Untimely Italians: A Profile of The Italian List and Interview with Alberto Toscano

When someone begins to study European philosophy and theory, or Continental philosophy as the unhelpful designation goes, the focus is usually on the traditions of French and German philosophy (leaving the term analytic to denote the work of the British, those living on that island off the coast of Europe proper). The relationship between this kind of national identity and those philosophers varies. Oftentimes the position of these philosophers disappoint us, as with Bergson during World War I writing about “French spirit” needing to overcome the “German barbarism” or Heidegger during the rise of the Nazi party in Germany doing much the same with more horrific results. But there is something to naming these traditions if only because the way in which language and location shapes one’s thinking, to say nothing of the importance of particular political situations that arise within these fictional but nonetheless efficacious spaces of the various nation-states. Italian philosophy has largely been ignored by those anglophone readers interested in European thought. This despite the fact that the fictional element of the nation-state is perhaps nowhere better on display than Italy, which never quite coalesced its various cultures into a singular Italian culture the way that French republicanism did. This creates an interesting dynamic and leads to a different style of philosophy. This seems to me to hold especially true for leftwing theorists and perhaps arises from what Roberto Esposito identifies as the clear manifestation of antagonism within the Italian context. Nothing like Italy the nation-state exists except through the process of conflict, the creation of antagonism that continues when Italy the nation-state has to become a part of Europe the economic union.

Italian philosophy has long been an interest for many authors here, with Adam’s work on Agamben and my own less intenstive work on Negri, as well as with many of our readers. We have here discussed Esposito’s attempt to reclaim the distinctiveness of Italian philosophy, already mentioned, and many readers will be familiar with the collection edited by Lorenzo Chiesa and Alberto Toscano The Italian Difference with re:press. So I was excited to see that Alberto was editing a new series called The Italian List with Seagull Books (which has the support of the University of Chicago Press, but apparent autonomy from the usual deadends of academic publishing). While the list has published three shorter texts by Agamben, I wanted to highlight the lesser known figures that Alberto and Seagull Books were bringing to a new audience. In what follows you will find a conversation between Toscano and myself as well as a few side remarks where I provide some summary information about the texts. Because of the length of this post I have also generated it as a PDF for those who prefer that medium for reading longer texts.

APS: Without trying to push you to give me a marketing slogan, what is distinctive to your mind about the Italian intellectual and political situation?

Alberto Toscano: There has been a trend, prominent among those who take inspiration from operaismo and its afterlives, to consider Italy as a kind of political laboratory (for a nice summary of this perspective see Michael Hardt’s ‘Laboratory Italy’, his introduction to the important collection Radical Thought in Italy, co-edited with Virno, and published by University of Minnessota Press in 1996), which is to say as a site of often unruly experimentation with forms of collective action, in the context of a waning or crisis of the party-form and the institutions of the labour movement. The point of reference for this approach is broadly the ‘red decade’ from the late 1960s to the late 1970s, though we could stretch this back to the youth and worker unrest of the early sixties and forward to take in the mutations of the oppositional left during the ‘counter-revolution’ that consolidates itself in the 1980s. The laboratory metaphor can also be given a far bleaker twist, following Debord’s insight, gleaned from the murky operations of the Italian deep state and the strategia della tensione, that Italy was, through the seventies and eighties, a testing ground for new techniques of domination, manipulation and conspiracy. Both these stances share in an antagonism towards the macroscopic ‘peculiarity’ of the Italian postwar political scene, the size, scope and social depth of the Italian Communist Party. It is worth noting here that my friend Matteo Mandarini, who is translating the seminal work of Alberto Asor Rosa, Scrittori e Popolo (Writers and the People), for the List, is working on what he calls ‘the other workerism’ – namely the one, associated with Asor Rosa, Cacciari and the later Tronti himself, which (re)entered the PCI [Partito Comunista Italiano], often in polemic with the ‘adventurism’ or ‘extremism’ it criticised in the insurrectionary vein of operaismo and autonomia. Though the List is not built around any kind of thesis regarding the history of ideas, I have been drawn to other peculiarities. These are not unrelated to the issues already mentioned – Fortini contributed to the key journal of operaismo, Quaderni Rossi; Pintor broke with the PCI while, along with his comrades in il manifesto, still being steeped in its culture, in a posture of heretical fidelity; Jesi also developed his sui generis political thinking against the grain of official communism. But I also wanted to highlight works which really put at the centre a sustained confrontation with what cultural production, intellectual labour and the figure of the intellectual might mean, whether in terms of the forms of writing, the nature of commitments or the character of craft. That the three books – Memories from the Twentieth Century, The Dogs of the Sinai and Spartakus – are produced by individuals who made their living principally not as academics but from intellectual work of different kinds (newspaper editing, translation, publishing, advertising, etc.) perhaps speaks to a certain commonality (as does a certain Germanistic orientation: Fortini was a translator of Brecht and Goethe, Jesi of Thomas Mann and Canetti, and Pintor’s brother was a precocious Germanist himself). It is perhaps the intensity of this questioning about cultural production which I think is worth recovering in the present, not necessarily against, but in counterpoint to the ways in which Italian thought has been drawn upon more recently for its capacity to give a speculative and subjective boost to radical political theory (often under the very equivocal sign of ‘life’ and ‘biopolitics’).

The first two texts that Toscano references here are Franco Fortini’s The Dogs of the Sinai (which comes with a region-free DVD of a film based on the original text) and Luigi Pintor’s Memories from the Twentieth Century. Both texts are beautifully written and elide the usual academic style that you find in professional academics like Agamben and Esposito. Fortini’s text, for example, is written as a kind of fragmentary diary or even a kind of forced but resisted confession as if Fortini were being put on trial. The question would be, however, who is putting Fortini on trial? The PCI? Israel? Other diasporic Jews? non-Jewish Italian intellectuals? The fact that Fortini would be caught between so many different communities speaks to the tension and fragmentary nature of the book. For Fortini writes as a Jew who refuses to accept the anti-Semitism of so many European leftists, but also refuses to give his support to Israel in the midst of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Like many other radical Jewish thinkers, Fortini saw his Jewishness tied up with a fundamentally diasporic ethic and politics, which lead him away from an identification with any state. Toscano’s essay at the end of the volume, “The Non-State Intellectual: Franco Fortini and Communist Criticism”, is indispensable for the reader in their attempt to place Fortini’s thought, importance in Italian political theory, and potential importance for contemporary readers. Toscano opens his essay with a poem by Fortini entitled “Communism”, which, though published in the New Left Review already, was for me worth the price of admission alone with its line “I was a communist throughout/I always wanted this world ended.” This Fanon-esque line points to the fundamental character of the communist intellectual for Fortini: their relation to negativity. Toscano tells us that in the tension between the two statements, “A communist cannot be an intellectual. A communist can only be an intellectual (90)”, we find Fortini’s formulation of a communist intellectual as a functionary of the negative. Toscano goes on to write, “any attempt to embody or explore a communist hypothesis necessitates a relentless work of negation and construction that must be attention to the concrete ways in which an antagonistic culture can be produced and sustained (96).” Toscano’s essay is brilliant for locating Fortini as a communist intellectual, but largely passes over in silence the question of Jewishness and the tradition of European Jewish philosophy as one that has often emphasized this negative characteristic (one need only think of Adorno, but also Agata Bielik-Robson’s recent remarks about Isaac Luria’s influence upon Hegel). This Jewish aspect, which Toscano sees Fortini as both affirming as a practice and denying as an identity, is especially important to understand Fortini’s critique of Israel and so I asked Toscano to remark upon both the writing of the text and this relentless negativity specifically in relation to the State of Israel.

 The two texts by Pintor and Fortini are autobiographical in nature and also very fragmentary in their presentation. I was surprised to find this genre of text from two communist militants. Fortini’s work is in many ways a meditation on his identity as an Italian Jew who is, I think fair to say from his polemics in the text, disgusted by the actions of the State of Israel. He event writes, “For the new anti-Semites, the Jews of the Diaspora are nothing but the agents of the state of Israel. And this too is the outcome of twenty years of Israeli policy.” Which, of course, is not a defense of such anti-Semitism, as he goes on to write, “Let us honor, then, those who resist in their reason and continue to distinguish between Israeli policy and Jewishness (85).” But he doesn’t present that meditation in a theoretical work. In what ways was the text taken as useful or how do you think it may be useful in thinking through the relationship between criticizing Israel’s practice of apartheid and still keeping guard against forms of anti-Semitism that may creep into criticism of Israel?

There is in both Pintor and Fortini a kind of ethics of political writing, in which craftsmanship, style and composition (often under urgency and duress: the pamphlet, the editorial column) are regarded as bearing the weight of political choices. One of the sections of Fortini’s great collection of essays, Questioni di frontiera (Border Questions) is called ‘Politics and Syntax’. Jesi’s work too is steeped in a meticulous reflection on the relationship between politics and poetics. And Brecht is a powerful reference throughout. The nemesis at this level is the official language of official communism, but also the sloppy Schwärmerei that often affected the prose of insurgency after ’68 – compensating for weakness with kitsch and bombast, or recycling the threadbare rhetorics of political romanticism. You’re very right to note that the mode of writing of The Dogs of the Sinai goes against the expectations that we may have of a political intervention, in this case principally against the anti-Arab Zionist apologetics of much of the Italian Left and Italian Jewry in ’67, secondarily against the collusions of Zionism and imperialism (but also the complicity of the Soviet Bloc and the disarray of the global left). In part this is distinctive of Fortini’s approach, for whom any intellectual intervention into politics is also a work in and against oneself (and, if relevant, the collectivity one belongs to). ‘In the list of your enemies, write your own name first’, as he once suggested. But there is also a sense, very specific to this text and this moment – the only one in which (and it is hardly an unproblematic gesture) the mature Fortini signs himself with his Jewish last name, Lattes – in which the creation of a hybrid, montage form – neither pamphlet nor poem, memoir nor essay, yet all of these at once – is demanded by the situation. This syncopated, aphoristic, (negatively) dialectical writing is perhaps seeking the impossible, combining the necessary coldness of political judgment with the need to speak from one’s biographical situation – in this instance that of a ‘non-Jewish Jew’, among many other things. The Dogs of the Sinai writes from and repeats a movement of separation from identity, and the force of its political disaffiliation is entangled with its painful treatment of the question of filiation (literally so in the rather harrowing passages on Fortini’s father, his persecution and Fortini’s ambivalence towards him). In a way Fortini both does and doesn’t fit into the figure of the Jewish critic of Israel, and I think it would be quite fruitful to think how his work might differ from contemporary critiques of Zionism that also reflect on the vicissitudes of Jewish identity (from Jacqueline Rose and Judith Butler, to Shlomo Sand and Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin). What is quite striking perhaps is that unlike some of these thinkers he is vary wary of using the appellation Jewish Thought (including with figures like Kafka and Benjamin who, in the wake of Scholem, have been perhaps all too seamlessly presented under that heading). Ironic here is also how Protestant it could be argued that Fortini remains (a non-Jewish Jew Protestant communist atheist, if we want to ‘identify’…). The affinity with Straub also derives from the complexity of these dis/affiliations. 

Like Fortini, Pintor’s book has a more literary quality than academic. This translation, by Gregory Elliott, actually brings together three separate texts in Italian and yet its structure is far more coherent than Dogs of the Sinai, as it details the life of Pintor from boyhead to fatherhood and beyond. In tone the book reminded me of a song by Pedro the Lion entitled “A Simple Plan“, which looks at an individual after the end of the class war who still finds himself depressed. While obviously Pintor’s memories are not written in some utopian future, both move the focus from world-historical to individual, or from purpose to something that seemed to me more like the melancholia of an individual in the midst of world-historical processes. Could it be that within this strand of Italian thinking we have something that could be related to Fanon’s negativity with regard to the world, one that is at odds with a more hegemonic form of communist theory. I asked Toscano about this melancholia and the general relationship between Italian communist theory and utopianism.

Regarding Pintor’s book, I found it often quite moving. Especially moving, I found, were the reflections on the death of his son and expression of melancholy regarding what he sees as his failures of a father: “I wasn’t aware that my paternal anxiety didn’t convey intimacy and tenderness but estrangement and imposition.Thus it can happen that one brings a child into the world in distress, that one doesn’t help him to live in that world, that one makes him grow up in pain and die in solitude (95-6).” Here we see something that captures the affective mood of the book, it is a text that is incredibly melancholy throughout and dripping, not with regret, but with something very close to it in the profound sadness that pervades his looking back over his life. This kind of melancholy clashes a great deal with the current zealous calls, by Badiou and Zizek amongst others, to reclaim communism. These calls are often expressed with a rhetoric that valorizes the heroic above all. I can imagine a young activist finding Pintor distasteful after reading Badiou’s Philosophy for Militants, with its valorization of the hero and its somewhat comic and cynical cover featuring a handgun. Of course Badiou is a more nuanced thinker than I’m letting on here, but is there something that accounts for this difference between a French optimism and affirmation of heroism and an Italian pessimism and melancholia?

I was thinking the same myself, as I edited the manuscript. I actually found it quite difficult to read the text over and over, suffused as it is with such sadness and failure, as well as obstinacy (this term came to mind while reading Enzensberger’s The Silences of Hammerstein, a politically problematic but engaging work, in which Eigensinn is key). I also mused on how the tonality is so alien to the trend you rightly point to, which involves thinking of philosophy as the agent of a kind of ideal political enthusiasm (this, as you suggest, can be qualified, say by looking at Badiou on Beckett or at Zizek’s attention, especially in his writings on Hitchcock, on less heroic affects), and of communism in an at least virtually victorious mode. I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that there’s a difference of national characters here – in some kind of speculative theory of political humours, we could offset Badiou against Derrida or Nancy or Blanchot, or indeed consider the often euphoric character of Negri’s communism. In many ways, as Pintor conveys, this is a matter of individual make-up. But perhaps, cutting across national differences, we could think of how being a political militant of ‘official’ communism, or at least having it as your lodestar, in however heretical a way, could contribute to a very different emotional response to the collapse of that movement. For Pintor, as for his comrades in il manifesto, or indeed Tronti, the end of the USSR is still a milestone – notwithstanding their open opposition to its policies ever since ’56 or ’68. Communism is a lost object (and subject), a history and community that has passed. The radicality of the repudiation of official communism (whether as Stalinism or revisionism or reformism) means that the likes of Badiou or Negri, both never members of parties descending from the Comintern, never identified with and never lost that communism, which was abidingly their nemesis. Whence, perhaps, and beyond question of personal attitude, their ‘optimism’, if we wish to employ that politically problematic notion.

I also found a passing remark by Pintor interesting, when on page 147 he writes, “It’s impressive how many keys, card and forms one uses in daily life. A utopian communism, which is better than the scientific variety, might be a world without keys.” Can you tell us a bit more about the Italian relationship with the varieties of communist theory and practice? Is this utopianism common amongst Italian communists? How do you see his texts connecting up with wider communist theory or is there no connection between his memories and the task of theory?

I think that statement should be taken with the full weight of anti-theoretical irony that characterises Pintor – in this sense a communist of a different stamp than his comrades in il manifesto, like Rossana Rossanda, author of some superb interviews with the likes of Sartre and Althusser, or Lucio Magri, whose lucidly dejected retrospect on the communist movement, The Tailor of Ulm, Verso recently published. Though the works of Bloch had a considerable influence, and there’s no shortage of utopian dimension to the long history of ‘Italian’ thought – Joachim of Fiore, Campanella, Giordano Bruno – I would actually see the trend of Italian communist thought as being less utopian (which is not to say less radical, far from it) than other traditions. Whether we think of Gramsci or Della Volpe or Tronti or Colletti, we consistently encounter strong repudiations of the consolations or distractions of utopianism, of any enclave or outside or even prefiguration of a liberated future (it may be argued that fascism produced more reactionary modernist utopias than communism in Italy). This may be seen to change after ’68 but I wouldn’t rush to that judgment: the emphasis on communism as both insurrection and transition in Negri’s Marx Beyond Marx, or his veritable obsession with Marx’s ‘method of the tendency’ can also be qualified as anti-utopian (that some may think it unrealistic is a different and unrelated matter).

With Furio Jesi’s Spartakus: The Symbology of Revolt we find a very different kind of book. Toscano characterizes it as a “critical” work rather than a strictly philosophical one in our conversation. And indeed we do find something very different than we do in the works of those influenced by post-Heideggerian concerns (Vattimo, Esposito, and to some extent Negri as well). Spartakus is a relatively short book, but presents a fascinating phenomenology of myth. While many communist theorists would be suspicious of a theory of myth that saw in it anything positive, Jesi’s critical inquiry into the realm of myth pulls out elements that he wants to valorize: “Myth can indeed become the foundation of political strategy if the relationship between acting and dying is conciously configured and realized int he recognition of an eternal return (78).” The introduction by Andrea Cavalletti puts Jesi’s work in context by explaining that it is a “critical reprise and radicalization” of Káoly Kerényi’s distinction between genuine myth and technicized myth. Kerényi, an important scholar of Greek mythology, thought that myths had an authentic origin as well as a use made of those myths that turned this authenticity into a falsehood. While the anti-populism of Kerényi is rejected by Jesi, where an authentic “great man” can access the truth of genuine myth but the masses are subject to myth as a kind of formation or techne of the self, Jesi does retain the distinction as the distinction between a truth that breaks in from the outside of a situation unexpectedly and the kind that is controllable. The text then brings together a theory of myth with a theory of revolt and revolution. Instead of breaking genuine and technicized myth into “good” and “bad”, he sees them on a common plane, where the technicized myth may be used as “genuine propaganda” for some political end when such a mythology is part of a true collectivity breaking apart or outside the current social order. Genuine myth is collective myth, ultimately, though a collective myth that breaks with the current order of things, while a myth that relies on “great men” to bear their truths would be reactionary. Readers familiar with Bloch will see some commonality between his reading of Israelite and Christian scriptures and this sense of a duality of myth and I understand Jesi’s work as making a significant addition to the literature on the relationship between myth or religion, even simply the “irrational”, and radical politics, much in the same way Bloch’s Atheism in Christianity did. However, Spartakus is somehow clearer than Bloch in this regard in its analytical rigor and also perhaps owing to its narrower historical focus, taking the Spartacist movement and insurrection as its material that it draws a more general character of myth and revolt from.

With Furio Jesi’s Spartakus: The Symbology of Revolt we find a more standard intellectual book than the others. First, before looking at some of the arguments in the book, Jesi’s biography suggests that his work was pathbreaking in Italy. Between 1971 and 1973 he published seven books, including one that on Søren Kierkegaard that sounds important and one entitled Mythologies Around the Enlightenment that sounds so good I may have to learn Italian jus so I can read it! Why do you think he has been, until know, relatively unknown in the Anglophone world? Is it just simply owing to the myopic focus on France and Germany or do you think there is something particular to his theoretical project that has made it difficult for his work to fall on fertile soil?

As with Fortini, but as will likely also be the case with a number of future ‘archival’ publications for the list, the question should perhaps first be asked about Italy. Many of the most incisive and innovative intellectuals of the postwar period, especially within the ambits of the intense communist and Marxist debates that criss-crossed and politicised the cultural sphere, are utterly neglected today. This much is evident in the fact most of Fortini’s and Jesi’s output, including the former’s superb poetry, remains out of print – available, if at all, only at very high prices from rare book dealers. And if it weren’t for the commitment of certain publishers like  Bollati Boringhieri and Quodlibet, and scholars like Andrea Cavalletti (the editor of Jesi’s works, and of this edition of Spartakus ) and Agamben (whose introduction to Jesi’s reading of Rimbaud’s  The Drunken Boat was my first encounter with that remarkable thinker), the forgetting would be almost total. In reflecting on this predicament, it quickly becomes obvious that the draining away of the cultural and political life in Italy that served as the amniotic fluid of sorts for these intellectual creations has had catastrophic effects. An Italian friend recently suggested to me that it might only be through their passage through the English language, and thus (alas) an opening to an international public, that these authors may properly ‘return’ to Italy, and lines of research truncated by the long Restoration or counter-revolution of the 1980s and onwards at least partially revived. As for the difference with the French and German cases, aside from the far more ‘minor’ character of Italian as a language in the Anglophone world, I think some of it can be chalked up to the fact that some of its most powerful intellectual and theoretical production took the form of criticism – understood as a practice of intervention, negativity, and prescription which is intimately tied to definite political and cultural conjunctures, but which also depended, especially among authors like Jesi and Fortini, on a depth of knowledge and erudition which makes enormous demands on the reader. For better and for worse, the styles of conceptualisation which we associate with postwar French and German thought ‘travel’ much better – albeit in often radically different ways. This is not to say that the writing of a Sartre, an Adorno or a Foucault wasn’t as deeply rooted in a particular moment and a determinate constellation of cultural references – the inanity of much commentary on these authors which ignores this only to blandly ‘apply’ it to this or that issue is negative testament to this. But there is a kind of philosophical address, a kind of writing and thought, which allows for an ‘extraction’ from its moment that is not possible for politically-engaged criticism. And I am increasingly persuaded that it is in the mode of criticism (and particularly of criticism in critical and creative dialogue with the legacy of Marxism) that Italy produced some of its best work of the postwar period, rather than in the post-metaphysical and more distinctly philosophical vein of ‘negative thought’ (pensiero negativo), ‘weak thought’ (pensiero debole), or, in Esposito’s recent ‘vitalist’ retrospect on Italian thought, ‘living thought’ (pensiero vivente). I would perhaps go further, and argue that this critical rather than strictly speaking philosophical lineage is more philosophically (not to mention) politically stimulating than Italian philosophy properly so-called. 

Jesi’s book focuses on the relationship between mythology and political action. Many Marxists and others on the Left have traditionally been very suspicious of mythology, emphasizing instead the rational direction of politics and rightly pointing towards the way myth underpins reactionary politics. Do you see Jesi’s work providing an analysis of myth that is not entirely deflationary but still gives credence to the scientific character of Marxist politics? Or do you think he’s running a risk in this text?

Jesi’s is a subtly dialectic treatment of a prima facie  non-dialectical phenomenon. Having elsewhere produced incisive explorations of fascist and racist mythopoiesis – especially in essays on the culture of the right and on the Judeophobic blood libel – Jesi shows us the profound ambivalence (to use a term dear to mythology and anthropology alike) of the revolutionary, or more precisely rebellious, myth: I think some of the most powerful, and still pertinent, pages concern the way in which the myth of the enemy can not only mobilise radical energies, but also channel them into repetition and occlude any strategic horizon. It’s evident from a comparative reading of the appendix on Luxemburg and the related passages in the book that Jesi vacillated somewhat in his estimations of myth’s necessity and pitfalls, and on the possibility of a fully rationalist politics (perhaps ‘scientific’ is an inappropriate term here), in a manner that affects his take on the revolution/revolt dyad. I don’t read his text as an endorsement or a deflation of myth, rather as an excavation of its stubborn insistence even within the most rationalist of emancipatory projects. Since myth is not removable from the experience of antagonism, how can it be prevented from degenerating into fantasy or manipulation? This is the purpose of his critical politicisation of the work Kerényi, and of the distinction between genuine and technicised myth – in which we might hear a distant but definite echo of Benjamin’s reflections on the difference between communist and fascists approaches to political aesthetics. In this regard, Jesi is perhaps closer to authors who accept the irreducibility of non-instrumental non-strategic passions and ideations in radical politics (most recently, consider the role of the idea as a kind of necessary fiction in Badiou’s The Communist Hypothesis, or Lacanian and Althusserian reflections on the persistence of ideology and fantasy in emancipatory politics itself), than with the tendency – often associated, in a questionable way, with Sorel and Bataille – that posits the need for a kind of irrationalism of the left. 

On this point, the reader may notice differences in my reading of the books when compared to what Toscano consistently points us towards as what he finds important. Not unexpectedly, as someone interested and steeped in the study of religion, I was drawn to the ways in religion and religious themes kept manifesting in these works, while Toscano is more interested in the political analyses they offer without seeing those religious elements as determining for the analyses. Where Toscano and I agree is on the fundamentally ambiguous relationship of myth to radical politics, whereas I would also say that the very notion of radical politics is also ambiguous when considered as a kind of contemporary myth driving much theoretical work today. Jesi’s analysis of myth is interesting precisely because of the distinctions it allows us to make, but is such a tool needed today? Or would something like this ability to distinguish only be helpful in less “secular” contexts, like the Islamic world? My sense is that this phenomenology of myth would be useful to deploy upon secular European forms of communist thought enthralled by the idea of the rational as much as it would be outside this context. But is is not clear where Jesi’s work, at least in Spartakus, would fall on this question. I asked Toscano about this relationship between religion and leftwing theory and he deftly took the opportunity to say where he thinks the cogency of Jesi’s work lies today.

Ultimately, the book provides an inquiry, more phenomenological than straight historical, of the Spartacus uprising and defeat. It treats this series as a symbol or a survival that tells us something about the difference between revolution and revolt. The summary of the book, I think, may be found on page 164 where he writes: “Revolution prepares the future, revolt evokes it. But there is another fundamental difference—the future of revolution is the ‘tomorrow’ while that of revolt is the ‘day after tomorrow’. Accordingly, we can say that revolution is timely, revolt untimely. The tomorrow is timely because the revolutionaries prepare it. The day after tomorrow is untimely because the rebels do not prepare it—they evoke it. Bakunin would have probably not minded being told that revolution is the refusal of the bourgeoisie while revolt is the hyperbole of the bourgeoisie. He would have drawn from it the legitimate conclusion that revolution builds while revolt destroys.” This sounds to me a little bit like the analysis you can find in Lardreau and Jambet’s L’Ange, a book that, while fundamentally flawed, also looked at the religious and mythological survivals in political action. I’m curious if you can say something about how valid you think this distinction is between revolution and revolt and if you think there is a reason Marxist and leftwing political theory generally (in whatever disciplinary shape it comes) sometimes appears fascinated by religious movements or secular forms that appear to retain elements of religion?

I hadn’t thought of the echos of L’Ange, a weird and fascinating book – despite or because of its objectionable facets – which I haven’t looked at in many years after discovering it by chance as an undergraduate. I suppose we could construct a makeshift category of Gnostic or Manichaean (Ultra-)Leftism in which some of the politics of revolt delineated by Jesi would find their unworldly home – radical enmity, intransigent refusal and the absoluteness of the challenge to the ways of this world would be among its features. Though there is of course an entirely non-mythical Manichaeanism (following some recent work by George Ciccariello-Maher, this is arguably the case for Fanon’s understanding of anti-colonial insurgency). It is beyond doubt that the revolt/revolution dyad deeply shaped the political grammar of the radical left (and indeed of the reformist one too) from the late 19th century on, with the split in the International as a kind of primal scene, to which we seem doomed to return over and over again. But from the vantage of the present, and the erosion of the philosophies of history and experiences of state power that once governed this distinction, we may need, if not to treat it as totally ‘saturated’ one (to use a term from Badiou), to regionalise and relativise it. The dyad as such is not, to my mind, capable of orienting contemporary politics (note the inconclusive debates around the ‘Arab Spring’ or Occupy, which testify to the ideological interregnum we inhabit today), we seem to lack a cogent idea of revolution – but for that very reason also of revolt or of reform. In very different ways, I think both the debates on ‘communisation’ (see especially the journal Endnotes) and the attempts to explore ours as a ‘time of riots’ (in Badiou and the French anthropologist Alain Bertho) are, regardless of their ultimate virtues, attempts to confront this impasse. In this context then, I think it is not so much Jesi’s distinction (which he relates here to both 1919 and the post-68 moment in which he’s writing, which inaugurates in some ways the categorial suspension which I mention here) which should draw our attention, as much as his attention to the entanglement between the phenomenology of political experience, especially in its temporal dimension, the place of myth and the question of strategy. In this respect, since ours is certainly more a time of revolts than one of revolutions, Jesi’s sober if sympathetic estimation of the limits of political myth is the most timely aspect of a book – precisely to the extent that it carefully delineates both the force and fragility of untimeliness. 

The Italian List is an untimely series. It offers us in the Anglophone world glimpses into a milieu that we have largely ignored, at least ignoring the nuances collapsing everything into neat categories of traditional phenomenology or radical political thought, of biopolitics or weak thought. When I asked Toscano why he took the time to edit and translate these works his response circles around this untimeliness. I will let Toscano have the last word here, but will first say that this kind of diversity in theory should in my view be celebrated. We see here in all these texts a kind of ruthless negativity, but also a kind of fidelity to thinking beyond the current order whether as Fortini’s ending of the world or Pintor’s melancholic remaining in a failed world or Jesi’s electrifying and wide-ranging analysis of myth and revolt as a modeling that may be used to better attack.

The thinking behind the list is, for the time being, to focus on strands in post-1945 Italian critical thought which (and in this Agamben is an exception, his books having been taken by Seagull) because of the historical and political specificity of their interventions, the non-standard forms of their writing (neither academic theory nor popular literature, in brief) have flown very much under the radar of the Anglosphere (and which, in some cases, are now neglected in their home country, as is the case with Fortini – a crucial figure from the sixties to the eighties, now out of print). The selection inevitably follows the vagaries of my taste and reading (and also of certain Italian intercessors, among which Agamben, who mentioned before, through the publisher Quodlibet, wrote the afterword to the first book of Jesi’s I came across, his splendid essay on Rimbaud’s Drunken Ship, which will come out in a further collection for Seagull), and it owes a lot to Seagull’s rare disregard for the marketing bottom-line – in style and format, books like The Dogs of the Sinai and Spartakus would be nigh-on impossible to get past a US or UK publisher, especially as they do not fit a certain mode of theoretical writing which now circulates quite easily in academic and para-academic circles, and we are also dealing with authors who don’t already have the imprimatur of a narrow conception of Italian theory or Italian thought – where certain proper names (Agamben, Negri) and certain concepts or ‘philosophemes’ (biopolitics) tend to absorb all attention, and create an auxiliary or secondary literature of commentary (this is by no means to undercut the worth of many of Negri’s or Agamben’s writings, but it is to indicate how their work has been in a sense reified as it circulates through an uncannily homogeneous English-language theoretical universe). More than philosophy or politics per se, I suppose, beyond the recovery of neglected text, texts that never found their moment in English (what if the New Left Review had translated Fortini in the 60s and 70s, what if Jesi had been a reference in debates on time and revolution…?), and that I think could, however anachronistically, be brought into the current moment, I am interested in recovering different forms of antagonistic, critical writing, different experiments in cultural production which tried to work against the grain of the theoretical and political doxa of their time (and by extension ours). This is the initial design, and forthcoming works by Fortini, Jesi and Alberto Asor Rosa aim to continue in this direction, but I’d also like to expand into the publication of more explicitly literary works (Fortini’s poetry for instance, only exists in two slim volumes in English), and also to move to the publication of contemporary Italian authors. 

4 thoughts on “Untimely Italians: A Profile of The Italian List and Interview with Alberto Toscano

  1. Anthony, this is a fantastic interview and overview. The remarks by Toscano on criticism “as a practice of intervention, negativity, and prescription which is intimately tied to definite political and cultural conjunctures” were wonderfully incisive. As I did when I finished Esposito’s Living Thought, I feel keenly the desire to read more of the Italian thinkers of the past and current century (I holed up with Remo Bodei and Pasolini last time), and especially, in this case, the texts which have been (and will be) coming by way of Seagull.

    Additionally, I was reminded—in the discussion of Fortini’s book and in your observation that each of the three texts being referenced is characterized by “a kind of ruthless negativity, but also a kind of fidelity to thinking beyond the current order”—of Gillian Rose and her memoir Love’s Work, which has for a slogan of sorts the maxim of Staretz Silouan: “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.” I think Rose, too, although an academic, was making a bid for necessary strangeness in her late work, combining, as she did, memoir, poetry, and philosophy.

  2. I’m eager to read more, but I wonder the following:

    is it not possible that twentieth century and current Italian philosophy really is a sort of digression or secondary subject? That is, it’s been a very long time since an Italian figure was truly central to the history of philosophy. People pay attention to French and German philosophy, because that’s where the action was, and has been, for a very long time. Heidegger and Cassirer square off in Davos debating each other in German – that is, German philosophy could produce at least two figures of that caliber to debate each other. Further, German philosophy’s audience was influential enough and broad enough that a comparatively large group could understand why that event was important – and that influence was felt broadly well beyond the German philosophy community (many people followed that debate in France, for instance).

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