Learning from Alienation: Radical Art Practices and Political Struggles: Paris 1871; Bologna 1977; Occupy Movement, 2011

Mattin and Michele Massucci

Paper delivered at Historical Materialism 2011, London

We have attempted to learn from different understandings of alienation in three separate periods of time looking specifically at artistic gestures within political struggles that are not separate from the social and political composition of the political struggle. Hoping that by doing this it will help us understand in what way the relationship between art and politics can be powerful today.


For Hegel's dialectical thinking the notion of alienation is central as it is the manifestation of mediation, a process that is constitutive for human consciousness. For Hegel the Self-Alienated spirit is a product of the 'absolute perversion' of all values, where “the pure 'I' itself is absolutely disrupted”.

The materialist Marx criticized Hegel idealism and his claim that it is consciousness which shapes concrete reality .Marx, in the 1844 Manuscripts tried to reverse Hegel's idealism by claiming that alienation occurs when humans become estranged from the products of their labour. Therefore according to Marx if we would be able to change our material conditions we would be able to appropriate our labour and overcome alienation.

For the last 60 years structuralism and post-structuralism has critisized Marx's theory of alienation because of its essentialist connotations. Louis Althusser criticized the young humanist Marx for being too influenced by the Hegelian dialectic and because Marx was putting too much emphasis on individual suffering in alienation. For Althusser it was more important to understand the underlying structures causing alienation.

Today we have reasons to reconsider alienation in a contemporary understanding, avoiding idealist and humanist conceptions of the term.

The Italian mediatheorist and activist Franco (Bifo) Berardi describes contemporary alienation in the following way: "Present alienation is the effect of a combination of factors: the technological acceleration of information, combined with the compulsion to economic competition, combined with the virtualization of communication, and the following isolation of the bodies."

As today thought is a crucial tool for the production of value, reason has no longer ideal nor contemplative connotations, rather it produces material concrete where the effects happen literally before our eyes.

But we don't only have alienation as a result of contemporary capitalism. Current neuroscientific research indicates that the separation of the self from the material body occurs already in our brains.

The philosopher of the mind Thomas Metzinger argues in his book Being No-One following recent findings within neurological research that there is no such things as a Self: ”no one has ever had or been a Self. All that exists are phenomenal selves, as they appear in conscious experience. The phenomenal self, however, is not a thing but an ongoing process; it is the content of a "transparent Self-model."

So rather than beleiving that we would be able to overcome alienation, we want to embrace alienation as an enabeling condition for undestanding the process of meadiation that occur in specific points, allowing us to have differerent perspectives on those aspects that seem familiar and transparent. Using dialectics to be able us to separate between the structures of thinking and the structures of reality.

Paris Commune, 1871, Gustave Courbet and the Vendôme Column (Explain quickly what was the Vendome collom: and Statue with the figure of Napoleon Bonapart as ceasar with leaves corone, and it was made out of 1806, 1810 made with the cannons

austrian and prussian cannons from the war)

The neologism “deboulonner” (literally to take a bolt out of the machine to make it stop working), which was coined during the Commune, bears witness to Courbet's cautious deliberations about the column. What Courbet wanted was not to topple and smash the column, but rather to take it apart and move it from which would soon be more known as deboulounner. Along with several other ideas, he suggested the forecourt of the Invalides as a place to move it to. “There at least the invalides could see where they got their wooden legs.”

Art and Revolution, Gerald Raunig, 2004

For us it is very important to underline the fact that during the months of the Commune Courbet stopped being an artist. Rather he engaged in questions of cultural policies of the Commune in the role of president of the Paris artist association as well as participating in the everyday political work.

Courbet's proposal was not accepted. However the Vendôme Column did get torn down – after a couple of failed attempts on the 16th of May – producing a spectacle with singing, speeches, waiving of red flags and dividing among themselves the fragments of the column. Marx portrays this event with much enthusiasm in his analysis of the commune. A heroic gesture which could be seen as an allegory for overcoming alienation.

What could have happened if the Communards really had followed Courbets proposal?

Rather than giving the carnevalesque feeling of overcoming alienation Courbets proposal implied the appropriation of alienation itself with the intent of generating collective memory and historical agency and not simply as an event.

Both the autonomy and authority of the column would have been constantly undermined by its contextual displacement. In a Situationist phrase: the “innocence of the monument” would have been rendered perverse by its site-specificity becoming a form of urban-detournemont.

As we all sadly know, the liberatory feeling did not last that long and as historian, Lissigarray, points out on account of the bourgeoise counter revolution:

One of the first acts of the victorious bourgeoisie was to again raise this enormous block, the symbol of their sovereignity. To lift up Ceasar on his pedestal they needed a scaffolding on of 30.000 corpses”.

Bologna 1977, Radio Alice - the prank phone call to the Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti

In Bologna February 1977 as part of the Autonomia movement the pirate radio station Radio Alice managed to broadcast a call to the italian Prime Minister at the time Giulio Andreotti, by pretending to be the brother of Gianni Agnelli, the most important industrialist in Italy ever.

Franco "Bifo" Berardi made the call:

Franco (Bifo) Berardi: I'm Umberto Agnelli and I want to tell you that here, in Turin, the situation is no more under control.

Giulio Andreotti: You can not imagine how difficult the situation is in Rome.

Bifo: Workers are on strike everywhere!

Andreotti: Here students are demonstrating in the center of

the city... in this very moment!

Bifo: You know what they were shouting, the workers of the Officina

54? (A FIAT factory in Turin). They said: Andreotti tu sei pazzo la classe operaia non pagherà più un cazzo! (Andreotti you are insane, the working class will not pay you shit!)

Two seconds later the communication was interrupted.

To deboulonner the Vendôme column on the semiotic level. The sense of general familliarity within members of the ruling class was brutally interrupted, undermining this authority, in the name of the working class.

This creation of false information, revealing the intimate relations constituting the bureaucratic structures of the State, enabeling the creation of true events, can be understood as an appropriation of the subjectivity of power, allowing the movement to momentarily access the authority of the highest representative of the State.

At that time few tendencies in the Workerist movement were discussing notions of alienation because they thought it contain a weak form of humanistic ideal thought, Hegelian philosophy, Luckas and the Frankfurt School. In fact it was only the femnist that used the term in order to described how they felt in because in the discussions of gender was firmly subordinated to that of class (we spit on Hegel as they said).

Radio Alice were not about the production of objects, but about the ironic distortion of social communication, the subvertizing of power messages,the creation of lifestyles of autonomy and the expression of different identities.

Creative action was intended to create a fluxus: flows of signs that were changing the living infosphere as a form of refusal of work (i.e. overcoming alienation in an operaist sense) on the cognitive and cultural level. The free radios in Italy, the graffiti in New York city, or the punk music in the United Kingdom.

With the development of capitalism in the 80:ies, new ways of extracting value out of our capacity to think and to show affection were operating. That which had been concieved as a subversive act became incorporated in a capitalist mode of production founded on semiotic and affective labour.

Madrid, London, NY, Chicago etc, 2011, the People's Microphone

As a way to bypass the Zuccotti Park's legal restriction on electric amplification protesters developed what is called 'the people's microphone or "the human microphone". Designed to allow a large group of people to hold an assembly in the middle of the noisy city without the need of any form of electric amplification. The speaker will say a few words, slowly enough for people to be able to repeat it, no more than half a sentence at a time, after the people around repeat the sentence loudly, and in this way amplifying the speech.

This device could be seen as an embodiment of the feminist critique of male forms of expression, developed for example by Valerie Solanis in her Scum Manifesto where male expresses himself to nobody and everybody at the same time. (This as a result of him historically having the ability to freely express himself in the public sphere while women had to take care for the domestic life in the private sphere.)

With the human microphone the multitude of bodies appropriate somebody' elses discourse sometimes without agreeing with what is been said therfore producing a sense of estrangement in their bodies. Nevertheless this subjective feeling is superseeded by the social need for effective transmission of speech.

Human Twitter: a debeolouner of the social netwoks that help to shape the movement. People become networked devices without the need of technological mediation and therefore without producing profit for a company. We could even say that it is a reversal of what according to Bifo produces alienation today: The technological accelerations of information becomes the slowdown of information, combined with the compulsion for collective affinity (no competition), combined with the actualisation rather than virtualization of communication, and the following socialisation of the bodies.

In fact Metzinger in his Being No-One book takes such out-of-body experiences as a staring point. The speaker hears the materialization of his thoughts and subjectivity in other peoples' bodies. Having constantly a third person's perspective of what is being said. According to Metzinger, this constituent component-object is a representation of the corporeal self from an external visual (in this case sonic) perspective. Relatively, the human microphone is not just about spatial self-representation and cognitive self-reference but also an attempt at subjective depersonalisation where the voice becomes subjectless, as many people are reciting the same phrases.

We find this depersonalisation process important especially taking into account the identity politics of the last decades formulating the need to find a political representation of different [Non-individual] identities. With the occupy movements ”We are the 99%” we find it inspiring that individual subjectivity is subsumed into something larger which can bring everybody together through radical inclusion (apart from a a few nasty people).


# Alienation as a strategy is more effective when there is no release or cathartic moment of revealing its mechanisms.

# The use of alienation is more potent when nobody claims mastery over its effects. In this way it can not be singled out as an event or assigned authorship making it impossible to fall into any intellectual property categories (this is something that would differentiate from the way it has been used within the realm of literature or aesthetics by The Russian formalists, Brecht, Godard etc....)

# Art within the framework of social struggles is more powerful when depersonalised, collectively concieved and sensitive to the present composition of social, technological and political expressions.

# alienation is a positive condition. The dialectic of alienation culminates in the realization that there is no home to be exiled from, no self from which to be estranged. This is precisely the realization that separates the thinking subject from the experiencing self. Alienation as maximal estrangement is the splitting of the subject from the self, but this split can be embraced as an enabling condition for thought and practice. It incurs a defamiliarization allowing semblance to be confronted as semblance from a vantage registering the discrepancy between how appearances are experienced and how they are produced. ” –Ray Brassier