The Reenchantment of Literature. An Italian Case

Manuela Marchesini
Texas A&M University

Volume 8, 2015

In today’s globalized world, at the crepuscule of the age of the nation-states, “[w]e are on the brink”, Marramao writes, “of a passage to modernity destined to produce profound transformations in the economy, society, life-styles and codes of behavior not only for ’other’ civilizations but of Western civilization itself” (15). His book (Marramao, 2012) makes a compelling bid for a new political philosophy that is common to all cultures, Western civilization included, which passes West, passes to the Occident (15) of the dualism upon which political philosophy is presently predicated. The current dichotomy of, on one side, a “universal politics of identity of Enlightenment stamp” and, on the other, of an “anti-universal politics of difference” (68) has proved, he argues, to be as paralyzing as the dualism of “Orient and Occident” (15). The antithetical readings of the phenomenon of globalization—-as the “individualist-market homologation” of Fukuyama or the “clash of civilization” of Hungtinton—-may well be opposite but, he says, also dangerously specular; their common unilateralism obfuscates the true nature of the phenomenon. Likewise, the faulty alternative “Westernisation [or secularization] of the world” versus its specular opposite of “de-Westernisation” or “de-secularization” (15) comes up short, the author contends, vis-à-vis the historical task at hand, that is to say, the ever-increasing inflation of renewed logics of identity we witness today. It is time, he insists, to leave these false alternatives, the false dialectics of the “dominant identitarian structure of conflict” (233) behind us and try something different: a “cosmopolitanism of difference” (221), as the author dubs it, using one of the many oxymorons that punctuates the book. Instead of a solution framed in terms of the usual dichotomy, be it the clash of civilizations or their incomparable relativity, his book envisions an altogether dialectical (or post-dialectical) change in the nature of the issue at stake. The passage West move his book envisages is a radical leap in the way we conceive of the public sphere, that is to say, the way in which we conceive politics. A political answer does remain, Marramao states emphatically (65), the only viable response to the difficult juncture we are in—-but, he asks touching upon the crux of matter, “what is the common location of ‘the political’ on a global stage characterized by a passage to the Occident of all cultures?” (65).

First, this place is a “public sphere” that is, as he repeatedly proclaims, a “symbolic space” (my emphasis, 3 occurrences, 66-7). To speak of the Symbolic implies a reference to one of the three orders of psychic life defined by Jacques Lacan in his psychoanalytic theory, the other two orders being the Imaginary and the Real. What position will Marramao’s symbolic occupy with respect to the itinerary that the tripartite taxonomy (the Symbolic-the Imaginary-the Real) has traced in Lacan and in the critical reception of Lacan’s work? From an early, structuralist priority on the Symbolic, on account of its status as the domain of language and of the unconscious structured as a language, interest has shifted toward the increasingly important role assigned to the Real that resists all symbolization, “the opaque material presence of an indigestible object or a traumatic encounter on the psyche” (Ricciardi, 2012, 60). Where is Marramao’s position on this spectrum? First, his book starts out by marking off what this symbolic public sphere is not:

a public sphere understood as a symbolic space […] is not a mere container but a dynamic demand for comparison between diverse ’public diasporic spheres’ that are able to carry out a radical reconversion of the logic of the conflict of identities.


In other words, it is neither the container of a dialogical rationalist principle à la Habermas—-to the point, in fact, that this “common place of encounter” would operate, he says, “even in spite of dialogue” (67); nor it is the wearisome post-modernist composite of “incommunicable islands” (67)—-no one should feel authorized, he adds citing Massarenti’s prefacing words to Amartya Sen’s Italian translation, “to embrace ’any radical form of relativism or nihilism”’ (67). Instead, he argues, a renewed symbolic public sphere of such an encounter is predicated upon “the radical contingency [my emphasis] of every civilization, tradition, and form of life, and of the relational nature of each (collective and individual) identity” (65). In this modern, post-Kantian and post-metaphysical scenario, contingency and relationality are two crucial features that Marramao wants to bring together within the fold of experienceContingency: we should conceive a political space of the public, he claims, as a compound of “diverse ‘public diasporic spheres’” (66) whose values we cannot compare on the basis of the supposed “common denominator” (68) of experiences, because each one of those spheres is irreducibly specific and radically contingent to each situated existence (67). Relationality: how do these diasporic spheres, which are not monads, enter in actual communication, synchronically (among themselves) and diachronically (with past spheres), offering thus a chance to rationality? The only way to put these pluralities of public diasporic spheres in touch with one another lies, Marramao stresses again, in our ability to overcome the dichotomy structure of the dialectical paradigms of old. To this end, the etymological use of the adjective contingent from the Latin cum–tangere, which Marramao adopts from Michel Serres, points us, he writes, in the right direction: contingent, cum–tangere, means “touching a border, and a common border. There is contingency when two varieties touch” (Serres, in Marramao, 68). But then, we may ask, what happens when two or more varieties touch, and since such an occurrence is bound to be a symbolic relationship, what are its features? How do we actually engage it and what do we do in and with it?

It is therefore possible that the most suitable strategy for conferring efficacy on a […] postnational public sphere, is not the dialogic-discursive elaboration of singular and collective experiences so much as narrative elaboration.


I think it is important to grasp the meaning and implications of this narrative elaboration of experience because it lies at the core of Marramao’s political philosophy of the future. He clearly contrasts an old dialogic-discursive elaboration of experience with a narrative elaboration of it. The former references Habermas’ dialogical principle of rationality, whose “discourse theory aligns different types of validity claim with different types of justificatory discourse” (Bohman and Rehg, 2011). The latter, instead, that is to say, a narrative elaboration of experience, references the political insofar it is at once radically contingent and relational, hence rational. (Relational and rational are two sides of the same coin, because we are able to extract rational considerations about something only if different experiences have something in common). Only in the latter, relational-cum-rational, case, Marramao portends, we may label a narrative elaboration of experience also political in the sense his project calls for. The “gamble,” he continues, is thus again “to redefine the symbolic dimension—-in precisely the opposite way of Habermas’s ‘philosophical discourse of modernity’—-not as a zone of resistance or as an obstacle but as the medium and privileged vehicle of the rational universal and of dialégein itself.” (67, emphasis mine). Again, it is a zone at the same time universally rational and radically contingent. Such is, with another oxymoron, “the theoretical programme of a universalism of difference” (16) that Marramao’s book sets out to pursue. To redefine the symbolic dimension of a modernity that dates back to the turn of the 18th/19th century, Marramao proposes a strategy of “narrative elaboration” (67) that is equally distant from Habermas’s discursive elaboration of rationality and from the often facile postmodernist playfulness/pastiche of the irrational. Our challenge is to figure out what this narrative elaboration, at once contingent and relational, particular and universal, in other words at once historical and ahistorical, amounts to—-how it works and how we can bring it about. The author writes:

In this time of passage to the Occident, we will for some time yet have to obey a double injunction: writing the word ’universalism’ with one hand and the word ’difference’ with the other and resisting writing both words with a single hand. Because, in each case, it would be the wrong hand.


From my point of view, the point of view of a cultural art historian and a scholar of literature, Marramao’s effort to define this oxymoronic, even paradoxical concept of narrative that is at once particular and general, specific and shared, historical and ahistorical, brings to mind Jacques Rancière’s politics of aesthetics, or better yet, the politics of literature, echoing the title of one of Rancière’s books (2007, 2011) By aesthetic experience and the politics of literature Rancière means neither the “politics of writers” (11) in terms of their political engagement or disengagement, nor “the way writers represent social structures, political movements or various identities in their books,” but the argument that literature in itself is intrinsically political: “that literature does politics simply by being literature” (4). If politics, says Rancière, “is the construction of a specific sphere of experience in which certain objects are posited as shared and certain subjects regarded as capable of designating those objects and of arguing about them” (4), then, the French thinker asks, what is literature, and more cogently, what is literature in itself ?

It is, Rancière maintains, neither the reified object of a reductive sociological approach, nor the self standing autonomous entity of past formalisms and structuralisms. Differently put, the artwork is neither an object, a given that reflects or copies the real, a document, an artifact, a testimony, a repository to pry open as in a materialistic realist denotative aesthetic. Nor it is an autonomous, pure, and formal statement, akin to a mystical experience (be it a mysticism of beauty, truth, or doubt) that always references some totality of which it is a part. In the first case, the work of art has a purely documentary value, and cultural objects are just one manifestation among many of the social practices of a given era that are best approached with the tools of sociology and of cultural studies. In the second case the work of art is an autonomous manifestation of the sublime, or of the absolute, which only form (linguistic or visual) distinguishes from other artifacts, thereby charging it with redemptive qualities. Instead, for Rancière “the historical novelty introduced by the term ’literature”’ is couched neither in a particular language nor in the old Aristotelian drive to represent the real, but “in a new way of linking the sayable and the visible, words and things” (9, my emphasis).

In so far as this literature is an eminently relational phenomenon, the politics of literature is always more than one, at least two, as the French thinker points out: “So there is no one politics of literature. Such a politics is at least double” (21). Even more importantly, democracy in itself is, according to Rancière, not a social condition but yet again a “symbolic break” (11), “a break with a determined order of relationships between bodies and words, between ways of speaking, ways of doing and ways of being” (11). Therefore, it follows that literature as Rancière sees it, along with the aesthetic experiences in which literature participates, are in fact symbolic performative narrative spaces, political laboratories, which elaborate democracy—-or the lack thereof. Rancière thus brings forth the responsibility of a politically construed aesthetic undertaking that embraces all media, including literature.

Does Marramao’s narrative elaboration of experience include Rancière’s broad politics of aesthetics, if not politics of literature? We may note that, like many critics of modernist aesthetics, Marramao is aware that narration is in itself prone to a nasty self-justifying mechanism which, when it comes to prove the excusability of different versions of good and truth and the acquiescence to the status quo, is no less powerful than the rational-discursive one. For the literary field, Leo Bersani (1990) has stigmatized this tendency as the culture of redemption typical of high-modernist literature. In a similar vein, Franco Moretti has countered the close reading of the past with his distant reading or socio-literary mapping which has now grown into Moretti’s call for network theory (2005, 2011, 2013). Aware of that same risk, Marramao’s politics of translation (238), and not of comparison, vows to bow to what the author cogently calls “the normative priority of suffering” (238) that unambiguously trumps all merely discursive stories. Therefore, eyeing this time Lacan’s damningly opaque yet historically tangible Real, Marramao appeals to rhetoric, but he adds immediately, not to rhetoric as a form of bellettrism, not to the old bag of old tricks. Instead, he makes a plea for a rhetoric with proofs. We are thus presented with yet another, arguably narrative, solicitation concerning experience.

The reference here is to the work of contemporary historian Carlo Ginzburg, whose book History, Rhetoric, and Proof was published first in English (1999) and then in Italian (2000). I find the allusion to Ginzburg’s work all the more intriguing for two reasons: not only because the future founder of so-called micro-histories first cut his historian teeth on an investigation of the formalism/historicism nexus, a vexed issue that lay and still lies at the core of his practice of historiography (Ginzburg, 2006, 2012), but because Ginzburg scrutinized that problematic knot first and foremost on an Italian sample that is relatively foreign to North American scholarship. I think of the 1981 monograph Ginzburg devoted to Roberto Longhi, the 20th century Italian art historian whose connoisseurship of Italian painting from the 13th century to Giorgio Morandi was celebrated and maligned, whose ’scientifically’ sound and accomplished critical prose gained him a a not uncontested place in the pantheon of Italian Novecento writers.[1] Ginzburg, who was interested neither in debating Longhi’s particular critical acquisitions nor in discussing his status as a writer of the second order, sought instead to come to terms with Longhi’s broader and, Ginzburg convincingly argued, more fecund legacy. By viewing Longhi in the light of odd bedfellows such as Aby Warburg and Ernst Gombrich, Ginzburg set out to show that Longhi’s vaunted, purely formalist, “method” had been in fact much more spurious than the dominant structuralist Italian parlance of the time usually took it to be. By doing so, Ginzburg went not only against the grain of the dominant Italian reception of Longhi’s legacy but, more importantly in my view, he pointed to the direction of the yet unresolved dialectic of idealism and historicism in Italian modern culture—a set of issues dating back to the early 1800s, from Italian Romanticism through Croce and Gramsci to today. A revised edition of Ginzburg’s 1981 original monograph study appeared in English translation, with Verso, which is also Marramao’s English publisher, only in 2000, nineteen years after its Italian version. I take this remarkable gap as an indication of an intellectual hiatus in the English speaking world’s reception of an Italian historical and theoretical knot of experiences of which Longhi is one, but not the sole, champion. Conceptually translating or reformulating such stories in an English speaking currency has long been an overly difficult proposition, and for far more than pure matters of language. Can we perhaps fancy, one wonders, this partially told Italian story as congenial to the narrative elaboration Marramao’s project calls for?

Giorgio Agamben is another example of the same pattern of Italian thinkers who found keen ears in the English speaking cultural scene by propounding ideas that an historically Italian framework had nurtured, but which, in turn, failed to register as such abroad. Take Agamben’s Categorie italiane: studi di poetica (1996). Not only had Agamben published most of the pieces from this 1996 collection, whose essays were both speculative and written from a specifically Italian literary perspective, as early as 1978. Moreover, two decades later we find those early conceptual acquisitions transmogrified into Agamben’s biopolitical reflections on profanation. This time the décalage between the Italian and English versions was of just two years (2005 and 2007). In other words, coming from different fields of expertise Ginzburg and Agamben, an historian and a philosopher, both made an apparently eclectic foray into the Italian literary and critical domain. Each one of them tempered his respective historical and theoretical position at the crucible of some historically Italian crossroads: Longhi’s serializing of painted images engendered Ginzburg’s micro-history as the role of traces (proofs/mistakes) for the utopian but serious task of giving voice to those who had none. Agamben’s reflections on Italian poetry and comedy, from Dante Alighieri to Giorgio Caproni, morphed into his contemporary profanatory stance that transforms the dichotomy secular/religious into biopolitics. Of course, once these authors accomplished what they had set out to do, they had little interest in pursuing the Italian matter that prompted their work.

As far as I am concerned, I think that this gap begs to be addressed and filled. As Appadurai writes, “to the extent that different societies appropriate the materials of modernity differently, there is still ample room for the deep study of specific geographies, histories and languages” (quoted in Marramao, 31). Indeed we need a deep study of the way Italian society and culture appropriated the material of modernity along societal and literary lines that goes beyond the true but also blinding, if not downright stereotypical, fate of Italy’s perpetual belatedness with respect to the rest of the European Continent’s acquisitions (language, nation, Romanticism, democracy, media, etc.)

Does the double injunction that Marramao places upon the narrative that is characteristic of post-national political philosophy indicate perhaps a similar direction? Rephrasing the book’s suggestion, I wonder if we may perhaps concretize the urgent need of a narrative elaboration of experience also as an inquiry into characteristic aspects of modern Italian culture that may be even literary, Rancière style. Over the past 10 years, we have been witnessing a growing interest in that direction. For example, Remo Bodei’s entry for the Vocabulaire européen des philosophies of 2004, titled “Langue italienne: une philosophie, aussi, pour les non-philosophes” (2004, 625-43), seems to address the point at stake. Unlike the Protestant tradition, which emphasized salvation by faith, Bodei argues that Catholicism, hence arguably Italian culture at large, has always placed a premium on the existing world, and thus on praxis, on opere. This feature is one among those that pushes Bodei to portray the Italian language as a medium for a philosophy for non-philosophers, a philosophy whose hallmark, unlike the abstract character of its German and French counterparts, lies in the constant tension between episteme (or theoria) and praxis. Yet, Bodei argues, the vocation of the Italian philosophical language is emphatically not Herder’s nationalist Volkgeist. The role of the questione della lingua in Italy, a bone of contention for 700 years of Italian history, has always been, as all the students of Italian culture know, an index of something at stake that goes well beyond language. The vocation of Italian philosophical language is, instead, Bodei continues, transnational. Against the grain of received views, the distinctive feature of Italian philosophy—-Bodei goes on to say—- is a deep civic vocation that, unlike other European traditions, has never been tied immediately to the sphere of the state, of religion, or of interiority. Constrained by the fractiousness of Italian political history, Italian thought has been open to a public made up not only of compatriots, but of a broader, call it universal, constituency. A constellation of spurious thinkers such as Niccolò Machiavelli, Giordano Bruno, Galileo Galileo, Giambattista Vico, Giacomo Leopardi, Antonio Gramsci, and Benedetto Croce bears witness to this situation.

In a similar vein, and in the wake of Foucault and Agamben’s reflections on biopolitics, Roberto Esposito is another Italian philosopher whose work is currently being translated into English. Echoing the title of a recent anthology in the English language (Chiesa and Toscano, 2009), Esposito has outlined an Italian difference that goes beyond the obvious historical fact of the great diversity upon which Italian culture and history has been predicated since the 12th century. Esposito dubs the Italian thought of the likes of Machiavelli and the poet/thinker Giacomo Leopardi (among others) as a pensiero vivente, a living thought whose distinctive feature differs from a vitalism à la Bergson. Instead, it is a thought that acknowledges, engages, and questions life, that is to say, the spuriousness, the mess that life is. Moreover, for Esposito as for Bodei this Italian thought displays a tendency to historicize what is not historical, in other words what is ontological, like, for instance, philosophy. Within the spectrum of the European theoretical tradition, Bodei wonders, where are we to place thinkers of the “impure reason” of a Machiavelli, a Vico, or a Leopardi? Where do we place thinkers who are also literati and poets, and who pursue truth while skirting the traps of skepticism and relativism?

If we understand Marramao’s reach for a narrative elaboration of experience along lines that are not strictly discursive but of a rhetoric with proofs; if we see it through the lense of Rancière’s politics of literature; if we ply it along the lines of an alleged Italian difference in philosophy which stems from the awareness of an historically Italian disrespect for disciplinary compartments, then I wonder if perhaps we could, or should, retrieve also their historically Italian, broadly construed literary, background as an integral part of the same project.

There was and still is a modern strand of Italian literary culture that is committed to historical immanence, and yet claims the truths at the human level that Contini found in Longhi.[2] To use one of Ginzburg’s favorite images, far more than on the coattails of German Romanticism, this thread runs through Machiavelli’s verità effettuale della cosa (namely, the truth of what is, not what it should be, whence political science), and through Vico’s verum factum convertuntur (namely, we get to know what we make, whence the study of history). In other words, the tendency of Italian philosophical thought to historicize what is not historical is one and the same with the modern Italian literary tendency to theorize what is historical. They are the two faces of the same proverbial coin. I am not seeking in any shape or form to ontologize Italian literary language or to claim any preeminence whatsoever for the global Italian style brand. The wager for the re-enchantment of literature I point to is centered, rather, on the historical co-presence of both drives in some strains of Italian modern literary culture. It could be a wager similar to Rancière’s with his “politics of aesthetics” (2004, 7-47) and to Marramao’s with his political philosophy that passes West, a historical third way to engage Italian modern and contemporary literary culture in order to narrate not with one but two hands at once. How can we honor the task of describing this situation without falling into the trap of dualism? How can we write simultaneously with two hands, the hand of contingency and the hand of the universal? One way to do so, as Rancière argues, is to move away in literary studies, too, from dichotomies in general, and in particular from two of the most prominent ones, such as the binary traps of realism VS modernism and modernism VS post-modernism, categories whose explanatory power has for all practical purposes very much decreased.

In this context, Jameson advanced a fruitful hypothesis aimed at moving past the modern and post-modern doxa. He suggested to reverse the order of the questions and expectations traditionally asked of, respectively, denotative realism and formalist modernism (1992, 224). We ought to test realism, he proposed, not for its vaunted representational properties, but for its opposite: as a possible historical practice. And, conversely, we ought to approach modernism not as a formal, aesthetic, and autonomous endeavor but as an impure and factual one, even as a scientific representation, or a discovery-procedure like science. That appears to be the way in which Ginzburg proceeded with Longhi. Likewise, it would be interesting to test Italian modern literature and criticism on one hand by focussing on the historical and practical status of the realist work of art, and on the other, on the epistemological and ontological status of critical artworks. Such an approach would identify an Italian cultural lineage for which the existence of modern Italy is both a historical and theoretical event, in which truth and history, form and content, come together in the formula “a form that thinks/a thought that forms”. This project would articulate a contingent and at once rational-relational view of certain discourses and of the knowledge they afford—-from Alessandro Manzoni to Antonio Moresco. This project would also overcome the dualism of close reading versus distant reading, which Gianfranco Contini expressed as the alternative between reading on one side and commenting on the other. In the 1930s, the Italian literary critic had already considered the dichotomy of reading and commenting a spent one. Contini also forecast the plausible oblivion of academic criticism as we knew it, thus foreseeing its current obsolescence. This loss may well leave room, Contini provocatively continued, to criticism as a sort of execution, in the musical sense, of a literary text. Are the two injunctions akin, namely Contini’s execution of literary texts and Marramao’s narrative elaboration of social practices? May they be acceptable tasks for our present? Marramao’s book surely adds fodder to thought, and this reader is thankful for it.


01. See Ginzburg, 1981, Longhi, 1930(1927), and Longhi, 1995.

02. See Contini, 1989, 102: “La verità non è su un piano irraggiungibile, la verità è raggiungibile, la verità è umana. Ecco, la sua verità era una verità assolutamente umana, non una verità remota. Forse è anche per questo che la trascendenza gli era del tutto sconosciuta”: “Truth is not unreachable, truth is reachable, truth is human. [Longhi’s] truth was of this kind, a totally human, not remote, truth. Perhaps this is also why transcendence was utterly foreign to him” (my translation). 

Works Referenced

  • Agamben, Giorgio. Categorie italiane: studi di poetica. Padova: Marsilio, 1996. Print.
  • ———. Profanazioni. Roma: Nottempo, 2005. Print.
  • ———. Profanations. New York: Zone Books, 2007. Print.
  • Bersani, Leo. The Culture of Redemption. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990. Print.
  • Bodei, Remo. “Langue italienne: une philosophie aussi pour les non philosophes”. In Vocabulaire européen del philosophies: Dictionnaire des intraduisibles. Paris: Le Robert, Seuil: 624-43. Print.
  • Bohman, James and William Rehg. “Jürgen Habermas”. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (accessed 11/25/2015).
  • Chiesa, Lorenzo and Alberto Toscano, Eds. The Italian Difference: Between Nihilism and Biopolitics. Melbourne:, 2009. Print.
  • Contini, Gianfranco. Diligenza e voluttà. Ludovica Ripa di Meana interroga Gianfranco Contini. Milano: Mondadori, 1989. Print.
  • Ginzburg, Carlo. Indagini su Piero. Torino: Einaudi, 1981. Print.
  • ———. History, Rhetoric and Proof. Hanover: The New University Press of New England, 1999. Print.
  • ———. Rapporti di forza. Storia, retorica, prova. Milano: Feltrinelli, 2000. Print.
  • ———. Il filo e le tracce: vero, falso, finto. Milano:Feltrinelli, 2006. Print.
  • ———. Threads and Traces: True False Fictive. Translated by Ann Tedeschi and John Tedeschi. Berkeley: U of California P, 2012. Print.
  • Jameson, Fredric. Signatures of the Visible. London: Routledge, 1992. Print.
  • Longhi, Roberto. Piero della Francesca. Edited by Leonard Penlock. London: Fredrick Warne & Co, 1930(1927). Print.
  • ———. Three Studies. Riverdale-on-Hudson: Stanley Moss-Sheep Meadow Press, 1995. Print.
  • Marramao, Giacomo. The Passage West: Philosophy After the Age of the Nation State. Translated by Matteo Mandarini. London and New York: Verso, 2012. Print.
  • Moretti, Franco. La letteratura vista di lontano Con un saggio di Alberto Piazza. Torino: Einaudi, 2005. Print.
  • ———. “Network Theory, Plot Analysis”. In New Left Review (68) (2011): 80–102. Print.
  • ———. Distant Reading. New York: Verso, 2013. Print.
  • Rancière, Jacques. The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Translated with an Introduction by Gabriel Rockhill. New York: Continuum, 2004. Print.
  • ———. Politique de la littérature. Paris: Éditions Galilée, 2007. Print.
  • ———. The Politics of Literature. Translated by Julie Rose. Malden: Polity, 2011. Print.
  • Ricciardi, Alessia. After “La Dolce Vita”: A Cultural Prehistory of Berlusconi’s Italy. Stanford, Stanford UP, 2012. Print.