The difficulty of saying 'no'

Paolo Virno

Translation by Arianna Bove, January 2013

The difficulty of 'nay-saying', the beautiful title used by a German philosopher, Habermas, and therefore not translated into Italian, is what I am adopting as a title. I'm not very familiar with 'utopia', I have rarely used this word, which is a disadvantage because when you are unfamiliar with concepts you risk being clumsy and hesitant, but can also be an advantage because you can look at the concept free from prejudices and readings. I propose in this meeting, provisionally, to consider utopia as a synonymous (and this neither the best nor the only way of conceiving of utopia), of the possibility of distancing oneself from the present, of being, somehow - physiologically rather than because of extravagant conditions or exceptional virtues - inactual, gaining a distance from the present, eluding the eternal present that tradition casts on God and non-linguistic animals, neither of whom have any form of inactuality, they are all actual, encaged and enclosed in an eternal present. But if you are in that condition you don't even have a present, because the notion of a present, now, only exists in so far as there can be something that is not actual. So what is there that is inactual, or non-present, and what kind of detachment is allowed to us, living beings with language, and is also inevitable for us? This inactuality is the place of the non-place. Utopia as you know, is the non-place, but in fact has a postal address. If utopia exists and is a concept worth handling (and all good concepts must be usable or they are only good for universities), well, utopia's official residency is what in our life represents a distancing, a hiatus. And what I would like to claim is that one important, though not exclusive, form of detachment from the present is the form, the modest, humble, linguistic form that is the word 'non': negation, the ability to say how things are not, the ability to enumerate the predicates, attributes and qualities that an object does NOT have.

We could have a highbrow debate on negation, from Hegel's dialectics, the principle of non- contradiction, Heidegger's What is metaphysics, and so on and so forth, but let's instead start from something we can control: our ability of saying how things are not, which is what creates a detachment from the environment, and guarantees, allows for, a hiatus, an empty space, in relation not only to environmental factors, but also psychological stimuli: a sort of distance, of non-presence, that is both internal and external.

So here I proffer some observations on negation as a vehicle and condition of possibility of the inactual, of the familiarity with the non-present, what is not present. You know that the word actuality is a bifurcated word because it indicates what is in act, what is realised, but we also use it to characterise what is present. Perhaps there is a truth to this two faces in the term: what is actual is what is perfectly realised, but what is perfectly realised is what we term, temporarily, present. And that's how we should think of the term inactual: inactual means not-now, not present, but also what is not actual, not-realised, and thus something potential. Potential is what I always mean when I say inactual.

Unless we want to waste our words - and I am polemical but I am also open to be the object of polemics - I believe that negation is an exclusive prerogative of verbal language. That is, unless we really want to see a punch or vomit as the equivalent of the enunciation of a negative language. Negation emerges, in the history of the evolution of the species, only where one finds grammar, syntax and verbal language. For example, think of our psychological images or images in general, from paintings to icons. Imagine we have two friends who play tennis every morning, Mario and Gianni. We have an image of them doing that every morning. Then we find out that one morning they don't, out of laziness or what not. Now try to imagine, in an image, in something non-linguistic, them not playing tennis and if you manage I'll give you a lot of money. But you can't, all we can do is substitute the psychological image, or as Germans call it Vorstellung, putting forward, so substituting the psychological image of Gianni and Mario playing tennis with a new and different psychological representation, i.e. them sitting in a cafe drinking an aperitif, which is not an image of them not playing tennis. So the image is a denial of them playing tennis but it is not a representation of their not playing tennis. And this is decisive. So at the level of psychology we don't have negation: we have pain, disappointment, denials, but not the possibility of representing that something hasn't happened. With language, instead, we can say Marco and Gianni don't play tennis. In a drop of grammar there is a lot of ethics, history and politics. I think this is a drop of grammar: we can say they don't play tennis, and in this way we keep talking about them playing tennis. We don't talk about them doing anything else; we don't substitute a semantic content with any other semantic content, like drinking an aperitif or chatting up girls.

'This is not a man', says the Nazi lieutenant in the lager, or Oriana Fallaci of the Arab: this is not a man. You see, everything, 'senses, sight, empathy', tells me that the Jew or the Arab is a man, and yet despite the fact that perception, empathy, as the spontaneous relationship between beings of the same species, tells me that this is a man, there is an explosive power that allows for such evidence to be denied. 'This is not a man': in fact I keep speaking about the relationship between that individual, the old Jew who cries, or the Arab, or the immigrant, to humanity, but I abrogate, I suspend this relation.
You must have heard about the phenomenon of mirror neurons: Gallese works here in Parma and has researched this and we have discussed it. For those who haven't, mirror neurons are, in apes and human beings, a mechanism that is activated when another living being of my species performs an action, and they are activated in the same way as if I was about to perform the same action, which allows for an understanding of others that precedes language by far: I know if someone is about to kiss me or throw a blow: I understand in some sense of this term, the behaviour and, why not, even the aims of who is before me. Which means that there is a sort of originary sociality. Gallese uses a term I like and use: a space that is 'we-centred' [noi centrico], 'we-centred' means a 'we' that precedes the constitution of singular self-conscious constituted subjects: this originary empathy is neural, not due to propositions, free exchange of ideas, agreement, compromise, or pacts, it is immediate. The real question is what happens when verbal language inserts itself in this neural empathy in this 'we-centred' space. There are two possibilities: one is what I term the hypothesis of the contented hearts, amongst whom Habermas here taken as a polemical object but respected as a rigorous thinker, which claims: well, language develops, like a large echo or resonance chamber, the empathy that was already present at the neural level. I think this hypothesis is completely wrong. I think that language sabotages and unbalances the originary neural empathy: sabotage and unbalance, meaning it makes less automatic and secure the functioning of the neurons, obviously it does not abolish it, because it cannot abolish any biological procedure, but it can suspend it, make it more tortuous and difficult, in this is not a man. Everything in mirror neurons tells me that the Jew and Arab is a man, but language inserts itself as a radical evil precisely because negation exists. Negation, which makes us capable of utopia, of inactuality and detachment from the present, also has this sinister side, and we must learn to coexist with the ambivalence of utopia, in this case, with its productive mechanism that is negation, and taking distance from things as they are, otherwise we won't go far and travel on a linear path towards the singing Oman.

Negation can deny the evidence that mirror neurons present to us. The extreme case is, do you remember, the Hegelian fable about mutual recognition between self consciousnesses? Well, negation even allows for the liminal case of reciprocal mis-recognition [dis-conoscimento] amongst beings of the same species, the systematic failure of mutual recognition. Even when it does not actually occur, as in the proposition 'this is not a man', as a latent possibility (reciprocal mis-recognition) still influences the mean of social communication. The case at the threshold counts even if it does not realise itself, even if it stays at the margins of the public sphere.

In fact if one reads Hegel's pages on mutual recognition it is clear that there is no happy ending to the story: it's a list of stalemates, abortive strikes, never one is really recognised symmetrically, it is a catalogue and list of unsuccessful attempts. Even aside from thinking of the 'This is not a man' of Fallaci or Nazism, think of the child, who is entering language, and is furious with her mum because every evening she leaves, he says 'you are no my mother', and yet he knows full well that this is his mother. He doesn't say, and here lies the difference between negation and psychology, he doesn't say 'you are awitch' or 'you are a stranger', he keeps the same semantic content, involving you and being mother, but defuses/deactivates it [disinnesca]. [...]

Linguistic (and not psychological) negation, which is the only logically possible one, people who speak of negative mental images in psychology don't make sense. So, linguistic negation has a destructive power over neurological originary empathy. From this standpoint, one might say that when Kant speaks of 'radical evil', well, it is radical precisely because it resides in one of the salient characteristics of our being, that is language [linguaggio], where by the term language you can understand anything you like, everything works, except one thing: communication, please! Communication is one of the aspects of language but language is not essentially communication. Language is the way we think and, in many ways, the way we think through words and propositions has repercussions on our forms of perception: i.e. my fear or sexual desire is partly modified retroactively with a feedback effect of language on that which preceded it. So language in this sense has also a destructive effect.

Then, what is our public sphere? In so far as it is an environment or ambit where we confront and persuade one another, we come to compromises and pacts, the public sphere is the negation of this first murderous negation 'this is not a man'. Our public sphere, if you like, is the non 'non-man', it is a putting out of the game the possibility, extreme and horrific, of not recognising one's fellow human. So the famous Hegelian expression we came across at school and rightly left behind there, the negation of the negation, should probably be understood in this sense: our public sphere, also ridden by radical conflicts, is what we know because it constantly keeps in check and expels from itself that first potentially murderous negation that is mis-recognition. So one might say, from mirror neurons, we have become civilised in the public sphere, which is a projection, in great style, of the mirror neurons. But no! There is a tragedy in this: a rupture, between mirror neurons and the public sphere, there is the insertion of language, the insertion of negation, the danger determined by negation of not recognising one's species fellow, and also the correction of this danger, the negation of this negation. So the public sphere is not the linear development of the empathy and sympathy between human beings, but it is the outcome of a crisis, a tragic one, and of the medicine of this crisis, of a poison and its remedy.

I was saying earlier that negation is an exclusive characteristic of verbal language, it does not belong to psychology: so long as we proceed through psychological representations we do not negate, rather, we substitute positive and affirmative images to the first image. But this substitution is anything but negation. I propose this definition of negation: negation occurs where the same meaning or semantic content are maintained. Affirmation and negation pivot on the same meaning (Andrea and Gianni and playing tennis).

On the meaning of our enunciations, I am talking about anything but what Eco concerns himself with in studying semiotics: I only mean literally what we think. Meaning of enunciations: thought, and vice versa. And obviously thought is also charged with emotions, affects, etc. so when speaking of thought I don't point to mere logical formulae or scientific laws, not at all, I mean the common thought of common men. That is the meaning of enunciations.

So what emerges is something that brings us closer to inactuality and thus, to utopia. But a daily utopia or non-place, or non-present or non-chronia, is troubling, it's not a sort of vie en rose, because we have seen that within it there is even the possibility of Oriana Fallaci on the Arabs. You understand, this field of inactuality, of detachment from things as they are, is a battlefield. It is a generically human characteristic, but it's not one that, like in Westerns, belongs to the good ones who come on their horses, it's a battlefield.

But let me say something else: some things are even quite evident but one isn't sure about whether their evidence is merely solipsistic and private evidence. If the meaning of an enunciation and our thought has a high degree of neutrality, meaning that we understand its meaning irrespective of whether it's true or false whether we affirm it or not. Pretend you know someone called Mario, and Mario runs when confronting the police. We all understand this before we try and say whether it is the case or not. The meaning of the enunciation has its own character, a public one, shared and understandable by everyone before being declined in one direction or another. I would speak of 'neutrality' of meaning, and Wittgenstein, as an ex engineer has good technical terms: imagine a rod. When I say the enunciation I deal with is the whole ruler, still unprejudiced, and then when I affirm it or not affirm it, it is one notch of the ruler I am dealing with.

This means that the utterance, the meaning of our thought, is independent of how things are out there. Is Mario out there running from the police? Well, to start with, we all understand this utterance. The meaning is independent of the denotation (i.e. the relationship between the utterance and reality). Meaning is independent, detached and inactual from the denotation, and is also independent from what happens inside, my feeling, pulsations, emotions, in relation to the fact that Mario runs when seeing the police. The relation between Mario and running is the same, whether I tell him not to do it or not. This is what linguists term locutory force, meaning what I want to do with the utterance, for instance, a pledge, an exhortation, so you see, the meaning of the utterance is neutral both to how things are in reality externally, and also to the stimuli of who says it, hope, etc.

There is double neutrality, one from the psychological reality, from the psychological stimuli, and the other from how things go in the environment. This double distance, in linguistic terms, is sanctioned by the word 'non'. This humble word that sneaks in everywhere, 'I don't love you', 'the sea not in tempest', it's everywhere, as they say in Naples like parsley in all soups. But where does it come from? What des it mean? It reflects, like a stock cube, it concentrates in itself something that is true of all language, that meaning is not denotation and that meaning is not a psychological stimulus. The 'non' gives life, as a sign, to what is true of all signs, to the fact that they don't coincide with reality. That there is a hiatus, a divide between our thought and how things are. The origin of 'non' and of course I use it to describe reality, about Gianni, Andrea, events and facts etc. 'but the first meaning of non is internal to the very functioning of language. Meaning is not denotation, our meanings do not correspond to reality as it is, and in other ways they don't correspond to the emotional states that at the time agitate the mind of the speaker or listener. If I was to say what 'non' is, it is a mirror of the general functioning of language, of its not being reality. And language is thought; don't think that, when you think, you think first and then speak, even when you dream, you do so in propositions.

'Non' is thus our detachment between our language, that is, thought, and reality. So of course it is also used to describe the reality of Mario Gianni and Andrea but its first function is reflexive. What does reflexive mean? It is what mirrors do. They reflect, as in a mirror, the reality of language in general, of the system it belongs to.

So the place of utopia, of innovative action, of transformation, of revolution and civil war is the detachment between our thought and reality. In that non correspondence we can project what we've never seen, the radically unknown. But, I insist, the detachment that allows radical innovation is the same that allows that son of a bitch to say that 'this is not a man'. [...]

Where does this detachment arise from? Asking questions, and the linguistic form that we call the possible, the utterances that begin with 'it is possible that'. The human practice of composing statements that begin with 'it is possible that', are evidence of this detachment. [...] The practice of asking questions is like a grand scale experiment of possibilities. The whole ruler is present, when I ask whether it rains. The question comprises of the whole semantic content as it is still suspended and detached. That waiting between the question and the answer is, existentially, a manifestation of this inactuality of negation.

It's possible that Maria loves me: when I say it's possible, like when I say 'Is it raining?' I don't know it yet, I am open, detached from how things are effectively. I am in a condition where yes and no co-exist. When I say that it's possible that Maria loves me I say that it's also possible that she does not.

Negation always implies the possible: when I say 'Mario is not at home', this utterance makes it possible for me to visualise the possibility of him being at home. There's a double relation, in the possible there is negation, in negation there is the possible. These two very common everyday human practices, speaking of what's possible and asking questions, are repeated and common manifestations of what qualifies our whole language which has its radioactive centre in the word 'non'. Because our sentences are not the reality of which they speak, we can ask questions, because there is this detachment, negativity and non-correspondence, we ask and reason about the possible. They are manifestations of non presence. We live in the not-now in so far as we speak. Inactuality is detachment from the present and all language contains inactuality. And that difficulty of saying no is also the place where we find, rooted, that expression of Aristotle, 'what can be different from what is', he used this expression to express contingency, but it is also a degree of inactuality, which makes us terrible and marvellous.

Translator's Note

No-saying in Habermas is discussed in Farr, Evan and White, Stephen, 'No-Saying in Habermas', Western Political Science Association 2011 Annual Meeting Paper. Available at SSRN here: Farr and White provide the following references to Habermas' discussion of civil disobedience: Habermas, 'Civil Disobedience: Litmus Test for the Constitutional Democratic State,' trans. and intro. by John Torpey, Berkeley Journal of Sociology (1985), 99. Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, trans. by William Rehg (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 380, 384. 'Civil Disobedience,' 104-104; 'Uber Moral, Recht, zivilen Ungehorsam und Moderne,' (interview) in Eine Art Schadensabwicklung (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1987); 'Recht und Gewalt: ein deutsches Trauma,' in Die Neue Unubersichtlichkeit (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1985), pp. 110-114.

A reader informs us that: "Virno is not referring to Habermans, but to someone "more interesting than Habermas", and "thus" untranslated in Italian, who used the title "La difficolt� di dire no"." Our reader Davide thinks that Virno is referring to Klaus Heinrich author of Versuch �ber die Schwierigkeit nein zu sagen which is about the power of negation. We trust our reader is probably correct and thank him for the note.

* This text is a transcript and translation of this lecture:
L'Azione Innovativa - Lecture at the Fondazione Collegio San Carlo

Thanks to ImmaterialiResistenti

little site banner