…Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.Matthew 18:3 (NRSV)
The praxis of the linguistic animal does not have a definite script, nor does it produce a final outcome, precisely because it continuously retraces anthropogenesis.Paolo Virno, When the Word Becomes Flesh: Language and Human Nature (2015)
By any reasonable metric, I am a bad Marxist. I never finished reading the first volume of Capital. Moreover, my entrance to the Marxist ecosystem came through a circuitous route, beginning with Christian appropriators of Derrida, slowly working through assorted figureheads within twentieth-century critical theory, and settling on the Italian autonomia movement as my base framework. Clearly, orthodoxy is not my strong suit. Likewise, one might also say that I am a bad Christian. I tend to bristle at vehement defenses of objectivity and static truth within Christian discourse. Certainly, it would be unfair to label oneself as “Christian” without basic affirmation of specific theological assumptions. However, suffice it to say, I find inventiveness a far more enticing approach than mere acquiescence to “the way things are.” Truth, at least the sort of truth necessary for spiritual or political liberation, needs more emphasis on radical potential compared to aged rigidity.
One of the underlying questions common to any version of Marxist thought and practice is: how does one exit an oppressive environment? What tools, paths, and ideas aid the quest for liberation? How do we actualize liberation? Furthermore, we see that this question assumes any oppressive environment exists within tangible, fleshly materiality. In other words, even in spiritual or religious contexts, oppression always takes material form, despite any connection to metaphysical or revelatory ideas. It affects our bodies and consciousness. We sense this cognitively and feel it physically. It changes the material nature of our existence. Put simply, if oppression always takes a material form and alters our tangible experience of the world, then liberation will always respond in like kind. If oppression is material, so too is liberation.
Returning to the initial question—how does one exit an oppressive environment?—it seems clear that a turn toward static truth is not necessarily the wisest decision. How can we solely rely upon elements and ideas of old in order to actualize the liberation we seek for oppressed peoples? In my view, a turn toward inventiveness, the process of creating “new” truth by “resting” within the expansive field of pure potentiality (more on this later), carries within it greater capacity for liberation. This is not to say what passes for orthodoxy in any tradition, spiritual or otherwise, holds no value. Rather, at some point we must return to a new understanding of subjectivity and being in our way of analyzing the world so that we can more easily see through the structures which sustain oppression. We must recognize that as conditioned subjects within the ecosystem of late capitalism we learn to make basic assumptions which arguably sustain the very structures that sustain oppression, even if our intention resists that assumption (I’ve written more about this here).
In his latest piece for Cultural Politics entitled “The Aesthetics of Exodus: Virno and Lyotard on Art, Timbre, and the General Intellect” educator and activist Derek R. Ford uses Virno’s analysis of potential, performance, and the “general intellect” in conjunction with Lyotard’s treatment of art and music to describe an “exodus” from subjectivity as such toward a “de-individualized,” fugitive retreat from capitalism. Ford offers an erudite reading of both Virno and Lyotard, and his use of aesthetic theory to ground this fugitive act toward exodus carries great potential for liberative politics. My goal in this response is to expand upon Ford and Virno’s work. As an (informal) student of Virno and the Italian autonomia movement more broadly, I share similar conclusions to what Ford suggests. Say what you will about the sometimes fraught relationship between postmodern thought and Marxism (in this case, represented by Lyotard) or autonomia and Marxism (represented by Virno) there is certainly no shortage of radical, liberative possibilities when these respective traditions encounter each other.
More specifically, Virno’s treatment of infancy and the radical potential inherent to language should be a necessary component of any radical politic. Ford describes Virno’s reinterpretation of the “general intellect” in Marx’s writings as “indeterminate,” preferring instead to read the general intellect as pure potential rather than “particular knowledges and thoughts.” As I’ve written elsewhere, Virno’s understanding of “potential” as an unlimited field of productive praxis—since the linguistic animal speaks but does not exhaust the potential of the speech-act—represents a helpful corrective to aged assumptions common to the most militantly orthodox Marxists among us. In short, by recognizing a space wherein praxis finds its potential before actualization allows for a renewed understanding of how much power we have in the pursuit of liberation or “exodus” (both for the individual and the multitude). If I consciously remain aware that my speech does not ever touch the boundary lines of pure potential, which lies in wait before the utterance, then I can find new ways of living and being through the field of potential, boundless and unformed as it is. However, in order to more clearly see the usefulness of said potential, we must all undergo “desubjectification.”
In Virno’s text When the Word Becomes Flesh: Language and Human Nature, he describes the speech-act as ritualistic. “The ceremony of the voice, the occurrence of speech, makes the speaker visible as the bearer of the power to speak” (p. 56). Language is performative, similar to the virtuosity of a musician playing an instrument or an actor transforming into another character. There is something ethereal to the act of speaking, where we enact cultural and environmental rituals unconsciously, expressed through the declarative utterance (“egocentric”) “I speak.” We bring to presence the power of language’s potential as we speak. Additionally, Virno brings the “egocentric” language of children into play just a few pages over, “The child, when verbally announcing what he or she is doing, is not describing an action, but completes a secondary, auxiliary action (the production of an enunciation), whose goal is the visibility of its subject” (p. 63). When one speaks, they perform two tasks: first, they consciously emit vocalized sounds; second, they unconsciously enact “anthropogenesis,” or the production of the subject. This second task, which Virno describes as an “auxiliary action,” is where we find the liberative potential of human language. It is how the subject presents themselves as a subject, or how they “individualize” themselves, which means that behind any form of language (intelligible or otherwise) there lies a space of limitless potential, the potential for speech, which cannot be exhausted. If the multitude understands the power of potential then they can more easily engender new speech to actualize liberation.
Likewise, Ford is correct when, in tandem with Virno, he writes:
Through the acquisition of language, the child is separated from their surroundings through individuation, hence the significance of “I speak.” By learning language, we encounter the disjuncture between the world and ourselves because we discover that we can change the world and that the world can change us.”
Through childhood and the development of our linguistic faculties, we undergo conscious and unconscious individualization, a gradual understanding of our distinction from the world even as we recognize our place within it and its effects upon our life. The problem lies in the ways capitalism forms our respective identities or individualization as we practice the act of speech. This conditioning teaches us prescriptive or authoritative ways of speech which only serve to reify existing structures and assumptions. Thus, while in a general sense, despite these oppressive restrictions upon the way in which the individual speaks under capitalism the individual never truly loses access to pure potential behind the utterance, exodus allows us to retreat from the confines of capital in order to learn new ways of speaking. Because the capacity for speech is limitless, the potential for new language to unlock liberation awaits us, so long as we make an exodus from capitalism. The way out is through a regression of sorts or a “de-individualization,” a return to childhood. In Ford’s words, “As a recursive state, childhood…is the return to potentiality in order to actualize differently.”
Turning our attention toward the biblical text cited above, when asked who deserves recognition as the “greatest” in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus responds with a seemingly odd analogy. Bringing a child to his side, Jesus instructs his followers that “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (emphasis added). At first glance, Jesus’ words seem to refer to obvious differences in societal status (the child being one of the “lowest” members of society) as a way to highlight the necessity of humility when responding to the divine. However, in light of what Ford and Virno suggest in reference to childhood, we see an expanded, materialist vision of the spiritual insight Jesus offers. Childhood is not merely a state of simple humility, although it includes this dimension. Instead, childhood is the closest any of us come to understanding and accessing the pure potential of language. Put another way, childhood is the closest we come to the innocence of simply being human in the world, unburdened by the demands we experience later in our life through capitalist individualization. If childhood is where we learn language, then the only way we can actualize liberation under the confines of the world is to learn to speak differently. In the same way that the only way one can “enter” the kingdom of heaven is to become like a child, the only way we can “enter” liberation is to, in some sense, leave “adulthood” or what passes for our being as we age. I must emphasize that all of this takes place within material form. None of this regression is possible in the abstract. It relies upon the physical and biological capacity to speak.
Thus, I contend, in what I believe to be a shared pursuit of both Ford and Virno, that the only way to liberation is through an exodus of being, leaving behind and stripping away the linguistic assumptions of late capitalism. By returning to a state of being closest to the often untapped potential of speech, we can more easily learn new words, new phrases, and new public utterances which aid the quest for liberation. This process de-individualizes from the world in order to fashion a radical understanding of subjectivity over and against the assumptions made toward subjectivity through capitalism. As Ford states:
Exodus subverts the dominant ideology of individuality by posing childhood as a project that connects the individual back to the general intellect in its potentiality rather than its potential actualizations.
In short, in order to progress, we must first regress and mine the fields of potential we have long forgotten; we must become like children in order to retrace our steps in the pursuit of justice and liberation for all. As mentioned earlier, what passes for orthodoxy tends to reify existing structures and assumptions. Orthodoxy will not save us. We must remake the world entirely, and the only path toward this vision is through childlike inventiveness.
Let us all make the exodus from subjectivity, individualization, and being toward the horizon of pure potentiality, where like children, we have the chance to form ourselves.