Notes on Paolo Virno's Quando il Verbo si fa Carne. Linguaggio e Natura Umana (Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2003)

Arianna Bove, 2004

Virno’s most recent work analyses the role of language in the context of a wider reflection on the modifications of the political economy of the production of subjectivity. He interestingly engages with linguistic analysis and esearches into the consequence of linguistic production at the level of its effects on subjectivity. In particular he reframes the debate in linguistics in terms of the separation between langage, langue and parole to prioritise langage, i.e. the faculty of language. In Quando il verbo si fa carne, Virno addresses the dichotomy between synchronic and diachronic analysis by positing the very faculty of language at the forefront of philosophical reflection, through a philosophical analysis of the ‘I speak’. The faculty of language, he asserts, is irreducible to a linear history of the development of the ‘natural languages’, whilst being a characteristic that defines us as human beings. It can be described as a force and power that in its heterogeneity, as Saussure asserts, cannot be reducible to rules of enunciation of determinate languages. Virno distinguishes the ontic level of the empirical (‘what is said’ as determined in space and time) from the ontological level of the transcendental (‘the fact of saying’ as the condition of possibility).

He defines the ‘I speak’ as an absolute performative statement (1), one that accounts for the event of language and its insertion in the world (2). In grappling with the empirico-transcendental doublet Virno is critical of the emphasis on langue in so far as it dwells on the historical and social particularities of language (3).In relation to the confession, he writes:

The tension between language and historical-natural langue reaches its apex in the confession. Nowhere as in this ritual does the contraposition between communicative message and the simple enunciative function appear so dramatic. Here the absolute performative fulfils a delicate function. The person who declares the deed, for instance, an armed robbery or a murder, expresses terrible semantic contents in Italian or Portuguese. In order to be cleared of such guilt he/she has no other means than speaking loud. The act of enunciating constitutes here the only valid antidote to the venom inhabiting the text of the statements. The act of taking the floor (4), which goes beyond the borders of single languages and recalls the sensible faculty of speech, denies the deed as it describes it and thus alleviates and cures. In confession, what is said is literally the sin from which one needs emending, whilst redemptive and saving is only the very act of speaking in itself. (5)

In a shift from the epistemic to the existential, for Virno, self-consciousness, or the transcendental unity of apperception, is revealed in the I speak rather than the I think.

Virno and Foucault: "The ‘I speak’ runs counter to the ‘I think’" (6)

We find a correspondence of intents between Virno's reflections on the ‘I speak’ and Foucault’s insistence on the role of language and communicative exchange in Kant’s philosophical system of correspondences between freedom and necessity. For Foucault, it is only through the faculty of language that a notion of anthropology without a subject can emerge. Virno interestingly operates a comparison between the ‘I speak’ and the ‘I think’ in the context of a distinction between reification and fetishism. He asserts that historical and social forms of life as well as theorisations can be fetishistic in so far as they hide or misconstrue what makes human existence a thing. ‘Reification is an ontological condition that, however, can either manifest itself as such, or take the form of alienation and fetishism.’ For Virno, Kant’s critique of reason and its paralogisms, or inevitable appearances, is a critique of fetishism. This is of importance for our view of Foucault’s attack on the subject for we believe that the interpretation of his work as an attack on reason can only be apt when we think of reason as dialectical activity in Kant’s terms.

In The Order of Things Foucault is pointing to the human sciences as the embodiment in knowledge of the paralogisms of Reason. In this he carries through Kant’s critique of reason and only in this sense can we see a correspondence between a critique of the subject and a critique of reason. Virno reiterates this critique by describing as fetishistic the ambition to draw an identity of the subject from the logical-linguistic prerequisites of the proposition ‘I think’.

The error of metaphysical psychologists consists in wanting to determine the nature of the self conscious ‘I’ by applying to it notions (such as substance, simplicity, indivisibility) which could not be posited without presupposing a self conscious ‘I’…and to have experience of the very conditions of possibility for experience. (7)

Virno points out that even though the ‘I think’ is prior to the categories, this does not make it incorporeal or disembodied. Thus whilst the tendency to treat the transcendental prerogative for knowing as any other represented object is fetishistic (and this is the crux of the circularity of the human sciences for Foucault), the attempt of ‘surveying the empirical phenomena in which that prerogative is manifested and perceivable’ is reifying, hence always instructive. We might say then that Kant’s Anthropology consists to an extent in that survey, and this is what in its engagement with empiricity and the role of man in the world causes it to endanger the disembodying moments of the Critique. For us it is what warns against the formalising tendencies of thought to operate through transcendence.

Virno asserts that at the foundation of the synthetic unity of apperception there is an act rather than a thought and that this act is linguistic. The absolute performative of the ‘I speak’ grants the synthetic unity of apperception in so far as it is executed, performed and inserted in the world at once.

The I think is a descriptive statement, since it does nothing more than assert an incontrovertible psychic reality. The I speak on the other hand is a performative statement that, going beyond the psychic element, shares in the exteriority and manifestation of praxis. (8)

Here Virno is asserting a sovereignty of exteriority against a sovereignty of introspection, for the latter can only give rise to tautologies. ‘The structures of subjectivity do not ‘become’ things in the course of time: they are things to start with’. Or, as Foucault puts it: ‘The discourse about which I speak does not pre-exist the nakedness articulated the moment I say ‘I speak’; it disappears the instant I fall silent.’

So for Foucault the ‘I speak’ runs counter to the ‘I think’ in pointing to an exteriority of discourse, but this exteriority is nothing but the empirical world itself, the world where the Kantian homo criticus exchanges and communicates beyond the determination of the sovereignty of self consciousness and the realm of fixed identity whether existential, psychological or epistemological. For Foucault,

Thought about thought, an entire tradition wider than philosophy, has taught us that thought leads us to the deepest interiority. Speech about speech leads us to the outside in which the speaking subject disappears. No doubt, that is why Western thought took so long to think the being of language: as if it had a premonition of the danger that the naked experience of language poses for the self-evidence of the ‘I think’. (9)

Virno battles against the sovereignty of interiority and links the dynamis of the faculty of language to the notion of labour power in Postfordist capitalism.


(1) Virno here refers to John L. Austin’s definition of performative statements as what by being proffered enacts something, rather than describing it. Its executive power derives by its insertion into a ritual, such as a wedding, a christening, a legal proceeding or a game. (i.e. I bet £ 10 Roma will win the A league this year). See Quando il verbo si fa carne, 2003, p. 38

(2) The ‘I speak’ also re-evokes and repeats the anthropogenesis entailed by language that sees origin, in Saussurian terms, as an ever-present condition. Concrete examples of the I speak as condition of possibility are for Virno the confession and the exterior monologue. (see Ibid. p. 50ff)

(3) Although Virno is careful to revisit the debate without underestimating the role of parole, in addressing the faculty of language as the absolute performative that can account for the transcendental without recourse to a unitary subject, he often risks overplaying the biological factor. He writes, for instance, referring to the infantile soliloquy, that: ‘the crux of the faculty of language consists in the emission of articulate sounds, the ontological proof of the ability to speak is achieved by means of the signifying voice. The act of parole that constitutes this proof has to be regarded as a physiological performance, as a rhythm of breathing. In egocentric language therefore one witnesses a short circuit between faculté and parole: langue, to which the faculté normally seems to be assimilated with no residue, here loses its prominence and proves to be a simple intermediary between the other two poles.’ Ibid., p. 34

(4) Interestingly the expression ‘prendere la parola’ is very hard to translate closely into English. Prendere la parola literally means taking the word and establishes an entry into the public of discourse that is much more singularised than the expression taking the floor suggests. The latter expression has an immediately political resonance, while ‘prendere la parola’ in Italian is often a necessary means for asserting one’s existence in normal conversation.

(5) Ibid., p. 67

(6) Michel Foucault, ‘The thought of the outside’, Essential Works: Aesthetics, 2000, p. 149

(7) Paolo Virno, Quando il verbo si fa carne, Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2003, p. 126-127

(8) Virno, Quando il verbo si fa carne, 2003, p. 134

(9) Michel Foucault, ‘The thought of the outside’, Essential Works: Aesthetics, 2000, p. 150

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