DESTRUCTION, NEGATION, SUBTRACTION
The abstract contents of my lecture is a very simple one. I can summarize it in five points:
- All creations, all novelties, are in some sense the affirmative part of a negation. “Negation”, because if something happens as new, it cannot be reduced to the objectivity of the situation where it happens. So, it is certainly like a negative exception to the regular laws of this objectivity. But “affirmation”, affirmative part of the negation, because if a creation is reducible to a negation of the common laws of objectivity, it completely depends on them concerning its identity. So the very essence of a novelty implies negation, but must affirm its identity apart of the negativity of negation. That is why I say that a creation or a novelty must be defined paradoxically as an affirmative part of negation.
- I name “destruction” the negative part of negation. For example, if we consider the creation by Schönberg, at the beginning of the last century, of the dodecaphonic musical system, we can say that this creation achieves the destruction of the tonal system, which, in the western world has dominated the musical creation during three centuries. In the same direction, the Marxist idea of revolution is to achieve the process of immanent negation of capitalism by the complete destruction of the machinery of bourgeois State. In both cases, negation is the evental concentration of a process through which is achieved the complete disintegration of an old world. It is this evental concentration which realizes the negative power of negation, the negativity of negation. And I name it destruction.
- I name subtraction the affirmative part of negation. For example, the new musical axioms which structure for Schönberg the admissible succession of notes in a musical work, outside the tonal system, are in no way deducible from the destruction of this system. They are the affirmative laws of a new framework for the musical activity. They show the possibility of a new coherence for musical discourse. The point that we must understand is that this new coherence is not new because it achieves the process of disintegration of the system. The new coherence is new to the extent that, in the framework that the Schönberg’s axioms impose, the musical discourse avoids the laws of tonality, or, more precisely, becomes indifferent to these laws. That is why we can say that the musical discourse is subtracted from its tonal legislation. Clearly, this subtraction is in the horizon of negation ; but it exists apart from the purely negative part of negation. It exists apart from destruction.
It is the same thing for Marx in the political context. Marx insists on saying that the destruction of the bourgeois State is not in itself an achievement. The goal is communism, that is the end of the State as such, and the end of social classes, in favour of a purely egalitarian organization of the civil society. But to come to this, we must first substitute to the bourgeois State a new State, which is not the immediate result of the destruction of the first. In fact, it is a State as different of the bourgeois State as experimental music of today can be of an academic tonal piece of the 19th century, or a contemporary performance can be of an academic representation of Olympic Gods. For the new State – that Marx names “dictatorship of the proletariat” – is a State which organizes its own vanishing, a State which is in its very essence the process of the non-State. Perhaps as for Adorno the “informal music” is the process, in a work, of the disintegration of all forms. So we can say that in the original thought of Marx, “dictatorship of the proletariat” was a name for a State which is subtracted from all classical laws of a “normal” State. For a classical State is a form of power; but the State named “dictatorship of proletariat” is the power of un-power, the power of the disappearance of the question of power. In any case we name subtraction this part of negation which is oriented by the possibility of something which exists absolutely apart from what exists under the laws of what negation negates.
- So negation is always, in its concrete action – political or artistic – suspended between destruction and subtraction. That the very essence of negation is destruction has been the fundamental idea of the last century. The fundamental idea of the beginning century must be that the very essence of negation is subtraction.
- But subtraction is not the negation of destruction, no more than destruction has been the negation of subtraction, as we have seen with Schönberg or Marx. The most difficult question is precisely to maintain the complete concept of negation from the point of view of subtraction, as Lenin, Schönberg, or Marcel Duchamp, or Cage, or Mao Zedong, or Jackson Pollock have maintained the complete concept of negation from the point of view of destruction.
To clarify the very complex interplay between destruction, negation and subtraction, I propose to read with you a fragment of a magnificent poem of Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Pasolini is well known as a filmmaker; in particular he has directed during the sixties and the seventies profound contemporary visual readings of the two great western intellectual traditions: the ancient Greeks with movies like Medea and Oedipus, and the judo Christianity with The Gospel According to Saint Matthew and a very complex script about the life of Saint Paul. All that constitutes a difficult thinking of the relationship between History, Myths and Religion. Pasolini was simultaneously a revolutionary Marxist and a man for ever influenced by his religious childhood. So his question was: is the revolutionary becoming of History, the political negativity, a destruction of the tragic beauty of the Greek Myths and of the peaceful promise of Christianity? Or do we have to speak of a subtraction where an affirmative reconciliation of Beauty and Peace becomes possible in a new egalitarian world?
Pasolini is also well known for the relationship between his private life and his public convictions. Not only he was gay, but this was a part of his political vision, many years before the beginning of the gay and lesbian movement. He perfectly knew that the desire – and in its own case, the desire for young poor workers of the suburbs of Rome – is not independent of our ideological choices. Once more, the question is to inscribe sexual desire in the political negativity not as a purely subversive and destructive feature, but as a creative displacement of the line which separates the individual subjectivity from the collective one.
Pasolini has been murdered in November 1975. He was 53 years old. The circumstances of this horrible murder are still obscure today. But certainly they are exactly at the point where political determinations are linked with sexual situations. It is this point which has been for Pasolini a constant source of new truths, but also an existential tragedy.
Marvellous movies, political commitments, critical essays, great novels, new existential style… Beyond all that, Pasolini is the greatest poet of his generation. We can distinguish three major poetical collections.
- The poems written when Pasolini was twenty years old, in a specific Italian dialect, the Friulan one. Her we have the attempt to subtract poetry to the authority of official Italian language and to use a popular language against the State language. It is a characteristic example of what Deleuze names “minoritarian politics” in Poetry.
- The great collection published in 1957, the heart of which is the magnificent poem, The Ashes of Gramsci, a complex meditation concerning history, Marxist ideology, Italian landscape and personal feelings… The title is in itself a metaphor of melancholic negation. Gramsci, the Master, the Father of Italian Marxism is here like dissipated in the History’s dust.
- The two collections of the beginning of the sixties: The Religion of My Time (1961) and Poetry in the Form of a Rose (1964). We have here the context of the fragment I shall explain today. Fundamentally, it is the bitter disappointment of Pasolini, concerning the practices of the Italian left. And more precisely, two very serious failures of the Communist Party, first, an infidelity to the armed struggle of thousands of young men, against fascism and Nazism during the war. Second, the Communist Party is unable to organize the revolt of thousands of young workers in the suburbs of Italian towns.
So we have here a double negation of popular young people. In the past, where their fighting is forgotten; in the present, where their revolt is despised. But Pasolini has two very important reasons for being passionately interested in the existence and the struggles of young people. First his younger brother, Guido, has been killed in fighting during the war as a partisan, a resistant fighter. And the terrible problem is that he has been killed not by fascists, but by communists of an other country, Yugoslavian communists, because of the rivalry between Italians and Yugoslavians concerning the control of some border regions. Second, as a gay, Pasolini has always had real and constant relationship with very poor young workers, or with unemployed of the suburbs. That is why many poems of Pasolini speak of the contradiction between History, politics and concrete existence of proletarian youth.
We shall first listen to one of theses poems. It is a fragment of a very long poem, Vittoria.
“All politics is Realpolitik,” warring
soul, with your delicate anger!
You do not recognize a soul other than this one
which has all the prose of the clever man,
of the revolutionary devoted to the honest
common man (even the complicity
with the assassins of the Bitter Years grafted
onto protector classicism, which makes
the communist respectable): you do not recognize the heart
that becomes slave to its enemy, and goes
where the enemy goes, led by a history
that is the history of both, and makes them, deep down,
perversely, brothers; you do not recognize the fears
of a consciousness that, by struggling with the world,
shares the rules of the struggle over the centuries,
as through a pessimism into which hopes
drown to become more virile. Joyous
with a joy that knows no hidden agenda,
this army-blind in the blind
sunlight-of dead young men comes
and waits. If their father, their leader, absorbed
in a mysterious debate with Power and bound
by its dialectics, which history renews ceaselessly-
if he abandons them,
in the white mountains, on the serene plains,
little by little in the barbaric breasts
of the sons, hate becomes love of hate,
burning only in them, the few, the chosen.
Ah, Desperation that knows no laws!
Ah, Anarchy, free love
of Holiness, with your valiant songs! ¹
To have an overview of this fragment we can say something like that: Everybody is saying that politics must be realistic, that all ideological illusions have been proved dangerous and bloody.
But what is the real for politics? The real is History. The real is the concrete becoming of struggle and negation. But how is it possible to understand or know History? We can do that if we know the rules of History, the great laws of becoming. It is the lesson of Marxism.
But are not the laws of History the same for us and for our enemies? And if it is the case, how can negation be distinguished from approval?
We are in the situation where destruction being suppressed, the subtraction itself, the opposition, if you want, becomes complicity. As Pasolini writes: we recognize that we are going exactly where the enemy goes, “led by a History that is the history of both”. And political hope is impossible.
So, if the young dead of the last war could see the present political situation they would not agree with this complicity. Finally, they cannot accept their political fathers, the leaders of Communist Party. And they become by necessity barbarian and nihilistic people, exactly like the young unemployed of the suburbs.
The poem is a manifesto for true negation.
If subtraction is separated from destruction, we have as result Hate and Despair. The symbol of this result is the fusion of the dead heroes of the last war with the despised workers of our suburbs in a sort of terrorist figures. But if destruction is separated from subtraction, we have as result the impossibility of politics, because young people are absorbed in a sort of nihilistic collective suicide, which is without thinking and destination. In the first case, fathers, who are responsible for the emancipatory political orientation, abandon their sons on behalf of the real. In the second case, sons, which are the collective strength of a possible revolt, abandon their fathers on behalf of despair.
But emancipatory politics is possible only when some fathers and mothers and some sons and daughters are allied in an effective negation of the world as it is.
- The whole beginning: under the idea of “Realpolitik” we have something like a negation without destruction. I define this: “opposition”, in the common democratic sense. Like democrats against Bush. We find two excellent definitions of this sort of negation: “the prose of the clever man” and “protector classicism”. You will note that in both cases, the comparison is with artistic conservative style.
- The “bitter years” are the years of the war, which have been also largely, in Italy, a civil war.
- The heart of “opposition” is to substitute some rules to the violence of the real. In my jargon, I can say: to substitute rules of history, or rules of economy, to rupture of Event. And when you do that, you “share the rules of the struggle” with your enemy. And finally you become “slave of your enemy”, a “brother” of your enemy.
- In this context, Pasolini has a sort of magnificent and melancholic vision. The army of dead young men of the last war, and among them certainly his younger brother Guido, is coming to see their father, their leader. That is in fact the revolutionary leaders of today. This army, “blind in the blind sunlight” comes and waits “in the white mountains, on the serene plains”. And they see their father, their leader, absorbed in the very weak form of negation, the dialectical negation; This negation is not apart from the power. This negation is only an obscure relationship to the power itself. It is “a mysterious debate with Power”. So the father is in fact without freedom, he is “bounded” by the dialectics of power.
- The conclusion is that this father “abandons them”. You see the problem, which is clearly a problem of today. The army of dead young men was on the side of destruction, of hate. They existed on the hard side of negation. But they wait for an orientation, for a negation which, under some paternal law, reconciles destruction and subtraction.
But contemporary leaders abandon them. So they have only the destructive part of negation. They have only “Desperation that knows no laws!”
- And the description of their subjectivity is quite an expressive one. Yes, they were on the side of hate, of destruction. They were “angry young men”. But now, it is a very striking formula, “hate becomes love of hate”. This love of hate is negation as purely destructive; Without an access to subtraction without fathers, or leaders, we have to face the nudity of “the barbaric breasts of the sons”.
- Great poetry is always an anticipation, a vision, of the collective future. We can see here that Pasolini describes the terrorist subjectivity. He indicates with an astonishing precision that the possibility of this subjectivity among young men or women is the lack of any rational hope of changing the world. That is why he creates a poetical equivalence between Desperation (the nihilistic consequence of false negation), Anarchy (the purely destructive political version) an “free love of Holiness”, which is the religious context of terrorism, with the figure of the martyr. This equivalence is certainly clearer today than it was forty years ago, when Pasolini wrote Victory.
We can now conclude: the political problems of the contemporary world cannot be solved, neither in the weak context of democratic opposition, which in fact abandons millions of people to a nihilistic destiny, nor in the mystical context of destructive negation, which is an other form of power, the power of death. Neither subtraction without destruction, nor destruction without subtraction. It is in fact the problem of violence today. Violence is not, as has been said during the last century the creative and revolutionary part of negation. The way of freedom is a subtractive one; But to protect the subtraction itself, to defend the new kingdom of emancipatory politics, we cannot radically exclude all forms of violence; The future is not on the side of the savage young men and women of popular suburbs, we cannot abandon them to themselves. But the future is not on the side of the democratic wisdom of mothers and fathers law. We have to learn something of nihilistic subjectivity.
The world is made not of law and order, but of law and desire. Let us learn from Pasolini not to be “absorbed in a mysterious debate with power”, not to abandon millions of young men ands women neither “in the white mountains”, nor “on the serene plains”. ”
‘Destruction, Negation, Subtraction: On Pier Paolo Pasolini’ is the text of a talk presented in Los Angeles in February 2007, first published online at lacan.com. Based on the author’s unpublished typescript, ‘Destruction, négation, soustraction’.
¹ Pier Paolo Pasolini, ‘Victory’, in In Danger: A Pasolini Anthology, ed. and trans. Jack Hirshman (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2010), pp. 212-13.