What is the word

What is the word
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What is the Word


“…over there -away over there – afar – afar away over there – afaint – afaint afar away over there what – what – what is the word – seeing all this – all this this – all this this here – folly for to se e what – glimpse – seem to glimpse – need to seem to glimpse – afaint afar away over there what – folly for to need to seem to glimpse afaint afar away over there what – what – what is the word ————————what is the word”(Beckett)


The action: 23 men cry discreetly each in their own corner. There is not a space, there are no postures, let alone words, everyone is free to walk among the people or to stop where and in whatever way they like, there is no visible drama as it will be invisible to most people.

The background: the story of a young woman who as a child lived in a house opposite the sausage factory Fiorucci and still remembers with distress the screams of the pigs sent to their death in the slaughterhouse of the factory.

Median situations are amphibian, they occupy an undefined space blurred by unequal forces and mark an area where there is no discernment between minus and plus, between day that is no longer day and not yet night, between passion and reaction. Between the recollections or the insistence of the primitive, sexed, cannibal predator and the consciousness of a self-determined self, of an individual rationally engaged in self-preservation. Perhaps.

In this story there are pigs that squeal in fear , anticipating what is going to happen to them, and a voiceless young woman who is anguished by such human-like screams. There are evident connections between the pigs and the young woman, the clearest of which is surely the lack of the word. The first reference to this is in myth. The pigs are found in the myth of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and fertility, and her daughter Persephone. Persephone who was still a child when she was deceived and seduced by the lovely scent of the flowers of a tree placed there by Hades, the god of the underworld. Hades kidnapped her and took her with him to the underworld to make her his queen. The earth suddenly opened and Hades came out of the deep with his chariot, and when he had taken Persephone, the earth closed and swallowed a herd of pigs that happened to be grazing there. Demeter desperately looked for her daughter for nine days but could not find any trace of the child. It is said that her footprints had been deleted by the pigs’ footprints, although some, including the anthropologist Frazer, claim that the footprints of Demeter, her daughter Persephone and the pigs were the same. We have to believe the anthropologist and grasp the second significant connection between the girl and Fiorucci’s pigs: the first, as we have seen, is the undifferentiated voice of anxiety and fear, the second are the indistinguishable (digital) footprints of the women and the pigs.

In taking into account Adorno’s (and Horkheimer’s) interpretation of the Odyssey we should add that we are in a median stage of the process of individuation of the human animal, as the rite practised in honour of Demeter and Persephone – which concerned death and resurrection, fertility and the cycle of life on earth – no longer required human sacrifice but that of pigs, which were thrown to their deaths into a pit full of snakes. However, we can still detect, beyond the beginning of the historical process of emancipation of man from undifferentiated nature, another convergence, i.e. the equivalence of human sacrifice with the sacrifice of pigs that can replace it. In ancient times, neither chickens nor toads where sacrificed but pigs, whose squealing is so similar to a human cry. Once again,  flatus vocis acts as a binder.

This little story is important as it somehow informs us of what happened to Ulysses’ twenty-three companions, whom Circe the sorceress transformed into pigs and then turned back into men. Adorno viewed the Odyssey as the Bildungsroman of the self-conscious individual distanced from nature, of whom Odysseus is the model that stands on the threshold between being nothing and being an individual, the prototype of rational, civilized man, the germ of the Enlightenment. It is the climax of a rift between no-longer and not-yet, between the attractive potential of abandonment to a nature without memory and determining an outside where to take refuge: property, the law, the family, the state. It is a violent and painful exception,  it is the alienation from what is natural that brings with it pain for the loss of one’s utmost possession, suffering for a lack and embracing the negative.

The adventures of Ulysses and his men are marked by such ambivalence, between the absolute potential of  aphasia and the ordering power of language; between the apophantic logos that can show entity as it is (Heidegger) and a nonapophantic moment in the logos, that is, “a moment that isn’t declarative, enunciative” as that of prayer  (Derrida cites Aristotle) which “doesn’t say anything”;  between a discourse that says “I am” and a non-apophantic discourse that is an utterly non-referential voice, an absolute performative that only reveals the presence of the speaker and nothing else: “Here I am”. (Virno)

That the Odyssey represents this transition can be surmised from the formulaic nature of the Homeric text, which betrays the close proximity of the oral tradition: sentences are repeated and part of the repetitions include weeping. Our heroes weep continuously, namely because of memory. But what memory? The memory of the native land as a safe haven protected by laws, or the memory of an unspeakable pre-human condition, i.e. the animal condition? It is not clear.

In Book X verses 235/240, when Circe offers to drink wine mixed in with magic potions, is written:

 “…baneful drugs, that they might utterly forget their native land. Now when she had given them the potion, and they had drunk it off, then she presently smote them with her wand, and penned them in the sties. And they had the heads, and voice, and bristles, and shape of swine, but their minds remained unchanged even as before.”                                                                                                                                                                  

What happens to the wretched men is somewhat unclear. The text says that the memory of the native land (though it does not seem a determining factor) will fade, but also that the mind will remain unaltered despite the transformation. How can an unaltered mind not remember? How can the men lose speech and assume the voice of pigs if language is memory, if it is not a simple attribute but the defining feature of the linguistic animal? Somebody said that the world is what we can grasp by means of language and that there is nothing beyond this (Wittengstein in primis). Surely this is not entirely true, since the memory without a voice described in the verses quoted above coincides with a primordial, animal memory. The poem further recites:

“and they became men again, younger than they were before, and far comelier and taller to look upon. They knew me, and clung to my hands, each man of them, and upon them all came a passionate sobbing, and the house about them rang wondrously;”                                                                  

The fact that in reversing to humanity the men are stronger and more handsome lead us to believe that it was not a mere disguise, but something much deeper than mere imitation. There was indeed a transmutation which is visible in the firmer flesh. And then, at least in the early moments of their reversal to humanity, in which objectively there was no time to reset logical thinking, in the immediate pathos of the return to consciousness, there is no way to tell whether the men are crying nostalgic tears thinking of their homeland or whether they might in fact be crying out of a sudden nostalgia for a condition that they lost once again. The Odyssey of Adorno and Horkheimer’s enlightenment dialectic rests on this friction between the no-longer and not-yet, between the attraction of abandonment, the return to the origins, and the opposite pull towards overcoming.

The Odyssey is the story of this clash, similarly to the lotus eaters, men who eat lotus flowers and lose their memories and desires, and the island of the Cyclops, where everyone lives an individual existence in the absence of laws and agricultural labour. A story that is as ancient as time itself and that we carry within ourselves with equally disruptive evidences that are experienced in regressive states of mind such as anxiety, fear, boredom, but also in the wander at the world’s sheer existence (Wittgenstein).                 But there is more. I should mention two more things in order to give this action a broader meaning: the first is that those pigs thrown in the death chamber of the Fiorucci factory are the same that the followers of Demeter and Persephone threw to their death; scapegoats which, by the way, are biologically compatible with our nature, embodied metaphors of an original sin connected to the practice of cannibalism. We are cannibals in war, in prison, when engaged in unlawful hunting, in slave labour, in the relations of subordination, and we are cannibals with (non-human) animals.

In his complex text The animal that therefore I am, Derrida proposes a name, Animot, which he coins in opposition to the absurd notion that animals are general and not singular entities. This  mystification allows us to perpetrate a massacre without suffering any pain. Generalising means preparing for war: who are the Chinese, the Africans, the Italians, the Americans if not a generic community destined for death? Animot is a name that tries to account for the multiplicity of singularities that cannot be reduced to general animality, because a worm and a chimpanzee are not the same; Animot is a name that lays you bare in front of the other, the animal, and in so doing seeks to deconstruct the whole narrative of the Enlightenment which defined the concept of humanity as opposed to animality. It is a necessary step if we are to restore dignity and a face to these life companions with which we share the earth. The pig is a memory of the past, of the slaughterhouse that Fiorucci was. It is the memory of a little girl who listened to the screams of death. The pig is also the memory of “pure past”, of an image we can’t see, of a non-existent word. What is the thing therefore? What is the word?

Dino Campana wrote to his lover Sibilla “this memory that does not remind one of anything is so strong in me”. A past, that is, that precedes historical and evolutionary time, the existence of which can only be expressed in states of mind such as boredom.

There is a memory in Metropoliz that tells stories of brutal exploitation of employees and animals, and finally (but we could say to begin with) there is a more political, dramatic topical issue that concerns the exploitation of invariants, the general attitudes which define the human animal, such as language, memory, empathy, friendship, and passions. These are suffering a brutal process of historicization in order to conform to the automatisms of the accumulation of capital. We are experiencing an unprecedented attack on the autonomy of the general intellect, on those general attitudes which in this case indicate the uncertainty of the power to act and the right to say things as they aren’t.


M. F.

May 2014

The action: 23 men cry discreetly each in their own corner. There is not a space, there are no postures, let alone words, everyone is free to walk among the people or to stop where and in whatever way they like, there is no visible drama as it will be invisible to most people. (…)

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