Letters to the Heretics

Second Letter

Dear Goffredo,[1]

To you, who are a cultural operator particularly attentive to the problems of the class struggle, I submit my reflections on the current functions of culture so that you can work with their benefit. These are reflections that are urgent because large segments of the population are completely impermeable to the fascination for spectacular representations and quite decided upon paying them no attention. I will not recall to you in detail the enormous risks that the propagation of such an obscurantist attitude carries. I will limit myself to indicating the two principal ones: the disappearance of the role of the cultural operator and the subversion of society as a whole. You, who are a revolutionary, can perhaps admit this second point, but do not forget that such a development would implicate the disappearance of people such as yourself. But let us proceed as indicated.

The terse Marxian formulation according to which the class struggle is the motor of human history should not be understood in a reductive fashion. Indeed, the class struggle is not a military confrontation between antagonistic parties (in this case, I use the word “parties” in its historically accepted meaning: this seems perfectly clear to me) about which one could – mechanically and from behind a desk – deduce which side will emerge the victor, but, on the contrary, it is an entanglement of social tensions at the heart of which people (the unpredictable variable) intervene, not as a numerical mass, but as bearers of passions that make them take action. The class struggle, such as it appears, is thus the finally manifested result of human passions. This is properly the crux of the question upon which I have meditated for a long time. I have asked myself and I still ask myself to what extent it will be possible to integrate the intense desires of people into the programmed development of society. This doesn’t preoccupy me so much vis-à-vis our young militants, for whom, on the contrary, entry into our youth organizations as a general rule coincides with an absolute renunciation on the terrain of the realization of passion. We can almost say that young people only join the Italian Communist Party when civil society has already extirpated from them all of their passions, frustrated them, and inculcated in them feelings of powerlessness and uselessness. For some, entrance into the Party recalls the “putting on the habit” by those who, due to disillusion, have decided to renounce the things of this world. It seems clear to me that this process of frustration will prosper the more our ranks increase, and it is also quite clear that civil society, due to its inability to offer an outlet for those who are troubled, becomes one of our very solid allies. No problem at the heart of our Party.

My fears are for the future, for the moment when our Party might be able to exercise a hegemony, even a relative one, over the entirety of the country, that is to say, when we become a governing party, either alone or in collaboration with other political forces. It is our duty today to confront the problems that we must resolve, not only to equip ourselves with the material and intellectual instruments that will permit us to face the situation, but also precisely because, starting from today, we can put pressure on the political forces that directly govern, so that we can be entrusted with a situation that isn’t completely a compromise,[2] but is at least controllable.

How can we resolve the question of the latent passions of the citizens in view of this future test? To what extent are they an obstacle and what favors them? It doesn’t fall to us – come on, Goffredo, we are not philosophers! – to take care to distinguish the good demons from the bad ones, although placing the problem under moral categories can often be useful when it comes to propaganda. Instead, we must distinguish the desires that favor the mechanisms of value-production or, in any case, those that conform to it, and those desires that, on the other hand, are refractory and irremediably hostile to it. Thus, we must strengthen the former (though we must not allow those desires to be taken literally) and be opposed to the latter by every means.

This being the case, it seems necessary to me that we analyze the problem to determine the level of danger that the passions present to the instauration of the socialist order. We must certainly confront – this is proved historically if we observe the countries in which socialism has already been built – the cravings inherited from the recent past, from bourgeois society, but our attention must primarily be focused on the passionate raptures that have nothing to do with the moral system of the bourgeoisie, that is to say, the new passions that, if they evoke some vague memory, are in fact tied to a very ancient age (the anthropologists speak of “primitive communism”) and certainly do not belong to any individual’s memory but, historically, to that of the species as a whole.

One after the other, I will indicate to you my opinions about the ways we can confront these two dangers.

Concerning the passions inherited from the bourgeoisie, we must act in a manner that is both preventive and repressive. Most often it will be a question of inclinations, we might even say vices, that go derive from the canons of consumption. In matters of prevention, we will have to promote a relative leveling of consumption by withdrawing from circulation the commodities that, by virtue of their scarcity, immediately evoke a symbolic social status; by reducing the circulation of substances that are dangerous for the human organism; and by making a less indecent and provocative use of advertising and propaganda messages that speculate on the reduction of men (and women, in particular) to the status of commodities.

In the perspective of prevention, it will sometimes be advantageous to take the diametrically opposed route: to distribute and popularize certain consumer goods instead of rendering them illegal and clandestine. Let us take the example of pornography. I must admit that, in this particular area, the Social Democrats in Northern Europe have shown themselves to be very farsighted. By spreading pornography to the popular masses, they have rendered banal the particular demand that makes the obscene image desirable and have neutralized the risks of erotic insurrection supported by certain authors. Once popularized, pornography – although it is personally detestable to me – has nevertheless had the unquestionable merit of making its adherents understand that license, when it remains confined to the sexual domain, does not particularly demand the subversion of one’s own life; one can be quite appreciative of sexual debauchery and yet continue one’s social role and one’s productive function in a disciplined manner. These stories, made up of words and images, are welcome among housewives, students, employees and licentious hippies, provided that it remains clear that such practices must take place tranquilly, in secret, without shocks to society! Pornography has also been liberalized in Italy without our intervention being necessary: it has been enough and it will continue to be enough for us to simply observe the reduction [of everything] to the state of merchandise that capital is in the process of accomplishing, even in this sector.

We must consider the risk that some hothead will take these suggestions concerning pornography literally, thus surpassing the limits of the behaviors that are authorized; this would occasion the commission of sexual offenses and violence. In cases of this type, it will certainly be important to adopt a severely repressive attitude, more to make examples than to punish the offenders. When offenses against people take place, whatever the motivation, sanctions must certainly be applied to the guilty party, but the systematic propaganda that accompany them must be proportional to the effects that one seeks in public opinion. Prevention and repression then become two complementary aspects of a single inspirational principle: the control of the population.

I will not comment any further, dear Goffredo, on the problems that bourgeois vices will occasion us. A little good sense will be sufficient to render them inoffensive. Never forget that, in our epoch, passion has reached the height of mediocrity by being lowered to the desire to consume. The rich person of today is none other than the one who possesses an excess of impoverished objects. He only has a passion for quantity, for numbers, for accumulation. In itself, a hardly enviable fate. A prudent leveling would complete the job.

Even more alarming, particularly for those who are preoccupied with the social lives of other people, is the necessity of confronting the desires that have no connection with our epoch and to which political economy and its laws cannot respond, nor will they ever be able to do so. I speak of the impulses that are difficult to translate into words, since the language of capital knows nothing of the things that are foreign to it or tend to deny it; they are manifested in the form of subjective inclinations that, for some, recall the passions buried in the distant past and that can only be designated by figural language. These are dispositions of the body and soul unknown in our epoch, but which are born, so to speak, from its decomposition.

Some individuals, isolated or working together, clandestinely or openly, sometimes believe that they can give reality to similar stimulations and give themselves to them body and soul. This has taken place in the past and will take place in the future. The passionate and mad character of these individuals incites them to invent impossible behaviors, impossible in the sense that our epoch considers them and renders them impossible. History is full of famous villains and anonymous underprivileged people who take the route of hopeless adventure. In politics, we describe them as “adventurists” to indicate that their conduct is incompatible with the possibilities offered today.

Today, more than in the past, the perfection of the control of society discourages anyone who would venture into the unknown by condemning them to a holocaust in advance. But this very control, reducing the field of human activity to nothingness, creates the subjective conditions for a desperation that augurs nothing good. How to prevent this danger? By hiding from the eyes of the greatest number of people the harmful actions of several handfuls of individuals in the hope of avoiding contagion? Certainly not, since censorship exercised at the society level, in addition to being exorbitantly expensive, would, if felt by the general population, expose us to critiques of all sorts. Maybe reprimand in an exemplary fashion the perpetrators of conduct foreign to the epoch? No, because the contagion would erupt without slowing down. The only means to confront the surge of such irrepressible desires resides in representing them: showing them, forcing people to look at them, and thus inculcating the conviction that everything is possible, not in real life, but in its representation.

It would be unproductive to investigate the origins and historical epochs of the separation between ontos and logos, and this returns us to our immediate task. It is enough to consider that such a separation exists and that any reconciliation between the two terms is impossible. Why persist in wanting reality and its representation to join together? Why persist in seeing the abolition of this separation as the goal towards which history must ineluctably tend? Why presuppose that such reconciliation is the old dream of mankind? No symptom legitimizes such an expectation. Until now, the people themselves have disavowed this arbitrary hypothesis: their instinctive repulsion for revolution shows this. And the workers have quite clearly grasped, as have a number of their defenders, that contemporary revolution can no longer limit itself, as it did in the past, to attacking things, the king’s palace, the instruments of production and other, similar nonsense. Contemporary revolution immediately puts into question individuality, the specificity of each person; it brings the abandonment of the limits that separate each person from the totality, the abdication of his uniqueness,[3] the return to the general matrix (if you will allow me the utilization of this hardly seductive psychoanalytic category), to the reign of indistinctness, to the heart of a confused material magma in which being and manifestation are indistinct in a timeless lethargy, a historyless time, in sum. A hardly pleasant scenario, as you can see, except for several degenerate obscurantists.

This is why, today, no one wants revolution! And this is why, on the contrary, everyone today hoists the flag of difference, specificity, deviancy and subjectivity! Thus let us apply this natural tendency of the people and accentuate the separation between ontos and logos until the day when representation – universally imposed – appears as the only visible reality. That is the true passion of power, its idée fixe: to make representation the only reality in which it is possible to live.

Pardon me, Goffredo, for this philosophical digression and allow me to return to the terrain that suits me better: the terrain of political action.

Thus, let us ask what instruments does modern society have to represent itself: only the mass media[4] and culture, unfortunately. Hardly anything, basically. This is why we must utilize them the best we can. Thus, if the management of culture in its quasi-totality is differed to us, the management of the mass media essentially escapes the control of the Leftist parties.

This division of labor in social control is, moreover, perfectly rational and advantageous for each and all. The mass media effectuate a first polishing of the passionate phenomena that germinate in social life. It is only when the work of the mass media reveals itself to be ineffective at containing the passions of those who are excited that one turns to culture to neutralize them.

The mass media are the maneuverers of representation; culture is the craftsman of luxury. In the language of the mass media, the fact that a man has been killed by another, for whatever reason, is described as an “atrocious crime”; while the prisoner who rebels against his general conditions of existence is included in the concept of a “legitimate struggle for the reform of the [Criminal] Code”; the impulse of the one who seeks, by way of communication, to break the yoke in which the vocabulary of political economy encloses him is charged with “delirium.” The messages of the mass media present themselves as communication, but they are, in reality, definitions of all that is possible to be lived, which, from then on, can only be deployed within the limits traced out by those definitions. “Every determination is negation,”[5] recalled my Idealist professor of philosophy, quoting Spinoza. And doesn’t defining something mean tracing out its limits, that is to say, denying everything that doesn’t enter into the definition?

Will the people revolt against the representations of real life that the mass media offer them? In other words, will they break the pre-established definitions of their intentions? I do not believe so, and if they do, they would run into a second obstacle: that of culture. In their crudeness, the mass media can only hurl curses at the passions of life and try to exclude them from the community, but fail. Then it falls to culture to bring the penchants that might undermine civil society’s foundations into its heart, thereby blunting them and representing them as cultural problems with the goal of annihilating them as materially constructed life [forms]. To present every manifestation of life as a literary, artistic, or poetic object, or the object of sociological and political investigation, is the task of culture and its function in the framework of a planned social development! The strength of our epoch consists in the fact that all the events of life are made the objects of cultural debate, and involved in endless quarrels for which there are a thousand pretexts to continue.

At bottom, it matters little in what register life is represented, as long as it is registered as cultural fact. Then all the actions of men who have tried to realize their passions appear as artistic license, as poetic exploit, as collective dissatisfaction of the sociological kind.

Our project on the cultural plane must be immense. What is at stake? The lassitude of all passion, including, of course, the passion for lassitude.

The time for curses and censorship is over. Today we are partisans of cultural freedom in all domains. How is it possible that people have still not grasped that all that is touched by culture, like a modern philosopher’s stone, becomes boring and insignificant?

Naturally, although the means that culture primarily uses is problematization for its own sake, this doesn’t exclude the fact that sometimes culture has recourse to definition in the sense that I’ve used this word with respect to the mass media. An appropriate vocabulary has already been successfully experimented with. Consider, dear comrade, the denigrating and demoralizing efficiency of epithets such as petit bourgeois, voluntarist, waverer, vitalist, decadent, subjectivist, etc. I need not insist, because you know this vocabulary all too well. But we must go further. We must pursue definitions and cultural classifications so that any passionate behavior, actual or potential, has a conceptual representation. Only then will the danger be removed; only then will the planning of development have nothing to fear from “variable” mankind, and value will be definitively independent from human passion.

How to arrive at this state of affairs? By seeking to enlarge the operational field of culture: we must create a living and credible school for the masses that can make its students absolutely inoffensive, transform bookstores into supermarkets, put emphasis on cultural circles, research centers and publishing houses, and favor so-called alternative, revolutionary and avant-garde cultures and popular revivals,[6] and thus favor the cultural confrontation between opposed factions so as to remove real confrontation, naturally.

And so that someone doesn’t tell me that the population, and particularly the subordinate strata, would in any case remain impermeable to cultural propaganda, because the indigence of passion in our era is such that everyone is ready – out of a preference for the lesser of two evils – to choose the simulation of passion instead of the inanity of existence. The simulacrum is in fact the image of the thing, not the thing itself, and what is important for us is to distance mankind from its thing even further by making it appreciate the simulacrum. To do this, intellectuals of your caliber must continue to produce culture in always-new forms, it hardly matters which ones. It would be unfortunate that you come to disappear or are condemned to silence!

I am certain, dear Goffredo, that you will be sensible to the problem that I have hardly sketched out here. You must reflect, then decide and act. Thus I seek your opinion and suggestions.

[1] Publisher’s note: Goffredo Fofi, cinematographic critic tied to the extreme Left and reorganizer of the journal Ombre rosse. Even if he admits the primacy of political economy, it is the superstructure that retains his full attention. If a “Ministry of Representation for the People” would be formed, the portfolio would be his.

[2] An allusion to the “historic compromise” that would bring the Italian Communist Party into the ruling coalition.

[3] Latin in original.

[4] English in original.

[5] Latin in original.

[6] English in original.

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