Paolo Virno’s latest book, Jokes and Innovative Action, has been translated and will be released by trailblazing indie label Semiotext(e) next month. Gerald Raunig has a review.

In Jokes and Innovative Action, these figures initially appear as the two fundamental types of jokes. For Virno, the two main forms of fallacy, which in turn give rise to the two primary genres of jokes, are multiple use and displacement. […] Each type of joke, that is, corresponds analogically to a type of innovative action, which Virno respectively terms entrepreneurship and exodus. […]

This first, recombinant figure of innovation is the entrepreneur. The entrepreneur is not to be confused here with either a CEO or an owner of a capitalist enterprise (indeed, Virno finds this common connotation “sickening and odious”). Instead of an identity attributable to a person or a profession or a lasting condition, what is involved here is more of a function: a “species-specific faculty which becomes activated in the case of crisis or stagnation.” The entrepreneurial function is analogous to the ars combinatoria of the joke, its capacity to make varied use of the same verbal material. From this perspective, we see that creativity and innovation as Virno theorizes them arise not only from the small differences that accrue through repetition, but also from mistakes, false conclusions, and misjudgments.

The other fundamental type of joke, and its analogous type of innovation, derives from displacement. Virno writes: “[T]he logico-linguistic resources required to open up an unforeseen way out of Pharaoh’s Egypt are the same resources which nurture jokes (and para-logistic inferences) characterized by displacement, that is to say by an abrupt deviation in the axis of discourse.” At the linguistic level, displacement means changing the topic while a conversation is already proceeding along well-defined tracks. In the political field, displacement is actualized as leave-taking, as defection, as exodus. Virno emphasizes that he sees exodus as a collective action, which hinges on the para-logistic principle of tertium datur: a third way beyond any dialectical movement, an asymmetrical third possibility. As the quotation at the beginning of this article states, exodus is a nondialectical form of negation and resistance, or rather, of defecting and fleeing. Confronted with the question of whether they would submit to the pharaoh or openly rebel against his rule, the Israelites invent another possibility that could not have been conceived before: They flee. […] As joke and as innovative action, exodus—the nonpassive, nondialectical, nonindividualist form of defection—opens up a side road, uncharted on political maps, “to modify the very ‘grammar’ which determines the selection of all possible choices.”


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