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The torture machines: poetic space and the urgency of non-work

In 1977 the autonomist collective A/Traverso were violently arrested by the Italian state. While the majority of their literature was lost or destroyed, fragments remain that provide vital context to democratic struggles in Europe today.

Jamie Mackay
10 May 2013

It is 23:15 on 12 March 1977 at the headquarters of Radio Alice, one of the primary communication hubs of the autonomist network in northern Italy and centre of the movement’s free radio campaign. A broadcast is in progress, live from the cramped windowless rooms of Bologna’s university district. On the previous day Franceso Lorusso, an activist with the group Lotta Continua, was shot dead by the police. Sirens are just perceptible through the crackly audio of the dank transmission. Several panicked voices debate in the background to the metallic groan of moving furniture. They are constructing a barricade. “The police are at the door!” shouts one of them, audibly terrified as the melee approaches closer to the microphone. “The situation is stable”, interjects Alice’s presenter, a little too quickly, before calmly adding the incredulous request: “all comrades who are listening and who know lawyers call them and tell them that we’re being sieged”.

The opening piano bars of a Beethoven concerto spurt awkwardly from the battered reels of magnetic tape. “A little music… I hope this is ok, if not, boh... I don’t know if I’ll be sleeping tonight”. Moments later the broadcast is interrupted. The sound of a door splintering at the hinges. Violence reverberates from the hastily soundproofed walls as the caribinieri break the last defences of the rudimentary fortress: “They’ve entered, they’ve entered, they’re pointing machine guns at us… our hands are in the air, our hands are in the air they’re …”.

For the station’s organizers, the charges were obscenity. Others who were arrested in the subsequent wave of repression, including the writers Franco Piperno, Paolo Virno and Antonio Negri, were sentenced with conspiracy against the Italian Republic and assisted terrorism. For many, it was years before the initial charges were acquitted and public apologies made, by which time autonomia, as a meeting point of different identity struggles, had dissolved in the shock and shame following the divisive armed struggle of the Brigate Rosse. The initial targeting of a radio station that dealt primarily in poetry, social commentary, music, cooking, dating and yoga, remains incomprehensible to many.

Yet to a state paralyzed by the complex inequalities of its regions, riddled with political divisions and struggling to meet the conditions of an enticing program of American investment, the presence of a strong radical left was (and particularly for the ‘ex-fascists’ that continued to dominate Italian capitalism), a real threat to the economic blueprints for what would become known later as Post-Fordism. Many on the left – particularly among the nation’s active Leninist groups – were in favour of the government’s actions, interpreting the movement as an obstacle to labour solidarity. For some, the students were simply too middle class. In summarizing this disparate band of youth the court’s prosecutor eloquently described, with bilious poetry of his own, “a veritable mosaic made of different fragments, a gallery of overlapping images, of circles and collectives without any social organization”. This passionate evocation of a disparate and spectral threat was clearly intended as a historic defamation; a soundbite as shallowly hyperbolic as the version of autonomia that came to be remembered later. 

Of course, as the tactical arrest of the Radio Alice staff demonstrates, there were indeed quite clear centres of power and influence within the movement: the sophisticated planning of demonstrations within a language of jokes and riddles, that conventional political discourse, as well as the vast majority of the mainstream media, were unable and unwilling to recognize as such. The politics was nominally anti-hegemonic – rhizomatic - but its period of steady growth depended and succeeded due to the proliferation and interaction of local hubs, within which artistic cells played a key role. It is the central organising role of narrative and cultural intervention that this article seeks to remember. For many of those involved in this section of the movement, autonomia represented an attempt to reconcile the anti-authoritarian individualism of dominant forms of anarchism, with a form of collective living, in which the spontaneous co-operation of the working class (in its broadest sense) might take advantage of their power to ‘produce’ outside of capitalist control (work).

Certainly, it was anti-reform, viewing haggling with capitalism as a form of theft, and anti-party, rejecting such organizational configurations as being wedded to older notions of absolute sovereignty. While born in the universities, one of the most striking features of the movement was the extent to which, following the theories of Mario Tronti, it abandoned the conventional rules of class struggle in favour of a definition of a working, productive, class against a ruling minority. Artistic experimentation was vital to this stretching of the term, though the specific interventions conducted by the larger movement, are summarized in a jaw-dropping list in the English Semiotext(e) reader, which refers to the movement as being comprised: 

[...] almost equally of intellectuals and young workers and unemployed youth. Opposed to work ethics and hierarchy as much as exclusive ideological rigidity, they invented their own forms of social “war-fair” – pranks, squats, collective reappropriations (pilfering), self-reductions (rent, electricity, etc.), pirate radios, sign tinkering – extending the spirit of May ’68 over a broad social landscape.

This erratic collection of everyday disruptions and liberations reveals the obvious influence of the Situationist International and, as a cursory glance at Radio Alice’s playlist shows, the “unshaven rooms” of the American beat movement and its focus on spontaneity and improvisation. If these traits are linked by the search for the limits of ‘public space’, it is sufficient to summarise that the movement was led, in the words of Alan Ginsburg, by a generation “expelled from the academies for crazy and publishing obscene odes / on the windows of the skull”.In this sense, the autonomist struggle can be situated, along with its influences, as a challenge to the violent globalisation of capital and the society of the spectacle (and its ‘false’ versions of ‘the common’) as well as the increasing authoritarianism of orthodox socialist parties.

To these trans-national phenomena, however, can be added two specifically Italian political targets. Firstly, the conditions of the ‘historic compromise’ – ‘the betrayal’ - which saw the Italian Communist Party agree to a series of policy concessions demanded by its conservative opposition the Christian Democratic Party and its persistent reference to the anti-union groups as “comrades who do wrong”. In turn, autonomia must likewise be strongly differentiated from the official trade union movement, whose reformist ambitions and nepotistic management chains were, for the “new subjects”, jeapordising their potential democratic function.

Indeed, the short history of the origins of the movement can be attributed to a splinter faction of the anti-work group Potere Operaio (worker’s power), whose name, paradoxically, served to emphasise the dependence of capital on labour of all forms of human activity: from the factory worker’s 40 hour week to the full-time work of the housewife. With this development the movement focused not on the task of building a sentimental workers ‘pride’, a kind of neurotic Stakhanovite fervor, but the active withdrawal of this labour. From strikes and sabotages this movement’s activities expanded to encompass repossessions of machinery and violent demonstrations against both bosses and union leaders. 

While the network of local demonstrations facilitated by Radio Alice and others were key centres in organizing communication between the direct action movements, the wider community of writers and artists gathering around A/Traverso collective was one of the most important forces in moving questions of language, culture and communication from the periphery to the center of these struggles.

For the unschooled workforce involved in the factories, such as the protagonists of Nanni Balestrini’s novel The Unseen, the seizing of artistic autonomy was a new tool in the struggle against the bosses. Indeed one of the greatest achievements of the movement (lost in the Leninist caricature) was the multi-directional success of its deliberative educational strategies and the overall gains the resulting assemblage made in challenging the cultural hegemony of the capitalist classes. As many testimonies from the period show, it is thanks in large part to affiliated initiatives such as the street theatre collective The Metropolitan Indians, and the infinite smaller groups operating under this name and whose persecution has been forgotten, that the autonomia was able to grow by 1977 to the conservative estimate of 12,000 active members (an extraordinary figure which puts the individual gatherings of the Occupy movement in an important historical perspective).

Today’s crisis of the nominally institutional left, as laid out barely and in the spirit of Radio Alice on a recent Novara media broadcast, invites urgent, and cautious, comparisons for constructing and comprehending the continuity between their struggle and that of today’s ‘precariat’. In particular it is useful to remember the contradictions of a communist party that while proclaiming to speak for a labour movement, silenced its calls to control the workplace; that while declaring the importance of unity, abandoned the peasantry of Calabria and Basilicata in their struggle poverty and mafia rule; and while promising collective liberation and the redistribution of wealth agreed to co-operate with the Christian Democrats in order to preserve the party’s structure and the authority of its leadership.

In a climate of willful deception from the part of those in positions of political authority, autonomia was, and is, an example of hope, compassion, creativity and, most importantly, illuminates unexpected barriers to the task of claiming power from below. The fragmented poetry, that A/Traverso frequently used as a means of presenting their arguments has much to inform the complexities of this history, dealing as it does with the question of how to establish systems of value outside of the economic transaction. In his recent book The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, Franco “Bifo” Beradi focuses on the subversive potential of these arguments, in his own recent reflections on the form:

Poetry is the language of nonexchangability, the return of infinite hermeneutics, and the return of the sensuous body of language. I’m talking about poetry here as an excess of language, a hidden resource which enables us to shift from one paradigm to another.

Following in this spirit, the purpose of reading the texts such as those I have translated below by A/Traverso should not serve merely to ornament the ‘real politics’ of this period. Rather, with Bifo’s refrain in mind, these fragments might be seen instead as integral to the common understanding of the everyday struggle over voices, bodies, identities, communication, technology and history. 

They should also serve as a crucial reminder that the autonomia movement was not just the version told by the most well known philosophers and theoreticians but belongs and was shaped by a plethora of unseen and contradictory voices. Finally, in the analysis that follows, I wish to demonstrate the vital role that this mode of thinking can play in placing networks – as well as new media outlets - that are so frequently imbibed with transcendental qualities. In a climate of precarity and actual joblessness, where inequality continues to rise and the official representatives of the boom generation command their children not to be “choosy”, the poetic struggle of a repressed generation might be rediscovered today with passion and legitimacy as a prophetic ode to the current poverty of the European left parties. 

The Torture Machines

one

Working is everything:
a professional
sickness. Working forty hours
isn’t necessary to reproduce
a world of objects necessary to life
but only to guarantee
to the capitalist classes
political dominion
over the life of the proletariat.
To break the forty-hour wall,
everyone doing their bit
this is what we want
the end of your state.

two

Behind the church of san domenico
the young men shoot up
instead
of gifting their bodies to work.
I shout down from the window
on the fifth floor
Comrades, this
is not the only life possible
destroying your own body
is not the best way to make it unsellable.
The district council
the priests and the shopkeepers have decided
to close off san domenico
behind the church, where they shoot up,
to resolve the problem.

three

The terrible metal bird
comes down every day upon the city
screeching ultrasound, a dangerous
grey, and  loaded with anguish.
policemen, psychologists, professors
armed men in front of the doors
my cousin is secretary of the section
looking over the department store
men with machine guns to wake up the people
an engineer with chronometer.
The city produces anguish. 
A delirious stupendous impound
They’ve stopped the clock
there, separated in the little white rooms
string electroshock lobotomies
against the anguish of this logic
we free reason from delirium

four

The space of great sacrifice
where all sacrifices become necessary
the creaky bed which disguises
the virginity of the performance
the order the rules the competition
the security the revenge the protection
the family of rePRODUCTION
desire speaks another language
touching you not staying to watch you
use your time to caress
tomorrow, don’t fill out your payslip.
The chain breaks at many points.

five

Like the crabs that grate their bodies
they turn to the window of their bunk-beds
in their underwear their legs long and bony
they jump down from bed to Wolfsburg, to Colonia,
to San Vittore or San Giovanni,
they repeat until the evening in the smoke of the bar
or of the cell
from somewhere they find themselves a bit of wine
the days are the same for those who have nothing
who in their misery
are transported from one cell to the next.
When you rebel
when you start to take life into your own hands
you are removed, your whole life
is outlawed. All of your gestures
become criminal.

Marxism and the body 

The foregrounding of class struggle, the grim universality of third verse’s anguished city, the unashamed blasphemy against the state, the proud use of the word comrade against the false representations of the established party; these poems, as much as the photographic testimony of the militant street battles which they cite, remain shocking today most of all for their brutal dismantling of the egotism of the poetic-I.

In the proliferation of mitotic caesurae, recalling Dada, they take pride in their own self-conscious ugliness; a pleasure doubled by their focus on the tedious sadism and distancing techniques of local politics and police formations. Violence lingers in the background – confined to the prison cell or that still to come. This is poetry as anti-art.

Yet for this very reason, these verses shock in their occasionally tender and unexpected twists of quiet and beauty: “use your time to caress” jumps forth from the surrounding text as a tyranissed example of the tactile desires of anti-capitalist rupture. Taken collectively they are jagged and inconsistent, a self-concisousness which is particularly visible in their persistent battle against the ‘necessity’ of consistent tense (a formality lost here in the competing dictatorial demands of time and space). In parallel, and perhaps because of this, the primary function of this device emerges gradually in the course of the poems - and thus their structural progression - as a consistent dramatization of an authorial voice lost in an ongoing battle between ‘logic’ and ‘delirium’.

This technique, owing as much to Mayakovsky and Klebnikhov as to Annunzio or Ungaretti, imbibes the text with a cinematic quality and subsequently links the crude graffiti-like sketchiness of the style to a longer tradition of ‘communist aesthetics’.

Indeed, alongside the surface impression of temporal disruption the historical logic of autonomist insurrection is clear: what first appears ugly and disjointed, is thus assimilated into the urgency of action – a recurring presentness of narrative continuity that holds the five fragments together. This thinly veiled cartography of resistance, as Guattari would put it, is therefore best observable in the structure of the five verses. The first serves as a straightforward proclamation, a declaration of intent, of war against consumerism and the state apparatus. In the steely, tense construction - “we want the end of your state” – the language is closer to the blunt militancy of Tronti’s writings with Potere Operaio (extracts of which were frequently used in workplace demonstrations of the time) than the organic, Petrarchian, standards of poetic tradition in Italy.

The second verse then places this ‘we’ within an almost satirical scene in which advice is delivered, like the romantic stageset of a Rossini opera, from a height. But where is this voice speaking from? A rented house? A party base? A squat? Whatever the case, it is linked, inseparably, to the street below.  The unseen ‘junkies’ are left disempowered and without representation as the lone voice of the autonomist subject, inspired to act by the burning duty of his or her relationship to the movement, recites a practiced dictum of unity against the economy of heroin (tempered with the suggestive, and typical soft-powered amendment, “not the best way”).

From this fleeting but affective sketch of frustrated communication, verse three asserts the nauseating sterility of normativity: just as the impassioned speaker has encroached the (public) privacy of the junkies, so the city will encroach on the private space above. Most evocatively this verse highlights the alienation and “anguish” from which the ‘junkies’ are fleeing, and which the autonomist struggle offers, instead, as the starting point of meaningful struggle.

Placing the everyday emergence of this repressive psychological apparatus within a specific example, verse four returns to the body as a site of repression – specifically, the act of sex, and beyond this the modest act of touch, surveyed relentlessly by the imaginary gazes of church and workplace. “Desire speaks another language” gives a coded example of the potential liberation from this double-bind: is the voice in the background, that which is audible just beyond the narrator, that of desiring-production itself?

Finally, just as the possibility of a ‘solution’ seems within reach, the dramatic enclosure of verse five evokes a wide geographical scale only to immediately confine such ideas to the site of the prison the monotonous production-line life of the comrades who have attempted to ‘break the chains’. From Wolfsberg to San Giovani the grim reality is the same; the extreme face of capitalism’s everyday encroachment. In this sense, the verse is not just a condemnation of the immediate repressions in Rome and Bologna – a message to the comrades of Radio Alice – but a more general attempt to reveal the ‘invisible’ duress by which subjects are forced to construct themselves in the enlightened menace of the state.  

At the heart of this call for emancipation are two narratives with ambitions beyond the parameters of orthodox materialist critique: the world of the body, and the failure of a Marxist tradition, seduced by the philosophies of modernism, to develop preliminary discussions about why we work.

If there is a didactic point to be found in the above (and perhaps the clamorous array of voices evoked across these five verses is itself a challenge to didacticism?) it is subsequently a call to acknowledge the complicity of civil society in reproducing practices of physical and mental cruelty under capitalist employment, while suppressing such a conversation. The notion of “gifting” the body to work distills this point to its anthropological essence, a humanising verb that is powerful and dignified in a context of growing discrimination against ‘benefit scroungers’. What indeed, are the ‘torture machines’ of the poems’ title if not the endless mirages of false community, and false meritocracy, produced by a culture of rabid competition and linear aspirations?

Much of the current interest in Italian autonomism and from the extra-parliamentary left in Europe is, quite rightly, generated by the current need for a theory of non-work. Perhaps here, though, theory is the wrong word. What these poems demonstrate is the need for a physical subjectivity that is lost in the naturalising abstractions of political ontology; to recapture the primacy of participation that is denied by these abstractions and condemns us all to think not like humans but like the states themselves. Non-work is, of course, only valid as a universal, something that all can share in and participate in deciding the rules of. In this sense it might, optimistically, be seen as the democratisation of work in its most radical sense; a struggle only comprehensible in opposition to the battle for labour reforms as an end in themselves.

The above verses, in content and form, hint at just a few examples of what pleasures might be gained in stretching the definition of production to encompass, excess experience: the pleasure of teaching each other, of reclaiming sex from the fetishes of both church and money, the possibility of drug-use free from the casualties of self-destruction. It would be wrong, however, to read these examples as a prescriptive list of ‘what it means to be an autonomist’. The most exhilarating legacy of these collectives is not the 1960s caricature - go now! Leave your family and give group sex a go! – but an attempt at rediscovering the conditions of free-thinking itself. The fundamental humour of this message, and its central importance for us today, feels all the more painful after years of living under the speculative veil of neoliberal counter-revolution: “against the anguish of this logic / we free reason from delirium”. 

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