01.Sep

Sub- and Semi- [Paolo Virno, Jokes and Innovative Action]

Yet another in comparison small, price but nevertheless bold theoretical volume by Paolo Virno which has been published in English translation. To say it outright: It is rather unfortunate that a wider international audience yet again gets just a 100+ page book by this Italian author, healing especially if one takes into account the critical [...]

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Yet another in comparison small, price but nevertheless bold theoretical volume by Paolo Virno which has been published in English translation. To say it outright: It is rather unfortunate that a wider international audience yet again gets just a 100+ page book by this Italian author, healing especially if one takes into account the critical attention his Grammar of the Multitude has earned.

If this new volume by Virno, published in Italian in 2005, is to be put into a wider context I would suggest four authors and their books which could set-up a perspective from where on Virno is to approached. First and in regards of Virno’s own method in Jokes and Innovative Action probably the closest reference will be Jonathan Lear’s brilliant Happiness, Death and the Remainder of Life. Lear’s concise deconstruction of Aristotle and Freud and of their respective usage of the notion of happiness and death(-drive) as those instances which stabilize the otherwise volatile psychic apparatus equals in great parts Virno’s attempt to reconstruct a nature, structure and logic of jokes as [equilibrium-disturbing] transformative action through Freud and Aristotle.

Another reference, sadly less-known in English-speaking world, is Barbara Cassin and her numerous volumes on Greek sophistry. It is Cassin’s great merit to have reconstructed in minute details not just the effect of sophistic heritage but also the tiresome philosophical refutation of the same. Virno’s readers expecting something similar in style to his Grammar of the Multitude will, I guess, be repulsed by his own (in length rather modest) dealing with the same topic of sophistry and Aristotle – but those dry and in some sense technical passages are crucial to Virno’s own intellectual enterprise, significant of his own broader systematic approach.

Third major reference and by chance also a volume published in English in 2008 is Alenka Zupancic’s The Odd One In: On Comedy. This volume which in ints Slovene original bears an endlessly more prominent and more witty title Poetics: Second Volume [Poetika, druga knjiga] is a volume – notwithstanding its theoretico-methodical distance to Virno – which not only shares a great deal of references with Virno but also some of the most important results regarding the innovative potential of the comic. To this volume I will come back later.

And, finally, if there is a Italian reference to be aligned to Virno’s recent reflection that would be two volumes by Giorgio Agamben. The one dealing with the experimentum linguae [Infancy and History] and the other – by far the most hermetic Agamben-volume – The End of the Poem where Agamben up to the most specific detail outlines the specific importance of poetics for the very human condition.

Those authors and books enumerated shall not be the exclusive horizon to discuss Virno; if one, for example, takes Virno’s understanding of Wittgenstein Laclau and Mouffe come very soon to mind and then there are some other Italian authors with whom Virno shares a great deal of interest [most prominently, Franco Lo Piparo]. My own intention in refering to this specific authors was somehow to drag Virno out of a niche where he was put after the publication of Grammar of the Multitude. Not to say that Virno is not (highly) relevant for activist or artistic circles but some of the more systematic strains of his enterprise get too easily overlooked if he has to be taken just from those perspectives.

 

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If there is something which concisely characterizes Virno’s Jokes and Innovative Action then that are two prefixes: sub- and semi-. Prefixes which itself diagrammatize [metaphorize] Virno’s own proceeding – putting the very topic of the book to square since jokes itself are for Virno already diagrams of an innovative and transformative action. And it is exactly the oscillation between those two prefixes which makes up the decisive point of the book.

Sub- is there already at the beginning: Far from being situated above or outside of norms, human creativity is even sub-normative: it manifests itself uniquely in the lateral and improper paths that we happen to inaugurate when trying to keep to a determined norm. Paradoxical as it may seem, the state of exception originally resides in the only apparently obvious activity that Wittgenstein names ‘rule-following’. This entails that every humble application of a rule always contains in itself a fragment of a ‘state of exception’. Wit brings this fragment to light. 

Human creative action exemplified in jokes is sub-normative in Virno’s argument because jokes show best the fallacious nature of every particular application of a rule. In the sense that jokes are exactly those proper language-tools representing the incommunserable gap which divides the rule or the norm from its application or case, ie. a unbridgeable void which separates the grammar from its usage. Prefix sub- tells so much that the actual instantiation of a norm, if it has to follow the norm, has to betray the very norm – not in the name of some extra-normal domain – but of an application devoid of any normative prescription. Such a defect or fallacious normativity is fundamental for Virno’s
understanding of human praxis, but one aspect in that regard is essential. Namely, this paradoxical sub-normative applying of a norm is for Virno absolute. Which means that there is no remainder left (e.g. some unfulfilled normative content) after the norm has be actually applied. It is just through this sub- or fallacious form that a norm can be applied, in the sense of a paradoxical and absolute division of the norm and its non- or barely related instantiations.

(to be continued)

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