What Matter Who’s Speaking?
The Politics of Anonymous Authorship
It is the attribute of the bourgeois world that all commodities bear their maker’s name, all ideas are followed by their author’s signature, every party is defined by its leader’s name. . . . Work such as ours can only succeed by being hard and laborious and unaided by bourgeois publicity techniques, by the vile tendency to admire and adulate men.
—Amadeo Bordiga, Sul Filo del Tempo
It was the printing press that finally was to kill Anon. But it was the press also that preserved him.
—Virginia Woolf, “Anon.”
I begin this chapter with an epigraph attributed to Amadeo Bordiga, cofounder of the Italian Communist Party, but it has an uneasy presence here, for its content clashes with its form. While the illuminating effects of epigraphic text are in part secured by their authorial designation, it is precisely to such forms of legitimation and authority attendant on the author’s name that Bordiga’s text stands opposed. The fault for this contradiction does not lie with Bordiga, however. If we had read these sentences in their original context, attribution to a particular individual, or indeed to an individual at all, would have been less straightforward, because Bordiga published his considerable contributions to communist thought anonymously, declining to sign his name to most of his work. Pause to consider how singular that intervention is, both in its time, for here is the one-time leader of a political party willingly relinquishing the prestige and authority that he would otherwise have garnered from his writings, and now, because the identification of creative textual expression with an author, and the marketing of text on that basis, shows every sign of continuing apace, or intensifying, whether one looks to popular book markets, academic research, or social media. Even as I seek here to champion anonymous authorship, Anti-Book carries my name on its covers.
“Hard and laborious” is perhaps not the formulation I would choose, but in this characterization Bordiga conveys a useful impression that authorial anonymity is something to be achieved, repelling the “vile tendency” to adulate individuals in an open set of acts and procedures. There have of course been numerous communist interventions against the power and degenerative effects of the possessive individual, often in concert with moves toward anonymous collective practice, from Ned Ludd onward. And, in recent times, anonymous political practice has had a place in the realm of the popular political imaginary, with the Russian activist group Pussy Riot and the hacker movement Anonymous being signal instances. Nevertheless, Bordiga’s communist pursuit of the capitalist structure of identity into the form of the author is a rare move, thus electing his revolutionary anonymity, paradoxically, as an emblem for this chapter.
In chapters 2 and 3, I concentrated on particular publishing platforms, and I will do so again in chapter 5, but here my interest lies in a media form, the author, which is embedded in the range of platforms as the lynchpin to the property forms and subjectivities of writing and publishing. I first present the critique of the author-function in Foucault and Marx before indicating the opening of a countertendency in Foucault’s occasional comments on anonymous writing. The discussion then turns to two empirical cases of anonymous or pseudonymous authorship, the Luther Blissett “multiple name” (1995–99) and Bernadette Corporation’s novel Reena Spaulings (2005). As will be clear shortly, Marx and Foucault show that the central problematic of experiments in anonymous authorship is the author’s relationship to her “outside,” to social relations broadly conceived. In Reena Spaulings, the outside is figured as a relation to the city but also, in its broader context of production, to another novel, Michèle Bernstein’s All the King’s Horses, whereas in the case of Luther Blissett, the outside is modeled through Marx’s formulations of “communal being” and “general intellect.” These latter featured in Bordiga’s theoretical pursuits, but his deployment of authorial anonymity was made in relationship to a different problematic, that of the “party.” It is to this dimension of the communist author’s outside that the chapter moves next, prompted by the notion of the “imaginary party” in the French journal Tiqqun and “The Invisible Committee,” pseudonymous author of The Coming Insurrection. In this discussion, I set out the anti-identitarian qualities of Marx’s theory of the party through his twofold formulation of the “ephemeral” and “historical” party, though I do this not to take up the question of political organization but to draw out features of writing practice that arise when anonymity and the party come into relation, with regard especially to questions of textual authority and dogma, practices I pursue through three journal publishing projects: Comité, the revue of the May 1968 group, Comité d’Action Etudiants-Ecrivains; Marx and Arnold Ruge’s Deutsch-Franzöische Jahrbücher; and the communization journal Endnotes.
Foucault and Marx on the Author-Function
In his dissection of the features of the modern “author-function,” Foucault famously associates its emergence, from the late eighteenth century, with texts that came to function, through the mechanisms of copyright law, as units of property. The modern author arises from the polymorphous field of discourse as a means to confer authority and distinction on a discrete share of text, a work, and is concurrently projected back onto that work as its sole and unique source, whence arises his proprietary rights. Quite the contrary, then, to our customary picture of the author as exceptional fount of refined signification, “the author does not precede the works; he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses.” Or, as Jeffrey Nealon underscores the property dimensions of Foucault’s construction, this is the “author-function [as] a creator of scarcity, an interior space introduced into an exterior field of discourse to create privileged nodes of value.” In the history of textual production, then, the coming into being of the author-function “constitutes the privileged moment of individualization,” an individualization that is bound to the property form of writing. (We should note too that this property form is understood as an immaterial entity, the “work” abstracted from any physical medium that may carry it, and so the author-function is a central dimension of the text–matter distinction we have been following throughout Anti-Book.)
This late-eighteenth-century arrival of the author into the dominant social order of property is not, however, the author’s first appearance; it is historically secondary to authorial identification via penal law, where named authorship was a mark of, and deterrent to, transgressive discourse. Foucault explains:
Texts, books, and discourses really began to have authors (other than mythical, sacralized and sacralizing figures) to the extent that authors became subject to punishment, that is, to the extent that discourses could be transgressive. In our culture (and doubtless in many others), discourse was not originally a product, a thing, a kind of goods; it was essentially an act—an act placed in the bipolar field of the sacred and the profane, the licit and the illicit, the religious and the blasphemous. Historically, it was a gesture fraught with risks before becoming goods caught up in a circuit of ownership.
For example, an English parliamentary edict of 1642, responding to a flood of anonymous publications, required “that the Printers do neither print or reprint any thing without the name and Consent of the Author.” The first inkling of the rights of the author are apparent here, certainly, but, as Mark Rose argues, this edict does not index a “regime of property,” of the author–work conjunction, but a “regime of regulation,” its aim to prevent transgressions of public discourse.
This transgressive dimension to writing does not of course vanish with modernity; Foucault argues that it carries over into the property regime of the author, but it does so predominantly in a domesticated fashion as a propensity toward transgressive literary content, as if the author were in this way “compensated” for her entry into the social order of property, literature becoming a field of sanctioned transgression. Hence, in this essay, Foucault finds that literary content offers little for a politics of writing. What is required, instead, is a more structural intervention, as he hints at in “What Is an Author?” and later goes some way to formulate, namely, that the politics of writing might be developed in direct opposition to the author-function. I leave that point in Foucault hanging for a moment to introduce Marx’s interventions on this front of the author, interventions that allow us to tentatively raise the question of anonymous authorship.
The strange interplay of textual property and penal law in the constitutive field of the author is evident also in Marx, in his earliest pieces of journalism on censorship and freedom of the press in the Rheinische Zeitung (Rheinish newspaper), though this time censorship and property constraints are more directly enmeshed. In the first of these articles, an 1842 text on the occasion of a new censorship law, Marx argues that the Prussian censor’s function of conferring and securing the identity of its authors effected precisely the inverse. Far from a protective act, this state-sanctioned form of literary identity stripped authors of their real individuality, subject as they now were to write within the established limits, at pain of censorship or prosecution. Marx thus declaims, “The law permits me to write, only I must write in a style that is not mine! I may show my spiritual countenance, but I must first set it in the prescribed folds!” Somewhat confirming his point, the text was summarily banned. I will continue with the object of Marx’s critique here a little more, but let me indicate, to pick up again shortly, that another dimension to Marx’s critique of the author is also introduced here. Marx makes no direct case for anonymity in this text, but it was part of the text’s construction and effect, for Marx signed it pseudonymously, by “a Rhinelander.”
Not that censorship stood as an evil alone, as it did for bourgeois critics. If Marx’s sight points back against the feudal model of press censorship, the prohibition against transgression, it also points forward against that which the bourgeois critics of censorship were ushering in. For Marx in these articles on press freedom made trenchant attacks also on the commodity form of writing, where the press “degrades itself to the level of a trade,” subject not to the rigors of thought and critical debate but to the market laws of free trade. Under these conditions, censorship is merely an exceptional moment of “unfreedom” in a press that is unfree in its very structure, such that, as he quips, “The writer who degrades the press into being a material means deserves as punishment for this internal unfreedom the external unfreedom of censorship.” All the same, the modern property form of writing was not yet fully formed, and neither was Marx’s communist insight, for his formulation of the writer’s expressive individuality overlaps with a trope that helped to facilitate the property regime of writing. While the emergence of copyright was bound up in liberal discourses of the natural right to property—a right resultant, in John Locke’s foundational formulation, from the proprietor having “mixed his Labour” with nature—it found a ready companion in the romantic conception of the author as creative individual. A properly communist construction of the source of writing must hence look elsewhere than to a supposedly unalienated creative subject, as Marx himself signals in other texts on the matter.
Ten years after these texts on press freedom, a French decree that all journal articles bear their authors’ signatures prompted Marx in Class Struggles in France to underscore the association of state-sanctioned authorship with the debasement of the critical field, only this time he indicates also the interplay between textual property and named authorship (as text becomes self-advertisement). Here it is less the author’s creative individuality than an amorphous public discourse that is Marx’s valued party, and now a political value is accorded anonymity in the argument itself:
So long as the press was anonymous it appeared as the organ of a public opinion without number or name; it was the third power of the state. With the signature of each article a newspaper became merely a collection of journalistic contributions by more or less well-known individuals. Every article sank to the level of an advertisement.
This can be taken as part explanation for why Marx himself penned hundreds of periodical articles and reports without signature, a fact rarely noted but confirmed by the bibliographies to almost all the fifty volumes of the Marx and Engels collected works. It is not quite a communist theory of writing, for the press–public conjunction is here understood to be a condition for a functioning bourgeois polity, as is indicated by the metaphoric association with the circulation of money in the continuation of the preceding passage: “Hitherto the newspapers had circulated as the paper money of public opinion; now they were reduced to more or less worthless promissory notes, whose value and circulation depended on the credit, not only of the issuer, but also of the endorser.” Nonetheless, the “public” in Marx’s writings on press freedom has a radical dimension. It is posited against those social roles that are approved to speak, academics (“learned men by profession, guild or privilege,” with “their distinguished pedantry and their petty hair-splitting dissertations, interposed . . . between the people and the mind, between life and science”) no less than journalists. In their stead, it is the “unauthorised writers” who carry the true commitment to writing, who feel a “vital need” of the press.
If anonymity here pertains to individual and collective expression against the twin debasements of the state-sanctioned and bankable author, Marx makes an enticing claim that anonymous text has a destabilizing effect also on the psychic economy of the state, a point developed by Margaret Rose. The censor experienced unsigned works, in Marx’s words, as an “uncanny anonymity.” For, having taken away authors’ singular qualities through the conferral of state identity—having rendered them anonymous, in other words, in the sense of being generic and interchangeable—the censor was then faced with an anonymity that undermined his intentions, a critical and collective writing without name that was the alien product of his own action. The censor, as Rose puts it, was “psychologically and tactically confronted by the very anonymity [censorship] would abolish, as ‘uncannily’ its own now alienated and foreign creation.”
Marx’s construction of uncanny anonymity here is especially useful in stressing that anonymous authorship impacts not only the author herself but also the social nexus more broadly—in this case, the psychic economy of the censor and the discursive structures of censorship. That said, though in these texts Marx poses a challenge to the state-sanctioned form of the author and makes the opening moves to a critique of the modern author-function, anonymous authorship was for him more a tool to aid in the emergence of bourgeois polities than it was a textual feature of their communist overcoming. I suspect that the deliberate adoption of anonymity as a communist practice would have been viewed by Marx to be in too close proximity to the conspiratorial forms of Masonic and Bakuninist politics, a fetter to his move to publish communism “openly, in the face of the whole world.” And yet the very text where Marx makes this declaration of nonclandestine openness, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, was in fact published anonymously, where it opens an enticing dimension to anonymous authorship, as we will see later on.
To Conquer the Anonymous
If Marx was at the limit of affirming anonymous authorship as an anticapitalist textual form, Foucault tips over it, with forays into anonymity as a deliberate counter to the modern author-function. We should keep in mind here that Foucault’s critique, in contrast to Marx’s pseudonymous intervention, is made not only against censorship but against the conditions of all discourse, or all discourse within which one encounters authors, and that this is part of a carefully constructed ethics of writing. In “What Is an Author?” anonymity takes two forms. At the essay’s close, Foucault imagines a culture where discourses would circulate in a “pervasive anonymity,” evaluated not in terms of their authenticity, originality, and subjective density (that is, as governed by the author-function) but in terms of their structural patterns and functions, a direction encapsulated in his quotation, at the essay’s close, from Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing: “What matter who’s speaking?” But while Foucault here imagines a world without the author-function, this formulation is more a condensed presentation of his archaeological method for the analysis of discourse than it is an indication of a specific practice of anonymity. That is not the last word, however, for the text also contains resources for a more concerted ethics of written anonymity. If the author-function is internal to the privatization of discourse, there are indications that the author, the writer of a text, may have a different role. This is not quite the writer as empirical person. The author-function does not merely mold and block the individuality of the writer, as the young Marx had it; for Foucault, there is nothing of the real individual in the “game of writing,” the writer exists here as a “dead man.” But in this absence lies the author’s potential force, the trace indication of a life that can in no way be reconstructed, a “mark of the writer [who] is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence.”
This is enigmatic indeed, though it opens out to a rich stream in Foucault’s ethics of writing, where the politics of the author arises in the author’s absence or, given its necessary combat with the author-function, in techniques for producing that absence. It is in this direction that I now move.
Foucault gave an interview with Le Monde in April 1980 in which he declined to reveal his identity, describing the deliberate choice of authorial anonymity as a means to a better “surface of contact” with the reader, one “unrippled” or no longer distracted by the author’s name. This is for a chance of better “being heard,” for sure, but also, more significantly, for a dynamic life of the work beyond authorial intent: “The effects of the book might land in unexpected places and form shapes that I had never thought of.” Such attention to opening the foreclosed work in the realm of its readers is complemented by Foucault’s thoughts on what anonymity might bring to the author. In another interview, Foucault comments that a work “does not belong to the author’s project” or “existence”—it is, rather, a desubjectifying experience of the “outside”: “It maintains with [the author] relationships of negation and destruction, it is for him the flowing of an eternal outside.” To “conquer the anonymous,” as Foucault puts it, is to construct and affirm this relation of authorial erasure in the opening to the author’s outside. This, not the individuation of the author-function, is the real mark of singularity:
What gives books like those which have no other pretension than to be anonymous so many marks of singularity and individuality are not the privileged signs of a style, nor the mark of a singular or individual interpretation, but the rage to apply the eraser by which one meticulously effaces all that could refer to a written individuality.
At this point we should draw a distinction that is often blurred in Foucault’s comments on anonymity. In certain places, such claims to the erasure of written individuality occur under this author’s name, most famously in Foucault’s declaration in The Archaeology of Knowledge that his writing prepared a labyrinth into which he could lose himself: “I am no doubt not the only one who writes in order to have no face. Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and our police to see that our papers are in order. At least spare us their morality when we write.” These moments are of limited help to us. For as Nealon observes, such declarations of faceless singularity emanating from a named author and posited against the bureaucrats of the norm have the unfortunate effect of charging the author with a power of scarcity and transformation that invokes and intensifies the very structures and privileges he claims to overcome, Foucault here borrowing the not-so-rare trope of the author as unique point of transvaluation. Fortunately, as we have seen, this was not Foucault’s only route to anonymity.
I turn now to concrete practices of anonymous authorship, first to Luther Blissett. Of the different strategies to conquer the anonymous, Foucault comments favorably on the use of collective pseudonyms, saying this of Nicolas Bourbaki, the pseudonymous collective mathematician: “Bourbaki is at bottom the model. The dream for all would be, each in his own domain, to make something like this Bourbaki, where mathematics is elaborated under the anonymity of a fantastic name.” This is the broad direction taken by Luther Blissett, though with an important difference. Unlike Bourbaki, whose name functions as the signature of a delimited collective, Luther Blissett was a “multiple name” without border, an enunciative function, as I will explain in depth shortly, that was open to anyone. This multiple name was first established in Bologna, Italy, in the mid-1990s, as a project oriented toward scandals and pranks of communist hue and making tactical use of the cityscape and diverse mediums, from radio and Internet to music and the novel. The politics of authorship was by no means Luther Blissett’s only concern, but it was a central constitutive feature and is the aspect of his composition and practice on which I focus here.
Luther Blissett was no less interested than Foucault in a form of anonymous writing that arises from the author’s “outside,” though he approached it in a way that brings Marx back into our discussion, for Luther Blissett at times understood himself to be an articulation of “communal being” and “general intellect,” terms developed by Marx to conceptualize sociality against the dichotomy, so foundational to capitalist modernity, between the individual and the social, a political sociality of the communal or the common. Taking “communal being” and its direct cognates first, Marx famously shows in “On the Jewish Question” how the bourgeois individual of the modern state—the “citizen,” the subject of the “rights of man,” the “possessive individual” as we know it since C. B. MacPherson—is premised on an opposition between individual and social existence. In this oppositional relation, the social appears to impinge on the primary autonomy of the individual, but the real delimiting power is actually the social form of the individual itself, the “confined individual, confined to himself.” A product of the capitalist social, the individual masquerades as its ground and cause, constraining expansive social being into the isolated subject of private property:
In the rights of man it is not man who appears as a species-being; on the contrary, species-life itself, society, appears as a framework extraneous to the individuals, as a limitation of their original independence. The only bond which holds them together is natural necessity, need and private interest, the conservation of their property and their egoistic persons.
Bourgeois politics partakes of and enforces this structure, such that social being experiences a double degradation, not only excised from the confined and partial individual but reduced to a mere support for the latter, as “the [political] sphere in which man behaves as a communal being [Gemeinwesen] is degraded to a level below the sphere in which he behaves as a partial being.”
By contrast, Luther Blissett’s politics of the collective pseudonym seeks to break the bounds of the partial individual by founding itself on, or bringing into expression, the communal being that traverses and exceeds the individual. As Stathis Kouvélakis points out, the whole bearing of Marx’s critical philosophy, which for shorthand we can call his anti-utopianism, prevents him from stipulating the positive determinations of communal being. The concept is instead more a means of immanent critique, whose conditions can be observed only negatively, in revealing the proclaimed universal community of the bourgeois individual to be in fact one of a-social isolation, as we have seen, and to be premised on a series of exclusions. For the structure of the bourgeois subject placed slaves, racialized others, women, the working class, with their tenuous relation to property, or being property, as outside of the political community, their social conditions of life naturalized as prepolitical. That lack of positive determination does not mean, however, that we cannot gain faint glimpses of communal being, if we understand it less as a resource available to be tapped than as a construction that arises in practices that undo the partial individual and the social forms that produce and sustain it. Here the individual and the collective are no longer placed in a dichotomous relation, for the dichotomy is undone along with the terms that it produces, as each individual or, as we can now call it, singular instance is a product of collective relations, and each collectivity is constituted through its singular and various manifestations. As Luther Blissett puts it, the collective pseudonym is the production of a “multiple single” within and against the partial mode of being of the individual. Let us be clear, there is no unanimity here. The multiple single is collectivity in difference and discontinuity, collectivity that is without bounds or that exists insofar as it undoes its bounds. As Jean-Luc Nancy has it in his formulation of the “singular plural,” which is not uninformed by Marx, the “common, having-in-common or being-in-common, excludes interior unity, subsistence, and presence in and for itself. Being with, being together and even being ‘united’ are precisely not a matter of being ‘one.’”
Bringing the now communist Marx to bear on his Young Hegelian self, we might make a leap to say that the “multiple single” is the real individuality that Marx was groping toward in his critique of the state-approved author, if communal being can take the place of the author’s “spiritual countenance.” From the standpoint of the multiple single, the source of the written word ceases to be subjective interiority and becomes instead the immersion in an individual’s outside qua polymorphous communal being, an operation with words against the borders of the individual. Here authorial originality gives way to a kind of primary “creative plagiarism,” a molding of that which is always prior to and in excess of the individual—a “continual recombination and variation” of cultural and existential materials that deny “any dichotomy between ‘collective’ and ‘individual.’” As one Luther Blissett veteran later put it, with regard to a writing project we will encounter in chapter 6, “I work with other people, we write fiction by using words, images, colors and sounds that we pick up from everyday life, history and the media landscape. A whole, open community writes along with us, albeit unconsciously or semi-consciously. This has always been true for every author and cultural artifact.”
There is a certain universality here (“every author”), yet the ontology of expressive communal being is not a timeless abstraction but something located in features of collective production particular to contemporary capitalism—hence the centrality of the second of Marx’s concepts, the “general intellect,” of which Luther Blissett has characterized himself as a “paradoxical anthropomorphisation.” In the concept of the general intellect, Marx seeks to account for the effects of an expansive “general social knowledge” become “direct force of production.” General intellect is a fundamentally social formation that exists both transindividually—circulating and multiplying in what Marx suggestively calls the “social individual” and the “social brain”—and machinically, in its immanent articulation with science and technology. It is an astonishingly prescient concept that projects from the early days of industrial production to grasp a great deal of the capacity of contemporary capitalism to generate social wealth outside of direct labor time, from the properties of communal being existent across the social whole, incorporating the cognitive, linguistic, corporeal, and affective dimensions of association. But as an analysis of tendencies in capitalism, general intellect is as much a concept of destabilization and crisis as it is a description of a set of emerging powers and relations. For instead of leading to the progressive overcoming of work, the powers of general intellect serve to intensify its imposition, as per usual for the function of technology in capitalism, while accentuating the “general law of capitalist accumulation,” as Marx has it, namely, the tendential reduction in the proportion of variable to fixed capital, leading to the growth of surplus populations and crises of overaccumulation.
Amid these features, I would draw attention to three points of special relevance to the multiple name. First, the terrain of communal being qua general intellect is wholly technocultural: there is no naturalism to it. Second, as an articulation of general intellect, the multiple-name author is not a point external to capitalist patterns of association but is enmeshed within them, her substance—cognitive capacities, technological and linguistic virtuosity, the cultivation of collective affects—increasingly central to the preferred ethico-aesthetic regimes of neoliberal subjectivity. Hence, third, the multiple name must now not only affirm communal being against the partial individual (an ever vital political task in our intensely individuated societies) but also critically orient herself against the ways that communal being, or a certain modality of it, has itself become a key capitalist resource and championed as such. The latter is a particularly acute fault line of collective, anonymous practice. As the anonymous collective authors of the book Speculate This! observe, many of the favored expressive and organizational characteristics of anonymity are now celebrated business values of the post-Fordist enterprise, in its paradigmatic models of the “work team” and the “project.” Anonymous collectivity cannot, hence, be affirmed in and of itself; for Speculate This!, and, I would concur, the communist potential of anonymity, depends in large measure on the degree to which it interrupts the corporate articulation of anonymous collectivity in “work,” in both the senses of labor and of proprietorial product.
Luther Blissett’s Q
If the multiple single is the ontological condition of Luther Blissett’s anonymity, it is not reached merely by dropping one’s name. Anonymity must be actively constructed, as can be observed in Luther Blissett’s practice of the multiple name. I approach it here through four imbricated aspects: the transindividual agency of the proper name in the novel Q, the subjective and temporal disaggregation of the author-function, its immanence to mass media, and the changed status of the author’s property. In a subsequent section, I address Q’s interventions in the medium of the book through consideration of The Benefit of Christ Crucified, a book that functions in Q as a self-reflexive double to draw out a number of specifically medial themes.
To reiterate, the multiple single is not an undifferentiated whole but an open field where singularity is an expression of collectivity, and vice versa. It is at this juncture of collectivity and difference that the peculiar function of the proper name is located in Luther Blissett’s novel, Q. Keeping with our conceptual terms, Sabrina Ovan makes a compelling case that the narrative motor of Q is precisely the transindividual property of the general intellect, a motor set in motion by the name. Narrating the turmoil of peasant insurgency, radical heresy, and nascent capitalism in sixteenth-century Reformation Europe, the novel follows two characters in their itinerant movement across the European terrain, paying special attention to the social and technological webs of authority, political alliance and intrigue, banking and trade, and production and distribution of early printed matter. One character, the eponymous Q, is an austere papal spy and heretic hunter, agent of Giovanni Pietro Carafa, who was soon to become Pope. The other, the object of Q’s pursuit, remains nameless. Or rather, his name is in continual variation, changing as he traverses the sociopolitical terrain—from Gustav Metzger in the Peasants’ War to Gert-of-the-Well in the Münster Rebellion and to Ismael-the-Traveller-of-the-World when he leaves at the close for Istanbul, to note three of his incarnations. Of his many names, a number are taken from actual historical figures in the Radical Reformation, whereas others are laced with wider cultural associations, so augmenting the collective effects of the name. For instance, Metzger is a clear homage to the stateless exponent of “autodestructive art” of the same name, and Ismael is no doubt a nod to the disinherited figure in the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an, and to Herman Melville’s traveler in Moby-Dick.
In suspending the consistent name, the subjective continuity that would normally orchestrate the narrative field is unsettled, allowing instead for communal being to come forth as protagonist, in all its discontinuous, variegated, and antagonistic complexity. This is the abiding experience of reading the novel, where subject and social relations operate on the same plane in an often disorienting swirl of forces, relations, and tumultuous events. The narrative leaps about from the bloody massacres of the Peasants’ War to the plotting of a banking fraud and the trade flows of early capitalism, all the while—no doubt with allegorical purpose—enmeshed within, driven by, and testing the limits of assorted apparatus of power and paradigms of resistance. Yet this narrative of social complexity is nonetheless populated or enacted by (momentarily) named subjects, singularities in the communal field of practice. As Ovan argues, with this function, the name is not an identity in separation from the collective, or even a momentary share, but the passage of the collective, its putting into play as singularity.
Q is a novel about mass movements and revolutionary social events, though I am arguing that its critical intervention on this front is not in representing such collective forces or in giving them voice in its content; Q’s experiment lies in its form, in the way the collective, qua multiple single, takes over the expressive voice, whose impact is found most intensely in the narrative’s points of discontinuity and contradiction. For despite initial appearances, it is not a story of the autonomous movement of the masses in history but of the constraints, limits, errors, that mass movements face and fail to face up to. There is irony, then, that Q became something of an activists’ bedside book over the arc of the alter-globalization movement, for its allegorical lesson here was not wholly absorbed, the book providing the movement with mobilizing images of the victorious masses that were unencumbered by its more unsettling insight concerning the traps of direct confrontation with power and the limits of activist subjectivity. Then again, perhaps those lessons are always hard to hear in the swell of struggle, in which case Q’s allegorical power is more salient to the retreat of the radical wave; indeed, its authors have described it, and their subsequent novels, as lessons in defeat, in how to live in crisis, how, against all odds, to find ways beyond defeat, where allegory must be seen now not as an integrating subjective mechanism suturing past and future but as a fragile and exploratory series of “unpredictable rebounds.”
Turning to the character Q, while the many-named protagonist emerges through immanence to social events, the papal agent, by contrast, exists at an abstraction from the social field—“Carafa’s eye,” as Q is first introduced, looking in and reporting on, even as his spycraft seeks and finds direct effects that approximate to the historical record. He features in the novel in the form of diary entries and letter-reports to Rome that convey a sparse and solitary subjectivity, driven across the novel by his facilitation of Carafa’s nefarious “Plan” of utilizing the Radical Reformation to modernize and entrench Church authority. In a sense, keeping with the epic form, Q and his nemesis are held in a Manichaean struggle, their different styles—collective/solitary, immanent/abstract—being expressive of two political orientations and sensibilities that arise from, and put into play, the same conflictual social field. It is thus all the more poignant that when Q finally betrays his master, it is to an unnamed constituency of agents—the “anonymous architects” of the Plan—and the aleatory forces of the social to which he delivers himself: “There is nothing you can do,” he writes to Carafa near the close of the narrative, “you cannot even reproach yourself for your failure to predict the defection of your finest agent on the last mile: the minds of men move in strange ways, and no plan can take account of them all.”
While it is Q who sets out for us the established historical terrain of the story, its named protagonists and factual events, it transpires, then, that he is no more an identity than his heretic opponent. The point is well observed by Ovan, quoting these lines from Q’s diary: “Throughout my life I have never written one word for myself: there isn’t a page from the past that could compromise the present; there is no trace of my passage. Not a name, not a word. Only memories that no one would believe, since they are the memories of a ghost.” And yet this is no moment of synthesis and overcoming, where Q would succumb to a nameless multitude as subject of historical change, for Q’s revelation of nonidentity indexes less the dynamics of resistance than a quality of power—the unnamed agents of the conspiratorial Plan, yes, but also the anonymous and impersonal force that is capital, to whose place in the story I now turn.
Though the first half of Q presents a social field rooted in the swell of peasant insurgencies and Anabaptist efforts to live heaven on earth, at a decisive stage this ground is pulled away, as Stewart Home emphasized in an incisive early review, when direct confrontation between opposing subjective forces, peasant and state, is substituted with an immanent diagnosis, critique, and intervention in the ungrounded ground of emerging capitalism—of money, banking, global trade, and new media. From now on, the banks are the new Antichrist. As the many-named protagonist declaims, overcome at the point of the novel’s shift in gear, “Why has no one ever talked to me about banks before?” We know from Marx that the subject of the capitalist mode of production is neither the bourgeoisie nor the proletariat but capital itself, the classes of capitalist and worker being merely subjective forms born of the conjunction of capital and labor: “The capitalist functions only as personified capital, capital as a person, just as the worker is no more than labour personified.” Mass social movements can of course change history, but they are no less caught up in these impersonal forces of capital and need to understand themselves as such. Hence in Q’s decisive scene, as the second part of the novel tips into the third, the multinamed protagonist receives this instruction about the turn from feudalism to the new world of capital:
“We were born in two different worlds, Lot. On the one hand you’ve got the lords, the bishops, the princes, the dukes and the peasants. On the other the merchants, the bankers, the shipowners and clerks. . . . Here there is no ancient and unjust order to turn upside down, no yokels to sit on thrones. There’s no need for an apocalypse, because it’s already been underway for a while.” . . . Eloi pulls out a coin and turns it round between his hands, throws it in the air and catches it a few times. “You see? You can’t topple money: whichever way you turn it, one side always shows.”
And so, our protagonist has now lost his faith, after the bloody slaughter of the Peasants’ War and the mounting evidence that theological positions and passions are entwined within and conditioned by the machinations of state power, the maneuverings of the Church, and the leverage of credit money, “rivers of money lent in exchange for a percentage of the profits.” It is a vertiginous condition, for where to locate the standpoint of revolution? Now the movement of the multiple single is undecidable, ever compromised, and without subject or purity of position. In this part of the book, struggles must take a different form. They are organized primarily as an attempt to counterfeit the bills of credit of the Fugger family of mercantile bankers and, as I return to later, the production and distribution of a seditious and anonymous book, The Benefit of Christ Crucified. Such struggles are not millenarian, they are not even cumulative, but exist immanently to social relations as points of singular emergence, disruption, and dissipation. The communist sensibility of the novel is revealed less, then, in Q’s desertion than in this formulation by Q’s nemesis, his nonidentity indexed to the proletariat as nonsubject:
Details are escaping, the minor shades who populated the story are slipping away, forgotten. Rogues, mean little clerics, godless outlaws, policemen, spies. Unmarked graves. Names which mean nothing, but which have encountered strategies and wars, have made them explode, sometimes stubbornly, as part of a deliberate struggle, at other times purely by chance, with a gesture, a word. . . . With each defeat we tested the strength of the Plan. We lost everything each time, so that we could stand in its way. Barehanded, with no alternative.
One would not want formal experiments in expressive communal being to be without their own points of tension, impasse, and failure. What, then, are Q’s limits? In putting the collective into play through the singular, Q’s many-named protagonist certainly presents a strong, practical critique of many of the received truths of radical politics; the novel, I have suggested, is certainly no naive celebration of the masses in history, of the onward march of the collective. And yet this protagonist has an omniscient ability to diagnose and critique the problems with these movements, presenting the reader with a point of identification that is too comfortable—if not an all-knowing subjectivity, then something of an infallible “reason of the revolution,” if you will. As the writers of Q later came to reflect on this quality of their protagonist, “it is too easy to be empathetic with him because even if he makes a mistake he is always on the right side.” The omniscient narrator is a bourgeois literary device when in the shape of an individual character; she is probably also that when figured as a singular instantiation of communist critique, because a true instantiation of a multiple single in struggle, one who has no identity as such, neither as individual nor as collective, must experience the contingency of the social through impasses and breakdowns in ways that she, and her readers, can never fully comprehend or articulate.
In more concrete terms, this problem with figuring the collective as an all-knowing reason of the revolution can be observed in what it omits or obscures. In this instance, as the authors of the novel were soon made aware by their readership, the omniscience of the protagonist in his immanence to the discontinuous constraints and struggles of the social field does a violence to that which should necessarily be a central feature of what he encounters in this field, namely, the social relations of gender. With women largely a supporting cast for a male adventure, the representation of gender in Q has rightly become an object of self-criticism.
In moving from the novel to the terrain of Q’s author, the wider practice of the multiple name with which the novel was interlaced, the processual and discontinuous property of the name, becomes considerably more pronounced. The central feature of this multiple name—as others before it, from Ned Ludd to Karen Eliot—is its disaggregation and dispersal of the self-identical expressive subject. Although access to the pseudonym of Luther Blissett was no doubt limited in part by competence in certain kinds of cultural capital, anyone could in principle adopt the name and in so doing become Luther Blissett (with a few provisos: efforts would be made to prevent him from propagating racist, sexist, or fascist material). Luther Blissett was an “open reputation” that conferred a certain authority and capacity to speak—the authority of the author, no less—on an open multiplicity of unnamed writers, activists, and cultural workers, whose work in turn contributed to and extended the open reputation. In this sense, the author-function is magnified and writ large. But it is such in breach of the structures that generate a concentrated and unified point of rarity and authority, because the author becomes a potential available to anyone, and each manifestation of the name is as original as any other. In this fashion, a different kind of individuation emerges, the individuation of the multiple single: Luther Blissett is at once collective, a “co-dividual” shared by many, and singular or fragmented, a “dividual,” an infinitely divisible entity composed of multiple situations and personalities simultaneously. That Luther Blissett had his own portrait—a vaguely androgynous icon created of overlaid male and female photographic images—only confirms this new modality of individuation, invoking the paradox of a multiple single author (Figure 9).
The subjective disaggregation and dispersal of the author also has a temporal dimension. The name “Luther Blissett” was borrowed from the Jamaican-born British footballer who played an ill-fated season at AC Milan in 1983, contrary to great expectation. But no explanation is provided as to the reasons for the adoption of the footballer’s name. Indeed, after a fabricated identification of the Luther Blissett multiple name with the conceptual art practice of one “Harry Kipper” (a tactic intended to divert from the start any association of the multiple name with its originators), the proliferation of origin stories became a part of the multiple name itself: “Anyone who makes use of the name may invent a different story about the origin of the project.” Luther Blissett was thus set loose from the unifying effects of linear temporality and the biographical arc, allowing history to become a fragmented and multiple resource for each instantiation of the name.
Enabled by this relation to history, one telling of the Luther Blissett story is especially enticing, projecting as it does the multiple single structure of a “negative hero”—and something of a zerowork stylist of sport—back into the footballer’s media image at AC Milan. Our Luther Blissett writes, “Only the blindness of a young fan led me to hate him, then, for those badly-treated footballs,” for he came to recognize that the footballer’s erratic performance was in fact a calculated act. Sensing in the interactive and communicative game of football the dynamic structure of general intellect, the striker “revealed himself to 80,000 consumer-producers” as a saboteur of capitalist valorization:
[He] refuse[d] to be an interface in this system. He decided to stop communicating, to be a living short-circuit. So he started to move around the field at random, appearing not to care about the game. . . . He became invisible, he could not be represented as part of a social system: he was a drifting mine ready to explode every Sunday in unexpected ways, with strange gestures which broke the cold normality of the football-system. . . . Luther, the black bomber, one of us.
Recall that the concept of the general intellect allows for no autonomy from capital, that even as Luther Blissett’s multiple single is posited as an overcoming of capitalist relations, it is enmeshed within them. Such is apparent in this story of the negative hero, which succeeds only insofar as it is interlaced in the reader’s mind with the high-value, mediated images of commercial sport. This intermediated quality took on a further dimension when the retired footballer was invited onto the U.K. television program Fantasy Football to read lines from Luther Blissett’s manifesto, where he showed himself to be rather tickled by the multiple name. If this helps allay understandable concerns about the possible racism of the appropriation without consent of Luther Blissett’s name, I would add too that there were clear antiracist resonances in the adoption of his name in a national culture riddled with racism.
Just as the multiple name puts into play an expressive communal being in breach of the author-function’s effects of individualization, it unsettles too the author’s twin pole of the unified work—“the solid and fundamental unit of the author and the work”—which here becomes as fragmented, variable, and layered as the multiple name itself. It is in this sense that we should understand the cultural output of Luther Blissett (at least until Q) as less of the order of “product” than of “action” (to repeat Foucault’s designations for texts of, respectively, authorial property and unnamed dissent). Through the skillful orchestration of hoaxes, pranks, and fakes, Luther Blissett’s practice was characterized by scandalous disruption of mass media across the platforms of television, newspaper, book publishing, radio, and Internet—his initial venture was, appropriately, a hoax on a prime-time “missing persons” television show. This is mass-mediated culture in its most contemporary manifestation, what we can call the media expression of general intellect: mass media as the technological mobilization and fashioning of transindividual moods or affects, as has become closely associated with the spread of punitive legal instruments and political regimes of security, albeit that in Luther Blissett’s 1990s, this was manifest in moral panics against Satanic ritual abuse and the like, before it was succeeded by “terrorism” and “illegal immigration.” In this media environment, Luther Blissett was less an external agent operating through an autonomous regime of truth than a practice immanent to the technocultural formations of the media—comprising the same materials and forms but working through mimicry and exposure of the media’s orchestration of truths and affects. It is a point well made by Wu Ming 1 while reflecting on one of Luther Blissett’s media hoaxes: “by using the tools of traditional counter-inquiries, we had gotten no results. The ‘homeopathic’ effect of one single lie cured the illness better than the traditional media medicines administered to the public opinion.”
Actions rather than products, Luther Blissett’s interventions also challenged the specifically commodity form of the book. If no one person or group owns the name of Luther Blissett, the name owns none of its output, which, in keeping with the approach to a primary plagiarism of collective cultural production, was protected from the encroachment of property by anticopyright mechanisms. In a more offensive move, Luther Blissett also impinged on the copyright of others. In one case, he published a book under the name of the popular anarchist writer Hakim Bey, a book comprising a slapdash mix of old Bey writings, fabricated texts, and speeches by Stalin attributed to Bey. The book was greeted—here is the power of the author-function—with praise from leftist reviewers, until the prank was revealed and the publisher threatened, in a most un-anarchist fashion, to sue for copyright violation. Luther Blissett’s move to the form of the novel complicates matters, for Q is a recognizable commodity (with international distribution and sales of upward of 250,000 units). But this book was soon made available for free download and circulation, a very early instance of this now not uncommon practice; in its published form, Q at least indicates and allows for circuits of distribution not immediately constrained by commercial exchange. Clearly Luther Blissett’s communist composition is considerably more complex than could be assessed with a judgment on how “free” is his textual product. The crucial question of open access publishing is not one I pursue in Anti-Book. But let me side with those, notably Gary Hall, who argue that today, as open access becomes a plank of the metrics-led marketization of research in neoliberal government and commercial agendas, free access, though an important political terrain, is not in itself enough to constitute radical media formations.
As a particular expression of the multiple single that wells up in and against identity, Luther Blissett’s name, like the names in Q, was not destined to endure. Modeled according to a Five Year Plan, at the end of 1999, many of his Italian founders abandoned the name, committing seppuku, or ritual suicide. As always, others remain free to propagate Luther Blissett’s open reputation, but this act of the “veterans” of the multiple name was a means against habit of returning to the generative basin of communal being: “[seppuku] is one way like another to get rid once again of an identity, to be reborn open to new experiences of social warfare and new mad passions.” This subtraction of the veterans from the “uncontrollable golem” of Luther Blissett simultaneously clears room for the development of his potential new styles, or those of other multiple names, where seppuku is an articulation of the decidedly non-Soviet impetus of his Five Year Plan; Luther Blissett’s Bolognese founders later described themselves as “the only central committee whose aim is to lose control of the party.”
The Benefit of Christ Crucified
The second epigraph to this chapter, taken from “Anon.,” Virginia Woolf’s haunting late meditation on anonymous expression, draws attention to the relationship between anonymity and forms of textual inscription and reproduction. Reprising some of our concerns with anonymous authorship, Woolf here locates creative expression not in a self-present subject, and in the correlated separation of a creative subject from an audience, but in a foundational, transindividual anonymity:
The voice that broke the silence of the forest was the voice of Anon. Some one heard the song and remembered it for it was later written down, beautifully, on parchment. Thus the singer had his audience, but the audience was so little interested in his name that he never thought to give it. The audience was itself the singer.
Having broached the question of inscription here, Woolf sees little to champion in the textual mediation of anonymity. To Anon., print is a destructive medium. Printed books can record the past existence of anonymous texts in published works of fable—they can “preserve” anonymity—but they cannot create it. “Anon.,” then, is a lament to the loss of anonymity. Woolf is not wrong; under the dominance of the author-function, most creative textual media abhor anonymity. But as we have seen, this is not the whole picture. Thankfully, printed and now digital media can also sustain and engender anonymous authorship, shifting our appreciation of anonymity from a foundational, premediated condition to a wholly mediated mode of expression, one that is often lodged, indeed, in the leading edge of such mediation. Luther Blissett was born of the Internet; his founders were early adopters of international bulletin boards such as FidoNet and describe their work and modus operandi as having been shaped by the Internet. We are obliged to ask, then, why did Q take the apparently backward media form of the printed codex, and why did the narrative feature a book? As a book within a book, and one with uncertain authorial provenance at that, we can expect The Benefit of Christ Crucified to have allegorical value, an expectation that is only heightened when it is recalled that in Q’s sixteenth-century setting, the printed book—like the Internet in Luther Blissett’s late 1990s—was a new media form.
Q invests the cultures and forms of mechanical printing with considerable political significance. In the early parts of the novel, the printed word is a veritable agent of the Radical Reformation, where books are “projectiles fired in all directions by the most powerful of cannons,” platforms “for sending messages and incitements further and faster to reach the brethren, who have sprung up like mushrooms in every corner of the country.” And it is not only books. The pamphlet has its place here, a medium of low-cost and often anonymous writing that was common to the Reformation, and at one point the unnamed protagonist invents the flier, or Flugblätter, a by-product of paper wastage in the printing process, which becomes for some peasants their first encounter with the printed word. There is undoubtedly much veracity in this account of the reach and politicizing capacities of early print media, but the first parts of Q play heavily on bourgeois tropes of the democratizing power of information, tropes about which Luther Blissett had some ambivalence. Hence the picture becomes more complicated in the third part of the book, in keeping with the shift in focus from revolutionary peasant subjectivity to the internecine world of capital. The Benefit of Christ Crucified, which plays a pivotal role in part three, is not the Word of the revolution. If the allegorical value of this book is in drawing attention to the political dimensions of media, it is less to do with the democratizing effects of the broad and speedy distribution of textual content than with displacing and unsettling the perceived value of such, in favor of critical appreciation of the sociomaterial relations and capacities of media form. Let me consider these points in more detail.
Along with his loss of faith, Q’s nameless protagonist soon develops circumspection about Lutheran formulations of the purity of the Word. The radical Anabaptist wing of the Reformation is by turn condemned for a similar fixation:
Your vision of the struggle made you divide the world into black and white, Christians and non-Christians. . . . That kind of vision will help you win a just battle, but it isn’t enough to realize the freedom of the spirit. On the contrary, it can construct new prisons in the soul, new morals, new courts. . . . The only disagreement between a pope and a prophet lies in the fact that they are fighting over the monopoly of truth, of the Word of God.
The point is made most dramatically with a scene of book burning, as the Münster Anabaptist commune goes awry: “An obscene altar raised to oblivion, the Word of God erasing that of men, spewing forth its triumph over our bent backs, burying our eyes beneath an impenetrable blanket of smoke.”
If not primarily a question of content, then, the political dimensions of The Benefit—this small book, “handy, clearly written, fits in a pocket”—lie in its textual materialities, in its social and economic forms, relations, and effects. It is an orientation toward text that is condemned in Lutheran formulations, where, as I noted in chapter 3, the Word must transcend the fallen materiality of its platform. As if to confirm this focus on materiality against the Word, we are told that the content of The Benefit is rather mundane, it is a “mediocre book” (insofar as The Benefit presents the reader with a critical double to Q itself, this is an amusing comment on the literary significance of the latter text). It transpires to be the work of a moderate Catholic, a book whose watered-down Calvinism seeks rapprochement with Lutheran theology by making justification through faith alone compatible with Church doctrine—content that is objectionable to the Inquisition and papal rectitude, certainly, but it is hardly on the order of Thomas Müntzer’s cry of Omnia sunt communia, “everything in common.” The politics of the book lie, rather, in a plot to sew discord amid the dominant powers, to unsettle and contain the advance of the Inquisition by attracting numbers of moderates to its thesis. If it is a “cunning little book,” this should hence be understood in terms of its seditious relations rather than its identity as a work and thus has little to do with authorial intent. While Carafa’s agent, Q, seeks to discover and impose authorial responsibility for this anonymous text, somewhat in the manner of the feudal author-function in prosecuting literary transgression, in the unfurling of the plot the author has little significance. Instead, the scandal is nested in the book’s relations of clandestine production, distribution, and reception, arenas from which authors make way for printers, financers, publishers, itinerant booksellers, smugglers of the printed word, and affluent men of letters (where these latter, who would usually be accorded significance in literary history, are merely “useful idiots”: “It doesn’t matter a damn that they don’t know what they’re talking about, what’s important is that they go on talking about it”).
Q’s turn to the materialities of text is not, however, to accord them the purity of cause previously reserved for the Word. Just as the Word here has no purity, no less innocent are the objects, networks, and relations through which the scandal unfurls. Granted, there are lapses. Q’s dramatic book-burning scene of the triumph of the Word of God has sound historical backing—ensuring the purity of the Word through the burning of opposing books was common to all sides in the Reformation. But this scene trades rather heavily on the trope of the book as singular agent of reason and enlightenment that is so central to the self-representation of bourgeois culture. Notwithstanding the weight of association between the burning of books and Nazi anti-Semitism, Luther Blissett may have missed an opportunity here in his deployment of Gustav Metzger. For Metzger’s autodestructive art, with its critical handling of industrial capitalism’s “obsession with destruction, the pummeling to which individuals and masses are subjected,” appears to have allowed for book burning, having included in his 1996 Destruction in Art Symposium one of John Latham’s “Skoob Tower” book-incendiary ceremonies. Nonetheless, it is clear that the plot of The Benefit, ultimately unsuccessful, is made on ambivalent terrain; this book, as the other books that circulate in the novel, features first and foremost as a commodity, a commercial opportunity for merchant capital. And so the itinerant bookseller who first enrolls the many-named protagonist in the life of The Benefit outlines its critical intent and formal innovation in the same breath that he appeals to its potential market value—even suggesting a certain codetermination between the two. “No one likes frontal attacks, hair-splitting arguments, accusations any more.” “Heterogeneity” in literary form and uncertainty of authorship are the taste of the day. The content of The Benefit “is fine for bores,” but it is written by a Catholic friar: “That’s a scandal, don’t you see? And scandals mean thousands of copies.”
The playful self-critique of Q’s formal innovations that is implicit in this quotation reminds us that The Benefit is in critical interplay with Q itself. Therefore, my discussion of The Benefit serves to illustrate some of the formal interventions of Q as a printed book, though not in a way that aggrandizes or elevates the latter. Q emerges from association with the qualities and contours of its fictional double not as a great literary work, an avant-garde masterpiece, but as a minor critical intervention in the materialities of text—in the authorship, authority, and commodity form of publishing—a “masterpiece of dissimulation” and a “mediocre book” in one. And its techniques carry no assurance of continued critical effect. It might be an allegorical warning of the ambivalence of such interventions in media form that the papal agent Q considers the possibility that The Benefit could serve as a net to capture those cardinals who looked favorably on the reformers: “A book passing from hand to hand, from library to library and contaminating everyone who touches it. And when you haul in the net, you get all the big fish all in one go.”
Still, I have not yet directly addressed the reasons why Q took the particular form of the printed book. Almost without exception, reviewers of Q pointed to its allegorical exchange with emerging Internet culture, but in a way that substituted allegory with cliché, namely, the common story of a comparable experience of transformation in the mass reproduction and democratic dissemination of texts, a sloppy association that reduces the singular characteristics of these different media forms and contexts to a relation of resemblance. Against this, I have suggested that the allegorical value of Q is actually in challenging the myths of Internet technophilia—the liberatory power of the unfettered word, the intrinsic democratic effects of the mass reproduction of text—and in developing a feeling for the particular and complex materialities of media, not least of which are relations of the commodity. In this lies one explanation for Q’s adoption of the medium of the book. The allegorical relation is founded on the difference of the printed codex from digital media. Its brute physicality, apparently outmoded quality, and particular sensory forms, when inserted into a political milieu associated with digital and online media, have a jarring or estranging effect that opens a susceptibility to the themes we have been observing—it is a countersomnambulism, to speak like Marshall McLuhan. Put otherwise, the adoption of the codex displays something like an early post-digital feeling for this medium, whereby the printed book retains its particular medial qualities while developing new capacities and effects in a media sphere transformed by digital technology. As much as Q’s allegorical story pertains to our experience of the Internet, it also concerns, then, our experience of the post-digital book.
Pursuit of pseudonymous authorship through the form of the novel is a feature too of Bernadette Corporation’s Reena Spaulings. Published five years after Q, the author of this novel is also a collective pseudonym, just as anonymity or impersonality is a dominant theme of its content. Again, we encounter a book within a book, or the construction of a book through a resonance with another book. The serial translation of this latter book, Michèle Bernstein’s 1961 novel Tous les chevaux du roi, published as All the King’s Horses in pamphlet form one chapter at a time, doubled as a gallery program for Reena Spaulings Fine Art, which shared the fictional name of the protagonist of Bernadette Corporation’s novel. John Kelsey, of Bernadette Corporation, describes his translation as a slapdash affair, based on source text that was a photocopy of a photocopy of the original edition, so lending the endeavor an aura of samizdat publishing, befitting the nonprofessional nature of the gallery. And its serial publication had a particular purpose, as the gallery sought to “create a line in time that would cross through the various, fleeting exhibitions, some of which were installed and deinstalled in a single afternoon, and in a highly improvised manner,” the pamphlets providing linear progression to an otherwise more chaotic entity. As such, the novel might have served as a conservative force, but the narrative coherence it offered was loose and episodic, and it operated, moreover, to draw proximities between the dissimulation of Bernstein’s narrated world and that of Reena Spaulings, less grounding than fictionalizing the gallery, which, as Kelsey suggests, “was also a sort of fiction, operated by several people under a made-up name, without a business plan or any prior experience in dealing art.”
Bernstein’s novel, set in spring 1957, shortly before the founding of the Situationist International (SI), is itself a fictionalization of a social entity, that of daily life with her comrade and husband, Guy Debord. It is a dispassionate drift through Parisian literary and artistic circles and the sexual liaisons and strategies of their open marriage, interlaced with occasional allusions to the politico-aesthetic orientations of their Lettriste milieu. Of the latter, one exchange—between the characters Carole, Gilles, and the narrator Geneviève—stands out for its reference to the practice of the dérive (and for the fact that it later achieved notoriety when adopted in The Return of the Durutti Column, the 1966 comic strip flier by André Bertrand that promoted the SI pamphlet On the Poverty of Student Life). Carole asks Gilles:
“What are you working on, exactly? I have no idea,”
“Reification,” he answered.
“It’s an important job,” I added.
“Yes, it is,” he said.
“I see,” Carole observed with admiration. “Serious work, at a huge desk cluttered with thick books and papers.”
“No,” said Gilles. “I walk. Mainly I walk.”
The pleasures of recognition that this passage offers are such that it is invariably cited by commentators on the book and is prominent in the back cover promotional text of the Semiotext(e) edition. But the identity-effect, on the reader and the SI, of such recognition is otherwise an object of Bernstein’s more subversive practice. As Kelly Baum describes the novel’s dissimulating effect on character, “identity is consistently figured as an act of bad faith,” the self as “indulgent and polymorphous,” “flexible, contingent, and highly performative,” and while there is some emotion at stake in the narrative, desire here is instrumentalized and deflated, testing heteronormativity, and the limits of sexual liberation, if by no means scrambling their coordinates entirely. As for its subversive impact on the Situationist scene, it is instructive to reflect a little on the set of contrasts Bernstein’s novel—whose writing and publication is broadly contemporaneous with Debord’s Mémoires—presents with Situationist theory and textual practice. Like Mémoires, All the King’s Horses is a détournement, a détournement of the form of the novel that makes use of the redundancy of that form, deploying all the clichés of the then fashionable fiction of the young, beautiful, and free-wheeling and the broader culture of lifestyle publishing. And yet, unlike Mémoires, it is also a product of Bernstein’s paid labor, or at least of a wager that it might generate income, as indeed it did. She explains,
I was still a member of the lumpensecretariat, working for tuppence ha’penny at a humdrum publishing house. Guy Debord, naturally, wasn’t working. The journal of the Situationist International sold five or six copies, and we sent the rest to people we found interesting. . . .
So, to make ends meet, to earn our bread and butter, I decided to write a novel. . . . At that time the situationists, including myself, had an ironclad belief that the classic novel was past its sell-by-date. It had to be surpassed, overturned, exploded. Why not? Because in this case, no editor: no dough. The solution was simple: I would fabricate a “fake” popular novel. Load it with sufficient clues and irony so the moderately observant reader would realise that they were dealing with some kind of a joke, the steely gaze of a true libertine, a critique of the novel itself.
All the King’s Horses has been largely put aside in the reception of the SI as an insignificant work, no doubt in part because of its commercial impetus. Yet it is this quality, that of a hack work, wherein Bernadette Corporation found its appeal:
We had heard that Bernstein quickly disowned her own novels as minor commercial ventures, as not serious (in comparison to her husband Guy Debord’s theoretical texts, for example), but this was exactly what interested us: writing under the sign of commerce, but also disowned writing. What can we make of a text that insists on both its own commercialism and its refusal of authorship?
What can we make of it? As implied already, All the King’s Horses shows Debord’s refusal to take a job—framed as a decidedly avant-gardist gesture in his early Left Bank graffiti “Ne travaillez jamais” (“Never work”) but otherwise not unappealing—in a less than favorable light, for it is now revealed to have been achieved in part on the back of the labor of his wife. More broadly, this text, contaminated by commerce and fictionalizing Bernstein’s life with Debord and comrades “as if it were a breezy but jaded romance for teenaged girls,” troubles the decidedly heroic and masculine pose of her avant-garde milieu and its theory of action. Indeed, the book’s détournement might exactly be operating on this register: not only a joke on fashionable youth fiction but, as Debord, Jorn, and others emerge as “flimsy parodies” in the style of a Gossip Girl paperback, it may also be “an ironic détournement of the SI itself,” as Kelsey puts it, “a glamorization and a critique of the very milieu [Bernstein] was participating in.” A self-critique of the heroism of the SI and its theory, perhaps it is only in fiction that this could have emerged, for fiction, as Bernadette Corporation has it, is an especially suitable vehicle for such acts of distancing and critique, a means of disidentification, “of putting oneself and one’s problems at a distance, of getting rid of oneself.”
In their own novel, Reena Spaulings, this “getting rid of oneself” is developed in critical exchange with one of the novel’s protagonists, New York City—or New York City as imagined against the “patriotic ghost of the city” installed after 9/11, imagined, like Bernstein’s Paris, “as a means of rewriting and reinhabiting the city itself.” To draw a thread to my earlier discussion, this city plays a role not dissimilar to Luther Blissett’s “communal being,” at once the condition and the product of the writing: “Like its authors, the New York City depicted herein finds itself constantly exposed to the urges of ‘communism’—that is, to a chosen indifference to private property, a putting-in-common of the methods and means of urban life and language.” The exposure to communism here takes the dual form of a certain plenitude and (as I turn to later on) an absolute evacuation. If authorship is to be adequate to the fractal quality of the city, the city necessitates the plenitude, the putting-in-common, of collective and unnamed composition: “If you look at a city, there’s no way to see it. One person can never see a city. You miss it, hate it, or realize that it’s taken something from you, but you can’t go somewhere and look at it and just see it empirically. It’s an everyday group hallucination. This novel is modelled on that phenomenon.” And so, to compose the novel, as the preface informs, apparently 150 professional and amateur writers came together in the model of the Hollywood studio system, “each assigned specific functions within the overall scheme.”
As to its content, Bernadette Corporation describes Reena Spaulings as a novel of images, “a book written by images, about images, to be read by other images.” The description recalls Henri Bergson, for whom matter is an aggregate of images, the image being “an existence placed halfway between the ‘thing’ and the ‘representation,’” neither reducible to the sense impressions it creates in the mind nor being wholly independent of mind, entirely different from what we perceive of it. In this respect, New York City comes on the stage of the novel as Bergson’s “universe” of “universal becoming,” the perpetual interaction of images, without cause or effect, without beginning or end. But we encounter it through a second protagonist, a young woman named Reena Spaulings, who serves as an image to perceive the city’s universe of images. For Bergson, the universe of interacting images is encountered through perception–reaction circuits that break the infinite play of interaction by reordering the images according to the utility of a subject, a delimiting effect:
To the degree that my horizon widens, the images which surround me seem to be painted upon a more uniform background and become to me more indifferent. The more I narrow this horizon, the more the objects which it circumscribes space themselves out distinctly according to the greater or lesser ease with which my body can touch and move them. They send back, then, to my body, as would a mirror, its eventual influence; they take rank in an order corresponding to the growing or decreasing powers of my body. The objects which surround my body reflect its possible action upon them.
But this is not the only story, for “memory,” the past collection of images, offers the possibility that a “rift,” a “zone of indetermination,” is inserted between perception and reaction to allow other images to seep in and unsettle that circuit of subjective utility, opening to other, less automatic or more desubjectified relations to images. And it is this that is Reena Spaulings’s promise and potential, her communism. If the impossibility of grasping the city necessitates collective authorship, the disidentification of writers, such techniques of writing undo Reena Spaulings, who, no longer “spanned by any author’s mind,” loses her subjective coherence as a character to the interactions of the city, or she may do. Granted, the perception–reaction circuits of New York City are orchestrated by capital in self-entrepreneurial and individuating apparatus: “Buy a Dyptique candle for the bathroom. Moisturizer, bananas, toilet paper. Walking in this city is more like work on the way home from work.” And yet there may be “a walking that would be more like giving it all away.” At moments New York City comes to Reena Spaulings like Clarissa Dalloway drifting through London’s West End, becoming imperceptible as a subject as the universe of interactions—the impressions, sensations, varying magnitudes, colors of the city—are extended through her and she in turn extends them, beyond the perception–reaction circuit of subjectivation. The city “sucks her up and grows through her. In the spine, in the brain, in the guts,” “walking in the wavelengths of color beyond color.” “I’m addicted,” says Reena, “to maximum exposure and maximum identification with whatever touches me, a conspiracy involving myself and everything.” “What if nothing belonged to anybody?”
If the idiom here borrows from Bergson and Woolf, the book’s proximity to Bernstein’s novel leaves little doubt that it does so also as an inflection of the Situationist dérive. In this context, especially, it is striking that Reena Spaulings is no avatar of radical subjectivity but absolutely generic, a woman of our mass-mediated time, evacuated of any particular qualities—Bernstein’s influence again. “How is she? Young and ugly and beautiful. All-in-one vehicle. A sponge, a vacuum,” “she could be just about anybody.” Reena Spaulings is a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art become star underwear model. With her, writing under the sign of commerce has become a world only of commerce—this is also capitalism of the image:
Why is it that when you do so little for it, no amount of recompense is enough. Holy shit this is six months’ worth of standing guard at the Met. I just think that when you’re serving time for it, a sense of reality allows the dollar amount to remain small and still seem OK, to trickle in at the same pace as the hours do, whereas when you’re selling nothing you’re selling an essence which is priceless. Why is it that essences are so light? Holy shit it’s my economy, an economy of essences.
In an economy of images, work and leisure have reached indistinction: “Is there a dream of ongoing creativity directly connected to, inclusive of all your activities—like dancing, writing, bleeding, social obligations? Are there priorities? If there is no designated ‘leisure’ time, but everything is work, even non-work becomes work.” It seems that Marx’s communist vision of variable activity delinked from identity has been colonized. Reena Spaulings suggests that communism instead is a kind of inaction—here is the “evacuation” I signaled earlier. Communism does not appear to be emerging in any concrete sense, certainly not as an active subject. It is only glimpsed as the negative of capital, perceived in the most capitalized subjects—the undecidability of Reena Spaulings’s “boredom,” her immanence to the images of the city, a “state of grace providing zero payoff.” “Communism, [New York City] seems to say, is the only thing we share today, besides our extreme separation.”
By definition, such undecidability presents no guarantees. Indeed, Bernadette Corporation might be as revealing of new tendencies in our contemporary “separation” as they are of resistance to them. Anonymity is not an inviolate communist tactic. It has always had a certain cachet for the avant-garde individual, but it now has broader appeal, lending a functional quality to the self-entrepreneurialism of the neoliberal culture industry. The point is acutely made in a recent upbraiding of Bernadette Corporation’s John Kelsey, which took the form of an illicit appropriation, pornographic doctoring, and online distribution of Kelsey texts in a PDF called “Monsieur Roubignoles presents The Kelsey Collection Artforum 2004–2012.” While Kelsey’s scene looks very much like communist anonymity, this anonymous critique found Kelsey’s cultivated personal anonymity to be a mechanism of self-marketing. Here the ultraleft artist, in the manner of a brand, looses himself to emerge as a robust constellation of parts. It is an instance of what Kelsey’s assailants call the “advertised personality,” whereby the artist is all the more able to accrue reputation and hence brand value the less his personality is tied to any one particular quality:
Interested in the way the reticence of our subject in his personal behavior (in essence, who he was) paired with the verve of his branded persona—as a prolific member of the artworld’s enfant terrible collective Bernadette Corporation, as well an athletic collector of associations with subcultural signifiers via his gallery (Reena Spaulings Fine Art), writings, and flirtations with the far left—we hypothesized that the two were indelibly connected. When one was redeemed—the other was near at hand, and vice versa.
Invisible, Ephemeral, Historical: Anonymity and the Party
A good deal of Bernadette Corporation’s development of the theme of anonymity arises from engagement with the French journal Tiqqun (1999–2001), including the Invisible Committee’s book The Coming Insurrection (an anonymous body of text for which “Tiqqun” can stand as the collective name). The biography of The Coming Insurrection, first published in 2007 and in English in 2009, illustrates a renewed mobilization of the author-function by penal law, in the mode of security measures against a catch-all “terrorism.” For it was a principal piece of evidence in the case of the “Tarnac 9,” the high-profile arrest in November 2008 of a group associated with Tiqqun, then living in a communal farmhouse, accused of a relatively minor act of sabotage on the French railway. The emphasis in Tiqqun and The Coming Insurrection on legal infraction must have encouraged some awareness of the tactical value of anonymity, but anonymity arises here in relation to the problem of identification more broadly conceived, including the individuating apparatus at play in textual media.
As the French state in its prosecution of the Tarnac 9 disregarded the authorial anonymity of The Coming Insurrection, Fox News’s ever exercised Glenn Beck was unhindered by its claims (as I will come to in due course) to decenter the authority of the medium of the book, repeatedly returning to The Coming Insurrection as the root, agent, and program of any number of leftist, liberal, and world historical outrages. It was a strange turn of affairs, with the trope of the “total book” alive and well in the mass medium of right-wing televisual talk—part knowing neocon entertainment, part delusional paranoia. Not that Tiqqun needed this publicity, for its theses struck a chord with radical milieu in the wake of the alter-globalization movement and the move into economic crisis, especially in the 2009 California student struggles and elements of Occupy. These political scenes were served in part by Semiotext(e), which published The Coming Insurrection, three books of texts taken from the Tiqqun journal, and the Invisible Committee’s sequel, To Our Friends, though unlike the “little black books” of Semiotext(e)’s early Foreign Agents series, these volumes have a rather tame and establishment feel, at least when placed against the welter of small press and no-press translations and editions that compose the broader English-language reception of Tiqqun. It is a media field that elects Tiqqun as one of the first born-post-digital phenomena in communist publishing, with print, online, and e-pub versions interlaced—it includes, for example, PDFs designed for self-printing as pamphlets rather than online reading, a specialism of the Zine Library forum, and a print edition in English of Tiqqun 1 in the form of a facsimile translation.
As I indicated, if Tiqqun has a principium individuationis, it is a politics of anonymity and desubjectification launched against the constraint and isolation of imposed identity, a situation where “personalization” feels “a lot more like an amputation.” I trust that something of the orientation and style can be conveyed with a brief quotation, from the Tiqqun text “How Is It to Be Done?”
The experience of my desubjectivization. I become
a whatever singularity. Some play opens up between
my presence and the whole apparatus of qualities
that are ordinarily attached to me. . . .
All that isolates me as a subject, as a body endowed
with a public configuration of attributes, I feel it
. . . . . . .
I need to become anonymous. In order to be present.
The more I am anonymous, the more I am present.
I need zones of indistinction.
In order to reach the Common.
Rather than pursue this construction of anonymity in itself, I intend here to step from Tiqqun and consider the articulation of anonymous authorship with the communist formulation of “the party.” My prompt is Tiqqun’s notion of the “imaginary party,” which appears in various guises in their texts, including in the subtitles of the two issues of the journal: “Conscious Organ of the Imaginary Party” and, in number two, “Organ of Liaison within the Imaginary Party.” This relatively high-profile articulation of the notion of the party notwithstanding, returning to this theme today will prompt some surprise with more circumspect readers. Has the communist party not been long proven a dead end? Surely, in an age of networks and disaggregated labor, this organizational model is an anachronism? I am certainly not interested in reviving the theory of the party associated with Lenin, Trotsky, or Mao—that is, the party as state-form (whether in waiting or in power), as obscure sect, or as mechanism of churn in bureaucratic echelons. Indeed, I am not seeking any kind of revival, or even making the case for a particular model of organization. I touch on the organization question, but my purpose, instead, is to consider the party as a field of anonymous textual expression and to draw out a set of additional qualities in communist writing with which such anonymity is articulated, qualities that circulate around the problematization of textual authority and certainty, antididacticism, and an immanent but critical relation to struggles (which are not—spoiler alert—qualities I find in abundance in Tiqqun).
The word tiqqun, Hebrew for “salvation,” lends pseudonymous attribution to a body of texts, but it has other functions and domains of application. As the translators of one of the Semiotext(e) editions describes it, “‘Tiqqun’ can refer to an anonymous collective, the journal in which these texts appeared, a subjective process, or to the historical process to which these same texts bear witness.” One effect of this construction is the substitution of the authorial voice with that that of the social, a book’s contributors becoming merely “scribes” of a situation, as is apparent in the opening of The Coming Insurrection:
This book is signed in the name of an imaginary collective. Its contributors are not its authors. They were content merely to introduce a little order into the common-places of our time, collecting some of the murmurings around barroom tables and behind closed bedroom doors. . . . They’ve made themselves scribes of the situation. . . . It’s enough just to say what is before our eyes and not to shrink from the conclusions.
This is a textual trick, certainly. It may well serve to arrogate the persuasive weight that comes with mass phenomena to an otherwise idiosyncratic standpoint, and so intensify rather than diminish the authority of the author, who is all the more able to pass himself off as a universal in being unnamed as a particular. I assess that possibility later. But it also suggests more productive moves, which I pursue here initially through Marx.
While Marx was disinclined to adopt anonymous authorship as a communist value in its own right, one of his unsigned texts places anonymity at the heart of the history of communist writing, where it presents the possibility of developing a communist anonymity in relation to the theme of the party. In the first edition of The Manifesto of the Communist Party, the most famous and widely read of all Marx’s works, you would look in vain for attribution to its authors. Commissioned by the Communist League, the recently founded organization of émigré radicals in London, what little accreditation it has only appears in the preamble, and then in a way that is decidedly noncommittal. Toward the goal of meeting the bourgeois “Spectre of Communism with a manifesto of the party itself,” the preamble informs that “Communists of various nationalities have assembled in London, and sketched the following manifesto, to be published in the English, French, German, Italian, Flemish and Danish languages.” This apparently casual sentence belies the considerable complexities and ramifications of the text’s authorship. But before proceeding to consider these, let me reflect for a moment on why I am engaging with a “manifesto,” given the critique I made of this textual form in chapter 1. While I am developing the theme of anonymity here from a manifesto, I do so by shifting from the manifesto qualities of Marx and Engels’s text, which it seems critics cannot but remark upon, to the textual qualities of the party form that its content evokes, which are much less commonly considered (the party’s marginal nature in discussions of this text seemingly confirmed by the fact that that it has largely dropped out of the title of this work, which is usually printed as the Communist Manifesto). In thus decentering the manifesto structure of this work, my exploration of anonymity and the party also leads into other nonmanifesto textual forms and mediums—letters, journals, textual fragments—and some indication that these forms have particular salience for the construction of anonymity and the party.
If one was inclined to diminish the significance of the Manifesto’s anonymity, it could be accounted for by the convention of group attribution for a collective statement of principle, with Marx and Engels writing on behalf of the Communist League. That is partly true, though the Communist League is not mentioned by name. But the Manifesto’s authorial anonymity is not best understood as a means of substituting the proprietorial voice of individual authors with that of a group. Certainly the Manifesto was commissioned and published by a communist organization, but it was not to be the exclusive preserve of that organization nor a textual mirror to consolidate its identity and promote its leadership role. On the contrary, the text’s anonymity served to decenter the role of its commissioning organization as much as it did the role of its authors and, instead, to place the text immanently to the anti-identitarian terrain of the party.
To understand the nature of this party, before moving to develop the ramifications of anonymity therein, we can start a little while after the Manifesto and the dissolution of the Communist League, with Marx’s reflections on the theme in an 1860 letter to Ferdinand Freiligrath. Here Marx challenges the notion that his noninvolvement in political organization during the unfavorable conditions of the 1850s was the result of “‘doctrinaire’ indifference,” and in so doing he indicates a twofold analytic of the party: the party in an “ephemeral sense” and in a “broad historical sense.” The ephemeral party or formal party (I will use the latter, Bordiga’s rendering of Marx’s term) is any particular communist organization situated in time and space, an organizational articulation of specific conjunctures. And the historical party, of which the former is “simply an episode,” is the set of conflicts and struggles that are immanent to the social relations of capital as a whole, throughout time—for capital is inherently antagonistic—and in any one time; the historical party is that which “is everywhere springing up naturally out of the soil of modern society.” As such, it is not historical in the sense of determination by the past; quite the reverse, the historical party is that which leans into the future, it has an evental quality, immanent to the mutating and antagonistic limits of capitalist social relations.
The two modes of the party intersect—one is an organizational articulation, concentration, and, potentially, extension of the other—but they have different qualities and effects. The first point to stress in delineating their specific qualities is that the historical party is not a cumulative composite of formal parties, and neither does it designate a linear historical thread through select communist organizations (such that the Communist League, for example, has no privileged role; as an episode of the historical party, it is only one of “a hundred other societies”). Indeed, there is considerable theoretical basis for arguing that the historical party plays a disruptive role in formal organizations.
We can develop this point about the historical party through Marx’s earlier comments on the party in the Manifesto, this time formulated in a period of upswing in struggles, the revolutions of 1848 just around the corner. Though the concept of the party developed in the Manifesto seeks to forward certain modes of thought and association—notably, internationalism and the critique of capital—it is not a concentrative entity but a distributed one: “The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to other working-class parties. / They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. / They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.” The party is stretched across the social, dependent on social forces and struggles for its existence or its substance—“the proletariat as a whole”—and, in an anticipatory and precarious fashion, oriented toward social contingencies and events. As Badiou puts it (albeit for rather different purposes to mine), it is not only the case that for “the Marx of 1848, that which is named ‘party’ has no form of bond even in the institutional sense.” More than this, there is here a positive stipulation of the party’s evental quality: “the real characteristic of the party is not its firmness, but its porosity to the event, its dispersive flexibility in the face of unforeseeable circumstances.” Rancière sheds light on this too. Given the precarious and anticipatory orientation of the party, there is considerable insight in his thesis that Marx’s party—for all its universality, or because of it, its opening to the becoming of social relations, the nonidentity of the proletariat—is directed not toward unity but toward division that “first of all the purpose of a party is not to unite but divide.”
How does this party as evental division relate to the theme of organization, the theme of the formal party? In moments of uprising and revolution, the party names those organizations that play the necessary role of organization and coordination, pushing toward revolutionary rupture as it “cleaves its way” through organizations based on sectional interests, developing forms of coordination that undo the distinctions and identities through which such sectional organizations stand against revolutionary change. In other words, the formal party plays the role of evental division outlined in the Manifesto, but in organizational terms. In less favorable conditions, however, the features of the formal party can be rather different. In these conditions, formal organizations provide a certain affective solace and institutional memory—if only of impasses and failures to be overcome—that can be put back into play and contestation in a new upswing. But in such periods of abeyance, formal parties also have a reactionary tendency to direct efforts and resources toward maintaining their organizational identity against a now hostile environment, substituting this for diffuse struggle as the object of communist politics or arrogating such struggle to the project of the party’s endurance. We should register here the significance of context to Marx’s letter to Freiligrath. For his concept of the formal party is at least in part an articulation in theory of his practical withdrawal from such parties, from “meddling with associations which had now had their day.” It is a concept that seeks to prevent identification of the party with such limited organizational entities and, perhaps, with organizational questions only, rather than questions concerning the antagonistic content of capitalist daily life (hence his remark about the historical party “springing up naturally out of the soil of modern society,” something immanent to social relations as a whole and not the exclusive preserve of formal organizations).
Drawing these strands back into our thematic, I am arguing that the Manifesto’s anonymity is the authorship form most adequate to its theory of the party, a speech without identity to match the party’s immanence to social relations and porosity to the event. Anonymity displaces the author-function, the privileged and integrated site of proprietorial discourse, with the organization (formal party). But that alone would not be adequate to the evental nonidentity of the party, for it risks a unity of its own, and a certain “doctrinal monolithism,” the subsumption of different and various contributions to the dictatorship of a unified theory determined by the pursuit of party identity—as Camatte puts it, while explaining why Invariance chose to end its use of the Bordiga epigraph I take for this chapter. Hence Marx’s theory of the party requires a second displacement, whereby the authorship of a text opens out also to the disruptive force of the historical party, sometimes through the formal party (in periods when the formal party operates against sectional interests and self-integrated groups) and sometimes against it (when, in periods of abeyance, the formal party becomes itself such an integrated group). Anonymous authorship, in short, is a refusal to separate an expressive identity from the open terrain of organizational forms and social antagonisms and a means to allow that terrain to undo the author-function. And vice versa: to bring the party and anonymity into proximity is to extend the open antagonism of the party in and through the practice of writing, an experience for writer and reader alike.
That is a conceptual formalization, but the point can also be pursued through particular features of the social life of the Manifesto, notably the role of translation in its geographical dispersal, to pick up again the peculiar self-presentation of its collective authorship. As Martin Puchner has shown, the Manifesto’s announcement that “Communists of various nationalities have assembled in London, and sketched the following manifesto” in six languages intimates the proletarian internationalism that the text seeks to meet and evoke, and, more intriguingly, it does so in a fashion that seems to place each language on a par, with the German in which it was written appearing in the middle of the list as merely one language among others. It is as if the proposed editions were to exist without translation, or only in translation, a text without an original language. One may yet be concerned that this suggests the “universal language” that I have challenged elsewhere in this book, but that is not the best way to read it. Puchner argues that the Manifesto’s “total translatability,” where all its editions in all languages “are equivalent,” is a proletarian enactment of the “world literature” described in the Manifesto’s pages. “Equivalence” does of course evoke the leveling equivalence of the commodity form, the means by which value emerges and commands, but here equivalence serves less to homogenize the text than to affirm the particularity of its adoption and consumption, such that translation improves the work, as it is taken up by formal parties in different antagonistic sites, linguistic communities, and geographical contexts (which the émigré experience ensured were frequently incongruous, as Puchner notes). Discussions concerning the great contribution of Chartist and early feminist Helen Macfarlane (who first translated the Manifesto into English, serialized in four parts in the Chartist weekly the Red Republican in November 1850), or Samuel Moore’s 1910 translation (with his line “all that is solid melts into air” that bears only a passing relation to Marx and Engels’s German), are hence more than of bibliographical and biographical interest—they are textual expressions, in place of the author, of the distributed and disruptive form of party that this one-time anonymous text bears and produces.
As this comment on translation indicates, anonymity and the party do not come into proximity all by themselves as two independent forms. Rather, their interplay takes shape in conjunction with critical orientations and practices in writing and publishing that ramify their effects and that, indeed, are often necessary to determine their successful achievement. The remainder of the chapter seeks to draw in some of the these dimensions of writing and publishing with reference to particular projects that have directly or indirectly handled the problematic of anonymity and the party. The first of these serves as a crystalline example of the discussion thus far, though this time we have an explicit assertion of anonymity as an intrinsic value of communist writing.
Comité and the Communism of Writing
Blanchot lived 1968 through the Comité d’Action Etudiants-Ecrivains (Student-Writer Action Committee), in the company of Marguerite Duras, Dionys Mascolo, and some twenty others, which, along with a number of tracts, published a single issue of a journal, Comité, shortly after the end of the events. Among the journal’s short, conjunctural, and philosophically intense texts is “Communism without Heirs,” a text that posits communism against the binding effects of identity and the latter’s didactic and imperial valences. That is, communism is against everything that “roots men in a time, in a history, and in a language,” against “the principle of alienation constituting man as privileged in his particularity, . . . imprisoning him in a contentment with his own reality, and leading him to propose it as an example or to impose it as a conquering affirmation.” Patriotism is the particular target, or its adoption by so-called communist parties, though the text can also be read against tendencies to identity in the aftermath of May, tendencies toward prolonging its formal parties—their tactics, organizational structures, theories, rhetorics, and aesthetic styles—beyond their event. As a ruptural event, Blanchot writes in December 1968, the May movement must now “renounce itself,” and not, as he observed all around, establish and sanctify a “new tradition,” a false fidelity that negates the event it claims to affirm.
If communism is against identity in this way, it is apparent that Comité understood nonidentity to be the very condition of communism, an understanding that here takes an exquisite formulation: “Communism is what excludes (and excludes itself from) every already constituted community.” This is communism as porosity to the event, as division, as “rupture,” in Blanchot’s idiom, bound to the proletariat as nonidentity—the passage hence continues: “The proletarian class, community without any common denominator other than penury, dissatisfaction and lack in every sense of the term.” All this we have seen earlier, under the theme of the historical party, but Blanchot’s formulation is an opportunity to move more directly into the terrain of anonymity. We know from Mascolo that Blanchot penned “Communism with Heirs,” but the writings in Comité were published anonymously. This was not an incidental move. For Comité, the unworking of the identity of communism, in its immanence to the proletariat, was to be necessarily also an unworking of the identity of the author, a condition for a “communism of writing,” as the project was characterized in “The Possible Characteristics.” This editorial text is a striking departure from the “what we stand for” editorial statements that usually accompany collective political publishing, and which are so often catalysts for the passage to identity in formal parties—totemic sets of principles through which groups seek to “project an impressive image on the social screen,” in Camatte’s phrasing, and so mark their self-delimitation and perpetuation of capitalist patterns of self-marketing. By contrast, this piece concentrates less on Comité’s political ideas and principles than on its form of writing and publication, what it calls the journal’s “possible characteristics” in the task of conjoining the “rupture” of communism to “breaking with the traditional habits and privileges of writing.” Of these, one characteristic, set out at the top of a list of seven, announces the journal’s anonymity (where, to clarify, the first two points are the negative conditions entailed in the production of the third, which, as we must understand from Blanchot’s writing on communism, is a collective speech without identity, or, as Kevin Hart puts it, a speech formed on the “contestation of unity”):
The texts will be anonymous. Anonymity aims not to remove the author’s right of possession over what he writes nor even to make him impersonal by freeing him from himself (his history, his person, the suspicion attached to his particularity), but to constitute collective or plural speech: a communism of writing.
For all its immanence to the social field, our formulation of the party thus far still hazards the risk, as I registered previously, of a certain identitarian and authoritarian closure, whereby a text arrogates the authority of mass social forces to pass off its own partial truth as a universal condition—an instance of Blanchot’s alienated particular, identity at once self-contented and commanding, though now cloaked by anonymity. To avoid this, displacing authorship into the evental becoming of the party and proletariat necessitates also displacing its authority into the same milieu. Marx says as much. In an early letter to Arnold Ruge, Marx makes the case for a communist form of writing that is to be adequate to the theory of the party: unconstrained by identity; leaning into the future, into the uncertainty of the event; and oriented toward division. As the necessary complement to this, Marx adds an additional feature. Unlike idealist models of abstract thought, where ideas are introduced from one particularity but claim universality, this communist writing immanent to conflictual social relations necessitates that it drop any “dogmatic banner.” As Marx explains (in a passage I will also pick up later, and so reproduce here at length),
Not only has a state of general anarchy set in among the reformers, but everyone will have to admit to himself that he has no exact idea what the future ought to be. On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. Hitherto philosophers have had the solution of all riddles lying in their writing-desks, and the stupid, exoteric world had only to open its mouth for the roast pigeons of absolute knowledge to fly into it. Now philosophy has become mundane, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.
In this construction, “mundane” communist thought does not impose itself on struggles—does “not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it!”—rather, it emerges from struggles, from critical relationship to their torment, and with such torment it must remain ever articulated. The role of communist writing is thus diminished; it does not offer the communist equivalent of the Word of salvation but merely adds a little shape, reflection, and synthesis to knowledge that “already abounds in the world,” as Jasper Bernes characterizes the antididactic role of theory in this letter. Yet in this diminishing, writing becomes all the more salient and intensive, because it no longer basks in self-importance, beached and bloated with its own clichés, but seeks as best it can to operate immanently to the evental unfurling of social relations. Marx’s formulation here is all the more pertinent in that its context and medium of inscription performs its content. For it is a text written to explain not communist thought in the abstract but the particular purpose of publishing a journal, the Deutsch-Franzöische Jahrbücher (German-French annals, published February 1844), whose one (double) issue was coedited by Marx and Ruge and includes the full series of their letters, as if the epistolary form were especially suited to such textual formulations of an immanent, antidogmatic communism. The series concludes with a clarion call for this antidogmatic mode of writing and publishing, proposing “the trend of our journal” as “self-clarification (critical philosophy) to be gained by the present time of its struggles and desires. This is a work for the world and for us.”
Such antidogmatic writing, immanent to contingent social relations, is simultaneously an embrace of uncertainty. As is apparent at the start of the preceding quotation from Marx’s letter to Ruge, whereas bourgeois thought is unsettled by uncertainty (when it “has no idea what the future ought to be”), communist thought, as it leans into the future, is necessarily uncertain and speculative, it even holds uncertainty as its condition. This point can be teased out from Endnotes (2008–), where communist uncertainty, if I can put it like that, is interlaced with the media form of the journal. The first issue of Endnotes carries part of the same letter to Ruge on its back cover, where it plays a somewhat paradoxical role. A text now 170 years old, written and published to explain the rationale of a nineteenth-century journal, here assists in delineating and confirming a publishing project that actively seeks to sever itself from the past, from communism understood as tradition and historical subject, and orient instead only to the mutating limits of capitalist social relations. For Endnotes, communist theory arises in the “immanent horizon” of the class relation, “it is produced by—and necessarily thinks within—this antagonistic relation,” a relation “that is only insofar as it is ceasing to be,” for it is an “impossible relation,” based on the ever-repeated effort of capital to overcome the irresolvable problem of labor, namely, the general law of capitalist accumulation. As regards the journal’s relation to concrete struggles, if communism arises in the mutating horizon of capitalist social relations, it encourages attention not to the identities and certainties of political movements and ideas as they have sedimented through time but to encounters with the limits of these identities, as they approach what it is at each moment that continues to bind them to capital and the attendant rifts and conflicts that might push them beyond such limits. It is an approach that is at once antidogmatic or “mundane” in its immersion in social struggles and founded as far as possible on the uncertain and contingent unfurling of those struggles. At the same time, the anti-identitarian quality of the party necessitates that the journal here take a critical form, the displacement of authority from communist writers to struggles themselves being by no means an identification with the latter, for their self-certainty must be problematized too. The journal, hence, “tries to fashion tools with which to talk about present-day struggles—in their own terms, with all their contradictions and paradoxes brought to light, rather than buried.”
This has effects also on the practice of journal publishing, if we turn from the critical orientations of this journal to its media form. The group that publishes Endnotes explains that its commitment is to rigorous and open-ended “internal debate,” to the journal “as a place for the careful working out of ideas,” “in which no topics would be off-limits.” But if this is to take place at the limits of struggles, against rather than within their identities, then it must hold at a distance attempts to take political positions “or other matters in which the Ego—collective or individual—would necessarily take centre-stage.” And here we return to the theme of anonymity, for the published outcomes of these discussions appear in Endnotes without author attribution—guest contributions excepting, from writers who are “outside the core group.” The inference is that authorial anonymity is a product and index of collective, internal debate, where the collectivity in question is bounded by the group, such that the identity of the author is displaced by the group. It is a commonplace explanation of authorial anonymity and is often accurate in this. But here it would be more in keeping with the ungrounded ground of Endnotes’s communist critique, of the historical party, to understand anonymity as indexing less a group production than the exposure of the group to the limits of bounded collectivity. Camatte and Collu get at something of this with their formulation that “the correct sense in which anonymity is posed” is when communists recognize themselves “in a theory that does not depend on a group or a review, because it is an expression of an existing class struggle.”
Writing at the limit impacts too on the thematic content and temporal structure of Endnotes’s publishing practice. The editorial to the third issue explains that the more abstract theoretical content of the first issues was in part a result of the low ebb in struggles but also “because we didn’t know what we wanted to say about the struggles that were ongoing, and we thought it best not to pretend otherwise.” This declaration of uncertainty is a striking counter to the textual construction of authority and self-certitude that characterize the writing of conventional parties and sects as a condition for their effective self-delimitation and public marketing. It inclines the journal to avoid “rush[ing] to conclusions for the sake of being topical” and for “concerns about publishing,” which I take to mean the latent compulsion of the journal platform to periodicity. What the editorial to the unpunctual Endnotes 3 frames as an “explanation for the delay” could also, then, be an articulation of the communism of writing.
Readers acquainted with Endnotes may think me insincere. After following the journal’s complex turns through value-form theory, systematic dialectics, and communization, one is not left with the overriding feeling that its texts lack certainty. And the visual design of the journal is similarly redolent of a project that is sure of what it means. A wariness toward the demands of periodicity was also a feature of Comité, but here it played in tandem with a concern to ward off the constraints of regular physical and textual form, for the list of Comité’s possible characteristics claims that the journal was to be an “essentially irregular publication, bound to a temporal irregularity, just as much as an irregularity of format and formulation.” That is not so for Endnotes, which has a stripped-down and rigorously ordered page layout and format size, sans serif fonts, and cover aesthetic that is uniform across issues, save for variation in the color of the covers, issue title, and back cover epigraph and in the small sketch of a part-concealed lurking urban monster that accompanies the postal address on the back flap (Figure 10). It seems some distance from the experiments with publishing form that feature elsewhere in Anti-Book. Indeed, the temptation is strong to follow the anonymous writer of the blog Insipidities and conclude that something of the unruly materiality and vitality of communism is missing here; that, at least for those attuned to the “cultic objects” of communist print, the “socialist-minimalism” of Endnotes’s compositional and aesthetic form operates in “sublated life registers.”
The Insipidities review of Endnotes 3 could be described as a counteractualization of this “socialist minimalist” condition. What can be gained by reviewing the journal without reading it, as is this writer’s wont, bypassing the “business of serious reading and analysing and writing” and instead perceiving it as an experience of immediate encounter? What are the effects of imagining Endnotes 3 “without the corrections, say in its first draft[?]” How is “the slag of it all, to be discerned from the pure ore? What is filtering what? What is excluding what?” What does “carefulness, as illustrated in the group editing of collective thinking, [do] to the outcome of that thinking, I mean politically[?]” What is opened or closed in our conceptualization of the social and affective qualities and domains of communism when the word “struggle” is used forty-one times in a journal’s introduction alone? These are some of the fecund or “maximalist” possibilities of a communist review (an antireview, perhaps) of a communist journal, from which there is much to learn. And yet the content of Endnotes is not without generative interplay with its aesthetic form.
We might approach the journal as a typographic and aesthetic articulation of the communization problematic, where communism is so stripped down to the thin horizon of self-overcoming—without subject, tradition, teleology, dogma, or guarantee—that its published articulation looks like printed alienation, and may necessarily be so, given the impossibility of proletarian autonomy from capital. But this is not quite a surrender of design, for Endnotes holds nonidentity in its tight-laced form, its preference for austere design being in part a rigorous nonpreference for any one design in particular, a nonpreference that lends the journal, almost despite itself, an anomalous aesthetic allure. Is it a clue that this journal makes such an intervention at the level of its aesthetic form, or a lapse in the regimen of nonidentity, or overkill, that, hiding in plain sight, Endnotes 3 contains a flipbook? In an article titled “The Holding Pattern” on the 2011–13 struggles that spread from the Tunisian uprising to Occupy, half the page numbers have been substituted with small black squares that spin around as one flips through the journal. It is a modeling of the abiding weakness of this “movement of the squares,” which had the not inconsiderable power of heightened collectivity, and visibility as such, but, in the very form that its collectivity took, was disembedded from the concrete situations of everyday life whence the movement might otherwise have gained enduring leverage.
Having considered the interplay of anonymous authorship with the party, and with the associated decentering of textual authority and the place of critical uncertainty, I will return briefly to Tiqqun. There are certainly points in Tiqqun’s notion of the “imaginary party” that articulate the conjunction of anonymity and the party thus far discussed. Some features are ably apparent, for instance, in “Sonogram of a Potentiality,” from Tiqqun 2, which seeks to draw gender and sexuality out into the social realm—subjecting the “private” and “intimate” “to the intensity of politics”—and frames the move as a critique not only of the interiorized and unitary subject but also of the self-bolstering certainty that accompanies that subject in writing. Here we read, then:
I wanted a text that wouldn’t cry, that wouldn’t vomit sentences, that wouldn’t give premature answers just to make itself look unquestionable. And that’s why the following is not a text written by women for women, because I am not one and I am not just one, but I am a many that says “I.” An “I” against the fiction of the little “me” that acts as if it were universal and mistakes its own cowardice for the right to erase, in the name of others, everything that contradicts it.
This reflexive and anti-identitarian orientation is manifest also in relation to the mediums of communist writing. A preface to Tiqqun’s book edition of The Theory of Bloom informs the reader that, despite appearance to the contrary, “it does not behave like a book,” for it resists that medium’s closure and its function as complement to the subject: “The Book is a dead form, in so far as it was holding its reader in the same fraudulent completeness, in the same esoteric arrogance as the classic Subject in front of his peers.” This text, it suggests, is instead an “editorial virus.” It “exposes the principle of incompleteness, the fundamental insufficiency that is in the foundation of the published work.” The formulation recalls comments on communism and the book in Comité, where the medium of the book—as described in a text concerned with the plethora of books about May 1968 that followed immediately upon its demise—serves to close down the rupture of communism:
Everything that disturbs, calls, threatens, and finally questions without expecting an answer, without resting in certainty, never will we enclose it in a book, which, even when open, tends toward closure, a refined form of oppression. . . . No more books, never again a book, so long as we maintain our relation with the upheaval of the rupture.
To prolong “the arrest of history” that was May 1968 requires instead writing in “fragments,” in mural writing, tracts, posters, bulletins, and journals. For sure, the fragment is not the only means to politics in writing. The Comité text “Reading Marx” draws out three modes of composition in Marx’s writing—pertaining to his subversive pursuit of philosophy, politics, and science—only one of which is fragmentary, though all have salience: “Communist speech is always at the same time tacit and violent, political and scientific, direct, indirect, total and fragmentary, lengthy, and almost instantaneous.” These modes of writing do not “live comfortably” in Marx, they interplay and come apart, an “example [that] helps us to understand that the speech of writing, the speech of incessant contestation, must constantly develop and break away from itself in multiple forms.” Fragmentary forms, then, “do not say everything,” but in that is their particular effect and power: “on the contrary, they ruin everything; they are outside of everything. They act and reflect fragmentarily. . . . Like words on the wall, they are written in insecurity, received under threat; they carry the danger themselves and then pass with the passerby who transmits, loses, or forgets them.”
Tiqqun’s “editorial virus” appears to suggest such directions in media form, but it is not the derailing of identity that it at first seems, for Tiqqun substitutes the reciprocal identity of book and subject with that of book and community—the book as agent of community, the book, in other words, in the most classical mold, what chapter 3 identified as the “root-book.” As the preface to The Theory of Bloom has it, the “great books have never ceased to be those which succeeded in creating a community,” and this one, apparently, is no different:
With the most explicit mentions, with the most crudely convenient indications—address, contact, etc.—it increases itself in the sense of realizing the community that it lacks, the virtual community made up of its real-life readers. It suddenly puts the reader in such a position that his withdrawal may no longer be tenable, a position where the withdrawal of the reader can no longer be neutral. It is in this sense that we will hone, sharpen, and clearly define The Theory of Bloom.
This formulation of the book is illustrative of a tendency evident throughout Tiqqun, where articulations of the nonidentity of the party are overwhelmed by—or serve to cloak—a politics of identity. Especially in texts like The Coming Insurrection, Call, and Introduction to Civil War, the declared process of becoming anonymous takes the form and injunction of identification with a “we” or an “us” against a “they.” Ejecting capitalist relations by force of will and acts of marginal lifestyle—externalizing the “they,” in other words—this “us” becomes a privileged subject or party, despite protestations to the contrary and however various and fragmented its composition. This community of “us” finds the conditions of communism not in the diffuse and emergent field of lives and struggles immanently determined by the value forms of capital—the nonidentitarian field of the historical party—but in its own present existence, and in the confirmation and preservation of this through community with others who hear the “call” and “join us” in federations of “friendship.” The following example is too easy a target, but it has the merit of setting out this aspect of Tiqqun’s position with clarity:
Us—it is neither a subject, nor something formed, nor a multitude. Us—it is a heap of worlds, of sub-spectacular and interstitial worlds, whose existence is unmentionable, woven together with the kind of solidarity and dissent that power cannot penetrate; and there are the strays, the poor, the prisoners, the thieves, the criminals, the crazy, the perverts, the corrupted, the overly alive, the overflowing, the rebellious corporealities. In short, all those who, following their own line of flight, do not fit into Empire’s stale, air-conditioned paradise. Us—this is the fragmented plane of consistency of the Imaginary Party.
In contradistinction to the ruptural quality of the historical party, immanent to social relations, the emancipated “us” described here—associations of all those “who do not fit,” where “power cannot penetrate”—cannot but posit and ever renew a demarcation from the social, because the latter necessarily places the autonomous association under threat. That is the imaginary party’s outward facing effect, the boundary produced by the “they.” Facing inward, the considerable risk of this demarcation is that it constitutes a collective identity in which social hierarchies, psychological dependencies, and reified thinking are intensified in associations that tend toward homogeneity based on the equivalence of their members to the particular feature that defines them. As such, the particularity of the “us” apparently outside of capital becomes the very product of capital, a mechanism for the reproduction of its subjective modalities. This is far from the communist anonymity we have been pursuing.