(Uncorrected, unrevised draft–do not quote without author’s permission)
Non finito. Gramsci’s infrapolitical writing
Texas A&M University, 5 april 2016
Frankly there is no past to regret. The empire that must be protected from barbarism has never existed; that is, it still doesn’t exist.
- I was always fascinated by the project of infrapolitics, although I’m not a philosopher of politics, nor a latinoamericanist, nor interested in (post-)colonial or subaltern studies. I look at infrapolitics with interest because infrapolitics – in the sense that I will discuss further – is the perfect candidate to understand the “gray zone” between literature and thought.
As an old and old fashioned historicist I’ve always appreciate when we – and I mean in this case both the old university intellectuals and the marranos – the «radical alternative to the modern theory of subject» (Villalobos-Runinott, 2015, p. 128) – try to establish an «archive of theoretical references» (Moreiras) to the «infrapolitical deconstruction». So I’ve looked with interest at the attempt to trace a genealogy of infrapolitics starting from my old “mystical” heroes, Reiner Schürmann or Simone Weil, and even more, studying the infrapolitical dimension of literature, to which Alberto Moreiras has dedicated his most brilliant essays.
As a literary scholar, I cannot take position in this paper on the wide ranging questions posed by infrapolitics: Can we think politics in a non-Roman way? Can we demetaphorize and deallegorizes power in order to rediscover the “sacredness of man” (Oscar del Barco)?, Can we escape the logic of equivalence? or Can we think – with Maria Zambrano – «the possibility of politics beyond subjectivity and beyond sovereignty? (Moreiras, 2009).
My thesis is that we can detect infrapolitics in the forms of writing, especially in literature, as in the case of Antonio Gramsci’s and Walter Benjamin’s unfinished works, an example of the never-ending attempt to «abandon subjectivity» (Heidegger, 1947).
I will try to sketch only a chapter of this “literary history” of infrapolitics working between the lines on the literary and the infrapolitical structure of Gramsci’s (and Benjamin’s) unfinished works.
Alberto Moreiras has shown the infrapolitical dimensions of many writers. His pages on Javier Marias’, Cormac McCarthy’s, Jorge Luis Borges and even Cervantes’ infrapolitics are a good way to detect infrapolitics in the folds of Western (and non-western) literature. But the most important contribution he gives to the infrapolitical meaning of literature is not about single novels or poems, but about genres. In a challenging essay on the genre of the thriller he states:
A thriller is always a political reaction to the suspension of ethics. A crime against a fellow human being is always a suspension of ethics… The ethico-political structuration of the thriller, we could say, turns the thriller into a special form or a special way of thinking the political: it is an ethical form for thinking the political that is also a political form for thinking the ethical. For this chiasmatic structure I will use the term “infrapolitical” (Moreiras, 2007, p. 150 ss.).
I think that the same can be said of Gramsci’s and Benjamin’s unfinished works. But we need to be precise and to study juxta propria principia the development of their attitude to the “non finito”, which is not the bare celebration of anarchy and bricolage, but the outcome of an existential fight and of a philosophical tactic that reveals new potentialities in Gramsci’s and Benjamin’s thought. We are aware, of course, that Gramsci’s and Benjamin’s thought can be considered as a part of the hegemonic and counter-hegemonic way of thinking, which is malgré tout a continuation of the onto-theology of politics. Nevertheless, if we look at the forms of Gramsci’s writing in prison or Benjamin’s writing in exile, at the development in their practice of writing, we will see a slow but inexorable development from a traditional way to speak about politics to a new form that takes the structure of an infrapolitical thinking. Infrapolitics is not only a way to act but also to write.
- To question the various “forms of writing” within cultural critique is one way to define the physiognomy of the speaker, as the statute of any cultural approach can be based only upon this fundamental issue: who is the speaker? From where does he or she speak? Whose voices – and how many – echo within that speech? These are the classical questions of Subaltern or Gender studies. But what about the forms of writing that can be considered a symptom of the transformation of the subjectivity of the subjects (subaltern and hegemonic)?
In this regard we are aided by several classical texts which provide a methodological framework of references for the forms of cultural critique. I am referring to Hayden White’s (1973) study on the “genres” of classical historiography, which has taught us to identify in the “literary form” the most profound substance of historical discourse, or to the analyses of Friedrich Kittler (2001) and Hartmut Böhme (2000), who have isolated in the novel (der kulturgeschichtliche Roman) the main form of late 19th century Kulturgeschichte; and, finally, to the physiognomy of the Kulturwissenschaftler proposed by Thomas Macho (1993) and Helmut Lethen (1995), who distinguish between two main forms of writing on culture: that of the “hunters” (Jäger) and that of the “collectors” (Sammler). The first group prefers the totalizing form, the comprehensive vision, the great fresco that can represent totality (Lamprecht, Burckhardt, Lukács); the second displays a passion for the detail, for the fragment, for the vivid aphorism destined to endless combinations, in short, a “tactic” – to borrow from De Certeau (1980) – that “mimics” its own object, surrounding and touching it, concerned more with a possible than with the real reference, concerned more with the process than the finished work.
This is the classical form of many great “unfinished” books on culture in the 20th century: Simmel’s, Benjamin’s, Warburg’s – and certainly Gramsci’s.
This paper does not seek to determine if Hayden White’s strict categorizations correspond to the forms of European cultural history of the 19th and 20th centuries or if it is justified to apply, for instance, the notion of Satura/Satira to the works of the Sammler, or if the precise method of the Satirico – that is, «to add gray to gray» in the belief that «the world has aged» (White, 1973) – is suitable for explaining complex forms of writing such as the romantic arabesque or the Deleuzian rhizome. The fact remains that this way of looking at cultural critique may explain some fundamental articulations of 20th century thought.
- I will concentrate on two exemplary case studies – two “forms” of cultural critique that still influence our cultural and philosophical research. I am referring to Walter Benjamin’s Passagenwerk (The Arcade Project) and Antonio Gramsci’s Quaderni del carcere (Prison Notebooks) – stories and forms of writing that are interwoven in the time of danger.
Birgit Wagner (2001) – Romanist and Gramscian at the University of Vienna – put much emphasis on the “elective affinity” between authors who are still widely recognized as the innovators of international cultural studies and political thought. This applies to Benjamin – without whom there would be neither the Western Cultural Studies nor the German Kulturwissenschaften – as well as to Gramsci, whose reception in Subaltern Studies, (post-)colonial studies, and Latin-American studies has been crucial.
Certainly these two author are not alone in experimenting new forms of writing. Similar strategies are evident in Aby Warburg’s Atlas (1924 ss.) and, as Birgit Wagner reminds us, in Antonio Machado’s Juan de Mairena (1927), just to name a few. These are all forms of writing in the moment of danger. And this danger is constituted not only by political persecution, as for Benjamin and Gramsci, but by dramatic and catastrophic life events. These works certainly reflect a period of great social and psychological difficulties in the lives of the authors, while at the same time they represent the product of gifted individualities subjected to a strong stress.
I therefore will consider Gramsci’s condition in prison as a kind of existential premise to the development of his infrapolitical way of writing. I don’t need to discuss here that there are of course also infrapolitical conditions of subalternity that influence ways of life, writing and resisting. James C. Scott already in the first pages of his Domination and the Art of Resistance. Hidden Trascript has written:
My working assumption in organizing the book was that the most severe conditions of powerlessness and dependency would be diagnostic. Much of the evidence here, then, is drawn from studies of slavery, serfdom, and caste subordination on the premise that the relationship of discourse to power would be most sharply etched where the divergence between what I call the public transcript and the hidden transcripts was greatest. Where it seemed suggestive I have also brought in evidence from patriarchal domination, colonialism, racism, and even from total institutions such as jails and prisoner of war camps (Scott, 1990, p. X)
Gramsci in prison, Benjamin in exile are two candidates for the forms of resistence studied by Scott.
Nevertheless what hat we have called “infrapolitical condition” is only a part of the story. More importantly, this condition produces a slow but inexorable transformation and development in the character and in the form of writing of these authors. Although the costs of this development were too high – Gramsci’s illness and death and Benjamin’s suicide – what remains is a monument to infrapolitical thinking.
- Gramsci’s work in prison and Benjamin’s project in exile are an interplay of heterogeneous elements. They are actually heterologies in De Certeau’s words. By virtue of their complexity, however, these heterologies claim at first to give a comprehensive image of Baudelaire’s Paris in 19th century, and of Italian culture and social development in the 19th and 20th centuries. It goes without saying that these writings are anti-academic, or even extra-academic. Which is not a trivial matter in the context of their infrapolitical interpretation. They are also writings, which, in their conscious application of a precarious form, thematize and theorize that form, offering us a meta-reflection, a meta-discursive processing, whose power we can still discern.
We should not forget the paradox to which heterologies are exposed: as sciences of those who “have no voice”, these transcripts (translations) work as the «concealment of a loss» (De Certeau), as a product which replaces an «absent voice», the voice of the Self – or, better, of a wounded Self.
There is much to say about the specific heterological dimension of Gramsci’s and Benjamin’s research.
At times Gramsci, imagining his work’s destiny of remaining unfinished, seems to want to exorcize the risk of the “almanac.” For example, in Loose notes and jottings for a history of Italian intellectuals, he writes:
(1) Provisional character – like memoranda of these kinds of notes and jottings. (2) They may result in independent essays but not in a comprehensive organic work. (3) There can be no distinction yet between the main part of the exposition and the secondary elements, between what would end up being the “text” and what should be the “notes”. (4) These notes often consist of assertions that have not been verified, that may be called “rough first drafts”; after further study, some of them may be discarded, and it might even be the case that the opposite of what they assert will be shown to be true. (5) That said, one should not be put off by the enormity of the topic and its unclear boundaries; there is no intention to assemble a jumbled miscellany on intellectuals, an encyclopedic compilation aimed at filling all possible and imaginable “lacunae'” (Q, II 935; I 438 and II 1365; PN, III, p. 231).
In the Notebooks there are numerous passages about hermeneutic overinterpretation («Importuning the texts», Gramsci says), «making texts say more than they really do» (Quaderni, II, p. 838; PN III, p. 141). Gramsci, a skilled linguist, recognizes of course the value of philology, the passion for detail, and opposes it to sociology which is a science mainly interested in seeing the big picture. The Prison Notebooks involve a constant and profound struggle between concern for detail and the totalizing impulse of the social historian.
Thus a discussion gradually emerges on the details of the texts, on the relationship between text, footnotes, marginalia, commentary, and on the role of “rhapsodic memories” that is awaked by reading these notes in a prison. The physical form of the notes, with their inherent dispersion, conflicts at the beginning with Gramsci’s intense passion for «putting things in order», systematizing, and above all, recombining what has been written into new meanings. Not by chance both Gramsci and Benjamin are obsessed with the question of the material “support” for their writings. They search for an instrument that allows both dispersion and melting, deconstruction and construction. Gramsci is even insistent about the physical form of the notebooks. In a letter dated February 22th, 1932, to Tania Schucht, his sister-in-law, he wrote significantly:
As for the notes I have jotted down on Italian intellectuals, I really don’t know where to begin: they are scattered in a series of notebooks, mixed in with various other notes and I would first have to gather them all together so as to put them in order. This job is a big burden, because I am too often plagued by serious headaches that do not permit the necessary concentration: also from a practical point of view the task is laborious because of the restrictions under which I am forced to work. If you can, send me some notebooks but not like the ones you sent me a while ago which are cumbersome and too large: you should choose notebook of a normal format like those used in school at most forty to fifty, so that they are not inevitably transformed increasingly in jumbled miscellaneous tomes. I would like to have these small notebooks for the purpose of collating these notes, dividing them by subject, and so once and for all putting them in order. This will help me pass the time and will be useful to me personally in achieving a certain intellectual order (LC, II, p. 537; PL, II, p. 141).
Not unlike Walter Benjamin, who was living in exile in Paris sustained by the solidarity of a few friends, wrote to Gretel Adorno in 1934:
I have only one small, ridiculous favor to ask you, about the pages I’ve worked on for Passages. Since I’ve begun to gather the many pages of work that form the basis of the study, I’ve always used one size of paper, a notebook of plain, white MK letter paper. Now my supplies are used up and I would like very much that the full, accurate manuscript maintained the proper exterior form (PW, II, p. 1098).
As literary scholars know, these are not mere idiosyncrasies (which would be more than justified given the significant psychological and physical stress these writers were subjected to) but have to do with giving form and coherence to one’s own writing. At least at the beginning of their enterprises.
Notice how both Gramsci and Benjamin speak mainly of «putting in order», and show no natural inclination toward deconstructionist solutions, nor for the fragmentary form itself. In both cases their choice almost seems a surrender to the aphoristic form and they realized only in a later stage the necessity of combining their scattered notes; their option for the fragmentary form is the outcome of a long process of adaptation and suffering, and out of this necessity, they have made a virtue. They sublimated the constraints of practice in theory, a painstaking process that constitutes the purest intellectual contribute they have given.
Gramsci bears painful testimony of this in an moving letter to Tania from March 6th, 1933 in which he attempts to describe the «catastrophes of character» that a person encounters when subjected to the harsh world of prison, a radical transformation that initially reflects a sense of schizophrenia but is the prelude to an irreversible change. It is a long and moving letter that is worth to be quoted because it describes what we can call an infrapolitical condition:
Imagine a shipwreck and that a certain number of persons take refuge in a large boat to save themselves without knowing where, when, and after what vicissitudes they will actually be saved. Before the shipwreck, as is quite natural, not one of the future victims thought he would become…the victim of a shipwreck and therefore imagined even less that he would be driven to commit the acts that victims of shipwreck under certain conditions may commit, for example, the act of becoming…anthropophagous. Each one of them, if questioned point-blank about what he would do faced by the alternative of dying or becoming cannibalistic, would have answered in the utmost good faith that, given the alternative, he would certainly choose to die. The shipwreck occurs, the rush to the lifeboat etc. A few days later, when the food has given out, the idea of cannibalism present itself in a different light until a certain point, a certain number of those particular people become cannibalistic. But they are in reality the same people? Between the two moments, that in which the alternative presents itself as a purely theoretical hypothesis and that in which the alternative presents itself with all the force of immediate necessity, there has been a process of “molecular” transformation, rapid through it may have been, due to which the people of before no longer are the people of afterward, and one could no longer say except from the point of view of the state record office and the law (which on the other hand are respectable points of view that have their own importance) that they are the same people. Well, as I have told you, a similar change is taking place in me (cannibalism apart). The most serious thing is that in these case there is a split in the personality: one part of it observes the process, the other suffers it, but the observing part (as long as this part exists there is self-control and the possibility of recovery) sense the precariousness of its position, that is, it foresees that it will reach a point at which its function will disappear, that is, there will no longer be any self-control and the entire personality will be swallowed by a new “individual” who has impulses, initiatives, ways of thinking different from the previous stage. Well, I am in this situation (LC II, p. 692 ss.; LP II, p. 278 ss.).
Gramsci knows all to well the «institutional neurosis» that James C. Scott (2012, p. 79) considers the first step to resignation in a prison or to a new kind of resistence. Gramsci uses the metapher of a “shipwreck” (see Blumenberg) that forces people otherwise considered civilized and morally incorruptible to succumb to cannibalism. Gramsci maintains that the comparison is valid not only on the individual level but also on the political and social levels, as we can see in his “autobiographical note” from Notebook 15 (Q II, p. 1762).
It would not be difficult to find similar passages in Benjamin’s letters.
Certainly for Benjamin it was easier to move toward the fragmentary form, given his experiences with the avant-garde and the Jewish theology. Adorno urged him repeatedly to consider the necessity of renouncing once and for all to his «rhapsodic naiveité» (PW II, p. 1117; C, p. 255), but Benjamin only formally conforms himself to Adorno’s request.
With the combination of small unities of meaning in the collage/montage of quotations, Benjamin anticipates the chief form of modern hermeneutics, marked by a constructivist impulse, completely in line with the experiments of the avant-garde so dear to him, and with the constitutive complexities of the Jewish and Marxian exegesis. He begins to confront himself with the “garbage” that modernity accumulates on its path to the future. As a collector (Sammler) he knows that the sense of history emerges among the “rests” of the Modernity:
In the Arcade Project there is a monument to this vision. In the famous Notebook N (On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress) – another infrapolitical incunable – Benjamin delineates his theory of montage, which he in no way intends as a mere collection of quotations:
Method for this work: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely to show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulation. But the rags, the refuses, these I will not inventory – but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them (N1a8; PW, II 574; AP, p. 460).
Not simply an almanac, but a «form of practical memory» (H1a2; PW, I 271; AP, p. 205), that unmasks the mythic compactness of history through a combination of heterogeneous parts. Benjamin speaks of «the dissolution of the “mythology” into the space of history» (N1 9; PW, I 571; AP, p. 458), thanks to the «practice of a collector» that consists in detaching the «object . . . from all of its original functions in order to enter into a closest conceivable relation to things of the same kind» (H1a2; PW, I 271; AP, p. 204). The relationship is evident with the practice of interpretation which Gramsci will introduce. The idea to “show” the contradictions of history is in line with the infrapolitical practice, especially the literary.
In his first prison years, everything still make reference to a planned and rational construct. In a letter to Tania from March 19, 1927 Gramsci writes:
In short, in keeping with a pre-established program, I would like to concentrate intensely and systematically on some subject that would absorbe and provide a center to my inner life. Up until now I’ve thought of four subjects (LC I, 55; LP, I, p. 83).
For those four subjects – a study of the formation of public spirit, comparative linguistics, Pirandello’s theater, and serial novel and popular taste in literature – Gramsci underlines their «homogeneity» (LC I, p. 57; LP, p. 84), even though he recognizes, some weeks later in a letter to Tania of May, 23th, the complexity and impossibility of a proper study:
I believe that real study is impossible to me for many reasons, not only psychological, but also technical; it is very difficult for me to become completely absorbed in a train of thought or subject and delve into it alone, as one does when one studies seriously, so as to grasp all possible relationships and connect them harmoniously (LC I, p. 87; LP, I, p. 112).
Two years later when Gramsci is permitted to write in his cell (February, 9th, 1929), he is still searching for a “plan” to put «all my thoughts in order» (LC II, p. 236; PL I, p. 246). In April of that same year he already understands that writing in these conditions means trying to «squeeze blood from a stone», although a political prisoner must submit to the discipline of «knowing how to take notes (if given the permission to write)» (LC I, p. 254; PN I, p. 262):
Many prisoner underestimate the prison library. Of course prison libraries in general are a jumble: the book have been gathered at random, from donation by charitable organizations that receive warehouse remainders from publishers, or from book left behind by released prisoners… Nevertheless I believe that a political prisoner must squeeze blood even from a stone… Every book, especially if it is a history book, can be useful to read. In any small unimportant book one can find something useful… especially if one is in our situation and the time can not be measured with the normal yardstick (LC I, p. 254; LP I, p. 262 ss.).
Gramsci had been warned about the risks of this «squeezing blood from a turnip» – as we say in Italian – and his unconditioned passion for detail. This is illustrated in an anecdote included in a letter to Giulia, his wife, dated December 30th, 1929: «To reconstruct a megatherium or a mastodon from a tiny bone was Cuvier’s special gift, but it may also happen that from a piece of a mouse’s tail on might reconstruct a sea serpent» (I, p. 302). The anecdote also appears in the Prison Notebooks (Q I, p. 22; PN I, p. 116). Joseph Buttigieg bases his introduction to the American edition of the Notebooks on this anecdote (PN I, p. 42).
- After these general statements on the crisis of the form and of the life, I would like to stress four qualities of Gramsci’s and Benjamin’s writing attitudes, using the infrapolitical vocabulary: the anti-academic instance, the demetaphorization and denarrativization of thinking, the autobiography as exposure, and what I would call the virtuality of Non-finito.
The anti-academic instance In August, 3th, 1931 Gramsci admit, in a letter to Tatiana Schlucht, that he has «no longer a real program for study and of course this was bound to happen» (LC II; p. 441; PL II, p. 51). This is not simply a psychological problem, a passing depression. Gramsci feels that his background as an academic linguist has begun to be a burden: «You must keep in mind that the habit of a rigorous philological discipline that I acquired during my university studies has given me perhaps an excessive supply of methodological scruples» (LC II, p. 442; PL I, p. 52). At the same time, his physical conditions worsen. Not even new notebooks seem to bring relief.
Some days ago Alberto Moreiras has written in the Infrapolitical Decostruction Colletive’s blog:
Which is why infrapolitics must abandon its original roots in university discourse, exit disciplinary configurations, and break away from any attempt to surrender at the capture of thought through increasingly domesticated, indexed, regulated, venued, and analytically-ranked self-insertion. This is one of the reasons why infrapolitics claims a savage terrain of engagement, beyond fields: because it understands that battles internal to university politics are always already rigged, always already lost battles.
In a sort of autobiographical projection onto Marx reported in many notebooks (4 and 16), Gramsci brings up the issue of his intellectual legacy after his death, and reveals a greater flexibility regarding the linguistic disciplines he studied at the university. He begins to give greater importance to the relationship between the text itself and the notes, between the work and its hidden genealogy.
In the theoretical testament contained in Notebook 16, the Quistioni di metodo Gramsci clearly points out the theoretical necessity of considering the whole production of an author: published writings, works published by others, scattered notes and incomplete writings, unpublished fragments, letters, even the «discards that is to say … partial doctrines and theories for which the thinker may have had certain sympathy, at certain times, even to the extent of having accepted them provisionally» (Q III, p. 1775 ss.; SW, p. 383).
He recommends always caution, discretion and apparently speaks of Marx and Engels, the fathers of the philosophy of praxis. But it’s clear that he is considering the destiny of his notebooks too. And the necessity to study in any case the «birth of a conception of the world which has never been systematically expounded by its founder (and one furthermore whose essential coherence is to be sought not in each individual writing or series of writings but in the whole development of the multiform intellectual work in which the elements of the conception are implicit» (Q III, p. 1775; SW 382). He is proposing to «reconstruct the process of intellectual development» considering the “gaps” just as significant as what is selected and highlighted, because they transmit that «heroic furor» which stimulates more controversial thoughts. Those who undertake the interpretation of these gaps need to keep an eye toward the biography of the author and the «rhythm of thought as it develops» (Q III, p. 1776; SW, p. 383; Baratta, 2003, p. 91).
Coherently, Gramsci never misses the chance to underscore the “provisional” nature of his own notes (Q I, p. 438; PN II, p. 158). Nonetheless he inevitably begins to reflect on the “disposition” of the notes as an part of the semantics of the text, on the meaning of the “structure” of the text, and even of the meaning of the gaps between texts:
Some criteria for “literary” judgment. A work may be valuable 1) because it expounds a new discovery that advances a determined scientific activity. But absolute “originality” itself is not the only valuable thing. It can happen that 2) the facts and arguments already noted were chosen and organized according to an order, a connection, a criteria that was more suitable and probing than the previous ones. The structure (the economy, the order) of a scientific work may itself be “original”. 3) the facts and arguments already noted could have given place to “new” considerations, albeit subordinated, but still important (Q III, p. 2191. My italics).
Therefore the “form” works as a part of the semantics. Giorgio Baratta has written: «We find ourselves confronted with a work whose ‘investigative method’ and ‘expository method’ do not – as yet – appear to be separated from each other. We have the results of the research within the research, not after, like distilled sediment» (Baratta, 2003, p. 83). While the full awareness of this “formal” necessity comes very slowly, Gramsci pays more attention to clarify the structure of his own cultural research and often in the Notebooks he offers meta-discursive reflections that underscores their «provisional nature». Recurring considerations in the Notebooks culminate in a clear theorization regarding the method and the form of Bucharin’s Popular Essay:
Does a general method exist, and if it does exist, is it anything more than a philosophy? … It is necessary to establish that every research has its own determined method and constructs its own determined science and that the method was developed and elaborated together with the development and the elaboration of that determined research and science, and is at one with them. Believing that one is advancing scientific research by applying a method chosen because it has given good results in another shared field is a strange blunder that has little to do with science (Q II, p. 1404).
And more generally:
The ambiguity surrounding the terms “science” and “scientific” stems from the fact that they have acquired their meaning from one particular segment of the whole range of fields of human knowledge, specifically, from the natural and physical sciences. The description “Scientific” was applied to any method that resembled the method of inquiry and research of the natural sciences, which had become the sciences par excellence, the fetish sciences. There are no such things as sciences par excellence, nor is there any such thing as a method par excellence, a “method in itselff”. Each type of scientific research creates a method that is suitable to it, creates its own logic, which is general and universal only in its “conformity with the end”. The most generic and universal methodology is nothing other than formal or mathematical logic, that is, the ensemhle of those abstract mechanisms of thought that have been discovered over time, clarified, and refined in the course of the history of philosophy and culture. (Q II, 826; PN III, p. 131).
Gramsci’s arguments against the «fetish sciences» and «Esperanto philosophers» (Q II 1466) and «volapuk scientists» (Q II, p. 855; PN III, p. 157 ss.) are well known, not to mention his criticisms of the system at every price:
If a particular doctrine has not yet reached this “classical” phase of its development, every effort to put it in the form of a manual is bound to fail; its logical systemization will be mere façade. It will be just like the Popular Manual: a mechanical juxtaposition of disparate elements that remain inexorably isolated and disjoined. Why, then, not pose the question in its correct historical and theoretical terms and be content with publishing a book in which each essential problem of the doctrine is treated in a monographic way? That would be more serious and more “scientific”. But there are those who believe that science must absolutely mean “system”, and therefore they construct all kinds of systems that have only the mechanical outward appearance of a system (Q II, p. 1424; SW, p. 434).
A kind of self-gratification, as you can see.
Gramsci and Benjamin had to content theirselves with a collection of fragments, offering those who came after them an open work, a kind of fermenta cognitionis. But they made a virtue out of necessity. Gramsci, for instance, recognized soon the aphoristic dimension of the “philosophy of praxis” already clear to Marx – a necessary form when combining the universal and the particular into an infrapolitical practice. Even the philosophy of praxis – the axis of Gramsci’s thought – is presented as a «science of particular facts». In Notebook 11 he writes:
One must however be clear about this: the philosophy of praxis was born in the form of aphorisms and practical criteria for the purely accidental reason that i founder dedicated his intellectual forces to other problems, particularly economic (which he treated in systematic form); but these practical criteria and these aphorisms implicit an entire conception of the world, a philosophy (Q II 1432; SW, p. 426).
The philosophy of praxis imposes, in fact, an experience of the textual sources that is far less positivistic. Gramsci applies this idea even to the founder of the philosophy of praxis, whose practice cannot be explained with an analysis of its sources alone, «all this experience of Hegelianism, Feuerbachianism and French materialism» (Q II, p. 1437; SW, p. 396), but starting from the same creative gaps that Marx produces among his own sources.
Significantly Gramsci insists on the notion of “plagarism” – offering literary examples as when he talks about the “plagarism” of Bruno and D’Annunzio (Q II, p. 1435) – affirming that the philosophy of praxis consists in making a creative use of the sources, and even of plagiarism. It is that Umfunktionierung of the sources that in another context the Marxist Brecht and the Marxist Benjamin wanted to see applied to the artistic strategies of the avant-garde. It is that very creative appropriation of the sources that Gramsci is constrained to turn to a new concept of philology which doesn’t respect the sources anymore but betray them: what we would call today the never-ending work of demetaphorization.
As Alberto Moreiras has pointed out:
The infrapolitics of any politics is permanent demetaphorization. And in that always ongoing process of demetaphorization, which is, among other things, time, and, among other things, what exceeds any will to control, and, among other things, accident and catastrophe, but which can also be freedom and jouissance, or an opening for pleasure – it is here where, I would say, the possibility of invention, which is also the possibility of revolt, of subtraction, of restitution and even, why not, of vengeance is kept, even if it is in and through the retreat, the permanent retreat, of that very possibility (Moreiras, 2015, p. 146).
Following Gramsci, this has to do with deconstructing, through practice, the «history of terminologies and metaphors» (II 1473), according to a perspective that in the 20th century will culminate in the great tradition of the Begriffsgeschichte and Metaphorologie and continues now with the demetaphorizing and deallegorizing practices of infrapolitics.
It is worth quoting some essential passages from Gramsci. In the Prison Notebooks we read passages like these:
The study of the linguistic-cultural origins of a metaphor used to indicate a concept or relationship recently discovered can help to better understand the same concept insofar as it is brought back to the historically determined cultural context that gave rise to it, as it is useful to determine the limit of the metaphor itself which in turn inhibits it from materializing and mechanizing itself (Q II, p. 1474).
The whole of language is a continuous process of metaphor, and the history of semantics is an aspect of the history of culture; language is at the same time a living thing and a museum of fossils of life and civilisations. When I use the word “disaster” no one can accuse me of believing in astrology, and when I say “by Jove !” no one can assume that I a m a worshipper of pagan divinities. These expressions are however a proof that modem civilisation is also a development of paganism and astrology… The question of the relationship between language and metaphor is far from simple. Language, moreover, is always metaphorical. If perhaps it cannot quite be said that all discourse is metaphorical in respect of the thing or material and sensible object referred to (or the abstract concept) so as not to widen the concept of metaphor excessively, it can however be said that present language is metaphorical with respect to the meanings and the ideological content which the words used had in preceding periods of civilisation (Q II, p. 1438; SW, p. 450).
It is no coincidence that Gramsci insists on the “metaphorical” differences between the two founders of the philosophy of praxis, Marx and Engels. The passion for linguistics keeps interest alive for new metaphors, new words, new “nomenclatures”. And the question of nomenclatures gives rise to the question of the translatability of metaphors (Q II, p. 1470; Baratta, 2003, p. 201).
Provisionality, mimicry, productivity of the details, demetaphorization. These are the axes of Gramsci’s and Benjamin’s cultural analysis.
Autobiography as self-exposure Speaking of Marx in the already quoted Quistioni di metodo, Gramsci proposes a «reconstruction of the author’s biography, not only as regards his practical activity, but also and above all as regards his intellectual activity» (Q III, p. 1776; SW, p. 383) and places at the center of this reconstruction not a naïve biographical interpretation, not the specific contextualization of the speaker claimed by Cultural Studies, but the excess of a biography (or autography), whose interpretive practices in the real life carries as much weight as the formulation of theories:
Infrapolitics understands – writes Moreiras – that there is a region of existence, of existence in common, for which the political relation, although it is far from exhausting it, is determining in every case, but it also tries to understand that that political relation, as a region, is not exhaustive, does not consume or map out the space of human existence (Moreiras, 2015, p. 149).
La autografía, entendida como inversión de la propia vida en escritura, depende siempre de un registro heterográfico; es decir, de cómo la autoescritura no es más que un modo particular de apertura a la demanda de otro, o del otro (Moreiras, 1999, p. 195).
This intrusion of the author’s personality no longer frightens Gramsci. In a section of Notebook 15 he begins to take into consideration written forms that diverge from the objectivity of the essay form, such as the autobiographical ones. In the rubric entitled Past and Present, Gramsci proposes to extrapolate «a series of notes that are like Guicciardini’s Ricordi politici»:
The Ricordi are memories insofar as they summarize not so much autobiographical events in the strict sense (though those are not lacking) as much as civil and moral “experiences” (moral more in the ethical-political sense) closely connected to life and its events, considered in their universal or national value. In many ways, such a written form can be more useful than autobiographies in the strict sense, particularly if they refer to vital processes that are characterized by a continuous attempt to overcome an old-fashioned way of life and thinking, like that of a Sardinian at the beginning of the 20th century, in order to find a way of life and thinking that was no longer “small town” but national and even more than national (in fact, national for just this reason) insofar as he was attempting to insert himself into a way of life and thinking that was European (Q III, p. 1776).
An explicit autobiographical reference. But even more important than Gramsci’s self-awareness of his own geographical and cultural location, is the counsciousness of what in his life exceeds the politician and the thinker. There is always a link, in what Gramsci writes in his notebooks and his letters, between his suffering, the ethical meaning of this pain and the biographical excess which cannot be comprehended by the normal law of logics and ethics, as in the example of cannibalism. His awareness of the autobiographical form (Baratta, 2003; Anglani, 2007) put Gramsci’s self-explanation (or self-exposure as Moreiras would say) at the center of a strategy which is not a form of subjectivation, of the kind which Subaltern studies or Gender studies have introduced into the cultural debate. On the contrary it is the Leidensgeschichte, the passion of a Sardinian who tries to overcome his personal and political catastrophes. Accordingly to Moreiras we can say that the Prison Notebooks and of course the Letters from Prison express:
The need for antimoralist revelation, for a self-exposure without calculation – it is not yet ethical, and it certainly has nothing to do with politics. It is something else and points to a realm of practical reason that can hardly be captured by the division of the latter into ethics and politics. Is it a rhetorical need? It conditions all rhetoric. It is perhaps from the incalculable abyss of this need that there can be something like an infrapolitical position, which is in itself neither properly ethical nor properly political, but which nevertheless abhors moralist betrayal… And is it not, finally, the only reason why there should be literature? (Moreiras, 2007, 175).
Benjamin too, working on the Arcade Project, permit the irruption of his biographical condition in the most important methodological pages of the N convolute, the already quoted fragments on the «theory of knowledge»:
These notes devoted to the Paris arcades were begun under an open sky of cloudless blue that arched above the foliage; and yet – owing to the millions of leaves that were visited by the fresh breeze of diligence, the stertorous breath of the researcher, the storm of youthful zeal, and the idle wind of curiosity – they’ve been covered with the dust of centuries. For the painted sky of summer that looks down from the arcades in the reading room of the Bibliothèque National has spread out over them its dreamy, unlit ceiling (PW, p. 972; AP, p. 458)
The ability to endure fragmentation, the precariousness and the revocability of one’s own collection, the mimicry of the tactic, the autobiographical instance as an instrument of knowledge… are qualities that infrapolitics has incorporated and exalted. They are the conditio sine qua non of cultural resistance.
The tactics laid out in a “moment of danger” (as in the case of Benjamin and Gramsci) show themselves to be more adapt to the complexity of modern life.
- Whatever has caused the need for these writings – prison, exile, disease – what matters to us is the virtue, or the theoretical power of these forms.
This kind of writing recalls a far more crucial question for those involved in infrapolitical thinking, forcing him/her to reflect on what Otto Friedrich Bollnow (1976) calls the Unvollendete, Nicht-zu-Vollendende, or the bedrock on which the unfinished works stand.
We must become accustomed to considering the Unfinished as the stage ex-negativo of the Finished, as the specific location of all the potential of the completed, and – at the same time – as a form of writing in which the death has the last word, whose semantics is indeed determined by the death. In a sense, this form of writing is an anticipatory game with respect to death. Conversely, the unfinished work is the affirmation of a temporality that doesn’t belong to the author, but, actually, to Nature, in the final instance to Death itself.
From the Unfinished emerges a sort of Naturgeschichte of the creative process and of the work itself. On the positive side: the Unfinished helps us to overlook the telos during the praxis, or, in infrapolitical terms, to escape the teleology of the Wille zur Macht of the Subjects. In fact, it is through the Unfinished that these interrupted roads, these Holzwege, become relevant, along with dead ends, mazes, missed opportunities: all figures of praxis.
Basically the theme of the Unfinished brings us back to De Certeau’s heterology, and to a reflection on the «absent of history». For De Certeau, history is in fact a «work on limits», always a narrative which limits from within the text the outside of the text, which, in turn, is exactly what matters most:
The story implies a relationship with the other as far as absence is concerned, but a particular kind of absence, which in the vernacular, “has passed”. What, then, is the status of this discourse that let the Other to speak? How does this heterology – which is the story of the Other logos – function? (De Certeau, 1973, p. ).
All infrapolitical studies must be, in this sense, heterologous, in particular because they are conscious of their partiality, impermanence, of their fragmented structure. The meaning, in these writings, in these stories, is exactly elsewhere, in what is limited by the text but retreats from the speakable, is the “garbage” which is – as Italo Calvino explains in his microstory La poubelle agréée and John Scanlan in his challenging study on “garbage” (2003) – the conditio sine qua non of social value, since «differentiation is the foundation of culture». Taking out garbage is a ritual of metropolitan purification and a form of delimitation of the Self:
What matters – Calvino writes in this infrapolitical story – is that through this daily gesture I confirm the need to separate myself from a part of what was once mine, the slough or chrysalis or squeezed lemon of living, so that its substance might remain, so that tomorrow I can identify completely (without residues) with what I am and have. Only by throwing something away can I be sure that something of myself has not yet been thrown away and perhaps need not be thrown away now or in the future (Calvino, 1994, III, p. 65; RSG, p. 103).
«Rubbish as autobiography» (Calvino, 1995, III, p. 79; RSG, p. 125), Calvino clearly concludes.
- To return to our authors, Antonio Gramsci and Walter Benjamin: we can see now in this relation – in this “family resemblance” in the words of Wittgenstein – something more than a contingent and historically determined fact.
Obviously we must pay attention not to fall into the trap of a pure analogical thinking: between Benjamin’s Arcade Project and Gramsci’s Notebooks there are substantial differences both in their intentions and in the form of writing itself.
Nevertheless, if we examine the textuality of their unfinished works, which are the results of a long struggle with themselves and within themselves, we may see many affinities. We can only list them in conclusion:
1) the meta-reflections on the relationship between text-notes-comments-fragment-unpublished works-letters etc.;
2) the attention to the detail;
3) the (Baroque) accumulation as a form that preserves energies on one side; on the other the dispersion as auto(bio)graphy (Moreiras, 1999);
4) the acceptance of the aphoristic dimension as a “philosophy of praxis”;
5) the practice of the semantic Umfunktionierung of phenomena: in fact the same practices can be “loaded” in different, if not opposite, ways (e.g., Warburg’s reflections on polarization, inversion and decay as the basic structures of cultural semiosis) (Didi-Huberman, 2002):
6) the demetaphorization and deallegorization of the onto-theologic or political discourse;
7) the retreat of the Subject and the practice of Self-exposure, not excluding emotions and affects (many Gramsci’s and Benjamin’s letter can be read as a sublime variation on emotions, as we have seen); and Gramsci tried to thematize “affects” and “feelings” in the political praxis. When Jon Beasly-Murray and Alberto Moreiras propose that «Gramsci’s notion of the relation between subaltern and hegemon also now demand revision in the light of subaltern affect» (2001, p. 3), could find an answer in Gramsci’s Notebooks when he uses even a traitor of the socialist cause like Henri De Man to promote the affective turn of Marxism:
The passage from knowing to understanding to feeling and vice versa from feeling to understanding to knowing… The error of the intellectual consists in believing that one can know without understanding and, above all, without feeling or being impassioned… One cannot make history-politics without passion, that is, without being emotionally tied to the people, without feeling the rudimentary passions of the people… Only if the relationship between intellectual and people-masses, between the leaders and the led, between the rulers and the ruled is based on an organic attachment in which impassioned sentiment becomes understanding and hence knowledge (not mechanically but in a living manner) only then is the relationship one of representation, and only then does one get an exchange of individual elements… (Q II, p. 451 ss.; PN II, p. 173 ss.)
8) last but not least: the logic of the non-finito, which is a way to move towards the «obscure ground», a way of «pensar il fondo oscuro» (Zambrano) «that in the end constitutes what calls for thinking and what need thought» (Moreiras, 2010, p. 187).
To achieve this, it is necessary to perform as a Sammler, that is – to quote a wonderful expression by Thomas Macho – not to abandon the «rhapsodic naiveté» (PW, I 1117; C, p. 215) – as Adorno has argued against Benjamin – to make speak, with Gramsci, those «disasters of character» (LC II, p. 692 and Q III 1762), which make the research innovative, that «squeezing blood from a stone» (LC I, p. 254; PN I, p. 262) which characterizes writing in the moment of danger.
To achive this, one must develop a mimetic and contextual strategy (Q II, p. 1404) that render the methods foldable and adherent to their subject matter; one must believe in infrapolitics, rather than in an eternally valid method; and obviously one has to be not afraid of contamination between non-academic, apperently incompatible fields of knowledge.
In a poignant letter to his son Delio in 1936, some month before is death, Gramsci gives the sense of this vision, which is more in tune with the tenderness and the affect of a father than with the philosopher’s pen:
Dearest Delio, I have received your letter, but you don’t tell me anything about your health, whether you feel strong, whether can study well, whether you tire easily. I see with pleasure that your intellectual life is very varied: the classics and The Three Little Pigs etc. You must not think that I say this as a joke: I really believe that is a wonderful thing to take interest in the three piglets and then read a beautiful poem by Pushkin; your mother will be able to tell you that I too used to be like this to some extent (LC, II 77; PL, II, p. 356).
Pushkin and the Three Little Pigs: is this not the «irruption of the fantastic in philosophy» (Catherine Malabou) that Moreiras considers the pre-condition of infrapolitical thinking? Is the affect shown by Gramsci not that kind of feeling that make «the questions of subalternity (more) concrete» (Beasley, Moreiras, 2001, p. 2)? Is this not the “non-method” of infrapolitics which, in Moreiras words: «is neither an analytic tool nor a form of critique, neither a method nor an act or an operation, … infrapolitics happens, always and everywhere, and its happening beckons to us and seems to call for a transformation of the gaze, for some kind of passage to some strange and unthematizable otherwise of politics which is also, it must be, an otherwise than politics» (Moreiras, 2015, p. 12)?
Pushkin and the Three Little Pigs: not by chance, classical, canonic literature and pop culture. From these forms of writing in the moment of danger, infrapolitics has much to learn.
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