Della Vendetta – On Vengeance

Della Vendetta – On Vengeance
2019 mauro

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On Vengeance

The feeds for thought suggested by me, in connection with the exhibition at the Macro Museum (1), are the latest results of a project, launched several years ago, based on several issues raised by Alexander Kojéve in his interpretation of Hegel, regarding the return of man to the animal condition at the end of a social conflict. These feeds for thought are available in the form of a seminar called Avere. Opera (To Have. To Work); of a video, Della Vendetta (On Vengeance); and of an audio fable, Il coniglio e l’avvocato (The Rabbit and the Lawyer); of a play by Sylvain Maréchal, Il Giudizio Universale dei Re (The Last Judgment of the Kings), of 1793, translated into Italian; of an installation with a text by Edoardo Sanguineti, Noi siamo nati per vendicare le sofferenze dei padri (We were Born to vindicate the Sufferings of our Forbears); and of a video, Esodo (Exodus/Way Out), which predates the current field of interest.

Kojève highlights, in Hegel’s phenomenology, the conflict that exists between servant and master and, like Marx, makes it the paradigm of the human condition, the anthropogenic machine that has transformed Homo sapiens into what he is. The fuel that powers this machine is the desire for the recognition of the self in the Other, while the differential that determines the outcome of this confrontation is death: the master has defied death to be recognised as such, preferring abstract concepts such as honour to life, thus showing a superiority over nature that distinguishes him as properly human; the servant has failed to do so, preferring to succumb in order to save his life. Although this situation is then turned on its head, because history belongs to the servant, death retains its central position, as we are reminded by Kojève’s Japanese snob, albeit in the form of a gratuitous and purely aesthetic suicide, and as we may see, in a different form, in the eternal present of the American model, where, presumably – given that the eternal present is a solely animal condition – the death of man has been replaced by the decease that is proper of him. Dialectic is desire, class conflict and death, while synthesis is the full and reciprocal recognition of a “universal and uniform state”, but while, on the one hand, Hegel’s dialectic is inclusive – synthesis is a different matter from dialectic terms, even though it includes them – in Marx the circle can be closed solely through: 1) the final annihilation of the bourgeoisie and the triumph of the proletariat; 2) the self-annihilation of the proletarian class concomitantly with the annihilation of the state. Now, if the war between classes defies any historical compromise, because the purpose of the struggle is the final annihilation of the classes, the logical consequence of class hatred is necessarily the desire for vengeance.

There can be no doubt that, today, hatred and the desire for vengeance are harboured by the ruling class, this is blindingly clear at all the Earth’s latitudes, but here we will deal with the revolutionary vengeance that looks to vindicate history, which means having become conscious that history belongs to the last enslaved class, which has made the world and, at the same time (still only potentially, alas) pulled humankind out of the system of need, through its work and its cooperative intelligence.

The vengeance of the proletarians aims to attain enjoyment. The revolutionary vengeance is the vengeance of the last, of the oppressed, of the hungry peasants and the exploited factory workers, of the Black people of Africa and of the non-European indigenous peoples, of the free men and women; vengeance of this kind is the expression of a class hatred built up over centuries of wrongs and injustice and which erupts, from time to time, like a volcano, with revolutionary decision and explosive force, like in the play The Last Judgment of Kings, one of the works on show. Vengeance has a strong relationship to the Communist revolutionary tradition, a trace of which relationship can be found in Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History: “The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. Historical materialists are aware of that.”(2)

The claim that cannot be settled cheaply, in Benjamin’s words, is vengeance. Further on he says so clearly: “Not man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge. In Marx it appears as the last enslaved class, as the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden.”(3) Benjamin, in this thesis, refers to social democracy, which thought fit to assign to the working class the role of “redeemer of future generations” and this has been possible by removing both class hatred and the spirit of sacrifice from the reformist vocabulary,for both [class hatred and spirit of sacrifice] are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.”(4)

This passage is also inspired Eduardo Sanguineti in a short essay called Come si diventa materialisti storici?(How to Become a Historical Materialist): “The proletariat committed a terrible mistake when it set about thinking of the happiness of its future children, when the problem, instead, is vengeance”(5). He then elaborates on the idiotic idea, by the proletariat, of thinking of its children’s happiness while it should be “focusing, instead, on suffering, not just the suffering of its fathers, to be vindicated with hatred, but that of its children as well, which they are starting to feel on their own flesh.”(6)

A little bit further on, Sanguineti quotes Minima moralia in which Theodor Adorno recommends impoliteness against others, learning to say no, to highlight the current “inhuman” relations. Sanguineti follows Adorno in moderation too, when he maintains that there is room for the solidarity of the bourgeoisie in the proletariat’s struggle for freedom; he knows very well what he is saying, he himself belongs to the enemy class, although he points out: “however, I believe that equally strong [as class hatred] is human solidarity with the proletarians and, exclusively, with those who aid us in a subversive project, and this subversive project retains the name of revolution.”(7)

We have therefore reached the point, the aim of On Vengeance is to cast one little word into the debate on the spell of time, and how to withstand the violence of capital, namely, vengeance. Without diminishing Franciscan love or Christian mercy translated into solidarity, which, in recent years, have seemed to gain weight in the highest discourse on Communism, I believe it to be interesting, if not expedient, to once again pick up the old fundamentals of the work/capital conflict, which have never been as relevant as they are today. This little word, with which we maintain an original relationship of attraction and rejection, of love and hate, and which, moreover, we should not forget, is at the origin of every legal system and, therefore, of the State, can serve as a counterpoint to the presumed naturalism of capitalism, and help drag the third pole into the light, in opposition to Kojève’s cultured alternative, in the eternal presence of the American way of life or the Japanese snob. Revolutionary vengeance is outside the American and Japanese bipolar order, not because the spell of time that persists in the present is unreal, we can see it clearly everywhere, but based on precisely the same evidence class vengeance opens our eyes to another – and equally blinding – reality as the sleep of the present that does not pass: that the numbers do not add up and the deficit continues to increase dramatically, hour by hour. Vengeance announces: a new spectre is haunting the world.

The faint of heart should remember that the set of rules has been built up around sentiments such as fear, shame, resentment, hate, and the vengeance related to them and to the ways of managing them. Whether it is the social conditions that disinhibit this desire or this desiring human machine that selfishly pursues its interest to give rise to and fuel the sentiment of vengeance, whether it is already present in the state of nature or appears only in societies, this is the subject matter from which the modern-day contractualists draw their political ideologies and geometries, simply to speak of the central role of a highly contagious passion such as vengeance.

Whether the vengeance is class motivated or personal, the triggering point is consistently an offended life that desires justice. The stringent relationship between vengeance and justice and between vengeance and freedom is testified by the etymology which significantly annotates between the various passages: “The Latin verb that indicated the action of the vindex was  vindicare, while the action itself was called vindicta. These two words were frequently used in association with in libertatem: vindicare in libertatem, vindicta in libertatem, which could be translated as “to vindicate in freedom”, “vindication in freedom.”(8)

There is a vast number of references that condemn vengeance, without appeal, opposing the polite practice of forgiveness, as if this could not also be a form of cruel vengeance. Spinoza, for example, calls it a “sad passion”, while Nietzsche brands it as the resentment that condemns to immobility those who are affected by it. But there is a broad literature that interprets the phenomenology of vengeance in a different way, sometimes with praise, as we know from many myths, religions, Greek tragedies and revolutions.

Electra: As judge or as avenger, do you mean?

Chorus: Say in plain speech, “One who will take life for life. (9) [the mother Clytaemnestra]

In ancient Greece, like in the Sardinian region of Barbagia. A very precious contribution, in both legal and anthropological and philosophical terms, is the study carried out by Antonio Pigliaru, in the mid-20th century, on the ancient “code of vengeance” that held sway in this remote area of Sardinia for centuries, which inspired both personal behaviour and the settlement of disputes. Although unwritten, it enshrined the traditions and customs that had developed over centuries, and which extended their hold well into the late 20th century, upholding vengeance as a legal instrument opposed to the written statutes of the state. Based on a survey among the local peasants, shepherds and outlaws, Pigliaru grasped the essence of a code of conduct as ancient as it was forcefully binding, based on the principle of vengeance. This oral ethical code was written down by Pigliaru himself, in the form of 23 articles, using standard legal language, with article 1 proclaiming: Any offence caused shall be vindicated. Whosoever refuses the duty of vengeance is not a man of honour […]; and article 3: The person who is wronged is entitled to the duty of vengeance. (10)

To seek vindication, therefore, is a moral obligation, in order to uphold the honour of a wronged person, as the key principle – indeed, the cornerstone – of the entire set of values of a community. The interesting thing here, which should rightly be emphasised, is that this code of honour, which developed over the centuries in the region of Barbagia in Sardinia, stands out as a parallel system to the established authority of the state, indeed, in opposition to the authority of the state, as the expression of an autonomous political subject: “this community is simply a community of life, a historical community, in the sense that its way of life (its customs, its culture, or, if you prefer, its non-culture) are its historical process, its life: a structure and, to a certain extent, a system” (11)

Vengeance, therefore, responds to the need for justice when a life is wronged. But what exactly does a “wronged life” mean? It is an alienated life, expropriated of its own faculties, which have not been able to be freely implemented or expressed. Today, it means a life – flesh and soul combined – sold for a mere subsistence salary, for the pittance that enables the naturally succumbing persons to reproduce themselves. Therefore, proletarian vengeance, in order to be up to this class struggle, should raise its aims and overturn the relations of sovereignty, for itself and for all the other “damned of the earth”. Proletarians must become fully conscious of their “regal” authority: history, i.e. the world, belongs to the servant, not the parasite master. Therefore, the servants must adopt a strong form of regal authority, so strong, in fact, and forceful, as to push back – without delay – following the example of Diogenes of Sinope, the regal and royal nature, the “regal” authority, so to speak, of kings, such as Alexander: Diogenes does not claim for himself a full life, a life of truth, because his life is already a sovereign life and a life of enjoyment, fully deployed and insensitive towards any form of control. This form of sovereignty of the subject vis-à-vis the constituted power may, inter alia, assume paradoxical and radical forms, as I have narrated in my video Exodus (Way Out. Empty of signs against the Leviathan).

Exodus/Way Out is the history of two lovers, a man and a woman, who decide to commit suicide using car exhaust fumes, but who, before dying, engage in intercourse. This tragic love story is like many others one sees in films, with the difference, however, that the two protagonists are both elderly, she is 85 and he is 80.

If “exodus”, with the meaning proposed by the video, is a world that refers to a “subjectivity on the move”, as well as a positive form of “reactivity”, which marks a break – a rupture – of the “state of things” as they are, which call to mind and summons up a free deployment of one’s power of acting – as in the power of action – then what on earth has the story of a couple of elderly suicides has to do with it, one could ask? What relationship is there with death? Simply and plainly: almost none. The “almost” is the problem here and should be explained, keeping in mind what has been said with regard to death, as a “differential” between a sovereign life and a state of enslavement, of servitude.

Exodus/Way Out is the primary force, it is consubstantial with human nature, it marks – from top to bottom, beginning to end – the developing formation of the subject. Therefore, a “way out” is more than just an aspiration, it is an absolutely necessary practice, with fatal consequences, at times, which reminds us of the massacre of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean, than freedom from the chains of enslavement and of militant practice to escape cultural, disciplinary and sanitary conventions.

Exodus/Way Out is the time “before the revolt”. It is on the path of a “way out” that one can meet the revolutionaries and those who are larger than life, who have made and, indeed, are still making the greatness of literature, philosophy and art. Exodus, the Way Out, for Camus, is the very name of revolt. It means to refuse or to flee, to get or break away, from something. In late 18th century England, the army formed press gangs to round up men in the dingy drinking holes and taverns and forcedly recruit them for the nascent factories of the Industrial revolution, so entrenched, at the time, was the refusal by many to freely accept to work under a master. Hence, the employment relationship between employer and salaried workers, enshrined in a contract between free parties, has developed historically as a normative technique through which the capital has attempted to contain the workers refusal to work and desire to flee.

If the challenge that is posed today by bio-capitalism is to control the set of faculties that distinguish human beings, beginning with general language skills and the cooperative capacity of different subjectivities, if the challenge is with this “semio-capitalism”, which has discovered, in bare life, the sign, indeed the form of permanent production, then the questionable, yet radical, hypothesis put forward in the video Exodus/Way Out, among the thousand layers of immanent reality, becomes a part of the possible, an extremely risky affair, not least because it recognises – to a worrying extent – the passage from, or even coexistence between, a thanato-politics at the service of a thanato-economy.

The grim and, indeed, paradoxical point that one can grasp in the video is therefore this: if, by “way out”, we mean a practice of emancipation from an object of production to an individual in free subjectification, and if the “way out” – and then the revolt – occurs there where power is devoid of signs, i.e. of sense, then in the story of the elderly suicidal lovers the mortal exit that deprives the body of every sign that can be useful for production purposes is the extreme step of subtracting oneself from capture: devoid of signs against the Leviathan. Moreover, the bodies of the elderly lovers reveal neither the unfolding of a drama, nor suffering. On the contrary, their faces express tranquillity, or even, at a closer look, the sardonic smile of one who has come up against a tyrant and won … taking with them their endless love.

There is an infinity of ways that proletarian vengeance can be expressed, the one suggested in the video On Vengeance, for example, is through irony and comedy, which traditionally play a strong role in opposing the constituted powers that be through ridicule and sarcasm. The video tells the story of a working-class family in a provincial 1960s setting; the family in question is my own, and the visual materials on show are of my family: a photograph of my sister at a scholarship award ceremony, an 8 mm film of myself as a child receiving a gift of a Superman, from the factory where my father worked, and a dancing scene from a Laurel and Hardy comedy.

In fact, many factories, at the time, had adopted common inclusive welfare and recreational policies for their employees’ families, such as scholarships to deserving children, toys and summer holiday camps for children, first communion and confirmation celebrations, year’s end parties and sports activities, all aimed at stemming industrial conflict at work. Engineering and biopolitics, then as now.

The words of Walter Benjamin and Edoardo Sanguineti constitute the entire soundtrack, to mark the idea of revolutionary vengeance as an interpretational key of the visual materials. Vengeance, in order to be viewed as revolutionary, needs to be based on a class conscience, and this requires a clear understanding of the irremediably conflictual relationship between rules and their enforcement, between command and execution, which, for example, can be evinced from the funny and intelligent tale Il coniglio e l’avvocato (The Rabbit and the Lawyer). (12)

What I find interesting in this fable by Claudio Giangiacomo, which I have decided to show here at the exhibition On Vengeance, as one of the elements of my artistic oeuvre – by transforming it into an audio story – is the unusual form of mentioning the irremediably conflictual relationship between rules and their enforcement, between command and execution. The metalinguistic content, among the many possible contents of the fable, of course, which I grasped and wanted to underline, is precisely the gap existing between rules and their enforcement, which is the key theme of our reflection on the end of historical time. Law, in fact, is the bone of contention between the lawyer and the rabbit, revealing one of its more paradoxical aspects: Law is one of those institutions subject to infinite regression, which stems from the attempt to ground the enforcement of a rule on a further rule. It is sufficient to ask oneself about the foundation of a certain law to realise that, at the end of an infinite series of foundations there is …. absolutely nothing. This regression, which, like all form of regression to which we are fatally attracted, by our very nature, must necessarily be broken, cut off, if we don’t want to end up like Bartleby. Such an interruption, in fact, has a saving grace, most times, and sometimes can even be regenerative, while at other times it is disastrous, as in the case of the poor rabbit inquiring about the foundation of Universal Law to the lawyer, at one and the same time a custodian and a (more or less conscious) victim.

Proletarian vengeance may take on different forms, depending on the historical conditions and the balance of power between the conflicting classes, at times it can be fought with the weapons of irony, at others with bloody revolts and revolutions, at yet other times with both these instruments, as in the case shown in the video On Vengeance, and as testified by the last work on show The Last Judgment of the Kings, a play written in 1796 by the revolutionary Pierre Sylvain Maréchal, translated with Francesca Gallo (13), and published for the first time in Italy. My meeting with this play and its author was purely random and coincidental: while researching certain stories of peasant and proletarian revolts in the 14th century, in this travel through time I inadvertently found myself passing from the French Jacquerie revolt to the sans-culottes of five centuries later and here I made the acquaintance of Monsier Maréchal, an author and poet who played a certain role in the French revolution. An interesting character, a revolutionary socialist, a fervent anticlerical, a forerunner of communism, who penned a Manifesto of the Equals (1796) with Francois-Noel Babeuf, known as “Gracchus Babeuf”, with whom he also took an active part in the disastrous Conspiracy of the Equals. Maréchal, who, curiously, manifested a certain misogynistic nature in his old age, fought for real – and not virtual – equality, such as the one enshrined in the constitutional documents, which he severely criticised, for the abolition of private property and the communal use of all goods.

This enjoyable one act play, with an eloquent title, the full text of which I have included here, was first staged on 18 October 1793, several days after the beheading of Marie Antoinette. Following is the direct account by a “black” actor – so called because marginalised, one of many, by the hegemony of the theatre of the revolution -, disgusted, but at the same time “strangely” fascinated by the hordes of impoverished proletarian paupers, caked with earth and blood, who noisily thronged the theatres that, before then, had been the reserve and preserve of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie: “every evening we were subjected to absolute torture […]. The bashers would make an infernal din on the floor of the theatre, singing (or, should I say, grunting) their patriotic songs in the faces of the less troublesome spectators […]. Dressed in filthy rags, soiled with earth and, at times, even blood, they offered a horrifying spectacle, yet, to my eyes, they nevertheless seemed not to lack a certain wild greatness […]. They appeared like a barbarian horde that had suddenly overrun France. They came and went in gangs, often accompanied by the women of their ilk, who, if at all possible, were even more dreadful than themselves. Those of a certain age called themselves Embroiderers, while the young ones were the “furies of the guillotine”. When I saw the bashers erupt into their barbarous dancing […], it seemed almost as if the very accursed legions of Satan himself had suddenly been summoned up before me, in flesh and bones […]. This, after the catastrophe of the 10 August, was the public that thronged the theatres.” (14)

I dedicate this work to all the “great unwashed” of this world.

Rome, April 2019

(1)     Della Vendetta, esposizione e seminario (On Vengeance. Exhibition and Seminar) Avere. Opera. MACRO Museum of Contemporary Art, Rome, 1-31 May 2019

(2)    Walter Benjamin, Angelus novus, Einaudi, Torino 1995, p. 76

(3)    Idem,  tesi n. 12, p. 82

(4)    Idem

(5)    Edoardo Sanguineti, Come si diventa materialisti storici? Manni, San Cesareo di Lecce 2006, p. 27

(6)    Idem

(7)    Idem, p. 28

(8)    Giuliano Ranucci, a Latinist, (etymological interpretation of)

(9)    Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers, in: Edoardo Sanguineti, Teatro antico. Traduzioni, BUR, Milano 2006, p.156

(10)  Antonio Pigliaru, Il codice della vendetta barbaricina, Il Maestrale, Nuoro 2006, pp. 47-50

(11) Antonio Pigliaru, La vendetta barbaricina. In: Amedeo G. Conte, Paolo di Lucia, Luigi Ferrajoli e Mario Jori, Filosofia del diritto, Raffaello Cortina, Milano 2002, p. 196

(12)  The fable, written by Claudio Giangiacomo, a lawyer, was inspired by a mock challenge among a group of friends while out for a pizza one evening, as to who could write the best story on the theme of The Rabbit and the Lawyer. Now, an important thing to make clear here is that the rabbit is not actually an animal but the ironical nickname of one of the friends in the group. The text has been adapted to edit an audio story with the collaboration of Rita Mandolini, who also acts as the speaker, and the composer Luca Mti, who has created the soundtrack.

(13)  The translation from French to Italian is by Francesca Gallo, a historian at Sapienza University in Rome, and speaker at the seminar Avere. Opera

(14)  Roberto Tessari, Teatro e spettacolo nel settecento, Laterza, Roma 2003, p. 199

“The proletariat committed a terrible mistake when it set about thinking of the happiness of its future children, when the problem, instead, is vengeance”

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