FINDING RESONANCES WITH CARLA LONZI
Giovanna Zapperi with Federica Bueti
I am not quite sure when or how I came across Carla Lonzi’s writing. It happened in the casual manner in which sometimes one’s life changes in unexpected ways. Lonzi’s writing did not change my life, but it offered me an opportunity to reflect upon it. Lonzi’s feminist practice is a work of unearthing, undoing, and undressing that shakes up the foundation of our culture and beings. What has society made of me? Who am I? Lonzi ceaselessly questions her sense of self, the place society had assigned to her, refusing to conform to social roles and fixed identities. An art critic, a feminist, a poet, a woman, but above all a subject seeking freedom, Carla Lonzi represents a unique figure in the history of Italian feminism. I discussed her radical life and thought with writer and researcher Giovanna Zapperi. I met Giovanna some years ago — I think it was 2013 or may be 2014 — through a mutual friend. Giovanna teaches History and Theory of Art at École Nationale Supérieure d’Art in Bourges, France. She is currently working on a book on Carla Lonzi which will be published next year (2017). She has also edited and prefaced the French edition of Autoritratto [Self-Portrait, 1969] published by JRP Ringier in 2012. Our conversation happened partly via email and partly in person, when, back from the US where she had been lecturing on Carla Lonzi, and on her way to Paris, where she lives, Giovanna agreed to meet at a bar in the district of Kreuzberg in Berlin. What follows is an edited version of a much longer exchange.
Federica Bueti: Carla Lonzi was a particularly influential figure in the Italian radical feminism scene of the ‘70s. Some have described her as a difficult and uncompromising woman. For Giovanna Zapperi, who is Carla Lonzi?
Giovanna Zapperi: I don’t think I have a definitive answer to this question, perhaps because Lonzi spent all her life trying to escape the very idea that one can be subject to definitions. I would say that Carla Lonzi was an Italian art critic, a feminist, a writer, and a poet. And yet, as someone who struggled against such categories and their power to reduce life to a sum of roles and identities, my own attempt to define her activity will inevitably remain provisional and incomplete. Lonzi experimented with ways of writing “differently” in the context of 1960s-1970s Italian culture, when the country’s social structures were shaken by a growing political contestation — from the workers strikes in the 1960s, to the 1968 revolts, and the autonomous movements that emerged throughout the 1970s — and, of course, a mass feminist movement. She wanted to undo the roles linked to her oppression, while constantly trying to articulate her subjective experience within a collective endeavor.
FB: I wonder what you mean exactly by “differently”; how does Lonzi’s writing make a difference?
GZ: When I say writing “differently”, I am thinking of the way Carla Lonzi experimented with language. She chose words carefully in order to avoid academic jargon and the formatted languages of art criticism or philosophy. I am not sure if you’ve noticed, but in her diary Taci, anzi Parla [Shut Up. Or, Rather: Speak 1978], Lonzi attempts to use a language as close as possible to her lived experience. An important aspect of her experimentations with writing deals with the process of “undoing” existing ideas, imaginaries, literary forms, concepts she considered colonized by patriarchy. In Itinerario di riflessioni [Journey of Reflections,1977], she puts it beautifully: “Logorare continuamente i legami incosci con gli uomini” [“perpetually wearing out the unconscious relationships that keeps us tied to the male world”]. Lonzi firmly believed in the need to “logorare”, of “wearing out” cultural norms and relationships that shape how we perceive ourselves. For Lonzi, writing is one place where these ties can be unmade.
FB: I came across Lonzi’s writing almost by accident six or seven years ago. Back in university, in Milan, my art history professor never bothered to mention Lonzi’s involvement in the Italian art scene of the ‘60s. It was as if she had never existed in the history of Italian Modern art. She had been erased, and this made me really angry. When and how did you come across Carla Lonzi’s writing?
GZ: Well, I guess that your experience as a student is a very typical one. It was the same for me. I was an art history student in the 1990s in Italy, and nobody ever mentioned Autoritratto. At that time, I knew that Carla Lonzi was a prominent Italian feminist — although I had not read her texts — but I didn’t know about her art criticism. As a young art history student and a feminist, I was interested in the debates taking place in the Anglo-American context: I was reading Linda Nochlin and Griselda Pollock; Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto was translated into Italian in the mid-1990s I think, as well as Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter. My encounter with feminist theory happened through these readings. Certainly, the way Carla Lonzi’s name is bound to the history of Italian feminism has contributed to obscuring the relevance of her previous activity as an art critic. But I also think there are more structural reasons for her erasure from the field of art history, which have to do with the discipline’s sexism and with the nature of Lonzi’s criticism itself. All this is to say that I was not aware of Autoritratto until, in the mid-2000s, Patricia Falguières mentioned it to me because she wanted to edit a French translation of Lonzi’s book, which she asked me to curate. Autoritratto came out a couple of years later at JRP Ringier, with the support of Maison Rouge in Paris, and with the help of Marie-Ange Maire Vigueur who did a wonderful translation from the Italian. This was the start of a journey I am still immersed in, which led me to work on Lonzi’s writings and challenge many of my previous ideas about Italian feminism and feminist art history.
FB: Autoritratto, a book-montage made from interviews recorded with 14 Italian artists, questions the role of the art critic and the relationship between artist and critics, and deconstructs art criticism by proposing a style of writing based on participation, exchange and non-linearity. Autoritratto is an important example of a non-conventional approach to art criticism and an extraordinary piece of Italian art history.
GZ: Despite the fact that Autoritratto is an extraordinary resource for the study of Italian art in the 1960s, it never became a canonical text. On the contrary, it must have seemed incompatible with official art historical narratives, as well as with the kind of cultural packaging through which Italian art was promoted internationally in the 1970s and 1980s under the banner of “Arte Povera”. In this book, Lonzi experiments with the construction of a relational subjectivity; but there is a subject, and this subject is Carla Lonzi. This subject is caught between the fragmentary nature of the conversations and the montage of the book. There is a desire to question the authority of the art critic as much as the position of the author who writes from a distance. Autoritratto presents a tension between the subject, Carla Lonzi, and the multiplicity of voices composing the book. She is part of the book both as a voice among artists’ voices, and as the person who transcribes and then creates a montage from conversations. Interestingly, the artists at that time were happy with the outcome. The image of the artist that emerged from Autoritratto did not correspond to the way they wanted to be represented. In the end, they still preferred the conventional artist-critic relationship. Unlike Carla Lonzi, they were not ready to undermine their own institutional role.
FB: In her preface, Lonzi explains that the collected conversations are not so much responses to artworks, but to a desire to be in conversation with them. The artwork becomes an occasion for an encounter. What is, in your opinion, the political and cultural relevance of Autoritratto? Where does the radicalism of Lonzi’s position lie?
GZ: Lonzi’s radicalism lies in her editorial choices, and more crucially, in her challenge of established forms of knowledge production. What does it mean to be the object of someone else’s knowledge? What does it mean to occupy the position of the one who speaks on behalf of others? These are the fundamental epistemological questions addressed in the book, which are still relevant for contemporary emancipatory politics. In composing Autoritratto, Lonzi was looking for a way to escape the “inauthentic profession” of art criticism, in favor of a participatory process that could be personally transformative. Lonzi’s undoing of art history’s epistemic structures are addressed throughout the book: the dispersed, heterogeneous, and collective subjectivity that challenges established notions of authorship; the adoption of a non-linear temporality created through editing and montage; and her rejection of formalism with its privileging of vision, as opposed to participation, dialogue and horizontality. What is perhaps even more striking is the way these counter-discourses emerge from the actual structure of the book.
FB: Very often scholars and critics tend to divide Lonzi’s life into two moments: a before and after Autoritratto, separating the art-critic from the feminist. But, even in her “feminist” writing, Lonzi continues to reflect on art and on its social economies. Her critique extended itself beyond magazines; it happened in her diary, her conversations with Pietro Consagra (collected in the book Vai Pure [Now You Can Go]). How can we bring Lonzi back into a debate on art and artistic practices today, so as to prevent her legacy from being erased from the history of art twice? I think your commitment to write about Lonzi addresses this need.
GZ: My work on Lonzi is very much about challenging the idea of the two Carla Lonzis: the art critic and the feminist, as if these two domains were separate. Of course, for Lonzi herself, there was no possible reconciliation between her activity as an art critic, and her engagement as a feminist. However, as you mentioned, despite this rupture in her biography, Lonzi continued to reflect on art and its patriarchal structures from a separatist feminist stance. When she abandoned art criticism, in 1970, Lonzi decided that she no longer wanted to be identified with an activity or a role in which she felt alienated. Her withdrawal did not only concern the art world. It signaled the beginning of a process of dis-identification from the roles that organize and hierarchize life. However, I believe Lonzi’s rupture with art criticism can be productively addressed within a feminist critique of art. After four decades of feminist interventions in the art field, we need to reconsider her ideas as a set of transformative practices that affect us in the present. Artists were the first to understand the creative potential of Lonzi’s feminism and radical undoing of the institutional forms of art criticism. The intertwining between the creative process of becoming a subject and a shared experience of liberation is precisely what connects Lonzi’s feminism to her art writings: both are predicated on horizontal relations, participation, and anti-institutional politics. Lonzi’s writings on art cannot be separated from the motivations that led her to embrace feminism, even when she started feeling alienated in her role as an art critic, and became increasingly committed to artists rather then artworks. This was clear to some of the women close to Lonzi, such as Carla Accardi, the only female artist in Autoritratto. I want to call attention to Marta Lonzi’s response to the art world’s reaction, which deemed Carla Lonzi’s rejection of art criticism regrettable. In 1995, she writes that Carla’s feminist path needs to be addressed as a problem that directly concerns art. Perhaps Lonzi’s critique of art was erased precisely because it challenged the patriarchal structures of the art world, and the institutional language of art criticism and history.
FB: You previously referred to Lonzi’s diary, Taci, anzi parla: Diario di una femminista [Shut up. Or Rather, Speak: A Feminist’s Diary], a diary of more than 1300 pages she wrote between 1972 to 76. In it, Lonzi reflects on the practice of “autocoscienza” (translated as “self-consciousness practices” though the Italian word suggests an auto-induced, self-determined, or self-directed process of achieving consciousness). Can you explain what autocoscienza is?
GZ: Autocoscienza takes place within a group. It’s a practice aimed at creating relations between women outside of patriarchy. This practice cannot happen in solitude. The diary is a personal reflection on the type of relationships explored through the autocoscienza groups.
FB: Her diary as medium could be seen as a deferred type of autocoscienza, where two consciences, the reader’s and Lonzi’s meet. Reading the diary has been a transformative experience for me. I learn from Lonzi’s words and experiences. Reading her has made me reflect on my own life. How would you describe this kind of experience then?
GZ:Of course, the writing of the diary is very much connected to the practice of autocoscienza, but they are not the same thing. What you’ve experienced is something I share with you and with many other people who have read the diary. But I think that what you are describing here is called “resonance”.
FB: Resonance was an important idea for Lonzi. In the diary, she dedicated a little poem to it: “In principio/ era la Risonanza/di Sara in me/di me in Sara.” [ In the beginning/ was Resonance/ Of Sarah with me/Of me with Sarah].
GZ: I like this term very much…Resonance is a relationship that can be established between two or more women who do not necessarily live in the same place or time. It’s a way of seeing one’s own experience reflected in the experience of someone else. It’s a form of mutual recognition. For example, in the last years of her life, Lonzi was working on an unfinished manuscript Armande Sono Io! [I am Armande!] published ten years after her death. We are left with a series of notes and considerations about Lonzi’s desire to collect the stories of a group of women, known as Le Preziose or “blue stockings” women who used to meet in 17th century Paris. Lonzi approaches the history of these women not so much as a historian, but as a someone who recognizes something of her own life in the experience of women living three centuries before her. For Lonzi, feminism opens the possibility of finding resonance with other women.
FB: You wrote a very interesting essay, Il Tempo del femminismo: Soggettività e storia in Carla Lonzi [Feminist Time. Subjectivity and History in the Work of Carla Lonzi]. In this text, you reflect on Lonzi’s attempt to undo the linearity of patriarchal time and bring emphasis on the present.
GZ: For Carla Lonzi, feminism is the present. Lonzi articulated this idea in Sputiamo su Hegel [Let’s Spit on Hegel]. The pamphlet is a critique of the Hegelian model of history as a forward movement, a linear progression, which is also crucial in the traditional Marxist idea of revolution. She elaborates on the present when she describes the feminist subject as “soggetto imprevisto” [unexpected subject]. The unexpected subject breaks with the continuum represented by the history of patriarchy, which is also the history of women’s exclusion. Moreover, Lonzi’s writings chronicle a search for female autonomy that challenges all inclusive ambition to be part of an already written history. In her anti-dialectical understanding of historical time, history itself is understood as a male construction from which women are structurally excluded. As she writes in Let’s Spit on Hegel, feminism interrupts both chronological continuity and the monologue of (patriarchal) history. Accordingly, a woman who speaks for herself is an “unexpected subject” who interrupts the course of history. This interruption is a transformative gesture. Seen through this understanding of history, Feminism is neither a promise nor an objective. Rather, it is something embodied in each and every gesture that interrupts patriarchal history, “a gesture of freedom” as Lonzi describes it, that creates the conditions for the emergence of a political subject. The rupture, the unexpected, is a way of moving away from the patriarchal logic, from the logic of causes and effects, from the idea of a promised future. Let’s Spit on Hegel was written in 1970 when the constitution of “women” as a new collective political subjectivity was about to emerge.
FB: Today we hear that we lack perspective on the future, and hence, that we need to think of ways of imagining the future anew. At the same time, I think that our idea of the future is still very much connected to the idea of a linear progression… I wonder what the potential of thinking the present as the time of change might be.
GZ: The present as the time of feminism is a powerful idea still, and perhaps especially today when the motor of our neoliberal society is “promise”: the promise of a career, a better future, money and so on. But it’s just an empty promise. To think of a change in the present is also a way of fighting the idea of a future to come, the very idea of a promise, the patriarchal structure of history.
FB: The idea of an authentic way of living and writing seems to have been one of Lonzi’s central concerns. I often wondered what she really meant by “authentic”. Reading her, I always get the feeling that she meant something more than the simple idea that we need to rediscover a “true” self. Do you agree?
GZ: In my view “authenticity” is one of the most complicated notions in Lonzi’s feminist vocabulary, and I think that any comprehensive reading of it would be misleading. If we want to try to draw a genealogy of authenticity, I think it would lead us, on one side, to the modernist notion of art’s autonomy, on the other, to French existentialism’s use of the term. Carla Lonzi was very interested in French culture and Jean-Paul Sartre’s influence for her generation is huge. Lonzi’s notion of authenticity interests me because it’s crucial to both in her art criticism and in her feminism. However, the original meaning of “authenticity” as a means to describe the artist’s freedom and autonomy is fundamentally displaced once it becomes a key feminist term. I am very much interested in this translation/transformation of an artistic concept into a new feminist vocabulary. Of course this is also where things start getting complicated! To put it very simply, for Lonzi authenticity refers to the process of dis-identification from what constitutes “woman” as an already available category. Lonzi’s “clitoral woman” refuses to occupy the role of “woman” — thus opening up the possibility of becoming something else, something no longer based on the repetition of oppressive roles, clichés and stereotypes. The idea of a woman’s authenticity describes the unfinished process of becoming a subject (and thus the unfinished project of women’s liberation). However, to me there is a fundamental ambivalence in her use of this notion. Authenticity is often described as something that is already there and that needs to become manifest. This is perhaps what I call the “remains” of the modernist notion of authenticity, which Lonzi’s feminism ambivalently reactivates. If you read Carla Lonzi’s diary Taci, anzi parla, you can see how “authenticity” sometimes becomes an ambiguous signifier, a site where conflicts between women are played out and where power dynamics are simultaneously challenged and re-established. To me, authenticity remains an unresolved problem since it signals a feminist desire for autonomy, but also the political impasses of Lonzi’s relational feminism.
FB: In what ways it becomes a political impasse?
GZ: I think that Lonzi’s use of the word “authenticity” comes from an artistic vocabulary linked to a modernist idea of authenticity as individual freedom of the artist. If the figure of authenticity is the artist, the art critic can only be “inauthentic” — which is what she declares in Autoritratto. You can imagine how problematic that is. So, why does it become a political impasse? Because on the one hand, authenticity seems to become an objective, and hence it implies the idea that there are “authentic” and “not-authentic” women; and on the other hand, it reintroduces asymmetries and conflicts between women — who is authentic and who isn’t. In a sense, the ambivalence of “authenticity” always threatens the process of transformation so central to Lonzi’s feminist practice.
FB: In Taci, anziparla: Diario di una femminista, Lonzi described authenticity as an experience.
GZ: Well, Lonzi said many contradictory things! The idea of authenticity also refers to women’s alienation. According to Lonzi, the body is crucial to both the power structures oppressing women’s lives and to any process of liberation. Women’s alienation from their own body and sexuality can be undone through unexpected gestures opening the path towards autonomy and freedom. There is a powerful aspect in the notion of “authenticity”, namely recognizing that we are what society asks us to be. “Authenticity” exposes the conflict between what we are, our desires, and what we are expected to be.
FB: I found a beautiful poem in her diary: “Prima Ero/ciò che pensavo/Adesso sono.” [Before I was/that which I thought/Now I am].
Published here: Makhzin
Women realize the political connection between Marxist-Leninist ideology and their sufferings, needs, aspirations. But they do not believe that women are secondary, a consequence of the revolution. They question the idea that their cause should be subordinated to the class problem. They cannot accept that the struggle be set in terms which pass over their heads. Subsuming the feminine problem to the classist conception of the master-slave struggle is an historical mistake. In fact, this conception comes out of a culture which dismissed the essential discrimination of humankind, i.e. man’s absolute privilege over woman; it creates a new perspective only for men, as it poses the problem only in their terms.
Carla Lonzi; from Let’s Spit on Hegel
We Are All Clitoridian Women: Notes on Carla Lonzi’s Legacy
Through feminism I freed myself from the inferiority-culpability of being clitoridian … and I accused men of everything. Then I started to doubt myself and to defend myself through every possible thought and inquiry into the past. Then I doubted myself completely in rivers of tears … After that I was no longer innocent or guilty.
—Carla Lonzi, Taci, anzi parla1
Carla Lonzi was a feminist, an art critic, a woman seeking freedom, and above all a politically creative subjectivity. When confronted by her legacy, we find ourselves in an uncomfortable position, where we run the risk of repatriating it and taming it or being dangerously affected by it. The problem with her oeuvre, which is also a problem with her persona—the two cannot be dissociated—is that it fights a merciless battle against complicity with the existing culture, against the incomprehension that accompanies each social and professional recognition, beginning with Lonzi’s own.
Her thinking can therefore be regarded as a weapon that spares nothing—including its own author—and whose unsettling power still remains intact and contagious today. But above all, her work is a precious tool because thinking against ourselves has become a vital necessity, as the illusion of a space outside power has completely faded.2 Lonzi speaks from the different point of view of the unexpected subject, which is the position of feminist political struggles from the French Revolution to the twentieth century.3 This stance abandons completely the illusion of equality with men and stresses the fact that we must know that we ourselves are the result of a shameful but inevitable negotiation with patriarchy, with the Law, and with other forces that structure our lives. There is no longer any “good side of the barricade,” because in this perspective, there are no barricades. Our subjectivities themselves are the battlefield. Hence, the importance of embracing the double bind into which Lonzi’s work throws us.
Taci, anzi parla, Lonzi’s “diary of a feminist” that she kept between 1972 and 1977, is an inextricable tangle of vanity and modesty, a pendulum swinging constantly between a completely self-centered approach and a passion for others that can lead to the deepest transformation of subjectivity. Many characters, although they bear fictitious names, are recognizable: Pietro Consagra, her companion of many years; Carla Accardi, with whom she founded Rivolta Femminile4; her sister Marta, who was also part of the group.
Subjectivity sieved by the practice of feminist consciousness-raising (autocoscienza) is the true protagonist of the book. The journal is a document of experimentation within relationships and a recollection of the profound changes that arise from it. Its subject matter is intangible, since it tries to retrace an amorphous and protean form of life, one stripped of its professional and social veils, reduced to its pure potentiality for revolt and freedom. The human material that appears through this process of subtraction is frightening and dangerous, something that capitalism, the social order, and patriarchal politics try to hide and erase. We somehow know, however, that the only way to do something truly meaningful is to plunge into this risky process. This radical approach to autobiography is a form of “existential nudism,” a desire for truth at the limit of obscenity. In a text from 1977, Antonella Nappi, who belonged to a different current of Italian feminism, wrote some enlightening lines about the political and existential content of nudity. She stated that in the experience of undressing together with other women, a woman discovers a wholeness of body and personality, accompanied by a quick and irreversible destruction of stereotypes. There is an undeniable closeness between consciousness-raising and this form of nudism that reveals feminists to each other. As Nappi writes:
To me, being seen and known was a joy, my body was a fact that I couldn’t disguise, I couldn’t hide parts of it, I couldn’t ignore it … I drew a lot of strength from the awareness not only that this body of mine was accepted, but that the process of getting to know me was both physical and intellectual, and that as a whole I was treated with love and sympathy.5
Through the gesture of classifying women according to their libidinal metabolism, Lonzi brings forward the brutality of feminine sexual organs and their hidden connection to our political position. Talking about the orgasm means talking about the compromises that we are all ready to make in order to reach and preserve pleasure. That’s why it is vital for her to state that her journal of a feminist is also a journal of a clitoridian woman.
In Taci, anzi parla, Lonzi’s rigor manages to hold together a heterogeneous, seemingly capricious mix of poetry, faithfully transcribed dreams, reflections, and anecdotes. This heterodox way of constructing a book is in itself a tactic to transcend literary genres and to mock certain pernicious conventions of culture. There is a fascinating demand made on herself and others that appears explicitly from the very first lines of her journal.6 She liquidates professional positions, even political ones, because they are toxically compromising: anything that accumulates and shines, like an electric device, must be dismissed. In a telephone conversation with her sister Marta on January 30, 1973, Lonzi, invited to meet Juliet Mitchell, simply replies that because Mitchell is an academic, she is not interested. After this episode, Lonzi describes Marta’s reverence for culture as an attempt by her sister to reduce her inferiority through an ingenuous sacrifice for a small and suffocating elite.7 “I so much wish she would come down from the stratosphere,” Lonzi writes. A merciless poem on Marta’s daily activities follows (whose final line gives the book its title8). In the poem, the paratactic series of duties that characterize the life of a cultivated bourgeois woman—from feeding her children to translating Plato, from buying clothes to fulfilling social obligations—is chaotically enumerated, to show how meaningless such an effort can be. The attempt to perform in all of these fields can only lead to schizophrenia and solitude: the dream of being a militant, an intellectual, an accomplished person, a mother, and a spouse appears as pathetic and dangerous. This open secret needs to be told over and over again, because without a radical change of perspective, women won’t truly have any other model for subjectivizing themselves—no matter how rebellious and anti-conformist they are, no matter what their sexual preferences are. In the preface to her journal, Lonzi gives her final word on the feminine skill of multitasking: “For me, doing one thing has a value because it prevents me from doing two.”9
A day earlier, she laconically remarked that Sylvia Plath “wouldn’t have died if, rather than acting like a writer, she had simply written about herself to free herself.”10 Lonzi’s own writings don’t exist to prove something or to inscribe themselves in a pantheon, a genealogy, a constellation. They come from the exploration of the abyss of solitude and pain, and they seek out the frightening emptiness of freedom. They are sledge hammers for destroying the palace of culture that men build higher and higher every day and for showing it for what it truly is: a fortress made only to exclude.
What is interesting in her conceptual and political operation is the total absence of a need to fight patriarchy with its own weapons: men must just be “abandoned to themselves,” which in no way means that they should be avoided or treated like enemies. Abandoning men to themselves comes down to refusing to play into the mythology of a complementarity constructed entirely at the expense of women. It means rejecting a sexuality that is nothing but a form of colonization. She writes:
The fact that women are objectified by patriarchal culture appears clearly in the difference between the destiny of adult men and adult women. Men create an attraction through their personality that gives an erotic halo even to their decay. Women realize brutally that the fading of their physical freshness awakens, in the best case, a form of tolerance that avoids or delays erotic exclusion. Men use myth, women don’t have sufficient personal resources to create it. Women who have tried to do so by themselves have endured such stress that their lives have been shortened by it.11
Lonzi’s personal life isn’t immune to this contradiction. This is probably where the inestimable value of her journal lies, when it shows how difficult and destructive her choices can be on a daily basis. The last pages and years of Shut up, rather speak are less and less populated by the collective of women, and are more and more centered on her relationship with her partner, Pietro, more concerned with the challenge of overcoming jealousy and finding a livable balance. We see her unspectacular, obscure, quotidian revolt, her absolute refusal to indulge her own weaknesses. Sometimes we can become exasperated: her lack of sympathy for herself can make empathy almost impossible for the reader. But this fearless exploration of contradictions, even when it leads to a dead end, is even more heroic if considered in relation to the peaks of strength that she reaches during the early years of Rivolta Femminile. It is fascinating to see how easily she abandons the positions of power she has attained through her writing. For example, on August 14, 1972, she writes:
At first I was accused of dialectical ability by the people who wanted to knock up thoughts at a lower level: I have used it to dismantle the danger of subculture and approximation. I have defended my intuitions with a line of reasoning that didn’t add anything to the thoughts of these women but that protected them from the common confutations of the masculine world. This allowed the feminists to abandon the suspicion that the absence of men from the meetings meant that men, with their argumentations, would have made us clam up.12
By putting her intellectual power at the service of the feminist cause and by deciding to simply give it up in order to concentrate on herself, Lonzi refused to capitalize on her positions of power within and outside the collective. She said she wanted to finally get rid of the residue that the passage through the masculine world had left on her. She wanted to give up theoretical writing. The ease with which she abandoned her intellectual privilege is puzzling when we measure the importance of her writing, but somehow it is totally coherent: she could only find power in her lack of attachment to writing as a cultural practice. In fact, her skepticism towards culture is the very source of her theoretical strength.
In “La donna clitoridea e la donna vaginale” (The clitoridian woman and the vaginal woman), Lonzi demolishes psychoanalytic fallacies regarding women’s pleasure. She reveals how an autonomous feminine sexuality, one that dissociates the sex act from reproduction—even within heterosexual relationships—can be the starting point for a different type of subjectivization for women. For Lonzi, being a clitoridian woman has not only sexual connotations, but existential and political ones as well. Whenever “a woman claims a sexuality of her own where the orgasmic resolution isn’t connected to any mental condition that accepts slavery,” then
she begins thinking in the first person and she doesn’t listen to any enticement … She doesn’t want to hear emphatic points of view about sex, unity, pleasure. Finally, in full possession of her sexuality, no one can convince her that her efforts will be rewarded and that the pleasure of a moment will be worth a life of slavery.13
In the Italian feminist ultra-left of Lonzi’s time, a deep connection between knowledge of oneself—especially of one’s own pleasure—and satisfaction was regarded as the only way to reach autonomy. There was a vivid awareness that colonization operates through the mind and the body, and the only way to reach freedom was working on one’s own subjectivity.
What is probably unique in Carla Lonzi’s work is the search for a balance that can maintain this independence, joy, and pleasure for women—a search for the formula for the reproduction of what one could call the “revolt force.”
If her oeuvre is representative of the Italian Seventies—although it truly has its own incommensurable specificity—it is because it completely identifies politics with the existential space, with the practices of subjectivization and desubjectivization. This element constituted the strength and the weakness of the struggles of that time and, inevitably, the complication of handling what is left of them.
From this perspective, a politically precious document is Lonzi’s Vai pure (Now you can go), a dialogue with her partner, Pietro Consagra.14). Here, her separation from Consagra is clinically documented through a transcription of their recorded conversations. The dialogue also represents Lonzi’s ultimate separation from the art world and its ethics. Lonzi in fact abandoned her profession of art critic when she quit her illusions about the freedom of artists, when she understood that the possibilities offered by the creative space don’t come without the compromises and mythologies that the artistic profession is based upon.15
In Vai pure, the couple becomes a sort of metaphor, a theater where the forces of society play out. Work and the labor of love are the two poles around which the discussion revolves: Lonzi and Consagra are separating because Lonzi doesn’t let him work the way he would like. Lonzi says:
If one gives priority to the production of the artwork, to the detriment of the human relationship, the human relationship inevitably cannot fulfill itself, because the two things are competing against each other … The human relationship is instrumental. That is generally true. When conflicts take place, like between you and me, there are no chances because you give more value to the artwork, and the whole of society is behind you in this. The fact that I get scandalized doesn’t bother you at all because you are integrated within society, so you don’t see any damage to human relationships because it is totally accepted and nothing counts but the artwork … From the moment I become a negative element that you resent, you say, “It’s better for me to be by myself or to look for other types of contacts,” because they are contacts, and not relationships … Then you say, “All right, I will live without human relationships,” but in that dreamy atmosphere that you have always carried with you, which is the mark of your culture, whatever that is, you think that doing this will help to develop your artwork.16
Lonzi delivers her objections from the standpoint of the human relationship as a means without an end. She dangerously unmasks the demon of work and the gender struggle hidden inside love.
In her diagnosis of the situation, it is tempting to compare her position to the position of the artist confronted by the professional apparatus: women, she explains, haven’t rebelled against the myth of society because even in their private lives they are still crushed, unrealized, oppressed. They cannot even reach the doorstep of life with sufficient stability, because they start with a handicap. They look for love and a relationship with a male partner, but this relationship will only take place in a way that reinforces the partner, helps him to face the world from a stronger position. A woman’s need for love was indeed created by patriarchy to help men succeed in life. Women give love an independent value, while men give it an instrumental one. “And then men,” she writes, “recuperate this love as an absolute value in the arts, in poetry, in the artworks that live and grow through these non-relationships. Therefore men, after preventing [women] from living love, offer to them its symbol as an object.”17
The sublimation involved in artmaking is politically unacceptable to Lonzi. She talks about a demand that art makes at the expense of human relationships, and Consagra cannot really contradict her because he claims that an artist needs the “complicity” of his partner to go forward, a complicity that is more than simple support. When Lonzi asks for another example, he says, “One cannot make love with someone who is whistling.”18
What is interesting in this dialogue is that Consagra, as a man, seems to embody the artwork and its professional values, while Lonzi embodies a desire for radicalism, a need to unmask the violence of productive dynamics, and the possibility of living a life without a frame, a life that questions itself and intensifies itself without hiding behind obligations, habits, opportunism—a life that is, in fact, truly an artwork. By the end of the book, farewells have become inevitable. Lonzi says:
I don’t know how to name it. We eat lunch with the feeling that you have to go to the studio, you come back in the evening with the feeling that you must recharge your batteries and in the morning you are off to the studio again … Even when we are at Elba Island [on holiday], you don’t want to go climbing on the rocks, because you want to work on a drawing, on a project, on something, and you accuse me of stealing time from your work. You give me the remainder of your time in the afternoon. We don’t walk around the island, we don’t take walks, we meet people only and exclusively for work, we have restricted the world for ourselves to the people that are interested in your work, whoever they are, clever people or idiots, but it is the work that counts. You must understand that our whole life is structured by work, all of it, that we are never together for ourselves. It’s just a pause, a rest from work. The vital, conscious, and active moment, the promised land is work … You don’t have a schedule, you don’t have a job, you don’t have obligations, but you create a more constraining situation than if you had a job and a boss.19
Consagra then responds, “Then you make a program for life, you make the program.” In this remark, all the tragedy unfolds: Lonzi needs to escape from the very logic of the program, she doesn’t want to internalize obligations and organize a plan. She tells Consagra how all this makes her feel desperate, and in the last lines of the book she asks, “Do you understand me?” Consagra answers, “For sure.” Then she says, “Now you can go.”20