May 2014

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Cult Stud

The Unread "The Unseen"

In 1977, all hell was breaking loose in Italy. A financial crisis that wouldn't ease led to high rates of unemployment. Leftists were disillusioned when the communist party aligned itself with the centrist Social Democrats, whom they had competed with for many years. The concession led to a movement that would be known as the Autonomism. Not communist or Leninist, the Autonomists were a group of students, workers and activists that rather than fight the system decided to subvert it. Much that we've come to associate with what they used to call "gutter punks" seems to have arisen around then, in the sizzling political vat of Bologna, Palermo, and Milan. Things went even more ape shit when a year later the communist guerrilla group the Red Brigades kidnapped and then killed the acting Italian prime minister, Aldo Moro.

This is not fiction. This is history. And yet when Verso republished The Unseen by Nanni Balestrini in 2012, it hardly made a sound. Was the highly acclaimed publisher of nearly every important book of social theory off the mark? Highly unlikely. Nanni Balestrini is the author of several books, including Sandokan and Tristano; he was a member of the Gruppo 63, often referred to Neovanguardia, whose most famous member is probably Umberto Eco. His works in the '60s and '70s, which include the novel here in review, subvert literary norms often using writing as a kind of technology for liberation.

The Unseen is a damning work of protest in the form of experimental fiction -- that is, if ignoring capitalization and punctuation still qualify as experimental. Like the moment in history it depicts, the novel quickly moves from organizing resistance to improving factory and prison conditions. In the pulpy sense, it's riots, mob fights and jail. While it's difficult to lose sight of the novel's political ends, they don't make the book's most raucous moments any less fun. In the same way genre fiction might tickle the senses, so this novel had me mentally pushing prison guards and tending to my would-be wounded "comrades."

Our hero, a young drifter in a neighborhood in Northern Italy filled with southern migrants, narrates the moment his life became politicized. It begins in high school. Students have teachers locking themselves away in classrooms, while they march as "comrades" out of the school together. In the end even the janitors run. The school is taken. Reading this description in English -- teachers hiding, principals leaving -- recalls the independent, isolated school shootings common in the United States recently. The difference of course is that these comrades aren't working alone nor are they armed. Their power derives from another kind of source: their solidarity. Balestrini further demonstrates this by narrating the book primarily in the plural first person. It is only later in the novel that the protagonist and narrator emerge from the camouflaging "we" of the multitudes. The sentences too seem to express solidarity with each other, while the reader looks for the next break in time for an eye-rest.

About a quarter into the novel, the protagonist and his crew are arrested and spend the remainder of the novel working out ways to escape. After a successful attempt, they start a pirate radio station. This might have been based on the real Radio Onda Rossa in Rome, set up in a squat. These were illegal radio stations or unofficial radio stations. Before the Internet, constant communication wasn't so simple. Maybe the pirate radio station is comparable to websites that offer open free downloading, like the former Megaupload.

Next thing you know, they're back in prison. To get some respite from the misery of the dank prison, inmates do things like "numbing the finger with the gas from a lighter and then sticking it in the neck of a Coca Cola bottle you take the bottle in your hand and you twist it back in one clean movement that way the finger breaks and it doesn't hurt then you go to the doctor and you get time off." Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

The Unseen can be read many ways: a besot condemnation of institutions; the primal shout (or howl) of a forgotten movement; the beginning of a rift between the labor movements and labor dynamics. Either way, Ballestrini makes it clear the end is not good.

Semiotext(e)'s Autonomia: Post-Political Politics functions as a great companion to the novel. Half art book, half anthology of political essays, and half history, I've owned nothing like it. While reading it I was afraid I'd wrinkle a glossy page, or smudge the matte black cover (which I ended up doing anyway). Sylvère Lotringer decided to re-publish this magazine from 1980 in book form recently. The writers anthologized include Gilles Deleuze, Dario Fo, Paul Virilio, Toni Negri, and Paolo Virno. In his essay "The Anatomy of Autonomy," "Bifo" seems to write in exposition what Ballestrini tries to narrate in The Unseen: "The rejection of family and of individualism had found a form of organization in the experience of the proletarian youth associations." As in The Unseen, subjectivities like the individual and the family are replaced with youth groups. And they live as a "we" until they are broken.

As a FIAT worker says in one essay from collection, the strength of the Autonomists derived from their ability to organize under banners that often masked or reconfigured class differences. Their opposition created new subjectivities. Students were united with factory workers. Feminists with anarchists. Like Enrique Laclau and Chantal Mouffe's model of political change, subjects of different political interests unite at one particular moment to a create a new constellation. This sketch of dissidence and unrest from The Unseen demonstrates exactly that:

the evenings are high-spirited lively noisy with our sounds shout songs music they're made colourful by our jackets scarves skirts hats the walls are one long stretch of graffiti drawings writing all muddled together all with slogans on top of the other against the bosses against sweated labor against all work against the ghettos against the clergy against the mayor against the trade unions against the parties against the city council against the men against heroin against fascists against cops against judges against the state against poverty against repression against prison against the family against school against sacrifices against boredom...

Maybe some of the novel's power derives from its authenticity; this is Nanni Balestrini's own life we're discussing. It helps that it happens to be a moment that would reflect political struggles for years to come. This novel manages to at once surprise with an almost utopian flavor and never part from what we know was once reality, and is now history. Its resonance with today's complex and heterogeneous social uprisings make it relevant.