AFTER THE DEATH OF NANNI BALESTRINI [by Raúl Sánchez Cedillo]

Nanni Balestrini | Clacson, 1969

 

Nanni Balestrini passed away on 20 May 2019, at the age of almost 84. Writer and poet, revolutionary activist, visual artist, publisher. Now the necessary task begins of collecting and publishing a vast and varied body of work, hardly known to the wide majority of people who follow literature, poetry, design and performance art.

More than simply being Italian, Balestrini was a Milanese character. It will be difficult for us to understand his trajectory if we do not take into consideration the importance of Milan during the republican postwar period, the city we see in Antonioni’s The Night, industrial and commercial, bourgeois and working class, but above all the centre of both the publishing industry and the emerging contemporary art market. Milan was the counterpoint to Togliatti’s PCI Rome, if you like, the melting pot of popular nationalist ideology. Milan was something else: the intellectual motor of Italian capitalism and, therefore, prey to the need for an intellectual labour power that no longer corresponds to the Gramscian figure of the organic intellectual, but one that breaks directly into the cultural production mechanisms of advanced Fordist capitalism, in which the cultural content of the goods, their “immaterial” component, becomes increasingly important. In this scene marked by the “subsumption” of the intellectual workforce, grew the Balestrini who eventually became part of the editorial team of Il Verri magazine, founded by Luciano Anceschi and situated in the terrain of what was known as the neoavanguardia, an experimentalist point of view towards literature with a special attention to literary language as such. From this milieu emerged the Gruppo 63, Balestrini’s first collective foray into aesthetic political action. As is the norm, the literary group barely had an impact in the 1963 that gave it its name, but, unlike other literary avant-gardes that became part of the literary canon decades later, Gruppo 63 is hardly known in present-day Italy. Though the same cannot be said about its members: in addition to Balestrini himself, and the aforementioned Luciano Anceschi, other members of the group included Achille Bonito Oliva, Umberto Eco, Furio Colombo and Edoardo Sanguineti, along with other consecrated or highly consecrated names in contemporary Italian and European literature. In its manifesto, in which Balestrini took part, the meaning of the group is exposed:

In fact, behind that name there was a spontaneous movement caused by an acute impatience towards the dominant state of all things literary: works that could perhaps even be considered decent but that for the most part lacked vitality . . . They were the last flare-up of neorealism in literature, a faint populist echo of the great cinematographic period of the Rossellinis or the De Sicas.

These were the emerging issues that, in parallel, would receive an exhaustive treatment from the Rome-based group of operaista magazine Quaderni Rossi, through the pen of Alberto Asor Rosa, author of Scrittori e popolo, an Italian classic on populism in literature, whose criticism was aimed at, among others, the Pier Paolo Pasolini of Ragazzi di vita, and of the poem that gave rise to the expression “political Pasolinism”, the well-known “The PCI for the Youth”, written on the occasion of the confrontation in Valle Giulia between police and students that marked the beginning of the Italian ’68. But let us not get too ahead of ourselves. The Balestrini of the early 1960s is immersed in precise and concentrated literary and artistic experimentalism. This approach is inseparable from collective work and construction. Balestrini’s main focus is directed towards the conditions of the production of text, to experimenting with the literary device itself. In the background is a practical critique of the institution of literature and its figureheads, beginning with the author, their intention, their condition as a (bourgeois) subject, owner of their word, and in full control of their enunciation. This is the period of his computer-generated poems (and he was probably the first to do it) Tape Mark I and II, created between 1961 and 1963 with an IBM 7070 computer and based on literary texts of different origins, whose combination was generated by applying an algorithmic rule designed by Balestrini himself. Of the hundreds of illegible verses, Balestrini selected the most interesting based on their poetic effect. The text “Language and Opposition”, written in 1961, corresponds to this period. In it Balestrini describes the poetry program of the present:

A fundamental approach for making poetry then becomes the “pestering” of words, ambushing them while they get tied up by periods, imposing violence on language structures, pushing all their properties to their breaking point. It concerns an attitude aimed at pursuing these properties, the intrinsic and extrinsic charges of language, and provoking those knots and those unprecedented and disconcerting encounters that can make poetry a veritable whip for the reader’s brain, which moves routinely and blindly, immersed to the forehead in the commonplace and repetition.

Thus, poetry as opposition. Opposition to the dogma and conformism that threatens our path, that solidifies the footprints left behind, that crushes our feet, attempting to immobilise our steps. Today more than ever, this is the reason for writing poetry. Today, in fact, the wall against which we throw our works is shock-resistant, soft and malleable it opens ajar without resisting the blows—except to trick and absorb them, and often manages to retain and incorporate them. It is therefore necessary to be much more cunning, more ductile and more skilful, in certain cases more ruthless, and to bear in mind that direct violence is completely ineffective in an era carpeted with viscous quicksand.

Much more ambitious was the production work for his first novel, Tristano. Here Balestrini’s idea was to use the same technique to produce a novel, whereby each copy would be different from the other, that is, a serial novel made up of copies containing a different story. However, neither the technical conditions of the period nor the disposition of the publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli made it possible. The novel was published with a single base text. Only recently has the original project been taken to press by the DeriveApprodi publishing house.

In this period we see an approach and certain works of enormous interest, but that do not abandon the ambivalence of the criticism towards modern art and culture that is common to structuralist works in the human sciences. The problem of the meaning of literary or artistic enunciation was not solved by means of experimental work, but was left wide open. The sovereign subject of literature remained off-centre, but the risk was that of the elimination of the ethical and political tension of the enunciation, absorbed by a transcendent and technocratic structural and combinatorial logic. It was necessary to return from structure to the collective subject of enunciation. From the chain of enunciations to the social and political process of narration.

That was the resolve of the collective effort behind Quindici magazine, in this case based in Rome, which was first published in 1967 with Balestrini as publisher. Quindici’s concerns were not too far from those of Gruppo 63, but he gave them a focus more linked to the portents of what was to come, and in particular to the beginning of the student protests and the anti-imperialist struggles in Vietnam and Latin America. The vast epicentre of ’68 was to be decisive for the future of Quindici. The conditions, meanings and stakes of cultural work had taken a Copernican turn. Precisely that tension led to the end of the magazine in 1969, and to the separation of paths among its protagonists: some at the service of the workers’ and student struggles that reached incandescence in 1969; others to enter the publishing industry to whose modernisation they had contributed so much.

During the Quindici period, the militant transformation of Nanni Balestrini takes place and, as we shall see, will not cease to have an effect on his work. The growing politicisation of the magazine led Balestrini to come into contact with the groups and individuals who were the protagonists of the struggles, among them one of the great figures of the Roman ’68, and later of the Italian “long ’68” and working class autonomy, Oreste Scalzone. Thanks to the meeting with Scalzone, Balestrini would participate in the founding of Potere Operaio, the main group of political operaismo together with Lotta Continua. During this period, Balestrini works for the Giangiacomo Feltrinelli’s publishing house, the same publisher that, after the terrible massacre in Piazza Fontana on 12 December 1969, organised by the Italian secret services in direct connection with the command of the Atlantic alliance and armed fascist groups, decides to go underground.

The “Hot Autumn” of the “mass worker” struggles, but especially the episodes of the previous summer at the FIAT factory in Turin, with the great battle of Corso Traiano in the massive Mirafiori complex, are the living material that makes up We Want Everything, the quintessential operaista novel. In it there is both experimentation and a search for a mass audience. The novel was a great success. The structure becomes the subject. Collective, polyphonic, without ceasing to be individuated. Alfonso, a FIAT worker, recounts the process of the struggles, the assemblies, the employer and police repression, while his story is mixed with texts from the leaflets of the workers’ assemblies and groups like Potere Operaio:

Comrades, let us refuse work. We want all the power, we want all the wealth. It will be a long struggle, years, with successes and setbacks, with defeats and advances. But this is the struggle that we have to start now, a violent fight to the end. We must fight to end work. We must fight for the violent destruction of capital. We must fight against a State founded on work. We say: yes to working-class violence.

In We Want Everything, the epos of the workers’ struggles is presented as abstract subjectivist work in that it is an ungovernable, autonomous, collective labour power that demands more wages for less work, without caring in the least about the country’s macroeconomic balance. Let us dwell for a moment on the way in which that effect, that result or transformation, is the product of a precise concatenation between technique, form and content. He who wrote the text you are now reading was surprised to learn, years after reading the novel, that much like in Tristano or Tape Mark I and II, the source texts for We Want Everything were not “created” by Balestrini; nor are they, as in the work of Dos Passos, a collage of public texts alongside images and situations fruit of the author’s imagination. Balestrini’s role is more that of a sampler, a remixer, a text jockey that treats textual flows and sources with metrical and combinatorial rules. The protaonist’s story is the result of a conversation with Alfonso Natella, a member and activist of Potere Operaio. “Documentary” material, metrical and combinatorial treatment: epos of the mass worker as a revolutionary subject:

What truly interests me are two things. For me, art is a question of form, not content. I’ve spoken about these things by chance, because I was passionate about them. I experienced the 1970s from the inside but I could’ve written about other things. If I hadn’t been in Italy for example… What interests me is the way in which I’ve written these books from two angles. One is the idea of the epic as opposed to the traditional bourgeois novel, whose protagonist confronts society and most of the time ends up badly; and if she is a woman, always ends up dead. What I call an epic belongs to the genre of the collective social history of a people who struggle, and that’s why my characters have no name. They’re not bearers of a psychology that individualises them, they are collective characters, they are any FIAT worker, any militant, etc. For me, this is a fundamental choice. I don’t write novels these days because I simply can’t find collective characters any more.
[Iván Maté, “Chi vuole tutto non muore mai, Nanni Balestrini”, Contrabandos, 2016.]

But Balestrini’s militant work during this period is not limited to the production of novels. He is in charge of the design, layout and printing of Potere Operaio newspaper, and produces several typographic collages for the group, which today continue to impress due to their combinatorial beauty. The first beats of the 1970s in Italy mark a turning point in the course of the popular and workers’ struggles. On the one hand, the high point of the mass workers’ struggles is settled with conquests on a legal and institutional level: the workers’ statute, one of the most advanced in the world, and the factory councils, an institutional mediation that only relatively displaces the hegemony of trade union representation. On the other hand, however, in tune with the organised response of the elites of the Atlantic system and the conclusions of the Trilateral Commission on the “limits of democracy”, the “strategy of tension” that began with the state massacre of Piazza Fontana becomes systematised in provincial Italy.

In this context, the groups born during the workers’ movement of 1968, Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua, not only experience the crisis of the generalisation of the struggles, but are also drawn into an extremist dynamic that does not correspond with the average behaviour in the factories. Meanwhile, in the FIAT factory, the introduction of the first automatic systems in the manufacturing process, used tactically against the sabotaging capabilities of the strikes, begin in 1973. The spring of 1973 is that of the armed occupation of FIAT Mirafiori, a battle won but which tastes of defeat, because the mastermind of capital had already decided that tactical automation in large factories, and the displacement of the production of surplus value to the territory, were to give way to what years later would be called “post-Fordism”. Within the workers’ vanguards, the point of view of a separate armed resistance begins to grow. In other words, this is the moment when the Red Brigades begin to become a benchmark for the most qualified and politicised sectors in the factories. Meanwhile, the admonitions of the Trilateral begin to collect pieces: the coup d’état carried out by Kissinger and Pinochet against Allende’s Unidad Popular in Chile led the PCI secretary general, Enrico Berlinguer, to formulate the proposal based on the “historical compromise” with the Christian Democracy party and make the decision to not govern alone, even though it had obtained 51% of the votes.

In this dense field of tensions, which would mark Italian society to this day, Balestrini is fundamentally dedicated to political work. Once again he finds himself among the instigators of the Autonomia Operaia project, with its epicentre in metropolitan Milan, in which the new driving forces of the socialised workforce—the Circoli del Proletariato Giovanile, the free radios, the first occupations of social centres, the emerging feminist movement, the autonomist assemblies in the big factories—make up a new and rich movement which, in the metropolis, battles over the disputed territory with the employers. Between 1974 and 1976 he experiences an extraordinary period that helps mature the hypothesis of a new political subject and a new political figure of social production: the social or socialised worker. This is the premise of the newspaper Rosso (1973–1978), a guiding light in the Milanese autonomist galaxy, in whose production and design Balestrini takes part. The State’s strategy of tension and the (increasingly armed) response of the workers’ groups and proletarian youth, along with the role of the mass media in the design of said strategy and in the criminalisation of resistance is the object of La violenza illustrata [Illustrated violence], Balestrini’s third novel, published in 1976. Political violence is inseparable from its mediatised narrative. The first chapter of the novel collects the newspaper chronicles about the statements of US Marine Lieutenant William Calley at the judicial hearing on the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, committed on 16 March 1968 by US soldiers against several hundred unarmed civilians, to then, in the following chapter, move on to the newspaper chronicles about the autonomist “guerrillas” in the streets of Milan. In the rest of the chapters, Balestrini works with narrative materials in which the legitimation of violence is the push. Each of the chapters is headed with the names of the different narrative/institutional figures through which these acts of violence are narrated and justified, wherein all of them begin with the letter D: deposition, description, deduction, dissertation, digression, deportation, declaration, documentation, direction, demonstration. In the latter, under the subtitle of “Writing and destruction. Writing and liberation”, it states:

The feeling that your head explodes the feeling that an explosion can rip your head off the feeling that your spinal cord is compressing everything in your brain crumples the feeling that your soul pisses you out of your body. The need to seize the object from the closest possible distance in research or better said in illustration in reproduction. Or one can identify the meaning of the words one can only guess the use of hissing sounds it is absolutely unbearable prison officers visits courtyards seem like a movie headache uncontrollable flashes the construction of sentences the grammar the syntax. Reproduction as it is presented by the language of newspapers differs unequivocally from literary text uniqueness and duration are closely intertwined in the latter as are lability and repeatability in the former. The feeling of turning to ashes inside the feeling that if you could say what is happening it would come out like a stream of boiling water that boils for life. Instead of basing writing on ritual the foundation is established on another praxis that is its being based on politics.

As we know, the high points of the spectacularisation of this violence lie between two different events which took place between 1977 and 1978. On the one hand, in the spring of 1977 a new type of movement emerges in various cities across Italy, mainly in Rome, Bologna and Milan. Its fundamental members are the autonomists, the Metropolitan Indians, the feminists. On 17 February 1977, the famous expulsion of the general secretary of the CGIL, Luciano Lama, from the Sapienza University of Rome by the Roman movement, marks the definitive break between the PCI and the new movements born in the Italian “long ’68”. But the main spectacularisation of the ’77 movement takes place in Milan, during the demonstration that took place on 14 May to protest against the arrest of the movement’s lawyers. At the end of the day there was an armed confrontation between an autonomous group separated from the bulk of the demonstration, the collective of the Porta Romana neighbourhood, which started a shootout with the police in the central Via de Amicis, as a result of which police officer Antonio Custra fell dead. The famous photograph of the hooded youth in firing stance with his Walther P38 was taken at that moment. That snapshot perfectly encapsulates the media operation to distort both the ’77 and autonomist movements. Gunslinging, despair, individualisation. Umberto Eco contributed notably to this in an article about that photo published in the Corriere d’informazione:

This photo is unlike any of the images that had served as an emblem of the idea of revolution for at least four generations. This image evokes other worlds, other narrative and figurative traditions that have nothing to do with the proletarian tradition, with the idea of popular revolt, of mass struggle. The collective element remains, but the individual hero displays the terrifying isolation of the heroes of American police films or the lone gunmen of the Wild West.

The photograph became one of the icons of the so-called Years of Lead. Recently, Sergio Bianchi, then a young militant of a Milanese autonomous collective in the orbit of Rosso magazine and the vocal source for Balestrini’s The Unseen, wrote the book Storia di una foto [Story of a photo], in which he reconstructs what happened in a completely different sense from Umberto Eco’s description. That photo hid the essentials: they were not individual, desperate gunmen. The other photographs of the incident prove it. The “autonomist with the P38” in the photograph was part of the Porta Romana autonomous collective that organised the action, he was just another person who was part of that incident. Individualisation makes it difficult to understand what was happening in the city in the confrontation between the forces of the “historical compromise”, the Christian Democrats and the Communist Party of Italy, united against subversion and determined to forcefully eliminate that revolutionary anomaly. We must keep in mind that the armed violence of the revolutionary groups in Italy was always defensive, a response to the strategy of tension organised from within the State, which resulted in the use of weapons against social protest and in dozens and dozens of protesters killed by the police.

The other high point is, without a doubt, the kidnapping and subsequent assassination of Aldo Moro in 1978. That coup by the Red Brigades was directed against what they envisioned as the “heart of the State”, but also against the galaxy of workers’ and proletarian autonomy. The State of the “Historic Compromise” responded with the “line of firmness”, and the outcome is known to us all. The death sentence against autonomy and the ’77 movement had been pronounced. That photo of the captivity of Aldo Moro, an isolated prisoner, a bargaining chip between the BRs and the Italian State, only contributed to giving it a tragic humanity.

Following the kidnapping and assassination of Aldo Moro, the galaxy of workers’ autonomy ran out of time and space to prosper, or even persist or resist. The situation became particularly serious in Milan, where the Rosso scene, to which Balestrini belonged, had its epicentre. During the course of a few months, the territory of the Milanese metropolis, which seemed to be the most favourable ecosystem for the revolutionary hypothesis of the social worker, became an unbreathable and dangerous hell for autonomous struggles. The strategy of tension had triumphed. The ways of life rehearsed during the years of the explosion of post-socialist behaviour (the rejection of assembly line work and of alienating work in general, life in community, the transformations and tensions of gender relations, the direct re-appropriation of goods, the move towards more cognitive and affective work, the occupation of collective living spaces) were dragged into a spiral of militarisation that made them unsustainable. A large number of feminist women decided to abandon this war-like scenario, while the autonomist groups were torn apart by the tensions towards the militarisation of the movement and the impossibility of practising a directly communist transition, both in the struggles and in the exercising of counter-power.

There is no political defeat that is accompanied, in its occurrence, by the awareness of its causes, just as one cannot know both the position and linear momentum of a particle at the exact same time. Yet for the most veteran of Milanese autonomists, a great many signs announced a catastrophic event. Some of them were experienced by Balestrini in the first person. There is one that usually goes unnoticed, and that is the role played by the Milanese progressive bourgeoisie during those years. Not only did their sons and daughters nurture the ranks of the various groups and collectives; they were also sympathetic towards the movement, and even ended up financially supporting many of the political and business initiatives in the autonomist realm.

I moved to Milan in 1975 and set up a publishing house called Ar&a, which was actually a consortium of publishing projects established in order to share the load of certain functions that are very expensive for a small publisher, such as writing, sales and advertising. Some already existed, others were set up for the occasion: there were Libri Rossi, L’Erba Voglio, the publishers of Aut Aut magazine, Squilibri and others. We ended up bringing together ten of these projects, which allowed us to be publishers without having all the professional skills to do so, seeing as Ar&a took charge of all that: layout, typography, advertising and distribution. It all ended up stalling because of the repression, which in those years was beginning to toughen. For example, I was sent several search warrants, but above all—and this only became known somewhat later—there was another key factor. One of the partners in the project was Luigi D’Urso, a friend of Bifo’s, who was from a very wealthy family. His father was an important lawyer. In the beginning Luigi had put money into the Ar&a project and worked with me and with the others, and obviously this caused trouble; so much so that one morning in 1977, in Rome, a Carabinieri brigade went to the father’s house to explain that his son was up to no good. His parents got scared, grabbed their son and sent him abroad, and everything was paralysed, and they also lost a lot of money. At that point the environment was very harsh; I thought about creating a magazine that would position the intellectuals in front of that situation, to face what was happening. In the early years there had been an almost moving enthusiasm on the part of the intellectuals; when the game started to get tough, with the heavy repression and the birth of the Red Brigades, they began to retreat, not all of them, but certainly some of them did. The general retreat took place after Moro’s kidnapping and in the early 1980s.
 [“Intervista a Nanni Balestrini”, Commonware, 20 May 2019.]

By 1978, the Rosso scene was already immersed in a process of decay. The newspaper stopped being published and its historic headquarters on Via Disciplini, in the centric Milanese neighbourhood of Ticinese, ended up closing down. This second half of the 1970s motivates Balestrini to resume writing poetry. From 1974 he begins to compose what would become the series of Le ballate della signorina Richmond [Miss Richmond’s Ballads], undoubtedly Balestrini’s most important poetic work. Miss Richmond functions as a poetic operator of ironic distance, of the implacable gaze on Italian cattocomunista culture and politics, that works and reworks the textual materials of the present time to then pour them into quatrains with fierce intelligence. Miss Richmond’s appearances would not end with the political catastrophe of 7 April 1979, but continued throughout the 1980s, when the “consociative” regime formed by the DC and the PCI gave way to the Pentapartito governments, in which Craxi and Andreotti managed a bacchanal of corruption, privatisation and destruction of the official workers’ movement that would end in 1993, less than fifty years after the Republic’s birth in 1948. In the first instalment of the Ballate series, written between 1974 and 1977 and whose chapters were first published in magazines such as Linus, an antiphon appears amidst Lama’s unfinished speech at the University of Rome on 17 February 1977 and the slogans, ironic and irreverent, of the students, autonomists and Metropolitan Indians which, as we know, led to the escape of the CGIL secretary along with his service of order, thus marking the final divorce and antagonism between the PCI, its organic bloc and the movements of the Italian “long ’68”:

XI. MISS RICHMOND PROPOSES THAT THE LAMAS STAY IN TIBET

the workers have come here
to discuss to speak to listen calmly
today’s demonstration will not take place
in Chile the tanks in Italy the unions

as someone said with the tanks
thousands of workers and students want to
meet to discuss a problem
lama or no lama lama or no lama

vital to all of society we are deeply
in agreement with the demands expressed today
by the youth of renewal and change
more work less pay more work less pay

from the university and from all over the country
the student protest is just the issues raised
are ours precisely for this reason we say
more sacrifices more sacrifices more sacrifices

that the groups that aim to separate
the students from the workers’ and popular movements
manifestly work for the common enemy
some people don’t lama some people don’t lama

to those forces external and internal to
the university that does not want change
it is necessary to give rational and real objectives
less holidays more exploitation more hours less pay

to a protest that results in otherwise is in danger
of remaining in nihilistic rejection
and in angry and exasperated reaction
nobody lamas nobody lamas

to the serious problems of the university
to those who scream that we want to bury
the movement we respond
the pc is not here lick that ass over there dc

that we’ve never thought to act
without and much less against the great
youth masses we must fight and overcome together
Argan and Paul VI united in the struggle

the great battle for renewal
of the whole of society defeat and overcome
fascism’s reactionary temptations
Andreotti is red Fanfani will soon be too

the involutionary provocations all violence
or irrational temptation that breaks
the windows that destroys the faculties
who doesn’t lama doesn’t make love

it doesn’t affect Malfatti but harms
the students’ cause the workers’ movement
and there is no rhetoric in all this
shoot up Luciano shoot up

he has fought fascism too
diligently defending the factories
preventing their destruction we are
boss power boss power

we have come here with neither the strength nor
the paternalistic arrogance of having the
fair line in our pocket we want to discuss
lama frustrate us lama frustrate us

with everyone what path should we take
what are the goals of our struggle
it is necessary that from today we get
lama now and free of charge

together a common mobilisation effort
to isolate and defeat the patent and
masked enemies of our cause
now’s the time now’s the time misery for all who work

we’ve been in an open conflict for two years
and a half over the university that affects thousands
of teachers of workers of the precarious
we’ll pay for it all we’ll pay for it all

that struggle will be led by
the trade union confederations with all their
weight and effort we must end
unions and pci fascism is all we see

that conflict soon and well to then open
a constructive and proficient discussion
on the profound reform of the university
fool fool fool fool

this structure today marked by deficiencies
insufficiencies inabilities and for a
fundamental class closure that excludes
houses no shacks yes houses no shacks yes

thousands of workers of workers’ children
from the right to culture and study
we want a different university that praises
35 lira 500 hours 35 lira 500 hours

the detailed study effort
of young people to change the country
needs qualified contributions
get out get out the new police

from technicians and intellectuals we cannot
waste the youth’s energy
it is necessary instead to transform
lama is mine and I manage it

the anger and protest that are born
from a condition of exasperated marginalisation
of young people who today lack a perspective
long live the sacrifices long live the sacrifices

of politically driven work
of positive renewal

please lama don’t go
we still want lots of police

On 7 April 1979, the major repressive operation against Autonomia Operaia takes place. With it, Pietro Calogero, assistant to the prosecutor of the city of Padua and closely linked to the Venetian PCI, seeks to attribute the responsibility of the entire armed struggle and all subversion in Italy since the Hot Autumn of 1969 to the group of militant intellectuals of operaismo and autonomy. The epicentre of what Calogero calls the Organisation, with a paranoid O, was to be found at the University of Padua and had its head, its “bad teacher”, in Toni Negri, who was accused of organising an “armed insurrection against the powers of the State” (a criminal offence created during fascism but which survived the anti-fascist constitution of 1948) and, last but not least, of being the mastermind behind the kidnapping and assassination of Aldo Moro. The story is well known. In the crosshairs of what Calogero himself called his “theorem” was also Nanni Balestrini, who by a joyful turn of fortune escaped arrest and was able to escape over the Alpine border, like so many other thousands of heretics and rebels from the peninsula throughout history:

I had no idea I was one of the people they were searching for. I was in Milan; there were three people who hadn’t been arrested yet: one was [Franco] Piperno, then there was [Giambattista] Marongiu, who was on the ferry from Sardinia to Italy, and then there was a third person, but the newspapers claimed they didn’t know who that was. I bought a newspaper one afternoon, a week after the arrests, and read on the front page that the third wanted man was Balestrini. I immediately began thinking about escaping, went to stay at an unsuspected friend’s place, then went to meet my sister in Courmayeur, and then, dressed as a skier, crossed the border skiing. I made it into France and went to Paris. They searched for me in Rome at the home of an ex-partner of mine, Letizia Paolozzi, but it’s still not clear why they didn’t look for me in Milan; some say they didn’t really want to find me.

From exile in France, Balestrini could take measure of the ongoing personal and political tragedy. He then decided to dedicate a project he had been developing since 1977 to those persecuted on 7 April, a lyrical piece called Blackout, in reference to the 1977 blackout in New York and the phenomena of subversion and re-appropriation it sparked during that infernally hot July. Balestrini wanted Demetrio Stratos to be the performer of the piece. Stratos was his friend, but above all a great sound artist and vocalist, revolutionary activist and singer in Area, a band that was closely linked to the Bolognese ’77 movement. Stratos’ sudden death in 1979 put an end to the initial performance project. But from its ashes rose a poem that expresses the varied meanings of the blackout, in which the violence of the political and social contexts of the moment resounds.

The poem is made up of four sections, each 12 pages long. Each section is headed by one of the definitions of the term ‘blackout’: “a loss of memory of an event or fact”; “the extinguishing of all stage lights to end a play or scene”; “suppression, censorship, concealment, etc.”; “A momentary lapse of consciousness or vision”. After each definition there is a second title, this time in Italian, followed, in parentheses, by a second subtitle, corresponding to a tempo of interpretation of a classical sonata: “Transformation (allegro)”, “Instigation (andante)”, “Persecution (minuetto)”, “Inhibition (rondò)”. The agogic indications of the poem allude to a different temporal scansion for each section which, in its interpretation, are designed to influence its reading. A remnant perhaps of the original multimedia project with Demetrio Stratos. For its conclusion, the author introduces a section titled “Composition”, which is made up of a diagram and the ensemble of texts—in the section titled “Sources”—used by him as compositional materials for the work. Precisely this last section, along with the initial images, allows for a better understanding of its structure. The second image displays a square divided into four horizontal “strips”, in the same way that the poem is subdivided into four sections. The twelve smaller rectangles in each strip correspond to the twelve pages in each section. Each horizontal strip is thus divided into four squares, each of which is subdivided into two right-angled triangles by a diagonal line that divides them from the bottom left, in such a way that each triangle on the right is equal to the triangle to the left of the following triangle. Thus, horizontal strips are formed in the centre of it, images of parallelograms that create an effect of “wave-like” displacement from square to square. This displacement reflects the movement of insertion of the stanzas of each source, seeing as each geometric figure corresponds exactly to one of the sources used by the author for the composition. In this combination, disparate textual sources are mixed, giving rise to a heterogenesis of an enunciation that goes beyond the signifying text and even the text grammar, given that photographic fragments that relate to the events referred to in the poem are integrated into the composition. Perhaps Blackout’s original approach is closer to what Félix Guattari would later define as machinic orality, that is, the reconstruction of the polyphony and multiplicity of the substances of expression in enunciation, against and beyond grammatical, institutional, individual, personological, algorithmic sutures, but under the new anthropological conditions of the machine body of a capitalist production system which disguises itself as life.

A tourist guidebook of Mont Blanc; articles taken from the Italian press about the tribute concert to Demetrio Stratos; articles and reports about the New York blackout that ap- peared in the Italian press; fragments of Toni Negri’s The Mass Worker and the Social Worker; newspaper reports on the fall of the Skylab space station; extracts by Ugo Foscolo; the arrest warrant for the “7 April” case, drawn up by public prosecutor Prieto Calogero; press photographs, including one of the brain of militant Giannino Zibecchi, crushed by a Carabinieri lorry in April 1975; the voice about the zombies in the book Il vampiro by Ornella Volta, etc. Such are the sources of the composition, woven exactly like a patchwork that enunciates the end of an era:

Blackout, “Instigation (andante)” (extract):

13.
the vocal chords do not vibrate as a result of the air pushed out by
the lungs but from impulses in the center of the brain

transplanting the spinal chord is a most difficult operation

the voice as an instrument of drives behind which there is an
entire universe of desires

attentive to the area that lies between the psychic universe and
the communication links between thought and word

the development of an absolute vocal system brought to the limits of discovery

each day it is necessary to completely wash away the blood

as someone said it was a performance that broke through the
current communication gap

the things I do are spoken about by everyone

sing with the voice to liberate it from the conditioning of a
cultural prison

an attempt to free ourselves from the condition of listener and viewer to which culture

and politics have accustomed us

when the lights went out the niggers raged boasted a black youth

after a few minutes the night was illuminated by fires the streets
invaded by looters

14.
hospitalized since April 25th in critical condition at Memorial
Hospital in New York with bone marrow aplasia

an attempt to free ourselves from the condition of listener and
viewer to which culture and politics have accustomed us

who considers every expressive frontier impoverished and
ventures beyond without fear

each day it’s necessary to completely wash away the blood

this work should not be assumed a listening that suffers passively

transplanting the spinal chord is a most difficult operation

bonfires in the streets an explosion of Afro-Latin vitality a
torchlight procession to lofty Broadway

the music was drowned out by the howling of alarms and the
sound of broken glass

for the vast majority in the streets it is a festival a Christmas
night a New Years in July

after a few minutes the night was illuminated by fires the streets invaded by looters

prices skyrocket but there won’t be pricing when we’re finished
Broadway won’t exist

a woman called me and said they are travelling on Bushwick Avenue like buffalos

15.
like a game in which lives are at risk

each day it is necessary to completely wash away the blood

it’s as if a fever had struck them they came out with trucks vans
caravans anything that could walk

a woman called me and said they are travelling on Bushwick avenue like buffalos

at 9:30 pm the lights went out at 9:40 pm they were already ravaging the shops

we’re going to take what we want and what we want is what we need

in the Bronx inside an Ace Pontiac reception room they knock down a steel door take 50 new cars start the motors simultaneously and then walk away

after a few minutes the night was illuminated by fires the streets invaded by looters

the metal grilles for the protection of shop windows are unhinged with crowbars knocked down by cars and torn with brute force

a fifty-year-old woman with a shopping bag enters a store saying today she shops for free

a third street was demolished as if it had been bombed reported a police official

the music was drowned out by the howling of alarms and the sound of broken glass

 [Nanni Balestrini, Blackout (Translated by Peter Valente), Oakland, CA: Commune Editions, 2017.]

The Italian counterrevolution not only produced a generation lost between prison, terrorism and, above all, heroin and depression. More than 7,000 people were arrested and prosecuted for political crimes during the second half of the 1970s and early 1980s. With its active and even dedicated support for the repression of the new workers’ and proletarian movements born during the Italian “long ’68”, the PCI would sign its own death sentence. As it struggled to make itself presentable to the Yalta- born Atlantic world, the restructuring of Italian capitalism ended its hegemony over the industrial working class. While it dedicated itself, with Stalinist fury, to expelling the autonomist workers from factories and the “bad teachers” from universities, a certain Silvio Berlusconi was preparing the hegemony of televised turbo-capitalism that would turn first Milan and then all of Italy upside down, putting an end to that “work-based Republic”, as stated in the first article of the Constitution of 1948.

That Milan in which Balestrini’s political and poetic projects were born had already become an object exorcised by the official chronicles of the Years of Lead, which served as the intimation of amnesia and the cancellation of the immediate past. During the 1980s, the Milan once invaded by the new ways of the proletariat youth and feminist protests became the Milan of paninari teenagers who dressed according to the most conventional codes of American fashion and proudly devoured their Big Macs; into the Milan that became the headquarters of Mediaset and therefore of a capitalism that now mainly exploited an immaterial, cognitive, creative labour power, born alongside the preceding cultural revolutions, exploiting it to the point of exhaustion and ethical and political decomposition. The Milan that would be sold in Italy and Europe as the “Milano da bere”. In those early stages of the decade, Nanni Balestrini found himself condemned to political exile in France. In Provence, he lived for a few months with Sergio Bianchi, a young autonomista from the outskirts of Milan who experienced the tragic and shattering parable of the ’77 movement. His voice would serve for the composition of what is undoubtedly Balestrini’s best-known novel published internationally, and the one that best connected with the new political subjectivities born in the 1990s, The Unseen. In it, incompossible worlds alternate: on the one hand, the revolt of the young proletarians of the Milanese hinterland, who flee to the Lombardian metropolis like Barbarians in search of ways of life and struggle that bring together knowledge, the rejection of work under employer submission, counter-power and the direct re-appropriation of wealth, a form of communism free of never ending mediations, either by (socialist) party or employer. On the other hand, the world of special prisons created to lock up thousands of autonomous militants and armed groups, where the horror of repression is compounded by the decomposition of the ethical and political fabric that had been created in the preceding decades and that was exacerbated with the defeat of brigadista terrorism: the assassinations of comrades who repent, revenge between groups, and the distant echo of an Italian society that had already become desensitised, by means of Canale 5 or omnipresent heroin, to the fate of those generations who wanted to change their destiny and that of the country.

Navigating between enthusiasm and defeat, a determining place in the novel is occupied by the development of the feminist subjectivation of female autonomist comrades, a fundamental process, insofar as it reveals the political and micro-political links between an autonomous practice that, under male domination, was incapable not only of expressing or exercising other forms of power and force, but also another sense of time, of the body; a practice ultimately incapable of exercising an autonomy based on an ontological difference in regard to the worlds of patriarchy and capital’s power of command. That historical schism within the movement of ’77 was to have dire consequences for the ecology of said movement and is still being felt today in the makeup of Italian protest movements:

the women at the centre talk more and more among themselves and if they’re talking about the men it’s clear that they’re not talking about them in the way that we talk about them typically male when you come down to it even there at the centre the women are always regarded as women in other words differently and the women who come to the centre are still given ratings sized up and gossiped about the usual stuff that men do everywhere and as time goes on the women emphasize their separate meeting times and separate conversations and if one of us goes up to them while they’re talking they chase him away after a bit we get pissed off because we can’t make it out we start teasing them and they turn aggressive they withdraw among themselves they go around in a group they leave in their cars without us they have private discussions and they give us dirty looks so what the hell has happened
one evening they don’t turn up at all and for the whole evening we talk about it we speculate with rumours and malicious gossip Cotogno is given the job of finding out about Valeriana even though he’s not too keen because he knows Valeriana be ter than we do and in fact Valeriana gives him short shrift as soon as he tries asking her questions she chases him away she tells him to mind his own business and stop spying for all the other shits which means us Lauro and Lupino have a try with Mora and Verbena just the same result and I try with China and we end up having a row everyone’s rattled a few days go by and we see a small group of them at the centre pinning up a poster on a wall it announces a meeting the next evening they’re fixing it with drawing pins and sellotape talking among themselves as if we weren’t there . . .
what shitty behaviour we all look at one another in amazement our eyes meeting Menta goes on you treat us like dirt and you even pretend to be surprised but as from today it’s over unless there are some changes we’re leaving well leave then shouts Ortica losing his temper what’s keeping you back ok it’s still Menta speaking but first we want to make it clear what shits you are what pieces of crap no different from other men despite giving yourselves airs as revolutionaries and the vanguard of the proletariat but in your relationships with us you’re the rearguard about the same level as my father and my grandfather Lupino is genuinely surprised but what’s going on what’s happened what’s this all about this is a funny way of doing things a funny way of discussing things you disappear for a week and you turn up again with a poster for a meeting ok and then you come here and tell us that we’re all shits I really don’t understand.
[Nanni Balestrini, The Unseen (Translated by Liz Heron), London: Verso, 2011.]

To understand the violence and density of the cancellation and the political and cultural repression of the Italian “long ’68”, absorbed by the ill-fated Years of Lead, amalgamated with a mortal sin against society, we have to go back to the horror of repression of the Paris Commune of 1871, the massacre, imprisonment and banishment of thousands of Communards, and the shame bestowed upon their memory. But the truth is that, although 30 or 40 years later the Paris Commune had become the patrimony of the international workers’ movement, to this day there are still political prisoners and exiles from that period of Italian history, while militants and intellectuals such as Toni Negri or Oreste Scalzone continue to be presented as “bad teachers” by the sombre heirs of the PCI, and continue to be charged with heinous crimes, even though the courts have ruled otherwise. It is necessary to take into account this exercise of repression and excision to understand the importance of the project to reconstruct those decades that Balestrini, together with Sergio Bianchi and Primo Moroni (a fundamental character of Italian and European culture and politics, who died in 1994), began to undertake in 1987, and would end up being The Golden Horde: Revolutionary Italy (1968–1977), a thick multi-voiced volume in which the processes, contexts, circumstances, agents and events in both the cultural and political fields of the Italian “long ’68” are reconstructed and narrated by some of its situated protagonists and interpreters. The Golden Horde is a milestone in the unapologetic reconstruction of those years, and enables the first critical interpretations and narrations of the main passages, as well as the signalling of discontinuities and turning points. It undoubtedly marks the beginning of the end of the Years of Lead and is presented as a tool at the service of the new generations of autonomous movements, who would experience a renaissance which began in the Milan conquered by the Lega Nord with the acts of resistance directed towards the successive eviction operations at the historic Leoncavallo social centre, in parallel to the global impact of the Zapatista uprising on 1 January 1994, and which led to a “silver age” of the Italian autonomous movements up until the mid-2000s.

With the composition in 1989 of L’editore [The publisher], a novel dedicated to the publisher and revolutionary Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who died on 14 March 1972 due to the explosion of the device that he himself was trying to place in a transmission tower on the outskirts of Milan as part of an action by the armed group he founded, the Gruppi d’Azione Partigiana, Balestrini puts an end to the trilogy of novels about the “long ’68”.

For Balestrini, the 1990s are marked by a return to poetic and cultural activity in the new Italian media, political and institutional landscape, dominated by the hegemony of Berlusconism and the slow and guilty agony of the progressive axes, inheritors of the PCI. Once again alongside Sergio Bianchi, he is present in the creation of fundamental magazines for critical thinking of a postoperaista nature, such as DeriveApprodi, which would become a publishing house, and which today is the main alternative Italian publishing company. For DeriveApprodi, Balestrini contributes poems which would later be collected in the anthology Caosmogonia e altro [Caosmogony and other things] (2017). But his main instrument of enunciation continued to be his novels, as always born of encounters with new realities. Yes, Balestrini’s novels respond to something fundamental: they are the testimony of encounter, of the clinamen of two worlds that intersect, and it is those worlds that speak. As Ilaria Bussoni wrote on the subject:

What always speaks is the impersonal nature of the circulating enunciations, which are consistently attached to a word function that can take on the form of a leaflet, a newspaper headline, a militant’s intervention in an assembly, or the choral refrain of the hinchas in the stadium stands. That’s why the material that the poetic operation extracts is always what has already been said, in whichever form. The thing is that Balestrini has earned the epithet of “the laziest writer to have ever existed”, of whom Umberto Eco affirmed that “exaggerating a bit, he’s never written a single word of his own”. Balestrini’s words have always been those of others, those capable of reverberating with reactivations and variations, repetitions and incipit, on the lives of others, agents of a diffuse and often collective narrative function, which finds their most suitable expressive format in the epic.
[Ilaria Bussoni, “La nuova vita che arriva. Una poetica per la vertigine della sovversione”, Opera viva, 19 June 2019.]

From these encounters, two novels were born that portray the social and subjective landscape of the popular classes of the Italy of the neoliberal counterrevolution, I furiosi [The furious] (1994) and Sandokan (2004). The former was born from the chance encounter between Balestrini and members of the Brigate Rossonere ultras group, Milan’s radical curva, established in the 1970s as a youth club linked to the autonomist movements but later transformed into a group that, having lost its political compass, functions as a machine of war, self-defence and survival for the Milanese proletariat.The latter tells the story of a boss of the Neapolitan Camorra, years before Roberto Saviano portrayed a justicialist and hypocritical version of the organisation in Gomorrah. The encounter is the condition of the procurement of collective enunciation:

We Want Everything was born from the encounter with Alfonso; The Unseen from the encounter Sergio Bianchi; I furiosi after having encountered the Brigate Rossonere at the Calusca bookshop in Milan. I liked the idea of telling the stories they told each other. The book about the Camorra is also this: casual, like the others. I went with Sergio to Aversa to present L’orda d’oro in a small bookshop, then we went to have pizza, and a young man who was at the talk began to tell me these stories. I’ve always tried to narrate collective stories, through the languages of those characters: instead of describing them, I use their language, and that’s already a description in itself. It’s more difficult these days, but of course I would like to include the precarious and migrants: but the precarious are scattered; to tell the story of a precarious person means telling a thousand stories, there isn’t just one that serves as an example; likewise, it’s difficult with migrants, their stories are highly individual, their lives follow their own course.
[“Intervista a Nanni Balestrini”.]

In the territory of poetry, Balestrini composed Caosmogonia in 2010, an extended poem in which a new political and poetic breath is felt, which would come into effect only a year later with the Arab springs, the 15M movement and Occupy Wall Street. In its fifth section, “Preliminary Instructions”, we read:

our world is disappearing
sunsets follow sunsets
you can hear its sonorous tear
the blood running the life that flees
on withered corroded sheets of paper
caressing the still visible words

caressing the still visible words
supreme famous fictions dissolve
on withered corroded sheets of paper
sunsets follow sunsets
in an immense hostile chaotic reality
we don’t know who we are or where

we don’t know who we’re going we’re going
old certainties depart
in an immense hostile chaotic reality
supreme famous fictions dissolve
our urgency for order is cancelled
in a grid of infinite possibilities

in a grid of infinite possibilities
we try each time with different words

our urgency for order is cancelled
old certainties depart
everything branches out decomposes gets mixed
experiments do not produce a yes or no

experiments do not produce a yes or no
but a continuous stream of possibilities
everything branches out decomposes gets mixed
we try each time with different words
no search for absolute answers
now that each development is marked by discontinuity

now that each development is marked by discontinuity
a radical and definitive break from evolutionism
not a search for absolute answers
but a continuous stream of possibilities
the question is where can the chain be broken
the main contradiction is constantly changing

the main contradiction is constantly changing
in the violence that disrupts everyday life
the question is where can the chain be broken
a radical and definitive break from evolutionism
materialistic contingency theory
the moment when the one gets split in two

the moment when the one gets split in two
observing the event from partial perspectives
materialistic contingency theory
in the violence that disrupts everyday life
in the variable duration of the circumstances
heterogeneous forces are composed on a common line

heterogeneous forces are composed on a common line
conforming to a non-predetermined relationship
in the variable duration of the circumstances
observing the event from partial perspectives
decompose and recompose into alternative equilibria
writing as a flux not a code

writing as a flux not a code
associative and cumulative constructions
decompose and recompose into alternative equilibria
conforming to a non-predetermined relationship
enriches the meaning by making it ductile
form freed from the swamp of syntax

form freed from the swamp of syntax
a sequence of images fired like slogans
enriches the meaning by making it ductile
associative and cumulative constructions
to make the reader a participant by resetting language
against abuse convention the emptying of meaning

against abuse convention the emptying of meaning
no longer dominated and dominant but force against force
to make the reader a participant by resetting language
a sequence of images fired like slogans
the attack must be meticulously prepared
from a revolutionary perspective

from a revolutionary perspective
another world is appearing
the attack must be meticulously prepared
no longer dominated and dominant but force against force
you can hear its sonorous tear
new life comes running through the blood

The last decade of Nanni Balestrini’s life was dedicated to a great endeavour, the founding of the new era of Alfabeta magazine, christened as Alfabeta2. The magazine began its publication in June 2010, with an editorial staff formed by Balestrini himself, María Teresa Carbone, Andrea Inglese and Andrea Cortelessa. This time the new Alfabeta would treat political issues on the same level as cultural ones, devoting sustained attention to creations of European political and critical thought, in attempts to animate an Italian intellectual scene plunged into the deepest apathy and conformism with the status quo, when not dominated by criminal justicialism which, after the Mani Pulite investigations and the hegemony of Berlusconism, became the creed of the inheritors of Gramsci and Togliatti’s PCI. The magazine had to abandon its printed publication in 2014 and become a website, active until Balestrini’s death, after which it was decided to terminate the company.

Nanni Balestrini continued to explore his poetic and political concerns until the end of his days, always in search of the emerging enunciation among the exploited and oppressed produced by the neoliberal capitalist regime. During the last months of his life, spent between France and Italy, the apprehension of the ontological alternatives that open up in the crisis of the civilization of capital did not escape him, as can be read in one of his final poems, Le radiazioni del corpo nero, with which I would like to end this text in memory of the Milanese poet and militant.

Black-body Radiations

What is a poetry if not an operation of language that deactivates its informative functions to make possible that particular and joyful use of language that we precisely call poetry? Giorgio Agamben

1
let’s not expect anything else turmoil and implosion
we did it all but
the crowd turned us in
I contemplate their greed
decomposition their unforeseeables
unstable contortions
the shadow of nothingness flutters around
unmasked in cracked
horizons for useless companies
there where we are lacking
dreamt sound sources
pulsating solstices explorations
or astounding illusions

2
recalcitrant hostages
we dive knowing everything
into intermittent landscapes
the weight is added
of atrophied commemorations
numbed phalanges
struggle to bite without
clinging without cause and without
blame we’ve seen
everything there isn’t
already unable to reestablish
a previous order
ill-fated dissolved
in discontinuous cancellation

3
brittle future bellows
delusional destinies
here we are still swollen
in the limping words
the undaunted ballad
in the final ring
on the shore of a dry sea
in which to sink memories
withered rapacious words
berated for the last time
battered in the empty sky
fits of rage to not succumb to
cynical conspiracies or
terrifying armistice

4
quick raids
steep ascents
always remain
cheeky metaphors
appear in the morning
soon they draw vowels
metaphysical figurations
come and go
rainbow fractions
alphabetic whisper
they multiply all around
heartrending sublimations
the lightning bolt destroys

5
triumphant exile
sweetly hasten
cracks in language
submerge outbreaks
chewed on spit out
discordant blowguns
mirror neurons reflect
to remind us who we are
words turned off
disintegrate mute
in the faded ink
discontinuous masturbations
from the window looking out
hangs the dead hand

6
verbal excrement
vertical ecstasy
it’s been good
uncertain verifications
shuddering invisible
iridescent beauties
in the open sky
anticipate burning
the future past
furious rips
prophetic vocalisations
programmed by symptoms
voluptuous symmetrical
inconsistent bowel movements

7
physically disconnected
absorbs everything without reflecting
outer worlds dissolve
eternal visions crumble
new laws expand
incandescent spectres
rarefied language
rhythmical unrest
emits energy waves
particles quanta
syntagmas flow
density frequency
semantic dissipation
tending towards infinity

8
mental emotion
the bird that perches
dare to invent
kill radiate
shredded images
torn up imaginaries
flutter around exhausted
variables in time
wavering certainties
liquefied words
scattered ashes
searching for minimums
in the cracks

9
locked inside
to crush is enough
dilates mixes
bare feet
die standing
muted clouds
bite the darkness
they often give up
elongated eyes collect
gasping fibrillation
brittle sparks
rapid roars
blood stains
chimerical dissipations

10
hands bearing down
burning alive
dawns float
smoking voices
hanging from the branch
enough running away
over the broken glass
rolled up instant
labile devour
feverish sublimations
the star implodes
after the collapse
pure poetry
we will make it

Paris, 17 August – Rome, 11 November 2018

 

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED HERE: AJUNTAMENT DE BARCELONA

 

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