The so-called Italian Theory and the revolt of living knowledge



In a strange nemesis, likely not completely fortuitous, at the very moment of the crisis of the Anglo-American academia we witness the rising ‘hegemony’ of the Italian political philosophy over its departments. From London to California, the names of Antonio Negri and Paolo Virno, Christian Marazzi and Sandro Mezzadra, Maurizio Lazzarato and Franco Berardi Bifo, together with many others, are found as first references of many academic publications (indexed by the merciless algorithm of Google Scholar) and even in the catalogues of biennials (adopted by more mundane art critics). The state repression of the Italian anomaly in the ‘70s seems to be vindicated today by a fertile intellectual diaspora.

Under the new umbrella term Italian Theory a remarkable number of conferences, seminar and publications are organised around those thinkers that have credited Italian operaismo oversea or initiated a new reading of biopolitics (especially with Giorgio Agamben and Roberto Esposito) in those faculties anaesthetised by the secular revolution of the Cultural Studies, the postmodern philosophy or the analytical tradition. Only in 2010 see the conference at the Pittsburgh University for the 10th anniversary of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire or the symposium at Cornell university in New York dedicated to the notion of ‘the common’. In May 2011 in Amsterdam the conference Post-Autonomia will attempt to record the dissemination of operaismo among new generations of scholars.

However it is a double-faced nemesis, if the critique of cognitive capitalism and the history of co-research, the notion of multitude and the figure of precariat itself, are recuperated by an academic system to turn coat without questioning hierarchies and disciplines, whereas the authors of these concepts have always been emarginated by the Italian academia. To make a parody of a common lament, we may say that the Italian brain drain started with the ‘April 7’ trial of 1979 that outlawed Autonomia, jailed all its journalists and intellectuals, and crushed that society of knowledge that in other countries would have encountered another destiny.


Genealogy of the Autonomist materialism

The name Italian Theory has been coined by the English-speaking academia as it happened for the previous definition of French Theory, by which post-Structuralism has been widely absorbed and neutralised (robust authors of ‘ontology’ like Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari followed sometimes the same destiny of evanescent meteors like Baudrillard). Still the collection Radical Thought in Italy edited by Hardt and Virno in 1996 is considered the first official breach of the Italian operaismo across the North-American academia. That book was largely anticipated by the anthology Autonomia: Post Political Politics published by Lotringer and Marazzi (in collaboration with the Committee ‘April 7’ itself) already in 1980, when New York was still used to mix Basquiat’s graffiti and underground theory. Academic acrobatics aside, nevertheless this more recent shift from French Theory to Italian Theory has some other motivations.

In his pamphlet La differenza Italiana (2005), Negri reminds that postmodernism indeed dismantled the Hegelian, patriarchal and bourgeois categories of the modern, but still leaving a horizon of ambivalent and undecidable differences. In Italy it was thanks to Mario Tronti’s workerism and Luisa Muraro’s feminism that the polarisation of social struggles was inscribed again within the ‘Italian ontology’: if difference, then resistance. Once endorsed such a separatist and irreducible intuition of its masters, operaismo expandes the project of a constituent ontology — Negri claims — that starts where French thought had left desiring machines and micropolitics.

Negri’s pamphlet provides the title also to the anthology The Italian Difference: Between Nihilism and Biopolitics (2009), an overview of radical philosophers where his ‘constituent’ lineage is counter-balanced by Massimo Cacciari’s nihilism and Giorgio Agamben’s idea of naked life. Following this track, more recently Esposito has exposed the history of Italian philosophy in Pensiero vivente [Living thought], which is perceived as a breviary of the Italian Theory even before being translated into English. Esposito identifies specifically the kernel of Italian philosophy in its antagonism towards power — a coherent attitude across centuries, that has been paid with life from Giordano Bruno to Antonio Gramsci. This synolon, this synthetic unity of turmoil and constituent praxis, this immanence of antagonism, is traced back to an ideal history running from Tronti to Machiavelli. The artistic incarnation of such an antagonistic materialism is said to be Leonardo’s Battaglia di Anghiari, where the figure of the Struggle is represented as an amalgamantion of the human and the animal which recalls the Machiavellian centaur.


The crisis of the philosophy of language

Nowadays Esposito puts the rise of the ‘Italian difference’ in the context of the current crisis of those European school of thought based on the primacy of language, that is: British analytical philosophy, German hermeneutics and French deconstruction. Outside academic enclaves, however this crisis is likely the result of the pressure performed by the new forms of labour. From Marx’s fragments on machines to the concept of cognitive capitalism, the school of operaismo has never considered language as the ‘house of Being’ (Heidegger), but on the contrary as new means of production at the centre of contemporary economy. As already in 1999 Nick Dyer-Witheford was noticing in his book Cyber-Marx, one of the main reasons why Italian Theory is adopted oversea is for being one of the few antagonistic (and non-logocentric) accounts of the gigantic apparatuses of the knowledge economy and network society.

The linguistic turn of both liberal and Marxist political economy was never followed by an economic turn of the philosophy of language. The operation attempted by Virno in the last years can be understood under this respect: instead of forcing the bastions of analytical philosophy from the outside, Virno has been trying new keys to open them to politics from the inside.


The Ideology of Capitalist Realism

The North-European academic world is crossed by many currents but one in particular has been neglected by Esposito — the Lacanian psychoanalysis of Slovenian rite, which always describes capitalism as an ‘effect of reality’ that is ideologically mediated. The hypnotic pendulum of Zizek is implacable and swings like this: “ideology is not something conscious and abstract — for example, every time we believe that economy is an empirical and material fact — here is the effect of ideology”. This interpretation is applied with the same generosity to both the liberal and Marxist economist: even the latter must be considered responsible of an excessive ‘belief’ into economy or economicism, as often Badiou likes to underline. For this school of thought the main problem is then called Capitalist Realism (to quote the title of a recent book by Mark Fisher) and political agency is reduced to the psychoanalytical exercise of ripping the Maya veil of everyday’s ideology.

Against the sin of an excessive ‘passion for the real’ (Badiou again), Zizek frames activism according to the Lacanian coordinates of desire: then, activism is never immersed into the here and now, but it is always seen as a sign pointing to somewhere else, specifically to a lack. Economic behaviour is then understood as a language, political imaginary becomes a grammar to manipulate and militancy is always pre-determined by a Symbolic Order in a grid of fixed roles. Like for Badiou, if Zizek is publicly introduced as a Marxist, indeed he represents a ‘Marxism without Marx‘ — the critique of political economy in which only the simulacrum of ideology is left. For some, his Metaphysical Communism has no no relation with real struggles. But looking at the way he watch political philosophy through the lenses of film criticitsm, maybe it is not a matter of metaphysics, this is just Avatar Communism.

If the Italian Theory ‘went to school’ across the social struggles of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which is the historical gymnasium of the so-called Lacanian Left? Zizek’s insistent interpretation of capitalism as an ideological apparatus paradoxically was not shaped under the Washington consensus, but at the time of the Socialist Realism. As much as the Frankfurt School adopted the Nazi propaganda machine as model for the American cultural industries, so Zizek has been using the toolbox developed under the Iron Curtain against the one-dimensional thought of neoliberalism. At the end that was the form of conflict experienced and perceived in ex-Yugoslavia — an ideological one, but likely this perspective is unfit to describe today’s capitalism.

This specific reading of the political as an ideological problem has concrete consequences also on a more mundane cultural production. Tangential to the Lacanian ideas, the Amsterdam conference The Populist Front was recently dedicated to the analysis of contemporary populism, from the American Tea Party to the Dutch leader Geert Wilders crossing of course also the Italian case. Dangerously, this event appears to suggest progressive movements and political parties to experiment in the field of the invention of enemy in order to escape their own crisis. Here the same myth-making techniques employed by populist leaders in the construction of mass phobias are claimed for the left-wing groups, but it seems a bit hysterical to look for an ‘imaginary enemy’ right at the moment when the north and the south of Europe and the Mediterranean are crossed by new real social movements. The European School of Social Imagination organised by Berardi Bifo in San Marino on May 21 seems to address this unresolved issue of the political role of the collective imaginary and to give an answer, from a distance, to the populist drift of the Dutch intelligentsia (


Co-research and the crisis of cognitive capitalism

There are many prolific encounters of the Italian Theory with other geo-philosophical territories, but there is not enough space here to list them all: from Postcolonial Studies to queer theory, from network culture to law disciplines. To quote a brilliant article by Brett Nielson, it is time to “provincialize the Italian effect”. The theoretical innovation keeps going on autonomously along the networks of the “nomadic universities” between France and Italy, Spain and Brazil. About the new debate on ‘the common’ see the recent seminars organised in Turin ( and Paris ( Indeed the so-called post-Autonomia is not a historical animal ready for taxidermy but a movement of ‘living thought’ that today is moving its barricades into the university. It is that Knowledge Liberation Front that has organised the mobilisation of the students in Europe on March 25 and 26. To hijack the title of a book by Gigi Roggero (that will be published soon by Temple University Press): here is The Production of Living Knowledge. The new generations of academics ready to canonise the Italian Theory should confront themselves with the Trontian saying: knowledge is tied to struggle, to truly know is to hate truly (from Operai e capitale, 1966).

The Italian Theory is showing its innovative and irreducible core precisely in the very definition of knowledge. Making theory means today facing the question of co-research, or the philosophy of the non-philosophical (that is the political). It means to question the Humboldtian disciplines and the Anglo-American Studies, to abolish the distinction between the object and the subject of political investigation, to criticise the ‘procedural knowledge’ and the method of the peer review, to show the financialization of student life by debt and, eventually, it means to question that IKEA of education that is the Bologna Process. Co-research means today rethinking the junction between praxis and theory inside the university in the age of the financial crisis. It is not a case then that it is the only school of thought criticising cognitive capitalism to emerge at the very moment of the crisis of the global edu-factory.


Matteo Pasquinelli, Berlin (

Published on Il manifesto on April 13, 2011 and titled
“L’ascesa in cattedra di un pensiero critico”. PDF file
of the article can be downloaded here.




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