Criticism of Hardt and Negri: Tiresome Invocation of the Body

One significant criticism of Paul Thompson’s of Hardt and Negri can be summarised as an accusation of equivocation of terms, methods and approach: applying postmodernist aspirations, via poststructuralist language, to ultimately a still highly structuralist analysis. Indeed, one may suggest this is where Thompson might cynically locate Empire’s celebrated existence as “a bible of the anti-globalisation movement,” on account of its potential appeal to a multitude of Leftist intellectual positions, albeit at the expense of a strong understanding of contemporary political economy (Foundation and Empire, p.74). One significant moment of this sloppy equivocation is the metaphorical invocation of a “’queen bee [who] continuously oversees production and reproduction’ [but, according to Thompson] as to who the queen is and how she does it, we are none the wiser.” (p.78). This mode of power is insisted by Hardt and Negri to be biopolitical in nature and yet, despite the aforementioned melittological indication, Thompson recognises nothing biological in the form of power analysed. Rather, the doubtlessly extant imbrication of disciplinary / surveillant methods and biopolitical ones is overstated to a degree at which the Venn diagram of these epistemological modes of sovereignty are uncomfortably constricted into a singular circle: “By defining the sphere of the biopolitical as ‘life itself,’ the term is emptied of any real content.”

Certainly, I can register Thompson’s frustration with Hardt and Negri, as they supposedly seek new, postmodern compositions of bodies that inherently refuse surveillance and control. Indeed, such aspirations are exceedingly commonplace within the more half-baked circles of a queer Leftist discourse which will routinely insist upon awkwardly inserting the term “body/bodies” to reify and/or bolster the aesthetic “politicism” of one’s convictions. Such post-Le Guin aspirations are widespread – and certainly shared by me – but often fall prey to an unfortunate over-estimation of one’s inherent corporeal potential for resistance, or indeed an unfortunate under-estimation of the simultaneously ineffable and evanescent sovereign’s ability to account for the deviations of queer embodiment. This is especially true when we consider the all-encompassing, totalising power over the decidedly vague “life itself” Hardt and Negri describe. Unclear as it is what queer contortions they hope our bodies can achieve, can we conceive of any that would be so alien to disciplinary practices and dispositifs of surveillance that it would evade the very scope of “life itself”?

The most compelling parallel I can consider to Hardt and Negri’s conception of the Marxian top-down theory of repression, and the microsurveillant shaping of subjectivities à la Foucault is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the famous essay by neo-Marxist professor and mentor of Foucault, Louis Althusser’s Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. However, there are two significant distinctions between Althusser’s position and Hardt and Negri’s, as far as I can tell: the first is that both genres of dispositif conceived by Althusser are State-based: Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) and Repressive State Apparatuses (SAs), whilst Hardt and Negri are illustrating a globalist New World Order. The second is that, unlike Hardt and Negri’s convictions, for Althusser, the insidious ubiquity of – in particular – ISAs as technologies of interpellation is as such that the essay does not provide any real notions of liberation (or at least, no notions of liberation without immediate and violent revolution). Interpellation may be understood as bypassing a need for surveillance at all, the all-encompassing status of always-already-ness being definitively indifferent to the composition of the body being hailed.

If we are looking for political optimism, we will need to come up with a better model than this, before we can begin to search for hope within it.

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