‘When the Word Becomes Flesh: Language and Human Nature’ reviewed by Rosine Kelz

When the Word Becomes Flesh: Language and Human Nature

Translated by Giuseppina Mecchia, Semiotext(e), South Pasadena, 2015. 264pp., $17.95/£12.95 pb
ISBN 9781584350941

Reviewed by Rosine Kelz

About the reviewer

Rosine Kelz is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor for Social Theory at the School of Visual …


In When the Word Becomes Flesh Paolo Virno defends a universal concept of ‘human nature’, based on the unique biological features of the human animal species. He argues that these general preconditions of human experience not only determine ‘the facts and states of affairs’ that punctuate our lives, but are themselves objects of ‘immediate experience’ (16-7). Virno does not seek to offer an exhaustive list of features that make up ‘human nature’. Instead, his argument revolves around the linguistic faculty. It is through speech that distinctly human relationships to the world and other human beings are enabled and expressed. In the preface to her excellent translation Giuseppina Mecchia notes that this book, which was published in Italian in 2002, provides a more philosophically complex companion to A Grammar of the Mulitude. However, while the overtly political themes of multitude, bio-politics and post-Fordist work relations make short reappearances in When the Word Becomes Flesh, Virno’s principal aim is not to further his political argument. Instead, he provides a discussion of the ‘ontological’ conditions of human social life, that build the basis or precondition for any understanding of the political. Virno’s grand tour through linguistic and phenomenological philosophy offers incisive and well argued engagements with core figures of 20th century thought, such as Arendt, Chomsky, Frege and Wittgenstein. In addition, Virno introduces thinkers less well known in the English-speaking academic debate, such as Simondon, Vygotsky and de Martino.

Virno’s argument is structured into three parts that build on one another. Part one, ‘The Act of Speaking’ opens with remarks on the Arendtian and Aristotlean comparison between speech and artistic performance. Understanding speech as a public performance whose purpose is intrinsic to the act of performing, links speech to appearance in the public realm and the creation of an interpersonal space that enables political action. Virno expands this argument by introducing the notion of the ‘absolute performative’, that is, a speech-act that signifies that one is speaking. While the purest form of such an ‘absolute performative’ would be the sentence ‘I speak’ the ‘absolute performative’ also appears in different forms in daily life, for example in religious ritualistic language, where the content of prayer, which at times is not understandable to the person uttering it, is less important than the act of speaking the prayer. In such speech-acts the human being establishes itself as human ‘I’ and negotiates the boundary between internal and external on which this existence depends. By passing the boundary of the internal and establishing an external social reality speech (re)constitutes the ‘I’ as ‘transcendental unit’ (61). This necessary negotiation between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ that comes into play in the process of individuation, Virno later further elucidates in his incisive discussion of Donald Winnicott’s object-relations psychoanalytic theory and Gilbert Simondon’s notion of ‘preindividual nature’ and individualization. Speech, however, not only establishes the individual as a social being, ‘the absolute performative’ also reiterates humanity’s prehistory as a separate species – the fact of human uniqueness. For Virno, ‘human nature is characterized by its eternal preoccupation with the origin of man as separate species’ where ‘our prehistory is inscribed in every single historical moment’ (95).

In part two Virno proposes a critique of interiority via his highly incisive reading of Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘second-degree sensualism’ and his defence of reification, which together elucidate the ‘physical reality produced by speech’ (111). While first-degree sensations, such as a toothache, can be expressed through language, but exist before or independent of language, second-degree sensations are sensation that are intimately related to language, as for example one’s feeling that a word, or a letter sounds ’round’, or ‘liquid’, or cold (112). Virno stresses that language, the modulation of sound and the aesthetics of words, create sensations and also add something to the way we can feel about or understand the actions or gestures of others. This sets the stage for Virno’s critical turn to Marxist theory, where he seeks to establish a clearer distinction between reification and fetishism. For Virno the widespread ‘denigration of reification’ stems from ‘the stubborn superstition that what really counts in the experience of the human animal is invisible, impalpable, internal’ (135). Reification, as the process of transformation from the internal to the external, ‘from hidden to manifest’, then appears as a loss of authenticity. Against this reasoning Virno holds that in fact being stuck in a purely internal world that cannot be shared with others is an alienating experience, while reification, a process in which speech plays a principal role, allows for the establishment of shared reality of public things. While reification is successful in creating res publica, fetishism for Virno is a failed or ‘polemical response to the alienation inherent to interiority’. Fetishism does assign qualities to an object that belong to the mind, while reification ‘underscores the objectual aspect of the mind’ and thus makes human nature visible (138-9). As Virno explains, the fetishism inherent in capitalism, where relations between people have become relations between things, can be opposed by the reification of social relations, that is, by the establishment of political, public institutions (141).

Part three concentrates on the idea of ‘natural history’ and explains the connection between political concepts of human nature, processes of individuation and multitude. The notion of natural history at first appears as an oxymoron, as history, in Virno’s definition, is concerned with ‘the contingency of social systems and the changing modes of production’, while ‘nature’, understood as the ‘physiological and biological constitution of our species’, is unchanging and independent from historical change (171-2). The concept of natural history thus highlights that unchanging human nature allows ‘for a maximum of variations in experience and praxis’ while historical variations, at times, bring ‘biological invariants’ to the fore and ‘show them as concrete states of affairs’ (173-4). For Virno the existence of a generic linguistic faculty that is separate from historical languages, ‘attests to the non-specialized character of the human animal’ that allows for its dynamis, an innate potentiality ‘that can never be fully realized’, a notion reminiscent of Arendt’s understanding of natality. Together with our ‘instinctual upreparedness’ (namely the fact that humans, as distinct from other species, have not developed highly specialized instincts that correspond to a specific environmental niche), human beings are by nature creative and capable of life-long learning and adaptation to new challenges and the unexpected. These aspects of human nature have allowed for the ‘extreme contingency of political praxis’ (189). Moreover, because we are ‘deprived of an ecological niche’ and thus live in a ‘permanent state of insecurity’ we are ‘naturally’ prepared for the current neo-liberal post-Fordist work world that heightens precarity and forces workers to continually learn and adapt to new situations (205-6). Finally, Virno returns to the notion of multitude, arguing that the uniqueness of each human being relies on their underlying shared natural history. As his examples show, the expression of human nature in concrete historical situations is neither inherently ‘good’ nor ‘bad’.

The book closes with an appendix entitled ‘Wittgenstein and the Question of Atheism’, where Virno returns to the project of secularizing notions of language and revelation, which appears at several junctions of his argument. While Virno argues that Wittgenstein’s religious refutation of metaphysics calls for an atheist response, he leaves us with a brief outline of this project that he postpones to a later date.

Virno’s book makes a sophisticated contribution to current debates about the question whether political theory needs ontological foundations. However, in contrast to ‘post-foundational’ writers, who have pointed out that ontological foundations haveto retain an understanding of their own contestability and contingency, Virno’s philosophical anthropology rejects such injunctions for their ‘weakness’. His appeal to an unchanging ‘biological’ basis of human nature establishes an ontological foundation that is not open to contestation in the way post-foundational theorists would call for. His position is closer to post-foundationalists, when he argues that ‘human nature’ enables a multiplicity of social formations and languages, and that no definite political agenda is bound up with his ontology of the human. Nevertheless, he appears impervious to the ethico-political issues that arise from the assertion of a purportedly stable and unchanging notion of the human species as unique and distinct from any other form of life, an issue that has been amply discussed in recent decades. We are thus left to wonder what it would mean, in praxis, to define the human species through the capacity to learn a language and speak. Does this exclude humans who are unable to develop speech from the human species? And what would such an exclusion entail? Second, Virno’s discussion raises questions about the way humans relate to non-human animals and the ‘environment’. He seems to assert that non-human animals can neither develop language in any meaningful sense, nor are they capable of life-long learning. However, the question about whether these distinctions of the human from the non-human animal are as clear-cut as Virno presents them, or what it would mean if they were not, is not further pursued. Moreover, while Virno argues that our inability to adapt to an environmental niche makes it necessary for us humans to build a social ‘world’, he seems unconcerned with the ways humans seek to adapt ‘environments’, the natural habitats of other animals, to their needs. This is a violent process that has accelerated with the maturing of capitalist forms of production and consumption. We might thus ask whether Virno’s project does not risk returning to a concept of the masterful human subject, a superior and distinct being, distinguished from the human non-speaker as well as from non-human animals and ‘nature’.

10 January 2016

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