Glosses on Federico Della Sala on tragedy, comedy, and revolution. by Gerardo Muñoz

These are further notes on the mini-series of interventions within the framework of the course that I am teaching at 17 instituto on contemporary Italian political thought. In this third installment we engaged with Francesco Guercio and Federico Della Sala around the notions of comedy and tragedy in Italian theory, and the development of political reflection in Italy from the sixties onwards. Della Sala facilitated an excellent paper entitled “Tragedy and Comedy in Italian Theory: Notes on the intersection between literature and politics” (for the moment unpublished), which was extremely suggestive, elegant, and comprehensive in terms of its critical take on the horizon of Italian theory. These notes are by no means representative of the richness of Della’s text: rather, it just wants to highlight a few checkpoints to further the discussion of the seminar. Francesco Guercio participated in the conversation as a commentator who provided important insights on several of the essay’s critical movements.

1. In his paper, Della Sala offers one of the strongest critiques of Italian theory that I have read in recent times (perhaps the strongest), and it does so by engaging its own premises on alterity and historical restitution, which he defines as working within the paradigm of political modernity. As it emerges in the projects of Massimo Cacciari, Roberto Esposito, Antonio Negri, but also in the commentaries of the so-called Italian difference paradigm by academics such as Dario Gentili, the common terrain is to sustain a paradigm of alternative modernization rooted in difference and conflict. In a way – and I understand I risk of simplifying Della Sala’s layered argument a bit – Italian theory amounts to offering a paradigm that remains within the metaphysics of power and governmental optimization, even when it speaks the language of contingency, errancy, or the outside. Here Della Sala’s critique of Italian theory differs quite substantially from the normativist accounts raised against Italian theory, such as that of P. P. Portinaro, whose discomfort is really against political excess and its allegedly revolutionary principles. For Della Sala, on the contrary, Italian theory is a betrayal of thinking the transformative politics at the threshold of the ruins of modern principles of authority and legitimacy. Indeed, Massimo Caccari’s return to renaissance humanism in his Mente Inquieta: saggio sull’Umanesimo (2019), or Esposito’s Pensiero istituente (2021) that ends up defending human rights and anthropology of rights, ironically self-serve Portinaro’s critique of the “radical excess” as if inadvertently admitting the irreversibility of political modernity. Of course, this doesn’t get out anywhere. In fact, it is regressive, instead of moving thinking forward.

2. Della Sala credits Italian theory – specially from the 1960s onwards, perhaps from the work of Mario Tronti and autonomia more generally – with bringing the question of politics to the center debate, showing the limitations of political economy in Marxist thought and the insufficiency of the negative. But, at the same time, it has done so by remaining within a paradigm of crisis in which the ideal of struggle defines the meditation between politics and life. And this can only exacerbate the administration of a catastrophic of politics. It is through the “krisis” of negative thought (Cacciari, Vattimo, and Esposito) that something like a literature of Italian theory becomes tragic, amounting to a sort of reverse nihilism. Della Sala does not it claim it explicitly – and I wonder if he would agree with my own personal translation – but this tragicity results to a compensatory wager to the sacrificial horizon of the philosophy of history opened by Hegelian dialectics or the imperial romanitas conception of politics. So the sense of the tragic in modernity can live comfortably within the paradigm of the sacrifice of modernity, and it does not get us very far.

3. As Francesco Guercio also suggested it, the abyssal ground of modernity becomes tragic when it places life in the site of death, which entails that existence can only be understood as something to be administered and protected. It goes without saying that this is the overall project of positive biopolitics and immunity in the horizon of democratic legitimacy, whose final utopia, according to Della Sala, is to live at least one day like a King. This rings true given the operative function of King and “archē” (principle) that are needed to legislate the creation between politics and life, history and the anthropological sense of reality. Under this paradigm there is no space – or it is always parasitic, always subjected to the enmity of the species– to the question of existence, which becomes a generic aggregate of civil community. But can one subtract oneself from the seduction of a demonic politics and its negative relation to the tragic politics in the face of nihilism? The strong thesis in Dalla Sala’s paper is that Italian theory has not been successful to the task and that we must begin from scratch putting aside, once and for all, the mythical paradigm of crisis.

4. It is here where comedy enters. And it enters obliquely, although in resonance with Giorgio Agamben’s most recent argument in his book on Hölderlin, where the comic is understood as a retreat from the conversion of the tragic into the sacrificial suture of modernity. And for Della Sala, but also for Agamben, comedy has little done with the anthropology of laughter or the psychic drive of the Freudian slip. Rather comedy becomes the possibility of imagining a life that refuses the promise of living like a future king. On the contrary, the motto of the comic can be the early Hispanic (it was mentioned by Francesco Guercio in the conversation) “vivir desviviéndose” of the pícaro existence that allows for the mystery of life without political subsumption. Della Sala concludes his paper with a provocative assertion: “after all there has never existed nor will exist a tragic or unhappy revolution”. But would a “happy life” be consternated about revolution, or should it forfeit revolution to the trash bin of the modern political concepts? Isn’t comedy the abdication of revolution, either as the return to the same (think of Saint-Just naturalism) or the overcoming of the temporal order of the day after tomorrow? Perhaps comedy as the texture of life is a thorough abandonment not only of the tragic, but also of the efficacy of revolution as a residual messianism. And it is against the closure of revolution (because revolution depends on a principle of authority the exact moment that it triumphs) where the ongoing stasiological present should be thought.

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