Upcoming in Representations 149: ALINE GUILLERMET on Vera Molnar’s computer paintings; ANDREW COUNTER on Wilde, Zola, and Dreyfus; KENT PUCKETT on the RAND Corporation ; PETER DE BOLLA, RYAN HEALEY, EWAN JONES, PAUL NULTY, GABRIEL RECCHIA, and JOHN REGAN on the uses of genre; and an Untimely Review of Epistemology of the Closet by Whitney Davis. (Coming in February.)
by Corey Byrnes
Beijing Besieged by Waste, directed by Wang Jiuliang (New York, 2011), DVD. Image courtesy the artist.
The essay begins:
In his 2011 novel The Man with the Compound Eyes (Fuyan ren 複眼人), the Taiwanese novelist Wu Ming-Yi吳明益 imagines a scenario in which the Great Pacific Garbage Patch breaks free from the ocean gyre that keeps it out of sight, sending a solid mass of trash on a collision course with the east coast of Taiwan. The arrival of the trash island coincides with coastal subsidence and a tsunami-like rise in sea levels that inundates large portions of the coast and covers what remains in trash. When one of the characters travels down the coast highway past a famous scenic site, the Clearwater Cliffs, she is confronted with a troubling scene:
The sea was battering the base of the soaring bluffs with various kinds of debris. Hordes of tourists were issuing continual exclamations of amazement as they admired the magnificent view from inside their cars. Sara was more than a little shaken by the scene. The cliff itself was glorious, but she couldn’t get over how these tourists seemed not to see [sihu wushi 似乎無視] the sorry state the coast was in, regarding it as a wondrous scene to admire [qijing lai guanshang奇景來觀賞]. . . .
She had been on this island for two days, and only had brief impressions of the place, but she’d already noticed that the islanders were inured to breathing this air and were now trying to get used to the sight of this sea. The pristine Pacific Ocean as she had seen it in so many images had now vanished.
Sara, a Norwegian marine biologist, is shocked by the apathy of Taiwanese tourists who look at the “magnificent view from inside their cars,” ignoring the acrid smell rising from the trash-choked ocean. They look, but they seem not to see. It is only by looking with Sara that we see the coast for what it is—a landscape of wonder become a landscape of desolation.
This episode exemplifies the ambiguous relationship between two ways of looking that are central to what I call the landscape of desolation. The first is grounded in preconceived notions of nature, beauty, and the sublime. The second exposes the exhaustion of the physical world while also demonstrating how inherited landscape notions can inspire a blindness generated by a refusal to see despite a strong desire to look. If landscape is “a way of seeing the world,” as Denis Cosgrove put it, Wu reminds us that it is also a way of not seeing, a habit of looking detached from seeing and thinking. To look with the scientist Sara, it seems, is to see past the “many images” of a pristine Pacific Ocean. Yet even in this moment of discernment, we cannot quite leave behind the aesthetics of landscape and the ideas it conveys. The language of glory and magnificence remind us that the power of this scene comes not from the complete obliteration of the coast, but rather from a diminution of its natural beauty that is contingent on both the survival of a sense of that beauty and also the tenaciousness of not fully exhausted ways of looking.
Wu’s novel suggests that if you look long and hard enough you might recognize the material and affective ties that bind humans, nonhumans, and objects to one another as well as the habits of looking that so often obscure those ties. It is to the conflicted relationship between new ways of looking and the tenacious pull of untenable habits and seemingly exhausted traditions that this essay attends. As a “magnificent” but trashed landscape, the Clearwater Cliffs exemplify the epistemological and ontological confusion generated by climate change and environmental degradation. How are we to understand a world grown strange? What happens when the natural features we expect to find in familiar landscapes are no longer there, replaced instead by our waste? Are the categories and representational techniques that we have long used to describe the world adaptable to our current unstable conditions?
In their attempts to answer these and related questions, scholars have produced what can sometimes seem like an Anthropocene industry, dedicated in part to cataloging the artistic techniques that have evolved to address climate change and in part to advocating for particular forms they see as most effective in making it thinkable. While most agree that we need to harness the descriptive, persuasive, and imaginative capacity of writing and the arts to change not only how we see the world but also how we act in it, there is no consensus on how to achieve this goal. Amitav Ghosh sees the scalar flexibility of premodern epics and non-Western prose forms as offering alternatives to the modern realist novel. For Stephanie LeMenager and Stephanie Foote, what we need is a new narrative “critical realism” that makes visible “the multiscalar effects of global capitalism.” T. J. Demos has argued against the Anthropocene as a “universalizing discourse” that “disavow[s] differentiated responsibility” and “anesthetizes politics” in favor of an activist aesthetics that “politicize[s] art’s relation to ecology.” Prasenjit Duara has promoted “Asian traditions” more broadly as offering possible conceptual and practical solutions to environmental crises, and both ecocritics and the mainland Chinese government have advocated a return to the supposedly ancient ecological grounding of Chinese culture as a way of creating a new “ecological civilization” (shengtai wenming 生態文明).
In all of these approaches—and this is only a small sample—the underlying assumption is that cultural forms are capable not only of communicating information about the environment but also of moving viewers and readers affectively and, perhaps, to some sort of action, or at least to a change in consciousness that makes action easier. If we take landscape representation as an active “cultural practice” already centered on the relationship between humans and their environments and potentially capable of fostering ecological thought and action, then it appears to be an ideal ecocritical mode. But can we say with any certainty what an ecocritical landscape mode can or must do? Is “landscape,” an impossibly broad term that encompasses multiple disparate traditions, functions, histories, and media—many of which have contributed directly to our current environmental crises—actually capable of representing and responding to those crises, the worst of which are so often defined by their “unthinkability”? Continue reading …
In this essay Corey Byrnes explores how landscape forms are used by writers, photographers, filmmakers, and other artists from inside and outside of China to represent environmental problems in that country. It considers the “landscape of desolation” as an ecocritical mode designed to change how people see and act in the world in relation to both the shifting status of “Chinese tradition” and to earlier moments in Euro-American landscape art, particularly the so-called New Topographics Movement of the 1970s.
COREY BYRNES is Assistant Professor of Modern Chinese Culture at Northwestern University. His first book, Fixing Landscape: A Techno-Poetic History of China’s Three Gorges, was published by Columbia University Press in 2018.
by Claudio Lomnitz
After a brief introduction, the essay begins:
Aporia of the “Cartel”
Since the drug war’s inception in 2006, organized and disorganized violence has claimed approximately 200,000 lives in Mexico, and more than 30,000 people have “disappeared.” In the thirteen years that have transpired since then, more people have been killed in Mexico’s war than in the US invasion of Iraq, and more have been forcibly “disappeared” than during Argentina’s Dirty War. Illegal economies have been revolutionized along the way, in processes that Natalia Mendoza has called “cartelization,” which started with the privatization of trade routes for illegal border traffic, most notably of drugs and migrants, and with the development of a bureaucracy within the illegal economy. Contrary to the general prejudice, “cartels” are not reliant on trade in illegal drugs in any transcendental sense; they rely essentially on the armed privatization of public space, the ransom of public liberties, and the forcible appropriation of public goods.
Because cartelization depends crucially on exacting tribute in exchange for protection, cartels can be seen as the privateers of deregulation, and in Mexico they are involved in the regulation of activities as diverse as drug running, undocumented migration, mining, fishing, logging, commercial agriculture, street vending, prostitution, illegal gasoline traffic, construction, arms trafficking, and appropriation of water sources. They are known as “drug cartels” because the vast wealth that poured in from drug trafficking in the 1990s helped leverage a diversification of activities, most notably in the business of transnational migration, but drugs are not indispensable to cartelization. Protection, territorial control, and the credible fear of unbridled violence are. Indeed, territorial control is an essential requisite for cartelization, but local entrenchment brings with it a core tension, that is, a tension between protection and extortion.
This antinomy between protection and extortion is expressed in social-organizational form as ambivalence between the representation of the cartel as a ruthless business and as a family-like guardian against, or coldly indifferent or downright hostile to, outside forces (such as the government). This tension between bureaucratic and familistic paradigms is inherent in the process of cartelization itself. Indeed, once cartelization sets in, the opposition between the “social bandit” and the regular unmarked brigand gets deeply complicated, because these two modes of criminal self-fashioning must be strategically juggled by the cartel and by individual operators at all times. This is because gaining territorial control requires some degree of redistribution such that a patriarchal rhetoric of protection naturally develops, but the final aim of cartel control is amassing unrestrained translocal organizational power and freely circulating private wealth. As a result, the contradiction between the familistic “man of the people” and the “strictly business” conceits of criminal self-fashioning is an aporia that runs through the whole of the so-called narcoculture. Indeed, the new cultures of criminality that are emerging in Mexico are forged in the space of precisely this contradiction.
The Pledge of the Knights Templar
In what follows, I focus on the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) and, tangentially, on La Familia Michoacana (The Michoacano Family), the organization from which the Templarios stemmed. These two drug cartels are often seen as exceptionally “bizarre and deadly” because they developed what has been characterized as “religious” and “messianic” components. Their exceptionality, however, has a strategic component that reflects and reveals a cultural logic that transcends the Michoacán case.
Michoacán has long been a marihuana producing state, and its Tierra Caliente region has also produced opium poppy since the 1950s. When Colombian cocaine started to be channeled to the United States through Mexican middlemen in the early 1990s, however, the value and scale of Mexico’s drug business surged. The much-galvanized cartels that emerged from this process had their home bases on or near the border, and one, the Tamaulipas-based Gulf Cartel and its “praetorian guard,” Los Zetas, took notice of Michoacán as a valuable asset. This was because Michoacán’s city of Lázaro Cárdenas is Mexico’s largest and most modern port on the Pacific Ocean, and a rail line had been built connecting Lázaro Cardenas to Texas, passing through Mexico’s burgeoning automotive and aerospace manufacturing region in the Bajío. In addition, Michoacán’s Tierra Caliente was home to experienced drug producers and runners, along with a thriving but relatively weak local crime organization known as Los Valencias. Given this tempting combination of factors, the Zetas decided to oust Los Valencias and take control of the state.
In order to do this, they relied on the leadership of a number of Michoacano operators, some of whom later staged a rebellion against the Zetas, forming an organization that differentiated itself by stressing their own local roots and commitments. This was the origin, in 2006, of La Familia Michoacana, whose identitarian strategy for seeking local support against the Zetas lies at the origin of the apparently exceptional familistic and religious bent of both La Familia Michoacana and its splinter group, the Caballeros Templarios, which emerged in 2011. The Templarios’ principal innovation was its code of honor. Thus, whereas La Familia portrayed itself loosely as an organization of Michoacanos pledged to protect the interests of the population of that state, the Caballeros Templarios thought of themselves as sworn members of a quasi-religious order with strict rules of induction for its members.
The Code of the Knights Templar of Michoacán (Código de los caballeros templarios de Michoacán) is a twenty-three-page document composed of fifty-three articles, chivalrous illustrations, and the text of the “Templar’s Oath.” It establishes in article 5 that no one who has not been inducted through the proper ritual and sworn to uphold the code may be admitted to the order, and in article 7 it imposes a vow of silence on all its members. Knights Templar must also believe in God (article 9), struggle against materialism (article 10), and fight against injustice and in defense of the values of society (articles 10-14). They must value freedom of expression and freedom of religion (article 15), foment patriotism (article 18), be chivalrous and courteous (articles 19 and 21), be respectful and protective of women (article 22), be sober and good humored (article 30), observe hierarchical discipline (article 31), abstain from killing without approval of the council (article 41), and forfeit their lives and that of their families if they betray the order (article 52).
Despite its punctilious effort at regimentation, and despite its belabored parallels both with the medieval order of the Knights Templar, or perhaps with the Freemason Lodge that existed with that same name in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the cultural significance of this effort of turning an extremely violent crime organization into a chivalrous order is anything but transparent. Indeed, even the code’s practical significance within the organization is murky. In part, this is because the Knights Templar had only a brief flourishing, from approximately 2011 to 2014, which is hardly long enough to consolidate a knightly ethos. The moral code of the Knights Templar was thus more a project than a well-established ritual order.
Moreover, we still know comparatively little about just how much of an effort the Knights Templar actually invested in shaping a unified ritual system. It is true that the writings of Nazario Moreno, who was the guiding intellect of the Knights Templar, were widely distributed amongst members of the organization and that Templar culture and propaganda was on show in the regional capitals of Uruapan, Morelia, and Apatzingán, but we don’t know the degree to which these displays were complemented by a routine drilling of new recruits or whether the distribution of publications was instead oriented to shaping a public image and, as such, was simply a part of the Templario propaganda machine.
To these considerations—insufficient time for institutional consolidation and insufficient information on the operative uses of Nazario Moreno’s key texts—I must add still a third, which is that, like all other drug organizations of this period, the Caballeros Templarios arose and declined in the midst of a war. They expanded rapidly for a time, then contracted and are now dispersed. To consolidate a knightly order under conditions of competitive recruitment and changing allegiances isn’t easy, and it seems likely that the Templars had only limited time and space for the indoctrination of newcomers, especially once the group began to expand into territories beyond Michoacán. Indeed, there is an inherent disconnect between the creation of a knightly order and recruiting an army, which is what the drug war demanded. As a result, the moral code of the Knights Templar was only briefly and unevenly implemented, while the degree to which it was adopted by the organization’s rank and file is still very much in question. Even so, the fleeting phenomenon of this cartel’s moral project provides a useful vantage from which to interrogate the connection between changing mores and Mexico’s narcoculture. Continue reading …
In this essay, anthropologist Claudio Lomnitz mounts an ethnographic exploration of the ethos and mores of Mexico’s contemporary drug culture. He shows that Mexican drug organizations, in their dedication to the business of privatizing public goods, are thus at the same time parallel state structures and trust-based organizations of brothers working to build a collective future. The essay emphasizes the cultural elaboration of competing communitarian and bureaucratic organizational forms and ideals in order to explore the leadership style and moral codes of honor of the Knights Templar, underscoring the centrality of transnational movement in the invention of an acutely gender- and class-based culture of violent domination and caste formation.
CLAUDIO LOMNITZ teaches anthropology at Columbia University and is a regular contributor to the Mexico City press. He is author of Death and the Idea of Mexico (Zone Books, 2005) and The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (Zone Books, 2014), among other works. His most recent book is Nuestra América: Utopía y persistencia de una familia judía (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2018).
a conversation with the author, Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers
Monday October 28, 2019, 4-5:30 pm, RSVP
Social Science Matrix
820 Barrows Hall
In discussing her book, Professor Jones-Rogers will engage with two UC Berkeley colleagues: Bryan Wagner*, Associate Professor in the Department of English, and Leslie Salzinger, Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies.
Bridging women’s history, the history of the South, and African American history, this book makes a bold argument about the role of white women in American slavery. Jones-Rogers draws on a variety of sources to show that slave-owning women were sophisticated economic actors who directly engaged in and benefited from the South’s slave market. Because women typically inherited more slaves than land, enslaved people were often their primary source of wealth. Not only did white women often refuse to cede ownership of their slaves to their husbands, they employed management techniques that were as effective and brutal as those used by slave-owning men. White women actively participated in the slave market, profited from it, and used it for economic and social empowerment. By examining the economically entangled lives of enslaved people and slave-owning women, Jones-Rogers presents a narrative that forces us to rethink the economics and social conventions of slaveholding America.
* Bryan Wagner’s essay Disarmed and Dangerous: The Strange Career of Bras-Coupé was published in Representations 92.
820 Barrows, UC Berkeley
Three distinguished UC Berkeley scholars—Ian Duncan, Representations editorial board member and Florence Green Bixby Chair in the English Department, Mark Bevir, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for British Studies, and Akasemi Newsome, Associate Director of the Institute of European Studies—will discuss important questions about Brexit, when the United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the European Union. What’s next for Brexit? Will a deal be reached, and if not, what are the implications of another delay? How will Brexit transform political and economic life in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the world?
A talk by Johanna Drucker
Monday, October 21, 2019, 5-7 PM
The Book Club of California
312 Sutter St., Ste. 500, San Francisco
Ilia Zdanevich, known as Iliazd, was a Russian Futurist writer, typographer, and book designer who moved to Paris in 1921, published the first anthology of experimental visual and sound poetry in the late 1940s, and became a producer of livres d’artistes until his death in 1975. His books included collaborations with many celebrated modern artists—Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst and others—and are much sought after by bibliophiles and collectors. But does appreciation of the books depend upon information about his life? And what are the practical and critical challenges in constructing a biography? What is the relationship between archival evidence and narrative? How do we read an individual life in relation to enormous forces and events of history (Revolution, world wars)? What taboos and lines of privacy need to be respected and when? What relation does the constructed persona of a biographical subject have to their work? The recently completed, Encountering Iliazd: Memoir of a Biographical Project, addresses these and other issues and forms the case study for considering these questions more broadly.
Johanna Drucker is a writer, scholar, and artist who began making books in the 1970s. Her work is represented in major collections and archives. She has published widely on topics related to the history of the book, visual poetry, digital humanities, and graphical forms of knowledge production. Titles include: The Century of Artists’ Books (Granary, 1994), The Alphabetic Labyrinth (Thames and Hudson, 1994), SpecLab (Chicago, 2009), Graphesis (Harvard, 2014), and Downdrift (Three Rooms Press, 2018).
Stephen Best, UC Berkeley Professor, will be discussing his recent book:
Stephen Best is Associate Professor of English at UC Berkeley. His research pursuits in the fields of American and African American criticism have been closely aligned with a broader interrogation of recent literary critical practice. Specifically, his interest in the critical nexus between slavery and historiography, in the varying scholarly and political preoccupations with establishing the authority of the slave past in black life, quadrates with his exploration of where the limits of historicism as a mode of literary study may lay, especially where that search manifests as an interest in alternatives to suspicious reading in the text-based disciplines.
He has edited a number of special issues of Representations: “Redress” (with Saidiya Hartman), on theoretical and political projects to undo the slave past; “The Way We Read Now” (with Sharon Marcus), on the limits of symptomatic reading; and “Description Across Disciplines” (with Sharon Marcus and Heather Love), on disciplinary valuations of description as critical practice. In addition to None Like Us, he is the author of The Fugitive’s Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession.
by Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan
The essay begins:
Computer screens emerged from the problem of integrating humans, computers, and their environment in a single problem-solving system. More specifically, digital graphics and computerized visualization emerged from the problem of integrating real-time human feedback into computerized radar systems developed by the US military in the early decades of the Cold War.1 In the course of the 1950s and 1960s tinkering engineers adapted techniques developed for visualizing enemy trajectories to somewhat less bellicose applications in computer graphics. Indeed, a wide variety of early computer-generated graphics—from John Whitney’s computer-aided animations and Ivan Sutherland’s Sketchpad program to early video games like Spacewar! and Tennis for Two—did little more than tweak the techniques of aerial defense into diversions like visualizing abstract patterns and intercepting, so to speak, an opponent’s tennis ball. To borrow film historian Kyle Stine’s felicitous phrasing, by folding picturing and calculation into dual aspects of a single process, these systems joined humans and calculating instruments in a single circuit of information processing. In fire-control systems (as mechanically aided approaches to tracking and targeting the enemy are often called), these feedback circuits often included the environment itself. Together, these elements of the system—human, instrument, environment—formed what I term an ecology of operations that distributed complex mathematical problems in recursive chains.
In the pages that follow I term this integration of visuality, calculation, territory, human problem-solving, and the human body in early information processing computational screening. At the most basic level, this term designates the productive integration of visualization technologies (that is, screen displays) and information processing (the screening and filtering of incoming data) that gave birth to digital graphics. Frequently, the screening of space (the flow of bodies across the membrane of a territory or through a battlefield) is also a key element of computational screening. As an analytical concept, computational screening calls attention to the history of computers as what Gilbert Simondon termed an “open machine,” reliant on continuous exchange with humans and their physical environment. In computational screening, visual, graphical, and optical media, as well as physical space and human bodies, collaborate in the production of circuits of computation. Although computational screening took shape in the complex human-computer systems of twentieth-century fire-control, today it includes a much wider array of problems involving conditions too complex to permit problem solving by computing machines alone (that is, without human support). The processing of crunchable social data by Facebook and the monitoring of traffic patterns by the navigation app Waze, for example, involve the development of sophisticated visual interfaces that entice humans to complete information processing tasks too complex for digital instruments alone. Indeed, the actualization of computers into something approaching Alan Turing’s universal machines is inconceivable without a vast array of visual interfaces that permit computers to enter into dynamic feedback loops incorporating input from users and their environments. Without the digital images enabling this circuit, the computer is little more than a fantastic automaton: that is, either an inert and preprogrammed bauble or a plaything that dwells in the imagination.
This article reconstructs a history of computational screening as it developed from naval artillery control systems developed just after World War II through the deployment of the Semi-Automatic Ground Environment (SAGE) computerized radar defense system shortly before the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. This historical arc emphasizes how the demands that modern warfare placed upon vision, territory, and attention in this period produced not only a new kind of digital image but also, specifically, a new kind of interactive image: one that enlisted bodies, attention, and calculation in the production of space. As art historian Pamela Lee has incisively written, “Cold War defense strategy could itself be described as a semiotic endeavor—an attempt to decode a shadowy enemy through a raft of signs both militaristic and cultural, including ‘indexical’ traces registered through the new technologies of radar; anthropological analyses of Soviet, Japanese, and German attitudes to authority; and the interactive dynamics observed within the ascendant field of the behavioral sciences.” I track one of these semiotic endeavors, the development of computational screening, an enterprise that drew on radar, computer science, psychology, moving images, physiology, geography, and other fields to establish a martial aesthetic that informs the attention economies of twenty-first-century digital cultures.
This history of computational screening and its alliance of visual interfaces with information processing reframes a much-discussed problem concerning vision and computing. Frequently, theorists of media and visual culture have argued that the computer is not a visual device. Media theorist Friedrich Kittler posited that in an age of electronic screens “visible optics must disappear into the black hole of circuits . . . [because] computers, as they have existed since World War II, are not designed for image-processing at all.” Germanophone media theorists Wolfgang Hagen and Claus Pias echoed Kittler, resolutely declaring in their respective theoretical sallies that “there is no digital image.” These and a host of other digital iconoclasts argue that, unlike traditional media such as photography, cinema, or painting that have a more or less determinate relationship to light, color, and spatial extension, electronic signals have neither a fixed nor an intrinsic relationship to vision. Often these theorists further maintain that the digital image lacks stable relationships to human bodies and space. For the proponents of digital iconoclasm, electronic pictures are like the afterimages that flicker into perception after the severing of an optical nerve: They may “look” like the real thing but they are the tricks of habituation, bereft of any correspondence beyond the random flickering of electrical signals. Continue reading …
Image: Spacewar! running on the Computer History Museum’s PDP-1. Photo: Joi Ito
In this essay Bernard Geoghegan examines the birth of interactive computer screens from enemy targeting and tracking systems (especially computerized radar) that distributed information processing in an ecology of operations among humans, computational instruments, and the environment. He proposes a concept of “computational screening” to account for the integration of visualization and information processing that gave rise to digital images.
BERNARD DIONYSIUS GEOGHEGAN is a media theorist, historian of technology, and occasional curator. He teaches at the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London and can be reached online at www.bernardg.com or via Twitter at @bernardionysius.
Michael Lucey, UC Berkeley Professor , will be discussing his recent book:
In Someone, Michael Lucey considers characters from twentieth-century French literary texts whose sexual forms prove difficult to conceptualize or represent. The characters expressing these “misfit” sexualities gravitate towards same-sex encounters. Yet they differ in subtle but crucial ways from mainstream gay or lesbian identities—whether because of a discordance between gender identity and sexuality, practices specific to a certain place and time, or the fleetingness or non-exclusivity of desire. Investigating works by Simone de Beauvoir, Colette, Jean Genet, and others, Lucey probes both the range of same-sex sexual forms in twentieth-century France and the innovative literary language authors have used to explore these evanescent forms.
by Delia Casadei
The essay begins:
Milan, 19 November 1969, noon. In the heart of the city center, on the streets surrounding the Duomo, two crowds converge. The first, a large group of union workers, is gathered in the Teatro Lirico—there is a general strike all over Italy, the grievance being a rise in the cost of housing. A second group, an assortment of extra-parliamentary left-wing organizations whose Italian crop was in full flourish by 1968, is marching down Via Larga. Since the Teatro Lirico is also on Via Larga, the workers leaving their assembly mingle with the other demonstrators. The crowd swells and heaves. The police intervene. After a few moments, the scene has degenerated: the police, in vans, move toward the demonstrators; the demonstrators find steel tubes in a nearby building site and use them as weapons. A police officer driving one of the vans—Antonio Annarumma—dies in the struggle, in circumstances that remain unclear to this day.
Competing accounts of the event appear almost instantly. Italy’s president, Giuseppe Saragat, releases a public statement laced with imagery of a body politic assailed by lethal pathogens:
This odious crime must serve as a warning to all: to isolate the criminals and put them in a condition of no longer being noxious; their purpose is the destruction of life.
Many demonstrators were illegally incarcerated for several months while they awaited trial. The leading left-wing newspaper, L’Unità, published eyewitness accounts from both striking workers and a judge (Domenico Politanò) at the Milan tribunal, who maintained that “[the police carried out] an aggressive act on a peaceful demonstration.” Other commentators, including left-wing writer Nanni Balestrini, maintained that the police attacked first, that Annarumma collided with another police van, and that his death was subsequently framed as murder in order to antagonize the extra-parliamentary left. The Italian Confederation of Workers’ Unions (CISL) suggested that the extremist left-wing groups were of “suspect provenience,” meaning that they might have been infiltrated, perhaps by neofascists seeking to pin a political murder on the left. Slogans calling to avenge Annarumma’s death appeared on walls across the city. In the police barracks at the Milanese northeastern district of Bicocca, where Annarumma was usually stationed, the climate became increasingly exasperated. Far-right press such as the weekly Il Borghese called for the occupation of the city by the police. When, a few days later, Mario Capanna, leader of the Movimento Studentesco (the university’s leading left-wing group and part of the group accused of Annarumma’s murder), attended the funeral of Annarumma to offer his condolences, he narrowly escaped lynching by a mob of enraged policemen.
The ensuing trial did little to calm this tense atmosphere. While responsibility for Annarumma’s death was officially attributed to the demonstrators, an individual culprit was never found: what the law produced was not the cathartic exhibition of a criminal body, but an immaterial moral shadow cast over a mercurial, disorderly crowd—a collective that could take on different political shades depending on the onlooker. Viewed from the hindsight of the decade that followed, the whole episode—and the atmosphere it generated—was grimly familiar and not unique to Italy. The state of constant urban confrontation, in other words, was one that characterized many nations during the height of the Cold War. This “low-intensity warfare”—the US Army term used to describe the situation in Italy, as well as in Greece, West Germany, and Chile in the 1970s—saw official and unofficial police forces mobilized to curb left-wing political extremism. In Italy, as elsewhere, the decade beginning in 1969 was dubbed the anni di piombo, the years of lead—a period characterized by political violence by way of artillery: bombs detonated on trains and in railway stations and banks and the kidnapping and murder of politicians, activists, and members of the police force.
As I have mentioned, neither the epithet nor the political situation was exclusive to Italy during the years of the Cold War—indeed, the phrase anni di piombo was coined in 1981 by German director Margarethe von Trotta, who made it the title of a film about the tensions between East and West Germany. In Italy, the term referred to a series of urban guerrilla actions resulting from several layers of political conflict: the skyrocketing of private industry profits during the years of the economic miracle (1958–1963) had been accompanied by neglect of the public sector—housing infrastructure, health services, and education—that became the subject of frequent and vociferous protests among workers, university students, and left-wing intellectuals. By the end of the sixties, these sectors had articulated into a myriad of competing extra-parliamentary left-wing groups. Some of these (such as the Movimento Studentesco, the Marxisti Leninisti, and Adriano Sofri’s Lotta Continua) had considerable traction and contacts with Soviet Russia, argued for the necessity of political violence, and had ties with the Communist Red Brigades. Although in conflict with one another over the minutiae of their political programs, all groups protested the parliamentary left, which in 1969 consisted of a first-time coalition of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the Christian Democrats (DC). This same government—and anything to the left of it—was also under attack by numerous neofascist groups such as Ordine Nuovo, and Avanguardia Nazionale. Although the plan came to nothing, Julio Valerio Borghese, a naval commander during the fascist regime who continued lobbying for extreme right politics after the war, allegedly gathered armed forces to attempt a coup d’état—now known as the Golpe Borghese—between 7 and 8 December 1970. The US government—which had kept very close ties with the center-left Christian Democrat government since the 1950s—naturally did not want the extreme left to gain traction in Italy; but by the seventies, as some Wikileaks cables have since shown, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was actively invested in discouraging inquiries into the links between neofascist sympathizers and the police, a disquieting position considering that Italy was in the aftermath of an attempted—if badly executed—military coup, and that Kissinger would in 1973 openly support the Chilean golpe against Salvador Allende.
The product of these tensions was an atmosphere in which violent extremes mingled and even were played against one another by a government intent on preserving its precarious stability at all costs. Extreme left-wing groups were often infiltrated by spies from the extreme right, and vice versa. The strategy of “false flagging”—that is, of committing a crime in such a way as to pin responsibility on a particular political group—was a key mode of operation in the late sixties, one whose effect was not so much a successful laying of blame as a deeper destabilization of any identity behind political action. If a crime could be committed so as to look like the work of a leftist group, then the very ideal of activism—that of making direct, immediate dents in a political order—was shattered into a forest of signs, which were then subjected to the vagaries of representation and interpretation.
A period such as the anni di piombo presents a peculiar kind of problem to any historian (let alone a sound historian, as we will see). Unresolved crimes, violence without a culprit, were more rule than exception in this period—it was a time of “terror as usual,” to use Michael Taussig’s sinister oxymoron. Such crimes are always already embedded in a highly sensationalist public record dating back to the violent event itself and woven in a literary and visual corpus that spans, by now, decades. A violent event existed in a particular “climate of representation”—to use Lisa Gitelman’s phrase—through which the event was codified into reports that rooted themselves in the memory of the city’s inhabitants. The climate, in the case of 1970s Italy, was characterized by sensationalist public statements, such as Saragat’s intimation of biopolitical terror, which pointedly fails to identify any political purpose behind the violence other than the “destruction of life.” The sensationalism, though, was not a general matter of rhetoric, of overstatement, or even of metaphorical language. The historian can’t pretend to scrape it off as mere ideology, exposing the live historical flesh underneath. And this is why: in the history of Italian politics that begins with the explosion in Piazza Fontana and extends to the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, it was hardly ever the loss of life, the most concrete consequence of political violence, that was sensationalized; rather, it was precisely the unintelligibility, the impossibility of conclusive evidence regarding its perpetrators that was staged, proclaimed, bemoaned, and ultimately sold.
This climate of representation, in which unintelligibility is presented as a kind of standalone reality effect (that is, such a picture, or such a witness, is telling the truth because its contents or testimony are unclear), puts the historian in a peculiar double bind. We don’t know, for example, if Annarumma was intentionally murdered or died by accident, perhaps as a result of attempted self-defense. Nonetheless, reporting this particular or any event as a problem, as an unresolved issue, is to appropriate the mode of presentation of the event itself at the time of occurrence, making the historian complicit with the sensationalist press coverage. And yet it is also essentially impossible for the historian to resolve the mystery (and this is, of course, the mode of Italian microhistorians like Carlo Ginzburg, who directly engaged with the historiographical and political problem of the anni di piombo) and demystify the sensationalism: for all the putative resolutions of the Annarumma, Piazza Fontana, and Aldo Moro cases, none of them have yet amounted to an official legal resolution. Indeed, not only is the overblown mode of representation difficult to deflate into a legal resolution, but one could also argue that sensationalism in 1970s Italy aided, rather than defied, the exercise of the law: in response to the Moro murder, Prime Minister Francesco Cossiga passed a law (formulated on 15 December 1979 and passed on 8 February 1980) sanctioning mass incarcerations, unwarranted searches, and more severe punishment for terrorist activities, effectively turning the problem of unintelligibility into permission to persecute, rather than legally try, members of activist groups deemed suspicious.
This is not to say that the question of the aesthetic value, the performativity and complex sensationalism of the coverage of political violence at this point in Italian history hasn’t been examined by historians. It is, however, striking that, by and large, these analyses have focused on visual evidence, on either printed media or photography. Verbal media—newspaper articles, interviews, and so on—could also embody terror insofar as they were shown merely to report on what seemed unsettling documentary evidence. Of course visual evidence and its presentation were even more crucial to the building of such an atmosphere—from the typesetting of headlines, to the pictures included with the report, to the street-level “eyewitnesses” on which journalistic reports of this kind so heavily rely. Historians have since produced accounts of precisely the representational work performed by 1970s media, accounts that are largely based on an analysis of images and news clippings. In the case of Italy, a collective study was published in 2011 of an iconic image of Milan’s anni di piombo (a balaclava-wearing demonstrator pointing a gun at armed police), showing the work of representation evident in the technical features as well as press coverage of the photo. There is, on the other hand, a pronounced dearth of critical studies about sound media in these same circumstances. This is an odd lacuna. After all, this is a historical period in which recording technology allows for extensive sonic documentation—not to mention surveillance—of events that could then be broadcast or even circulated as recordings. Is this lack of a critical history of political sound recordings simply a sign that recorded sound has lost the race against visual media as a source of proof, and thus as the subject of historical critique? Or is it that the act of recording sound is considered by default less mediated (more presence than representation) than visual reproduction, and thus, again, less worthy of critical attention? And if so, how might we begin to think of a representational climate for sound in these decades? Continue reading …
In this essay, musicologist Delia Casadei homes in on the contradiction between the declared purpose of the LP I fatti di Milano and the sound recording it mobilizes toward that end. Drawing on both sound studies and Italian political philosophy, she argues that the record embodies and actively stages idiosyncratic but highly contemporary relationships between music and soundscape, between sound event and its technological reproduction, and ultimately between political event and the act of writing history.
DELIA CASADEI is an Assistant Professor at UC Berkeley. She researches the relation between voice, sound reproduction, and ideologies of language, with special attention to the twentieth century, Italy, and matters of nationhood and race.