To Be or Not To Be: On Tiqqun’s Negative Anthropology

Niels Springveld

Niels Springveld is an independent scholar and editor of Frame, Journal of Literary Studies.


In November 2008, an anti-terrorist unit of the French police carried out ‘Operation Taiga’ in Paris, Rouen, and Tarnac, a small village in the Massif Central. Twenty individuals were arrested, nine of whom were subsequently accused of having committed terrorist acts, including the sabotage of several tgv train routes. Media attention devoted to the ‘Tarnac Nine’, as the group was popularly called, especially focused on Julien Coupat, one of the leaders of a commune in the mountain village. Born in a wealthy family, Coupat wrote his dissertation on Guy Debord, was involved with the elusive far-left collective Tiqqun, and was suspected of having (co-)written The Invisible Committee’s The Coming Insurrection. Although the detainees were eventually released, the rather embarrassing operation underscores the French political establishment’s paranoia towards potentially subversive acts, especially with the civil unrest in Parisian banlieues in 2005 still freshly ingrained in collective memory. Moreover, the hysterical reactions of the media, combined with the rather unlikely idea that a small group of insurrectionists and an anti-capitalist pamphlet actually posed a threat to the status quo, reveal a peculiar aspect of contemporary means of control and securitization. Instead of a war against terrorism, declared by former President George W. Bush in the aftermath of 9/11, the Tarnac Nine episode can perhaps better be called a “war against pre-terrorism,” as Alberto Toscano suggests (Toscano 2009). Instead of bringing alleged terrorists to justice, the war against pre-terrorism is a continuously ongoing pseudo-war, in which any potentially subversive act has to be neutralized beforehand through an intensification of means of control.

The reactions of the French media and politicians to the Tarnac case bear an uncanny resemblance to an ironic passage in G.K. Chesterton’s 1907 thriller The Man Who Was Thursday. Chesterton’s protagonist Gabriel Syme, raised in “a family of cranks” (Chesterton 1986: 41), quickly develops an aversion to political radicalism in his youth. As an adult, as a part of his “rebellion against rebellion” (Chesterton 1986: 41), Syme decides to dedicate his life to maintaining law and order and is eventually recruited by Scotland Yard to investigate London’s underground anarchist scene. On one evening during a walk on the Embankment, he is approached by a policeman who strikes up a casual conversation with him. The policeman informs him about a recent development in the police system: an anti-insurrectionist police force that consists entirely of philosophers:

 It is their business to watch the beginnings of this conspiracy, not merely in a criminal but in a controversial sense. […] The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest   thieves, we go to artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual  crime. (Chesterton 1986: 44-45)

The philosophical police, believing that scientists and artists “are silently bound in a crusade against the Family and the State” (Chesterton 1986: 44), operates under the assumption that intellectual subversion is the source of crime and disorder. The philosophical police attempts to combat political radicalism by censoring subversive texts, based on suspicion alone, instead of on solid proof. Chesterton’s notion of a philosophical police force adequately illustrates the farcical proceedings of the Tarnac Nine case: in the name of law and order, the French police force was forced to conjure up an imaginary enemy who legitimized their attempts to prevent a terrorist attack from happening. In this case it is only fitting that the indirect objects of the Tarnac Nine episode were The Invisible Committee and Tiqqun, contemporary groups on the Left that not only steer clear from the public eye, but criticize the spectacular mass media, the governmental fear of radicalism and obsession with surveillance, and the unqualified enforcement of the law by the police. Whereas the Invisible Committee propagates communal self-organization, the Tiqqun collective, which is the main focus of this essay, attempts to conceptualize resistance in a non-identitarian, non-organicist manner. Named after the Judaic notion of tikkun olam (“reparation,” “restitution,” or “mending”), the collective was formed on the fringes of the French far-left, and incorporates influences from Situationism, Autonomia, and postwar continental philosophy, especially the work of Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben.

Movements on the left, from Marx and Engels’s rallying cry “working men of all countries, unite!” (Marx and Engels 2010: 98) to contemporary groups such as Black Lives Matter, commonly attempt to lay claim to an identity or set of inalienable rights in order to achieve emancipation. By contrast, Tiqqun’s poetics consists of an attempt to elude identitarian determinations. In a world in which individuals are constantly interpellated to fulfill a certain socially acceptable role, or willingly identify with the predicates that are bestowed on them (being-woman, being-socialist, being-male, and so on), Tiqqun’s anti-identitarian thought can best be summarized by Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be?” According to Tiqqun, the contemporary political situation can no longer be understood as an opposition between two molar forces, for instance the antagonism between proletarians and capitalists (Marx), or between friend and enemy (Schmitt). Social conflict, as they put it in This Is Not a Program, is in fact much more pervasive, and “runs through the middle of us, between what makes us a citizen, our predicates, and all the rest” (Tiqqun 2011: 12). Tiqqun therefore rejects every emancipatory political project that is based on a shared essence, substance, origin, or identity, and conceives of politics as the tension between what one is and what one is not (Tiqqun 2012b: 32). Following Agamben’s notions of the “whatever being” and “whatever singularity,” the collective instead conceptualizes a way of being that is based on singularity, multiplicity, and potentiality.

In this essay, I explore Tiqqun’s non-identitarian poetics and examine the links with their main philosophical and political influences. Tiqqun describes their political project as a “negative anthropology,” an attempt to construct a community of singularities who, to quote Agamben, form “an inessential commonality,” and are bound by “a solidarity that in no way concerns an essence” (Agamben 1993: 18-19). This essay revolves around the question of what shape resistance can take without reference to a shared essence, substance, origin, or identity. In order to answer this question, I successively address (1) the Foucauldian and Situationist underpinnings of Tiqqun, (2) Tiqqun’s relationship to the Autonomia movement, and (3) Tiqqun’s interpretation of Agamben’s notions of whatever singularity and community.

  1. The Regime of Visibility: Discipline, Biopower, Spectacle

The Spectacle is the power that insists you speak, that insists you be someone. Biopower is benevolent power, full of a shepherd’s concern for his sheep, the power that desires the salvation of its subjects, the power that wants you to live.

—Tiqqun, Theory of Bloom

[H]uman relations mask market relations which mask human relations.

—Tiqqun, Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl

Tiqqun’s texts are strongly influenced by the late work of Foucault on the production of subjectivity and the notions of discipline and biopower, and by the Situationist critique of the spectacle and technique of détournement, in which the sign-systems of capitalist culture are turned against themselves in order to restore privately owned products to common use. As stated above, Tiqqun argues that social conflict runs through man himself, and is not a dialectical antagonism between two forces. According to them, biopolitical control and the spectacular regime of visibility are the two primary ways in which singularities are subjected.

In his late work, Foucault studies three major power mechanisms: sovereignty, discipline, and biopower. [1] The sovereign paradigm was predominant from the Middle Ages up until the eighteenth century and consisted of three elements: the sovereign ruler, the law that legitimized his rule, and the citizens who obeyed the law and the sovereign by subscribing to the social contract. According to Foucault, sovereign power was “coextensive with the social body”: the sovereign had to be constantly present, either physically or symbolically, and constantly had to enforce his authority (Foucault 2004: 35). The sovereign stood both within and outside the legal order, since he was the only one who could suspend the legal order while keeping his authority intact. His power was primarily repressive and thanatopolitical: the sovereign’s power of life and death, writes Foucault, “was in reality the right to life or let live” (Foucault 1998: 136).

During the seventeenth and eighteenth century, a new set of disciplinary techniques emerged that targeted the human body. Discipline has two main functions: intensifying the forces of the body, and at the same time subjecting individuals by producing “docile bodies” (Foucault 1991: 138). Instead of repressing the population, discipline is a much more effective self-regulating technique, in which the subject internalizes his punishment or the gaze of others. As the famous example of the Panoptic prison shows, the constant fear that one might be observed by the guards in the watchtower, irrespective of whether someone is actually watching or not, is sufficient to enforce obedience (Foucault 1991a: 195-226).

At the end of the eighteenth century, yet another significant shift occurred, described by Foucault as the transition from the “anatomo-politics of the human body,” to the “species body” or “biopolitics of the population” (Foucault 1998: 139). Biopower entailed a transition from the juridico-political foundation of the sovereign paradigm to the biological existence of the population. Through several apparatuses [dispositifs], the health and vitality of the population were safeguarded (Foucault 1998: 143). As opposed to sovereign power, which was based on a repressive thanatopolitics over life, biopower constitutes a positive politics of life (Esposito 2008: 11).

The fundamental paradox of this positive conception of power, as conceptualized by Foucault, is that in order to remain effective, power has to be dispersed and multiplied, and as a consequence no longer emanates from a single source, as in the sovereign paradigm (Foucault 1998: 93). As such, power relations are omnipresent: not the product of the top-down control of the “state machinery,” [2] but spread throughout the social terrain. This conception of power has important consequences for the conceptualization of resistance. For Foucault, power is “the moving substrate of force relations which, by virtue of their inequality, constantly engender states of power” (Foucault 1998: 93). At the same time, these states of power are “always local and unstable”: since power relations are disseminated throughout society, resistance is immanent to power and can arise at every location (Foucault 1998: 93). For Foucault, in other words, resistance is always already implicated in the establishment of power relations: “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (Foucault 1998: 35). [3] Power relations, states Foucault, are multiplicities: there is no “single locus of Refusal,” and resistance is always already “a plurality of resistances, each of them a special case […]” (Foucault 1998: 95-96).

 Foucault’s analyses of power, discipline, and subjectivation are frequently cited with approval by Tiqqun. Even more so than Foucault, who abandoned the analysis of power mechanisms in his later work, Tiqqun attempts to integrate the analysis of apparatuses and techniques of governance on the one hand and the formation of subjectivity on the other. In This Is Not A Program, they call this attempt to show how the formation of subjectivity is inextricably connected to biopolitical control and disciplinary techniques a “science of apparatuses” or “critical metaphysics”:

[T]he task, for a science of apparatuses, isn’t to denounce the fact that apparatuses  possess us, that there may be something magic in them. […] Instead, a science of apparatuses, a critical metaphysics, recognizes the crisis of presence and is prepared to compete with capitalism on the playing field of magic. (Tiqqun 2011: 175)

In keeping with Foucault’s notion of resistance and genealogical method – the mobilization or “insurrection of subjugated knowledges” or “antisciences” in order to disrupt the power mechanisms that constitutes the present (Foucault 2004: 7, 9) [4] – Tiqqun’s science of apparatuses “consist[s] in the regional, circumstantial, and circumstanced mapping of how one or several apparatuses work” in one’s own environment (Tiqqun 2011: 175). The science of apparatuses consists of three stages: “crime,” “opacity,” and “insurrection”:

Crime is the period of—necessarily individual—study of how an apparatus works. Opacity if the condition in which knowledge-powers acquired through study are     shared, communized, circulated. […] The third level is insurrection, the moment when knowledge-powers and cooperation among forms-of-life—with an aim to destroying–enjoying imperial apparatuses—can be carried out freely, in the open air. (Tiqqun 2011: 176)

Tiqqun’s science of apparatuses supplements Foucault’s notion of resistance, the micropolitical revolt against established knowledge-powers, with an anti-capitalist critique of standardized mass production and the commodification of alternative forms-of-life. Tiqqun synthesizes Foucault’s work with their second major influence, the Situationist critique of the spectacle and technique of détournement, in order to highlight the way in which individuals are not only subjected by apparatuses and control mechanisms, but also by mass culture and the entertainment industry. In the first thesis of The Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord, referencing Marx, [5] argued that “[t]he whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles” (Debord 1995: 12). The society of the spectacle is replete with images, but has made actual experience nearly impossible: “All that once was directly lived has become mere representation” (Debord 1995: 12). Like Marx, who argued that the commodity fetish concealed the fact that it is a product of human labour and as such conceals a social relation, Debord argues that the spectacle is not a mere “collection of images,” but rather “a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (Debord 1995: 12). The spectacle creates a pseudo-community of individuals who are gathered together, but at the same time estranged from each other: the spectacle’s main function is to unite what is separate, but “unit[ing] it only in its separateness” (Debord 1995: 22). In an essay on Debord, Agamben argues that the society of the spectacle is not just a world which is mediated by images, but also a world characterized by the alienation of language itself:

Whereas under the old regime the estrangement of the communicative essence of human beings substantiated itself as a presupposition that served as the common foundation, in the society of the spectacle it is this very communicativity, this generic essence itself (that is, language as Gattungswesen),[6] that is being separated in an  autonomous sphere. What prevents communication is communicability itself; human beings are kept separate by what unites them. (Agamben 2000: 84)

In the society of the spectacle, language reveals nothing but the impossibility of communication itself: the spectacle is a closed system, in which expressions are privatized and separated from common use. The difference between Marx’s analysis of the commodity fetish and the spectacle is that there is no “social hieroglyphic” (Marx 1992a: 167) that can be unlocked. The spectacle is perfectly self-referential, and there is no substantial, authentic core that is masked by the appearance: the spectacle’s appearance is its essence, or, to paraphrase Marx, “the fantastic form of a relation between things” is “the definite social relation between men themselves” (Marx 1992a: 165).

 In their works, the Situationists employed the technique of détournement, defined by McKenzie Wark as “the plagiarizing, hijacking, seducing, detouring, of past texts, images, forms, practices, into others” (Wark 2013: 15). Détournement seizes the sign-systems of capitalist culture in order to repudiate them (Debord 2002: 42). According to Wark, the main function of détournement is to challenge private property. Détournement, he writes, “restores to the fragment the status of being a recognizable part of the process of the collective production of meaning in the present” (Wark 2011: 40), and thus restores private property to common use. [7]

The influence of the Situationists is especially evident in Tiqqun’s sardonic, epigrammatic writing style, as well as in their interpolation of a wide array of literary, philosophical, and pop-cultural sources. In Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl, a satirical take on the fashion industry, advertisements, and women’s magazines, Tiqqun introduces the titular conceptual figure by employing Situationist terminology. Apart from references to the work of Foucault, Debord, and Agamben, the text is interspersed with snippets from banal conversations (“Ew, you’re gross!,” “Don’t touch my bag,” “I want people to be beautiful,” “Believe in beauty,” “Be yourself (It pays),” “I can’t get attached, OK?”), and satirical quotations from novels by (among others) Witold Gombrowicz and Marcel Proust. The Young-Girl is described as “the model citizen as redefined by consumer society since World War I” (Tiqqun 2012a: 14), a figure whose appearance is her essence, and as such is the human embodiment of the spectacle. A coquettish figure, she solely derives her self-worth from the attention of others. The Young-Girl celebrates her own reification, identifies with the qualities that are attributed to her, and “no longer displays the urge for some kind of emancipation, but rather a high-security obsession with conservation” (Tiqqun 2012a: 19). The Young-Girl is disciplined in Foucault’s sense of the term: she keeps up with the latest trends and fashions, and is obsessed with improving her appearance and health, but in doing so testifies to her obedience. In the figure of the Young-Girl, biopolitical control, disciplinary power, and the neutralizing force of the spectacle converge.

By appropriating Foucault’s analysis of power and the Situationist critique of the spectacle, Tiqquns shows that resistance is not only a matter of self-assertion and critique, but also a way of radically changing the very sign-systems which one uses and the discursive mechanisms in which one is always already embedded. Resistance, as Foucault shows, is immanent to power relations, and there is no way to move beyond power mechanisms; language, as the Situationists argue, is strongly affected by the spectacle, and any analysis of the spectacle has to employ and work through spectacular language itself.

The third major influence on Tiqqun is the Autonomia movement and its various offshoots. Instead of mythologizing the student and worker protests of May ‘68, Tiqqun is much more appreciative of the 1977 uprisings in Italy. A conspicuous feature of the Autonomia movement is their refusal of worker identity and their recognition of the solidarity of struggle of various groups. As an alternative to the “really existing socialism” in Eastern Europe and as a protest to the “Historic Compromise” between the communists and Christian Democrats, the Autonomia movement represents one of the first attempts to think intersectionally. One of the best-known representatives of the Autonomia movement is Antonio Negri, whose main concept of “Empire” is taken up by Tiqqun, but whom they frequently criticize in their texts. [8] Furthermore, instead of invoking a resisting “multitude,” Tiqqun’s texts contain references to “the THEY,” a reference to Martin Heidegger’s notion of das Man, as well as an “Imaginary Party” that consists of all groups that resist Empire and refuse to become a subject of its regime of visibility. The concepts of the THEY and Empire form a negative counterpoint to Tiqqun’s negative anthropology, which I will discuss in the third and final section.

2. Autonomia, Empire, the THEY, and the Imaginary Party 

The Self of everyday Dasein is the they-self, which we distinguish from the authentic self—that is, from the Self which has been taken hold of in its own way. As they-self, the particular Dasein has been dispersed into the “they”, and must first find itself.

—Martin Heidegger, Being and Time

I believe that in today’s forms of life one has a direct perception of the fact that the coupling of the terms public-private, as well as the coupling of the terms collective-individual, can no longer stand up on their own, that they are gasping for air, burning themselves out.

—Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude

The Autonomia movement first emerged during the 1960s and in many ways represents a departure from Marxist orthodoxy. Whereas Marx based his analysis of industrial capitalism mainly on material labour, Autonomist theorists emphasize that during the second half of the twentieth century the economy has become increasingly dependent on labour that produces immaterial goods, such as services, knowledges, affects, codes, and information (Hardt and Negri 2009: viii; 2000: 290; cf. Lazzarato 1996; Virno 2004). [9] Whereas material labour was primarily performed individually, immaterial labour is dependent on the sharing of linguistic and cognitive capacities (Virno 2004: 41). According to Hardt and Negri, material production created the means of social life, but immaterial production, with its emphasis on communication and co-operation, “tends to create not the means of social life but social life itself” (Hardt and Negri 2004: 146). Moreover, since the products of immaterial labour (knowledges, codes, affects, and so on) cannot be quantified, immaterial products cannot be subsumed under either private or public property. The products of immaterial labour are accessible to all, yet the property of none. The Marxian concepts of labour and production thus are extended to include all social life: modern society, as Hardt and Negri put it, has become a “social factory” (Hardt and Negri 2000: 196).

The Autonomia movement rejected top-down control, and emphasized communal self-organization. The movement was not only composed of proletarians, but also of students, feminists, outcasts, and several anarchist groups, who all refused the ethos of work and productivity propagated by communist regimes, and were hostile to the notion of a unifying worker identity. Refusing identitarian determinations, the movement focused on the solidarity of struggle of several marginalized groups, none of whom prevailed over the others.

Tiqqun frequently refers pejoratively to “Negriism” and “Negrists,” but nonetheless inherits Negri’s emphasis on the social character of immaterial production and his primary concept of Empire. This term denotes the geopolitical constellation after the fall of the Soviet bloc. For Hardt and Negri, Empire, notwithstanding its name, significantly differs from imperialism. According to them, Empire is a “series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule” (Hardt and Negri 2000: xii), in which the U.S. functions as a primus inter pares. Empire is a collective of the world’s most powerful nation-states, a “decentered and deterritorializing” network power that “manages hybrid identities, flexible hierarchies, and plural exchanges through modulating networks of command” (Hardt and Negri 2000: xii). These “modulating networks of command” respond to what Tiqqun identifies as a “crisis of presence”: since identities and hierarchies have become much more fluid after the fall of communism, the need to localize, separate, and identify individuals in order to ensure control has increased (Tiqqun 2011: 149). [10]

The THEY in Tiqqun’s texts is an explicit reference to and biopolitical interpretation of Heidegger’s notion of das Man, described in §27 of Being and Time, and functions as a supplement to imperial control. For Heidegger, the THEY is one of the existentials in which Dasein always already finds himself. The THEY, as he emphasizes, is not a community of “definite Others”; in fact, “any Other can represent them” (Heidegger 2008: 164). The THEY is a pseudo-entity, a shady communis opinio that obstructs Dasein’s attempt to realize its “potentiality-for-Being” and lead an authentic life. The THEY, writes Heidegger, “prescribes one’s state-of-mind, and determines what and how one ‘sees’” (Heidegger 2008: 164), and constitutes one of the inauthentic modalities of Dasein. By submitting to the “dictatorship of the they” and by engaging in “idle talk” [Gerede], Dasein is submerged in the masses and deprived of his potentiality-for-being (Heidegger 2008: 164). Although Tiqqun rejects Heidegger’s discourse of authenticity, they inherit his negative indictment of the THEY. Like the spectacle, the THEY gathers individuals together, but in doing so desingularizes them and reduces them to one of the many. The THEY is a “lonely crowd,” a pseudo-community that serves to perpetuate the status quo: “THEY individualize him, THEY localize him, THEY isolate him such that he can no longer be assumed collectively, commonly” (Tiqqun 2011: 149).

Whereas Hardt and Negri describe the “multitude” as a collective that “acts on the basis of what […] singularities share in common” (Hardt and Negri 2004: 100), Tiqqun invokes the figure of the “Imaginary Party,” a party that consists of all groups and individuals who reject Empire and the spectacular regime of visibility. As Tiqqun explains, the Imaginary Party is not confined to the Left, but also includes several “conservative segments,” such as “libertarian militias, right-wing anarchists, [and] insurrectionary fascists” (Tiqqun 2011: 13). As opposed to the Leninist model of the hierarchical vanguard party, the Imaginary Party is an amorphous conglomerate of anti-imperial alliances. Whereas Empire “precludes that anything present itself as other, that anything escapes the general equivalence” (Tiqqun 2011: 37), the Imaginary Party is “but the form of pure singularity” (Tiqqun 2011: 43), a potentiality that resists this general equivalence. Precisely because it is amorphous and composed of several, contradicting segments, the Imaginary Party is unpredictable and threatening. As such, the Imaginary Party underscores the conflict between singularity and potentiality on the one hand and the recuperation of the spectacle and biopower on the other. It is to this conflict between a positive and a negative anthropology that I will turn in the final section.

3. Preferring Not To: Whatever Singularity, Negative Anthropology

Learn to become indiscernible. Blend in. Revive the taste for anonymity, for promiscuity. Renounce distinction in order to evade repression: arrange for the most favourable conditions of confrontation. Become crafty. Become pitiless. To do so, become whatever.

—Tiqqun, Introduction to Civil War


—Tiqqun, Theory of Bloom

 Tiqqun’s negative anthropology departs from all forms of identity politics. Following Agamben, Tiqqun does not lay claim to a unifying identity or bundle of rights, and dispenses with identitarian and organicist figures of thought. A poetics of singularity and potentiality, as they put it in This Is Not a Program, not only departs from “the notion of class,” but also from “the whole entourage of certified origins, reassuring sociologisms, [and] identity prostheses” (Tiqqun 2011: 12). For Tiqqun, the classic models of resistance, such as the Leninist vanguard party and civil rights activism, have become obsolete. Political struggle in fact revolves around the conflict between identity and non-identity:

 There is no “revolutionary identity.” Under Empire, it is instead non-identity, the fact of constantly betraying the predicates that THEY hang on us, that is revolutionary. To  become neither particular nor general [quelconque], to become imperceptible, to conspire, means to distinguish between our presence and what we are for representation, in order to play with representation. (Tiqqun 2011: 43)

Tiqqun’s negative anthropology is strongly influenced by Agamben’s concept of “whatever singularity,” developed in The Coming Community. Written shortly after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Agamben introduced this concept in order to think a form of solidarity without foundations. The “whatever being” [quodlibet ens] is a term that was originally used by scholastic thinkers. The whatever being, explains Agamben, is not “being, it does not matter which,” but rather “being such that it always matters” (Agamben 1994: 1). Every being, in other words, is as singular as any other, irreducibly different, yet always already multiple and related to others; “being singular plural,” as Jean-Luc Nancy puts it (Nancy 2000). [11] The notion of whatever singularity, writes Agamben, “rejects all identity and every condition of belonging,” and is instead characterized by an exposure to “the absolutely non-thing experience of pure exteriority” (Agamben 1993: 67).

During the early 1990s, Agamben claimed the “coming politics” would increasingly take the shape of an opposition between the state and a community of whatever singularities. “What the state cannot tolerate in any way,” he writes, citing the Tiananmen Square protests as an example, “is that the singularities form a community without affirming an identity, that humans co-belong without any representable definition of belonging (even in the form of a simple presupposition)” (Agamben 2000: 87). Whatever singularities are not united by a common identity, but rather celebrate their being-in-common. As such, community does not pre-exist singularities, but arises each time singularities are affected by each other (Tiqqun 2010: 40).

Agamben argues that if humans are defined on the basis of a shared identity, ethics would be impossible (Agamben 1993: 43). Without an exposure to otherness, ethics would merely amount to carrying out pre-assigned tasks, or that continuous and potentially lethal reproduction of the same that Nancy calls “immanentism” (Nancy 1991: 2). Agamben therefore introduces the concept of potentiality as an ethical substitute:

 [I]f human beings were or had to be this or that substance, this or that destiny, no ethical experience would be possible. […] This does not mean, however, that humans are not, and do not have to be, something, that they are simply consigned to nothingness and therefore can freely decide whether or not to be, to adopt or not to adopt this or that destiny (nihilism and decisionism coincide at this point). There is in effect something that humans are and have to be, but this is not an essence nor properly a thing: It is the simple fact of one’s own existence as possibility or potentiality. (Agamben 1993: 43)                  

Whereas Aristotle conceives of potentiality as the state before something is actualized, Agamben divorces potentiality from the means-end relationship. Potentiality is also the potentiality not to be, a pure means without end. The potentiality to be or not to be revolves around the struggle between a power (in Agamben’s case the state) that attempts to impose an identity on its subjects that allows it to control its population, and the attempt of singularities to break with such categorizations.

Tiqqun’s negative anthropology – preferring not to be – is perhaps best illustrated by their conceptual figure of the Bloom. Named after the protagonist of James Joyce’s Ulysses, the Bloom is a man or woman without qualities. The Bloom is disengaged, obedient, mainly preoccupied with himself, and has no identifying characteristics that set him apart from others who are immersed in the THEY. The Bloom, writes Tiqqun, is “a man without substantiality, a man who’s become truly abstract, cut off from any milieu, dispossessed of any belonging” (Tiqqun 2012b: 43). However, in this very lack of substance lies the potential danger of the Bloom: the Bloom is a being that has the capacity to divorce himself from the qualities that might define him, and has the potentiality not to be.

For Tiqqun, resistance is not confronting the powers that be head-on, but rather feigning to tolerate one’s predicament, and, like the Bloom, identifying completely with whatever predicate one is assigned with. According to Tiqqun, one should not dispense with predicates, but instead identify with them to such an extent that saturation occurs: “Greater freedom does not lie in the absence of a predicate, in anonymity by default. Greater freedom results instead from the saturation of predicates, from their anarchical accumulation. Overpredication automatically cancels itself out in permanent unpredictability” (Tiqqun 2011: 195). A positive anthropology thus reverts into a negative one: by identifying with predicates, overdetermination occurs, and singularities become increasingly unpredictable.

Whatever singularities refuse to be represented, and attempt to elude the regime of visibility and the “tyranny of recognition” (Tiqqun 2010: 205). Doing so, however, as Tiqqun puts it in Introduction to Civil War, creates a continuous tension between being seen and withdrawing from the regime of visibility. By feigning sincerity, whatever singularities resist the power of the spectacle and biopower and immerse themselves in the THEY order to become imperceptible and unpredictable:

We must learn to keep ourselves out of sight, to pass unnoticed into the gray band of each apparatus, to camouflage ourselves behind its major premise. […] [W]e have to develop the art of becoming perfectly anonymous, of offering the appearance of pure conformity. We have to develop the pure art of the surface in order to conduct our operations. This means, for example, that we must drop the pseudo-transgression of no less pseudo-social conventions, stop opting for revolutionary “sincerity,” “truth,” and “scandal,” for the sake of a tyrannical politeness through which to keep the apparatus and its possessed at bay. (Tiqqun 2010: 194)

For Tiqqun, resistance is to act in common without communing, to be heteroaffectively constituted instead of being locked up in one’s immanence. As a philosophical concept, tiqqun “restores to each fact its how” (Tiqqun 2010: 189): the question, therefore, is not “what is to be done?” in order to achieve a certain end, but “how is it to be done?”, and above all with whom?

Referencing Herman Melville’s enigmatic clerk Bartleby, who confuses his employer and co-workers by answering each question with the phrase “I would prefer not to,” Tiqqun describes their politics of singularity and poetics of resistance as “the human strike,” that is to say, “the strike that, whenever THEY expect this or that predictable reaction, some contrite or indignant tone, prefers not to” (Tiqqun 2010: 221). In “Bartleby; or, the Formula,” Gilles Deleuze analyses the peculiar construction of Bartleby’s statement, noting that the usual formula is “I had rather not” (Deleuze 1998: 68). Although “I would prefer not to” is syntactically and grammatically correct, the formula “leaves what it rejects undetermined, confers upon it the character of a radical, a kind of limit-function” (Deleuze 1998: 68). Bartleby’s preferring not to is not an outright refusal, but rather an utterance that “ravages language as a whole”: Bartleby’s formula is much more effective and distressing than an act of rebellion, since he does not refuse, but voices his preference for the non-preferred, and thus sabotages the “logic of presuppositions according to which an employer “expects” to be obeyed” (Deleuze 1998: 73). [12] According to Deleuze, the formula is disruptive because “it hollows out an ever expanding zone of indiscernibility or indetermination between some nonpreferred activities and a preferable activity” (Deleuze 1998: 71). As Slavoj Žižek also observes, Bartleby’s preference not to (be) “goes further than intra-political negation, the vote of no confidence: it rejects the very frame of decision” (Žižek 2008: 216). The human strike creates a zone of indetermination by preferring the non-preferred. As such, to paraphrase Deleuze, the preference not to be, the refusal to be described in identitarian terms, makes whatever singularities pure outsiders, to whom no social position can be attributed (Deleuze 1998: 73). Like Bartleby, whatever singularities refuse to be reduced to a particular identity and refuse to obey in a certain predescribed manner. By creating zones of opacity, whatever communities can be formed beyond the reterritorializing forces of the spectacle and biopower.


The current political atmosphere in the United States and Western Europe is increasingly marked by right-wing populism, public displays of xenophobia, sexism, and discrimination by prominent politicians, and a peculiar mixture of neoliberal governance with conservative, jingoist policies. In an era in which media outlets are accused of spreading “fake news,” and virulent ethnocentrism is disguised as “patriotism,” combating the resurgence of identity thinking and authoritarianism constitutes one of the primary challenges for contemporary radical thought.

In this essay, I have presented an overview of Tiqqun’s writings, and have shown that the collective attempts to rethink the role of resistance today by rejecting identitarian determinations. Tiqqun, following Foucault, Agamben, and the Autonomia movement, constructs a negative anthropology, in which non-identity, potentiality, and an anti-foundational solidarity are affirmed. Tiqqun’s negative anthropology not only sets them apart from the aforementioned alarming trends in contemporary politics, but also from the majority of the contemporary radical Left. Their negative anthropology, as they put it in Introduction to Civil War, is not based on “a common belonging,” but rather on “a common presence,” a form of being in which singularities distance themselves from their predicates and become whatever (Tiqqun 2010: 205). The collective’s analysis of contemporary geopolitics and the possibility of resistance does not revolve around a shared eschatological goal that can be achieved, such as the overthrow of the capitalist class or the insurrection of the multitude against Empire, nor around the (re)appropriation of a shared origin or essence.

By synthesizing Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary techniques and biopower with the Situationist anti-capitalist critique of the spectacle, Tiqqun stresses that resistance should not only encompass localized revolt in one’s own environment, but also requires the overturning or détournement of the sign systems one is confronted with. However, Tiqqun, as well as the Invisible Committee, remain reliant on the Autonomist notion of “exodus,” described by Paolo Virno as defecting from the state by establishing “a non-state run public sphere” and “radically new form of democracy” (Virno 2004: 68), embodied for instance by the autonomous worker’s councils set up in Italy during the political turmoil of the 1970s. It remains unclear exactly what shape this alternative, subversive public space beyond Empire will take, since, as Hardt and Negri put it, Empire is a decentralized form of sovereignty in which the inside and outside have become increasingly indistinguishable (Hardt and Negri 2000: 196). Moreover, Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee describe their political project by using vitalistic metaphors, such as “becoming,” and “intensification,” and thus mirror the emphasis on deterritorialization, fluidity, and decentralization characteristic of Empire, without noting the fundamental differences between the imperial vitalism they reject and the non-imperial form-of-life they desire. Notwithstanding these deficits, the collective rejects conceiving of resistance in identitarian terms, and is part of a wider trend in contemporary continental philosophy to ontologically think a solidarity without foundations. Following Tiqqun, the task of contemporary radical thought lies in carving out zones of indetermination in which whatever singularities can gather, who, adopting “we would prefer not to” as their motto, reject being reduced to a univocal identity, essence, origin, and affirm their being-in-common.


[1] Foucault describes the relationship between sovereignty, discipline, and biopower in contradictory ways throughout his late work. In “Society Must Be Defended,” he argues that disciplinary power “is the exact, point-for-point opposite of the mechanics of power that the theory of sovereignty described or tried to transcribe” (Foucault 2004: 35). In The Will to Knowledge, he argues that biopower succeeded the sovereign paradigm: “One might say that the ancient right to take life or let live was replaced by a power to foster life or disallow it to the point of death” (Foucault 1998: 138). It remains unclear whether the three forms of power succeed each other chronologically, or can exist side by side. In his essay “Governmentality,” Foucault for instance remarks that “we need to see things not in terms of the replacement of a society of sovereignty by a disciplinary society and the subsequent replacement of a disciplinary society by a society of government; in reality, one has a triangle, sovereignty-discipline-government, which has as its primary target the population and as its essential mechanism the apparatuses of society” (Foucault 1991b: 102). This ambiguity is illustrated by Agamben’s work, which is a synthesis of Schmitt’s decisionist account of sovereignty and a thanatopolitical interpretation of biopower.

[2] The term “state machinery” was used by Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in which he analyzed the rise to power of Napoleon’s nephew, who eventually became King Napoleon III. Marx’s description of the way in which the state controls the population differs significantly from Foucault’s later positive conception of power: “In France the executive has at its disposal an army of more than half a million individual officials, and it therefore constantly maintains an immense mass of interests and livelihoods in a state of the most unconditional dependence; the state enmeshes, controls, regulates, supervises and regiments civil society from the most all-embracing expressions of its life down to its most insignificant motions, from its most general modes of existence down to the private life of individuals. This parasitic body acquires, through the most extraordinary centralization, an omnipresence, an omniscience, an elasticity and an accelerated rapidity of movement which find their only appropriate complement in the real social body’s helpless irresolution and its lack of a consistent formation” (Marx 2010: 86). Unlike Foucault, Marx conceives of power as something that is centralized and repressive, that controls every aspect of life from a top-down perspective.

[3] In The Decadence of Industrial Democracies, Bernard Stiegler ignores this facet of Foucault’s thought in his critique of the notion of resistance. According to him, resistance is an “obsolete idea of politics,” and “holding on to such a politics could only mean becoming ensnared in one more delusion. One must struggle against this tendency by inventing rather than by resisting. Resistance can only ever be reactive and, as such, it belongs to nihilism—in the Nietzschean sense of these words” (Stiegler 2011: 47).

[4]  These terms are described at length in the lecture series “Society Must Be Defended”: “When I say ‘subjugated knowledges,’ I mean two things. On the one hand, I am referring to historical contents that have been buried or masked un functional coherences or formal systematizations. […] Subjugated knowledges are, then, blocks of historical knowledges that were present in the functional and systematic ensembles, but which were masked, and the critique was able to reveal their existence by using, obviously enough, the tools of scholarship. Second, I think subjugated knowledges should be understood as meaning something else and, in a sense, something quite different. When I say “subjugated knowledges” I am also referring to a whole series of knowledges that have been disqualified as nonconceptual knowledges, as insufficiently elaborated knowledges: naïve knowledges, hierarchically inferior knowledges, knowledges that are below the required level of erudition or scientificity” (Foucault 2004: 7).

[5] “The wealth of societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails appears as an ‘immense collection of commodities’; the individual commodity appears as its elementary form” (Marx 1992a: 125).

[6] Gattungswesen or “species-being” is a reference to the young Marx’s theory of estrangement, as developed in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (cf. Marx 1992b: 229-230).

[7] Détournement bears a striking resemblance to Agamben’s notion of “profanation.” Like détournement, profanation is an operation in which separation is overcome and private property is abolished: “Profanation […] neutralizes what it profanes. Once profaned, that which was unavailable and separate loses its aura and is returned to use. […] [Profanation] deactivates the apparatuses of power and returns to common use the spaces that power had seized” (Agamben 2007: 77).

[8] In This Is Not a Program, Tiqqun for instance argues that Negri and his followers are complicit in the imperial project they oppose: “The three watchwords of political Negrism—for all its strength lies in its ability to provide neo-militants with issues on which to focus their demands—are the “citizen’s dividend,” the right to free movement (“Papers for everyone!”), and the right to creativity, especially if computer-assisted. In this sense, the Negrist perspective is in no way different from the imperial perspective but rather a mere instance of perfectionism within it” (Tiqqun 2011: 117).

[9] In recent years, the concepts of immaterial labour and affective labour have been criticized by feminist scholars. These concepts, as Isabell Lorey puts it, “describe labour from the perspective of capitalist accumulation and insufficiently reflect on non-labour, care labour, the production of the social, etc.” (Lorey 2015: 82n).

[10] In Specters of Marx, Jacques Derrida coins the term “ontopology,” described as “an axiomatics linking indissociably the ontological value of present-being [on] to its situation, to the stable and presentable determination of a locality, the topos of territory, native soil, city, body in general” (Derrida 2006: 102-103). Like Tiqqun, Derrida holds that the main problem of political control is a crisis of presence, i.e. regulating and deciding who is present in or absent from the political order.

[11] Agamben’s attempt to think community and the common in a non-identitarian manner was primarily inspired by the work of Nancy, whose essay “La Communauté désoeuvrée” was published in 1983. Nancy’s reflections on community and being-in-common inspired thinkers such as Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida, and Roberto Esposito. For post-structuralist discussions of community and the common, see especially Nancy 1991; 2000; 2016, as well as Blanchot 1988; Derrida 2002; Esposito 2008; 2010; 2011; 2013.

[12] In a passage in which the narrator, Bartleby’s employer, asks him “Why do you refuse?,” Bartleby again states “I would prefer not to” (Melville 1986: 14).


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