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Dialectical Passions: Negation in Postwar Art Theory

Gail Day

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December, 2010
Cloth, 320 pages, 15 halftones
ISBN: 978-0-231-14938-9
$55.00 / £38.00

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Excerpt from Chapter 2: Looking the Negative in the Face

Negative Thought

As we encounter the arguments about negative thought, Tafuri’s alleged pessimism seems only to deepen. As he notes, “The avant-garde, brought back to its elementary principles, was . . . obliged to reveal its cards completely, to recognize its own origins in ‘negative thought.’” In his discussion of negative thought, as with the Metropolis, Tafuri again draws on ideas developed by Cacciari from the latter’s engagement with Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Weber, Simmel, Keynes, and Benjamin. According to Cacciari, negative thought is the ideology most appropriate to the Metropolis; it represents “the discovery of the negativity of the Metropolis itself,” that is, it “presupposes contradiction” and devaluation [ Entwertung ]; it recognizes that everything and everybody is engulfed in the Metropolis; it understands that “no aura can survive” and refuses the “prayer for consolation.” Indeed, Cacciari argues, the negative is negative “precisely because it is Entwertung .” As “the motivating force of the age of technique,” Tafuri writes, nihilism claims “for itself the field of differences between the project and utopia.” This statement is from the mideighties, but even as early as Architecture and Utopia , he can be found arguing that salvation lies not in revolt but in surrender, in the total submission to the dynamics of the Metropolis, in the acceptance of the void between sign and meaning—and in reveling in this situation. As he puts it elsewhere in discussions of Dada, one must acknowledge and indulge the Metropolitan situation, discover the “value of non-value,” and participate in this condition. “To save oneself one must lose one’s self,” he ventriloquizes these artists’ response, “one must resign oneself to being submerged in the chaos, one must make oneself sign among signs.” Discovering his own commercialization, the subject learns—and here Tafuri echoes Benjamin—to enjoy “being simultaneously torturer and tortured.” In a discussion of methodology in The Sphere and the Labyrinth , Tafuri suggests that historiography too entertains a fiction when it believes that it can fill the gap—the silence—between history and its object. Criticism, then, needs to throw itself into crisis along with the object; the self-reflexivity of historical work has to be relentless in order to remain conscious of its own murders. Not only art and architecture, but also critical thought, must explore that negative space; it “descends into the interstices of techniques and languages” so as to elaborate the “residue” at the “insuppressible boundary” of silence.

The issues raised by nihilism, negation, and the dialectic occupied a prominent place in the debates of the New Left, and the version of this argument elaborated by Cacciari and Tafuri—and they were by no means alone in this—developed along explicitly anti-Hegelian lines. Tafuri makes the point in Architecture and Utopia :

“Negative thought” had enunciated its own project for survival in its refutation of the Hegelian dialectic and a recovery of the contradictions this had eliminated. “Positive thought” does nothing but overturn that negativeness on itself. The negative is revealed as such, even in its “ineluctability.”

Many key thinkers of the Left-Hegelian tradition resist the moment of sublation in the Hegelian dialectic, the Aufhebung often being seen as a closure on behalf of an unwarranted authority, or as a premature cessation of the impulse of freedom. From the Bauers in the mid-nineteenth century to Adorno’s negative dialectic, such thinkers seek to release the negative from the strictures of a hegemonic power, whether politically or philosophically conceived. Elements of this Left-Hegelian argument are to be found in Tafuri’s writing on architecture, but his antagonism to dialectical synthesis is focused through his opposition to searches for pre-Metropolitan wholeness and articulated through the trenchantly anti-Hegelian rhetoric common among parts of the New Left. Moreover, as we have seen in Tafuri’s and Cacciari’s accounts of the avant-garde, the negative is no longer simply allied to the emancipatory “force moment,” its power being compromised by capital’s appropriation of negation’s dynamic. This preference for a form of anti-Hegelian negative dialectic can be seen not only in Tafuri’s explicit discussions of negative thought and nihilism, but also in his wider approach to history; we have already encountered an example of this orientation in his distaste for the synthesizing tendencies of Juan Gris. Sharing the same large interpretive schema that can be found in the writing of someone like Giulio Carlo Argan—where the canonical history of art and architecture is renarrated dialectically through a play of contrasting movements, tendencies, or qualities—Tafuri nevertheless rejects its essentially progressive orientation. Argan was not shy of finding aporetic moments in capitalism, but Tafuri pushes this sensibility still further so the dialectic (if it can still be called that) hovers at a breaking point. Tafuri argues, for example, that the “unity in variety” attributed to late Baroque architecture developed a conception of the city characterized as “order and chaos, regularity and irregularity, organic structure and the lack of organic structure.” Yet, in the Tafurian view, such contrasts do not add up (let alone sublate), this lack of coherence only deepening and escalating through history in a series of ever-exacerbating tensions and crises—history told, in other words, as aporia.

Referring to the work of Tafuri and Cacciari as “neo-avant-garde” and “radical gauchisme,” Llorens, in one of the most probing critiques, argues that their method proceeds by means of paradoxes rather than dialectical contradictions. Their claim—that their “dialectics of negativity” was a Marxist anti-Hegelian approach—is, as far as Llorens is concerned, an example of pre-Kantian Nietzscheanism:

"The role of “negation” in Hegel’s dialectics is often misunderstood. Hegel made it correspond to the second of Kant’s “regulative principles of reason” . . . or, more properly, “determination.” It can be said that Marx “inverted” Hegel by transferring this category from the epistemological to the ontological domain—or rather, by giving priority to the latter; in this sense he went further than Hegel in his critique of Kant’s anti-metaphysical stance. But for this interpretation to make sense, it is necessary that the original framework, i.e., the postulation of a transition between the epistemological and the ontological, be retained. This is precisely what makes it possible to speak of marxist dialectics . The “dialectics of negativity” mentioned by Cacciari and Tafuri seem to refer rather to Nietzsche. Like Marx, Nietzsche “inverted” Hegel by postulating the priority of the ontological. But unlike Marx he did so by breaking it free from the critical framework of epistemology. Therefore there is no transfer, in Nietzsche, of logical categories, and his “negativity” is “negation” in a pre-kantian, material sense. How one can then speak of dialectics—Hegelian or not—I do not understand."

Formally, Llorens may well be right, but, since Nietzscheanism is wielded so self-consciously and explicitly by Cacciari and Tafuri, his criticism hardly bites. Among the first of the “Nietzschean Marxists,” Tafuri and Cacciari recognized the implications of their permanent suspension of sublation. There is rather more Nietzsche at work in their approach than in the thinking of many of their predecessors in the Western Marxism tradition (one thinks of Adorno or Lefebvre), and Tafuri is very early in adaptating this philosophy for cultural analysis. But—and it is important not to lose sight of this—their Nietzscheanism was conceived as being in the service of a radicalized Marxism.

It should be noted that even proponents of Left-Hegelian thought have found themselves open to the charge of nihilism. It haunts radical attempts to work with the dialectic, always accompanying the emphasis on its “pulse of freedom.” (Some even find nihilism centrally at work in the dialectical logic of Hegel himself.) In effect, Llorens’s critique rehearses key arguments from the history of twentieth-century thought: Adorno and Lukács, Adorno and Benjamin, Habermas and Foucault. Perhaps more tellingly, his own political allegiance blinds him to the ways Tafuri and Cacciari posed a radical critique of the orthodox Left, and thus Llorens fails to recognize, and account for, the methodological and political transfers at work in their thought. Adopting Benjamin’s sado-masochistic image, Tafuri and Cacciari not only repeated one of the motifs from the Trauerspiel , they also took on a methodology that sought to transpose qualities from object to subject.

The procedures appropriate to—indeed, necessary for—the Metropolis were not only to be addressed within their objects of study (the avant-garde, architecture, or the genesis of negative thought), they were also required within their own approach to, and understanding of, those objects. Merely reflecting the Metropolis, Cacciari explains, “would be to reflect it not at all: between the forms and modes of such a simple reflection and the specifically dialectical structure of the Metropolis, no consistency is possible.” Characteristic of the Metropolis, such transitions from object to subject are also incorporated as a core principle of negative thought. Tafuri and Cacciari aim to capture both moments of this transposition—the external and the internal moments, so to speak. In this sense they repeat—and reverse—an experience of the avant-garde, who in their encounter with capital’s negativity, we will recall, discovered that they had become the objects and not the subjects of the Plan. In taking negativity as method, Cacciari and Tafuri try to learn from that experience, seeking a means to equal and outrun the effects of the Metropolis and Plan. Imagining that one’s critique could occupy a position external to the Metropolis—and remain untouched by its destructive logic—is tantamount to being oblivious to some of its most powerful effects.

Cacciari believed it was necessary for critical thought to immerse itself in the powerful currents with the aim, somehow, of riding them. We require a self-conscious approach that understands how to “integrate the negative within itself.” As he puts it:

"The negative stays within the limits of the Metropolis, since it has uncovered the Metropolis’s negativity. But this negativity, once demythified, demystified, and thrust whole into Erlebnis and Verstand, presents an image of the Metropolis as symbol-place of the contradictions and functions of modern capitalist society. The negative, used correctly—that is, according to the terms of its own hopelessness, and not mystified as a requisite for synthesis, as a prayer for consolation—leads to this limit."

The seizure and embrace of capitalist negativity, advocated here, is meant to reveal its contradiction and its limits. This is the strategy of completed nihilism, which lives through the processes of disenchantment to a point at which it is, arguably, beyond nihilism, or, at least, in excess of it. If, according to Nietzsche’s well-known definition, nihilism is the devaluing of the highest values, then completed nihilism is the point reached when this logic of devaluation is pursued through to fulfillment. Completed nihilism, as Nietzsche puts it in The Will to Power , requires a strength of character that will “deify becoming and the apparent world as the only world.” Only on the basis of this presupposition and acceptance of total disenchantment—only by having the strength to abandon all traditional and transcendent values—is it possible to engage actively in the creation of values appropriate to the current period. In Nietzsche’s terms (and terms which take us back to Jameson’s and Clark’s charges):

"It is only in this sense that we are pessimists; i.e., in our determination to admit this revaluation to ourselves without any reservation, and to stop telling ourselves tales—lies—the old way.

That is precisely how we find the pathos that impels us to seek new values. In sum: the world might be far more valuable than we used to believe; we must see through the naiveté of our ideals."

This revaluation would consist of values that emerged immanently from the current conditions of modernity.

It is a matter of some debate whether Nietzsche conceived completed nihilism as, strictly, the final, all-embracing phase within nihilism or as one beyond it. In The End of Modernity , Gianni Vattimo adopts Heidegger’s view and challenges the idea that completed nihilism represents the “overcoming” of nihilism. On his reading, nihilism’s very demolition of foundations makes impossible all acts of “surpassing” and predicates against the very possibility of new values being created. The postmodern condition for Vattimo is coextensive with this realization of foundationlessness, which is also completed nihilism. Only the wish to be beyond nihilism can be overcome by adopting a different attitude to the situation.

Tafuri and Cacciari shared the critique of overcoming (and, as we have seen, the emphasis on attitude); it was necessary, Tafuri argued, to take Nietzsche and Heidegger seriously. But they also put in question the metaclaims—themselves inspired by forms of neo-Nietzschean philosophy—to have exceeded modernism. Postmodernism—and Tafuri had in mind its high expressions (semiotics, rhizomatics, and Derridean difference) as much as the popularized accounts that were particularly visible and stylized in architectural history—tended to obstruct questioning by presenting matters as resolved, as if we were “already beyond (post) ,” naively imagining that it had surpassed contradictions and thus falling prey to a type of complacent substitutionalism. >According to Cacciari “nihilism cannot do without solution”; the idea of going beyond would be a necessary accompaniment to devaluation, and this aporia forced nihilism “to mythify its own immanent will to power.” All the “hypermodern ‘dances,’” Tafuri noted (of the sort of postmodernism promoted by Paolo Portoghesi), were just nihilism in its “incomplete” or “imperfect” form. F>With its relapse into the illusion of making easy syntheses of form and meaning and its banalization of philosophical themes into Disneyland logic, postmodernism obstructed “not only radical questioning, but all questioning.” The task instead was “how to question radically —without entertaining any useless illusions about recomposing what has been shattered or resynthesize the plurality—an era that no longer permits an agreement between wholeness and multiplicity, but also does not oblige one to comply with its most recent victors.” Portoghesi, of course, was not Vattimo—as Tafuri well recognized—yet Tafuri’s closing comment criticized even postmodernism’s more articulate champions. Before the postmodern ascendency, Tafuri and Cacciari already considered questions beyond what were to become postmodern philosophy’s own self-inscribed circle of concerns. Thus, in Cacciari’s words, the fulfillment of completed nihilism would mean “neither the task of effecting solution nor that of effecting the end of all solution.”

Despite the overt hostility of Tafuri and Cacciari to the Aufhebung, we can see that their argument nevertheless echoes Hegel’s claim that thought truly finds itself through the process of its “utter dismemberment,” through the fall into the depths of its own hopelessness. For all the antagonism toward the “Hegelian synthesis,” their argument, nevertheless, accepts many of the dialectic’s tropic turns and transitory characteristics, its movements of internalization, integration, introjection, and immersion. Their version of completed nihilism requires the strength to face capitalist negativity: this is, in Calvino’s terms, acceptance of, and immersion in, the inferno. However, for Cacciari and Tafuri, this immersion in the currents of the Metropolis is the necessary condition for seeing the Metropolis’s shape and the only means to avoid being blinded by its effects. Going into, and through, nihilism would provide a strategy to enable us, pace Calvino, to see “who and what . . . are not inferno” so that those forces could acquire “space.” The surrender being advocated, then, is of a specific sort. As Tafuri notes of Oskar Schlemmer, his act of affirming the Metropolis—the “great yes” said to reality— had a double effect, both confirming the reification of human life and yet, precisely through this affirmation, acting in the cause of liberation.

Returning to a passage that we have already encountered, the crucial shift can be clearly recognized: “ To save oneself one must lose one’s self, one must resign oneself to being submerged in the chaos, one must make oneself sign among signs. But by action .” The affirmation of nihilism—acknowledging this world as the only world and calling it “good,” as Nietzsche put it—forms the prelude to a salvaging of an emacipatory mode of negativity, one that goes beyond negation’s appropriation by capital. (Indeed, it is notable that Cacciari and Tafuri do not follow Deleuze who, in his return to Nietzsche, rejects negation and dialectic in toto .) Only by working with reification’s “geometric freezing of the real” would it be possible to find a “space of action” and “liberty.” Negative thought, according to Cacciari, is the force that “lays bare the logic of this society . . . the negative reaches the point where it exposes this society’s internal conflicts and contradictions, its fundamental problematics or negativity.” In addition to claiming a space of freedom and action, negative thought, it is argued, could break through the “silence” of the nihil , the complete internalization of Metropolitan nihilism allowing the “tragedy of the given” to “speak for itself.” Tafuri echoes the same point in the context of a consideration of historical method, although he takes a more forceful approach to this moment of ventriloquization, suggesting that negativity must be made to speak: speak of its making, its becoming, its function, and its conflicts:

"Historical space does not establish improbable links between diverse languages, between techniques that are distant from each other. Rather it explores what such distance expresses: it probes what appears to be a void , trying to make the absence that seems to dwell in that void speak."

The space spoken of by Calvino here becomes a presence in historiography. What, in the strategy of completed nihilism, appears at first sight to be a collapse of critical perspective is thus turned around. It is by making silences into “determinate abstractions” that the historian establishes “historic space,” Tafuri notes. “Distance is fundamental to history”; indeed, the historian “must create artificial distance”; or, as he remarked of the relation between architectural theory and practice, “it is the conflict of things that is important, that is productive.”

Contro il piano

Writing in 1975, in his preface to the English edition of Architecture and Utopia , Tafuri observed that his 1969 essay “Towards a critique of architectural ideology”—the early version of the book—had been subject to much criticism (to “many more or less violent stands”) and, more to the point, he argued that it had been grossly decontextualized:

"The journal that published this essay (and others by myself and by colleagues working along the same lines) was so clearly defined in its political history and particular line of thought and interests, that one would have supposed that many equivocal interpretations might a priori have been avoided.

This was not the case. By isolating the architectural problems treated from the theoretical context of the journal, the way was found to consider my essay an apocalyptic prophecy, “the expression of renunciation,” the ultimate pronouncement of the “death of architecture.”

This theoretical context—the journal in question—was Contropiano: materiali marxisti . In addition to this early essay version of Architecture and Utopia , the journal was the forum for Tafuri’s discussion of the Austromarxist urban projects of “Red Vienna” as well as Cacciari’s early articulations of negative thought. Most of Cacciari’s essays in Contropiano , however, had more explicitly political subjects: “Capitalist development and the cycle of struggle”—a consideration of industrial relations at the Montecatini-Edison plant in Porto Marghera—while his essay on political theory and organization in post-1968 France, represented the first sustained analysis of the May events on the Italian Left. Launched in 1968, Contropiano ’s founding editors were Cacciari, Antonio Negri, and Alberto Asor Rosa, a lineup indicating that the journal indeed provided a very specific context and was directed toward Marxist intellectuals of a distinctly workerist persuasion. Its editors and contributors, such as Mario Tronti, were among the most prominent theorists of operaismo . In the Italian context, “workerism” did not have the same dismissive ring as it does (or did) within places such as the United Kingdom, where it implied forms of Left-wing politics that followed, or even aped, patterns of immediate consciousness among workers rather than attempting to challenge or transform them. Italian operaismo emerged in the nineteen-fifties as a distinct anti-Stalinist tendency among dissidents of both the PCI and the PSI. As a student at the University of Padua, Cacciari had encountered the group with whom he would later edit Contropiano in the milieu of Quarderni Rossi and Classe Operaia , respectively the formative and fully fledged publications of workerist political analysis. Cacciari credits Negri—who consolidated his teaching position at the University of Padua in 1967 when he became Chair of State Doctrine—with encouraging him to read classic philosophical texts by Kant and Hegel, as well as introducing him to Tronti and Asor Rosa, the key workerist figures in Rome.

Workerist intellectuals tried to rethink Marx’s theory of political economy in the context of their experience of Italy’s postwar “economic miracle.” The extraordinary pace of modernization and urbanization through these years saw large-scale migrations and the continued restructuring of labor relations. The workerists also put a strong emphasis on bringing together questions of theory and political practice. Like the unorthodox Trotskyist tendencies “Socialisme ou barberie” in France or the Correspondence group of Raya Dunayevskay and C. L. R. James in the United States, and like the Situationist International too, operaismo drew its political lineages from a critical engagement with council communism and the experiences of early Weimar revolutionary activism, the phenomena that Lenin had famously criticized as “Left-wing communism.” Like these other tendencies, operaismo turned its attention to the problem of the labor movement’s bureaucratization and to the autonomous power of the working class. (This was one of the political contexts from which Italian Autonomism emerged in the nineteen-seventies, and remains at the core of many of the ideas that, more recently, have been rehearsed in the books Empire and Multitude by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt.) Developed by Panzieri and Mario Tronti, workerist theory argued that the ideas of the established Left—the PCI and the PSI—had stagnated into static, objectivized, and economistic categories, which inflected how the Left operated within the capitalist state (for example, the means of trade union struggle adopted) and determined its idealization of the productivist ideals of Stalinist socialism. In their view, the mainstream Left too readily accepted the framework laid out within capitalism, failing to challenge categories such as work and production; accordingly, they argued, this old Left treated the working class as merely a defensive, “reactive” element within the labor-capital relation. As central players in the New Left’s “return to Marx” and in the recovery of the labor process as a site of theoretical and political activity, the Italian workerists place the working class as the active element.

These thinkers were also keen to understand the changes in class composition, appropriating sociological methods for their own “militant research.” In particular, they attended to the emergence of what they called the “mass worker,” the unskilled or semiskilled employee who—through the restructuring of capitalist production, and the progressive impact of Fordist and Taylorist methods—had displaced the centrality of skilled operatives in the production process. For the official trade unions, this downgrading of skill was associated with the diminishing of their bargaining power. Their response was to focus their efforts on a defense of existing grade hierarchies. Where the traditional labor movement saw these developments as a threat, workerists believed that this leveling of the proletariat (and the qualitative aspects of their work) had a positive side; it led them to identify fresh political potential in the increasing homogenization (or the dehierarchizing) of the new “social mass.” (Indeed, “massification” not only was understood as the equalization of skill and grading among a traditional workforce but also embraced the new layers of female and migrant labor; male prejudice prevailed, but workerism was not blind to difference.) As Tronti argued, massification was not simply the quantitative accumulation of exploited workers, but a process of growth and internal homogenization of industrial labor power. Massification, it was thought, clarified the struggle against the capitalist organization of work per se; collective bargaining was the process through which massification of the class could translate into massification of struggle. This mass worker—who existed in workerist discourse somewhere between an immediate reality and an ideal toward which reality was tending—increasingly lacked any ideological investment in, or attachment to, their work. In a way that was clearly paralleled in Tafuri and Cacciari’s argument about Metropolitan reification, this mass worker was understood to be becoming totally alienated.

"If this corrupted word [alienation] still has a meaning, it is only that of expressing a specifically determined form of direct exploitation of labor on the part of capital: total estrangement of labor with respect to the worker; useful, concrete labor which becomes objectively estranged, external and indifferent to the worker; the end of the trade, of the profession , of this last appearance of individual independence of the worker, the extreme survival of a bourgeois person in the body of the worker."

The consequence, the proponents of operaismo thought, would be progressively consolidated in a “massified” contradiction to capital. The central issue for them was how to transform this growing structural autonomy into a force of political negation. In order to focus the potential whereby “living labor” might reject its own commodity status, the strategy of operaisti concentrated on disrupting the operations of “labor power,” that is, labor in its commodity form. They promoted tactics like the go-slow, industrial sabotage, and organized resistance to productivity deals; they also developed arguments for a social wage. One of the key reasons for their growing influence was their success in helping worker-militants to disentangle their desire for wage increases from managerial efforts to raise productivity.

In various regions workerism was dominated by different groupings and tendencies: Potere Operaio in the Veneto, Lotta Continua in Turin, Il Manifesto in Rome, or Avanguardia Operaia in Milan. By the late sixties, workerist ideas had acquired a large base of support among intellectuals and industrial workers, with particularly strong bases in the Turin car works and in the petrochemical plants that lie just across the water from Venice in Porto Marghera. Cacciari, along with Negri and Paola Meo, had organized Capital reading groups in the petrochemical plants of the Veneto in August 1963; and, the following year, they had tried to establish rank-and-file committees that would be independent of the official unions. As Paul Ginsborg has observed, “the Italian protest movement was the most profound and long-lasting in Europe” and the “Italian revolutionary groups, taken together, were the largest new left in Europe.” In the period leading up to the events of 1968, the Veneto caucus was one of the most important of these groups, and by late sixties and early seventies it dominated the Venetian far Left and became a primary focus for critical Marxist intellectuals. In 1967, a series of research seminars, initiated to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution, took place at the Institute of Social and Political Science at the University of Padua. At the end of the year, a conference on international class struggle was organized, a forum from which emerged some of the canonical texts of Italian workerism, Operai e Stato .

Constant tensions within operaismo led to a number of organizational splits. At the time of the launch of Contropiano in 1968, the editorial board consisted of individuals who operated both inside and outside the PCI. The fractures among this group of intellectuals turned on two moments. The first of these was when the Rome caucus around Classe Operaia (Tronti, Asor Rosa, and Rita di Leo) decided to enter, or reenter, the PCI in 1967. This moment also resulted in the founding of Potere Operaio veneto-emiliano (POv-e) by Negri and Cacciari, the Veneto-based opponents of this strategy. Subsequently, Negri and Cacciari parted ways, with Cacciari taking Tronti’s path and Negri leaving the editorial group of Contropiano , a situation that came to a head over a dispute over Tronti’s article for the journal’s first issue. The tensions over organizational independence were to recur throughout the history of operaismo , and, like so many political fractures, produced bitter antagonisms. Nevertheless, it would be incorrect to deduce that those who entered (or never left) the PCI abandoned all the core themes of operaismo . The attitude of operaisti to the PCI swung, as Steve Wright has noted, between Franco Piperno’s dismisal of “the working-class articulation of capitalist social organization,” as he characterized the PCI in 1969, and Asor Rosa’s decision to exploit PCI forums as “transitory meeting places for revolutionary militants.” The primary tension in workerist strategy was between, on the one hand, its commitment to political autonomy and, on the other, the need to build an organization that was capable of advancing struggles without unnecessary exposure to defeat. Yet, even well into 1968, the relation of the Veneto workerists to the use of the PCI in general, and to Tronti’s decision in particular, remained ambiguous. As a founding theorist of operaismo , Tronti was still influential on those outside the PCI, as to a certain extent was Negri on those inside. While the POv-e group considered the PCI in Emilia-Romagna a lost cause, they saw the Veneto communists as more open to influence, the 1968 Venice conference “Students and Workers” being co-organized by POv-e and the PCI. (It was in the wake of this event that Cacciari abandoned POv-e for the PCI.) However, as the struggles escalated in the factories later the same year, workerists and PCI activists clashed on picket lines, which further polarized opinion, and confirmed for many militants that even the Veneto PCI was beyond reclamation. The group associated with Contropiano survived this period of difficulty, as too, it seems, they did the PCI’s efforts, in 1969, to purge itself of Left-workerists. These internal divisions provide the backdrop for the Contropiano project and for Tafuri’s arrival in Venice. When Tafuri alludes to the importance of the journal for understanding his project, there is rather more at stake than a simple intellectual context. Tafuri was a partisan of Tronti’s wing. For his 1970 symposium on the migration of European architects to the U.S.S.R. in the late twenties, Asor Rosa and Rita di Leo were among the invited speakers. Speaking on topics relevant to the theme in its most broad sense, their role was designed to strengthen the theoretical punch of the occasion, but, more especially, to secure its political direction. Although Cacciari departed from POv-e, it would be foolish to conclude that the ideas associated with operaismo disappeared from his work. Although he attempted to theorize and legitimize his change, Cacciari joined the PCI while retaining important aspects of the workerist project to understand class composition, and was opposed to Leninist models of political organization. Similarly, Tafuri’s research interests and theoretical arguments, as we will see, continued to explore workerist themes. Many in the PCI were workerists in spirit, existing inside an organization that they fundamentally distrusted and within which they were often equally mistrusted.

Formal histories of workerism suggest that it remained focused on blue-collar workers and was little concerned with student activism until the middle of 1968, and that the interest of the student movement in class politics and of workerists in students dates from the moment when the Movimento Studentesco made its “turn to the class.” However, discontent in schools of architecture, along with faculties of medicine, was a feature of Italian higher education from the early sixties. Negri has recalled how IUAV “had been a center of student resistance since 1965. . . . In 1968 students from Venice and Padua joined forces with the workers at Porto Marghera. This worked out quite smoothly because they had been in constant contact for a decade: the school of architecture was a gathering place for the working class.” IUAV had been occupied in 1958 and students were closely involved in antifascist demonstrations in 1960. Its students and librarians had been involved in the defense of the workers at Sirma in Marghera in Spring 1965, a struggle that is considered as the initiation of cooperation between workers and students. Another occupation in 1967 adopted the general assembly, a form of direct self-government that rejected representational structures, which became the model for industrial militants. Particular issues were generalized; in March 1968 the students argued that there would be no harmony in the universities without harmony at Montedison and that theirs was “la lotta contro il piano generale dei padroni” (“the struggle against the bosses’ overall plan”). In June, when the convention “Students and Workers” was held in Venice, groups of worker and student militants blockaded the opening of the Biennale (it opened three months late at another venue); they later disrupted the Mostra. (A couple of years later, in a way that was to be bizarrely echoed by Cacciari’s part in the 1999 counterpublicity campaign, these groups blocked the routes of industrial flow, including the transport routes of German tourists.) The intellectual collaborations for which the school of architecture became known were forged in the intense atmosphere of debates—theoretical and practical—at the conjuncture of intellectual enquiry and revolutionary militancy. Debates on radical town planning and the housing question also had urgency, not only in Venice; schools of architecture had been occupied in 1963 in opposition to government policy, and there continued to be widespread challenges to the assumptions and hierarchies of professional training and university pedagogy. All this came to a head in 1967: engineering students challenged the ideas of technical rationality and efficiency at the heart of their profession; journalists argued against the notion of impartiality, young lawyers against the supposed neutrality of the courts. Graffiti in Milan criticized an architectural professor: “Bonicalzi, you who love prefabrication, tell us about building speculation.” It was unusual for members of academic staff to sympathize with the new mood, but, in Venice, the political critique of professionalist ideology in architecture chimed with the students’ concerns.

None of the projects initiated by Tafuri, or the lines of argument developed through them, can be adequately comprehended apart from the broad political project shaped by the intellectual culture of operaismo , and his assessment of development leaves little doubt as to his leanings. This orientation is also apparent in his position on industrialization in the U.S.S.R. (specifically his criticisms of the Soviet emphasis on industrial production and its cult of work) and his adoption of the argument on state capitalism. Tafuri and Cacciari’s interest in work on Yevgeny Preobrazhensky, the economist of the Left Opposition, provides further evidence, Preobrazhensky’s account of “permanent revolution” offering an early and radical articulation of an economy of dynamic process or, to use Tafuri’s words, “a theory of the plan based explicitly on dynamic development, on organized disequilibrium, on interventions that presuppose a continual revolution of mass production.” (In 1971, a special issue of Contropiano —including essays by Cacciari and Dal Có—was devoted to Soviet industrialization.) Tafuri’s approach to the avant-garde “machine-man,” even in The Sphere and the Labyrinth , develops themes from Panzieri’s famous 1961 essay on the “The Capitalist Use of Machinery.” The project on the American city, with its emphasis on the New Deal, is another direct outcome of workerist research, seeming to offer an example of a society that was free from nostalgic illusions for earlier forms of capitalism. Considered to be of crucial importance within this strand of politics—as still in Hardt and Negri’s postworkerist and postautonomist Empire —the United States demonstrated the processes of capitalist modernization and the emergence of social capital, in the absence of an effective social-democratic tradition. In his 1971 postscript to the second edition of Operai e Capitale , Tronti summarized the position: “the American class-struggles are more serious than European ones in that they obtain more results with less ideology.” The American working-class struggles of the nineteen-thirties—“this red sun that comes from the West”—represented the way forward for the “new politics,” he continued. The political issue at the epicenter of working-class history was not simply reform versus revolution—the frame within which Tafuri’s arguments have so far been set—but the different attitudes represented by the European and American struggles. The barrier of ideology—central to Tafuri’s argument—included prominent traditions of Marxism too; the orthodox Marxism of the PCI and PSI had been inadequate, mediating class struggles in a manner considered typical in the European experience. The opposite was seen to be the case in the United States, Tronti thought; while Marxism was far weaker there, and only experienced “indirectly,” the American situation had nevertheless proved—and this, of course, was a highly controversial thesis on the Left—to be more “objectively Marxian.”


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About the Author

Gail Day is senior lecturer in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds.

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