spirit is less devastating than in democracies, where their existence, elevated by no such relation, bears witness to the greatest conceivable degeneration of violence.
Walter Benjamin, Critique of Violence (1921)

‘Peace and War’ is a dense text, teeming with allusions and ellipses, calls to arms and abrupt conceptual foreshortenings of entire politico-philosophical regimes. In this respect, it is a singular stylistic exemplar of what Deleuze & Guattari designated as the stratigraphic time of philosophy.[[See Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy? (London: Verso, 1997), where they write: ‘Philosophical time is thus a grandiose time of coexistence that does not exclude the before and after but superimposes them in a stratigraphic order’. And yet, whilst never reneging on the virtuosity of the concept (as witnessed by a whole host of ‘portmanteau notions’: the ‘Project of perpetual world war’, ‘the imbalance of terror’, ‘the common sense of the Unworldly’…) this almost frenzied mustering of a vast intellectual archive is in no way intended as a mere show of erudition. First of all, the text is an intervention bound to a very definite site – that of an art exhibition in which it was literally projected.[[See the asterisk footnote to ‘Peace and War’. Far from designating it as a catalogue piece, this ‘site-specificity’ accounts for both its mannerism and its urgency. The latter is determined by a deceptively simple question: What is the artist to do today, in a situation that some have termed that of a global civil war? Or, in the paradoxical terms of Hardt & Negri’s Empire, what is the place of art in the non-place of contemporary global capital and its apparatuses of control? Upon closer attention, this question, which might at first appear to belong to the rich tradition of interrogations concerning the link between politics and aesthetics in the 20th century, is revealed as profoundly ontological in character and intimately driven by the constructive force of a material desire for emancipation (what the authors, somewhat provocatively, term a ‘teleology of liberation’). By conceiving artistic practice as a ‘Combat against War’, Alliez & Negri wish bestow shape and colour upon what they regard as the ‘subject’ of a radical politics: the ‘multitude’ as a tendency towards communism and as the present experience of a practical vitalism.[[See Éric Alliez, ‘Deleuze, vitalisme pratique’, Les études philosophiques, Avril-Juin 1998 (2), 245-250.

But we need to take a step back. Not to acknowledge the collaborative nature of this text would constitute a serious omission, and this not for the simple reason that it concludes on a veritable chant bearing on the political force of a cooperative multitude. In effect, ‘Peace and War’ constitutes a distillate and synthesis (or, to be more faithful, a hybrid) of two distinct and distinctive intellectual projects. On the one hand, we have Negri’s long-standing attempt to articulate a communist ontology of living labour, joining a critical Marxism filtered through the insurrectional practice of the Italian autonomia movement to the analysis of capital, power and subjectivation offered by the works of Foucault and Deleuze-Guattari. On the other, Alliez’s effort to draw from the resources of Deleuze’s Bergsonism and Deleuze-Guattari’s reflections on the percept and the brain – as well as from a strikingly original traversal of the history of philosophy through the prism of the political ontology of time[[See Éric Alliez, Capital Times, vol. I, english transl., Minneapolis: Minesotta Press, 1996; vol. 2.1, Paris: Ed. du Cerf, 1999. – a comprehensive recasting of the link between an expressionist aesthetics and a constructivist philosophy[[See Éric Alliez, The Signature of the World, London: Continuum, forthcoming.. Besides their common friendships and conceptual affinities with Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, Alliez & Negri share an enduring commitment to a rebirth of philosophical materialism and to what could be termed a counter-genealogy of modernity.[[It is worth noting that both authors have a rich history of such collaborations, as attestested to by Alliez’s work with Guattari, Isabelle Stengers and Michel Feher, amongst others, and Negri’s research with Antonella Corsani, Maurizio Lazzarato, Yann-Moulier Boutang, as well as his widely known book-length projects with Guattari (Communists Like Us) and Michael Hardt (The Labour of Dionysus, Empire). Perhaps this drive to speculative cooperation has been best exemplified in their participation in the journals Futur Anterieur and Multitudes, which they have arguably turned into singular experiments with what Marx, in the ‘Fragment on Machines’ of his Grundrisse, dubbed the Genral Intellect: collective cognition as a subject of production.

There is a basic matrix at the heart of this counter-genealogy and of the theses put forward in ‘Peace and War’. In a Marxian vein, it can be discerned in the thesis that the creative power of living labour is ontologically primary vis-à-vis its transcendent capture as operated by the measure of value in its monetary form. Succinctly: resistance precedes power. In a Deleuzian vein, this matrix is founded on the affirmation of a univocal, expressive and differential being – a being defined in terms of virtual multiplicity – over against the transcendent mechanisms of representation, classification and identity. In the political and juridical terms with which preoccupy the first half of ‘Peace and War’, the key distinction is accordingly that between constituent and constitutive power.[[Negri investigates the transformations which have affected this dichotomy within political philosophy and practice in his Insurgencies (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2000). Given the dynamic antagonism between a constructive-expressive being and its domination by an extraneous measure (e.g. its homogeneization by the money-form and its attendant mechanisms of discipline and/or control), the pressing question regards which configuration orders the antagonism between a productive force of subjectivation – determined as both multiple and singular – and an exploitative instance of subjection. Negri’s work on Machiavelli, Descartes, and, above all, Spinoza, is aimed at articulating this matrix in the shape of the struggle between the two names of power: potestas, the constitutive moment of construction, potentia, the constituted moment of domination.[[See above all Negri’s The Savage Anomaly (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1992) for his ground-breaking account of Spinoza’s political metaphysics of power, as well as the aforementioned Insurgencies (for his thinking on Machiavelli), as well as Descartes Politico (english translation forthcoming from Verso).

In light of this originary political and ontological duality the following question arises: How does the agon between potestas and potentia – this intense battle between a creative power and its exploitation – concretely play itself out in the relationship between peace and war? How can an alternative genealogy of political modernity from the point of view of the multitude – of its desire for liberation and of its episodic neutralization at the hands of sovereign power – allow us to situate the stakes of action and organization in a time of endemic belligerence, in which both the rhetoric and the modus operandi of warfare appear as definitively out of joint? Alliez & Negri choose to map the matrix of antagonism onto a schematic periodization of the ontology of war, which is inseparable de jure from the sequence and stratification of political regimes. At base, we have three moments: (1) the Hobbesian inception of political sovereignty, reducing an unruly multitude to a unitary people; (2) the ‘classical-modern’ ideal of the relationship of peace and war, in which the former functions in principle as a regulative horizon of political rationality whilst the latter is the de facto instrument for the genesis of social cohesiveness; (3) the hypermodern (postmodern or imperial) regime of war in which the latter becomes a genuine ordering power, whilst ‘peace’ – now entirely immanent or functional to war – is revealed as a motor of conflict: A demand for security that continually generates that capillary form of warfare which provides the only substance for the state of exception that defines our present.[[See Giorgio Agamben, ‘L’état d’exception’, Le Monde, December 11, 2002. In these three political regimes of war we witness the shift of the relationship between order, monetary circulation and figures of subjectivation. In brief, tracking the relationship between peace and war functions as prism through which to grasp the various manners in which the sovereign instance of potestas has attempted to control, channel and evacuate the creativity of potentia. At all junctures within this schematization, war is revealed as a crucial operator permitting an instance of sovereign control to force its hegemony over an essentially heterogeneous multiplicity of singularities. Reducing the multitudes to a people through fear and contract; erecting a hegemonic State apparatus on the ominous background of military-industrial mobilization; invoking the phantasm of an infinite justice in order to animate the expedience of the economic order via the ubiquity of ‘police’ actions: We are presented with (at least) three figures through which the movement of war quells the social peril posed by the unbound productivity of a political subject that is itself not sovereign. The latter is a subject that, in the Schmittian sense, does not decide on the state of exception but rather is the exception, precisely to the extent that it is in excess of any economic or sociological measure.

Throughout, war overdetermines peace, meaning that any autonomous ontological consistency accorded to the latter is purely phantasmatic. What determines our current situation then is not so much the disappearance of any coherent project of pacifism, as much as the fact that all strategies – whether practical or ideological – for maintaining a demarcation between the two terms have withered away, consigning us to a state of affairs in which ‘everything happens as if peace and war were so tightly enmeshed that they no longer form anything but the faces of a single membrane projected onto the planet’. What place then for artistic experience and production in this tendential ‘indistinction’ between peace and war? What becomes of art when it is caught up in the global drift of a powers that are neither law-creating nor law-preserving (to use Benjamin’s terminology)? Or, finally, how is this single membrane be converted into a veritable sensorium for a novel politics of construction and perception? In an age of perpetual warfare and control, the transgression of an identifiable order is nothing if not anachronistic, and the irony of the commodity one of those luxuries that we can ill afford. Rather than an order articulated in conventions and injunctions, we are faced with war as an ‘ordering power’ that functions entirely in the squalid element of what Alliez & Negri term the unworldly [l’Immonde. If to make peace into an object of our action – or even a regulative ideal – is to blind ourselves to the ontology of the present, what are the stakes of resistance? The collapse of all regulative scenarios of pacification and legitimacy opens onto the stark juxtaposition of two varieties of immanence: The unbridled immanence of an imperial war which knows no pause or boundary versus the constructive immanence of a cooperative subjectivation.

On the basis of their political ontology of war, Alliez & Negri thus delineate the terrain of immanence in which the constructions of sensation and the inscriptions of things (‘art as a registering and composition of forces’) can present themselves as the counter-effectuation of the destructive nihilism that is borne by the very real specter of a perpetual and ubiquitous war. It is essential however that art delve with all of its material means and sensory tactics into this nihilism. The first figure of resistance is therefore that of an immersion into the molten heart of the spectacle of violence, aimed at obliterating the iconic and perceptual structures that conceal and delay our experience of the nihilism of the present. Only on the basis of such an assumption of violence unto the body of the artwork and the artist, in what Alliez & Negri, following Benjamin and Agamben, refer to as a ‘sphere of pure means’, can the artistic invention of new modes of perception and new organizations of experience take place. The unworldly must be traversed without remainder, for the sake of the generation of possible worlds (in line with Deleuze’s definition of expressionism). The roaming automatism of capital and the idiotic ubiquity of imperial warfare must not simply be disarticulated ‘by way of a more « profound » cosmic immersion into the materials of sensation’ – these same materials must be fashioned into the very real vectors and components for the construction of collective forms of existence and production which are subtracted from the blackmail of security and the perceptual lures of a fragile and anxious commercial peace. Alliez & Negri thus propose a deeper, more inhuman (cosmic) indistinction than the one offered by the hypermodern regime of war, thereby introducing a passage to a politics of the multitude which would be freed from any simulacrum of control and, above all, from any instance of sovereignty or potestas. The term exodus should not mislead: The absence of any political order which could regulate or articulate the violence of war and the institutions of peace means that there are no coordinates for antagonism. The immanence of capital and the dis-location of imperial control mean that ‘being-against’ is completely inseparable from the active creation of spaces in which antagonism is possible. This is what ‘taking leave by constituting’ means. By the same token, no dialectic can be given in this antagonism: The generalization of the state of exception entails that mediation and transcendental legislation are disseminated into the violence and opportunism of the imperial police. In the same way that the mantra of the day is ‘we don’t negotiate with terrorists’, it is altogether exact to say that, given the current political and ontological conditions of antagonism, you can’t negotiate with Empire. It is precisely this refusal of dialectics and the concomitant sober assumption of the violent ontology of the present that makes the artist both into a singular variant and an emblem of that subject of resistance which is capable of inventing peace; the subject, at once larval and ubiquitous, that these authors name multitude. Against the indistinction of democracy and policing that Benjamin diagnosed so acutely more than eighty years ago, and which defines the neutralization of all common avenues of political conflict and negotiation in today’s state of exception, Alliez & Negri propose a wager: To mobilize all the constructive forces of an inherently collective subjectivation – from the inhuman materials of sensation to the innovative energy of cooperative cognition – in order to construct a politics of immanence which finally capable of neutralizing the lethal violence of imperial capitalism and the false peace of parliamentary democracy, for the sake of a radical emancipation from the fetters of sovereignty. It is at this level that Alliez & Negri’s are no longer concerned with the interaction of politics and aesthetics as separate domains but focused rather on an underlying ontological and constructivist impetus: The affirmation of a new and common world produced by antagonism in ‘Exodus, Secession and the Combat Against War’.

Toscano Alberto

Enseigne la sociologie au Goldsmith College de l'Université de Londres, où il est membre du Centre for the Study of Invention and Social Process. Il a participé à l'édition et à la traduction anglaise de livres d'Alain Badiou (On Beckett, 2003 ; Theoretical Writings, 2004 ; The Century, 2005) et de Toni Negri (The Political Descartes, 2005). Il est l'auteur d'articles sur Schelling, Deleuze, Simondon et Badiou. Sa réflexion se concentre sur le lien entre ontologie et politique dans la pensée contemporaine.