Thursday, 7 August 2008


Reputedly Massimo Cacciari once suggested that workers would be better off taking Nietzsche’s The Will to Power as their bible rather than Capital. What might seem an outlandish provocation (although not as extreme as his attempt to get rid of pigeon feeders in Saint Mark’s square when he was Mayor of Venice) makes more sense when read through the grid of the evolution of negative thought in Italy.

First, we can take Tronti’s Nietzschean re-writing of Marxism in terms of the fundamental antagonism between labour–(will to) power and capital. This asymmetrical relation is one of abundant activity (by the workers) versus reactive re-coding by capital. In this way Capital is re-written in terms of On the Genealogy of Morals, with capitalism functioning as slave morality, and the worker’s gaining the position of aristocracy.

Second, this reactive morality of capital is then read through Negri’s work on Keynesianism and the crisis of the planner-state. Whereas previously crisis had functioned as a crisis of capitalism, what Keynesianism develops is the deployment of crisis for capitalism – the “negative” use of Keynesian policies to re-active a capitalist dialectic that leads to a positive re-composition of capital. We need “to arrive at the essentiality of crisis as such” (Cacciari 13), in which the negative “represents not merely a movement of crisis in the growth of capitalism but the very crisis serving a function within this growth.” (Cacciari 13)

Third, we have the Weberian insistence on rationalisation, in which the “iron cage” figures the demystification of capitalism as negative power of command. Rather than requiring re-enchantment, Weber’s quasi-Nietzschean strategy, we are required to take the truly Nietzschean path of radical disenchantment.

Linking these three moments together Cacciari insists on ‘the contradiction-functionality of the negative’ (38) as both tragic demystification – ourselves face to face with capital – and capitalist re-coding of crisis. This double function of the negative is condensed by Cacciari (and Tafuri) in the figure of the Metropolis, which, as Gail Day wisely suggests functions something like Debord’s category of the Spectacle.

“The Metropolis is the general form assumed by the process of the rationalization of social relations.” (Cacciari 4) The Metropolis is the triumph of rationalization in a demystified form – in which the bourgeoisie, to quote Marx and Engels, “has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation” – is functionally equivalent to Nietzsche’s completed nihilism. Day comments that this produces a strategy of completed nihilism, with Cacciari evincing a "willingness to let the force of the commodity rip into commodification itself (as if unleashing some auto-erotic, self-consuming energy)" (26).

This strategy produces an alteration in subjectivity, as Simmel describes we have the birth of the blasé type, which “arises wherever this negative is completely internalized, wherever the subject feels deep within himself the gravity of his task of “demystification,” his task of acquiring a tragic awareness of the given.” (Cacciari 9)

The result is the insistence on “the indissoluble connection between negative thought and the capitalistic socialization process at a specific point in history.” (Cacciari 10) Negative thought perceives and isolates the historically specific from of capitalist domination; it thereby breaks from nostalgia and utopia. It effects a devaluation, identifying the tragic, valueless character of the Metropolis.

We might say, again following Day, that the concept of the Metropolis permits the isolation of the petrification of experience, to then result in its explosion (28). To do so requires the full pursuit of the negative, the push towards completed nihilism that accepts capitalist negativity as marking a leap, a rupture, with no return to a previous state. We must accept the “tragedy of the given” without recourse to any utopianism or historical back-tracking (in this Cacciari remains faithful to Marx’s critique of feudal and utopian socialism).

The risks of such an argument are evident in its application by Manfredo Tafuri to the function of the avant-garde. The avant-gardes succeed each other “according to the typical law of industrial production” (Tafuri 86). The dialectic of the avant-garde is predictive of the dialectic of capital; the crisis induced by the avant-garde maps the absorption of crisis “as an inevitable condition of existence.” (Tafuri 86)

This passage can be traced in the transition from Munch’s Scream – in which the trace of a reaction to alienation remains – to the completed nihilism of El Lissitzky’s Story of Two Squares: “from the anguished discovery of the nullification of values, to the use of a language of pure signs, perceptible by a mass that had completely absorbed the universe without quality of the money economy.” (Tafuri 89)

In this way the demystifying negative rationalization of the avant-garde becomes functionally equivalent to the negative rationalization of capitalism. The familiar argument concerning recuperation is given another twist, so that the avant-garde prefigures capital in its own operations.

“Dada’s ferocious decomposition of the linguistic material and its opposition to prefiguration: what were these, after all, if not the sublimation of automatism and commercialization of “values” now spread through all levels of existence by the advance of capitalism? De Stijl and the Bauhaus introduced the ideology of the plan into a design method that was always closely related to the city as a productive structure. Dada, by means of the absurd, demonstrated – without naming it – the necessity of a plan.” (Tafuri 93; see Day 29)

Form v. Chaos; anarchy v. planning; the dialectic of the avant-garde is the dialectic of capital laid bare. The new synthesis becomes connected back to the production process, and the residue of utopia eliminated.

For Tafuri and Cacciari the “solution” “involve[s] actively embracing the given situation.” (Day 30) To work with “the negative … inherent in the system” (Tafuri qtd. in Day 31). The difficulty comes in splitting between the avant-garde strategies, in which “the destruction of values offered a wholly new type of rationality, which was capable of coming face to face with the negative, in order to make the negative itself the release valve of an unlimited potential for development.” (Tafuri qtd. in Day 31), and a strategy of completed nihilism that would explode rather than reinforce the operative crisis-function of negativity.

This “radical realism” (Day 32) risks becoming complicit with the crisis-dynamics of capitalism: in the style of a negative accelerationism. The worse the better, radicalise capital to negate it through negativity. The difficulty comes when this “stalled dialectic” becomes stalled in capitalism, leading to fundamental working in-sync with capital. This kind of problem is registered in Tafuri’s call for “empty architecture” – radically disenchanted manipulation of “pure signs” and the endorsement of silence (Day 32).

Of course, during the 1970s the position of Cacciari and Tafuri was still operating within the argument of the force of the worker’s struggles driving capitalism to new strategies. Therefore, despite their use of the canonical figures of Western Marxism this cannot be correlated with a “cunning of (capitalist) reason” pessimism of the kind that might be said to characterise certain moments in Adorno. The strategy of completed nihilism is not simply fulfilling capitalism because capitalism itself is “powered” by crisis, i.e. class struggle. In a sense to “fulfill” capitalism is to negate it, as capital itself is “merely” the management of crisis. We could of course say, despite appearances…

The difficulty of this position of radical realism is that which assailed Lukács – “the reconciliation with reality” leading to disastrous political acceptance of the “real as rational” (in Lukács case Stalinism). The shift re-entry into the PCI was part of this realism: the PCI being the “modern katechon”. Cacciari’s later shifting into a more full-blown mysticism (turning Benjamin’s uneasy coordination of Marxism and mysticism into an internal rupture) correlates, as I have argued elsewhere, with those predominantly French theoretical currents that made the move into the “saving power” of the tout Autre.

In fact, one might argue that Lyotard is a close point of comparison: political militancy, radical accelerationism in which capital “is the unbinding of the most insane pulsions” (Lyotard 138), before shifting to radicalised alterity. The key difference is that Cacciari never had any truck with Deleuzo-Guattarian style philosophies of desire.

In a way Cacciari’s path, as much as I am able to reconstruct it, indicates the difficulty of detaching negative thought from collapsing back into the (operant) negativity of capital. In a way his thought re-stages the debate between Sartre and Merleau-Ponty concerning the PCF: necessary vector for proletarian “negativity” (Sartre) or doomed to re-compose mere “functionaries of the negative” (Merleau-Ponty). In the current context, lacking such referents, this question of the negative versus the “dialectic of the negative” is posed with all the more urgency, but all the more problematically.

Cacciari, Massimo (1993) Architecture and Nihilism: On the Philosophy of Modern Architecture, trans. Stephen Sartarelli, intro. Patrizia Lombardo. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Day, Gail Ann (2005) "Strategies in the metropolitan Merz: Manfredo Tafuri and Italian Workerism", Radical Philosophy 133: 26-38.
Lyotard, Jean-François [1974] (1993) Libidinal Economy, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant. London: Athlone.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels (1848) "The Manifesto of the Communist Party", Marxists Internet Archive.
Tafuri, Manfredo (1976) Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, trans. Barbara Luigia La Penta. Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press.

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