Let’s not speak of his death; let’s speak of his life. Sing of it, even! Pier Paolo Pasolini was one of the great practitioners of a Marxist thought in action. All of his concepts came from practice, as a teacher, poet, novelist, journalist, film-maker, and media provocateur.
His original and perceptive theory of neo-capitalism came from direct engagement with the problems of making a postwar, post-Fascist culture. His commitment to the Grand Old Cause of the people was both moral but also erotic, even carnal. He wanted – needed – to cock-suck the world. Such was his “rash love of reality.” (226)
A celebrity in his lifetime, the public drunk him in, and his posthumous reputation still suffers the hangover of that immoderate fame – although as I noted elsewhere he is a point of reference for Maurizio Lazzarato. The poems, novels and films are still marvels, and the unfinished (unfinishable) book Petrolio is strikingly prescient. But here I want to focus on the theoretical work of the sixties collected in Heretical Empiricism (New Academia, Washington DC, 2005).
In the sixties, Pasolini was already counter-programming against those such as his contemporary Louis Althusser who would appear to read Marx’s texts as a “Gospel” (38) even though as he says Marxism is, “the only ideology that protects me from the loss of reality.” (72) He had a distinctive take on just what that reality might be, which in good Bogdanovite fashion we can see as something he arrived at via substitution from his own practice, particularly as a film maker, as we shall see later on.
As one might expect from a poet, Pasolini had excellent antennae for what his contemporary Raymond Williams would call an emergent cultural formation and its causes. In hindsight we can say that he correctly predicted certain transformations in the mode of production we still charmingly refer to by the old handle of ‘capitalism.’ He had no interest in merely submitting new phenomena to the old conceptual grids, however.
Pasolini: “The typical operation of common sense is to defend oneself from uncomfortable novelties by making them pass for old.” (39) Hence what one finds in Pasolini is not the old theory of capital’s eternal universals detected under new appearances. Rather, he is an exemplar of how to start from practice, from experience, and bring the concepts into alignment with that experience by changing the language of conceptual writing itself.
Heretical Empiricism begins with questions of language. Pasolini’s early poems were not in Italian but in the Friulian dialect. He was from the beginning directly involved in the politics of language. The progressive movement in postwar Italian literature tried to enlarge the linguistic space of the national-popular through a literary and cultural campaign. The culture of the wartime Resistance, generalized and popularized after the war, attacked the petit-bourgeois faux-classicism of the Fascist period from the bottom up.
It is astonishing to see him, by the sixties, confidently criticizing the writing style of Antonio Gramsci, whose Prison Notebooks of the 30s were newly discovered in the 50s and had become something of a cult text on the left. Gramsci, Pasolini says, was not a precocious writer. His cultural formation was expressive and humanist, overlaid with a rather too sincere apprenticeship in a more ‘scientific’ language of Marxism. Only in his late letters does Pasolini think Gramsci came close to synthesizing such influences. In short, his writing could not be the basis of national-popular counter-hegemonic language for the post-war period.
Postwar literature had three ways of using language. Middle brow writing was rather staid and academic. The high style tended to be rather too sublime: “the bourgeois introversion that equates the world with interiority.” (5) Perhaps alluding to his own early novels and stories, Pasolini sees the core achievement of the era as combining the high style with a low one, with roots in dialect and regional structures of feeling.
Of particular significant for him is free indirect discourse, where the author speaks from the point of view of the character. On the one hand this obliges the writer to blend the authorial voice with the character, including the experience of peasants and workers, and on the other, it enables the writer to address not just the reader but classes of readers, in something like an epic style. It was a way of getting out of the chamber-pieces of bourgeois literature, even if some of the best writing of the time was from the point of view of bourgeois characters expressing their internal dissatisfaction and alienation from bourgeois culture – for example in Alberto Moravia’s novel Boredom.
Something like free indirect discourse was also the technique of postwar neorealist cinema, including Pasolini’s own Accatone. But the attempt to create a counter-hegemonic national-popular culture from below ran aground by the sixties. In Pasolini’s severe judgment “we must also admit to having worked for the enemy.” (46) It may have created some of the conditions of possibility for a quite different culture, an expression of a quite different political economy.
As someone who works in and through language – understood very broadly – Pasolini’s worldview sees everything through the prism of language. His own labors become the means via which to understand initially quite subtle changes in the mode of production, understood through its cultural effects. At the same time, as a militant worker on language, Pasolini is critical of the formal linguistics coming into vogue in his time. All his interventions into the theory of literature and media are attempts to pose critical questions about language as practice.
For example, Pasolini accepts the key distinction in the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure between langue and parole, which he understands as, on the one hand, the formal structure of the language considered as a totality (langue) and on the other, specific instances of the enacting of language (parole). It is a distinction he thinks applies to any language, including cinema and much else, as we shall see. He then goes on to distinguish what he calls spoken-written languages, and spoken-only languages. Both spoken-written and spoken-only language have the double aspect of langue and parole.
His example of a spoken-only language is the dialect of Friuli, which had almost no written form at all before Pasolini and some colleagues got to work on it. Pasolini’s goal is to understand such languages socially and politically rather than formally. He is contemptuous of linguists who go looking for ‘pure’ speakers of undocumented dialects “like gatherers of lichens.” (58) Linguistics has a colonizing aspect, and it infects its conceptual apparatus. It takes the spoken-written language of a powerful state as a norm.
Spoken-only languages are a “a kind of hyper- or meta-structure.” (58) They are prehistoric and unconscious, they mediate between the human and nature. On the other hand, spoken-written languages belong to a superstructure. They are the product of a certain stage in the organizing of a productive base, a moment after liberation from necessity (and the invention of new ones…). Pasolini takes the point of view of the provincial, subaltern Friulian for whom the spoken-written language of Italian is something coming from above and without.
Some, like Alice Becker-Ho and Giorgio Agamben would insist that national languages don’t exist. A people and a language are only ever made to conform to each other by a state. Pasolini’s way of expressing a similar idea is to insist that a national language was only ever a superstructural project, particularly in an Italy only unified as a state since the 1870s. Italian, in Pasolini’s time, was still a plethora of dialects at the bottom, and a literary and official language on top.
Neo-capitalism brings into the plural space of languages a technical language. It comes not from the state, from schools, from literature. Its “creative centers, processors, and unifiers of language are no longer the universities, but the factories.” (15) It is a language machined down for communicative efficiency; expression is left to advertising. It is communicative but not rational. It is unifying in a way neither church, bourgeois or bureaucratic language succeeded in being. It developed in the North, in Milan and Turin, where advancing industry forged a typical new way of life. It simplifies the sentence, eliminates hifalutin Latin constructions and drives out the old dialect communities on its new autostrade.
Pasolini: “Now the guiding spirit of language will no longer be literature but technology.” Here he overlooks the extent to which the old literary forms were themselves technologies. Pasolini is no Friedrich Kittler. He does not perceive culture as always already technical – just the new forms of it. Still, as a rough diagram of what was coming, it does make sense to see the old attempt at a ‘national’ language as superstructural, an artifact of state and school, and the new one as infrastructural, a direct outgrowth of new techniques of production.
The old humanistic petit-bourgeois language never quite managed to be hegemonic or unifying, and produced only administrative and literary language, centered on Rome. The acceleration of productive power thrust the North into contention as a hegemonic power. The instruments of the new hegemonic language would be be radio, television, newspapers. The application of science to production does not stop there in terms of influence on language.
All this comes about because the external revolution has not come to pass. By external, Pasolini means the revolution of the social, the revolution of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. Rather, what is taking place in as internal revolution, a revolution within the forces of production, resulting in a transition from capitalism to neo-capitalism. This revolution stems from the application of science to industry and the anthropological mutations it implies. Of these two competing revolutions, the external revolution transformed languages from the spoken-only on up; the internal transforms those from the spoken-written on down. What follows is the “substitution of the languages of the infrastructures, as a linguistic model, for the languages of the superstructures.” (63)
This is as big a change as that of agricultural civilization, thousands of years before. Pasolini: “what is new is the ‘technological spirit’, that is, the spirit of applied science that tends to substitute its own data for those of nature, and therefore tends to a radical transformation of human habits.” (38) The new hegemonic language is that of a neo-bourgeoisie. Pasolini: “technological language can be understood as the language of industrial eternity… a world completely occupied at the center by the production-consumption cycle.” (37)
Technical language achieves a consistency that in Italy at least, national language never had, and even over-shoots it. “The interregional and international ‘signing’ language of the future will be the language of a world unified by industry and technology (if Marxism, it’s understood, has lost the ways of revolution…).” (43) This analysis of what was then only a tendency turned out to be prophetic.
Pasolini’s response is twofold. On the one hand, these essays on neo-capitalist media, written for various popular journals, are themselves ‘technical.’ They are a sort of détournement of the then ascendant technical language of sociology and linguistics, applied to the project of renewing a Marxist theory of culture. On the other, Pasolini tries to intervene not just in the politics of literature and its language, but the problem of cinema and its language as well. Cinema, or rather audiovisual language, is the terrain of struggle in neo-capitalism analogous to the struggle over literary language in the immediate postwar years. The difference being that it is not a language that descends from the superstructures of state, school, church and literature. It emerges within the infrastructures of production itself.
In cinema history, the period from the talkies to the state-subsidized art-house films of seventies is often taken as one of ‘national’ cinemas. But for Pasolini, cinema is not part of a national language at all. “The structures of the language of cinema… present themselves as trans-national and trans-classist. They prefigure a possible sociolinguistic situation of a world made tendentially unitary by complete industrialization and by the consequent leveling which implies the disappearance of particular and national traditions.” (124) But while potentially a trans-national and trans-class language, cinema actually ends up being merely an inter-national and inter-class language. It became the leisure time activity that expressed the common dream of the technocrat and the technical worker.
In the cinema of the early sixties, the petit-bourgeois character of neo-capitalism, shared by technocrat and technician, reveals itself. The Marxist inspired culture of the Resistance and its fellow-travelling literature of Sartrean commitment has lost its power. “The problematic individual, who was the alibi behind whose acceptance the bourgeoisie had been able to hide its bad faith, had the right to citizenship in Italy for a certain period by presenting himself as ‘committed.’” (125) Now the problematic individual reveals itself as itself as the standard ‘neurotic’, and ‘alienated’ character of modern culture (on which see Franco Berardi).
Pasolini mentions Michaelangelo Antonioni in passing, and surely his films of the early sixties, all starring Monica Vitti are the masterpieces that most clearly picture this new dispensation. In L’Avventura she is the girl from a poor background lost among feckless bourgeois. In La Notte she is the rich girl who fascinates the vaguely leftist writer, now that his mentor is dead and his wife no longer loves him. In L’Eclisse she leaves the enervated leftist writer for the exciting young stockbroker – also a disappointment. Most famously in Red Desert she is the bourgeois wife who in schizophrenic moments loses herself in the beauty of the industrial landscape of Northern Italy, before recoiling from it in panic. She is, in a way, alternately Antonioni, who was indeed fascinated by neo-capitalism; and Pasolini – who recoiled.
Pasolini too made brilliant cinema in the sixties, and arguably unlike Antonioni even flourished in the seventies. But after putting symbolic end to neorealism in Mamma Roma, his films took on a mythic and hallucinatory quality. He was perhaps trying to find a way to translate an entire civilization, born with the rise of agriculture and dying with the rise of neo-capitalism, into a form that could survive it. Hence his Gospel of Matthew, his Oedipus Rex and Medea, the parable of Hawks and Sparrows, on to his justly celebrated Trilogy of Life versions of Decameron, Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights. It was a way of struggle in and against the audiovisual, particularly television, with is endless representations of petit-bourgeois life as ‘good examples.’ “It is for this reason that television is at least as repulsive as concentration camps.” (135)
From a reading of Roland Barthes on Bertold Brecht, Pasolini arrives at a new version of commitment as suspending meaning, which Barthes will in turn conceptualize as the neutral. Cinema has to find its way through new problems that contradict the accepted narratives of history of both bourgeois and Marxist rationalism: the revolt of the ‘neurotic’ bourgeois against himself, the rise of the third world, decline into repressive bureaucracy of the socialist states, the continued presence of Nazism.
Pasolini found in cinema a technical language, part of the infrastructure of neo-capitalism, which could light the embers of something archaic, because of the very nature of the cinematic sign itself. Cinema too is language, but not like spoken or written language. “Cinema does not evoke reality, as literary language does; it does not copy reality as painting does; it does not mime reality as drama does. Cinema reproduces reality, image and sound!” (133) And hence can potentially reproduce a reality beyond neocapitalism.
Strikingly, for a writer, Pasolini does not privilege the written or the spoken word in thinking about cinema. Linguistic signs (lin-signs) are always in the context of gestures and situations. Film language is animal-like, “on the border of what is human.” (169) Not unlike a spoken-only language like Friulian dialect. Cinema reveals the language of reality just as writing revealed the language of speech.
Images (or im-signs) have no dictionary, or perhaps an infinite one. The film maker does not take im-signs from a structure or system but from chaos. Cinema may have stylistic conventions, but its grammar is open-ended. The irrational aspect of cinema cannot be eliminated, even if it Hollywood cinema it is pushed below consciousness. Cinema’s language of im-signs is both very subjective and very objective. The film-maker selects, but from reality itself.
Is free indirect discourse possible in cinema? Yes. It is naturalistic in that it implies the language of the character. The gaze of a peasant is not the same as that of a bourgeois, or even a worker. In Antonioni’s Red Desert, the world seen from point of view of Vitti’s character, who becomes at the same time a stand in for the director’s own delirious aesthetics, hovers between dissolution of the self and paranoia about its boundaries.
Antonioni’s films were an example of a poetic cinema, which for Pasolini are films that contain the temptation to make another film, détourned by love of the poetry of the world. Poetry is present in obsessive shots and editing rhythms, which are in tension with free indirect discourse. Poetic cinema “is, in other words, the moment in which language, following a different and possibly more authentic inspiration, frees itself of function and presents itself as ‘language as such’ – style.” (182) Something Pasolini’s cinema tried to minimize.
The cinema of poetry flourished in the sixties because a neo-bourgeois culture had opened up a second channel of cinema distribution specifically for the bourgeois audience. Poetic cinema tended to a certain neo-formalism that corresponds to the literary avant-garde. Cinema becomes irrational, stressing in poetic effects.
Where there is free indirect discourse, it is that of the petit-bourgeois character, who identifies itself with all of humanity. Hence free indirect discourse loses its capacity to show the difference between the viewpoints of the different classes. This cinema tries to replace Marxist culture and to be a part of neo-capitalism’s self surveillance and modification. It “ascribes to poets a late humanistic function: the myth and the technical consciousness of form.” (185)
By the sixties it had become a commonplace of the avant-gardes, of neo-formalist poetic cinema and of semiotic cultural theory that the split between language and real is absolute, and that language is an autonomous level with its own formal structures and rules. Both theory and art could then concentrate on the technical questions of language, divorced in the first instance from historical considerations, and bracketing off the problem of the real as always an after-effect of language itself. The novelty – and the fun – in Pasolini’s sixties theoretical texts is that they completely reverse this worldview, but from within the language of linguistics and semiotics itself. He embarks on his own détournement of one of the pastimes of cultural theory of the time – a semiotics of cinema.
In cinema as in linguistics, it is easier to know what langue is than what parole is. Likewise, one can study the overall structure of cinema as a totality (as langue) more readily than all the variations and innovations in individual films (analogous to parole). Cinema does not exactly have a language, but it does have a grammar. Shots are not composed of single objects, as there are no single objects in nature. They are composed of kinemes (analogous to phonemes). We can only choose kinemes that exist, but where phonemes are few, kinemes are inexhaustible. Kinemes – objects or forms of reality – are the elements of monemes – shots.
As in Walter Benjamin, cinema is a mechanical reproduction of reality, but it is not mimetic. It does not look like reality; it is part of reality. The grammar of cinema fishes kinemes out of the endless stream of reality. The film maker goes through four phases in the transformation of other-reality into cinema-reality: 1. reproduction, techniques of film making; 2. creating substances, making closed lists of kinemes which are a reality outside us; 3. qualification, whether pro-filmic or filmic, or the moment of subjective interpretation; 4. verbalization or syntax, such as editing, which can be denotative or rhythmic-poetic (connotative). These are the rhetorical figures of cinema.
Cinema is a part of the real made by the labor of film makers. Hence the semiology of cinema is just a chapter of the semiology of reality. Not being symbolic, cinema can’t be distinguished from reality. But reality – and this is Pasolini’s ingenious move – has its own language, and it is analogous to the language of cinema. “The language of the world is, in short, essentially a spectacle.” (239) Human perception is like a shot cut from the language of the real itself.
The language of natural reality produces data, but the language of human reality produces the example. Reality is cinema in its natural state, because reality is itself a language. Pasolini’s project is thus “something other than making the ‘semiology of cinema.’ It is the semiology of reality that must be made! Cinema is the written language of this reality as language.” (133) Reality expresses itself with itself.
Where literature allows reality to express itself as itself when it isn’t there, in cinema, every montage is a kind of contagious metonymy of a world in which it is in contiguity. Cinema is not metaphoric, a whole standing in for a different whole. It is metonymic – a part of a whole – one which is predicated on images rather than just linguistic signs. But it is not just cinema which is a metonymic art, so too is reality. Both cinema and reality are languages in which the paradigmatic – the set of possible signs – is infinite.
Both human perception and individual films are temporal orderings – the syntagmatic – cut from the real. “The ‘phenomena’ of the world are the natural ‘syntagmas’ of the language of reality.” (230) And so “… reality is, in the final analysis, nothing more than cinema in nature.” (198) This is a weird-realist semiotics that can function both descriptively and critically in a neo-capitalist world that has downgraded the word.
Cinema’s technique is its philosophy, which replaces words with actions and things, which runs on audiovisual “languages of the infrastructures.” (198) But which, paradoxically, and for all their endless repetition of petit-bourgeios obsession as if they were the sum total of the world – still cannot expunge the real entirely from its very mechanisms of communication.
The history of communication can then be read, critically and retrospectively, from the point of view of its most advanced development. Pasolini can now say: When we live and act, what we make, and always have made – is cinema. Human praxis as a totality is cinema; any particular human act is a film. “It seems to me that the first language of men is their actions…. All of life in the entirety of its actions is a natural, living film; in this sense, it is the linguistic equivalent of oral language in its natural and biological aspect.” (204)
This natural cinema is made concrete in a common form, that of mechanical reproduction, which is the written form of ‘spoken’ everyday cinema of life. Hitherto, the language of action had been something like a spoken-only language; with cinema human action becomes a spoken-written language, an historically significant development. Again, this seems to me a striking anticipation of what was to come in our time, when neo-capitalism is no longer neo but perhaps needs another ‘language’ to name and describe it. Pasolini: “Audiovisual techniques are in large measure already part of our world, that is, of the world of technical neo-capitalism, which moves ahead, and whose tendency it is to deprive its techniques of ideology or to make them ontological; to make them silent and unrelated; to make them habits; to make them religious forms.” (221)
Here I encourage the reader to imagine the following remarks by Pasolini as if said by a politically and culturally astute Kim Kardashian, about her art of taking selfies, that free indirect discourse of the narcissistic self: “Certainly, it may be that I am obeying a delirious necessity of the contemporary world, which tends precisely to remove the expressivity and philosophical quality of language itself, and to dethrone as a linguistic guide the languages of the superstructures and to install in their place those from the infrastructures – poor, conventional, practical… [L]ife is unquestionably drawling away from the classical humanistic ideals and losing itself in pragmatics. The film (with the other audiovisual techniques) appears to be the written language of this pragmatism. But it may also be its salvation, precisely because it expresses it – and it expresses itself from the inside, producing itself from itself and reproducing it.” (205)
Pasolini: “Reality is a cinema of nature (I act out myself for you, you act out yourself for me)” and so “It is the semiotics of reality we must create!” (224) Cinema is neither arbitrary nor symbolic, as the semiotics of the time would have it, rather it represents reality through reality. “No matter how infinite and continuous reality is, an ideal camera will always be able to reproduce it in its infinity and continuity. As primordial and archetypal concept, cinema is therefore a continuous and infinite sequence shot.” (225) Cinema reproduces reality as continuous and unbroken reality – as a sequence shot.
The sequence shot, or the long take with a continuous action, is for Pasolini a little too naturalistic, and hence is a shot he uses with caution in his own cinema. The time of the sequence shot is the infinite subjective. It has a point of view, but just goes on and on, without resolution. “The language of action is therefore the language of the nonsymbolic sign of the present, and yet in the present it has no meaning, or if it has, it has it subjectively, that is, in an incomplete, uncertain and mysterious sense.” (234)
On the 22nd of November, 1963, Abraham Zapruder made what is surely the most famous sequence shot of all time, the 486 frame of standard 8mm Kodachrome known as the Zapruder Film, of the assassination of President John F Kennedy. Actually it is not quite a sequence shot. To the delight of conspiracy theorists, there is a pause in the middle of it. Zapruder took his finger off the trigger momentarily while his view was obscured. Nevertheless Pasolini attempts to analyze it as a sequence shot.
It shows the last “living syntagmas” in which President Kennedy was trying to form a relation with those around him, including his assassin(s). Pasolini imagines a future investigator – imagine an NSA or CIA analyst – with access to a ‘big data’ set of hundreds of such point of view sequence shots of an event. This analyst could compose an objective account of an event through a synthesis of all of the points of view. Pasolini’s empiricism might be heretical but it still excludes a knowledge of the thing in itself. The objective is the result of a practice, of either science or art, that takes the point of view of an apparatus as a point of departure, but tries to desubjectivize it. Such an objectivity may be imperfect, and may be a form of power, but can still be crucial to the practice of a kind of counter-power.
Such an audiovisual technique, with access to more than one point of view, could compose an infinite, objective sequence shot, as opposed to the infinite subjective sequence shot that is life. Editing, like death, ends the shot. The present becomes past, providing unity and meaning. “It is therefore absolutely necessary to die, because, so long as we live, we have no meaning, and the language of our lives… is untranslatable, a chaos of possibilities, a search for relations and meanings without resolution. Death affects an instantaneous montage of our lives….” (236) Editing does for a film what death does for a life.
The problem with the sequence shot is that its naturalism is, queerly enough, an obstacle to reality. “But is being natural? No, I don’t think so; on the contrary, it seems to me miraculous, mysterious, and – if anything – absolutely unnatural.” (240) The fear of naturalism – a reigning characteristic of avant-garde art – is a fear of being, or more precisely, a fear of the absence of a natural quality in being. Pasolini, on the contrary, risks a theological relation to the real, even if it is one that is emphatically without God.
In free indirect discourse, Pasolini stresses the strangeness of the real that is perceived, not the supposed ‘authenticity’ of the point of view itself. He is thus reducible neither to a standpoint theory or to a poetics wedded to the supposed authenticity of the identity of the perceiving subject. This is the crucial redeeming feature of Pasolini’s atheology. He wants to bind the artist and activist to the points of view of the popular and those points of view to the world. The difference created by cut made by a particular human action adds meaning to the world, but is only a dead residue of that world.
The transformation of the language of reality into the language of the cinema is an intervention into time, as it is not the shot but the cut that introduces the possibility of meaning, changing the shot from something happening to something that has happened: “To make films is to write on burning paper.” (240) Hence Pasolini’s disinterest in durational cinema, like Andy Warhol’s Sleep, a continuous record (apart from the reel changes…) of John Giorno sleeping. “The authors of the new cinema do not die in their works, they fidget in them.” (242) It’s a kind of cinema that reverses neorealism. For neorealism, that which is insignificant matters, whereas for Warhol, that which matters is insignificant. Pasolini wants to retain a sacred communist equality of all things as a way of refusing a banal world of the exchange of all things without making a fetish of specific points of view.
Where a certain tendency in art and criticism likes to insist that representation is unavoidable, that conventions color every attempt at language; Pasolini insists, with persistence and subtlety, in the opposite thesis. Even the most elaborately coded and stylized representation cannot help but communicate something of the real. In the terms of the semiotics of Charles Sanders Pierce, I take Pasolini to hold to the thesis that even coded signs like a language, or mimentic icons such as pictures are still for all that indexical signs as well. They are not metaphorically like (and unlike) the real, they are metonymically part of the real (and no more different to the real as any other part of the real is to any other part).
The real is inescapable, a nonhuman mystery outside the human. “Reality doesn’t do anything else but speak with itself using human experience as a vehicle.” (247) All communication is sacred. Whether it happens in linguistic or cinematic or even living language, communication puts a stop to things, through death or the edit, but time does not end. There is a fatal difference between the language of the real and all living languages, including that of life itself, expressed in this dilemma: “Either be immortal and unexpressed or express oneself and die.” (243) To live is to perform a moral action whose meaning is suspended until death. To be immortal is to be immoral.
The difference between language and the real is not ‘spatial’, as in semiotics; it is temporal. A difference in kinds of time. Cinema uses the unconscious and unexpressed code of reality “But what is it that make reality ‘naturalistic’ and therefore unreal? It is time.” (250) Cinema abolishes continuous time and makes instead time that is meaningful and moral. “Cinema, in actuality, is like a life after death.” (250) Individual films are imperfect ‘paroles’, speech acts, of this impossible cinema.
Films, like lives, are mortal, then. Cinema, like life, might not be, however. It might be closer to the endless and sacred real. “Cinema is an infinite sequence shot which expresses reality with reality. In front of each of us there is always an eventual and virtual camera with an inexhaustible base that ‘shoots’ our life from our birth to our death.” (249) Cinema’s infinite sequence shot “is the ideal and virtual, infinite reproduction made possible by an invisible camera which reproduces as such all the gestures, the actions, the words of a man from his birth to his death.” (245)
Pasolini’s hallucinated love of reality is religious but not theological. It is religious in a quite strict sense of being bound to something – to life, but in the absence of God. It is bound almost in the manner of a sexual fetishism. “The world does not seem to be other that a totality of fathers and mothers, toward whom I feel an absolute rush of feeling, composed of respectful veneration through even violent and scandalous desecrations.” (225) Pasolini was perhaps one of Charles Fourier’s omnigynes – those who experience all twelve of the passions equally.
This might be a far more important cue to his art than his sexuality alone, and much more queer. “Oh, I don’t have any regrets: whoever loves reality too much, as I do, eventually hates it, rebels against it, and tells it to go to hell.” (252) That to which Pasolini’s life and art bends like a heliotrophic plant is the real, an endless, nonhuman, indifferent time. “There was, okay, a being which never-always yesterday-tomorrow is. It doesn’t need anything. It doesn’t love! Love is no more than a small human requirement outside every reality.” (255)
In sum, Pasolini completely rejects the nominalism characteristic of cultural thought from the mid to the late twentieth century. In his own queer way he anticipates the return to the object of our own times. But he does so by understanding the nonhuman world by substituting onto it a language that comes not from contemplation, as in recent philosophies, but a practice – that of film making. The real is a cinema that makes itself for itself. Human-made cinema uses the inhuman apparatus of camera and editing table, and a four-fold practice of turning the language of the real into cinematic language, to make a parallel cinema of the real expressed as individual films that cut and stop and frame it: “the code of reality is analogous to that of cinema” (259)
Pasolini’s cinema is actually not exactly fetishistic, but it is perverse. It’s an erotic not of things but of acts, of jerking-off the world – or maybe sexting with it. But the one thing he does not want to turn into a fetish is language itself as an object. Past societies have considered all sorts of things sacred, but not language itself. Only bourgeois culture did, via symbolism and through it the avant-gardes. “The metalinguistic awareness which has in some way, for the first time, made language sacred has been a classist phenomenon of entropy. It has been a phenomenon lived entirely within the bourgeoisie.” (261)
Whereas for the working class and for Marxism, language retains a sense of function, but also perhaps of the sacred. Magic, for example, is an instrumental approach to language – and while Pasolini does not stress this, it may also be the beginnings of science. Yet semiotics, as a science of communication, has little to say about magic. It is a science of its time, like the linguistics from which it emerged, of a “pure, innocent Racism” which cannot take magic seriously.
Neither semiotics nor the neo-avant-gardes that parallel it have much to say about time, history, social struggle. The former treats popular speech as merely folkloric; the latter does not investigate how its ‘technical’ relation to writing is part of neo-capitalism. “Levi-Strauss in the poet of low salaries, as Robbe-Grillet is the poet of monopolies.” (58)
What particularly raised Pasolini’s ire is the ‘little friars’ of the neo-avant-garde movement called Gruppo 63. (I have written elsewhere about one of its central figures, who Pasolini particularly resisted – Eduardo Sanguinetti). Named after the year of its founding, Gruppo 63’s project as far as Pasolini was concerned was no longer against literature but against language, not against tradition but against meaning. They tried to subvert a language that under neo-capitalism was ceasing to exist anyway.
The neo-avant-garde is the final downfall of the decoy notion of commitment, which takes with it the whole culture of protest, non-conformity, etc. But in the process neo-capitalism makes a whole style of the different, the alienated, etc. It is an aggressive bourgeois culture of its own alienation cut off from Marxism and the party of the working class.
The neo-avant-garde separate the linguistic exercise from being and create a linguistic battle against the bourgeoisie. In place of protest against neo-capitalism itself is a protest against language. But by destroying language, these poets destroy themselves. They suppress the metaphoric capabilities of language. They offer an anti-literary language, but the page remains the page. It never opens or rises in relief. The only thing of which it speaks is on its surface, a battle against the bourgeois, or more properly petit-bourgeois, use of language – an obsessive and repetitive struggle. One still going on in certain circles today.
No matter how much it resists representational language, the texts of (for example) Sanguninetti still can’t help being an index of something – that they are written by a man of letters, which one might add is not in Gramscian terms something of a traditional intellectual function, leftover sediment from the old capitalist social formation. His writing reveals him as petit-bourgeois, and with the same aversions as the more classically oriented among that class: “Terror, taboo, the obsession of the avant-garde with naturalism as false target naïvely reveals terror, taboo, obsession with reality.” (130) Fear of naturalism is fear of reality – that which the petit-bourgeois intellectual is separate from and regards with horror.
In combatting the neo-avant-garde, Pasolini nevertheless concurs with them in the necessity for a detour through the specialized technical language of theory. But as in Stuart Hall, theory is a detour on the road to somewhere else. In Pasolini’s case, back to a certain commitment, maybe not to the narrative fables of old-style Marxism, but rather to a more indirect sounding of the depths of the real.
Pasolini’s pointed struggle against the neo-avant-garde is a struggle against the habits of thought and action of his own class. Like Guy Debord, he was always aware of himself as a provincial petit-bourgeois by origins. He understood that while the bourgeois (and then neo-bourgeois) might be a political-economic enemy, the cultural-social enemy of the popular culture of the Resistance is always petit-bourgeois. Despite its innocent, ‘don’t step on me’ attitude, the petit-bourgeois culture harbors great dangers: “Did Nazism ever die? Were we not crazy to believe it an episode? Isn’t it Nazism which defined the petite bourgeoisie as ‘normal’ and which continues to define it?” (138)
In the 1970s, Pasolini became increasingly despondent about the inroads petit-bourgeois culture was making into the earthy and – in the best sense – vulgar – culture of workers, peasants and lumpen-proles amongst whom be came to maturity, who he always identified with politically and spiritually – and amongst whom he went trawling for sexual adventure. He remained in a certain sense always a vulgar Marxist even as he moved away from many of the dogmas of postwar Marxist thought. He was ambivalent at best and hostile at worse towards the workerist and autonomist currents of leftist politics and culture in Italy from 1968 onwards.
All of this contributes to his two last, great masterpieces – the film Salo and the unfinished novel Petrolio. In Salo, even the earthy erotic of the sacred real in which he had taken refuge with the rise of neo-capitalism appeared to have been compromised by a ‘permissive’ culture that was really about not much more than commodifying the sexual preferences of petit-bourgeois straight men.
Petrolio is a complex allegorical history of both Pasolini’s own life decisions and of the Italian state. Carlo, its central character, has a double life, one Carlo is drawn to power; the other to raw life. This other Carlo inveigles twenty youth to barren ground to suck each of their cocks, and in the process Carlo transforms into a woman. It is as if here again there was langue and parole. Here parole is each individual cock to be sucked; langue is that abstract cock of the world of which each individual cock is but an instance. In Pasolini’s invert-Platonism, each cock he sucked was an instance of the mystery of the real itself.
In any case, by 1975 he was dead in what is now widely agreed to have been a murder sanctioned by some cabal of powerful forces, even if to this day nobody knows quite which. His life is now inevitably given meaning by that cruel cut. But I think there is much more to be said about Pasolini as someone who speaks to these times of which he anticipated not a few features. He deserves something more than to become a character in an Abel Ferrara film, for unlike Ferrara, Pasolini did not retain from Catholicism the dogma of original sin. To have one’s death become a Ferrara movie is to die one too many times.