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“Tragedy and Comedy in Italian Theory: Notes on the intersection between literature and politics” (for the moment unpublished), which was extremely suggestive, elegant, and comprehensive in terms of its critical take on the horizon of Italian theory.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.

Five hypotheses on Reiner Schürmann’s anarchy. (Gerardo Muñoz)

It was pitch black at Bryan’s Revolution Café and Bar, a smoky fire behind us, when Sergio Villalobos claimed that more vital than becoming “experts”, what really mattered was to produce an encounter that permitted us to leave our “skins behind”. In a similar vein, I added, that lizards too lose their skin in the desert. Lizards in the desert: that seems to be the right image to describe what was indeed a productive and worthwhile, and much needed conference on Reiner Schürmann’s oeuvre.

The purpose of the workshop, if any at all, was far from wanting to establish a consensual theoretical frame on “Schürmann” as yet another proper name within the marketplace of ideas. Rather, it seems to me that at the center of our debates, to paraphrase Schürmann himself, was a “nocturnal knowledge” of sorts, a constellation that produced moments of encounter and releasement; a thinking on the basis of the epochal structuration of the history of being and the exhaustion of principial thought.

What remains of interest in Schürmann’s thought is the potential to make thinkable the relation between hegemonic phantasmatic maximization, principial articulation, and the question of finitude (what he calls the tragic denial in his monumental and posthumous Broken Hegemonies). If anything, Schürmann contributes, as noted by Alberto Moreiras’ introductory remarks, to the archive of infrapolitical thought in a line of reflection folded within the contemporary university discourse and the consummated politicity of globalized machination [1]. To be sure, to “become lizards” is very different from “becoming Schürmanians”. The first thrives for releasement of tragic denial, and posit in the singularization to come in what it can no longer be reduced to the will, which is also the predicament at stake in thinking by and through principles. The second is the professional philosopher committed to the accumulation of knowledge, and by consequence, to the denial of the singular in the name of the duties of imposed on life. There is no normative judgment in making this distinction, but rather it is a matter of a tonality, and of establishing differences. One needs not “sacrifice” the epistemological grounds that demand the first in appropriative gestures of the second.

“Nocturnal knowledge” signals a drift of thought that is not longer bounded by the location drawn by heritage, proper name, archive, expertise, or even ethical relation. Yet all of these remain of importance, even if not exhausting the possibility of thinking otherwise beyond the masters and the articulation of “being in debt” as a structural position or intellectual commitment. It is futile to reconstruct a debate whose consequences and “effects” are always beyond our reach. What I would like to do in the remainder of this note, is to sketch out a hasty catalogue of “five hypothesis” – by no means the only hypotheses discussed during the rich two days of discussions at Texas A&M – that will inscribe, at least for me, a path of further investigation and writing to come in line with the project of infrapolitics.

  1. The “epochal” hypothesis. Schürmann’s breakthrough philosophical project is without question the monumental Broken Hegemonies. Surpassing a telic drive of Heidegger: Being and acting, BH installs the topology of the history of being as a heterochronic montage that, as powerfully argued by Stefano Franchi, “rewinds” or unwrites to a certain extent Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. Deremption against the synthetic offers parameters to think the differend of naturality and mortality in a strictly non-dialectical movement, but still a politically significant one. For my purposes, what is at stake here, besides the ruin of any philosophy of history, is the translation of the legitimacy-legality differend that opens another way of thinking the legal and legitimate grounding of the categories of modern political thought. Epochality and epochs establish a reversal of the metaphoricity of history, contributing to the historicity of being that radically retreats from the “poem” of development. The nexus between epochality and the end of principial thought (or anarchy in the face of globalization) is a daunting question that remained open in much of our own reflection on Schürmann. Villalobos-Ruminott picked up the subtle but open Schürmann critique of the “deconstructive text” at the beginning of BH as to go into the “thicket of the text” (BH, 15). But if this is a crucial task, is not the task of deconstruction precisely the drifting beyond the “hegemonic maximization” towards those spaces that remain contaminated by the labor of minimization and transgression? The very legislative differend Derrida-Schürmann remains a fertile space for problematization. In other words: how can we think the postulate of the post-hegemonic ultimate from BH last pages with the deconstructive differànce?
  1. The Democracy hypothesis. It is not obvious in any case how Schürmann himself situates the problem of “Democracy” at the intersection between the end of principial thought and the maximization of legislative-transgressive norms. If infrapolitical reflection is also a question about the potential of democracy, then it remains to be thought how Schürmann’s work contribute to this task beyond the limitations of the political that structure Arendt’s work (which seems to be the modern thinker that best informs Schürmann’s thought on democracy). Guillermo Ureña’s transversal take on Schürmann and Marzoa’s Concepto de lo civil, indicates a point of departure in light of singularization to come as it faces its tragic destiny. The question of democracy gains space of its own if it could radically differentiate itself from the maximization of community, which binds the maximum phantasm of hegemonic politics in light of natality and the denial of the tragic. If we take Arendt to be a thinker that establishes an antinomy between the oikos and the polis, it is easy to sidestep the question of stasis or civil war as always already fantasmatic constitutive of any demos articulated between these two poles, as well as any promise of “democracy” regulated by the category of the citizen [2]. In light of our current “global war”, however we understand it, is difficult to affirm democracy without taking into consideration the facticity of neoliberalism. This was the relevant point made by both Charles Hatfield and Patrick Dove on the “life without why” as replicating or even coinciding with the nihilist condition of transnational accumulation at the “end of history” ideologies.
  1. The “life” hypothesis. Alberto Moreiras and Stefano Franchi’s noted in contrasting ways how BH necessarily opened to the question of “life”. The radical opening towards the tragic denial recoils back to this problem where another relation of experience (passion) must be thought. If for Franchi the tragic opens back to natality and even to the comic; in Moreiras’ grammar it is a matter of affirming the existential analytic where something like an “infrapolitical breakthrough” could possibly take place [3]. Let’s call this instance infrapolitical dwelling or breakthrough. In terms of the “possible”, and what is meant by the possibility of that which remains impossible, Ronald Mendoza reminded us that it is a task to be pursued on the threshold of Heidegger’s rendition of possibility in Being and Time. This is no mere exegetical task, since what is at stake here is nothing other than the confrontation with the economies of reading and thinking through Aristotle’s Metaphysics, reconsidering the relation between dunamis and energeia. It is in this direction or turning towards the possibility where something other than a biopolitical closure. Releasement towards the tragic destiny is only evoked to reopen the question of life beyond the antinomies that organized logics of causation and distributive ontologies that, in the words of Agamben in Lo aperto, have only fueled the anthropological machine of the West that divides the animal and the human.
  1. The “text” hypothesis. It would be unfair to treat Schürmann’s architectonics of the topology of being as sidestepping the question of narrativity and the literary text in general. What are myths if not a textual machine, as understood by Jesi, which plays on the organization as well as excesses of each economic phantasm? Nevertheless, much work needs to be done to wrench Schürmann’s topological arrangement of the history of being in relation to the function of literature. It is at this intersection where Dorfsman’s meditation on the poetics dwelled, as well as perhaps the figure of the marrano strategically analyzed by Humberto Nuñez. Literature has all to do with a textual economy that is the excess of hegemonic maximization, and that for this reason is difficult to locate on a single plane of ordering and commandment of language. But what becomes clear is that through Schürmann a tropology opens with fundamental consequences for grapping with “life”: this is the “fool” as suggested by Franchi, Don Quixote’s wandering joy through La Mancha alluded by Teresa Vilarós, or Moreiras’ pícaro. I would also suggest Dante’s Divina Comedia, where mundane life seem to mark the passage from the hegemonic Latin phantasm of natura to the sovereignty of the modern passive epochality [2].
  1. The Luther hypothesis. It seems to me that the only major figure that throws off a shadow at the grand epochs of the topology of being is that of Martin Luther. It is a risk that Schürmann takes, but that allows him to read the modern tradition of the subject against the grain of Descartes’ cogito, Kant’s autonomous subject, or Spinoza’s Deus sive natura. Luther stands out in BH as an outsider that fundamentally returns to inflict the totality of the modern structuration. It is through Luther that we are confronted negatively with a possibility of the de-basement of the subject, emptying the signifier of “God” that connects with the releasement and play in his analysis of Eckhart’s sermons. Jaime Rodriguez Matos rightfully noted that the arguments on the existence of God, far from being the central problem, function as a pretext for an underlying problem consistent with the ruination of the subject. And what has been modern politicity if not hyperbolic to the condition of subjectivity? The figure of Luther for Schürmann signals passive transcendentalism and the opening towards heteronomy, which must be understood in light of the subject of command through duty and debt. It is here where Sam Steinberg’s reflection on the Mexican modern politicity as a history of debt resonates with the modernizing paradigm in Luther. The militant figure of Worms offers another paradigm to understand the epochality of secularization, and reassess Schmitt’s well-known “occasional decisionism” (Löwith) in differential positioning with the passivity of the vocation. It is also through Luther that Hegelianism becomes an epochal possibility (impossible?) for the narrativization of the history of the West. Luther also signals the problem of returns not only in the modern epoch, but also as Jose Valero argued in his own terms, in relation to the arche of metaphysics and repetition. How does tradition gets transmitted and repeated? In slightly different terms, Michela Russo’s problematization of heritage also speaks beyond the metanarrative task imposed by Schürmann’s “archive”, situating the archive as command and origin of a form of doing history of philosophy; even if it is aprincipial history that questions the very antinomy of progression / containment.

As Hispanists or Latinamericanists working in the contemporary university, one must renounce the burden that implies carrying forth or reproducing Schürmann’s legacy as a question of fidelity, preservation, or even detachment. The history of the topology of being, argued Moreiras, seems at moments even more complex than the one offered by Heidegger himself. This much is needed. Metaphysics will neither be abolished nor put to a standstill with Schürmann’s injunction in the theoretical scene. For my purposes, a possible turning would always be a-locational, and for that very same nature, incalculable. In lesser words, this would imply the suspension of the very ground that feeds into our beliefs.





  1. Alberto Moreiras. “Preliminary remarks on Infrapolitical anarchy: the work of Reiner Schürmann.
  1. Giorgio Agamben. Stasis: civil war as a political paradigm. Stanford University Press, 2015.
  1. Eric Auerbach. Dante: poet of the secular world. University of Chicago Press, 1961.