2. Introduction

Submitted by Joseph Kay on April 16, 2007

2.1. People vs. Multitude: Hobbes and Spinoza

I maintain that the concept of "multitude," as opposed to the more familiar concept of "people," is a crucial tool for every careful analysis of the contemporary public sphere. One must keep in mind that the choice between "people" and "multitude" was at the heart of the practical controversies (the establishing of centralized modern States, religious wars, etc.) and of the theoretical-philosophical controversies of the seventeenth century. These two competing concepts, forged in the fires of intense clashes, played a primary role in the definition of the political-social categories of the modern era. It was the notion of "people" which prevailed. "Multitude" is the losing term, the concept which got the worst of it. In describing the forms of associative life and of the public spirit of the newly constituted great States, one no longer spoke of multitude, but of people. But we need to ask whether, today, at the end of a long cycle, the old dispute has not been opened up once again; whether, today, now that the political theory of the modern era is going through a radical crisis, this once defeated notion is not displaying extraordinary vitality, thus taking its dramatic revenge.

The two polarities, people and multitude, have Hobbes and Spinoza as their putative fathers. For Spinoza, the multitudo indicates a plurality which persists as such in the public scene, in collective action, in the handling of communal affairs, without converging into a One, without evaporating within a centripetal form of motion. Multitude is the form of social and political existence for the many, seen as being many: a permanent form, not an episodic or interstitial form. For Spinoza, the multitudo is the architrave of civil liberties (Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus).

Hobbes detests — and I am using here, after due consideration, a passionate, not very scientific word — the multitude; he rages against it. In the social and political existence of the many, seen as being many, in the plurality which does not converge into a synthetic unity, he sees the greatest danger of a "supreme empire"; that is to say, for that monopoly of political decision-making which is the State. The best way to understand the significance of a concept — multitude, in this case — is to examine it with the eyes of one who has fought it tenaciously. The person who grasps all the implications and the nuances of a concept is precisely the one who wishes to expunge it from the theoretical and practical horizon.

Before giving a brief explanation of the way in which Hobbes portrays the detested multitude, it is good to determine exactly the goal being pursued here. I wish to show that the category of the multitude (precisely as it is treated by its sworn enemy, Hobbes) helps to explain a certain number of contemporary social behaviors. After the centuries of the "people" and then those of the State (nation-State, centralized State, etc.), the opposing polarity returns at last to manifest itself, having been annulled at the dawning of the modern era. Multitude seen as the last cry of social, political and philosophical theory? Perhaps. An entire gamut of considerable phenomena-linguistic games, forms of life, ethical inclinations, salient characteristics of production in today's world-will end up to be only slightly, or not at all, comprehensible, unless understood as originating from the mode of being of the many. To investigate this mode of being, one must have recourse to a rather varied kind of conceptual orchestration: anthropology, philosophy of language, criticism of political economics, ethics. One must circumnavigate the multitude-continent, changing frequently the angle of perspective.

This having been said, let us look briefly at the way in which Hobbes delineates, in his role as perspicacious adversary, the mode of being of the "many." For Hobbes, the decisive political clash is the one which takes place between multitude and people. The modern public sphere can have as its barycenter either one or the other. Civil war, always threatening, has its logical form in this alternative. The concept of people, according to Hobbes, is strictly correlated to the existence of the State; furthermore, it is a reverberation, a reflection of the State: if there is a State, then there are people. In the absence of the State, there are no people. In the De Cive, in which the horror of the multitude is exposed far and wide, we read: "The People is somewhat that is one, having one will, and to whom one action may be attributed" (Hobbes, De Cive, Chap. XII, section VIII).

The multitude, for Hobbes, is inherent in the "state of nature;" therefore, it is inherent in that which precedes the "body politic." But remote history can re-emerge, like a "repressed experience" which returns to validate itself, in the crises which sometimes shake state sovereignty. Before the State, there were the many; after the establishment of the State, there is the One-people, endowed with a single will. The multitude, according to Hobbes, shuns political unity, resists authority, does not enter into lasting agreements, never attains the status of juridical person because it never transfers its own natural rights to the sovereign. The multitude inhibits this "transfer" by its very mode of being (through its plural character) and by its mode of behaving. Hobbes, who was a great writer, emphasizes with admirable refinement, how the multitude is anti-state, but, precisely for this reason, anti-people: "the People, stirring up the Citizens against the City, that is to say, the Multitude against the People" (Hobbes, ibid.). The contrast between the two concepts is carried here to full range: if there are people, there is no multitude; if there is a multitude, there are no people. For Hobbes and for the seventeenth century apologists for state sovereignty, multitude is a purely negative borderline concept; that is to say, it is identified with the risks which weigh upon stateness; it is the debris which can sometimes jam the "big machine." It is a negative concept this multitude: it is that which did not make itself fit to become people, in as much as it virtually contradicts the state monopoly of political decision making; in brief, it is a regurgitation of the "state of nature" in civil society.

2.2. Exorcized plurality: the "private" and the "individual"

How has the multitude survived the creation of the centralized States? Through what concealed and feeble forms has it made itself known after the full affirmation of the modern concept of sovereignty? Where is its echo heard? Stylizing the question to the extreme, let us try to identify the ways in which the many, seen as being many, have been understood in liberal thought and in democratic-socialist thought (thus, in political traditions which have had their indisputable point of reference in the unity of the people).

In liberal thought, the uneasiness provoked by the "many" is toned down by means of having recourse to the pairing of the terms public-private. The multitude, which is the polar opposite of the people, takes on the slightly ghostly and mortifying features of the so-called private. Incidentally, even the public-private dyad itself, before becoming something indisputable, had been forged through tears and blood during a thousand theoretical and practical disputes; it is maintained, therefore, by a complex set of consequences. What could be more normal for us than to speak of public experience and of private experience? But this bifurcation was not always taken for granted. The lack of indisputability is interesting because, today, we are perhaps living in a new seventeenth century, or in an age in which the old categories are falling apart and we need to coin new ones. Many concepts which still seem extravagant and unusual to us — the notion of non-representative democracy, for example — are perhaps already tending to drum up a new kind of common sense, in order to aspire, in turn, to become "obvious." But let us return to the point. "Private" signifies not only something personal, not only something which concerns the inner life of this person or that; private signifies, above all, deprived of: deprived of a voice, deprived of a public presence. In liberal thought, the multitude survives as a private dimension. The many are aphasic and far removed from the sphere of common affairs.

In democratic-socialist thought, where is it that we find an echo of the archaic multitude? Perhaps in the pairing of the terms collective-individual. Or, better yet, in the second of these terms, in the individual dimension. The people are the collective; the multitude is concealed by the presumed impotence, as well as by the immoderate uneasiness, of single individuals. The individual is the irrelevant remainder of divisions and multiplications which are carried out somewhere far from the individual. In terms of what can be called individual in the strictest sense, the individual seems indescribable. just as the multitude is indescribable within the democratic-socialist tradition.

At this point I should speak in advance of an opinion which will appear on several occasions in what I will have to say later. I believe that in today's forms of life one has a direct perception of the fact that the cou pling of the terms public-private, as well as the coupling of the terms collective-individual, can no longer stand up on their own, that they are gasping for air, burning themselves out. This is just like what is happening in the world of contemporary production, provided that production — loaded as it is with ethos, culture, linguistic interaction — not give itself over to econometric analysis, but rather be understood as a broad-based experience of the world. That which was rigidly subdivided now blends together and is superimposed upon itself. It is difficult to say where collective experience ends and individual experience begins. It is difficult to separate public experience from so-called private experience. In this blurring of borders, even the two categories of citizen and of producer fail us; or they become only slightly dependable as categories, even though they were so important in Rousseau, Smith, Hegel, and even in Marx himself (though being nothing more than a polemical butt).

The contemporary multitude is composed neither of "citizens" nor of "producers;" it occupies a middle region between "individual and collective;" for the multitude, then, the distinction between "public" and "private" is in no way validated. And it is precisely because of the dissolution of the coupling of these terms, for so long held to be obvious, that one can no longer speak of a people converging into the unity of the state. While one does not wish to sing out-of-tune melodies in the post-modern style ("multiplicity is good, unity is the disaster to beware of"), it is necessary, however, to recognize that the multitude does not clash with the One; rather, it redefines it. Even the many need a form of unity, of being a One. But here is the point: this unity is no longer the State; rather, it is language, intellect, the communal faculties of the human race. The One is no longer a promise, it is a premise. Unity is no longer something (the State, the sovereign) towards which things converge, as in the case of the people; rather, it is taken for granted, as a background or a necessary precondition. The many must be thought of as the individualization of the universal, of the generic, of the shared experience.

Thus, in a symmetric manner, we must conceive of a One which, far from being something conclusive, might be thought of as the base which authorizes differentiation or which allows for the political-social existence of the many seen as being many. I say this only in order to emphasize that present-day reflection on the category of multitude does not allow for rapturous simplifications or superficial abbreviations; instead, such reflection must confront some harsh problems: above all the logical problem (which needs to be reformulated, not removed) of the relationship of One/Many.

2.3. Three approaches to the Many

The concrete definitions of the contemporary multitude can be placed in focus through the development of three thematic units. The first of these is very Hobbesian: the dialectic between fear and the search for security. It is clear that even the concept of "people" (in its seventeenth century articulations, either liberal or democratic-socialist) is centered around certain strategies developed to foil danger and to obtain protection. I will maintain (in today's presentation) that on the empirical and conceptual levels, the forms of fear have failed, together with the corresponding types of refuge to which the notion of "people" has been connected. What prevails instead is a dialectic of dread-refuge which is quite different: one which defines several characteristic traits of today's multitude. Fear-security: this is the grid or litmus paper which is philosophically and sociologically relevant in order to show how the figure of the multitude is not all "peaches, cream and honey," in order to identify what specific poisons are lurking in this figure. The multitude is a mode of being, the prevalent mode of being today: but, like all modes of being, it is ambivalent, or, we might say, it contains within itself both loss and salvation, acquiescence and conflict, servility and freedom. The crucial point, however, is that these alternative possibilities have a peculiar physiognomy, different from the one with which they appeared within the people/general-will/State cluster.

The second theme, which I will deal with in the next seminar, is the relation between the concept of multitude and the crisis of the ancient tripartitioning of human experience into Labor, Politics, Thought. This has to do with a subdivision proposed by Aristotle, then taken up again in the twentieth century, above all by Hannah Arendt, and encysted until very recently within our notion of common sense. This is a subdivision which now, however, has fallen apart.

The third thematic unit consists of sifting through several categories in order to be able to say something about the subjectivity of the multitude. Above all, I will examine three of these categories: the principle of indi viduation, and the categories of idle talk and curiosity. The first of these categories is an austere and wrongly neglected metaphysical question: what is it that renders an individual identity individual? The other two categories, instead, have to do with daily life. It was Heidegger who conferred the dignity of philosophical concepts upon the categories of idle talk and curiosity. Even though my argument will avail itself of certain pages of Being and Time, the manner in which I will speak of these categories is substantially non-Heideggerian, or actually anti- Heideggerian.