Paolo Virno's Motto di Spirito e Azione Innovativa, "Mirror Neurons, Linguistic Negation and Mutual Recognition" and "Multitude and Evil"

. Part of the book 'Wit and innovative action' has been translated for the Transversal journal

Notes by Arianna Bove, 2007

The background to Virno's wit and innovative action is Freud's Witz. In 1905, Freud wrote an essay on wit and its relation to the unconscious. The first inspiration for writing it came from the fact that on observing that his patients' dreams were often very humorous, a reader questioned whether the dreamers were in fact recounting jokes and deceiving the analyst.

After hard and long investigations, Freud came to conclude that:

‘In the genesis of wit the process of preconscious thought shortly abandons itself to the labour of the subconscious from where it then emerges as wit. Under the influence of the subconscious it then undergoes the same processes as those of dreams, and to this common element we ascribe the similarity between wit and dream, when it occurs.' (Freud)

Preconsciousness is the antichamber of the subconscious, where a guardian monitors the passing of thoughts, and removes them when it doesn't allow their exit. For Freud, the difference between wit and the work of dreams is the essential role of the third person: wit has no internal or intimate character. It is an action that requires a spectator, similarly to the spectacle of the French revolution for Kant.

So, back to Virno. This latter aspect is clearly of importance for Virno: wit is a public, linguistic and performative act, it needs to know when it is appropriate to be effectively inappropriate, but it is also an instinctive reaction, often to situations characterised by conflict. This know-how is a forms of phronesis. Unsettling, disruptive yet creative, it inserts itself on the background of common linguistic usage and credence (endoxa), appreciates the moment and seizes it to change no less than the grammar of everyday life by exploiting the constitutive ambiguities intrinsic to language. Freud believed that wit expressed a truth that we refuse to recognise and we would never admit to if it was affirmed seriously and explicitly. If so, Virno asks, what does it tell us about discourse? How does it relate to norm and exception?

A rule does not instruct on how it is to be applied to a specific case. There always is incommensurability between a norm and its concrete realisation. Virno claims that since regularity (or what is common to humankind) is the privileged place for innovation (and wit), the real canon of the logic of crisis lies in irregular or 'paralogistic' inferences. Enough of the phenomenology of crisis: it is time to investigate its logic.

On this side of the rule there is a basic regularity. Unlike Freud, Virno does not believe that wit, similarly to dreams, brings elements of preconscious thought out into the subconscious. For Virno wit has the ability to substitute, if not perception, at least the common measure (commesura) of perception and discourse.*

None of the pleasures wit is capable of providing is ever attained in a dream. In dreams humour seems evil, does not make us laugh and leaves us cold. Wit, like lapsus, is also an alternative way of insulting people in 'civil' society. (Vi invito a ruttare alla salute del nostro capo). Based on counterfactual reasoning, wit rescues paralogisms from the realm of errors and rehabilitates them in linguistic praxis.

Virno's Wit and innovative action is an exploration of wit, innovation, and their shared logic that tackles the ambivalence inevitably arising when the semiotic and the semantic, grammar and experience, rule and regularity, right and fact intersect. The logic of wit and innovation is one of change: they both alter the status quo either by recombining existing elements in counterfactual ways ( entrepreneurship ), or by opting for the non-given, for instance, B, when faced with either A or non-A ( exodus ).

Virno unravels the infinite potential and wonders of everyday linguistic praxis and ambiguity to conclude, against Freud, that far from originating in the preconscious and then travelling to the subconscious and its execution as an involuntary expression, wit is a public performance and its modus operandi characterises human action in a state of emergency; it is a reaction, articulate response and possible solution to a state of crisis.


'A characteristic peculiar to homo sapiens is the power of negation through language. Language makes the failure of mutual recognition possible. Language does not merely explain and express human sociability and original inter-subjectivity. Language in its negativity is also capable of breaking the pre-linguistic empathy of mutual recognition, as much as reconstituting it. The public sphere is the outcome of this process of negation and negation of negation.'

'Every naturalist thinker has to account for the fact that the human animal is capable of not recognising another human animal as a fellow creature. This permanent possibility is evident in extreme cases, such as cannibalism and Auschwitz , but it mainly manifests itself in paler shades, forming through allusions in the interstices of everyday communication. Placed at its limits, the possibility of non-recognition also affects the core and permeates the fabric of social interaction.'

How does language negate the possibility of inter-subjective empathy? If it wasn't for language, would it be possible for a human being to not recognise a member of his own species as such? These are the questions raised by Virno's essay on Mirror Neurons, Linguistic Negation and Mutual Recognition. Mirror neurons are the biological counterpart of sociality, active when embodied simulation, thus empathy, occurs. The hypothesis of 'mirror neurons', whereby a self conscious subject does not pre-exist intersubjectivity, is an extremely important break with the solipsism that has always characterised the study of the mind; it also furnishes linguistics and neurophysiology with a different set of questions. There is nothing that is post-neural and pre-language. There is a grounding that is pre-verbal and pre-propositional and occurs before and autonomously from language, which largely explains phenomena such as empathy and sympathy, as well as embodied simulation.

So, asks Virno, what does language do to this grounding? How does a naturalist theory of sociability based on neurophysiological studies explain things such as anthropomorphism and genocide? 'Not' expresses heterogeneity and difference rather than an opposite, a difference that is potential and indeterminate. 'You are not my mother' says the child for the first time, or 'this is not a man'. This is non-recognition. Language thus radicalises intersubjective aggressivity and pushes it to a threshold of mis-cognition of one's fellow humans.


This journey through the political philosophy of language ends with a confrontation with the foundations of the edifice of political theory: the distinction between state of nature and civil society. In Multitude and Evil Virno questions and challenges the idea that a society's radical opposition to the state is directly proportional to its faith in the benevolence of human nature and argues for a political institution that resembles language, its negativity and ability to be nature and history at once. Few thinkers take the risks required by innovation. Like a philosophical entrepreneur, Virno is engaged in no less than re-writing the dictionary of political theory, a needed and ambitious project when, caught in a tiresome permanent state of emergency to which it is impossible to get used to, language desperately needs to articulate and enact new practices of freedom for the multitude.


*On condensation and translation: Either Virno or Freud interestingly claim that ‘Creative fantasy is incapable of inventing anything; it can only combine elements that are foreign to one another. What is peculiar to the dream process is that the thought that is the primary matter of dreams assumes another form, almost a different script or language, and this translation employs the tools of combination and fusion. Usually a translation tries to keep to the distinctions in the text and the similarities are kept separate. The work of dreams on the contrary tries to condense two different thoughts, by choosing, similarly to wit, an ambiguous world where they can meet'.

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