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Renewing subversion. Artistic experience ‘in the firing line’
I) A central problem.
This paper will explore some issues related to the artistic discourse as a site of subversive potential. The two writers whose ideas I have chosen to discuss briefly, namely Roland Barthes and Pier Paolo Pasolini, were both profoundly concerned with the problems related to the ossification of discourses in dogmas and with the tendency to stereotypy and conformism that threatens any critical practice. I will tie this concern to the notion of responsibility that emerges from some of their theoretical writings and from their artistic practice. Responsibility is actualised in a moment of rupture with the discursive status quo and with the forces of normalisation. Yet the recuperation of the avant-garde, and the incorporation of the work of art into an ever-increasing circuit of consumption sharpened their awareness that every transgression is inscribed into a system that sanitise it and, ultimately, make it consumable. As a result, the renewal of a challenge to the status quo configures itself as dependent on a constant dialogic engagement with the ever-changing surrounding discourses and on the will to displace oneself. In the conclusive part of this paper I will ask why this struggle against normalisation and the pursuit of moments of rupture has a relevance that goes beyond the contingencies in which it was originally embedded.
II) Languages of power, languages of disruption.
It is not the purpose of this paper to sum up the complex and multifaceted Barthesian view of language or to smooth over its seeming contradictions. The fact that Barthes can be approached from many different angles probably testify of his practice of displacement. I will rather propose a cursory look at some notions and suggest to consider them as the scenario in which displacement and dialogic engagement become necessities in the pursuit of moments of rupture.
The problem of the rapid solidification of languages is a recurring preoccupations for Barthes: ‘Contemporary society […] tends to solidify very rapidly certain languages. (This is an element of our contemporary alienation.) Our society put much energy in the creation of stereotypes. I call these stereotypes idiolects, idiolects consistent with themselves. As a consequence we, modern men, are forced to live perpetually traversing ready made languages, i.e. stereotyped languages.’ For Barthes a logic of violence is intrinsic in language as such. The very dynamics underlying the production of meaning respond to a logic of opposition, domination and closure. In the last analysis, language always bears the mark of an inscription of power. However, Barthes also underscores how, in the close totality of language, there certainly are gradations and continual permutations in the distribution of power. Language might well be that all-pervasive element constituting us as subjects and marking the boundaries of the thinkable and the knowable, yet it is also, as Bakhtin would have it, the space of heteroglossia. The stratification of language into a plurality of social languages, open to mutual contamination, interaction, antagonistic or collaborative relationships may allow a certain scope for manoeuvring within it.
In La guerre des langages Barthes distinguishes two main groups of languages: the encratic languages, i.e. the languages of power, of the doxa, (the common opinion, discourses turned into stereotypes and accepted without suspicion) and the acratic languages, i.e. the discourses of opposition to power. The division into acratic and encratic languages seems to open up a positive space for the pursuit of a moment of rupture. If any disruption of the perceived order of things constantly run the risks of being harnessed by the many and resourceful languages of power, it is nevertheless possible to affirm a strategy of displacement. Affirming a discourse, or a practice, in its acratic function and being ready to displace oneself when the danger of integration and exploitation is imminent become a twofold strategy to respond to this state of constant danger. Awareness of the contemporary state of discourses and the will to renegotiate one’s position are configured as indispensable if the critical, subversive potential of a work is to be maintained alive.
III) In the firing line: Dialogic awareness, Displacement and Responsibility.
I will introduce a metaphor that seems to be a poignant illustration of this notion of responsibility In an essay published in 1970, Pasolini coined the image of the ‘firing line’ while discussing the problem of transgression of cinematic rules. This reflection, though, goes well beyond the criticism addressed to a few avant-garde directors and points to a more general issue, one that preoccupied Pasolini throughout his career: namely, the problem of maintaining the critical, subversive potential of a work alive, beyond normalisation.
Pasolini started his argument by likening the act of artistic creation to an ‘assault on self-preservation:’ ‘every infraction of a code – an operation necessary for stylistic invention – is an infraction of self-preservation, and therefore is the exhibition of an autolesionistic act: through which something tragic and unknown is chosen in the place of something quotidian and known (life).’ After equating the act of artistic creation to a sort of masochistic martyrdom, Pasolini suggested that it is reality the object that one must, by immolating oneself, bear witness to. Breaking through ‘the order of self preservation which requires either silence or a relationship in a common average language’ constitutes a way to obtain a glimpse into those aspects of reality that the common average language (the language of the Barthesian doxa, we may well say, the language of conformism) prevent us from seeing. ‘The firing line’ is the place where ‘by their own decision […] the martyr-filmmakers always find themselves […] that is, on the front line of linguistic transgressions,’ in order to witness ‘the appearances of Reality.’
However, this unknown reality is always in danger, and the responsible artist never ends to struggle for it. The position from which to evoke it has to be constantly renegotiated as every disruption in the order of perception is immediately recuperated. Unawareness of the inevitably impending recuperation entails bleak consequences:
There are some filmmakers who […] push themselves beyond the front line of transgressions. They go beyond the firing line and find themselves on the other side, in enemy territory […] There, where everything has become transgression, there is no more danger; the moment of fight, the one in which one dies, is at the front. The victory over a transgressed norm becomes immediately incorporated into the infinite possibilities of modification and expansion of the code. What is important is not the moment of the realization of the invention, but the moment of invention. Permanent invention; continual struggle. […] Within the concentration camp, where everything is transgression […] the enemy has disappeared: he is fighting elsewhere. It is therefore necessary […] to compel oneself not to go too far forward, to break off the victorious rush toward martyrdom, and to go continuously backwards, to the firing line.’
What Pasolini suggests then, in the final twists of a characteristically convoluted and dense argument, is an indefinitely postponed martyrdom, an endless play with the unknown.
Pasolini’s intellectual and artistic trajectory is punctuated with utopian constructions and their subsequent dismantling, ethico-political projects and their abjurations (the word ‘abjuration’ is Pasolini’s), transgressions and transgressions of transgressions. I will suggest that Pasolini’s displacements can be read in terms of as many efforts to stay ‘in the firing line.’ Keeping a dialogue with the encratic languages always polemically alive, denouncing the exploitation and neutralization of his challenges and then moving where a transgression is not expected are all tactical moments responding to a same will to be responsible towards ‘the appearances of Reality’
VI) Responsibility to the other. Radical generosity.
The ‘appearances of Reality,’ or what Pasolini, in another article, called ‘the new things of the world’ that were defying old interpretive paradigms require a suspended evocation. That was, for Pasolini, the new commitment of the writer after the crisis of Marxist orthodoxies. In Pasolini’s essay there is an uncanny alliance between this unknown reality –the world of the present not yet catalogued – and the freedom to die. And the equivalence if somehow prolonged in its antagonistic couple: institutionalised transgression/institutionalised death, i.e. martyrdom. I will suggest that what is pursued in this alliance – the double moment of rupture with ‘what is known’ – is an act of radical generosity. The welcoming of a new configuration of relationships between the work and the surrounding discourses –a configuration that one never knows in advance how to judge – represents an opening to unknown otherness, that is, to something that has yet to be apprehended and valued. The revolutionary moment, the moment in which the old order is suspended and something unknown flashes up, entails the most radical responsibility.
However, the act of wrestling oneself free from the forces of conformism in order to welcome the unknown of today cannot be severed from another type of openness: that toward the unknown future reader. If the code has an infinite capacity to encompass and normalise transgressions, the artist will never be done with abjures and displacements. No one will ever be able to control the whole trajectory of their works and rescue them from unwanted re-appropriations and economical and ideological exploitations. The renewal of this act of radical generosity cannot be programmed. It has to be entrusted upon an unknown reader that belongs to the future. At this point, it seems that Barthes opened up toward this reader, whereas Pasolini, in his last period, conceived the reception of his works in very bleak terms.