Paolo Virno and Judith Revel revisit the Foucault/Chomsky debate*

Paolo Virno and Judith Revel

This is the translation of a partial transcript of the recordings of a seminar series that took place in Rome in April and May 2002 with Virno, Revel, Bifo, Lazzarato, Fumagalli and Negri amongst others. Transcription and translation by Arianna Bove.

Paolo Virno:

The discussion that took place in 1971 between Chomsky and Foucault is a very interesting stimulus for us, which we can only engage with if we get into some detail. When they ended their encounter, these two left a whole load of questions open, and these questions are also our questions today.
Those who study Foucault and Chomsky are usually profoundly dissatisfied with this meeting. Both camps claim that the two weren't at their best and that for the first half of the conversation they were talking at cross purposes, on different wavelengths without understanding one another.
The dialogue is divided in two parts; in the first half human nature is the topic of the discussion. In the second, the two try to bring out ethico-political conclusions from what they said about human nature.
Chomsky, like other intellectuals, experienced his two main passions like a schizophrenic. He’s been either a great linguist or the leader of Porto Alegre. The link between these two elements is practically invisible and in places he theorises the impossibility to find a sustainable connection between the study of the mind and politics. But it is difficult to sustain that the two were equally important for him. This debate is the only occasion where the two elements are connected. Chomsky is the father figure of the philosophers who reacted against weak thought and against the postmodernism that developed without a bone structure, as a resignation and a ironic acquiescence. This reaction took the form of a materialist thought that was embodied in the cognitive sciences and conceived of language in its relation with the totality of nature. Its results have been profoundly dehistoricising and depoliticising. The cognitive sciences are deeply apolitical, they look at what is immutable, what endures, what continues and fail to relate these studies on what is constant in humanity with what is as human as social and political conflict. For Foucault human nature is an epistemological indicator. The problem with Foucault is that he dissolves metahistorical into historical differences, as Timpanaro said: if you want to dissolve human biology in social relations, when biology is not thematised as an invariant, when it is enclosed in the changing nature of social regimes, then it reemerges as a religious call. If you don’t deal with what’s metahistorical, you kick it out of the door and it comes back from the window in the guise of spiritualism. It is impossible to dissolve this biological moment into history. This for me is not Foucault’s position. It is also wrong to take it as Chomsky's position.

Judith Revel:

Let's start from the present. Until the paradigm of postfordist labour was defined, production was equated with commodity production. Reproduction on the other hand was equated with biological reproduction. We inverted production and reproduction, and production is no longer the serial production of commodities (which is reproduction) but it is understoof as the production of children as much as value, subjects, etc.
There is a strange articulation of the connection between linguistic analysis and political analysis and praxis. The embarrassing thing is that it is true that Chomsky doesn’t relate his work as a linguist with his political work. In 1971 Foucault was shifting from linguistic to political analysis, for the former leads him to the latter. One of the things he says is that linguistics always excludes creativity and entails talking about rules. So, how can you invent a language? I came from the human sciences where the idea of discovery was automatically reduced to an individual, the genius, inspiration. Mine was an attempt to take knwoledge away from the individual and play it on the plane of history, to read the rules and determinations in it.

These are the questions for me:

1) When we talk about production and Chomsky talks about creation are we referring to the same thing? Foucault never talks about creation, he always talks about production.
2) The idea of a metahistorical invariant is very seductive because it allows Chomsky to account for two things: the creativity that is excluded in the variables, and intersubjectivity. Whats is puzzling is that there is never a mention of a creativity that is common: communication is secured cause we have the same faculty, but how do we produce together if we each create independently? If we posit at the basis of language and politics the idea of a human nature that has to then be secured through a just political system, we are positing human nature as a metahistorical invariant. Is this not ahistorical? When Chomsky says that we must fight the state, the problem with human nature is that we are confronted with a version of State power. Foucault cannot accept this because for him power doesn’t exist; there are only relations of power. All relations of power are not reducible to the state or to political relations. The school, the university, hospitals, etc. are all realities that can be instruments or places for the application of power. Power is diffused. This is the first reason for Foucault’s rejection of Chomsky's ideas.

Let's agree on what is invariable - that is to say, what in a determined historical period is given as a structure or modality that somehow, whatever the applications of power, remains constant. This constant is not a negative thing in itself, because power is not negative and it produces. The real drama of the confrontation with power is not only that power is not one single thing, but also that it is positive: subjects who are invested in relations of power produce lifestyles, practices and inventions. This way of inventing within power, is not what Chomsky calls creation. The crux of the matter today might then be that we need a political subject - I call it this way but it might also be called human nature. We need a common belonging, a common-ness (comunanza), a similitude, a non-identity, so that an acting or subverting in common, or the common, i.e. political subjectivity, rather than being the presupposition in history, is itself produced by history. Do we need this notion to conceive of the common or is the common what is actually produced? The problem is the status that is granted to the idea of invention or production.

Concerning what Paolo said about the transcendence that comes back from the window: this is not a good enough reason to reintroduce it, also because a problem arises in the section of their discussion on disobedience, on the illegality that confronts the legality dictated by the State, and the hyper-legality in terms of ‘real justice’: these figures of sabotage and blockages are often necessary, but they don't really produce anything. What comes after you’ve blocked a train? What have you invented? It has not produced new forms of the political; it is something you can do on your own. So instead of carrying out counter-power operations, opposing power in all the forms it can take -Foucault says- you should be able to disconnect what is the creation of the political form from what later becomes the reality of another political power.

What is meant by 'opposing'? Struggling? Seizing power? The relation between power and counter power is completely dialectical, symmetrical. How do we introduce a dissymmetry between power and counter-power? By saying that political praxis is not counter power. In order to break the symmetry something needs to be produced. What does power produce? Value, because power puts to work, not just individuals but also the life of populations, and treats them as pure labour force. The value produced is the value of commodities. What can a response against liberalism be then? To impose another type of value and another kind of production. If I take something and appropriate it, I only change the form of belonging, I do not change the structure of belonging.

What if I produce more as well as appropriate? What do we produce in surplus? We produce invention. We do it from within. We produce subjectivity. That is for cooperation. Neither reappropriation nor expulsion of power from life. When the problem of multitude appears in Deleuze of multitude, this is what it is. When I say multitude, I posit something of a common before experience, before relations, before production. If I say multitude I mean what produces action.

For Foucault language produces thought, and experience tells us how we say things. In the 60’s Foucault only used to talks about invariants, even though they were historical, epistemological invariants. By doing so, Foucault told us that the production of discourse, whatever the fields of knowledge, is determined by a certain number of partitions that are functional to a kind of power, since Hobbes. What do I make of the eventual production of language? And there he starts analysing the production of wild languages for 10 years, those of the crazy people, authors etc. This project could not carry on, because admitting that crazy people can speak to power in a non instrumental way, and that some exoteric words have taken place, one cannot say anything more than that some have tried it, whether consciously or not. And saying that an individual did it means that it is a project of solitude, and solitude is the opposite of multitude. That individual dimension is unmanageable.

Second problem: why give language any specificity? Is it possible to conceive of the attempt of going against- or rather of avoiding and taking the floor from under the feet of power- as only being linguistic? Foucault says I only played the game of the response to power on the discursive field. Language is not alone in producing value. There also is the invention of different strategies, being together etc. produces value. From the 70's onwards the discursive is only one of the figures of his analysis.

Other forms of production of value are the ethical relation to oneself, as a relation to ones’ body, and from there emerges the thread on sexuality. Then there is the relation to others-how I manage others, also within the relations of powers that I produce. Why make of language then the basis for production? If anything, language (productive language, the postfordist language that entails another production that relativises commodity production) is one form of productivity. But to go and play human shield, is an invention, a common invention, with bodies. It is not the reappropriation of what has been stolen, but the opening of a new form of life.
We’ve always talked of biopower and biopolitics. The former is something historically determined, an invention of the birth of liberalism where power decides to exploit not only the labour force of the hands, but the whole of life (sexuality affects etc). This is not the reabsorption of natural life, of physiological life. This is the reappropriation of an already political, social life. The response to biopower in its reabsorption of political life is what we call biopolitics, which is not the recuperation of natural life, but of political life, of value producing life, within cooperation. I think that is what has been happening recently, the formation of something that is not a movement or multitude but movement of movements or multitude of multitudes.

The stake in politics is to produce oneself, to produce others and to produce other. Human nature doesn’t interest Foucault cause it is not needed, what is necessary for if not to pose limits? There’s an image in Deleuze book on Foucault, there are two ways to navigate: one is to throw a line and follow it, the other is to go, without knowing where, but whilst going, problematising the going, with whom, the fact of going. I imagine myself in the ship and turning around I see the scia of the ship that is a becoming, a non-anticipating becoming, a productive one. That is the closest figure to the acting of the multitudes that we try and define in this phase.

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