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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