Do you hear what I see?

joseph dennis_1

The vocal chords of a young tenor, December 2014, Voices of Ascension choir, New York.

Contemporary labor has introjected into itself many characteristics which originally marked the experience of politics…Politics, according to Hannah Arendt, has taken to imitating labor. The politics of the  twentieth century, in her judgement, has become a sort of fabrication of new objects: the State, the political party, history, etc.

A Grammar of the Multitude, Paolo Virno, 2004 [all bold type throughout; somewhat tweaked].

joseph dennis_2I maintain that things have gone in the opposite direction from what Arendt seems to believe: it is not that politics has conformed to labor; it is rather that labor has acquired the traditional features of political action…I maintain that it is in the world of contemporary labor that we find the “being in the presence of others,” the relationship with the presence of others, the beginning of new processes, and the constitutive familiarity with contingency, the unforeseen and the possible — those talents and qualifications which, according to a secular tradition, had more to do with political action, but are brought into play by post-Fordist labor. 

joseph dennis_3…this explains the crisis of politics, the sense of scorn surrounding political praxis today, the disrepute into which action has fallen. In fact, political action now seems, in a disastrous way, like some superfluous duplication of the experience of labor, since the latter experience, even if in a deformed and despotic manner, has subsumed into itself certain structural characteristics of political action.

joseph dennis_4The sphere of politics follows closely the procedures and stylistic elements that define the current state of labor; but let us note: it follows them closely while offering a poorer, cruder and more simplistic version of these procedures and stylistic elements. Politics offers a network of communication and a cognitive content of a more wretched variety than what is carried out in the current productive process. While less complex than labor and yet too similar to it, political action seems, all the same, like something not very desirable at all.

joseph dennis_6The inclusion of certain structural features of political praxis in contemporary production help us to understand why the post-Ford multitude might be seen today as a de-politicized multitude. There is already too much politics in the world of wage labor (in as much as it is wage labor) in order for politics as such to continue to enjoy an autonomous dignity.

joseph dennis_5The subsumation into the labor process of what formerly guaranteed an indisputable physiognomy for public Action can be clarified by means of an ancient, but by no means ineffective, category: virtuosity—defined as the special capabilities of a performing artist, the activity that finds its fulfillment in itself and exists only in the presence of an audience, without an end product or object which survives the performance,.

joseph dennis_7One could say that every political action is virtuosic—shares with virtuosity a sense of contingency and the absence of a “finished product,” the immediate and unavoidable presence of others. On the other hand, all virtuosity is intrinsically political. Think about the case of Glenn Gould.

joseph dennis_9This great pianist paradoxically hated the distinctive characteristics of his activity as a performing artist; to put it another way, he detested public exhibition. Throughout his life he fought against the “political dimension” intrinsic to his profession…declared that he wanted to abandon the “active life,” the act of being exposed to the eyes of others. (note: “active life” is the traditional name for politics.)

joseph dennis_8In order to make his own virtuosity non-political, he sought to bring his activity as a performing artist as close as possible to the idea of labor, which leaves behind products. This meant closing himself inside a recording studio, passing off the production of records as an “end product.” In order to avoid the public-political dimension ingrained in virtuosity, he had to pretend that his masterly performances produced a defined object independent of the performance itself. 

joseph dennis_10Where there is an end product, there is labor, no longer virtuosity…But in post-Fordism, labor requires a “publicly organized space” and resembles a virtuosic performance (without end product).

And now, to complicate matters further, there is Miim—both product and virtuosic factory of sound and movement.  Happy new year, readers!



  1. emily apter said:

    Another super post, I’m very taken with the virtuosic as political aesthetic, its ‘in-presence.” But of course there is the accompanying problem of selling the virtuoso, the scarce and exceptional aesthetic experience…..

    On Sun, Dec 28, 2014 at 7:33 PM, silvia kolbowski: another platform for art


    • Thanks, Emily. There are a number of reasons to be ambivalent about theories of the multitude, although I am partial to Virno’s addition of “self-precarity” into the mix. And you must like his contention that we are all virtuosos – through our use of language, of enunciation – even when we are, as he points out, mediocre virtuosos!


  2. who knew that, in your hands, our concert experience would be transformed into this!


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