Pasolini’s Aesthetics

Works Discussed:

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Heretical Aesthetics: Pasolini on Painting, edited and translated by Ara H. Merjian and Alessandro Giammei

Ara H. Merjian, Against the Avant-Garde: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Contemporary Art, and Neocapitalism

The first part of Heretical Aesthetics actually recycles the title of the first section in Ara H. Merjian’s previous, much lengthier, volume, purportedly on Pasolini, in reality mostly about some of the other topics listed (especially contemporary art): Against the Avant-Garde: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Contemporary Art, and Neocapitalism.

Heretical Aesthetics is a selection of essays on subjects and artists mainly related to painting, twenty-eight in all: it allows English-speaking readers to access a certain number of Pasolini’s critical essays that had mostly remained untranslated. Painters discussed by PPP in this selection are the following: Giacomo Manzù, George Besson, Giuseppe Zigaina, Pablo Picasso, Toti Scialoja, Fabio Mauri, Renzo Vespignani, Piero della Francesca, Federico de Rocco, Renato Guttuso, Girolamo Romani (Romanino), Lorenzo Tornabuoni, Carlo Levi, Michelangelo Merisi (Caravaggio), Nabil Reda Mehaini and Andy Warhol. Among the most important remaining essays are one on a work by art historian Roberto Longhi, one of the most influential figures in Pasolini’s education (as well as Pasolini’s reflections on his own intellectual ‘formation’ and development), a brief essay on Longhi as ‘teacher’, extracts from a fundamental essay on ‘free indirect discourse’ from Empirismo eretico (Heretical Empiricism), and reflections on some of his films. The editors/translators also provide an introduction, some basic information appended to each essay, as well as an editorial history for each essay.

Painting is one of the media that Pasolini practiced (albeit minimally) and critically appraised that is least dealt with by the majority of critics. Since part of the foundation of my personal critical approach to Pasolini is to highlight the (many) elements of a de facto materialist world view in his work, his criticism and his artistic practice(s) (a materialism, alluded to in the choice of the word “empiricism”, which provides the foundation for his rationalism), I do want to point out that while the two translators talk fairly extensively about the connections between painting and cinema in Pasolini, they completely omit two other areas that are fundamental ‘transitional’ media between these two: theater and photography. In recent years there have been significantly more contributions about Pasolini’s own theatrical pieces and his interest in theater. Photography is admittedly hardly present in Pasolini’s work and/or critical essays, but is so very significantly in his Iconografia ingiallita (which was a planned, late, addition to La divina mimesis) which would have been an important ‘bridge’ for the two translators to mention.

The editors’ introductory essay is a mix of insightful philological information, and some of the most trite, unexamined, and frankly just philologically and critically unsupported cliches about Pasolini’s work that have proliferated in the last several (post)post-modern decades in both Italy and internationally: alleged narcissism, the body, ‘lyricism’, a backward-looking gaze on the past, populism, archaism, mythological fetishizations of the ‘peasantry, etc. etc. These could all be traced to specific critics and ideological and critical areas, for instance Alberto Asor Rosa and Toni Negri (operaismo, alleged enshrinement of ‘cultura grande borghese’ (Asor Rosa)), etc. all of which are based at the very least on serious misreadings of Pasolini’s work (Asor Rosa in later life actually withdrew and/or backpedaled on most of the labeling of PPP he had engaged in at the time of Scrittori e popolo) or, as in the case of much of Negri’s ‘criticism’, an almost complete ignorance of PPP’s actual work, and a simple recycling of entitled aspiring Parisian haute couture/culturesnottiness towards anything and anyone that didn’t partake of the critical and ideological fad of the moment. Negri for instance mocked PPP’s use of St. Francis (cf. Uccellacci e uccellini), to only then assert something much less defensible, ca. that Francis was the saint of ‘anti-capitalists’ in Empire. Pasolini’s use of St. Francis was partially based on a reference to Rossellini’s Francesco, giullare di Dio (which is one explanation of the widespread bird symbolism in PPP’s film), but was far from an uncritical endorsement of the saint, in fact was part of a complex criticism of ‘leaders’ and ‘father figures’ in the film (including the parallel with Togliatti), as well as culture used as deformation/cancellation of nature, vs. culture as a cultivation/construction emerging out of nature (cf. the first, ultimately omitted, section of Uccellacci e uccellini, L’aigle).While I am aware of Negri’s passing, and as with any loss sorry for those who were close to him, criticism of the work in no way should be affected by existential events concerning their author. It should be noted that PPP’s detractors were legion during his lifetime, and certainly not only on the right, or among homophobes, but also in the PCI (mostly due to PPP’s ‘heterodoxy’ and criticism of many (neo)stalinist elements in the party ‘line’), in much of the 1960s ‘left’ following Pasolini’s trenchant criticism of many aspects of the ‘movement’ in Il PCI ai giovani, and in several essays (the most significant of which is Prologo: E.M.) as well as in much of academia given his very individual takes on Dante, semiotics, Eco, and other topics (cf. Cesare Segre). Negri belongs to that ‘left’ which attacked PPP because they disagreed with him politically, Asor Rosa belonged to both that ‘left’ (but the  operaista strain, at least initially) and the academic critics of PPP. The incredibly pervasive nature of these prejudices and misreadings in Pasolini criticism as I stated above mostly traces to these sources, and as the Italian ‘left’ in the 1960s was incredibly diverse and complex, to some extent this could be construed as an excuse for the editors lack of philological and critical awareness regarding this history and these issues. Carla Benedetti has noted in “Le ceneri di Pasolini” how extensive these prejudices and bile were/are, even extending to the main curator of PPP’s collected works in the Meridiani series, Walter Siti, who not only made a significant number of dubious editorial decisions (for instance the Manifesto per un nuovo teatro is not even included in the volume devoted to theater), allowed detractors of PPP during his lifetime, like Cesare Segre, to write extensive essays for this collection, but also added his own very personal ‘cacchina’ in the form of a Postfazione to the last volume, in order to have the, disparaging, ‘last word’. So the editors of this collection did indeed not face an easy task had they wanted to assess the body of criticism in an informed and dispassionate fashion.

The critical bias(es) they subscribe to are however also informed by an unscientific (tacit) premise that artists are really only ‘worthy’ if they are ca. ‘precursors of the present’ (cf. my reference to ‘apologists for the present’ below), which is probably the most widespread prejudicial premise of most contemporary (post)post-modern Pasolini criticism.

While the introduction does provide some help in guiding a reader who is not familiar with Pasolini’s work from extract to extract (the paragraphs appended to each translated essay are most helpful for readers unfamiliar with PPP or the subjects he is discussing), one is left with an impression of fragmentariness. An impression that is perhaps inevitable since the collection is dedicated to works on painting, which is one of the art forms Pasolini wrote the least about, and which he also practiced the least (which absolutely does not imply a judgment regarding the importance of the medium for his aesthetic sensibility or the formation of his idiosyncratic combination of materialist semiotic and philological interpretive frameworks: many of the essays in Empirismo eretico and elsewhere are testament to his, materialist, interest in the characteristics of the different media in relation to one another). In using the adjective ‘aesthetic’ I by no means wish to tarnish the poet with the brush of ‘aesthete’ (comparing him to D’Annunzio and similar gambits, which are also part of the heritage of critical misreadings I mentioned above: in using the word “aestheticism” in the title of their selection the editors might have added some qualification or comment to this effect). One should also note that while for philosophers empiricism and materialism are quite distinct, in PPP’s case ’empiricism’ was often de facto a stand-in for materialist perspectives.

A discussion of the most important ‘theoretical’ presuppositions of Pasolini’s own critical writings over the course of his life would have been helpful. As stated I think both the influence of philology and a materialist interpretation of semiotics (not only in terms of reacting to Eco, but also Roland Barthes and Christian Metz among others) are the two major areas that informed his critical perspective, though they both evolved during the course of his lifetime and were not concurrent, except for the last decade or so of his life (semiotics obviously entered the scene later). The reason for the editors omission(s) may be several (including the complexity of dealing with the volume of PPP’s oeuvre, not to mention the mass of critical literature), but I think the authors really believe in one of the most prevalent and unexamined critical clichés  about Pasolini’s critical essays, namely that they mostly constitute projections of a presumed narcissism onto the work of others. While we are all particularly drawn to works that intersect our own interests, PPP very clearly addressed an enormous number of issues based on their impact on the present in which he lived, not necessarily because they were extensions of his own inclinations (cf. the bulk of his collected essays, and, most particularly, Dialoghi con i lettori).

This alleged ca. ‘narcissistic projection’ is often tied to PPP’s inclination towards pastiche. While Pasolini was certainly the first to point out his work was largely in the vein of pastiche, and he therefore had an interest in forms that were not too ‘closed’ or ‘formalized’, especially towards the end of his life, I think the cliché is very misleading to say the least. The poet’s lifelong interest and utilization of the works of Dante hardly led him to see them as pastiche… (for instance). Instead it is one of the reasons the work of many philologists (from Contini to Auerbach via Spitzer, Pasquali, Devoto and others) was so influential in the development of his critical toolbox, but, in many indirect ways, also on his literary production.

This rehashing of critical cliches from the conformist ‘norms’ of Pasolini criticism, which rarely engage in a meticulous examination of the author’s works, hardly advances our understanding of a, very complex, and very stratified, oeuvre. Admittedly since it is mostly recent Italian criticism that has built up this uninformed doxa, it is much more difficult for interpreters and critics mostly active in other languages and cultures to extricate themselves from the morass.

Here are some examples of the lengthy flow of cliches used by the editors (and these are just from the first few pages): “paternalistic narcissism” (3), “[PPP] dreamed of regression rather than revolution” (4), “necromantic disciplines” (5) (referring to philology and ‘connoisseurship’ (an incredibly ambiguous term Pasolini would never have used positively for himself or those he looked up to)), “Pasolini’s communism longed for an age that pre-dated class itself” (5), “a blessed aspirational Eden [i.e. what PPP was aspiring to]” (6), and so on for the rest of the introduction.

While the editors are (mostly unwittingly) correct in citing the centrality of “sono una forza del passato” (ca. I am a force of/from the past) for Pasolini, this is precisely in the philological, scientific, sense that no truly grounded and truly explanatory interpretation of present and future is possible without the foundation of an understanding of the past. These are obviously not unilinear or static efforts at understanding, but their basic historic and materialist premise is actually unassailable.

Ultimately the editors engage in accusing the author of what PPP had explicitly written he was NOT doing, i.e. engaging in some forms of nostalgia and ‘passatismo’ (cf. the quote at the beginning of page 1), and they ultimately do become ‘apologists of the present’ (cf. the same quote).

Of course this fundamental lack of understanding of the premises and frameworks of Pasolini’s production has a very serious impact on the (mis)understanding of his politics also (which I repeat was at the origins of these chains of critical misreadings in figures like Asor Rosa and Negri, who not rarely simply attacked PPP on the basis of trivial articles they read in the contemporary press, not on the basis of a serious reading and engagement with Pasolini’s work, statements and actions themselves).

One need only think of the category of “progress”. Here is a very telling quotation from the editors: “his political and erotic utopia had to be protected from, not liberated by, progress – protected, in fact, from history” (5). In actual fact there are hardly any Italian authors of the last century and beyond, who are more profoundly historical in every scientific sense of the word than Pasolini. So the authors prejudice just ties in with their complete misunderstanding of the quote on p. 1.

While toying with the category ‘Marxism’, the editors, by resorting to this category of “progress” demonstrate how profoundly they do not understand either Marx and the Marxian tradition or revolutionary politics. The “progress” they invoke is precisely that of the (neo)liberals, rightly mocked by Leopardi (“magnifiche sorti e progressive”, “secol superbo e sciocco”). And yes, Leopardi obviously predates Marx by many decades, and is in no way a revolutionary in the classical sense, but a number of his insights have revolutionary potential (as demonstrated by the great works of Sebastiano Timpanaro). It is also central to the differences between the social-democratic and the actually revolutionary traditions within Marxism. It is the social-democrats who, as many decades of history have amply demonstrated, are ultimately politically very close to the classical liberals (and today to neoliberalism), and who believe(d) in some impersonal, mechanistic, basically almost theological, ‘arrival’ of the “revolution” as a result of ‘progress’ (i.e. capitalism somehow imploding and magically leading to the promised land of communism and proletarian revolution; cf. Lenin’s criticism of Kautsky). It is essentially a linear and eschatological form of thinking and exempting oneself from action. Thinkers in the actually revolutionary tradition(s) of Marxian thought and practice, like Lenin or Luxembourg, or many others, understood that “progress” is most often simply a liberal category and an excuse for inaction. Historical change almost never occurs in linear fashion except in the abstractions of statistical analysis. It is complex, contradictory, multidimensional, multilinear, and never (if it wants to remain true to a revolutionary spirit) eschatological (which is by definition a closed, pre-judicial, and immobile form of wishful thinking). Organization, action, institutions are needed, and the incredibly complex task has been to find the balance and juncture between subjective ‘will’ and ‘desire’ and objective analysis, judgment of opportunities/openings, organization and timing.

There are also many important thinkers who may not immediately come to mind in terms of ca. ‘politically’ revolutionary traditions, but who were nonetheless sharply critical of the linear and social-democratic trends in (non)’Marxist’ thought: one need only think of Raymond Williams, some aspects of the work of Ernst Bloch as regards historical interpretation, Timpanaro of course in terms of relations with materialist traditions and so forth. Pasolini’s early essays show very clearly he was aware of the importance of both Leopardi and the scientific status of philology. Indeed his interest and defense of science was rare among his contemporary Italian fellow artists, and closely tied to his understanding of history and critique of eschatological thinking (cf. “Fare nostro il rischio della scienza”).

What PPP is actually targeting in his criticisms of “progress” is the ever more (neo)totalitarian aspects of consumerist monopoly capitalism/imperialism, and has nothing to do with the, partially, liberating aspects of scientific and technological advances that actually (!!) do benefit human beings, and do not enslave or disempower them. His criticism was of “sviluppo senza progresso.” In other words of something that claims to be “progress” (in propaganda, self-understanding, media conformism, neototalitarian brain-washing, etc.), but which in reality in terms of actual human advancement, of achieving the human potential Marx points towards in post-capitalist social formations, are actually forms of regression, cooptation, amputation, constraint, in other words ‘development’ with no actual progress. I have shown PPP’s defense of science and liberating forms of progress in several of my essays on Pasolini.

What is more PPP clearly believes in the accrual and stratification of historical meaning and significance (including forms of attribution of ‘value’, or not…), in a fashion which seems to have been very strongly influenced by philology (and even the editors have to admit to the obvious given their subject matter, namely the importance of Longhi in PPP’s education/formation: Longhi who was, essentially, especially in Pasolini’s understanding, a ‘philologist of painting’).

This path to the understanding of history aims precisely to understand it in its full contradictoriness, complexity, multilinearity and stratification. It is most emphatically NOT the farcical, bourgeois, ‘liberal’ linear notion that somehow progress is an endless succession of unequaled ‘Edens’, of ‘Paradise(s) Gained’, devoid of any prehistory, and magically put forth by the capitalist/imperialist machine (which is ultimately what the “dialectics of postwar aesthetic progression” (p. 42) rather closely resembles, if one is not mesmerized by the vague and all too omnipresent use of ‘dialectics’).

The absence of an informed and critically relevant framework is projected onto PPP, presenting him as ca. ‘chaotic’, almost incoherent, ‘contradictory’ (in a negative way) and so forth. A look at pp’s 2 and 3 (the quote from Ben Lawton) exhibit just some of the many examples of a presentation of PPP as a chaotic hodge-podge of incompatible and incoherent elements. One also finds the frequent overemphasis on the ‘identitarian’ aspect of PPP being gay, which though it obviously did create very significant obstacles and prejudices against the poet and his work during his lifetime, Pasolini himself never saw, expressed or valued as central to his work in almost any of his oeuvre, especially not the critical essays. The appreciation of certain contemporaries, and important elements of Petrolio, Salò and Bestia da stile (as well as a number of the other tragedie borghesi) could be listed as some of the exceptions, but overall PPP’s works had nothing to do with today’s postmodern ‘identitarianism’, its thought-police, cancel culture and neoliberal neototalitarian aspects, though much contemporary criticism tries to force PPP and his work into that mold (I examine this in more detail in “La ricezione di Procuste: Pasolini visto dall’Impero”). Indeed to the extent he did explore identity, erotic and sexual issues tied to being gay, they were closely intertwined with his explorations of human sexuality as a whole: I need only mention the extraordinary documentary (especially for its times) Comizi d’amore, the trio of films devoted to masterpieces of (also) sexual literature (Chaucer, Boccaccio, the Thousand and One Nights), known as the Trilogia della vita (which he effectively renounced with Salò), and a number of his ‘tragedie borghesi’.

This hop-scotching hodge-podge approach is characteristic of Merjian’s previous volume, Against the Avant-Garde, which tries to touch on as many visual artists, critics, and fashionable topics as possible, but in which it is essentially impossible to find a coherent, sustained, philologically founded and supported interpretation of Pasolini’s artistic and critical oeuvre. The task is obviously a difficult and complex one, but attempting to bite off much more than one can chew, and jumping all over the board chronologically, in terms of artists and topics discussed, in a very short space (what I refer to as “hopscotching”, and I am not referring to Cortazar), is not only thoroughly confusing for any reader, but essentially never manages to formulate a cogent, documented, finite interpretation of Pasolini’s works. This kind of “hopscotching” is not uncommon in contemporary criticism, and is in fact characteristic of the work of critics like Pierpaolo Antonello.

It is also an example of a common self-understanding of the contemporary, postmodern identitarian ‘left’, one that has introduced the most confusing, unsupported, dogmatic mixture of Marx with Nietzsche and Heidegger (a Nietzsche whose pre-totalitarian ‘conservatism’ was informed by his reaction and fears re the Paris Commune), characteristic of French postmodern ‘criticism’. A conformist “minestrone” that Timpanaro, and then Franco Fortini (a critical inspiration of Pasolini’s) and later younger critics influenced by Fortini, like Daniele Balicco (Nietzsche a Wall Street) were among the first to expose in their swamp of contradictions, to take apart and then demolish.

It is a critical dogmatism that is mostly completely blind to the philosophical intellectual origins of most of its world view and philosophical tools in the work of Nazi ideologist (and programmatically anti-Enlightenment ‘thinker’) Martin Heidegger and his many Parisian nipotini (I have translated Roberto Esposito, and I know what I am talking about: Esposito would not agree with my characterization of Heidegger, but I find it misleading to think of ‘Nazism’ as essentially reducible to biologistic racism, though, as we know from recent research, Heidegger was also a racist, when Nazism was an incredibly complex and diverse phenomenon, which also included many forms of authoritarian elitism which are part of what puts Heidegger in the category of a, broad spectrum, of Nazi ideologists). This reversal even reaches farcical heights if one thinks of the term “regression” applied to PPP. Costanzo Preve has, in my mind completely accurately, qualified Heidegger’s thought as ‘destinal thinking’ and a form of inverted historicism: in other words a thought whose principal goal (!!) is indeed regression into a presumed (ab)original swamp that attains indistinction/obliteration of ‘thought’ (and its historically achieved conceptual markers). Nothing could be further from Pasolini’s intellectual universe. The only very  partially accurate use of a term like “regression” for PPP’s work, would be related to the way he thought of ‘free indirect discourse’, as, also, a path, to ‘entering’ into the material, practical, sociological, intellectual ‘universe’ of a character (Emanuela Patti discusses aspects of this type of ‘regression’). In that sense though it is much closer to the German Einfühlung (whose use can be traced to the hermeneutical traditions in German philosophy and culture, for instance in the work of Wilhelm Worringer, traditions that certainly were present in and influenced the philologists PPP most admired).

Far from being a narcissist, PPP was one of the most self-critical Italian intellectuals of his time, a fact and an awareness that can be grasped when one reads his years of exchanges with everyday readers in a number of newspapers (Dialoghi con i lettori, ca. 1960-65). He was, very painfully, aware of what it meant to be a privileged middle-class intellectual when engaged in a Marxian project. And he also never tried to hide or find alibis for this biographical fact, as was instead the case with so many of his, superficially, more radical contemporaries, the likes of Toni Negri, Mario Tronti, Alberto Asor Rosa, Massimo Cacciari and many others (it is certainly not happenstance that ‘operaismo’ was a sterile, ‘left’, analogue of the ‘identitarian’ involution one witnessed in the rest of the bourgeois ‘left’ and to a paroxystic degree  in the ivory towers of Akademistan/Korporativersity, the ever more narcissistically self-enclosed ghetto of the bureaucrats of the mind). Characteristically it was figures like Asor Rosa and Tronti who, after their extremist/infantile ‘operaista’ phase, dutifully returned to the PCI and its successor incarnation, the PD, in a conformist, toeing-the-line, retreat. Pasolini always maintained a very critical relationship to the PCI, and one that was principally predicated on the fact that it was the party the oppressed classes felt most closely represented them. Pasolini did not agree, but very much respected and deferred to this ‘class loyalty’, qualifying this institutional devotion as “commovente”.

While PPP was inspired by Gramsci for a certain period (preceding his interest in materialst semiotics), this was precisely because of Gramsci’s insights into Italy’s very particular history and the need for an alliance of working class and peasant oppressed classes, a new ‘blocco storico’, and this is part of what informed Pasolini’s interest in popular culture, pre-capitalist oppressed classes and the peasantry. A logical and cogent point of view, based in Italy’s material history. All the snotty pontifications about ‘nostalgia for peasant utopias’ etc., came from those quarters, like the ‘operaista’ trends who were pushing the identitarian aberration of some ‘purist’ ‘working-class’ ghetto (not coincidentally pushed by intellectuals who were far from working class…), which of course in the reality of the extremely complex interconnections between classes and class-fractions in recent capitalism, one moving away from mainly industrial, factory-based, production, made basically no sense at all.

In other words Pasolini, and others of his generation, took solidarity very seriously, especially given the fierce class divisions of the time. A solidarity that is basically, in practical behavior, the opposite of today’s identitarian social-climbing tactics. It is rather amusing to witness this identitarianism based on Heidegger’s anti-Enlightenment, and its pushing of ca. ‘identity ‘rights”, that are at best very partial, very belated, echoes of a much more radical and, for the times, egalitarian, philosophy in the Enlightenment: mostly egotistical, exclusionary, entitled, careerist tools camouflaged as ‘democratic’.

Pasolini’s reflections in Manifesto per un nuovo teatro on the succession of historical ‘theaters’ and later on those he conceived of as the ideal public for his theatrical pieces such as Orgia, bear witness to the fact that, as an artist, he was reflecting on the same extremely difficult problems of the relations between privileged, bourgeois, ‘cultured’, classes and exploited classes, albeit in relation to art, culture, knowledge, that Lenin had reflected on in dealing with/proposing the concept/practice of a ‘vanguard’ (which is not to say that I think that contradictory complex of problems has been resolved by exclusively relying on this path: providing the means of greater self-education for the exploited classes on as universal a scale as possible also seems another path to explore for possible solutions). In other words, in more Marxian terms, how the surplus, or surplus value affects class relations and is apportioned in different class-based societies. Pierre Bourdieu, to cite one French intellectual who was much less infantile, and whose knowledge of the history of philosophy and relations between phenomenology and Heideggerian destinal regressions was significant, did indeed try to explore the characteristics and contradictions of the intellectual middle-classes in much greater depth, but was very isolated in doing so.

On the one hand this lack of self-critical awareness exempts interpreters from asking and attempting to inquire what PPP’s interpretive interests, convictions and frameworks actually were; secondarily this implies one does not examine how they could have changed over time; and finally it exempts critics from having to evaluate which of these frameworks Pasolini might have given most weight, critical importance and value to.

In other words it is not a matter of “venerating” the “ ‘sacred icon’ made of ‘Pasolinism’” (p. 28, whatever ‘Pasolinism’ is actually supposed to be…??), but of first of all taking the time and effort to understand Pasolini’s work(s) in their artistic, historical and philological foundations. Once one has reached that knowledge and foundation, then of course any and all, founded, criticisms are welcome, constructive, productive, and move research and dialogue further. Smashing ‘idols’ that are actually non-existent in the forms one claims, is ultimately circular self-destruction and negation.

In conclusion, one should be thankful to the editors/translators for making these essays available to an English-speaking public, but their interpretive framework leaves a lot to be desired. The facile recycling of cliches, sort of paternalistically condescending to PPP’s ‘bourgeois’ nature and ‘regression’, in reality I think lays bare the fact that much of the Italian ‘left’ has never forgiven PPP for his incredibly incisive and astute analysis of much of the 1960s as actually being the work of an extremist, infantile, new bourgeois generation, that, far from moving a real left forward, or working towards a genuine refoundation as a basis for such an advance, were actually the grave-diggers of the ‘old left’, but for the benefit of the incipient neoliberal, neototalitarian, consumerism, and its destruction of the few remaining, historically actually (!!!) progressive conquests of the Enlightenment.

The ‘left’ as represented by the bureaucrats of the mind in Akademistan/Korporativersity has basically mostly engaged in cancel culture and the denigration of the work of others (almost always on completely unsupported and pretextual grounds), and it is the one that has actually pursued endless deflections of its own impotence and lack of organizational and truly (non-academic) revolutionary objectives, belittling others in the, completely misguided, belief this will somehow raise their own profile and status. Pasolini on the contrary was about understanding, and, even where he disagreed, as with Spitzer’s ‘stylistics’, pointing to the usefulness of parts of his work if utilized in different ways. He completely disagreed with the tactics and behavior of ‘Lotta continua’ and yet helped its members in film projects. These are a part of the important influence of existentialism (on the ethical, if not necessarily on other, level(s)) on Pasolini and others he admired, which implied taking authorial responsibility very seriously, politically and socially yes, but also ethically. This foundation was at the root of his criticism, in human terms, of the Italian neoavanguardia, like the Gruppo 63; in artistic terms his use of the analogy of ‘being at the front/firing line’ was to show that one can change ‘accepted’ norms only if one engages with the presuppositions of those who only accept existing (perhaps restrictive) ones; in other words one does not fight for better (shared!) norms by belittling those who adhere to other or older ones (the ca. ‘concentration camp’ of hyper-infantile ‘provocative’ avant-gardism ultimately is mostly completely self-referential, hence its ‘closure’ in the concentration camp, because it ultimately only addresses itself and not a wider world whose norms it ultimately always depends on, if only in gestures of nihilistic rejection, cf. the editors references on pp. 41-42), in other words destruction and negation (nihilism, cf. the very recent works of Emmanuel Todd on the cultures of the EU and the Empire; i.e. not ‘nihilism’ in the Heideggerian sense), but by working towards building/constructing shared and supported norms)), and is also the reason why so much of the conformist post-modern critical horde (a fairly representative example could be Pierpaolo Antonello’s Dimenticare Pasolini) constantly attempt to exorcise Pasolini’s presence in the culture, because, ultimately, on an existential level, they find its courage and coerenza rather threatening (also as it relates to Akademistan/Korporativersity). A more careful look at Pasolini’s relations with the various avant-gardes would have shown the editors that actually his analyses were always specific and founded on concrete elements. One only has to read Petrolio or Bestia da stile to see how interested PPP was in Russian futurism, Russian formalist criticism (Propp, Shklovskij, Jakobson, the Prague School of linguistics), and so on. It was not a contestation of norms or traditions per se that Pasolini criticized, rather the lack of any constructive, positive, purpose and concern with shared foundations when doing so. Many essays from the time of Officina, such as “La libertà stilistica” and “La reazione stilistica”, only confirm this careful and differentiated evaluation of formal innovation and aspects of avant-gardism.

Ultimately the Gruppo 63 never even had the cultural impact of Futurism in its heyday, largely precisely because it was an (aesthetic) facade of neoliberal neototalitarianism, and ultimately complicit with the consumerist flood, and PPP analyzed these aspects in relation to the (de)volution of the Italian language contemporary to him. It is no accident that, much like most modern poetry, this 2nd or 3rd wave of belated ‘vanguardism’ ultimately could only find refuge in the halls of Akademistan/Korporativersity, and barely impacted the broader culture. Ultimately artistic products that do also attempt to dialogue with mass, consumer, culture, while retaining a degree of independence and elements of experimentalism (The Simpsons, The Sopranos, to cite just a couple) have a much greater impact on the wider culture in terms of various kinds of awareness than the posturings of extremist/ ‘purist’ formalist forms of ‘epater les (vieux!) bourgeois’, like Abstract Expressionism. To those familiar with Manifesto per un nuovo teatro, and its critique of (mostly US) ‘avant-garde’ theater, hence also the ‘happening’, it seems very very doubtful Pasolini saw this as an inspiration of his (materialist semiotic) reflections on the nature of film/cinema in Empirismo eretico (p. 36), and elsewhere. His analysis instead is explicitly tied to linguistic, semiotic and philological instruments and realities. Seen from a materialist perspective…

It is PPP’s uncompromising courage, honesty, and constant concern with his present, in terms of both his art and his politics, that has made his work so relevant to such a wide public, something most avant-gardist, bourgeois (new), provocateurs can only dream of…


  • Mark Epstein

    Mark Epstein has written extensively on Italian culture, literature, film, criticism and philosophy. More specifically he has written on the materialist currents present in the works of Sebastiano Timpanaro, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Galvano della Volpe, as well as Giacomo Leopardi. He is the co-editor of several collection of essays: Creative Interventions. The Role of the Intellectuals in Contemporary Italy, TOTalitarian ARTs: The Visual Arts, Fascism(s) and Mass-society as well as a collection on Leopardi, Mapping Leopardi: Poetic and Philosophical Intersections. He has also written on the philosophy of language and semiotics, including on Ferruccio Rossi-Landi, on the implications of the philosophy of language for the biological sciences in the journal Bionomina, and recently on translation for Multiverso. His essays on Pasolini include: “Pasolini ed il conformismo: tra consumi ed humus totalitario”, “Pasolini: lingua, razionalismo e materialismo”, “Le radici del dialogo: Pasolini ed il 'Teatro di parola'”, “La ricezione di Procuste: Pasolini visto dall'Impero” and many more, the most recent being “Il teatro in Pasolini: la soglia della contraddizione.” In terms of authors and fields related to (late) Romanticism, he has also written on Giuseppe Rovani, Carlo Dossi, Iginio Ugo Tarchetti, Giovanni Faldella and others. Among other essays on Italian cinema he has written on Ettore Scola's Passione d'amore (based on Tarchetti's Fosca), as well as the entries on Ermanno Olmi, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Elio Petri, and the Taviani brothers for Twentieth Century Italian Filmmakers, edited by Manuela Gieri and Donato Santeramo. He has also translated numerous books from Italian, French and German into English, for Princeton University Press, Minnesota University Press and Polity Press among others. He currently works for Educational Testing Service, and in the past has taught at Princeton University, College of New Jersey, Rider University and various adult schools, including Princeton Adult School.

    View all posts

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 2

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 2

By Amal Jamal: A Humanist Perspective on the Causes, Reasonings and Consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian War

By Menachem Klein: A New Judaism?*

By Melvyn Dubofsky: Has Labor Reawakened?

By Loren T. Cannon: The Backlash Continues: How Two Recent SCOTUS Rulings Pose a Threat to LGBTQ+ and Especially Trans and Gender Non-Binary Persons

By Larry N. Gerston: The Rise of Trumpism

By Andrew Kolin: Trump and Trumpism: An American Brand of Fascism

By Allen Wood: Kant After Three Centuries

By Joy James: Marcuse’s Most Famous Student: Angela Davis on Critical Theory and German Idealism*

By Frank M. Kirkland: Africa, We the Underdeveloped: Wynter’s Discontent in the Light of Hegel’s Conception of Development

By Mark Epstein: Pasolini’s Aesthetics

By Rainer Funk: Erich Fromm’s Contribution to Critical Theory

By Marsha Hinds Myrie , Lex Dulong , Jillian Uniacke: Joy James’s New Bones Abolition

By Peter Hudis: Determinism and Freedom: A Review of Michael Löwy’s Rosa Luxemburg: The Incendiary Spark

By Brian Robert Hischier: Fred Camper’s Seeking Brakhage

By Marybeth Tamborra: Chelsea Schields’s Offshore Attachments