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About the Author
Glenda Garelli is research associate at Queen Mary, University of London and adjunct professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She works at the intersection of political theory and urban studies on immigration and refugee issues in the central Mediterranean. Her single and co-authored work appeared in Materiali Foucaultiani, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Postcolonial Studies, Cultural Studies, and Etnografia. She is currently co-editing a special issue on the Mediterranean movements in the journal Antipode and working on a book manuscript drawing from her dissertation The Humanitarian Frontier in the Mediterranean. Border Work and the Right to Presence.
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German Philosophy, French Theory, Italian Thought
We may have not reflected enough on the fact that European philosophy's reintroduction (after its apparent exhaustion in the 1930s and 1940s) happened through a sort of dislocation that pushed it "outside of itself". I use "outside" in a geographical sense, referring to the forced migration of some of its main representatives to America. But the notion of "outside" has also a conceptual meaning and indicates the putting at a distance of a paradigm that had characterized this philosophy in previous decades.
The paradigm that European philosophy left behind after the war can be traced back to the category of "crisis". As it is known, this paradigm was appropriated by a vast intellectual front, starting from Mann to Ortega, and from Spengler to Croce. But it found its most famous expression in the texts about the crisis of the spirit by Valéry, about the crisis of European sciences by Husserl, and about the crisis of the metaphysic tradition by Heidegger. Despite their internal differences, what brings these texts together is the premise that, in order to release itself from the mortal hold it is gripped by, European thought has to re-territorialize itself, to recover its Greek root and to reconstitute itself from it. Such reasoning — which links origin and end, arche and telos, in a circular movement — repeats itself with little variation in all of these authors' writings of that period: only if it will regain its original relationship with Greece (beyond the deviations that compromised its development) will European thought find its primacy over other cultures again and accomplish the civilization task that it has always been destined for. Whether these authors' keyword was "spirit", "being", or "transcendental ego" doesn't change the basic characteristics of the dispositive of the crisis, which dominates the great European philosophical thought up to the beginning of the Forties.
The outcome of the war doesn't only mark the failure of that project; it also forces European thought — exhausted as it was by the unsuccessful search of an origin that couldn't be found — to exit itself in order to reinvent itself along other trajectories. The migration of the entire German-Jewish intelligentsia to the United States when Nazism was rising constitutes the dramatic occasion for exodus, and this opened a first crossing towards the outside that seemed to give breath to European philosophy. This doesn't only free European philosophy from the regressive dispositive of the crisis but it also builds the condition for a rebirth that, in some cases, allows its protagonism to come back at a global scale. Even though the denomination of "critical theory" is commonly used to indicate the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, they, however, maintain a strictly philosophical lexicon — and this is especially the case for Adorno and Marcuse. It is true that, according to the project of the Institute for Social Research (the so-called Frankfurt School), philosophy has to blend with other languages — from sociology, to psychoanalysis, to aesthetics. But far from simply mimicking their procedures, philosophy inserts a theoretical dimension in them. And while it contests these other languages' pretence to autonomy, philosophy puts them in contradiction with themselves. It is hence possible to define this first dislocation of European thought outside its frontier as German Philosophy, without conferring any national accent to this expression, which in fact refers mainly to intellectuals with a Jewish background.
Thinking of the extraordinary influence that especially Marcuse — but also Adorno and Horkheimer — exerted on the political culture of that time (despite the difficult relationship of these latter two authors with the student movement), one could easily say that the American passage gave back some fresh air to European philosophy. One shouldn't underestimate the novelty of such an event. Maybe for the first time in modern history the expansion of a certain philosophy was directly proportional to its deterritorialization. Not only did the detachment from its homeland not produce the weakening outcomes that Heidegger and the philosophers of the crisis had diagnosed, it even determined a formidable expansion of European philosophy. As Deleuze and Guattari would later contend — when they inaugurated their discourse on "geophilosophy" — this is not a contingent outcome but a structural element of philosophical language: the deviation towards the outside is not only a historical-geographical element but a structural trait for philosophical discourse; only by exiting itself, by taking a leave from its own (presumed) matrix, can thought find the necessary charge for its own profound renewal.
The second passage towards the "outside" is performed at the beginning of the Seventies by the so-called French Theory. In this case it was a spontaneous movement, not a movement determined — as in the case of the German diaspora — by traumatic events, and it hence lacks any tragic resonance. It concerned a series of intellectuals who were already well known in their country and more generally in Europe — and who were for this reason invited to teach in American campuses. Yet, also in this case — even more so than in the previous one — the contamination that derived produced a diffusion of their thought that took on the character of a true hegemony in a series of disciplines ranging from literary criticism, to gender studies, to postcolonial studies. It is true — as it's been argued — that what was received across the Atlantic was not the "true" philosophy of Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault, and Baudrillard, but an amalgam where pieces of their thought were fused together in a new blend which took the polyvalent name of "theory". Such theory responded to the renewal needs of the humanities practiced in American universities. At any rate, the extraordinary relaunch of French philosophy across the world is due to this hybridization: what was happening in New York, as well as in Chicago and in Los Angeles, was reproduced like wildfire not only all across the United States, but also in Tokyo, Toronto, Buenos Aires, and Sydney. Once again, a passage through the outside recreated the conditions for an unexpected expansion of European philosophical thought and reactivated French philosophy's primacy — a primacy this philosophy feared to have lost for good. It had never happened that a handful of European philosophers — all of whom had become true stars also in the cross-Atlantic media system — was influencing such vast territory exactly through an operation of deterritorialization in relation to their country of origin.
Is it possible to acknowledge an Italian Thought, after German Philosophy and French Theory? This is the question this conference was born from and that persistently circulates not only in Italy. The answer can't but be extremely cautious. In this case we can't certainly talk about hegemony or about a material dislocation; in fact, the success — at times, a clamorous success — of some Italian philosophers happened in America before it happened in Italy, and it was once again from America that it was transmitted to other countries. It is a process at the nascent state and it is for now less clearly identifiable than the processes it was preceded by. This is also due to the difference — at times, a pronounced difference — that characterizes the research laboratories opened by the better-known Italian philosophers abroad. Yet it is undoubtedly true that, even if in a latent way, an "Italian difference" has been taking shape in the past few years, as it is proven by the growing number of conferences, books, and essays devoted to it.
Let me start with a first observation about the name — i.e., about that "thought" that replaces German "philosophy" and French "theory". In the book I devoted to Italian philosophy entitled Living Thought (2010), I gave that term a performative meaning. I meant "performative" in two ways: both in terms of that relationship between theory and praxis that has been characterizing Italian Thought already from its origins — a thought about praxis and, together, a practice of thought; and "performative" in the sense that this Thought's identification — including the one I am trying here — is an integral part of it. It is as if Italian Thought constituted itself in its own making, rather than after some preliminary theorizations. Italian Thought is not generated from the program of an institute, as was the case for the Frankfurt School. Neither was it generated from the complex theorizations that, just before the structuralist season, had characterized the first texts of French authors. It was born within the political dynamics of the first years of the 1960s in Italy — which merged only later, and not always, in the larger flux of the international student movement. In this way the praxis preceded the theory, hence interacting with it according to a further connotation of the "outside" — i.e., not so much an outside referred to a geographic dislocation or to the creation of new disciplinary sections, but an outside referred to the dimension of the "political". The "outside" mobilized by the Italian Thought is not German thinkers' "social" or French thinkers' "text", but the constitutively conflictual space of political praxis.
Such characteristic can easily be defined a long-term one, since it's linked to the originary history of Italian thinkers from the dawn of the modern world. The lack of the mediation of a unitary state situated Italian thinkers by the political and the ecclesiastic local power from the outset, in an ambivalent and often contrastive condition towards it. Outside this rather particular condition it would be impossible to understand the political destiny of authors such as Dante and Machiavelli who were exiled, Bruno and Vanini who were burned alive, Galilei and Campanella who were forced to abjuration, or Gramsci and Gentile who died at the opposite ends of the same line. If, as it has been argued, power generates resistance, the above overview shows that this is even more the case for philosophy under certain conditions. Italian philosophy was certainly more a philosophy of resistance rather than of power. It is not by chance that Gramsci is back at the centre of scholarly attention all around the world and that the germinal nucleus of Italian Thought is the 1960s' Italian Operaism in its various souls.
Another typical element of Italian Thought is represented by its tendency to contamination with other paradigms. This tendency is another way to practice exteriority as the form and also the content of thought. Also in this case we are dealing with a long-lasting characteristic. Italian thinkers have always made themselves available for an original re-elaboration of philosophical lexicons coming from other countries. The deterritorialization of Italian philosophers and works did not originate from a necessity, as was the case for German philosophers, or from a call coming from American universities, as it happened for French philosophers. Instead, it originated from an attitude to hybridization that can be traced back to the Renaissance. Such hybridization worked in both directions — from Italy to abroad, and from abroad to Italy — building on a custom that involved the entire European culture between 1400 and 1500. Something of this tendency persists to this day. The presence of German and French lemmas in the works of Italian Thought authors is so intense that they can't be bound to any national identification, while they nonetheless maintain a particular relationship with the philosophical language of Dante and Bruno, and of Vico and Leopardi.
But what characterizes Italian Thought is not only its nexus with praxis (its political soul) or the contagion with other traditions. What characterizes Italian Thought is its prevailing categorical axis on the one hand and, on the other hand, the way in which it is assumed. As for its prevailing categorical axis, a simple comparison with other philosophical traditions will allow to identify it. If the field of intervention chosen by the Frankfurt School was socio-cultural change, while that of French deconstructionism was the field of writing, the semantic horizon of Italian Thought is the category of life. I am not just thinking about biopolitics — which, however, found in Italy an interpretative quality that Foucault's pioneer researches of the 1970s didn't find elsewhere. I am thinking about the category of life in terms of an older and long-lasting presence that can be traced back to the origins — from Machiavelli, to Leonardo, to Bruno. This is the reason why Italy didn't need a specific philosophy of life — like the one that spread in Germany and France in the first decades of the 1900s. One could say that the entire Italian Thought has been a thought of life, conceived of in its tension with politics and history. Ours was not a philosophy of consciousness like classic French philosophy was; neither was it a metaphysical elaboration like German philosophy. But it wasn't a philosophy of logics and language either, as was the case for Anglo-Saxon countries' philosophy. It wasn't an analytics of interiority, of transcendence, of logical-linguistic structures; it was instead a knowledge about life, the body, and the world.
Also as far as Italian Thought's declination, it can be derived from a comparison with German Philosophy and French Theory. The Frankfurt School's typical modality was that of the negation. From this vantage point, Adorno's Negative Dialectic does not only constitute the core work of German Philosophy, it is also its general key. Adorno doesn't only elaborate a radically negative position in terms of the theological dispositive of the crisis; he opposes it to the dialectic within which Hegel imprisoned the negation by forcing it to a conclusive outcome. By comparing the negation only to itself, Adorno turns it not only in the form of the concept but also in the concept's content, and hence precludes any positive landing place for it. While in a different way, Horkheimer gets to the same conclusions: the critical power of the negative is so acute that it turns against the same theory that activated it, hence negating any of its possible affirmative outcomes. What opened in Frankfurt was a struggle of the concept with itself, a struggle that is so inexorable it leads the concept to a self-contradiction. For Adorno what is at stake is a consequence — not an endured consequence but a theorized one — which is seen as the only possible option that philosophy can find after Auschwitz. This doesn't erase the impression of a theoretical block beyond which it is not possible to go any further within that way of thinking.
If the modal category of German Philosophy is the negative, that of French Theory is the neutral. The neutral is a category used by Blanchot and taken on by Derrida and Foucault in a different form and in a way that explicitly refers to a thought of the "outside".
But deconstruction as such is neutral — as it is not oriented towards anything in particular, as it is suspended between a yes and a no, and it is in fact situated exactly at their intersection point. It is from here that deconstruction's distance from both the paradigm of crisis and the paradigm of critique derives. The same program of the deconstruction of metaphysics elaborated by Derrida, far from negating the exclusionary mechanism of metaphysics, tends to suspend it by applying it also to itself in a movement of self-dissolution. And this is not because French Theory adheres to the existing state of being — none of its major thinkers do. French Theory instead always puts itself at the most radical distance from it. But this is so because such distancing — as it puts even itself at a distance — takes on an auto-ironic profile that, at some point, inhibits the possibility of any position, negative or affirmative that it may be. Even the movement of the difference (in all the modalities through which this term was used by Derrida, Deleuze, and Lyotard) coincides with its apparent opposite, i.e., with the repetition. Likewise, Deleuze's multiplicity can be read — by Badiou, for instance — even in terms of a metaphysics of the One.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Italian Critical Thought"
Copyright © 2018 Dario Gentili, Elettra Stimilli and Glenda Garelli.
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