Images of State and Stásis

[Talk delivered at Historical Materialism 2015, on a panel with Jason E. Smith and Jessica Whyte on The Ends of Homo Sacer]


For fame had rumour’d that a fleet at sea, / Would cause our nation’s catastrophe. / And hereupon it was my mother dear / Did bring forth twins at once, both me and fear.
– Thomas Hobbes, Verse Autobiography


Agamben’s Stásis: Civil War as a Political Paradigm is the slim final volume of the Homo Sacer series, published, with some architectonic confusion (it is listed as II.2, originally the designation for The Kingdom and the Glory) after the compendious The Use of Bodies, which closes if not completes the series. Stásis is composed of two seminar presentations on a theme, civil war, that has coursed in and out of Agamben’s work, and in those of some of his intellectual and political comrades (namely Tiqqun and The Invisible Committee). Here it is dealt with first in a dialogue with the brilliant historian of stásis in Ancient Athens, Nicole Loraux, and then, in the essay from which my remarks today take their cue, in an attempt to excavate, from an analysis of the 1651 frontispiece to Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, a philosophical iconology of civil war.  Continue reading


Living, and Dying, Labour

COTA reviewed, alongside Mason’s Postcapitalism and Dyer-Witheford’s Cyber-proletariat, in Review 31.

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“I Have Seen Paris”

A View of Paris from the Pont Neuf; Jean-Baptiste Raguenet, French, 1715 - 1793; 1763; Oil on canvas; Unframed: 44.5 x 81.9 cm (17 1/2 x 32 1/4 in.), Framed: 62.2 x 98.7 x 6 cm (24 1/2 x 38 7/8 x 2 3/8 in.); 71.PA.26

A View of Paris from the Pont Neuf; Jean-Baptiste Raguenet, French, 1715 – 1793; 1763.

“I have seen Paris: but shall I affirm I can form such an idea of that city, as will perfectly represent all its streets and houses in their real and just proportions?”

(David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Ch. I)

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Criticism as Theory

Spanish-language review of COTA by Peio Aguirre.

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COTA Revisited – From the Invisibility of Industry to the Industries of Invisibility (PART II)

[This is the second part of the transcript of the talk we delivered at Gallery 400 in Chicago. Many thanks to Beate Geissler, Oliver Sann, and Anthony Stepter for the logistics and hospitality, and to the audience, including Brian Holmes, Claire Pentecost and Blake Stimson for the excellent discussion.  Note: citations available upon request.]

The Dark Geography of the Deep State

Since the beginning of the War on Terror, references to what has alternately been dubbed the national security state, the invisible government, the state within, the deep state, or the shadow government have become increasingly prevalent in discussions of national security and American democracy. These terms all generally refer to same network of national security actors and institutions operating within, and to a certain extent alongside, the United States government broadly conceived. Users of the terms generally share a fear of the network’s secrecy, of the lack of meaningful control and oversight by the three branches of government of its activities, of its seemingly ever increasing share of the federal budget, and its general lack of democratic accountability. Today I’ll be looking at some theorists that understand the rise of the national security network as heralding a novel form of bifurcation of the American state – a dual state or double government. Rather than merely a troubling intensification of tendencies always already existing within our constitutional framework, in these theorizations the rise of the national security network represents a quantitative/qualitative shift in which the locus of power in American government is fundamentally different than in the past. I will also consider works of art that explicitly take the national security network as their object of study, primarily those of artist, author and geographer Trevor Paglen (also Oscar winner for his work on Citizenfour).

Paglen They Watch the Moon 2010

On a very basic, straightforward level, any cognitive mapping of this bifurcated state is wrought with epistemological difficulties, and the challenges of studying, let alone depicting or representing, an object or realm whose structure and activities are often legally shrouded in secrecy, and beyond even legislative or judicial oversight, are in many ways obvious. How do we depict this world that is literally out of sight? What does it mean to detail the sites in which representations of our world are produced when these are ‘black sites’, whose invisibility is violently guarded? I’m going to start with a brief discussion of the national security network and its place within what has been called the dual state or double government, which I hope will show the importance of this very difficult task.

The national security network is best conceptualized as just that: a network. It is made of up different nodes (actors, groups, institutions – both governmental and non-governmental), through which information and resources flow. The conceptualization allows the basic insight that all of these different nodes are not necessarily colluding – in fact, they might occasionally be working against each other or competing for abundant, yet nonetheless scarce, resources – but are still all part of the same network. This network is a “labyrinthine structure” that includes forty-six federal departments and agencies carrying out classified national security work, which ranges from intelligence gathering an analysis to cyber-warfare, weapons development, and the actual waging of war. It includes nearly 2,000 private companies that support this work at over 10,000 locations across America. It employees millions, and has annual expenditures in the trillions.

While national security has existed in some sense since the dawn of the republic, Paglen and many others identify the birth of “the national security state” or “black world” with the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos during World War II, in its enormous expenditure, mobilisation of manpower, and generation of huge covert sites employing unprecedented magnitudes of materiel and human capital: ‘Building secret weapons during a time of war was nothing new. Building industrialized secret weapons, employing hundreds of thousands of workers, the world’s top scientists, dedicated factories, and multibillion-dollar budgets hidden from Congress – that was unprecedented. It would become a standard operating procedure’. If the quest to build the world’s first atomic bomb set the coordinates of the black world, it became a legitimate part of the US state with Truman’s signing of the National Security Act of 1947, which, among other things, spawned the Central Intelligence Agency (the nation’s first peacetime intelligence agency) and the National Security Council, and merged the various branches of the military into the Department of Defense.” Until this moment, the United States would increase military spending in build up to war, but it would decline during peacetime, and intelligence spending was a relatively small portion of the federal budget. The national security state was intended to provide a posture of constant military readiness for the country. A key event in this history is the CIA Act of 1949, which remains the statutory basis for the black or classified budget. Remarkably, the bill was voted into legislation without congress even being able to read it in its entirety. It had been vetted by the Committee on Armed Services, which removed portions of the bill that were ‘of a highly confidential nature’. As Paglen emphasizes: ‘The bill itself was secret’.

The first theory of actual bifurcation that I’d like to discuss is that of the American political scientist Michael Glennon, who has recently presented his theory of double government as part of an attempt to answer the question as to why the Obama administration’s approach to almost all national security issues has been essentially the same as that of the Bush administration. His answer involves a double government within the United States, split between dignified and efficient institutions, that “together make up a ‘disguised republic’ that obscures the massive shift in power that has occurred, which if widely understood would create a crisis of public confidence.”

The dignified institutions, also referred to as the Madisonian institutions, are the three branches of government – the presidency, Congress and the courts – while the national security network is the “efficient” institution – Glennon calls this the Trumanite network, to reflect Truman’s role in bringing about the National Security Act of 1947. “America’s efficient institution makes most of the key decisions concerning national security, removed from public view and from the constitutional restrictions that check America’s dignified institutions. The United States has, in short, moved beyond a mere imperial presidency to a bifurcated system – a structure of double government – in which even the President now exercises little substantive control over the overall direction of U.S. national security policy.” Importantly, Glennon argues that the Trumanite network has become so entrenched and powerful that it has actually achieved autonomy from the Madisonian institutions. “The Trumanite network makes American national security policy; it is occasional exceptions to that policy that are made by the Madisonian institutions.” The democratic institutions largely exist for spectacle, while the more autocratic institutions wield actual political power.

So what are the consequences of this bifurcated state structure? Most generally, it means that in a profound way, at least in the realm of foreign policy and national security, the American government is a democracy in name only. Any influence that the tripartite government has on national security policy is minimal and a trillion dollar budget is being formulated and spent largely beyond any democratic controls. Furthermore, with the Madisonian institutions ostensibly still in charge as far as the public is concerned, in all likelihood the Trumanite network will only grow in power and influence. Glennon fears a future where the Madisonian institutions “fade gradually into museum pieces […]; Madisonians kiss babies, cut ribbons, and read Trumanite talking points, while the Trumanite network, careful to retain historic forms and familiar symbols, takes on the substance of a silent directorate.” His conclusion is menacing: “What form of government ultimately will emerge from the United States’ experiment with double government is uncertain. The risk is considerable, however, that it will not be a democracy.”

What I am going to group together as parapolitical researchers or dual state theorists go a step farther than Glennon. The term “dual state” seems to have first been used by the German political scientist Ernst Fraenkel in his research on formation of the Nazi state in the 1930s. Fraenkel analyzed the German state as being split between a normative state of law (statutes, common law and administrative law) and a prerogative state governed by the Nazi party outside the bounds of the law. Importantly for Fraenkel, the prerogative state and the normative state did not have a symbiotic relationship; they were conceived as “competitive and not complementary parts of the German Reich.” Twenty years later the term was used by Hans Morgenthau in his The Decline of Democratic Politics, where he claimed the US state was split between a “regular state hierarchy” and a “security hierarchy.” The security hierarchy, he claimed, “not only acts in parallel to the regular state hiearchy but also monitors and exerts control over it.” Morgenthau goes as far as to claim that the security hierarchy is able to “exert an effective veto over the decisions” of the regular state hierarchy. Unlike in Fraenkel’s theorization, these two states had a symbiotic relationship, as the democratic state legitimized the politics of security while the security hierarchy limited the range of democratic politics.

Recently, this conception has been pushed forcefully and provocatively by a loose grouping of theorists published in two academic volumes of texts on “parapolitics.” Parapolitics is defined by Robert Cribb as the study of “systemic clandestinity” or “the study of criminal sovereignty, of criminals behaving as sovereigns and sovereigns behaving as criminals in a systematic way.” The term has only emerged in scholarly literature very recently, in the early nineties, and also amongst what are pejoratively referred to as conspiracy theorists. Parapolitical research focuses not merely on the activities and crimes of clandestine and criminal groups like security services, cartels, terrorist organizations, secret societies, and cabals, but primarily on the systemic roles played by such actors. If traditional political science looks at the “overt politics of the public state, so parapolitics as a field studies the relationships between the public state and the political processes and arrangements outside and beyond conventional politics,” claims Eric Wilson.

Like Glennon, the parapolitical theories formulate a theory of bifurcated government: a dual state divided between a democratic state and a deep state. The broad strokes are very similar to the theory of double government, with the exception that dual state theorists often paint the national security network as being considerably more sinister and lawless than Glennon. In a sense, parapolitical theorists see a vision of the order that Glennon sees emerging if the Trumanite network is not contained, although they see it as already existing within the current liberal order.

Because of the issues they inevitable end of dealing with, parapolitical theorists often feel the need to differentiate their work from what might be denigrated as conspiracy theory. For Peter Dale Scott, who is credited with creating the term, parapolitics sees conspiracies as being part of the political structure and not as exceptions – things like the employment/utilisation of mobsters, terrorists, death squads, or drug traffickers in foreign (or domestic for that matter) affairs are not framed in terms of corruption, but governance. These structures are “neither ‘parasitic’ nor ‘deviant,’ but functionally central to the routine operation of global governance and private authority.” The key difference between parapolitics and conspiracy theory, according to Scott, is that “[s]cholars of parapolitics are united in asserting that parapolitics is not simply a collection of strange tales from the margins of politics which serve only to mark out the extreme limits of human behavior. That is to say, parapolitics does not blame rogue elements or evil genius. Rather it exams global political, social and economic structures to identify those features which permit or encourage the growth and maintenance of parapolitics.” Most conspiracy theory sees a given conspiracy as a criminal aberration that must be solved and whose masterminds must be brought to justice, so that normal functioning democracy can be restored. A position that often shrouds structural antagonisms, and structural critique as a whole, and instead conceives of the conspiracy as an infection to be expelled from the social body.

For all of their similarities, the main, and for the most part latent, difference between the double government and dual state theses seems to be that for Glennon, the consequences of the Trumanite network do not seem to extend beyond the realm of national security, while for the dual state theorists, the deep state has become so central in Western democracies that it has become the actual locus of real political power. As Ola Tunander writes, “In the final analysis, it is the deep state that is the state structure that decides when and when not to use illegal measures to keep order.” Referencing Fraenkel’s contemporary Carl Schmitt, particularly his conception of the sovereign as he who decides on the state of exception, the theorists of the dual state claim that the deep state has become the sovereign, as it is “the entity that is able to establish order and the rule of law through operations outside the law.” Tunander stresses that the deep state, as sovereign, “is able not to just limit the range of the democratic discourse but also to manipulate or ‘fine tune’ such discourse.”

This begs a three-part question: 1) does the Trumanite network or deep state impact democratic life in the United States outside of the confines of national security concerns, 2) without being subject to democratic controls, and 3) in a similar way to, for example, Italy in the 1970s? Even if one takes the position that the national security network in its current configuration is completely necessary to counter contemporary threats from states and non-state actors, the answer to the first two is surely yes, especially if one considers the question broadly. To take two simple examples, the Snowden revelations about NSA surveillance and the sheer amount of tax dollars going to the national security network both impact democratic life in this country, going beyond the confines of what one normally thinks of national security concerns. To go back to the recent past, the FBI was carrying out COINTELPRO and the NSA Project MINARET, both purportedly to maintain political stability. One might also consider things like the militarization of municipal police forces over the past decades; projects like the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative, a complex surveillance system featuring mobile roadblocks guarding Wall Street from attack; or the state’s evocation of the state secrets privilege to dismiss claims of simple negligence. If one were to go farther, and perhaps enter the realm of what might be considered the lunatic fringe, one might consider examples of alleged false flag terrorism within the United States (everything from 9/11 and the anthrax attacks to the JFK assassination) or Gary Webb’s dark alliance between the contras, the CIA, and inner-city crack dealers.

Of course this puts one on shaky epistemological grounds, but in a sense, this is inevitable because of the nature of the subject. As Daniele Ganser writes, when studying the deep state “only fragments can be collected and ordered into a narrative of limited coherence, which can only offer glimpses into the abyss of deceit and manipulation. Noble as it might be, the aim to penetrate and illuminate the world of parallel structures and secret warfare still has a long way to go, as most universities do not even teach and research the secret side of international politics as a field of inquiry.” Also, one must consider the possibility that it is hard to come up with demonstrable instances in which the deep state has interfered with democratic politics in the United States simply because it no longer has to, and arguably hasn’t for some time. As Glennon demonstrates, the national security network almost always gets its way, so it rarely has to exercise its “veto power.”

Trevor Plagen’s body of work investigating the contours of the deep state frames and illustrates many of these concerns. This work – which comprises photo series, installations, critical travelogues and political commentary – is an incursion into the more secretive reaches of the ‘dark world’, the covert geography of empire sometimes hiding in plain sight. His exploration of this world and its accompanying juridical vacuum doesn’t just lead Paglen to remote desert locations in which the national security state has hived itself off from the everyday lives of most citizens and denizens. These are of course included, but beyond the sweltering expanses of the Nevada desert and the carceral dungeons on the outskirts of Kabul, Paglen’s investigation takes him to sites like the geography department at the University of California, Berkeley (where he carried out his own doctoral research), corporate parks in northern Virginia and hotel conferences rooms in New Mexico. What transpires from this interlinked series of inquiries is the deep state’s ‘relational geography’.

Paglen’s photo series, The Other Night Sky, captures classified reconnaissance satellites by taking long exposures of the nocturnal heavens, while in Limit Telephotography he employs photographic equipment designed for capturing astronomical imagery to ‘access’ secret military installations at great distances. Vastness and indeterminacy connect both series, and one has to take the artist’s word that one is in fact looking at a spy satellite and not merely an ordinary communications satellite,; at a secret military installation and not merely a remote airport hanger. The banality of appearances is one of the abiding cognitive and political leitmotivs of this work.

KEYHOLE IMPROVED CRYSTAL from Glacier Point (Optical Reconnaissance Satellite; USA 224) 2011
In I Could Tell You but Then You Would Have to Be Destroyed by Me (2007), Paglen presents a collection of patches connected to various ‘black world’ projects – incongruous hieroglyphs of covert action, featuring, for example, an image of a topless woman riding a killer whale with the words ‘Rodeo Gal’ stitched onto the patch, worn by flight crews involved in testing a classified cruise missile prototype. The distance in this work is not as literal as in Paglen’s photography, but the viewer is yet again compelled to put a great trust in the veracity of the artist’s revelations. Here too a layer of mystery cloaks the images, intensified by the thrilling notion that one is perhaps viewing sensitive, classified information.

More recent work from 2014 asks “What does a surveillance state look like?” and shows the offices of three of the largest agencies in the US intelligence committee: the National Security Agency (NSA),  The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA – geospatial intelligence), and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO – in charge of satellites). His stated purpose with the photos is “to expand the visual vocabulary we use to “see” the U.S. intelligence community,” and to take a network whose organizing logic is invisibility and secrecy and frame its operations in the actual physical world. As he writes, “Digital surveillance programs require concrete data centers; intelligence agencies are based in real buildings; surveillance systems ultimately consist of technologies, people, and the vast network of material resources that supports them. If we look in the right places at the right times, we can begin to glimpse America’s vast intelligence infrastructure.” The Brecht quote that Alberto cited earlier, that ‘a photograph of the Krupp factory or of AEG says almost nothing about these institutions’, is interesting to consider in this context. Also interesting is the reluctance of these agencies to be represented in the most straightforward sense: Paglen notes that the only image of the NSA used by the press following the Snowden revelations was this photograph from what seems to be the 1970s supplied by the agency.


In intimating, through its artefacts and traces, the reality of an unimaginably vast and largely inaccessible universe of secrecy and domination, the knowledge of which seems as essential for any understanding of contemporary power, just as it remains restricted in its totality for anyone without the highest levels of security clearance, these works engage our epistemological drive. As Gail Day and Steve Edwards write, Paglen’s ‘photographs are just one element in a process of tracking and location. They are traces, put into the public domain, of power structures that otherwise remain invisible. If Paglen does not provide us with an actual map or diagram, his work nonetheless offers cognitive maps that reveal hidden facilities of the secret state’.113 Paglen’s attention to geographic materiality, to the production of space that accompanies the proliferation of secrecy, arguably allows him to attain a degree of definition which is lacking in the purely diagrammatic trajectories of an artist like Mark Lombardi, for example.

lombardi Bush and Harkan Energy

As mentioned above, be it geographically or economically, the secret state delineated by Paglen is immense – its ‘sublimity’, to borrow from Kant, is both mathematical and dynamic.  While Wikileaks has provided us with a vast moving archive of the covert communicational networks through which US imperialism threads itself, and the Snowden revelations with a sense of the stupefying scale of transactions mined by the security state, the geographical blueprint of secrecy is more difficult to quantify116 – the immense classified spaces of the US South West, dispossessed from their indigenous inhabitants, shading over into a very heterogeneous series of sites within and without the United States, from business parks in which CIA shell companies are allegedly located to the torture dungeons to which the victims of extraordinary rendition are dispatched.117  Paglen’s photos of these sites too bring to mind the Brecht quote from earlier.

In its full span, Paglen’s work brings into relief the epistemological boundaries that stand in the way of any investigation into the deep state or the dark geography of the ‘war on terror’, whether it be those of political scientists, parapolitical researchers, journalists, artists, or concerned citizens (even, for that matter, our elected officials and appointed judges). This is dramatized in an illuminating passage in his critical travelogue Blank Spots on the Map, where Paglen goes through the Department of Defense’s public budget from the 2008 fiscal year. As fat as a phonebook, the budget contains line items for sundry projects. Many programmes include descriptions, but alongside banal expenses like latrines and postage, we find entries like Chalk Eagle, allocated $352 million for 2009 but unaccompanied by any programme description. Beyond this lie another class of programmes, with names like Cobra Ball and Forest Green, that don’t even have their budgets listed, while at the extreme end we find (or rather don’t) programmes whose names or expenses are not revealed and are only listed as ‘Special Program’ or ‘Special Activities’. By adding up all the line items and comparing the result – $64 billion – with the overall Department of Defense budget – just under $80 billion – one can roughly figure out how much was spent on these completely secret projects. This $16 billion is only a part of the overall black budget, however; Paglen claims that it was around $34 billion for the 2009 fiscal year.

9-Paglen Code Names

Yet again attending to the overlap between militarism and political economy, Paglen acknowledges his literal inability to ‘follow the money’, along with the inevitable incompleteness of any investigation into the deep state: ‘I must confess that when I began this project, I was seduced by blank spots on maps, by the promise of hidden knowledge that they seemed to contain. It was easy to imagine that if I could just find one more code name, if I only knew what the HAVE PANTHER project was … somehow the world itself would change for the better’.122 As he concludes, however, this is not enough. Detection and discovery fall short. Simply revealing even some of the details of these classified projects is a complex and time-consuming task – getting the state to acknowledge their existence is even more difficult. While exposure makes for important political (and aesthetic) work, it has to be linked to systemic concerns if is not going to be reduced to a mere cataloguing of the black world – an activity which, like that of the satellite-spotters whom Paglen enlists to such effect in his work, has its own downside, with its libidinal investment in infinite registering, itemising, classifying, in the desperate attempt to leave no hole in knowledge. The power of this kind of work is to be sought in the interplay between, on the one hand, the strategies through which visual and documentary form is given to the refractory geography of covertness, and, on the other, the awareness of limits that are simultaneously political and cognitive. Paglen is able to shed a refracted light on many of the dark corners of this world, but the map that emerges is inevitably incomplete. Their contours can be grasped, but the blank spots are not completely filled in. In fact, to raise another point made in a slightly different context by Alberto, we should perhaps not speak of a map at all. The scalar, material and subjective complexities of the geographies explored in Paglen’s visual and written works, and the intricacy of their visual and textual mediations, mean that the deep state which emerges in relief through these inquiries far exceeds the limited capacities of cartography proper.

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COTA Revisited – From the Invisibility of Industry to the Industries of Invisibility (PART I)

[This is the first part of the transcript of the talk we delivered at Gallery 400 in Chicago. Many thanks to Beate Geissler, Oliver Sann, and Anthony Stepter for the logistics and hospitality, and to the audience, including Brian Holmes, Claire Pentecost and Blake Stimson for the excellent discussion.]

Image: Simon Norfolk. "BlueGene/L, the world's biggest computer, at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, California, USA. It is the size of 132,000 PCs.]

Image: Simon Norfolk. “BlueGene/L, the world’s biggest computer, at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, California, USA. It is the size of 132,000 PCs.

Preliminary remarks

Cartographies of the Absolute started out from a shared recognition that contemporary cinema, arts and letters were increasingly populated by projects and works that explicitly thematised the processes, relations and crises of capitalism. We took Fredric Jameson’s anticipatory and schematic pronouncements on ‘cognitive mapping’, first voiced in the mid-eighties, as a rather portable if philosophically-charged theoretical module through which to organise a cumulative, extremely partial and necessarily digressive survey of such works. The speculative hyperbole of the title should be taken with a pinch of irony, especially in view of the truncated, mystifying, regressive or anachronistic nature of many of our specimens and exhibits – but it should also ring with a certain earnestness, the assertion that, contra facile pleas for networked thought and multiplicity, or pious sermonising about the incommensurable and the unrepresentable, the aesthetic and political drive to totalise is a vital one, not least because of the way in which it makes multiplicity, incompleteness, alterity and the limits of representation determinate. In retrospect, as at least for me was brought home by the viewing of Isaac Julien’s installation Playtime, which came at the conclusion of the book’s composition, but which, likely quite illegitimately, I took as the terminus of a certain sequence of explicit thematisations (visual and narrative) of capital and crisis.

"PLAYTIME," installation view, 2013. Metro Pictures, New York.

“PLAYTIME,” installation view, 2013. Metro Pictures, New York.

The abiding aspects of the book, the ones that serve as working insights, problems laden with further possibilities for inquiry, lie somewhat laterally to the problem of totalisation as such – a problem which is itself more satisfactorily approached from a directly conceptual vantage, be it in the study of capital’s forms in the critique of political economy or through its dialectical figures in Hegel or Sartre. They are to be sought, for instance, in the counterpoints we staged between the aesthetics of economy of contemporary arts and letters and the socialist problem of planning and transparency, or between the representations of the racial and political crises of US urban space in the 70s and today, or in the unique problem of England’s industrial decline, or in the perceptual and political problems posed by logistical landscapes. In keeping with the cumulative approach that oversaw the book’s composition, and not to repeat what we’ve already set out in the book, this presentation will, so to speak, add two further sections to the book, post facto.

In Part I, I want to revisit some of the methodological questions raised by the book, namely the contrast between a direct aesthetic thematisation of capitalism (films, novels, photographs, art directly ‘about’ this mode of production, indexically representing its social and economic object) and those works that mediate capitalism and its forms, or which indeed refuse the whole mimetic challenge altogether. We could put this in two interlinked ways: Could it be that art ‘about’ capitalism serves as a screen blocking its experience and understanding? Might the aesthetico-political project of orientation called for by ‘cognitive mapping’ be at odds with the aesthetico-economic one of mapping capitalism: perceptual ‘knowledge’ of the system not a precondition but an obstacle to action, a diversion? I want to explore these questions through a debate which occupied Italian literary criticism in the early 1960s over ‘industry and literature’, not just for its intrinsic interest, but because the positions that it delineated remain instructive today. In this way, more nuance and precision may be lent to the contentious notion of ‘representing capital’. In Part II, Jeff will then pick up on a distinct, but hopefully not unrelated, question that Cartographies had left open, namely that of the relation between representations of capital and representations of the state (or of political power) as dramatised in the figures through which we try to capture and understand the pervasive presence of a ‘dual state’, of a ‘national’ security apparatus whose political and technological dimensions give a different twist to the question of the invisibility or opacity of social and political relations considered in Part I.

Part I


In 1961, the literary journal Il menabò (the title refers to the technical term for a designer’s dummy, to indicate the vision of the journal as a testing ground), edited by Elio Vittorini and Italo Calvino, devoted an issue of essays, stories and poems to the question ‘industry and literature’. For the next three years or so, the debate would occupy many of the finest critical minds of the Italian left, resonating with multiple efforts to forge languages adequate to the galloping and contradictory modernisation that marked Italy’s so-called ‘economic miracle’, in a context marked by the powerful presence of the Italian Communist Party, a renascence of class struggles and the gestation of the New Left. The destabilisation of the nostrums of socialist realism Italian-style, but also of the official ‘Gramscian’ image of the organic intellectual, along with the unique participation of writers and critics in the lives of industry (especially under the wing of the enlightened industrialist Adriano Olivetti, who enlisted the novelists and poets Paolo Volponi, Ottiero Ottieri and Franco Fortini in important positions within his company), created a unique climate of discussion, which mingled emergent revolutionary aspirations with what to many now appears in retrospect as the last waltz of reformism.

Adriano Olivetti in his factory.

Adriano Olivetti in his factory.

Bracketing the genealogy and nuances of this debate, I want to touch on some of the theses and positions it spawned, in the conviction they may provide some orientation around contemporary discussions on the representation and representability of capitalism, as well as make us historically sensitive to what questions could be asked of art and artists then which cannot be posed now in the same way – in the main because of the particular moment of capitalist accumulation in which that debate emerged: upward impetus, organised class antagonism, a residual persistence of the peasantry and the lived experience of geographical and temporal unevenness. The fourth issue of Il menabò, opens, after an intense poem by Vittorio Sereni on a ‘factory visit’, which dramatises the poet’s separation from the worker’s own separation, with a polemical essay by Vittorini, setting out the programmatic coordinates of the debate. Vittorini’s is in many ways an indictment of the formal backwardness of Italian letters, whose ‘visits to the factory’ (this was a genre, often promoted by industrialists themselves, quite present in the Italian postwar period) did not generate a novelty in representation, a novelty in language to match the novelty of the ‘new things’ of industry. Like the nineteenth century naturalists which in many ways they follow, for Vittorini the vast majority of Italian writers, irrespective of their political militancy, approach industry through the model of their experience and narration of pre-industrial, or natural objects. New industrial objects, or even processes, may be added to the inventory of legitimate aesthetic objects, the factory may be entered to find a new ‘slice of life’, an ‘iconography’ of the factory and of factory work may be generated, but ‘industry’ is never truly confronted as a new level of human reality: its objects are ‘sub-objects’, most often bathed in a humanist recrimination which sees them as a threat to the writer’s habitus of perception; the relation to the new things of industry is ideologically, which is to say moralistically, mediated; industry is not experienced as such but already through the symbols into which it has been transcribed by ideology (be it romantic, technocratic, Marxist, or what have you).

Elio Vittorini

Elio Vittorini

As Vittorini writes, the ‘writer speaks in a language of symbols for everything that concerns the new things and instead a language of things (even if now old and illegitimate, which is to say pseudo-concrete) for everything that concerns the old things of the pre-industrial world, which we all continue to see with the eyes of our fathers and grandfathers as though industry, investing them with its rhythms, had not modified them’. In a formalist inversion which could be transposed into the present, for Vittorini there was more fidelity to the novelty of industry (of industrial communication and perception, of the machine and the relations it articulates) in the language of the nouveau roman than in the seemingly more up-to-date literature of the factory which is ‘old’ in its rhetoric, its way of seeing, its way of observing, its way of being. What discriminates between a literature capable of enduring the challenge of industry, in its linguistic forms more than its thematic contents, is, in a way, its systematicity – that what we are dealing with, as Vittorini’s collaborators Leonetti and Calvino put it, is a ‘new technical epoch’ or ‘a global historical experience put into motion by industry’. What matters is not the writer’s relation to the industrial ‘thing’ itself but to the mutation which this thing, industry, effects in all kinds of other things, or, as a recent essay on Vittorini puts it, with a Jamesonian resonance, in the way that ‘the factory and industry are redrawing the cognitive maps and threaten to reduce not just literature to the irrelevance of an outdated language’. Totalisation is understood by Vittorini in terms of a system of effects. As he writes: ‘The meanings of a reality depend on the infinite effects that are produced in it by a certain cause. … And industrial reality can draw its meanings from the world of the effects put into motion by means of factories’. Thus while it is formally (and politically) imperative for literature critically to adapt itself to this new industrial world, it is ultimately indifferent whether it visits the factory or not. Underlying Vittorini’s emphasis on the ‘new things’ of industry is a vague but emphatic demand for a thoroughgoing emendation of literary language, which must allow itself to be transformed by, to adapt to the linguistic mutations effected by industry, to the changes in communication and media that fan out from the factory into the crevices of everyday life, the interstices of the individual psyche. In the interpretation of his collaborator Gianni Scalia, who sees industry as a totalised notion, ‘a constitutively structural and ideological, economic and existential [signifying] complex’ this demands that literature leave behind both iconography and ideology, that it allow itself to register (but not necessarily represent) the anthropological mutation that is industry (this was the same period that would elicit Pasolini’s threnodies on ‘anthropological genocide’).

This involves immersing itself in alienation against alienation, giving voice, as Scalia puts it, to the ‘aphasia of incommunicability’, to the dissociation, absence of finality and project, and apparent meaninglessness of this process without a subject that is industry – not by sublimating it but by generating a ‘dramatic and positive knowledge’ of the new things, which, unlike in Vittorini, here requires a real comprehension of the new languages and objects of industry. This immersion into the potentially nihilistic totality of industry is a first step in a programmatic and proto-political vision of literature (present but more implicit in Vittorini), stated in rather world-historical terms by Scalia: ‘The material “conditions” of industry, as objective and necessary conditions of the development from nature to industry, have been transformed into conditions of projectability and programmability of nature into industry, of identification of nature and industry’. To speak anachronistically Scalia is proposing a reform of literature into the instrument of a political anthropology for the Anthropocene, for a moment beyond the opposition between nature and industry – an opposition or unevenness he notes as a precondition of classical revolutionary thought. As he puts it the task of the writer is the common task of ‘constructing a trans-industrial anthropology that will know, comprehend and transform industrial industry into human industry’. What is striking in Vittorini and Scalia’s positions, as in those of other contributors to the debate, is that in this discussion of the representability and effects of industry the problem of politics, of power, is posed in a sense as external to industry (itself referred to by one of the participants in the debate as ‘the power of powers’) – as a problem of control or direction provided to an epochal process which is itself politically under-determined, a question of socialising this super-human process (the orientation of all participants in the debate being generically ‘progressive’). The editorial line of Il menabò, to the extent that there is one, moves beyond the problem of the representability of the factory and of labour – the one that had preoccupied writers like Ottiero Ottieri, whose ‘Industrial Notebook’, published in the same issue, revolves around this problem (those outside the factory don’t know, those inside don’t speak) – to that of its systemic effects on language and representability, to industry not as an object but as an epoch and a condition.

Franco Fortini at a demonstration.

Franco Fortini at a demonstration.

It is at the systemic level, but via a notion of system charged by a dialectical negativity alien to Il menabò‘s vision of history, that Vittorini and his collaborators meet their strongest challenge, articulated in the article ‘Cunning as Doves’, by Franco Fortini – an article whose arguments on the representability of capital in many ways overlap with the problems we sought to pose in Cartographies. Fortini, in many ways recasting Brecht’s oft-quoted observation, borrowed from Fritz Sternberg, that ‘a photograph of the Krupp factory or of AEG says almost nothing about these institutions’, questioned the aesthetic coherence and political relevance of the then (and once again now) widespread demand for representations of capitalism. Fortini argued for a ‘prophetic’ rather than a cognitive-informative role for the artwork (as opposed to criticism). To those who called for a literature of neo-capitalism, he retorted that art and literature’s ‘cognitive power’ [potere di conoscenza] was to be located not in its occasion or pretext (again, unlike criticism), but in its form: ‘It is art’s last word’, he wrote, ‘not its first, to also be history, psychology, philosophy and politics. We must deny with all our force the false progressivism according to which industrial reality, in its moment of production or consumption, should find literary expression because it is “important”.’ Accordingly, ‘industry is not a theme, it is the manifestation of the theme called capitalism’. Consequently:

it becomes ever more difficult to speak today of an industrial truth as distinct from the general truth of society. In the final analysis, ‘sociological consciousness’ should lead one to conclude that one speaks about industry when speaking about any other thing and that the difficulty of speaking about it differs in no way from the difficulty that one encounters if one really wishes to speak of something true. The mystery of political economy, which Marx had already treated, is today (via the full triumph of industry in society and its imminent or already attained coincidence with the state) the very mystery of our life, the ‘essence’ that lies beneath the ‘phenomenon’.

Against the modernizing aim to enact a kind of aggiornamento, and incorporate industrial production into the domain of culture and art, Fortini suggests that this supposed thematization of industry serves to disavow capitalism as a ‘social unconscious’. In this regard, Fortini indicates the insufficient totalisation that the very name of ‘industry’ as opposed to ‘capital’ entails. A superficial kinship with Vittorini’s arguments against ‘factory literature’ and for a totalising conception of the ‘new things’ hides a very different conception of the relation between social form and literary form, and accordingly of the ‘tasks’ of literature and art. With his characteristic scorn for the mealy-mouthed illusions of gradualism, he identifies the enemy in this debate as the ‘vulgarity of Generalized and Reformist Progressivism’.


The capitalist subsumption of culture and politics means that turning to the dynamics of production, discipline, struggle or the division of labor in the factory can easily divert critical attention from the totalizing presence of the capital-relation in what, following Mario Tronti, Fortini calls the social factory:

How is it possible to speak about industry and literature without agreeing at least on this (but it’s almost everything): that the forms, manners, and times of industrial production and its relations are the very form of our social life, the historical container of all our content and not simply an aspect of reality? That economic structures – in our case, capitalist and therefore industrial structures – are nothing more and nothing less than the social unconscious, that is the true unconscious, the mystery of mysteries?

Fortini would draw from these reflections some important consequences for his poetics, and for the possibility of forging literary forms capable not of mediating or representing capital but of prefiguring, without the illusions of an affirmation, the transformations of our formative capacities under communism (we can note that this shift from narrative to poetry as a site for thinking and mediating capital and crisis has been proposed again today, for instance in the critical and poetic work of Joshua Clover). While wilfully missing this crucial dimension of Fortini’s work, Italo Calvino’s intervention into the debate ‘The Challenge of the Labyrinth’, which castigated Fortini for a kind of purist, nihilistic asceticism, is worth noting at least for its proposal of a diagonal path to the alternative that he saw posed in the arguments of Vittorini and Scalia, namely the alternative between representing the new world of industry, on the one hand, and engaged in a formal-conceptual mimesis of industrial reality and language, on the other (this second path being largely that of the neo-avant-gardes of the 1960s, with their anti-moral acceptance of the ambiguity of the ‘new things’). Calvino, whose partisanship for ‘multiplicity’ would be the object of a bracing correspondence with his friend Fortini, here tried to defend the cognitive powers of literature in terms of a different, non-Hegelian conception of totalisation, one which he saw dramatised in the writings of Borges or Gadda, which did not deny partisanship but which recoiled from treating either industry or capital as a whole, in a far more tentative vision of the ‘new things’ than either Vittorini and Scalia’s demand for a linguistic and anthropological updating, or Fortini’s Marxian observance.

Before passing on to Jeff, I want to quickly draw some fragmentary conclusions from this discussion.

First, we could argue that in terms of our approach to literary and artistic criticisms the terms of the debate remain largely germane. The demand for direct representations and figurations of industry, labour or capital persists, albeit in a different conjuncture, and may still be met by the objection that its treatment of individual appearances according to outdated canons of realism can miss the systematic essence of the phenomenon, missing the real abstractions of capital through the fascination of its seemingly concrete appearances.

Second, and relatedly, Fortini’s juxtaposition of industry to capital remains pertinent if we wish to think critically about the art and literature that today focuses on or thematises capitalism. As he argued: ‘The writer who I’m talking about, precisely because he knows what industry is, knows that speaking about it is like speaking of his deepest self, and that therefore only a long chain of metaphors can risk that discourse. I don’t think it is either necessary or useful to establish a direct relationship between the knowledge-for-action needed by any action that wishes to be revolutionary – and thus which wishes to be or claims to be scientific knowledge – and the particular consciousness (of the industrial world) that we can get from literature’.

Third, and this can perhaps best be dramatised in the contrast between Fortini and Calvino, the question remains with us of the extent to which the tasks of literature are indeed cognitive ones. Fortini himself, an admirer of Brecht’s Threepenny Novel and Thomas Mann’s novels, as well as a defender of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, certainly did not scant the cognition, indeed the mapping of the real. But there is a definite sense in essays like ‘Cunning as Doves’ that he perceived the present as one in which art’s cognitive functions were far less significant than its negative and formative ones. Contrariwise, Calvino’s invocation of the labyrinth suggests a world still very imperfectly known, and the need to dramatise, often playfully, the experience of knowing.


Here I’d like to make a comment that can perhaps open onto Jeff’s part of the talk: when the question of contemporary capitalism is posed in contemporary literature in a more than anecdotal or scenographic way, it is often as a drama or an intrigue of cognition, in what is often a more or less conscious mimesis or repetition of the postmodern debates on representation. I am thinking here, for instance, of the limousine-as-financial-monad in De Lillo’s Cosmopolis with its inventory of figures of knowing and unknowing, its schematic allegory of the problem of cognitive mapping, or of Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island with its corporate anthropologist incessantly indicating a problem of totalising representation in an almost deflationary way, the protagonist’s ‘Great Report’ a cipher for a desire strangely shared by novelist, academic and capitalist entrepreneur alike. Both novels, like many of the works we encountered in Cartographies, end up mobilising their speculative theme with potentially criminal intrigues or moments of perplexing violence. Totality draws its life from conspiracy, from intrigue; capital meshes itself with the state, with parallel states, dual states, states within states. The juxtaposition of ‘industry and literature’ to communist poetics in the social factory did not really survive the sixties in Italy, the crumbling of the economic miracle putting paid to reformist dreams, the impasses of the revolutionary left to the formal promise of negation. The labyrinths grew more menacing, their convolutions more a matter of delirium and degradation than of patient rational forensics. Neither cartography nor the absolute fared very well in these transformations, as we can see in the lucid pessimism of Sciascia’s neo-noirs, where the mesh of political covertness and economic violence ravages any detective epistemology, or in Paolo Volponi’s novel The Flies of Capital, which closes the cycle of industrial novels in a grotesque fresco where the mimesis of the language of industry runs amuck (even the ficus plants and chairs of the corporation speak with the servile ambition of its employees) and the protagonist’s desire to map the world of industry, itself emblematic of the declared impossibility of either adequately describing or truly narrating industry and capital comes up against, the hideous mesh of capital and state, of which the once reformist panacea of industry turns out to be the degraded name.

Paolo Volponi at Olivetti

Paolo Volponi at Olivetti

As Fortini wrote, in a 1989 review of his friend’s final novel: ‘The “fake speaking” of Volponi’s characters is the allegory of an unreality. … It is the unreality-effect that Capital induces when it pretends to be the Thing-in-Itself. Those CEOs in the novel, speak incessantly, make projects, rival one another; there follow infinitesimal or perhaps catastrophic mutations for individuals and groups but one has the impression and finally the certainty that the real levers move elsewhere, it is not clear by whom, probably by ratings on the Stock Market’.

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