As speaking animals, we continuously make use of an unassuming grammatical particle, without suspecting that what is at work in its inconspicuousness is a powerful apparatus, which orchestrates language, signification, and the world at large. What particle might this be? The word not. In Essay on Negation, Paol Virno argues that not's importance is perhaps comparable only to that of money that is, the universality of exchange. Negation is what separates verbal thought from silent cognitive operations, such as feelings and mental images. Speaking about what is not happening here and now, or about properties that are not referable to a given object, the human animal deactivates its original neuronal empathy, which is prelinguistic; it distances itself from the prescriptions of its own instinctual endowment and accesses a higher sociality, negotiated and unstable, which establishes the public sphere. In fact, the speaking animal soon learns that the negative statement does not amount to the linguistic double of unpleasant realities or destructive emotions: while it rejects them, negation also names them and thus includes them in social life.
Virno sees negation as a crucial effect of civilization, one that is, however, also always exposed to further regressions. Taking his cue from a humble word, the author is capable of unfolding the unexpected phenomenology of the negating consciousness.
Paolo Virno is an Italian philosopher, semiologist, and a prominent figure among contemporary Marxist thinkers. He teaches philosophy of language at the University of Rome. He is the author of A Grammar of the Multitude, Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation, When the Word Becomes Flesh: Language and Human Nature, and Deja Vu and the End of History. Lorenzo Chiesa is director of the Genoa School of Humanities and visiting professor at the European University at St Petersburg, Russia. He is an author and translator.