The Buckling of Abstraction: Matteo Pasquinelli’s Animal Spirits: A Bestiary of the Commons

Dave Mesing

Conducting an experiment with the materials of French poststructuralism and Italian post-operaismo theory, Matteo Pasquinelli develops a vital materialist critique of digital culture in his book Animal Spirits: A Bestiary of the Commons. Pasquinelli argues that ‘a sub-religion of separation’ has haunted art critique, media culture, radical activism and the academy over the last decade. (14) In order to combat this enclosure, he takes up three related domains which have been celebrated as autonomous economies: digital networks and Free Culture, the culture industry and Richard Florida-style creative cities, and the mediascape of war terrorism and Internet pornography. Following Keynes’ famous claim that ‘animal spirits’ are those unpredictable human drives which influence economic cycles, Pasquinelli explores the underside of digital culture, where irrational fears, forces, and conflicts proliferate.

After the introduction, the book is divided into four chapters, the first of which deals with the major theoretical influences and antagonists of the book, and the final three which each develop a conceptual animal spirit. As mentioned, Pasquinelli combines post-operaismo theory with poststructuralist thought, particularly Deleuze’s collaborative work with Guattari, though he also draws on major contemporary philosophers such as Roberto Esposito and Giorgio Agamben. He wields Agamben’s study of the human-animal relation in The Open to argue that biopolitics should be traced to a zoological origin, rather than a non-biological notion of power. (41) The zoological basis of contemporary politics is even more apparent in Pasquinelli’s use of Paolo Virno, whom he suggests enacts a ‘Copernican turn’ in contemporary radical thought. (32) Against the tendency of someone such as Chomsky, who believes in the natural goodness of humans and the positivity of verbal language, Pasquinelli employs Virno to argue that the struggle for prestige and honor—which Pasquinelli terms an ‘immaterial civil war’—is a disorienting but natural expression of the instincts of humanity. (32) Similarly, language, unlike what "Habermas and a certain number of happy-go-lucky philosophers assure us" is an innate expression of human aggressiveness, which radicalizes rather than mitigates interspecies conflict. (33)

Pasquinelli pits these points against arguments taken and derived from authors such as Zizek, Lacan, and Baudrillard that treat gestures of resistance as means of reinforcing dominant power structures. Pasquinelli polemically defines Zizekianism as "a critique of capitalist ideology based on psycholinguistic analysis alone, an approach that does not provide any model of the surplus economy running behind any phantasmagoria." (148) The injunction against creativity by groups such as the BAVO collective falls into a fatalism that simply complains about neoliberal cultural industries with no understanding of the economic models behind them. Even the well-known strategy of over-identification used by the art group Laibach, lauded by Zizek, remains at the level of media activism and public relations. Instead, Pasquinelli grounds his analysis in a set of concepts (immaterial labor, affective labor, cognitive capitalism, a new understanding of rent, biopolitics) taken from recent Franco-Italian philosophy which more accurately describes the post-Fordist economy. Rather than dialectics, the watchword here is ambivalence. Pasquinelli posits that a molecular model of the katechon, a concept developed by Esposito which restrains evil by containing it within itself, is capable of combatting postmodern pessimism and puritan radicalism as a way through contemporary capitalism. (36) Thus, although Pasquinelli affirms that there is no outside to contemporary capitalism, he claims that the inside is made up of complex, asymmetrical conflicts. That the ambivalence at the heart of the animal spirits of the multitude is never balanced is exactly the point. Surplus and energy move in only one direction at a time, and "the structure of power, production and accumulation of surplus-value is never binary but ternary." (44)

The animal spirits that Pasquinelli invokes are in fact ambivalent and uncertain points within the domains which are only apparently autonomous economies. The first of these that Pasquinelli discusses is the parasite of the commons within digitalism and Free Culture. He defines digitalism as a belief that the semiotic, ‘online’ world of the Internet smoothly parallels the biological, ‘offline’ world. (72) Supporters of Free Culture, such as Lawrence Lessig, fall into a political deployment of digitalism through the hope that the frictionless cooperation between the material and the immaterial can simply be translated into the ‘offline’ world. Adopting the framework of Michel Serres, Pasquinelli argues that there is instead a parasitic intersubjective relationship between the two. "Enmeshed with a global economy, every bit of “free” information carries its own microslave like a forgotten twin." (75) This can helpfully be explained through the example of Creative Commons. Pasquinelli shows that when it comes to a practical economic model which could support the creators of works distributed through Creative Commons, Lessig ends up advocating that compensation must take place "without breaking the Internet." (77) In other words, the frontier itself must vigilantly be protected. The result of this is that Creative Commons licenses expand spaces of the market so that new monopolies and new forms of rent can be established.

In the third chapter, Pasquinelli expands upon this idea by treating the domain of the culture industry and creative cities through the introduction of a second animal spirit: the Hydra of language. The conflicts of an immaterial civil war emerge when the notion of Free Culture is extended to society, which is why Pasquinelli uses the Hydra, a many-headed, microscopic sea creature capable of continual regeneration, as his image. This centerless immaterial war is what constitutes the underside of cognitive capitalism, and within the cities in which cognitive work takes place through digital networks, time shrinks, and becomes the space in which competition takes place. The key commodity in this immaterial civil war is attention, and this point is important from the perspective of the common as a political subject within cognitive capitalism.
The crucial aspect of cognitive capitalism is that value accumulation does not work like energy or commodity accumulation: once symbolic capital is produced and accumulated, it cannot easily be un-produced and de-accumulated. Once a brand has attained visibility, even in the case of a bad reputation, that exposure cannot be annihilated. And once collective knowledge has been spontaneously condensed and fixed around a specific object (like a Free Software program) or a place (like a new hip district), it can be exploited by commercial initiatives with no need for brutal enclosures. […] The slogan ‘information is non-rival’ has a doppelgänger: accumulation of information on the one side feeds economic rent on the other. The multitudes of the metropolis live, work and produce value along the frictions and asymmetries of the commons. It is the evidence of a biopolitical routine: the immaterial commons are used to reinforce the material enclosures. (149-150)
The main point here is that the common must be produced—it is not a static form, but rather something that must be produced and then defended from within the many-headed Hydra of the immaterial civil war. As such, with the problem of gentrification in so-called creative cities, Pasquinelli argues that gentrification cannot be confronted head on, but instead attacked through a productive sabotage which destroys the value production and rent extraction within the accumulation of symbolic capital in the cognitive economy.

The fourth and final chapter introduces the third and perhaps most provocative animal spirt, the bicephalous eagle of power. The eagle’s two heads make up the public face of power and its dark side, which is what gives it its power. If the parasite of the commons and the Hydra of language are the beasts lurking within digital utopianism and the concrete location of cognitive capitalism, respectively, then the bicephalous eagle of power is the collective imaginary of the multitude, "the monsters emerging from the collective Id." (159) In order to draw out these monsters, Pasquinelli makes use of the novels of J.G. Ballard. According to Pasquinelli, Ballard’s novels show that there is a “just psychopathology” to the collective unconscious. (166) Instead of a conservative puritanism or a radical pessimism in the face of the violence of this collective unconscious, Pasquinelli points to Ballard as offering an account of desire as an affirmative force. The context of this discussion is the interrelationship between sex and the war imaginary. In the case of the Vietnam war coverage in the United States, then, Pasquinelli concurs with Ballard’s claim that "war has a distinctly cathartic role for the libido of a nation." (168) He argues further that "news about war has no informational content: its aim is solely a strategic control of the collective libido." (169) By calling attention to the affirmative aspect of desire in sexualized war images, including the infamous Abu Ghraib photos, Pasquinelli’s purpose is not merely scandalous. Instead, it is to argue that the full range of the molecular basis of desire must be confronted if the mediascape of warporn is really to be brought down.

Pasquinelli fleshes this point out further through Agamben’s understanding of profanation, which detaches capacities from their immediate ends so that they can be played with. Agamben’s chief example of this is pornography, which is a radical case study of the separated image in capitalism. Although Agamben identifies profanation in the pornographic image, he argues that it intervenes to block a new collective use of sexuality, and thereby should be counter-profaned. Pasquinelli takes from this the far-ranging idea that, ranging from medieval temptations to contemporary sex tapes, "an uncanny imaginary circulates as the black market currency of our libidinal economy." (187) The new uses profanation brings the multitude from the unconscious imaginary of the commons are not the content of warporn and Internet porn, but rather, the comprehension of how this underground libidinal economy "belongs to a radical community still to come." (187)

Pasquinelli dismantles the architecture on the playground of the so-called separate economies of digital culture, creative cities, and the mediascape of war and pornography. He shows that there is a biological ground to the immaterial that is composed of real physical forces which are essential to the production of the common. "Descending from the gnostic plateaus of digitalism and pure peer cooperation," we find "the reptilian unconscious of the metropolis beneath the benevolent totalitarianism of the Creative Industries." (15) Beneath the apparently pristine surfaces of these domains thought as separate lies a dystopian, conflictual world of desire and surplus. For Pasquinelli, such domains only offer a pseudo-commons, and the consistent success in Animal Spirits is to name the destructive desires and surplus values by connecting such immaterial domains to the material mode of production, in order that the productive power of these doppelgängers might be unleashed towards a stronger political definition of the commons.


Matteo Pasquinelli, Animal Spirits: A Bestiary of the Commons (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2008).

Dave Mesing is a Ph.D. student in philosophy at Villanova University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He works at the intersection of contemporary critical theory and the history of philosophy, and has interests encompassing Spinoza, Marx, Italian operaismo, the history of materialism, and contemporary continental philosophy.