Sunday, July 26, 2009

Starting Empire

Reading Hardt and Negri’s Empire now, a decade after it was written, is an oddly comforting experience. The vocabulary and movement of the text are reassuring. It is as though I have found the common ancestor who explains an otherwise troubling similarity between several of my casual acquaintances. I now understand better, for instance, the motive for extravagant attention paid to Carl Schmitt and the late Foucault’s analysis of liberalism.

Having only just started the book, I want to withhold comment. I want to note only one striking thing. At a certain point (60ff), wrapping up what I understand to be a long introduction to the rest of the book, the authors evoke the Austro-Hungarian double-headed eagle in order to suggest that the symbol of contemporary Empire should be a similar eagle, but with the heads facing one another in combat, rather than away from one another in peace as in the model. Multitude and Empire, locked in combat, really part of the same body. This may be regarded either as an expressive metaphor or, correctly it seems to me, as a violation of the principle of immanence loudly espoused earlier in the text. How, I want to ask, can Empire be both “parasitical” and “immanent”? This makes me think of my basic objection to a no doubt poorly-understood Marxist labor theory of value. Why doesn’t everything count as labor? Marx had his reasons. Do Hardt and Negri introduce this binary for political reasons? It does not seem to me that it can have, from their perspective, ontological status—or rather, it seems that elsewhere in their text it does not have ontological status.

Might they respond that on one level, Empire is coextensive with multitude, but that on another level or in another sense, precisely the ontological one, multitude is prior and Empire is parasitical? Perhaps, however, I am not reading them right. They say, “philosophy is not the owl of Minerva that takes flight after history has been realized in order to celebrate its happy ending; rather, philosophy is subjective proposition, desire, and praxis that are applied to the event” (48-49). One might say that the text itself desires to render Empire known and therefore parasitical.

I intend to post further comments on this book later, and possibly also its companion volume.

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