Radical media, politics and culture.

Ida Dominijanni and Brett Neilson, "Fragility, Body, Love"

"Fragility, Body, Love:

A Practical Lexicon for the Italian Effect, a
Conference in Sydney on the Influence of Radical Italian Thought over the
Past Decade"

Britt Neilson & Ida Dominijanni

[The following reviews of the Italian Effect conference (9–11 September
2004) were published in the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto on 28
September, 2004. These are collaborative translations, written after discussion between the
authors. The first is Britt Neilson's translation of Ida's piece in Il Manifesto. The
second is the English version of Neilson's piece, which has been slightly altered
after reading Ida's translation for Il Manifesto. They are both archived in Italian here and here.]

"From the Italian Laboratory of the 1970s

To the Global Laboratory of a
Politics Opposed to the Forms of War"

Ida Dominijanni

There is an effect of globalisation that neither its most enthusiastic
advocates nor its most apocalyptic critics manage to specify exactly; that
is, what it provokes on the plane of thought. As in other fields,
technology here tells us a lot but not everything. What we confront is not
simply improved ease of communication and the diffusion of ideas, sources,
and texts. With the exchange of experiences and direct contact with people,
contexts, places, times, and other seasons comes a different mode of
production of thought. Contrary to common belief, this effect is neither
one of bland homogenisation nor easy contamination. Rather there is a risky
but fruitful displacement that changes perspectives, alters dimensions,
adds importance to neglected particularities, forces a rough confrontation
with unfamiliar forms of otherness, and liberates mental associations that
have been held under the surface. In Sydney, in the course of an
international conference dedicated to the 'Italian effect' on radical
political thought, all of this occurred, thanks partly to the welcoming
environment of a 'global city' in which multicultural exchanges and
translations (linguistic, political, and artistic) are at once an everyday
necessity and a virtue.The conference was organised by five researchers from a consortium of four
universities, all of whom have an interest in the Italian political and
intellectual scene: Brett Neilson (who writes alongside me here), Ilaria
Vanni, Michael Goddard, Melinda Cooper, and Timothy Rayner. At stake was an
attempt to verify the hypothesis that a shift is underway from the
prevalent influence of French thought (Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida) on
political studies in Australia — and more generally in the Anglo-American
world — to an interest in Italian thought or, more precisely, what the
organisers call, following the title of a book by Michael Hardt and Paolo
Virno, 'radical Italian thought.' This encompasses the operaismo of the
60s and 70s, the postoperaismo of the 90s, cyberculture, and the thought
of sexual difference-in short, the legacy of the Italian 'political
laboratory' from 68 onwards, rethought in the wake of the worldwide success
of Hardt and Negri's Empire, the international reputation of the work of
Agamben (especially in Australia where the theme of the concentration camp
is imposed by the historical trauma of the relation with the Aboriginals
and the political trauma surrounding the treatment of refugees), the
explosion of the political potentiality of the Internet and mediactivism
(particularly in a continent where, more than elsewhere, the Internet has
meant a jump in quality for communication and associations), and the
attention directed to Italian feminism (more alive than elsewhere thanks to
the strong presence of Italian speaking female researchers in the

The event, you will understand, was at risk of resulting in mere exegesis
and idealisation of a political and theoretical patrimony. This would have
been gratifying for us in Italy where there is still a tendency to label
the 70s as the cursed decade, radical thinkers as 'wicked teachers,' the
feminism of difference as an esoteric current, and so on. But it would not
have been very useful for generating an exchange adequate to the present.
Fortunately, the effect of displacement did its work, functioning to make
the Italian laboratory a point of departure for rethinking the necessity of
politics today (in a global situation that has already rendered out-of-date
the premises from which 'radical Italian thought' departed in the 90s).

Despite the elections that are soon to occur (the vote is on 9 October and
the contest between Howard and Latham imitates that between Bush and
Kerry), what counts most in a living intellectual context like that
prepared by the researchers and students in Sydney is post-representative
politics. And, in this respect, what rebounds most from the theatre of war
is not the bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta but the
anthropological catastrophe that unfolds daily with images of torture and

With a change of decade and a change of scene, there is also a change in
the tone of antagonistic political thought. Under a sky in which Empire
rediscovers flags and nationalist politics, the posthuman reveals itself as
inhuman, the cyborg reincarnates itself as a kamikaze, and soldier Lyndie
England tortures an Iraqi prisoner on a leash, can we still set Spinoza
against Hobbes, bet on the future of a multitude that has never been
crossed by the negative, keep alive a politics of desire, place trust in
communication technologies and virtual agoras, or find value in sexual
difference? 'The panorama has changed,' says Franco Berardi alias Bifo (who
has also written about the conference on www.rekombinant.org) as he takes
account of the Internet, mediactivism, and the theory of the cognitariat.
The technological optimism of the 90s now encounters a double limit: the
emphasis on virtual communication at the expense of the body and the
emphasis on the infosphere at the expense of the psychosphere.
Corporeality, sexuality, sensitivity, contact, emotionality, and the
unconscious psychic elaboration of information have been cancelled in the
name of cognitive power and communicative speed. Only now do the body,
emotionality, and sexuality present us with the bill. From the theatre of
war and the mediated settings of a politics of the imagination, we are
manipulated from above. While, from below, we are unable to respond with
practices that are equally capable of mobilising reason and unconscious,
discourse and passion, body and mind.

Has the break between body and language, desire and rationality (from which
modern politics has nourished itself since birth) also managed to insinuate
itself in alternative postmodern politics? The risk exists and it is the
same risk that feminism, at least on the Italian scene, registered from its
beginning, when it 'cut' the political generation of 68 with a feminine
exodus. How much more interesting it becomes today to rethink that cut, its
effects, and the possibilities for renewed dialogue between women and men
of that political generation and those that are forming now. It is a
history that is partly written but that still remains to be written in the
whole. The starting point would have to be the linguistic contaminations
that move between 'radical thought' and the thought of sexual difference,
but that nevertheless fail to lessen the distance on two crucial and
connected points: the conception of subjectivity and the practices of
change. It is not an accident, or so it seems to me, that under the sky of
Sydney, in a milder climate than the Italian one (also as regards the
political and intellectual exchange between women and men), some urgencies
represented themselves in common. The need to put the body in first place.
And the need to think the politics of love. Not, or not only, with the
joyful boldness of the Vietnam era slogan: 'make love not war.' But with
the awareness that the expropriating power of love is the only one capable
of opposing the expropriating power of violence, and of turning the
fragility and exposure of our 'precarious lives,' as Judith Butler calls
them, to a relation with the other rather than to its annihilation.

"Italy in Translation:

Radical Thought Dislocated to the Antipodes"

Brett Neilson

Language and practice, inheritance and utility of the Italian laboratory of
movements for the elaboration of a politics capable of uniting body and
language to meet the challenges of a globalised world

The 'Italian Effect' conference (9-11 September 2004) was an attempt to
begin the task of inventing a present politics adequate to the era of
permanent war, precarious lives, media torture, and postconstitutional
democracy. Drawing on and taking inspiration from the panoply of 'radical
thought' that has emerged from Laboratory Italy since the 1960s, the
conference aimed to derive conceptual and political instruments not only to
confront the current global situation but also to live in spite of it, to
uncover modes of affect, imagination, and relation that might sneak beneath
the screens of financial and military control. These are pressing ambitions
to be sure, but ones approached with neither grandiosity nor desperation,
under the blue skies of Sydney, far from the theatre of war in Iraq or the
television studios of Berlusconi's Italy, but in no way outside the global
logic of fear and command that encompasses both. What more tangible
evidence of this connection than the way in which the conference's
discussions were punctuated by news of two horrific (but by now almost
expected) events: the abduction of the Italian female aid workers in
Baghdad and the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta. At a time
when we have become so accustomed to the instantaneous mediation of distant
horrors, horrors that always threaten to (and sometimes do) replicate
themselves on our doorsteps, how does thought itself move about the globe?
Does it arrive enthused and jetlagged like the international visitors who
flew into Sydney for the 'Italian Effect' conference? Does it come dressed
in ASCII characters like the messages we read on nettime or rekombinant?
Must it, like the writings of Hardt and Negri, adopt the idiom of 'the
international English' if it is to maximize its impact? All of these
questions imply a politics, and each describes a mode of transmission and
displacement that, alongside others, has facilitated the untimely global
dissemination of 'radical Italian thought' over the past half-decade.

To assess the legacy and utility of the thought that has emerged from
Laboratory Italy in a distant context is to ask questions about the limits
and qualities of that thought, to 'provincialize' it, to identify both its
possibilities for contagion with other theories and practices and its
shortcomings in responding to questions and problems that are foreign to
the Italian context. This process must involve always translation, not only
in the linguistic sense but also in the wider political and cultural
senses. And, as in all translation, there is something to be gained as well
as lost. Nothing is more pretentious or ineffective in the Australian
political context than the attempt to move concepts or strategies forged in
Italy through to the practices of the local movements as if they were
readily transportable commodities, thoughts extricated from contact with
living bodies. How many social centres have failed in Sydney or in
Melbourne? How many workers or youths have balked at the use of terms like
'multitude' or 'social factory'? How many activists have idealized the
expressions of the Italian movements, as if their impressive force and
organization have never been crossed by negative feelings and actions such
as fear, frustration, blockage, or (as was so clearly the case toward the
end of the 1970s) violence?

The danger of attempting to separate language and thought from body and
practice emerged as a consistent concern of the 'conference. Interventions
by Ida Dominijanni and Susana Scarparo pushed this point as they explored
the asymmetrical historical relation of the feminist philosophy of
difference to _operaista_ and _postoperaista_ approaches. While Bifo,
speaking in the context of media-activism, asked if the virtual
communication that characterized the first phase of the global movement
(from Seattle through to antiwar protests of early 2003) implied a mode of
desexualization, a retreat from sensitivity that might prevent the
construction of a zone of tenderness and love from which the present global
conflict might be opposed. It was on this cusp between language and body
that the collective thought of the conference turned in a surprisingly
coherent affective register, bringing together academics, activists,
computer geeks, and members of the local Italian community in an unusual
and unprecedented way.

What practical directions can be salvaged from the analyses, discussions,
conceptual inventions, and encounters that took place in Sydney? First,
there is the need to ask what can be done with the political knowledge and
practices that have formed themselves on the net? How can the contacts and
communicative channels established in the cybernetic realm be returned to
the body and the bios in ways that recognize the mutual implication of
political relation with experiences of emotion, sensation, and desire? For
Ned Rossiter this was primarily a question of the imagination and
construction of new institutions, institutions like the Sarai Media Centre
in New Dehli that emerge from organized practices of networking. Others,
such as Tim Rayner and James Arvanitakis, identified the path ahead in a
critical engagement with the concept of the multitude. For Ilaria Vanni and
Marcello Tar?, who examined the aestheticized practices surrounding the
figure of San Precario, there is a need to return the questions surrounding
precarious cognitive labour to modes of engagement that recognize the joy
and connection that exist on the flipside of human vulnerability and
interdependence. Melinda Cooper emphasized the need to invent a politics
that counters the logic of preemption not only as played out in the Bush
doctrine of permanent war but also as manifest in contemporary practices of
biogenetics and ecological intervention. Angela Mitropoulos located in the
legal doctrine of habeas corpus a crucial hinge where power redefines the
relation between body and political expression under the current
catastrophe of global war. These are just a few of the multiple voices that
populated the 'Italian Effect' conference, working toward a politics that
would take the naked body of the human animal (in its sensitivity to
touch/harm and its capacity to labour) both as its symbol and point of
practical operation.

The challenge that such a politics must meet is to confront the complex
geography of differences that populate the globalised world. The unequal
distribution of vulnerability and of labour calls for an updating of class
composition analysis. The encounter with the body introduces what Italian
feminism calls the 'cut' of difference (of sex, race, and age) to the drift
of political discourse. And cultural difference, no matter how much its
constitutive hybridities have been integrated into the workings of the
capitalist market, poses challenges for political relations articulated at
the global level. To work through this complexity means to recognize that
the translation of thought and political practices always works in two
directions and that, for this reason, the reception of 'radical Italian
thought' outside of Italy must remain of intrinsic interest to 'radical
Italian thinkers.' Indeed, it is by acknowledging and working to overcome
the political limits and stumbling blocks exposed by such translation that
'radical Italian thinkers,' like their friends in other parts of the world,
might hope to find an exit from the nationalism and violence that have
descended on the globe.