Encyclopedic Public, Multitude, Virno, Interface

Lars Bo Løfgreen
Broadly received and frequently quoted, Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude has become a primary entry point to an understanding of current changes in the means of production, organisation of labour and the crisis of the public sphere. Virno’s use of this concept, however, is not without its issues. In particular, Virno’s reading of the multitude as an absolute rather than as a figure of approximation, seems problematic (40). In doing so, little room is left for any possible dialectics between the state of things that are to come and the state of things that already exist.

The following is an attempt to read a dynamic out of this concept. Using two examples, displaced in time as well as focus, the aim here is to point to some general characteristics of opposition within this concept.

When parts don’t fit

One often tends to forget that there are two sets of enlightenment thought emerging out of the 18th century. Two ways of distributing knowledge, two sets of organising theoretical and practical philosophy, two projects for the education of man, two notions of the public sphere, publicity, Öffentlichkeit etc., two sets and not one.

The one of these two, is the one that is easy to remember. The one born out of an increased engagement with rationality, and trivialised in Kant’s Beatwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung (1783) with the almost in constitution written credo: “Sapere aude! Habe Mut, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!” (Kant). In short, it is a project engaged with solving the deficiencies in rationality through a critique of rationality. A project that emerges out of a French intellectual climate only to be given its final layer of coating in a German setting as a project of bridging the gap between the various forms of reason itself. From Kant to Hegel, Habermas and Luhmann – this project of unity-seeking mediations and dialectics is a project of continued relevance.

In characterisation it is a project resting on the belief in the possibility of true translations. A project resting on the power of representation and metonymic relations. A belief made into system where widely diverse political stances are trusted to be represented fully in the account of the elected member of parliament, where complicated misdeeds of the individual are trusted to be translated into rightful execution by a legal system. In short: a belief in the consistency of language itself. True, these are all examples that can be contested. But pointing to the many exceptions and examples of the limits of representation, conversion and translation in current society and pulling out the scepticist’s argument, would here be to miss the point. The point is here not that every part can magically fit, be translated into or be represented by the whole, but rather that there in the attempt to make these translations and representations manifest, is a clear primacy of the whole over the part. This primacy is the inheritance of the first project of enlightenment.

Now, the second project emerging out of the enlightenment is a project of the opposite. A project resting not on processes of mediations and dialectics (i.e. they play a role, but a less than dominant), but on the irreducible significance of the singular parts. As such, in effect: the multitude. This project takes on a peculiar shape in a paradox perhaps best illustrated through the pinnacle of this second project of enlightenment – the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert. In an by itself aimed and written for the public, edited jointly by Diderot and D’Alembert from 1747 to 1758 (where D’Alembert leaves the project) and completed in 1773. The paradox, however, is here neither the relationship between the editors, nor the 26 years in the making of the Encyclopédie, but rather the apparent discrepancy between the intent and the scope of the project. Looking up the word encyclopaedia in the Encyclopédie, this paradox becomes apparent (my emphasis):

We will say only one thing about this ordering considered in connection with the whole encyclopedic material, which is that it is not possible […] to introduce as much variety into the construction […] into all the parts of its distribution, as the encyclopedic order allows. It [the order] might be created either by relating our different kinds of knowledge to the various faculties of the soul (this is the system we have used), or by relating them to the entities they take as their object; and this object may be one of pure curiosity, or a luxury, or a necessity. […] It is therefore impossible to banish arbitrariness from this broad primary distribution. The universe offers us only individual beings, infinite in number,

and virtually lacking any fixed and definitive division [43]; there is none which one can call either the first or the last; everything is connected and progresses by imperceptible shadings; and if throughout this uniform immensity of objects, some appear […] and rise above it, they owe this prerogative only to particular systems, vague conventions, certain unrelated events, and not to the physical arrangement of beings and to nature’s intention (Diderot).

Striking is here the lack of any mechanism of exclusion. Everything is potentially relevant, the categories are provisional, and the only thing putting an end to the otherwise infinitely recursive project of analysis and description, is the steady publication of volumes pushing the editors from letter to letter and finally draining the financial resources. Read in the light of these discrepancies, the Encyclopédie may very well be the true project of the multitude. A project where the individual particles holds a primacy over the whole, where abstraction from the singular article to the whole of the Encyclopédie exists only in the means of a register, and where the acceptance of non-integratable elements, omissions, uncertainties and fractions are a primary condition.

When the interface is unreliable

Taking place in random, urban locations and aimed at non-specific, non-guided exploration of the area around, the work of Martin Howse, does more than to just follow in the line of the situationist practice of psychogeography and the dérive. Although Howse’s practice of psychogeophysics comes with neither the bold manifestos nor full blown ideology of SI, it does provide an interesting take on the unreliable interface of the multitude. Even though presented by himself as having no goal other than mere exploration and no aim other than the loosely defined “discussion and intervention” in the city, psychogeophysics has at its core a very focused agenda that quite exceeds what Howse himself presents confusingly as a “practical investigation of urban geophysical archaeology and spectral ecologies”. This second agenda follows not just from the setup, but also from the staging of the event itself.

Imminent before the walks, Howse spends a great deal of time presenting the equipment and the interface. Confronted with clear readings from previous walks, numbers increasing and decreasing, it is clear that something is indeed being measured. But just as vocal and clear as he is about the data measured, how it is stored in the ram of the devices, copied onto his laptop and then transformed into well-shaped curves of a graph, as silent is he when it comes to the questions about what exactly these readings hold of significance. This lack of a purpose is by no means made up for during the walks. Devices are handed out, but little direction as to their use is given and it is thus up for each and everyone to try out their own interpretation. At play is here not just the production of random observations, but rather an intensified sensibility towards the near surroundings. Scribblings on the walls of old barracks, garbage on the street, signposts and open electrical wirering are all being tried interpreted through devices blinking and sounding off with no apparent consistency.


The experience of the participants here lead to more than just mistrust in the readings of his equipment, more than just a sudden suspension of cause and effect, and to more than an experience of the limits of interpretations etc. Central to the experience of the psychogeophysics of Howse is the slow acceptance of artefacts as singular, non-synthesisable, objects. The particles are a mass and points in all, but one direction.

As such, and on this level, Howse’s practice holds an interesting take and commentary on how the public interface might look like from the viewpoint of the multitude, this second enlightenment project. Not with the abandonment of reason and discernability as a consequence, but as a display of the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning. Representations are either broken down or made impossible, metonymic relations are brought into question and abstraction made difficult, in a process where the singular part always holds primacy over the whole and the interface is reduced from transparency to at best a cause for concern.

Works cited:

Diderot, Denis. “Encyclopedia → .” The Encyclopedia → of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Philip Stewart. Ann Arbor: Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan Library, 2002. Web. <http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.did2222.0000.004>. Trans. of “Encyclopédie,” Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 5. Paris, 1755.

Kant, Immanuel. “Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?”. Was ist Aufklärung? – Thesen und Definitionen. Ehrhard Bahr ed. Stuttgart: 2004: 9-17.

Virno, Paolo. A Grammar of the Multitude – For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004.


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