The Eternal Return of the Eterno Maestro
21 January 2024
Antonio Negri, Jean-Marc Zaorski; Image credit: Getty images
When a thinker passes away, we ask what is left of him in philosophy. What is it that lives on? The author argues that life and death are determined not by the transformation into a corpse of what was the living, and conversely, by mental-physical movement of the living, but by influencing and affecting a specific existence. Antonio Negri names a philosophy of resistance or, in the words of Louis Althusser, the underground current of the materialism of the encounter. The article concludes we must not await for miracles and, instead, participate in the making of a future through thought and practice which will form new order of Being.
The sadness of generations without "teachers." Our teachers are not just public professors, though we badly need professors. Our teachers, once we reach adulthood, are those who bring us something radical and new, who know how to invent an artistic or literary technique, finding those ways of thinking that correspond to our modernity, that is, our difficulties as well as our vague enthusiasms. (1)
- Gilles Deleuze, He was my teacher
When a thinker passes away, we are invariably confronted with this logical and self-evident yet entirely incorrect question: What has he left behind, and now, at this final point in his life, what assessment can be made of his achievements? This common but flawed notion stems from a perception of the mind-body connection and its effects in a realm that, with the person's demise, also reaches a form of closure or, at best, completion. Based on this, efforts are usually made in such moments to finally overcome the incapacity to grasp and fully perceive a comprehensive picture of the richness and complexity of thought. So, by reviewing the most significant intellectual and practical moments of the person's life, an understandable and accessible schema of something always elusive is sought.
It is as if our imagination, having somewhat eased the possibility of unraveling the intricacies of this complex mind-body latecomer, allows us to approach it a little more. However, this notion applies not only to such intricate and turbulent mind-body entities but also to any phenomenon in existence, arising from a fundamentally incorrect understanding of life and death. It is precisely against such understanding that Spinoza strives to demonstrate death within the womb of life and life after death, by incorporating them into the eternal substance. Life and death are determined not by transforming into a corpse or, conversely, by mental-physical movement but by influencing and affecting a specific existence. The matter of life is not only about the continuation of vital flows in the body or even the mention of the dead virtues, but it is related to inciting other mind-body entities in existence to action, reaction, and placement in the course of the endless flow of existence in an active, positive, generative, and creative manner.
In that case, sadly, it seems impossible to attain any transcendent point in confronting the ever-living and constantly evolving complexities of mind-body entities that, even though once transformed into corpses, may return and not only present a new figure but also guide our gaze toward new horizons. This particularly holds true for those modes endowed with a special capacity for creating novelty and radicalizing thought-action. They are what Gilles Deleuze calls "teachers", namely Maestri. Such mind-body entities are never static in their connection, disconnection, and becoming - other. How can a precise, stable, and complete portrait of them be drawn? Whenever we think that through a careful reading of their works and effects we have gained a comprehensive understanding of them, a new connection, a strange assemblage, and a machine-like transformation suddenly emerge, overturning the entire drawn portrait. So, what should be done? Should we refrain from discussing the position, coordinates, and forces of such modes of being and surrender ourselves to tumultuous waves of endless transformations?
What this understanding of being and its enormous forces tells us, on the contrary, propels us toward a dynamic analysis of events and becoming, especially when the intricate and vast fabric of being is involved. It is an ethology in accordance with the essence, composition, and dynamic behavior of such unpredictable mind-body entities. As Gilles Deleuze says, "A proper name is always a mask, the mask of an operator."(2) Such an analysis is a beautiful dance, through which the operator constantly leaps up and down, back and forth, never stopping anywhere except to take another path with total beauty and allure. Antonio Negri is one of the operator's names that he calls a philosophy of resistance or, in the words of Louis Althusser, the underground current of the materialism of the encounter. And what a beautiful name! He is one of the most beautiful masks that this underground current has thrown off and established on its face. From Machiavelli, Spinoza, and Marx to Deleuze, Guattari, and Negri, what creates being and therefore its own truth is becoming, a becoming that inevitably points not toward death but to life in its most generative, positive, and beautiful manifestations: resistance, potentia, and freedom.
From the 1960s until today, Antonio Negri has been one of those teachers who have devoted himself to teaching the most innovative and creative theoretical-practical principles. Unlike many of his intellectual and political peers, he chose to embrace "operaismo" or autonomism instead of aligning with The Historic Compromise (Compromesso storico) between the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and Christian Democracy (DC). When the so called “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will” turned into a justification for joining the dominant current of affairs, he utilized “the optimism of the intellect and the pessimism of the will” to introduce concepts such as the social worker, power from below, and finally multitude. Therefore, one of the central aspects of Negri's teachings emphasizes the issue of agency and subjectivity, where the optimism of the intellect, affirming the generative force of being in the form of becoming a multitude, and the pessimism of the will, criticizing leaderless contemporary social movements and emphasizing the importance of constituting enduring institutions in this regard, come together. If one of the difficulties and, at the same time, the enthusiasms of our time is the rearticulation and defense of subjectivity, precisely in an era when, contrary to numerous denials, the "end of history" has been dominated by the triumphant emergence of an “Ultimi barbarorum”, Negri is a mask through which subjectivity reveals its agency and potentia. If Negri is one of those teachers who never hesitates to present radical and new lessons and invent fresh intellectual and political instruments, his creativity and uniqueness should be sought, among other things, in this emphasis on the subjectivity of the multitude. The call addressed to a collective, complex, and becoming body with forever optimism to the general intellect as “we have not yet seen what is possible when the multitude assembles.” (3)
Antonio Negri himself defines the issue of eternity in connection with our responsibility with respect to any moment in time. His life, its generative and joyful affects and effects, has been, from his youth to his nineties, one of the most responsibly engaging with time, transforming it into the matrix of creating a new being. This responsibility has turned him into a figure that, being targeted not only by the dominant current apparatus but also by the main traditional intellectuals of critical and radical thought, faces the most intense attacks and accusations, just like all masks of the philosophy of encounter, from Machiavelli, Spinoza and Marx to Negri himself. To repeat his great phrases on his beloved philosopher, Spinoza, we could say that Negri is the anomaly. The fact that Negri, autonomist and damned, does not end up behind bars or frozen to death in gulags, like other revolutionary innovators of the first half of twentieth century, can only mean that his metaphysics effectively represents the pole of an antagonistic relationship of force that is already solidly established: The development of productive forces and relations of production already comprehends the tendency toward an antagonistic future. Within this frame, then, Negri's materialist philosophy is the potent anomaly of the century: not a vanquished or marginal anomaly but, rather, an anomaly of victorious materialism, of the ontology of a being that always moves forward and that by constituting itself poses the ideal possibility for revolutionizing the world.
When Friedrich Engels announced the death of Karl Marx to Friedrich Sorge, he wrote, “Mankind is shorter by a head, and that the greatest head of our time.” (4) However, undoubtedly, it is with the help of these very heads that mankind, by overcoming the swamp of ignorance, stagnation, and the darkness of eras, has fulfilled the vision of another being. An open being that, through the critique of empire, becoming multitude, and the reappropriating of the common - wealth, leads to producing infinite assemblies. These assemblies constantly return back to such teachers to not only resolve their challenges but also to place a multitude of singularities in their stead. Then, instead of the brilliance of individual intellectuals, with the eruption and flow of general intellect throughout being, we would witness the extraordinary blossoming of collective intellectuality. Therefore, we should never speak of these complex, immense, and generative mind-body entities, these “Cattivo Maestro”, who from Socrates “corrupt the youth” to resist against gods and states, as if they have passed away or are even in the past. We definitely know they can do much more than any so called alive bodies. As Deleuze described Sartre, and perhaps even more so, we can say the same about Negri: “We speak of Sartre as though he belonged to a bygone era. Alas, we are the ones who in today's conformist moral order are bygone. At least Sartre allows us to await some vague future moment, a return, when thought will form again and make its totalities anew, like a power that is at once collective and private. This is why Sartre remains my teacher.” (5) Antonio Negri, even better, allows us to not await and, instead, participate in and making future that thought and practice which will form new being. Thus, he makes mankind head taller and will do so in any future moments that we, as his forever comrades and students, “seize time, hold it, and fill it with responsibility.” (6)
1. Deleuze, Gilles, Desert Island and Other Texts: 1953-1974, Edited by David Lapoujade, Translated by Michael Taormina, Los Angeles, Semiotext(e), 2004, p. 76.
2. Deleuze, Gilles, 'Nomad Thought', in Nietzsches Return, Edited by Sylvere and Gora Thomas, Los Angeles, Semiotext(e), 1978, p. 18.
3. Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri, Assembly, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 295.
4. See, Callinicos, Alex, The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx, London, Bookmarks Publications, p. 40.
5. Deleuze, Gilles, Desert Island and Other Texts: 1953-1974, Edited by David Lapoujade, Translated by Michael Taormina, Los Angeles, Semiotext(e), 2004, p. 79.
6. Negri, Antonio, Back to the Future, Translated by Michael Hardt, available at: