Review of Paolo Virno, When the Word becomes Flesh. Language and Human Nature

Paolo Virno, language and political action

A review of When the Word becomes Flesh. Language and Human Nature by Paolo Virno. Translated by Giuseppina Mecchia. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015, pp. 264, ISBN 9 781 58435094 1, Pbk £13.95

Reviewed by Arianna Bove



In When the Word Becomes Flesh, Paolo Virno endorses Aristotle’s definition of the human being as a linguistic and political animal to argue that language, and more specifically the speech act, is an intrinsically political practice and the ultimate mediating point between biological invariants and changing historical determinations. This review discusses Virno’s most original insights with a focus on two main counterpoints to his theory of language: Ferdinand de Saussure and Immanuel Kant.





Originally published in Italian in 2002 by Bollati Boringhieri, When the Word Becomes Flesh provides an original and thought-provoking account of the relationship between language, human nature and the social realm. Paolo Virno, a political theorists and philosopher better known in the English-speaking world for the transcription of his short lecture series recorded as A Grammar of the Multitude, is a prominent public intellectual now teaching in social centres as much as university classrooms in and around Rome. He was one of the many caught up in the repression, strategy of tension and anti-terrorist witch hunt of the Years of Lead in Italy. His work concerns philosophy of language, logic and anthropology, his style is dense and intense, politically charged, often revelatory, at times funny, and always rewarding of the effort.

In When the Word Becomes Flesh Virno endorses Aristotle’s definition of the human being as a linguistic and political animal to argue that language, and more specifically the speech act, is an intrinsically political practice and the ultimate mediating point between biological invariants and changing historical determinations. In his most accomplished exposition of his ideas on the topic to date, Virno shows how language directly determines the conditions of possibility for our experience, from a transcendental and a biological point of view. This he does in the context of studies of Post-Fordism, a perspective on political economy that is particularly concerned with what it calls the production of subjectivity and the role of language in production. Though Virno engages many thinkers in the essays that make up this book, in this review I wish to concentrate on two main counterpoints to his theory of language: Ferdinand de Saussure and Immanuel Kant, because in a polemical dialogue with them, Virno reveals his most original insights.

Speaking up

In the first part of When the Word Becomes Flesh, Virno presents an analysis of power and a theory of language that both builds on and fundamentally departs from the work of Saussure. Virno intervenes in the debate initiated by Saussure (1975) on the separation between langue (the system of rules governing the relation of speech utterances), parole (‘individual’ speech utterances) and langage (language as speech understood to be constituted by the former two and to include all aspects of verbal activity),  to prioritise langage, the faculty of language. Virno claims that the most important aspects of Saussure’s work are not the ones he draws light on, but what he leaves in the dark. He agrees with Saussure that the faculty of language is irreducible to a linear history of the development of ‘natural languages’, but in his view it is this faculty, an Aristotelian potential and dynamis, that defines us as human beings. Given its heterogeneity, langage is not reducible to the rules of enunciation of single national languages, but because of its biological and physiological character, as we will later see, it can be an experience of the transcendental. Virno distinguishes the ontic level of the empirical (‘what is said’ as determined in space and time) from the ontological level of the transcendental (‘the fact of saying’ as the condition of possibility), and compares the work of the speaker to that of the artist executing a score, whereby ‘linguistic activity as a whole is neither production (poiesis), nor cognition (episteme), but action (praxis)’ (Virno, 2015: 24).

In the second part of the book, with reference to John L. Austin’s definition of performative statements as speech acts — what by being proffered enacts, rather than describing, something – Virno goes on to define the ‘I speak’ as an ‘absolute performative’ statement that accounts for the event of language and its insertion in the world (Virno, 2015: 38). In his view, this ‘executive’ power of the ‘I speak’ derives by its insertion into a ritual, such as a religious occasion, a legal proceeding or a game (Virno, 2015: 38). Examples of the ‘I speak’ as a condition of possibility are the confession and the exterior monologue (Virno, 2003: 50). In this move, Virno presents the faculty of language as something that can account for the transcendental without recourse to a unitary subject. For instance, in a polemic with Lev Vygotsky’s response to Jean Piaget on the issue of child soliloquy, he writes:

The crux of the faculty of language consists in the emission of articulate sounds, the ontological proof of the ability to speak is achieved by means of the signifying voice. The act of parole that constitutes this proof has to be regarded as a physiological performance, as a rhythm of breathing. In egocentric language therefore one witnesses a short circuit between faculté and parole: langue, to which the faculté normally seems to be assimilated with no residue, here loses its prominence and proves to be a simple intermediary between the other two poles (Virno, 2015: 34).

Virno believes that Vygotsky was wrong to see the noisy soliloquy of the child as a mere precursor to the inner monologue, and by consequence to see thoughts as un-uttered words (Virno, 2015: 55). Vocalisation, the emission of sounds, the practice of voicing, the expression of the faculty of language, is more than a mere accident of a thinking that has not yet learned to mute itself. Like the exterior monologue, it is, for Virno, an ‘absolute performative’. Virno frames the absolute performative speech act as a philosophical issue —because of its performative character this act ultimately determines our ability to pass from a state of possibility to one of actuality: that is, from the power to act to action itself, from dynamis to praxis. As the ultimate public act, speech is an intrinsically political practice mediating between biological physiological invariants and changing historical determinations. The most prominent example of the role of phonation Virno presents to support this thesis is the confession:

The tension between language and historical-natural langue reaches its apex in the confession. Nowhere as in this ritual does the contraposition between communicative message and the simple enunciative function appear so dramatic. Here the absolute performative fulfils a delicate function. The person who declares the deed, for instance, an armed robbery or a murder, expresses terrible semantic contents in Italian or Portuguese. In order to be cleared of such guilt he/she has no other means than speaking loud. The act of enunciating constitutes here the only valid antidote to the venom inhabiting the text of the statements. The act of taking the floor, which goes beyond the borders of single languages and recalls the sensible faculty of speech, denies the deed as it describes it and thus alleviates and cures. In confession, what is said is literally the sin from which one needs emending, whilst what is redemptive and saving is only the very act of speaking in itself. (Virno, 2015: 67)

Outer selves

In part three of this tour de force, in a shift from the epistemic to the existential, Virno positively revisits Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and asserts that self-consciousness, or the transcendental unity of apperception, is actually revealed in the ‘I speak’ rather than the ‘I think.’ The relationship between the two is explored in the context of a rather Marxian distinction between reification and fetishism. For Virno, historical and social forms of life, as well as theorisations, can acquire a fetishist character when they hide or misconstrue what makes human existence a thing. ‘Reification is an ontological condition that, however, can either manifest itself as such, or take the form of alienation and fetishism’ (Virno, 2015: 126-127). In Virno’s reading, Kant’s critique of reason and its paralogisms, or inevitable appearances, is in fact a critique of fetishism. For Virno, fetishist is the ambition to derive an identity of the subject from the logical-linguistic prerequisites of the proposition ‘I think’.

The error of metaphysical psychologists consists in wanting to determine the nature of the self-conscious ‘I’ by applying to it notions (such as substance, simplicity, indivisibility) which could not be posited without presupposing a self-conscious ‘I’…and to have experience of the very conditions of possibility for experience (Virno, 2015: 127).

Virno points out that even though the ‘I think’ is prior to the categories, it is not incorporeal or disembodied because of this. Thus, whilst the tendency to treat the transcendental prerequisite for knowing as any other represented object can be described as fetishist, the attempt to ‘survey the empirical phenomena in which that prerogative is manifested and perceivable’ is merely reifying, and hence always instructive.

Most importantly, Virno asserts that at the foundation of the synthetic unity of apperception there is an act rather than a thought and that this act is linguistic. The ‘I speak’ is the synthetic unity of apperception in so far as it is executed, performed and inserted in the world at once. In Virno’s view, the ‘I think’ is a descriptive statement, since it does nothing more than assert an incontrovertible psychic reality. The ‘I speak’ on the other hand is a performative statement that, going beyond the psychic element, shares in the exteriority and manifestation of praxis (Virno, 2015: 134).

Here Virno is asserting a sovereignty of exteriority against a sovereignty of introspection, for the latter can only give rise to tautologies. ‘The structures of subjectivity do not “become” things in the course of time: they are things to start with’ (Virno, 2015: 138). At this point, we can’t help but remind the reader of a beautiful passage where Michel Foucault asserts that: ‘the discourse about which I speak does not pre-exist the nakedness articulated the moment I say “I speak”; it disappears the instant I fall silent’ (Foucault, 2000: 149). Foucault too had once asserted that ‘the “I speak” runs counter to the “I think”’ (Foucault, 2000: 149). What did he mean by this? We feel that the answer lies in this ongoing conversation with Kant, and a correspondence of intents, between Virno’s reflections on the ‘I speak’ and Foucault’s insistence that it is only through an analysis of the faculty of language that a notion of anthropology without a subject can emerge, can be detected here.

For Foucault, the ‘I speak’ runs counter to the ‘I think’ because it refers to an exteriority of discourse. Yet this exteriority is nothing but the empirical world itself, the world where the Kantian homo criticus exchanges and communicates beyond the determination of the sovereignty of self-consciousness and the realm of fixed identity, whether existential, psychological or epistemological.

Unlike the better known A Grammar of the Multitude, this text won’t provide soundbite catchwords for the alter-globalisation activist looking to dress her political practice of refusal and disobedience in the cloak of a theory of a new political subject. Its dangers are subtler, but greater perhaps. As Foucault once wrote:

Thought about thought, an entire tradition wider than philosophy, has taught us that thought leads us to the deepest interiority. Speech about speech leads us to the outside in which the speaking subject disappears. No doubt, that is why Western thought took so long to think the being of language: as if it had a premonition of the danger that the naked experience of language poses for the self-evidence of the ‘I think’ (Foucault, 2000: 150).



Ferdinand de Saussure (1975) Cours de linguistique générale (1906-1911). Paris: Payot.

Michel Foucault (2000) ‘The thought of the outside’ in Essential Works: Aesthetics. London: Penguin.