Déja Vu and The End of History – Paolo Virno


Why did I read this? 

K recently emailed some thoughts on déja vu, introducing an interesting concept of reincarnation that seemed similar (on the suggestion of another friend) to the notion of time’s non-linear passage in Arrival. I won’t reiterate his thoughts here, but I will say that while I myself do not believe in reincarnation, K’s email did encourage me to think more deeply about an otherwise ordinary, un-interesting (in the way an eye-twitch or little itch on the knee is un-interesting) rarity of experience. I was also aware of Paulo Virno’s philosophical study on the topic, so I went ahead and jumped in, hoping that I could bring more to the table in the discussion K raised.

I didn’t realize the depths of the water here…


Before reading this short but difficult study, it’s helpful to remember that it originally appeared in Italian in the late 90s. Verso released the English translation about 15 years later, somewhat removed from its original historical and philosophical context, a period in which Francis Fukayama’s “end of history” thesis became an ideological foundation (read: neoconservative dog whistle) for imperialism’s “victory,” led by the United States, over the Soviet Union. So the illusion goes: bourgeois democracy had at last triumphed over communismbringing to realization the “best,” and final manifestation, of all historical actualities.

Not only is America winning, Fukuyama claimed, but the flourishing of democracy around the world is the fulfillment of a grand historical scheme. The end of the cold war and the disarray of the Soviet Union reflected a larger process -the realization of the Idea. History, Hegel believed (or Fukuyama says he believed), ”culminated in an absolute moment – a moment in which a final, rational form of society and state became victorious.” And that moment, it just so happens, is now. (New York Times, 1989)

While I’m convinced of the ideological purpose of Fukuyama’s argument (he was, after all, a State Department official during the Cold War), Virno’s is a much more charitable response, diagnosing a philosophical disease of which “end of history” thinking is a symptom.

In the quote above, Hegel is cited as a launching point for Fukuyama’s thesis, and while Virno wouldn’t disagree, Déja Vu details the picture more accurately, tracing this problematic (or diseased, as I’ve described it) history of philosophy backwards to Kojève, Hegel and, what may be the most challenging but rewarding section of the book, Aristotle. That is, the ideological outcome of the long-dominant and unchallenged Aristotelian relationship between potentiality and actuality may, it turns out, be a collective – and collectively mistaken – acceptance that history could ever reach a teleological end:

Virno’s analysis would appear to imply there no [sic] final telos or structural totality can be permitted if the world is one of endless potentialities – for historical time could not really exist if this were the case. Virno’s offensive offers us then to enter a philosophical battle over time whilst the political consequences of such a battle appear unclear, and for all we know, the price of endless possibilities may turn out to be no future at all. (Marx and Philosophy, 2016)

Rory Jeff’s conclusion above (“no future at all”) is one spin on Virno’s polemics against the “end of history,” though Virno himself would, I believe, take issue with it as the pessimistic interpretation. A more hopeful reading would be the one that replaces telos – a finality of human potentiality – and replaces it with something closer to Marx: Historical Man  – the subject of a truly human history that does not depend on the unfolding of events as if guided by the hand of a divine power (or “culmination of the Absolute”), but that guides history in her own direction, fully conscious of her unlimited potential and unhindered by “antagonistic forms” of bourgeois society that appears “natural” (and “final,” as Fukuyama might have it):

The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production — antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from the social conditions of life of the individual; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism. This social formation brings, therefore, the prehistory of human society to a close. (quoted in Fromm, 1961)

If there’s any doubt that Virno is onto something here, just open a newspaper. That so-called “triumph” of the West has proven false, with the promise of democracy leading to the resurrection of all varieties of reaction: nationalism, fascism, neocolonialism and the hollowing out of basic social / public services across the map. In other words, our well-known global and domestic instabilities defy the political premises on which someone could (disingenuously) declare a “flourishing of democracy.”

In that sense, it may seem a little odd that Verso would reintroduce the work to a larger audience now, when anyone with a basic grip on geopolitical realities could hardly accept the stalling of history. It would be a mistake, however, to limit Virno’s critique to what any and all refutations of the “end of history” have in common: namely, that on a basic empirical level, history is still moving. There are political, social, cultural (i.e., historical) battles yet to be won or lost. Instead, Virno goes beyond this ideological point, investigating the very structure of our understanding of time (see Chapter 2: “The Memory of the Present”) to reveal how “end of history” thinking could arise in the first place.

In other words, the relevance of Virno’s arguments does not have to be limited to refutation of State Department ideologues or Trumpian appeals to the “former greatness” of America. It can, I think, be applied to apocalyptic visions of our future (a la Wahhabism) or crude materialist “Marxist” predictions of the culmination of history in socialism, even something as simple as the Social Media Addict and every-attached-to-his-phone millennial. Virno, in other words, is revealing this structure of experience as a means of protecting us from its philosophical harms in the future. Using Henri Bergson as an intellectual foundation, this is  what he calls déja vu: 

“‘We feel that we choose and will, but that we are choosing what is imposed on us and willing the inevitable.’ The state of mind correlated to deja vu is that typical of those set on watching themselves live.” (Virno, 2015)

You may have noticed that I’ve left out egregiously huge details on how these arguments work:

  • What is the Aristotelian connection between potentiality and actuality? And how does that form the basis of our notion of history?
  • What does it mean for déja vu to be a collective, public experience and not, as we commonly hold it to be, a very personal one?
  • Perhaps most egregious in its absence: is there not a way to reclaim deja vu as a liberating capacity, one that fixes us not in our past, but shows us the future?

As I said from the start, I didn’t know what depths I was jumping into here. What I set out to do was show the general outline and purpose of Virno’s work, in order to make it a little more understandable if the reader decides to jump in herself. That said, the questions above could be your life raft. Hold on tight.

This leaves one last question for the review: should she jump in? Was it worth the time? For those interested in Critical Theory (and not uncomfortable with the stubbornly academic language of such work), Aristotle’s Metaphysics or the Philosophy of History broadly speaking, then yes – give it a go. Otherwise, I wouldn’t say the book is the most memorable philosophical text I’ve read, despite memory being its central subject.



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