There is something insufficient and risible in the attempt to isolate notions like “revolution” or “emancipation” from the total collapse of the grammar of politics. This insufficiency speaks to a rhetorical inflation which already at the turn of the twentieth century Carlo Michaelsteader identified with the attempt at securing the social bond at all costs. The rhetoric of “saving” (the revolution, emancipation, liberation: saving the subject) at bottom, only shows the simulacra of a redemptive movement of value at the heart of social exchange. And we also know that modern political revolutions were experiments in general socialization. Whether it is Saint-Just appealing to the laws of nature against the positive social contract in the wake of the French Revolution; or Lenin and the Bolsheviks more than a century later in their efforts to stage a utopia of production and classless society, the revolutionary horizon was ultimately about the production of the social bond and little else.
The dialectization between subject and the totality of the modes of production was realized in its reverse: the passage to a new temporal domination unto all sensual activities of life. This was expected given the premise: at the center of the genesis of political organization of the West is not the state, but rather the rhetorical structures of civility. That the last theoretical project of politics hinges on the so-called “rhetorical foundations” of society now comes full circle: the development of civilization in the open.
Of course, revolutionary and emancipatory imagination, except in rare occasions, has always been oblivious to the problem of civilization. And this is why Fordism and high Stalinism were perceived as civilizational projects that mirrored and competed against each other. In this sense, the civilizational rise never escaped the duality between politics and nihilism that is proper to the anxiety over order in the genesis of modern European public powers. This is also why early in revolutionary moments of triumph the excess of barbarism was never left behind, but rather it emerged as its siamese twin of the humanist enterprise. As Merleau-Ponty hinted in his old book Humanism and Terror (1947): “Even though our political life creates a civilization we can never renounce, does it not also cointan a fundamental disease?” . This was Ponty in 1947, where the debris of the war was still in full display in major European cities. To some extent one could imagine not wanting to renounce civilization of such barbarism in the face of atomic disaster. But is this our predicament today? Obviously not, since, precisely the collapse of politics (and its main institutional forms such as positive law and political parties) also amounts to an ongoing crisis that is civilizational in nature.
It is not surprising that what emerges in front of us is a different typology than the one that Merleau-Ponty witnessed in 1947: it is no longer the piling of rubbish, but the rise of metropolitan paradises that organize the infrastructural regime of a contactless world. A decade later, written in the 1950s, Amadeo Bordiga will redefine the stakes of civilization: “…the vigorous coarseness of the barbarian peoples was less dire than the decadence of the masses in the capitalist epoch, the epoch that our enemies name as civilization – a word used well here, and in its proper sense, because it means the urban way of life, the way of life proper to the great amalgamated monsters of the bourgeois metropolises” . Bordiga’s lucidity was capable of grasping that Fordismas the triumph of the utopia of capital now meant that civilization (now reduced as the allocation of exchange and distribution) became the central figure of nihilism. Perhaps Bordiga was too imprudent to call for the shadow of the civilized – that is, the barbarian – but his problem, I take it, is still ours to reflect upon.
1. Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Humanism and Terror (Beacon Press, 1969), xxxviii.
2. Amadeo Bordiga, “Specie umana e crosta terrestre”, in Drammi gialli e sinistre della moderna decadenza sociale (Iskra, 1978), 95. My translation.
There is no question that Alice Rohrwacher’s Lazzaro felice (2018) is a marvelous cinematic work insofar as it measures up against the epoch by radically questioning the principles that have upheld what we know as civilization. This slight adjustment is critical given that ideology, political economy, or subject oriented frameworks of analysis have become insufficient to deal with the crisis of civilization. As a matter of fact, they have become functional (mere deployments of technique, to put it in Willy Thayer’s vocabulary) to the infrastructure, and its specific philosophy of History that promotes the maintenance of Order after the liquidation of its legitimacy. I would like to clarify that I am understanding civilization in a twofold register: as a genetic process of human anthropology based on the matrix of “appropriation, distribution, and production” of the world (a techno-political grid popularized by Carl Schmitt); but also as the total realization of an economic or political theology, which we can directly link to the function of “credit” (and the process of abstract dialectic between credit and debt, as a ground of a new “faith”) that is deployed as the medium of the total sum of social relations that commands beings in the world. Civilization is the general matrix of a process of optimal rationalization of the events that take place in the world, making us potential reactionary agents of the time of its phenomenality.
Aside from all the Christian and religious imaginary, Lazzaro felice is a theological film, but only insofar as it takes the irruption of the mythical remnant very seriously. There is something to be said here – and I think the film stresses this in several parts of the story – between religion and theology, dogma and the spiritual (anima), and the sacred and the commandment solicited by faith (pistis). In other words, Lazzaro felice enacts a destruction of a political theology by insisting on the civilizatory decline towards reproduction of as mere life of survival; a life that is delegated to the abstract faith of credit. In this sense, it is no mistake that Lazzaro’s homicide takes place in a bank and executed by the community of believers (capital, in the end, has already been incarnated; it is the Subject). The laboratory where this takes place is the metropolis, which as I have argued elsewhere is the site of devastation and optimization life in our epoch, which unifies world and life putting distance into crisis, in a suspense of the experiential . The consumption of the new political theology of unreserved equivalence between humans and objects is what Rohrwacher interrupts through the fable of the beatitude of Lazzaro as a life to come in the threshold of the highest phase of the metropolitan stagnation. I will limit my commentary here to three nodes that allow the Lazzaro felice to expand this critique of civilization and the principle of the “civil society”, a notion that we will return to.
First, there is the fable, a capsule of an ancient gnostic wisdom. The fable is what can radically alter evil by tipping its objective realism into a real of the imagination against the grammar of order. Avoiding the order of narration based to account for the history of progress and developmentalism from the rural to the civilization of the metropolis, Rohrwacher’s strategy resorts to the ancient craft of the fable. This is fundamental for a number of reasons. First of all, because the fable allows to withdrawal from pure counter-narrative of historical development and its justifications that allow for the interruption of the time of development, while offering a possibility of an otherwise transformation of the world. This is the gnostic texture of the fable that Hans Blumenberg identified in this form, since obscuring of the distinction between humans and animals relaxes the burden of proof of the absolutism of reality as predicated in the matter of facts . It through fables that something escapes, because there is always an image that escapes the narration of the events of this world. But the fable also offered something else: the beginning of myth as the site of legitimation for foundations of social relations. This is why, as T.J. Clark has reminded recently, Hegel associated the fable with the origin of master and slave dialectic, as a new form of domination of world once the world’s enchantment and mystery was dissolved: “In the slave, prose begins” .
The end of a paractical poetics? Perhaps. This means that the price to be paid to enter into the prose of “civilization” is to assimilate the unfathomable and invisible contours of the world into the polemos of storytelling; to be a subject of a story, and as a result, of historical transition. This is what civilization mobilizes through the fable as its posited legitimacy. It is in the fable where the abyss that separates us from the world becomes animated, ordered, and narrated in order for the apparatus of production to commence. It seems to me that Alice Rohrwacher goes to arcanum of civilization when she treats the fable of the wolf, which has functioned to legitimize the passage from the state of nature to the modern concept of the civil in Hobbes’s theory of the state. We should remember the brief fable in Lazzaro felice:
“Let me tell you the story of the wolf. A very old wolf had become decrepit, he could hunt wild animals anymore. So, he was excluded from the pack…and the old wolf went to houses, to steal animals, checks and sheep. He was hungry. The villagers tried to kill him in every way possible, but they didn’t succeed…as if he were invisible.”
It is a remarkable fable that inverts the political fiction of the wolf in Hobbes; mainly: a man is an arrant wolf to another man (homo homini lupus), which justifies the exodus from the state of nature as the “miserable condition of civil war” between men. The stakes are clear: by repressing civil war (stasis), civil society emerges as a divided but unified body under a sovereign principle of authority . The wolf is first established as creature of fear and depredation in order to allow for the principle of civilization to emergence as uncontested and necessary. The fable of the wolf is the protofigure that guards the history of perimeters of civilization as a way to pacify and repress the latency of civil war. Rohrwacher, against the Hobbes political fable, gives us a fable of the wolf that not only is uncapable of waging life as war, but that it enacts full refusal and desertion to be hunted; that is, to be invisible, which ultimately entails a life not outside of a politics of hunting and the secondary pacification by which the end of hunting mutates to the enclosure of domestication .
If the wolf stands for the invisible it is because it occupies the excess of total legibility of a new civil order, that is, of a world administered by technique of order. The wolf is a prefiguration of the invisible that is improper to every life (and thus to all biopolitical domestication proper to civilization) in the passage from the organic community of the living to the civilizatory topos of the metropolis. The wolf condenses the instructive character in every life; that is, what cannot be reduced to the fiction or the depredatory total war of the civilization nor the fiction of the community lacking an open relation to the world. This fable, then, is not just what unveils the fictional grounds of the legitimacy of civilization (its “black magic” under the light of rationality and control) but also what reprepares another community. A community in which what we have in common is not an attribute, a substance, or an identity, but an irreducible ethical relation in which civil war cannot equate total hostility and what establishes an absolute difference between life and the “principle of the civil” that formalized the aspiration of isonomic equality:
“The immemorial bad reputation of the wolf (wolf bashing) informs us about one of the oldest tricks of civilization. This consists of bearing the weight of predation on what is heterogeneous to it. To be able to say that man is a wolf of man, the wolf must first have been disguised as a “predator.” We do not mean that the wolf is gardener of daisy flowers, we mean that he behaves neither as a tyrant nor as a bloodthirsty animal, and even less as an individualist (the famous “lone wolf”). In fact, the wolf may have taught communism to humans. The cub that opens its eyes among humans recognizes them as part of its clan. Two lessons: 1) friendship ignores categories; 2) the common is the place where we open our eyes to the world. What the human, for his part, has “taught” to the wolf – like an angry father yelling at his son “I’ll teach you!” – is the servility of the good puppy and the good cop”. .
The end of the film comes full circle with the only condition of finding a way out, producing a break in the infrastructure of the domestication, opening a path within and against the metropolis. It is almost as if the film, like in life, was a preparation for the moment of exodus and retreat. In fact, the wolf deserts the metropolis passing through and beyond the highway in plain rush hour. According to Alice Rohrwacher, the wolf leaving the city and not being seen was a reinforcement of the invisible ethical dimension that is proper to every life (an ethos, which in the old Pindaric sense that refers not only our character, but also, and more fundamentally to our abode and habits that are world-forming), and that is devastated by the anthropological crisis of the species in the wake of the process of civilization . However, the wolf exit from the metropolis is not an abandonment of the world in the manner of a monastic communitarian retreat; but rather the pursuit of liberating an encounter with the events of the world foreclosed by topological circulation of credit that amounts to borrowed life without destiny.
Now to the question that signals an instance of construens in what follows the desertion: what about happiness? It is here, it seems to me, where the beatitude of Lazzaro could be thought as an ethical form of life – as preparation to learn to how live a life against the abstract processes of domestication – that exceeds the two hegemonic paradigms of happiness offered by Western civilization: on the one hand, happiness understood as an equilibrium operative to virtue (aretē); or, on the other, the community of salvation as a compensatory effect for the structural gap of the fallen subject, original sin (felix culpa). One could clearly see that politics at the level of civilization could now be defined as the instrument that manages the production of happiness as a temporal exception in life, but never a defining form of our character.
The wolf that is Lazzaro’s form of life – at a posthistorical threshold that dissolves the anthropological divide man and animal – offers us a third possibility: happiness understood as the refusal to partake in the promises of civilization in order to attune oneself to an errancy of life that allows itself to be hunted by an experiential imbuing of the world. Happy Lazzaro? Yes, but never a Sisyphus who is incapable of experiencing the vanishing horizon between earth and sky in infinite divisibility of the world. The wolf unleashed traverses a geography against domestication, revoking the phantasy of home (the oikos). I will let the last words be made by some fellow-travelers contemporary American thinkers: “Civilisation, or more precisely civil society, with all its transformative hostility was mobilized in the service of extinction, of disappearance. Fuck a home in this world, if you think you have one.” .
[These are some preliminary notes for an ongoing discussion on Lundi Matin’s “Éléments de décivilisation’’, a text that condenses a series of problems dealing with, although by no means, limited to infrapolitical reflection, the event, world, and the question of civilization in the wake of the ruin of hegemonic principles. This particular essay, more than content, raises the question of the status of the style of thought; and, in broad terms, I tend to link the notion of style to the constitutionof an ethos. But let me offer three theses to open the discussion in very broad terms. What follows is the reconstruction of three brief points in a recent group meeting about this text.]
i. The priority of the event. For me at least it is very important to consider that Éléments de décivilisation’’ moves away from at least two important precedents of a common intellectual orbit: messianism and the political theory of modern sovereignty. Of course, this is important for many reasons, but most it speaks to what I would call a strong opposition between thought and philosophy (favoring the first over the second). These two registers open important distinctions, such as, for instance, a displacement between historical temporality (messianism) to a notion of the taking place (the event or encounter) as exteriority. Whereas we were told that the “event is the enemy within Empire” (Gloss in Thesis 60 of Introduction à la guerre civile) , now we have a more through sketch about the way in which the form-of-life is not a category reducible to vitalism or the problem of the subject, but rather about the play between form and event. Here I think that Carlo Diano’s Forma ed evento (1952) is crucial as a backdrop that is not just philosophically (Aristotelian formalization against Stoic predication), but rather a sound position of thinking in relation to what has been passed down as “civilization”.
ii. Civilization as a principle. Now, the question of civilization raises to a problem of thought insofar as is neither an ontological problem nor an operative idea in the history of intellectual concepts. Civilization becomes the apparatus by which the total regimen of production in any given epoch is structured to establish an order. And here order is both authority and police. To put it in juridical terms: the first secures legitimacy while the second posits the flexible energy of legality and execution. This is the same problem in the relation to the world. In other words, civilization means enclosing, domesticating, and producing. By the same token, civilization is the operative domain by which nomōs, history and the subject come together in virtue of their separation. Is not this the very issue in the Greek polis in the wake of the discovery of measurement, isonomy, and the distribution of the goods in which hegemony replaces the basileus (Vernant)? It is one of the merits of the text not having understood this problem at the level of an “archeology of Western political thought” (Agamben), but rather as an evolving transhistorical process that binds the axis of domination and power to the axis of anthropology and domestication. Civilization, then, would name the total apparatus of hegemony under which politics falls as a problem of metaphysical structure (I have tried this problem in recent positions here). Whether there is an assumed anthropological anarchy at the level of substance, capable of “inversion” (Camatte), is something that must be explored in further detail.
iii. Happiness cuts absolute immanence. My last point. I would like to insist on something that Rodrigo Karmy mentioned recently: “Happiness is the unthought of the Weestern tradition”. I agree with Karmy not on the basis that there has not been any reflection of “happiness” in the tradition, but rather that this reflection has either been a) subordinated to politics or economics (Jeffersonian “happiness” conditioned by commerce); or, as a moral virtue of self-regulation and privation. But it seems to me that “Elements” wants to offer something else in a very novel way. It is here where the question of violence must be inscribed. A curious displacement since violence has been thought in relation to beauty, but not happiness. The violence at the level of forms puts us in proximity with the event at the end of life itself. In this sense, the Pacôme Thiellement footnote is important:
“l y a deux lumières: il y a la lumière d’avant la nuit et il y a la lumière d’après. Il y a celle qui était là au début, l’aube radieuse du jour d’avant, et puis il y a celle qui a lutté contre les ténèbres, la lumière qui naît de cette lutte : l’aube scintillante du jour d’après. Il n’y a pas seulement deux lumières, il y a aussi deux joies : il y a la joie d’avant la peine et il y a celle d’après. La joie originelle, la joie innocente, primitive, cette joie est sublime, mais c’est juste un cadeau de la vie, du ciel, du soleil… La joie qui vient après la peine, c’est le cadeau que tu te fais à toi-même : c’est la façon dont tu transformes ta peine en joie, l’innocence que tu réussis à faire renaître des jours d’amertume et des nuits de bile noire. C’est le moment où tu commences à vivre, mais vivre vraiment, parce que tu commences à renaître de toutes tes morts successives. C’est le moment où tu t’approches de la divinité ou du monde”. This position – which I think it is prevalent throughout the text – allows the opening of a series of articulations:
a) it is no longer happiness an effect on the subject, which has only grown in the Spectacle or consumption; that is happiness as an exception to life.
b) it is not that happiness is a theological state of ‘blessed life’, which would presuppose the transmutation of sin and thus overcoming of the non-subject. This position depends on conditions of mythic-history and theology.
c) It is rather that happiness is the way in which the singular gathers his possibilities in use without enclosing the other possibles. To live a life among the fragmentation of the use of our disposed potentialities is a way to violently cut the seduction of absolute immanence in which style is diluted. Play could name the variations of use. But there is a second order risk in what constitutes “play”: a transfiguration of politic as civil war. The problem becomes how to think of ‘play’ (i. messianic abandonment, ii. political intensification – insurrection, or the separation between rhythm and voice, a poesis). I am interested in pushing for the third figure of play; a third figure in which the event and happiness impose a new division of souls, moving away from the separation from life.
In an important moment of Notebook 7, Antonio Gramsci writes that production in the age of industrialization amounts to a “new religion of the common man”. This thesis conditions many aspects of Gramsci’s thought and fully exposes his thinking as determined by the epoch of industrialization. If so, this means that his thinking is fundamentally insufficient for our historical present as defined by stagnation and the end of growth. First of all, the condition of industrialization allows for the famous “war of position”, which is exerted as a moralization of politics (hegemony). It is important to note that the concept of hegemony is introduced only “after” the historical reduction to industrial productivity is rendered as the unity of all historical time. In an explicit Hegelian fashion, Gramsci argues that: “The process of historical development is a unity in time, which is why the present contains the whole of the past and what is “essential” of the past realizes itself in the present, without any “unknowable” residue that would constitute its real “essence”. Whatever is lost….it pertained to chronicle not History, a superficial episode and, in the final analysis, negligible” (175). This is at the core of Gramsci’s thinking, not at the margins.
So, the Hegelian absolute movement of the philosophy of history as coterminous with the flattening of the “rational is the real” is the metaphysical ground in which Gramsci not only operates but the venue through which he offers us a “new religion of the common man”. A few sections later (§. 35), Gramsci confesses that “hegemony was also a great “metaphysical event”. Of course, one could suppose that Gramsci was delivering a new God within the gigantomachy of the age of production. The irony is, of course, that this strict “political theology” is only justified by the industrial regime that it seeks to overturn. Therefore, the question that the so-called contemporary Gramscians (or anyone taking up Gramsci today, say from the 1970s to the present) should respond is: how can the analytical conditions of Gramsci’s thought illuminate post-Fordism in the wake of the exhaustion of growth?
If according to Jason E. Smith’s important new book Smart Machines and Service Work (2020) since the 1980s we are witnessing an ever-expanding service sector (in the US and the UK drifting well above the 80% of the GDP) as a compensatory for growth stagnation in the age of technological innovation, how could the Gramscian “new religion” on industry mobilize a horizon of emancipation, or even minimal transformation from said regime of exploitation? On the contrary, it seems (as I tried to argue recently here) that if we take Gramsci’s insight about the material conditions of “production” in any given epoch, the work of hegemony today can only open to a demand for exploitation as subjected to servant domination in the stagnant regime. In other words, if we accept Gramsci’s own analytical conditions (industrial production), this necessarily entails that we must move beyond hegemonic domination. To think otherwise – say, believing that a “temporal form of dictatorship” or “populist takeover”, now in ruins – amounts to a solution oblivious to the historical conditions, which can only blindly accept the “command” of a hegemonic principle. It is not a surprise that only the new nationalist right in the United States today can be properly labeled “Gramscian”, since they want to recoil political form to industrialization, organic community flourishing, and national “delinking” from globalization decomposition of the regime of total equivalence. But this is only a “storytelling” (a bad one, indeed) in times of stagnation.
More broadly, this speaks to the divergence between Gramsci’s faith in industrialization and Protestantism, as he defends it in section 47 of the Notebook. While glossing Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic, Gramsci notes that only the “spirt of the Reform” can produce reciprocal positions vis-à-vis grace and “good works”; whereas in Catholicism, activity and human action is not bounded by labor form, but by corporativism. On the surface this links Gramsci’s thesis with that of Max Weber’s; however, given the conditions explained above, it also shows that Gramsci’s thinking is really at odds with a commitment to thinking reform within the concrete conditions of a historical epoch. In other words, the political categories of Gramscianism (war of position, hegemony, production) are undeniably more on the side of reaction rather than in the production of new reforms. Of course, his position is not even a Catholic reaction; since, as Carl Schmitt observed in Roman Catholicism and Political Form (1923), at least the Church offered formal institutionality as a response to the total electrification of the world, whether in the hands of the Soviets or the American financial elite. But, as we know, the theory of hegemony is also oblivious to the problem of institution and the concrete order.