Unidentified Narrative Objects
Wu Ming’s Political Mythopoesis
What is opposed to fiction is not the real; it is not the truth which is always that of the masters or colonizers; it is the story-telling function of the poor, in so far as it gives the false the power which makes it into a memory, a legend, a monster.
—Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2
When we talk about “myths,” we mean stories that are tangible.
—Wu Ming, “Why Not Show Off about the Best Things?”
It is reported that Mao never forgave Nikita Khrushchev for his 1956 “Secret Speech” on the crimes of the Stalin era. Of the aspects of the speech that were damaging to Mao, the most troubling was no doubt Khrushchev’s attack on the “cult of personality,” not only in Stalin’s example but in principle, as a “perversion” of Marxism. After all, if the cult of personality was an “invariant feature of communist states and parties,” as Alain Badiou has remarked, it was soon to be brought to a point of “paroxysm” in China’s Cultural Revolution. And so it should be no surprise that Mao retorted two years later with a defense of the axiom as properly communist. In delineating “correct” and “incorrect” kinds of personality cults, Mao insisted, “The question at issue is not whether or not there should be a cult of the individual, but rather whether or not the individual concerned represents the truth. If he does, then he should be revered.” Not unexpectedly, Mao presents Marx as an example of an individual who should be “revere[d] for ever,” along with Engels, Lenin, and “the correct side of Stalin.” Yet Marx himself was most hostile to such practice, a fact from which Khrushchev sought to make mileage, quoting from Marx’s November 1877 letter to Wilhelm Blos:
From my antipathy to any cult of the individual, I never made public during the existence of the International the numerous addresses from various countries which recognized my merits and which annoyed me. I did not reply to them, except sometimes to rebuke their authors. Engels and I first joined the secret society of Communists on the condition that everything making for superstitious worship of authority would be deleted from its statute.
Not only hostile to the cult of personality, Marx coined this pejorative construction in the political domain, so presenting its Soviet practitioners with quite a bind. The cult of Stalin was consciously put into play in 1929 on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, though this affective structure of Soviet leadership first emerged with Lenin around 1920 and was consolidated with the preparations for conserving his body and memory, when the founder of the Cheka, Felix Dzerzhinsky, declared, “In regards to the cult of personality, this is not a cult of personality, but in a certain manner a cult of Vladimir Il’ich.” The contortion is impressive, but this formulation is logically untenable of course, and so it was the first and last time any Bolshevik spoke publicly of a “cult” of their leader. In any case, it transpired that the personality cult was aided by its disavowal, “denied in speech precisely so that it could be better constructed under the cover of denial.” A popular cult must look exactly that, popular and spontaneous, and not appear driven by the object of the cult himself.
If I quote Khrushchev favorably, it is not to accord with his broader thesis or the aims of his speech, which, in elevating the personality cult to an all-encompassing explanatory principle, sought to inoculate the state against criticism of Stalin’s era and of its enduring social, industrial, and agricultural polices. Keeping such social relations out of his critique, focusing instead on the all-powerful individual, Khrushchev was deploying a bourgeois explanatory schema, such that Althusser was correct in this regard to call the cult of personality a “pseudo-concept,” with only superficial explanatory value. And yet, while the personality cult was not an adequate explanation for Stalin, as a structure of affective investment cultivated in Communist regimes, it nonetheless had considerable force in binding populations to leader, party, and state. It is also the mythical form most commonly associated with the history of communism. That is not to say that the cult of the individual is exclusive to this arena. As Badiou remarks, devotion to a particular individual is commonplace in established religions and in bourgeois culture, notably the reverential framework of artistic “genius,” without it being dismissed as a pathology. To this we can add that the avowedly capitalist states have not been averse to venerating their own political leaders, through the Cold War opposition to Communism and since. The cult surrounding Narendra Modi’s 2014 ascension to power in India is a recent case in point, to which the unseemly speed by which The Economist gave its endorsement—“Strongman: How Modi Can Unleash India,” declared one front cover—is a disturbing repetition of capital’s seemingly natural inclination in times of crisis to champion the strongman savior. We should note also Beppe Grillo and the Italian Five Star Movement, where right-wing populism has been assisted by repurposed leftist rhetoric and a structure of leadership that might best be described as the cult of personality filtered through the entertainment complex of “Late Berlusconism,” as Wu Ming has put it.
These are important reminders that it is not only state Communist regimes that have suffered from superstitious worship of individual authority. But this is not the lesson Badiou draws from his observation, for the continuity of such veneration of exceptional individuals seems for him to help validate the cult of personality, although the point lacks his normal force of affirmative declaration: “it is neither more nor less inappropriate to sacralize political creators than it is to sacralize artistic creators. Perhaps less so, all things considered, because political creation is probably rarer.” Actually, he can be more forthright. In a later text, “The Idea of Communism,” toward the task of articulating the possible parameters of a communist sequence for the new century, Badiou describes the positive role of the cult of personality as projecting “the exception” into the otherwise mundane life of individuals, “to fill what merely exists with a certain measure of the extraordinary.” In revolutionary “proper names,” what he at one point calls “different versions of the ‘cult of personality,’”
the ordinary individual discovers glorious, distinctive individuals as the mediation for his or her own individuality, as the proof that he or she can force its finitude. The anonymous action of millions of militants, rebels, fighters, unrepresentable as such, is combined and counted as one in the simple, powerful symbol of the proper name.
Any doubt that Badiou’s construction of the proper name here does indeed include in its domain the historical phenomenon of the cult of personality is put aside if we consider his curious interpretation of the Secret Speech. Badiou appears to accord with Althusser’s reading, that Khrushchev’s critique of Stalin lacked “the perspective of revolutionary politics,” as he puts it. And he repeats Althusser’s intriguing suggestion that Khrushchev opened the door to reactionary politico-philosophical positions in the West—Marxist humanism for Althusser, the reactionary humanism of the “new philosophers” for Badiou. But the reasons given for the latter are different. While Badiou initially sounds like Althusser, he sees the fault not in the analytic frame of the cult of personality qua bourgeois explanatory schema but in challenging the cult of personality at all, which he views not as a defective explanation but as a structure to be defended. The Khrushchev episode thus provides Badiou with “a very precious lesson: even though retroactive political actions may require that a given name [e.g., Stalin] be stripped of its symbolic function, this function as such cannot be eliminated for all that.”
The lesson to draw from Marx’s formulation is rather different: the presence of the cult of personality in communist scenes is an indication that they were still bound to capitalist structures of identity and authority, to the “great man” theory of bourgeois history, namely, the indexing and referencing of social phenomena to individual actors, a specifically capitalist culture of leadership and representation that developed across the globe from the 1890s and became an entrenched feature of the twentieth century. With Amadeo Bordiga, as Jacques Camatte presents his position, the “cult of the great men and messiahs,” of “bourgeois personalism,” was a “pathogenic element” in the workers’ movement.
There is a curious feature of the media component of state Communist cults of personality, a feature that draws this discussion into the orbit of the anti-book. The Sino-Soviet personality cults were complex products of pastoral, psychological, visual, linguistic, architectural, artifactual, and bureaucratic forms and relations, where broadcast and filmic media had a central place. But they all also found some ground in the considerably less image-centric media forms of writing and books, not only in the textual production of the public image of the leader, which in the state art of biography was considerable, but also in sharing a common proclivity toward projecting the leader as author. From Stalin to Ceaușescu, each racked up a sizeable set of bound and sanctified “collected works,” as, in Debray’s words, “the most philistine despot found himself wreathed in the laurels of knowledge” (Figure 12).
The leader cult of Nazism, its concrescence of “race,” nation, and struggle, which was famously bound up with developments in the cinematic image—the regime of “information” and automatic response, as Deleuze and Benjamin describe it, “Hitler as filmmaker”—also took the book as an integral component. There is a patent mythical dimension to the Nazi spectacle of book burning, initiated with the German Student Association’s “Twelve Theses” (which self-consciously recalled Martin Luther’s “Ninety-Five Theses” and an earlier book burning associated with an anniversary of the latter). Cleansing culture of the “un-German Spirit” and “Jewish intellectualism,” book burning signified to the Nazis, in Joseph Goebbels’s words to the forty thousand assembled for one such spectacle in Berlin, that “the future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character.” Yet the burning of books hardly displays indifference to this medium; from colonial burning of the textual matter of non-Europeans through Catholic burning of Protestant texts, and vice versa, book burning affirms the body of textual work that is not so consumed. It is no surprise, then, that Goebbels’s “German character” also found a ready complement in the book, in the figure of Hitler as author, crafting his vision of German character in Mein Kampf—in its content, yes, but also in the myth of its writing, of Hitler entirely devoting his prison time to the production of this work—a copy of which was given free to every newlywed couple and every soldier at the front, a distribution that symbolically bound the Nazi tenets of family, “race,” and war.
Does critique of the personality cult mean that communism should be opposed to mythical structures of association in total, to the energizing value of images of the “extraordinary,” in Badiou’s phrase? Creating distance from the cult of personality and pursuing instead a communism immanent to the social relations of capital would seem to encourage a move away from myth. But myth also has modalities more in tune with the communism I have been exploring in this book, and that is the direction I take here, through the understanding and practice of political mythopoeis developed by the collective writing project Wu Ming.
Wu Ming, Luther Blissett’s most prominent successor, comprises the participants of that “multiple name” project who wrote the novel Q discussed in chapter 4 (with one addition and, later, one departure), but instead of an open multiplicity, Wu Ming is a discrete collective author, now comprising four people, whose work is more directly focused on textual production, in narrative fiction, including five novels, and nonfictional critical interventions. There are continuities between Wu Ming and some of the features of Luther Blissett that I set out in chapter 4: the critique of property persists; the Wu Ming collective retains an opacity toward the mechanisms of the author-celebrity; and, though the group is limited in number, certain qualitative benefits of the “multiple single” still prevail, such that they characterize themselves as both a distinct entity and a body that is different and greater than the sum of its individual parts. Some of this is held in Wu Ming’s name, which is Mandarin for “nameless”:
The name of the band is meant both as a tribute to dissidents (“Wu Ming” is a common byline among Chinese citizens demanding democracy and freedom of speech) and as a refusal of the celebrity-making, glamorizing machine that turns authors into stars. “Wu Ming” is also a reference to the third sentence in the Tao Te Ching: “Wu ming tian di zhi shi,” “Nameless is Heaven’s and Earth’s Origin.”
All the same, as a closed multiplicity, Wu Ming’s mode of authorship is considerably less inventive and exploratory than Luther Blissett, as the collective is happy to admit. It is Wu Ming’s approach to myth that interests us here. The textual production and interrogation of myth is a prominent feature of Wu Ming’s novels and critical writing, finding one of its fullest elaborations in an essay reflecting on the mythical value of Thomas Müntzer, a central presence in Q. As “Spectres of Müntzer at Sunrise” explains, myths are narratives that are circulated and reiterated socially, generating affective bonds, shared meanings, and volitional capacities. Despite a common misconception, the function of genuine myth is not to bind a community to the past but to open the parameters of the future in the present by multiplying the resources of the past:
Ongoing narration makes [myth] evolve, because what happens in the present changes the way we recollect the past. As a result, those tales are modified according to the context and acquire new symbolic/metaphorical meanings. Myths provide us with examples to follow or reject, give us a sense of continuity or discontinuity with the past, and allow us to imagine a future.
These symbolic effects combine with a certain shamanic or event-inducing capacity to “summon supernatural powers” toward a transformation of the present. For Wu Ming 1, it is no accident that “myths and folk tales [are] populated by demons, witches, magicians, gods etc.”
That said, any attempt at a progressive evaluation of myth is immediately confronted by the knowledge that myths can have a decidedly conservative, even destructive, function in political environments: “Revolutionary and progressive movements have always found their own metaphors and myths. Most of the times these myths outlive their usefulness and become alienating. Rigor mortis sets in, language becomes wooden, metaphors end up enslaving the people instead of setting them free.” This is what Furio Jesi calls the “technification of myth,” when the mythical image overwhelms conscious and subconscious processes, dulling critical capacities and narrowing the individual’s relation with the transformative field of communal experience. The cult of personality is readily understandable in these terms, but this prominent historical instance of communist myth is not the only example of the way that political myth can go awry. Much of Wu Ming’s reflection on myth has emerged from a critical relation to activist currents in the period around the 2001 anti-G8 events in Genoa, from where they identify specific problems in the linguistic and subjective modalities of myth. Referring more or less directly to the Italian Disobedienti group (in a text accompanied by a satirical image of the group’s spokesperson, Luca Casarini, morphed with Stalin), Wu Ming 1 comments on the way mythical language can operate as clichés and slogans abstracted from the ethical and affective conditions of communal life:
The problem is not merely the language being “outdated,” because it can even sound new, it can include a lot of neologisms. No, the problem is that the “wooden language” . . . is ethically unacceptable, it is a jargon made of slogans and clichés that keep experience away, it never establishes any contact with sorrow or pain, love and delight, feelings, emotions. It only accompanies boredom. What good is an annoying sequence of words in a vacuum? Think of those stupid, ultra-rhetoric propaganda speeches filled with “the Movement of movements,” “disobedience,” . . . “we’re going to disobey,” . . . “we are the multitude.”
This reflection on the linguistic “sclerosis” of the Italian activist milieu after 2001 is especially striking because it is in part a critical self-assessment of Wu Ming’s own political practice, having themselves been involved in the Tute Bianche (White Overalls) movement, the remnants of which established the Disobedienti. And it raises a second problem with political mythopoesis: not only its lifeless and clichéd language but its overly integrated and self-sacrificial subjective force. Wu Ming’s early approach to myth has some debt to Georges Sorel’s formulation of the “general strike.” For Sorel, the power of socialist myth is its capacity for “evoking instinctively” a coordinated set of feelings at a “maximum intensity” such that an instantaneous “intuition of socialism” is achieved “which language cannot give us” and that enables proletarians to “always picture their coming action as a battle in which their cause is certain to triumph.” Wu Ming’s mythopoetical practice through stunts and performative texts in the buildup to Genoa clearly bears signs of this framework, as is most evident in their text “From the Multitudes of Europe.” This “edict” constructs a narrative movement of a historical subject focused on Genoa, a transhistorical confrontation between the class of property and the multitude: “We are new, and yet we are the same as always” (Figure 13). But Sorel’s “certainty of triumph” is a delusion that can have dire consequences, and Genoa turned out to be a police-orchestrated “bloodbath”—with the Carabinieri’s killing of Carlo Giuliani and their torture and assault of detained demonstrators. It was a bloodbath with which Wu Ming considered themselves indirectly complicit: “We were among the most zealous in urging people to go to Genoa, and helped to steer the movement into the ambush.” Caught up in the wave of mobilization, it appears that they lost sight of Q’s critique of political subjectivity. As Wu Ming comment on the popular weaving of features of Q’s world—Thomas Müntzer, the Peasant’s War, the Münster Rebellion—in the mythopoetical “general metaphor” of the Genoa movement, “although it was inspiring and effective, the metaphor was a misrepresentation. . . . Thomas Müntzer spoke to us, but we couldn’t understand his words. It wasn’t a blessing, but a warning.” This recognition has prompted a critical reassessment of Wu Ming’s relation to myth, central to which is an effort to refound political mythopoesis without or against a unified subjectivity. It is in this direction that this chapter moves.
Figure 13. Wu Ming media stunt toward the anti-G8 events in Genoa 2001, utilizing a monument to the Resistance fighters in the Battle of Porta Lame, Bologna. Reproduced under a Creative Commons License.
Wu Ming’s work on mythopoesis is traversed by an abiding sense of crisis in political subjectivity, of the tenuous possibilities of politics, and by a pervasive feeling of defeat. But it is crisis made productive, as disaggregated style, roving affect, and fragmented iconicity become the parts of an experimental mythopoesis unconstrained by the unifications of a political subject. It is a perspective Wu Ming broadly share with Deleuze, who argues that we are living through the demise of the unified subjective form of “the people”—as was principally expressed and corrupted in U.S. “universal immigration” and Soviet “universal proletarization”—such that politics need not seek a new subjectivity but refound itself upon the anti-identitarian condition that “the people are missing.” It is true that Deleuze talks also of a “people to come,” but that formulation blunts his intervention on this front, namely, that it is in “impossible,” “cramped,” and radically disaggregated conditions that politics arises, a politics that is unable to achieve and ever wards off the unifications of a people, a position that Deleuze and Guattari closely associate with the nonidentity of the proletariat that I have been picking up throughout this book.
This is not an easy condition to bear, given how grounded modern politics has been in the image of collective identity, from the citizen to the traditional Marxist subject of labor. Bereft of serviceable images of the people, we are left only with saturation of the political field by clichés, information, and order-words. In this situation, as Deleuze has it, we are severed from our being in the world, from our ethico-political capacities: “The modern fact is that we no longer believe in this world. We do not even believe in the events which happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us.” The terms are rather grandiose, but the sense they convey of crisis, dislocation, and incapacity is salient.
The task under such conditions is to construct means to believe in the world, this world, not as a programmatic set of principles, “beliefs,” but as an affirmation of the world against its constraints and closures, and from this belief to open orientations to the future, to “precipitate events, however inconspicuous,” to “engender new space-times, however small their surface or volume.” The privileged vehicle for Deleuze in this regard is cinema. In what follows, I touch on some of the techniques of cinematic narration that he sees as actualizing new ways of being and believing in the world. But I do so through a particular feature of Deleuze’s argument, namely, his account of the place and politics of storytelling or myth, as it appropriates the role of generating political association and imagination on the conditions of their absence. The counterintuitive nature of this intervention needs underscoring. Myth arises not in reciprocal presupposition with a people—a tradition, a culture, a historical calling, and one that is placed under threat from an outside—as it does for the Right, but on the absolute evacuation of political subjectivity, on the nonexistence of a people.
Here too Wu Ming share the diagnosis, though their formulation is more directly situated in contemporary conjunctures, and with less of the grandiose quality to Deleuze’s “belief in the world.” It arises with particular attention to the Italian context of mass media’s final abdication of any democratic claim to inform and challenge the polis and of the “eternal present” of media narratives, as Marco Amici puts it, that foreclose relations to the past and, hence, capacities to act differently on the future. But myth also pertains to the interlaced structures and conditions of property and ecological crisis. These are the conditions of the “political necessity” of myth, where “art and literature cannot just sound late alarms: they must help us to imagine a way out. They must heal our gaze and strengthen our capacity to visualize.”
We can say, then, that Deleuze and Wu Ming share Badiou’s concern for a politics of the “extraordinary” that brings political vitality to a debased and prostrated everyday life, but the cult of personality would for them, clearly, be part of the problem. Instead, they begin the task of developing a desubjectified mythopoesis, which in Wu Ming operates through three features, which structure the following discussion: first, a technique of “falsifying narration” that puts into play a conception of time as bifurcating and nonlinear; a concern, second, not with transcendent judgment and integrated subjectivity but with immanent evaluation of fragmented modes of being; and third, the agency of a desubjectified enunciative voice, the “unidentified narrative object.”
Under the generalized condition of defeat, the loss or inherent corruption of the model of a historical people, the temporality of “progress” has nothing to offer. Wu Ming’s mythopoesis responds to Benjamin’s diagnosis of the temporal dimension of the integration of the workers’ movement with capital: “Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current.” Instead, Wu Ming’s historical fiction is premised on an understanding of time as a “fractal” field, one neither linear or cyclical but composed of “bifurcations,” “conflicts,” “discontinuities,” and paths not taken, the value of which resides in the capacity of the past to “retroact on the present, which is contradictory as well.” Fiction is uniquely placed to mine, overlay, and accentuate these bifurcations, practicing what Deleuze calls “falsifying narration.” Deleuze locates the emergence of falsifying narration in postwar cinematic images and literatures that break with determination by linear movement to express time as a labyrinth of forking paths. In these conditions,
narration ceases to be truthful, that is, to claim to be true, and becomes fundamentally falsifying. This is not at all a case of “each has its own truth,” a variability of content. It is a power of the false which replaces and supercedes the form of the true, because it poses the simultaneity of incompossible presents, or the coexistence of not-necessarily true pasts.
To be clear, this is not a negation of the real but its enrichment and intensification; as narration falsifies its object and generates incompossible worlds, it “constitutes the layers of one and the same . . . reality,” “sheets of past [that] coexist in a non-chronological order” where a “single event can belong to several levels.” Falsifying narration is thus better seen as a politicization of the real, allowing art to make a direct and transformative intervention in and against the reified images of established history, of the “true.” The point is well made by Timothy Murphy in his account of falsifying narration in the work of William Burroughs:
Narration is freed from the despotism of compossibility and multiplied, producing a fertile network of potential trajectories through time. . . . This is the role that artworks can play in the present, the role of fantasmatic structures that alter the direction and speed of the present moment by altering the past trajectory on which the present would have to travel.
And yet there is also a certain realism at play here, what Dimitri Chimenti describes as a “thematic” realism, a “manipulation of the real . . . which represents determinant aspects of how individuals inhabit their world.” This is central to Wu Ming’s falsifying narration and to the “nebula” of contemporary works they have characterized as the “New Italian Epic.” The writer’s standpoint is displaced, “adjusting the periscope to the horizon (and to the immense horizon of phenomena) rather than the horizon to the periscope,” in a phrase from Pasolini (who plays a key role in Wu Ming’s understanding of falsifying narration, as he does for Deleuze). In its place, at this “horizon,” falsifying narration brings structures and systems into expression; these are narratives of capital, at once empirically grounded and unrepresentable in their totality. This, then, is the strange condition of falsifying narration: it undoes the distinction between the real and the imaginary to gain a better, visceral, and structural grasp on a reality understood to be ever escaping the possibility of representation, “a non-totalizable complexity, ‘non-representable by a single individual.’” And so Valerio Evangelisti describes this narrative form as “speaking through systems,” through “historico-geographical frameworks, visions of entire societies, cosmic impulses, as long as the outcome is achieved: making people think, in a realistic or metaphorical way, about the collective perception of an alienated everyday.”
There are numerous formal aspects to this mode of narration. To take only one, these works of New Italian Epic commonly graft historical documents into the fiction—newspaper articles, legal documents, letters, and other extraliterary texts, even, on occasion, fictional works masquerading as factual documents. Such grafts lend plausibility to the representation of the real, intensifying the reality effect by “allowing the real to slide into its own textual reconstruction.” Concurrently, this technique destabilizes the textual methods by which the true is established, further unsettling the distinction between the real and the fictional to allow falsifying narration to take hold. It is not always achieved; such works are “often unsuccessful,” as Wu Ming describe it, suggesting that an opening to failure is a condition of the experimental nature of mythopoetical production.
Turning now to the specific content of Wu Ming’s falsifying orientation, it seeks not exactly to take an alternative path through the labyrinth of forking paths, a reasonably common science fiction practice of “ucrony,” but to explore worlds at their evental points of potential, worlds layered, discontinuous, and heated with the force of impending change. As Wu Ming describe it, “we prefer to investigate the ‘possibility’ of a bifurcation in history, the moment when history ‘might have gone’ in a different direction. We are not interested in depicting the bifurcation itself, or its consequences.” This is “the moment that precedes the fork in the road,” a fiction “balanced on the edge of ucrony without ever practicing it.” Wu Ming’s novel Manituana, for instance, is located in the overdetermined field of the American War of Independence and written with allegorical intent in our time of crisis, instability, and neoimperialism in the geopolitics of the United States. Against the state-myth of the birth of U.S. democracy, which hides a reality bathed in the blood of Native American peoples and enslaved Africans, it depicts the Six Iroquois Nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga, Tuscarora, and Seneca) forming an alliance with the English Crown in self-defense against the genocidal territorial ambitions of the rebels. Here, through multiple narrative voices, the novel is tasked with imagining the hybrid indigenous and settler cultures that would soon be crushed by the emergent structures of the newly independent nation. But the mythical effect of the novel does not stop with this upbeat image. If Manituana constructs an antinational culture, a true hybrid against the state-myth of U.S. universal immigration, it is a construction at one and the same time flooded with violence. Violence, as Emanuela Piga well observes, is here a protagonist, one that “overwhelms and possesses both the victors and the vanquished.” The most affectively binding scenes convey the hybridity of peoples and, conversely, the atrocities committed on both sides, a violence that viscerally articulates how bound is the past and the present to the slaughter of the nation-state and its model of the people. As such, myth serves at once to open potentialities and to foreground the feeling of being blocked, so intensifying our relationship to the limits of the present, what Deleuze describes as “putting into a crisis” among those who come up against “an impasse in every direction.” Without forcing our gaze on the latter, on our “impossibilities,” myth would merely serve an escapist or utopian function, a storytelling of “cardboard people and paper revolutionaries.”
Churning up a past that is not past, imagining possible worlds, multiplying perspectives, foregrounding our impasses, Manituana is a historical hallucination, a falsifying narrative that reacts back on the “true” of American exceptionalism, past and present.
Broken Heroes, Shattered States of Emotion
Wu Ming’s feeling for the protagonism of violence—an amorphous, asubjective, structural agent—leads into the second feature of mythopoesis. In holding history in an intense and labyrinthine state of potential, falsifying narration resists attraction to a political agent and transcendent frame of judgment. Manituana displays a clear empathy with the Iroquois, but it produces no privileged standpoint: “we’re not interested in the cliché of the ‘innocent’ Indian who’s in harmony with nature.” In one scene at an aristocratic London party, Philip Lacroix, a Mohawk raised by French missionaries, posits his empirical hybridity as answer to the Enlightenment problem of whether he is Voltaire’s “ingénu, the natural man,” or “a latecomer . . . yet to attain a state of civilisation?” “I like the fairy tales of philosophers,” Lacroix adds, wryly quoting Voltaire, but they “have never set foot in America and have never met an Indian.” If the Iroquois are, then, as existentially complex as the Europeans, they are also as implicated in the brutal and insidious violence, “drunk on blood” as the visionary character Molly Brant warns in the prologue. From this hybrid and compromised position, the Iroquois do come forward as heroes of a sort, but only while simultaneously carrying along their failures, “characters who are at times strong, at times crushed by limited prospects and suffocating binary options, while at other times they are butchers themselves.”
Without a valorized subject, falsifying narration concerns itself instead with the immanent evaluation of the ethical and aesthetic capacities of the lives—variously blocked, hobbled, and resistant—that populate its narrated systems. For Deleuze, “it is a matter . . . of evaluating every being, every action and passion, even every value, in relation to the life which they involve.” This is an evaluation that complements the bifurcating image of history in concerning itself with a disaggregated field of being—affects, images, values as so many raw materials or part-objects of political imagination. Deleuze observes this in the concerns of 1970s U.S. black cinema, after the failure of Black Power:
instead of replacing a negative image of the black with a positive one, [black American cinema] multiplies types and “characters,” and each time creates or re-creates only a small part of the image which no longer corresponds to a linkage of actions, but to shattered states of emotions or drives, expressible in pure images and sounds.
Wu Ming’s literary creations are not this radical in form, maintaining a close relation with action-driven narrative structures. But modes of sociality, collective affects, and ethical evaluation of different capacities of life are central constituent operators in their novels. 54, a novel much concerned with ethical and aesthetic styles of life in mid-1950s Italy, is a case in point. Set in “peacetime,” this is no less a conflictual terrain than that of Manituana, as the opening lines inform: “‘Postwar’ means nothing. / What fools called ‘peace’ simply meant moving away from the front. / Fools defended peace by supporting the armed wing of money.” Against the backdrop of Cold War maneuvering in a land of strategic importance and the dashed hopes of the Resistance, here working-class popular culture—most especially the filuzzi dance and the neighborhood bar—brushes up against new consumer desires, global trade and communication networks, and the charmed life of Cary Grant in a manner that posits style at the foreground of experience. This is style as the direct expression and handling of the complexities and impasses of situated existence, the way a time is affirmed, a belief in the world constituted—where “ethics and aesthetics coincide and become act.”
Cary Grant is the privileged figure. Born Archibald Alexander Leach in Bristol to a poor proletarian family, Grant toured the United States as a circus acrobat, tackling a number of low-paid jobs in New York City before undertaking in California what his biographer Graham McCann calls the “invention of Cary Grant.” In Wu Ming’s assessment, Grant was “a class apart”: the first star to work independently of the Hollywood studios; a transatlantic character with an unmistakable masculinity but graceful and relaxed, very different from Clark Gable or Gary Cooper, with a certain “lightness,” one that assists flight “from the world’s sloth and dullness,” and the sartorial skill by which the dispossessions of class—as well as of racialization and gender—have long been mediated and symbolically challenged. Certainly Grant’s “class apart” is integral to his bankability for Hollywood, to his suturing of the audience to an image that hides and reproduces the exclusions of race, gender, and class, but it is an image that 54 seeks to repurpose. In Wu Ming’s novel, Grant is courted by Alfred Hitchcock to return to acting, in what would become 1954’s To Catch a Thief, and by MI6 to act as covert emissary to Yugoslavia to discuss, of all things, Tito’s ambitions for a biopic. But what interests me here is that alongside these narrative arcs, wherein Grant’s character is loosened from self-identity, he has a particular mythopoetical function. Indeed, he is introduced with a rave evaluation from an omniscient narrator that elevates him to a decidedly unorthodox figure of communist overcoming: “In classless society, anybody could be Cary Grant.” This is the passage at its most exuberant:
Who had never yearned for such perfection, to draw down from Plato’s Hyperuranium the Idea of “Cary Grant,” to donate it to the world so that the world might change, and finally to lose himself in the transformed world, to lose himself never to re-emerge? The discovery of a style and the utopia of a world in which to cultivate it.
Grant functions in the novel, then, as an “Idea” or icon—but an Idea without transcendent judgment, without judgment of any kind. It is an Idea based solely on his immanent affirmation of life, the singular style of which this transatlantic star was famed. To partake of his style, to become Cary Grant, is not to imitate him but to practice no less of an immanent affirmation of one’s conditions of life. The Idea of Grant must hence disaggregate in the very process of its affirmation, because to affirm Cary Grant is to project oneself back into the manifold of one’s social existence: Pierre, the star filuzzi dancer, “crossed the [dance] floor as though it were Piazza Maggiore on a Sunday morning, keeping his hand in his trouser pocket, under his jacket, more Cary Grant than ever.”
The structure of immanent style sketched here is such that the selection of Grant for this role must itself be somewhat arbitrary, contingent on local taste and preference. And this preference in turn must retain a certain immanence and not be aggrandized. Wu Ming 1 thus comments elsewhere that the passage in 54 that introduces Grant’s myth is also in part a parody of efforts by leftists to rationalize and constrain their affective investments according to higher political values, “the temptation . . . to force that passion or preference back under the umbrella of your ideology.” By contrast, he offers a more immanent, local explanation for their choice: “We included Grant . . . because we like him, we find him intriguing, we like his style.” And even here contingency works its ways, for it seems that the choice of Grant was also something of an accident, when Wu Ming 2 mistook the initials of Gary Cooper for those of Cary Grant in his research notes on 1950s Hollywood sex symbols.
Unidentified Narrative Objects
What happens to political agency in this field of incompossible worlds and fragmented modes of being? The agency of desubjectified myth is generated through its peculiar form of enunciative voice, myth’s third characteristic. We can come to an appreciation of this through further consideration of the place of the real in falsifying narration. If myth is an ethico-aesthetic evaluation of situated lives, it should be clear that it cannot be an arbitrary imposition by a writer on a historical or social field. Examples of the cinema of falsifying narration with which Deleuze engages tend to be documentary and ethnographic in genre, and Wu Ming’s mythopoesis emerges only after prolonged periods of historical research. In other words, their characters are meticulously located—indeed, the likeness of Wu Ming’s Cary Grant to the actor is such that a comparative review of 54 with a contemporaneous Grant biography found the fictional portrayal to be the most convincing. It is, then, “real and not fictional characters” that are put “in the condition of ‘making up fiction,’” as Deleuze has it. The effect is to produce a blurring or contamination of the point of view of the author (external to the world presented, hence in cinematic convention “objective”) and that of the characters and world portrayed (internal to the scene, hence “subjective”). Wu Ming call the resultant enunciative form an “unidentified narrative object” or UNO.
The concept refers to the disorienting blend of fiction and nonfiction that I touched on above, but its effects are felt on the enunciative voice, where it bears association with Deleuze’s particular understanding of “free indirect discourse”: narration between subjective and objective viewpoints that sweeps up both in an utterance that is loosened from determination by either. The result, as Wu Ming 1 describes it, is somewhat “hallucinatory” or “uncanny,” an at once seductive and disconcerting feeling of familiarity and strangeness that arises as one loses the ability to locate the enunciative voice and the “reality,” or not, of the world being portrayed. It is an effect he considers most successfully achieved in Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah, the devastating work of reportage, fiction, and political economy on the intimacy between global capital and the cruel and nihilistic world of Neapolitan organized crime. Here, “the ‘narrating I’ frequently hallucinates and ‘hijacks’ the points of view of other people, intentionally playing on the confusion between the author, the narrator and a ‘narrating I’ that doesn’t belong to any of them.” As Gomorrah blends and confuses the apparently objective and the literary, the autobiographical and the journalistic, the novel presents scenarios through the author’s “I” that, on reflection, stretch plausibility to its breaking point. Readers are led to object that they have been duped—he could not have witnessed that—at the very moment that their experience of the world represented is at its most intense, disturbing, and critically salient. Rachel Donadio’s New York Times review is revealing of such effects, in complaining that Saviano’s readers are not informed that he “took liberties with his first-person accounts,” while at the same time commenting that “I could not get this brave book out of my head.”
It is the autonomy of this unidentified roving voice—between the real and the fictional, between the perspective of the writer and a particular historical or social body—and its disorienting, hallucinatory, and alluring affect that provides myth with its agential, catalytic force. An effect of its telling, UNO or myth gains autonomy and folds back on its field of emergence to become a cause. As Deleuze has it, myth is a “monster,” it “has a life of its own: an image that is always stitched together, patched up, continually growing along the way.” Referring back to chapter 4, one might think of Luther Blissett in exactly these terms—not only a collective author but an unidentified myth, a catalyst, an “uncontrollable golem.” Of course, it is the agential, catalytic property of a distributed myth—to gather diverse affects and relations in an intensity that projects into action—that also makes the cult of personality so effective. The intensity of the popular cult of Mao, for example, did indeed assist people in accomplishing extraordinary feats, be it in industry, sport, or popular violence. The difference in Wu Ming’s conception is that here myth provides no fusion of belonging determined by a transcendent subject or truth. Fragments of association, imagination, ideas, moods, are woven together through myth, but—if it avoids becoming technified—these emergent arrangements remain constituted around an absent center, with a processual openness to their outside. If Luther Blissett and a certain reading of Cary Grant are examples, and Malcolm X too, as we will see shortly, it is only insofar as they play a role in the more everyday dynamics of myth to intensify one’s desubjectifying and critical encounter with, or belief in, the world.
To dispel any Arcadian images that may have been conveyed with all this talk of storytelling, it should be underscored that these unidentified and fragmented qualities of myth are facilitated by its relation to artifice and technology. Just as Luther Blissett was immersed in media forms, free indirect discourse is for Deleuze a fully mediated mode of expression, characterized by a taste for “making the camera felt”: obsessive framing, alternation of lenses on the same image, bizarre angles, abnormal movements, excessive zooming. The novel has fewer technological affordances, but it is productive to regard Wu Ming’s literary practice as similarly concerned with foregrounding and testing the capacities of the medium, albeit in a manner that seeks at one and the same time to have a popular quality (“We wanted to give our contribution to popular culture, we wanted to bring conflict and contradictions into it, not condemn it from the outside looking in”). Here we can note the aforementioned incorporation into the novels of nonliterary textual forms such as historical documents, diaries, newspaper articles; the insertion of Wu Ming’s own interviews with historical figures into the mouths of fictional characters in Asce di guerra (Hatchets of war); experimentation with unusual and unexpected points of view—the “oblique gaze,” as Wu Ming have it—where nonhuman entities can take on narrative functions; the cross-media storytelling, Web-based reader interaction, and fan fiction of Manituana, all encouraged by the online publication infrastructure of the novel; and the attention to the way that linguistic structure itself can express political forms, sensibilities, and relations of power.
To illustrate only the last of these features, the one that is most pertinent to this chapter’s discussion of the tangible qualities of mythical language, Manituana is especially attentive to the politics of expression that subtends more formal political structure. In one illuminating scene, Joseph Brant, Iroquois protagonist and sometime translator, contemplates the tensions of political negotiation, reflecting on the disjunction between the visceral, expressive language of the Mohawk and English, the language of clarity, order, and Empire. Interlaced with the particular narrative role of the scene, this is a staging of the distinction between information and myth and the latter’s affective, visceral, and nonlinear qualities:
English was a rougher, more concise language; in the journey from eyes to mouth the words shrank, leaving part of their significance on the page. In the language of the Empire, every cause was followed by a consequence, to every action there was a single corresponding purpose, to every action the most appropriate reaction. On the contrary, the language of the Mohawk was full of details, run through with doubts, refined by constant adjustments. Each word stretched and expanded to capture every possible meaning and ring in the ear in the most consonant manner.
Given the historical conjuncture, it goes without saying that this difference in expressive form was also a relation of domination and struggle, the mechanisms of which include additional media specificities. I mentioned the colonial effects of the codex in chapter 1, to which we can add the role of the page, taking a cue from the preceding passage. If the page was immanent to the reduction of polyvocal meaning to order and linear sequence, as Wu Ming here suggest, its integration in colonial power also had particular medial features, a point well made by L. M. Findlay. The forced encounter of Native American populations with treaties, ledger books, schoolhouse lessons, and so on, was such that the “colonizing and assimilating page was to affect almost every aspect of Indigenous life.” Even the apparent tabula rasa quality of the pristine blank page was an expression of colonial value and dispossession, for its adoption in indigenous image making bore witness to the systematic extermination of buffalo, whose hide had provided the traditional medium of inscription. Findlay has pursued such effects through discussion of the ways that writing and the page feature in “ledger art,” drawings by Native American men on the backs of surplus ledger books, produced while in stockades or reservations in the late nineteenth century. In one, whose visual narrative features the distribution of treaty goods, the rectangular shape of the Stars and Stripes flies over the scene, performing the symbolic work of colonial rule that the page on which it is drawn reiterates:
The page, in the very rectangularity it shares with the flag, functions as a kind of cultural or semiotic stockade, having the very shape that Chief Joe Mathias would later have in mind when, after the collapse of the fourth Canadian Conference on Aboriginal Self-Government, he told his people that they would never “be contained within the four corners of a history book.”
The Styles of Malcolm X
There is little doubt that Wu Ming’s tastes are for the marginalized, the defeated, the minor shades of history—this body of writing unfurls as an “epic of the ex-centris,” a “mythology of the excluded,” to borrow from Angelo Petrella’s characterization of Q. Yet Wu Ming also engage with established and enduring iconic examples of political myth, another instance of unidentified mythopoesis interfering with the broad terrain of popular culture. Wu Ming’s mythopoetical encounter with Malcolm X is especially enticing in this regard, on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of his assassination.
In keeping with the nonlinear, falsifying approach to history, this is Malcolm X as a historical figure and a most contemporary myth, a roving and mediated power: “When an actor—any actor—plays the part of Malcolm X, it’s as if Malcolm possesses him.” This time slip typical of myth is here given contemporary purchase by the persistence of property relations, as carried by Malcolm’s last name—or, rather, by its substitution with an X:
Renouncing the surname of a slave, the stigma of an ancient violation, pulls the present into the discussion, the imposed identity, the role that is assigned to us by the script of the winners. Putting into play a radical discussion, this is to say, one that descends to the roots to reconquer negated memory. Your ancestors were merchandise.
Here the property form of the name that Foucault identified in the author-function takes a different shape in modern capitalism’s alloyed power of primitive accumulation, where the name designates not privatization of discourse but existence as fungible property—the structural terror of chattel slavery and its repercussions in the brutal architecture of racialized dispossession today:
Malcolm—freed from the racist doctrines of Elijah Muhammad—understands even better that the horrors of slavery, of segregation and inner colonialism of the USA don’t depend on the “evilness” of the whites (the “devils with blue eyes”), they’re not gratuitous nor unjustified, and what’s more, they’re necessary for the defence of property relationships. Those who maintain the memory of slavery in the center of their own reflection will arrive more easily at criticizing property.
Malcolm’s “X,” then, recalls across time the violence of property—just as it shatters the property relation of the name, constituting a nonfilial and nonlinear field of struggle: “George Washington exchanged his slave for a barrel of molasses, but your grandfather wasn’t a barrel of molasses. Your grandfather was Nat Turner. Your grandfather was Toussaint L’Ouverture.”
Constructed on this terrain of property and its negation, the myth of Malcolm X lives as an affective pattern—“Malcolm X became imprinted upon my neurons”—and as a style. I noted earlier that for Deleuze, mythical affect comprises “shattered states of emotions,” “pure images and sounds” without linkage to historical action, making reference in particular to 1970s U.S. black cinema. But he has commented also that from time to time, one does find a conjunction of such aesthetic qualities with political struggle, a conjunction manifest in the gestures or styles of historical personas: “a coincidence of poetic acts and historical events or political actions, the glorious incarnation of something sublime or untimely. Such great coincidences are Nasser’s burst of laughter when he nationalized Suez, or Castro’s gestures, and that other burst of laughter, Giap’s television interview.” In the big scheme of things, these are “tiny events,” but as fragmented blocs of style, image, and affect, they have a joyous and untimely quality that works as a mythopoetical catalyst for “new worlds,” for new patterns of political being. To expand on one of Deleuze’s examples, it is reported in Chris Marker’s A Grin without a Cat (a film that is as concerned as Deleuze is with the politics of the missing people) that Castro’s habit of punctuating his oratory with nervous adjustment to his microphone became a central affective operator of his speeches, a part-object joyously anticipated by his audience. As the film’s narrator comments, displaying an acute appreciation of the dynamics of mythopoesis, it displayed Castro’s skill in “turning the accidental into the legendary.” For Wu Ming, Malcolm X too has this untimely aesthetic power, and in a way that underscores its fragmented quality, that which might be lost in Deleuze’s reference to Nasser and Castro, associated as they are with the cult of personality. Malcolm communicates today—in a manner “so direct that it breaks the barriers of time”—as a disaggregated style, a layered and discontinuous arrangement of bodily and sonorous parts: “husky sounds [that] grab you by the shoulders,” “parables and stories,” “rhetorical questions,” “body language,” “‘call and response’ passages,” “close-cropped hair,” “the rims of his glasses,” and the “dazzle” of his smile.
Granted, there are serious risks with this kind of focus on style, as is apparent from the experience of another black radical icon of the period, Angela Davis. In an essay reflecting on the multiple and contradictory semiotic and political functions of her 1970s Afro or “natural” hairstyle, which carried considerable mythopoetical force, Davis shows how this complex aggregation of style and body politics was reduced over time to a decontextualized fashion item, a unit of “revolutionary glamor.” Her principal example is a 1994 “docufashion” re-creation in Vibe magazine of her 1970s image, titled “Free Angela: Actress Cynda Williams as Angela Davis, a Fashion Revolutionary.” An eight-page spread, one image is a re-creation of her FBI Wanted poster, of which Davis comments: “The way in which this document provided a historical pretext for something akin to a reign of terror for countless young Black women is effectively erased by its use as a prop for selling clothes and promoting seventies fashion nostalgia.” Davis especially attends here to the destructive power of photography, a power to arrest agency and atrophy memory, even in the midst of social struggle. Though the stakes of Wu Ming’s intervention are significantly less, it is a concern that they share. Wu Ming make no attempt to hide their given names, but they refuse to appear on television or allow their photographs to be taken, providing instead (until spring 2008) a publicity image of a 1950s dance troupe devoid of faces and captioned “this revolution is faceless” (Plate 13). They explain,
No photos, no filming. Once the writer becomes a face that’s separate and alienated . . . , it’s a cannibalistic jumble: that face appears everywhere, almost always out of context. A photo is witness to my absence; it’s a banner of distance and solitude. A photo paralyzes me, it freezes my life into an instant, it negates my ability to transform into something else. I become a “character,” a stopgap used to quickly fill a page layout, an instrument that amplifies banality.
This assessment of the closure attendant on facial representation does not, however, extend to the public display of other component parts and expressions of the human body, parts that can enfold and project experiential and associational vitality:
On the other hand my voice—with its grain, with its accents, with its imprecise diction, its tonalities, rhythms, pauses and vacillations—is witness to a presence even when I’m not there; it brings me close to people and doesn’t negate my transformative capacity, because its presence is dynamic, alive and trembling even when seemingly still.
The fate of bodily images, parts, and styles is not only, then, to integrate and paralyze political composition. Malcolm X does of course circulate in culture as a unified photographic image. But Wu Ming’s engagement suggests that in a disaggregated state, his style can maintain a propulsive and critical vitality, “alive and trembling” at the borders of the facialized subject. Malcolm is a fragmented set of affects, refrains, sounds, and rhetorics constituted in the open and nonfilial community of the critique of property, a mythical field evoked with an X.
With this single letter Anti-Book draws to a close. It may seem perverse to end a book on the many materialities of political writing and publishing with a solitary letter. But this is a visceral unit of mythical writing, a textual mode where “each word carries with it a world.” Text has of course been the focus of much attention in this book, but if there is a central argument to Anti-Book, it is that the particular political qualities of texts are only grasped when approached in relation to the media forms that carry them, codetermine their meaning, collide with them, or leave them aside in the pursuit of effects of an extratextual nature. As to myth, the fragmented, partial “world” that it carries, its materiality, this operates against the reactionary powers of technified myth, from the cult of personality to the wooden language than can consume activist culture, with its linguistic clichés and integrated subjectivities. Through certain textual procedures, it posits instead a peculiar kind of unidentified and roving myth that is generated through the investigation and circulation of affects, styles, values, across the divide between fiction and the real. In this, one finds the imaginative, exploratory, and catalytic force of myth to call forth new associations, new worlds, worlds born on the condition that the people are missing, that inhere in a fragmentary, experimental state. Not that this practice is devoid of purchase on the concrete conditions of life, on the dynamic systems within which we are bound; what is perhaps most ingenious in Wu Ming is their interlacing of a politics of mythical invention with the critique of the intolerable of capital, as is especially apparent in the engagement with Malcolm X.
In contrast to the concentrative and authoritarian function of the cult of personality—premised, at least in Mao’s case, on the singular “truth” of the integrating leader—here myth is a collective endeavor without a determined subject, not a “people” but a processual “monster,” stitched together and patched up through its situated, variable, and incompossible iterations. Wu Ming’s not infrequent encounters with orthodox left icons should be approached with this understanding—it is as if these highly integrated images of concentrated state-myth call out to be rerouted and potentialized through the disaggregating powers of the unidentified narrative object. Something of this is apparent in Wu Ming’s later self-portrait (Figure 14). Gamal Abdel Nasser provides a key component of the image, but it is a strange montage, where Nasser’s face is multiplied fourfold and placed on the heads of a filuzzi dance band. As fragments of pan-Arabist icon, Mediterranean basin, Italian working-class musical culture, and a certain 1950s proletarian style swirl together, the effect is “uncanny” indeed—quite the reverse of an integrated and subjectifying image, yet all the more generative for it. But I will conclude with a similarly irreverent image, one that takes us back to the personality who opened this chapter. If Mao himself is not directly subject to such treatment, the iconography of Chinese Maoism is. Identifying the link to the free digital downloads of their books, Wu Ming’s English language website carries a familiar socialist realist image of a triumphant worker holding aloft a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book. But an addition to the image makes it a rather less common communist montage: floating in the sky above is the disarming face of Cary Grant, doubling the cult of personality and its transcendent regimes of book-bound truth with an icon of a rather different order.