Becoming Machine: Thoughts on Hardt and Negri’s ‘Enigmatic Passages’


A visual representation of the innumerable interconnected passageways of the internet


Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire has been called many things, running the gamut from the alter-globalization movement’s Communist Manifesto to a secret justification for neoliberal capitalism. One thing for sure is that it captures a zeitgeist; between the allusions to Saint Augustine and Spinoza, the esoteric ruminations on the precarious relationship between the Enlightenment and modernity, or its lofty ambitions of being the Unified Field Theory of radical politics, one can feel the simultaneous rage and joy that drove Battle of Seattle and the other uprisings of that moment. The high-theory equivalent of a brick through Starbuck’s window, academic black blocs.

Despite all the praise and scorn heaped on the work, there are a few pages of enigmatic passages that commentators and critics have said little about, and even in these pages the vagueness gives one the feeling that Hardt and Negri walk this ground with some trepidation. Musing on the importance of the worker exodus from the Soviet Union in the state’s final collapse, they bring forth a gift of delirium from Nietzsche’s pages: “Problem: where are the barbarians of the twentieth century? Obviously they will come into view and consolidate themselves only after tremendous socialist crises.”1 Who, exactly, are these barbarians, Hardt and Negri ask, before turning to Walter Benjamin for further elucidation: the barbarian “sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason, he sees ways everywhere… But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear things from everywhere… What exists he reduces to rubble, not for the sake of the rubble, but for that of the way leading through it.”2 We might argue that we find ourselves a moment especially capable of producing this type of barbarian, perhaps, with the appearance that all things are collapsing into rubble – economic rubble, housing rubble, rubble of the Third World, rubble of the First, rubble of the nuclear family, rubble of the attention span… but what is the way through all of this? Following in the line of Deleuze and Guattari’s emphasis on nomadic becoming, Hardt and Negri offer two paragraphs meditating on what form this takes on in the postmodern age:

Conventional norms of corporeal and sexual relations between and within genders are increasingly open to challenge and transformation. Bodies themselves transform and mutate to create new posthuman bodies. The first condition of this corporeal transformation is the recognition that human nature is in no way separate from nature as a whole, that there are no fixed or necessary boundaries between the human and the animal, the human and the machine, the male and the female, and so forth; it is the recognition that nature is an artificial terrain open to ever new mutations, mixtures, and hybridizations… Today’s corporeal mutations constitute an anthropological exodus and represent an extraordinarily important, but still quite ambiguous, element of the configuration of republicanism “against” imperial civilization.3 (emphasis in original)

We certainly do need to change our bodies and ourselves, and in perhaps a much more radical way than the cyberpunk authors imagine. In our contemporary world, the now common aesthetic mutations of the body, such as piercings and tattoos, punk fashion and its imitations, are all initial indicators of this corporeal transformation, but in the end they do not hold a candle to the kind of radical mutation needed here. The will to be against needs a body that is completely incapable of submitting to command. It needs a body that is incapable of adapting to family life, to factory discipline, to the regulations of a traditional sex life, and so forth. (If you find your body refusing these “normal” modes of life, don’t despair – realize your gift!)4

These two passages seem to be the convergent of several lines of thought. In the first, we can frame it against many of the tactics utilized by the alter-globalization movement at the time Empire debuted – namely, those that moved in the traditional of carnivalesque, the utiliziation of masks and other forms of pageantry to inject both a sense of play in contrast to ‘boring’ corporate bureaucracy and a method for altering formal classist identity. Through the carnivalesque, protestors were able to hybridize their subjectivity, producing new ones even in the midst of the commerce and trade they toiled under. However, this line is augmented with one of technological inquiry: the references to “posthuman bodies” and “radical mutation” suddenly take on a tone that harkens back to cyberpunk fiction (a debt they readily acknowledge) and also forward to the untold promises of human-machinic integration. Furthermore, they juxtapose these ‘barbaric’ ideas not simply against corporate neoliberalism as an entity, but against more ambient presences that were zeroed in by Michel Foucault in his various genealogies of power, most specifically his Discipline and Punish and his three works on The History of Sexuality. We should take careful note then that Foucault had his own ‘enigmatic passages’ of sorts with his interest in the materialist mysticism of the “limit experience” – the events that occur when hovering at the line that separates ‘what is’ from ‘what isn’t.’ Much of the work on the limit experienceh2_53.682 is drawn from the earlier heterology of Georges Bataille, with his study of sexuality, death, and transgression – ideas that certainly fascinated Foucault, but found their way into his genealogy project in a completely different format. As such, considerable time and debate has been spent trying to eek out the relation – if any exists, that is – between these two areas of Foucault’s writings. The solution, I believe, is relatively straightforward, albeit one that exists in the realm of conjecture: Foucault’s tracings of the genealogies of modernity as a discipline society, from its appearances in medicine, the asylum, the prison, the barracks, the factory, in sexuality, in society as a whole, are genealogies of the limits applied to the human body, and in turn, in human subjectivity itself. Discipline and Punish tells us time and time again that regimentation’s concern is the body, conformed into standardizations, fastened to the clicking timeclock, placed under the watching eye of the panopticon.

But, as the story goes, Foucault rejected his notion of the disciplinary society nearly as soon as it had begun. Along with Deleuze, who lifted the term ‘control society’ from the pages of William Burroughs, he reworked his analysis for the sweeping changes that had seized society in the passageway to post-Fordism. Factory, school, the all-seeing eye? These were being dispersed to linguistic-oriented networks, awash with the foam of the cybernetic sea. Where there was once modernity’s closed structures, it was now postmodernism’s open flexibility, the aura of a freedom that had previously only been dreamed about. Hardt and Negri make it explicit in Empire that this is the framework that they are working in, writing that “Foucault’s work allows us to recognize a historical, epochal passage in social forms from disciplinary society to the society of control.”5 Negri on his own, in The Porcelain Workshop, aims to “prove that only a paradigm shift [from disciplinary to control, modernism to postmodernism] can allow us to interpret the contemporary period… We insist on this paradigm shift for it affirms a discontinuity that is a starting point, and must be acknowledged.”6

Under the aegis of the Control Society, the centralized pillar of the panopticon has been exploded, decentralized into the flows of cyber-surveillance. Keeping a watchful eye on the movements of the worker-prisoners? No, monitoring and logging the everyday actions of the civilian-consumer. Control nearly reached its Orwellian omnipresence with the Bush administration’s “Total Information Awareness” (TIA) program, a PATRIOT Act on steroids crafted by DARPA to impose unprecedented levels of phone and email monitoring, biometric ID scanning, calculated predictions of markets, terrorism, and individual action, and personality databasing. While TIA was curbed by Congress before its implementation, many of these activities are practiced everyday by the private sector’s army of corporate analysts, be they the human actors or a computer’s statistics program (or combination of the two). This is where the real face of neoliberalism’s flexibility reveals itself: the corporate construct has essentially become a hive-mind with a common memory and sensory receptors, capable of learning its environment and shifting to it accordingly. The irony is that this perpetual surveillance state is consensual; while our society offers convenient and free products to its members, it can come at the cost of privacy. Take Gmail, for example, a streamlined and easy to use email platform, available for anyone who wants to sign up for it – as long as they’re alright with their emails being sifted through for keywords and patterns that could fit marketing profiles. These profiles, in turn can be fed back to the individual, his or her tastes and desires transformed into an artificial space rationalized by the necessity of the system for unending consumption.


Felix Guattari called this process of information accumulation and analysis “modeling”, which in turn allows in-depth planning and programming of our new social planes. Or as Brian Holmes writes, with Guattari in mind: “the primary vector of this uniquely neoliberal form of control has been cybernetic modeling and the construction of interactive environments, or sites of ‘machinic-semiotic integration,’ where the very freedom of the users continually generates the data allowing our progressively fine-tuned entrapment, within custom-built settings that morph and mutate to match the evolution of our already programmed dreams.”7 Guattari’s late work, not so much a straight critique of the Control Society but a poetic search for a way out, grappled with a proper methodology for “metamodeling,” a functional model to produce new cartographies despite the efforts of the capitalist mapmakers. And so it is no mistake that in their footnotes, Hardt and Negri linked their idea of the ‘body incapable of submitting to command’ to this thinker’s work: “This counsel against normalized bodies and normalized lives was perhaps the central principle of Guattari’s therapeutic practice.”8

The sense of urgency that Empire assigns to transformation and mutation falls into place here. As Hardt and Negri note, punk fashion and basic body modification do point in a direction – but they fall short. Was punk not recuperated back into the system, first with its mainstream debut as New Wave and then later with pop-punk, “edgy” advertising tactics and then entire corporate arms that cater to the maintenance of the subculture’s derivatives? Likewise, modifications like tattoos, piercings, and even their more radical offspring can fit into society with ease. Thus, there exists a greater need for more rapid and fluid mutations, unfolding through the artificiality with unpredictability. One does not fight that which is flexible by becoming rigid – how did the US military alter in response to decades of guerrilla tactics over complex territories? By breaking itself open, dispersing its ground units into decentralized and complex cells that mirrored their opponents. One must become even more flexible still.


A proposition: post-Fordism has made us posthuman, despite Hardt and Negri’s calls to become posthuman. Or perhaps the better phrase would be ‘transhuman’, as the trans indicates a separation that crosses between, the fluid moments of the becoming itself. Post, as in post-modernism, has a certain finality to it, lodged in a space that oscillates between glossy veneer and apocalyptic rubble (Fukuyama and the End of History, anyone?) – if we move in the music of Spinoza’s spheres, the endless game of the one and the multiple that it also is, to relegate the ‘human’, whatever it may be, to a post, is to do a rich concept a grave disservice. The transhuman, where we are. If one doubts their position in this category, look at your artificial appendages: the personal computer, the laptop, the cell phone, the smart car, social media, the cloud. These are electro-technic devices that consume the moments of everyday life, shifting the ambiances of our experiences and how these experiences trigger alterations in the production of subjectivity. They change the way we perceive, the way we think, they create reflexes, and they enter us into the Control Society’s cybernetic surveillance. Following Spinoza into Empire, we cannot claim to divest our bodily existence from these things; they are part of us and we part of them.

The proposition is not new. Back in 1985 Donna Haraway published “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and the Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” “…we are all chimeras,” she writes, “theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.”9 This is her own vision of the transhuman, the cyborg, a hybridized “cybernetic organism”; like Bataille and Foucault’s limit-experiences, it “transgresses boundaries,”10 making the impossible possible and knowing no limits. Most importantly, she sees the dualing applications of cyborgian existence in the age of Late Capitalism, an addendum to the problematic of post-Fordist control:

From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defense, about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war… From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints

However, Haraway insists that her cyborg is a tool of theoretical rhetoric, a “fable,” as she puts it, to unveil lessons on our “mythic” age. Hardt and Negri reiterate this point, but at the same time, they don’t seem so sure that a machinic reality should be taken in a strict figurative sense. “Tools have always functioned as human prostheses,” they tell us, “integrated into our bodies through our laboring practices as a kind of anthropological mutation in both individual terms and in terms of collective social life. The contemporary form of exodus and the new barbarian life demand that tools become poietic prostheses, liberating us from the conditions of modern humanity.”12 The key word here is poietic, indicating that these prostheses, which at this point in history are undoubtedly machinic, must be formative and productive; they will relate to collective experience (social media as an integral aspect of postmodern protest, for example), but they will also enforce mutation across the zones of the human body. If we may cast an eye towards the future through a lens of speculation, what redefinitions of collective subjectivity will we encounter when social media can be tapped through the individual’s own neural passageways? This is the transhuman, the cyborg, becoming literal. We need not resort to the Kurzweilian psuedocosmology to think in these terms as advances in research in this field are well under way – just look at the infamous “eyeborg,” the development of nanotechnology, or Kevin Warwick’s “Project Cyborg” from the 1990s. Warwick’s case is one of the most fascinating for direct human-machinic integration: with an RFID chip implanted in his arm, the scientist managed not only to control computer-based technology in his proximity, but with the aid of electrodes running from the chip to his nervous system, was able to command a robotic arm located across the Atlantic. In the final stage of the experiment, the same technology was implanted in the nervous system of his wife – creating a direct communication passageway between the two in an attempt to establish a kind of direct empathy in the corridors of internet communication.


The tool as a prostheses of labor and motion of the body…

2001 A Space Odyssey movie image

…and the tool as an opening into unseen beyonds

Some will certainly have qualms with these kinds of developments. While individuals like Kurzweil and Warwick see an inevitable evolutionary passageway towards human-machinic integration, others see calamity. This fundamental change in what we perceive as human nature has been proclaimed as nothing less than the end of the world: nanotechnology run amok in ‘gray-goo,’ Terminator scenarios or the establishment of eugenics programs between those willing to embrace technotronic transcendence and those who long to remain purely meat and bone. For these thinkers the future could easily be what Nick Land celebrated: technology accelerating beyond its creators, a negative Nirvana. But, as Guattari reminds us, when confronted with these great changes we should not hide behind Neo-Luddite positioning, for there are far too many gains to be had:

Machinic mutations understood in the largest sense, which deterritorialise subjectivity, should no longer trigger in us defensive reflexes, backward-looking nervous twitches… the junction of infomatics, telematics, and the audiovisual will perhaps allow a decisive step to be made in the direction of interactivity, towards a post-media era and, correlatively, an acceleration of the machinic return of orality… Making yourself machinic – aesthetic machine and molecular war machine… – can become a crucial instrument for subjective resingularisation and can generate other ways of perceiving the world, a new face on things, and even a different turn of events.13

There is something further to be added to the discussion of machinic becomings: the question of the General Intellect, the collective pool of knowledge that is produced by the social. In every machine, every technology leap, is a composition of forces emerging from countless strands of the General Intellect, seized and privatized under the auspices of so-called ‘individual’ entrepreneurs, state-subsidized research, or corporate product development. Under the corporate logos of “Apple,” “Microsoft,” “Facebook,” or “Google”, beneath the names-brands of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, or Larry Page, there are an infinity of flows, personalities, events, complex histories, mistakes, discoveries, copies, deliberate happenings and happenings of chance, swarming together in conjunction with the greater flows of technological advancement.

man-as-a-machine_450In the accelerating rate of technological change in post-Fordism, the importance of the General Intellect is seen by the constant recoupling of it back into the social from which it emerges. When the US dollar was unfixed from the gold standard and became a spiral of computerized symbols, it became not a mineral fact but a techno-intellectual one; the subsequent rise of immaterial labor focusing on data analysis, the augmentation of factory life by workflow operations, the global financial market and the worldwide networks of production and trade, in turn led both ‘work-time’ and ‘free-time’ to also attach itself to the developments of the General Intellect. The integration of the human into the machine would be the logical accumulation of this process, with the individual’s human body literally merging into the General Intellect, the social’s mind – thus, finally, undoing the last of the obsolete notions of mind/body dualism. From this vantage point, Landian accelerationism can be reevaluated: yes, the human in a traditional sense comes to an end at the hands of accelerating technology (and the accelerating capitalism that feeds it under the current regimes of privatization), but only because the human becomes the General Intellect, which itself is produced directly by the human and his or her interaction with other humans and the environment that they are in fact a part.

So what are we left with? A problematic, no doubt, a vicious circle. If Hardt and Negri hold up becoming-machinic – in both its ‘basic’ (technological adaptability) and complex (technological integration) forms – as a necessary move in the exodus from cybernetic Empire, and becoming-machinic is being produced by none other than neoliberalism’s capturing of the multitude’s own creativities and desires, then an preliminary escape route must be found, a way to reinvest emergent technology power in insurrectionary struggle and the production of the Common. Appropriation comes to mind, to grab and subvert the potentials for thresholds of transhumanism, just as these potentials were grabbed and subverted from us. The only difference is that instead of selling it back with an inflated price tag, more divergent patterns can be found within them. Even if the transhuman model in itself is incapable of delivering a way through post-Fordism into something else, by the very virtue of the General Intellect, the technology and knowledge contained within must be broken up, ‘open-sourced’ so to speak, made into a reality of social production instead of pure financial accumulation.

1Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Empire Harvard University Press, 2000, pg. 213, quoting Friedrich Nietzsche The Will to Power Vintage, 1968, pg. 465

2Ibid, quoting Walter Benjamin “The Destructive Character” Reflections, Suhrkamp, 1972, pgs. 213-219

3Ibid, pg. 215

4Ibid, pg. 216

5Ibid, pgs. 22-23

6Antonio Negri The Porcelain Workshop: For a New Grammar of Politics Semiotext(e), 2008, pg. 19

7Brian Holmes “Guattari’s Schizoanalytic Cartographies” Escape the Overcode: Activist Art in the Control Society

8Hardt, Negri Empire pg. 448, note 15

9Donna Haraway Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature Free Association Books, 1996, pg. 148

10Ibid, pg. 154


12Hardt, Negri Empire pg. 217

13Felix Guattari Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm Power Institute, 1995, pg. 97

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4 Responses to Becoming Machine: Thoughts on Hardt and Negri’s ‘Enigmatic Passages’

  1. Pingback: The Machinic World (D&G): Organic Machines at the Edge of Time | noir realism

  2. Pingback: Alterity, the Aestheticization of Science and the Mechanosphere (Postscript to Becoming-Machinic) | Deterritorial Investigations Unit

  3. Pingback: Empire, Biopower, Spectacle: Notes on Tiqqun | Deterritorial Investigations Unit

  4. S.C. Hickman says:

    Emerging out of this is the realization of the concept of “plasticity” which you see in the various new areas of neuroscience, Malubu and Johnston on Self, the sense of for a hundred years are so the whole feature set of concepts around the Self slowly gave way to this permeable metamorphic transitional figure of Self in either it’s Lacanian – subtraction (Zizek’s less-than-nothing, lack) or in Deleuze/Guattari as the fluidic deterritorialized / decoded self etc. And now as you suggest the body too is become fluid, dynamic, metamorphic with precursors in body tattooing, puncturing, encoded with fiber optics and other technologies etc… or even to the point of total exodus of the flesh-machine for the steel-machine etc. this sense of the human vanishing into a sort of fluid or liquid metal state of plasticity. If only Shakespeare were around to take notes 🙂

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