Santiago Zabala reviews a wonderful collection of new essays on the Italian artist, director, poet, painter, and writer Pier Paolo Pasolini.
.Toni Hildebrandt and Giovanbattista Tusa (eds.), PPPP: Pier Paolo Pasolini Philosopher (Mimesis International, 2021), 350pp.
There are some artists, scientists, and economists whose oeuvre is significant for philosophers even though we generally overlook them. This occurs because too often we deem worthy of philosophical interpretation only other philosophers and their investigations. But there are figures who have provided philosophers with new cultural, scientific, and political paradigms who are absent from our philosophical traditions. Although we could say they were philosophers without defining themselves as such, their works have often presented innovative concepts, meanings, and truths that give them the same ontological status as the work of other philosophers. For most continental thinkers—as analytic philosophers still believe our discipline is circumscribed exclusively to logical problems derived from mathematics and science—these figures are vital to understanding our past, present, and also future.
Along with Freud, Einstein, and Marx, the Italian artist, director, filmmaker, poet, editor, painter, writer, and self-styled ethnographer Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922–1975) is certainly such a figure, which Toni Hildebrandt and Giovanbattista Tusa demonstrate in this marvelous collection of essays to celebrate the centenary of his birth. Since the amount, diversity, and insightfulness of the contributions makes it impossible to critically summarize each one I will limit this brief review to suggesting what Pasolini’s “ontological status” or “philosophy of Being” might be considering, the impact his oeuvre had on philosophers.
While some might be surprised to find to find that Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Roberto Esposito, among many other renowned Western thinkers have written on Pasolini, it is important to recall his own interest in philosophy. As Hildebrandt writes in the first chapter of the book, Pasolini “was a philosopher as much as a reader: he studied the complete works of Freud, Nietzsche and Gramsci in his childhood, and, since the 1960s, distinguished his style of thinking as ‘Anti-Hegelian’” (10). It has recently come to light that he was familiar not only with the writings of Walter Benjamin but also with those of Hebert Marcuse and Martin Heidegger, “whose conception of Dasein he quoted in later writings” (10).
In addition to grappling with a number of traditional aesthetic questions that lingered in his works for decades, Pasolini also developed a theory of journalism, aesthetics, and semiotics in direct confrontation with Ronald Barthes and Umberto Eco. But the most revealing example of his profound relation to philosophy can be found in his films Theorem (1968) and Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). In the latter’s prologue he gives “his spectators (or readers) an ‘essential bibliography’, listing Roland Barthes’ Sade, Fourier, Loyola, Maurice Blanchot’s Lautréamont et Sade, Simone de Beauvoir’s Faut-il brûler Sade, Pierre Klossowski’s Sade mon prochain, le philosophe scélérat, and Philippe Sollers’s L’écriture et l’experience des limites, making Salò also in this sense an exception in the history of cinema” (11). In sum, it should not be a surprise, as McKenzie Wark points out, that “Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy of cinema actually comes out of Pasolini” (128).
Although most of the chapters in the collection have previously been published, this is a great chance to understand the impact Pasolini’s wider oeuvre had on many different thinkers . For example, Alain Badiou considers Pasolini the “greatest poet of his generation” beyond his “marvelous movies, political commitments, critical essays, great novels, a new existential style” (299), and Roberto Esposito believes it is impossible to speak about Pasolini’s work, without referring to the three terms: “communism, capitalism, and fascism” (305). Although the most important chapters of the book are probably Ronald Barthes’s and Michel Foucault’s—which are brilliant comments on Salò and Love Meetings (1964)—given the authors’ place in the history of philosophy, but the contributions of Giorgio Agamben and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe are also vital as they show how “only a careful reading of his thoughts on dialect and language can provide a thread to pull on when attempting to untangle a body of work that appears so intertwined and contradictory” (30). The other brilliant essays analyze a variety of themes from Pasolini’s postcolonial views as well as the sounds of his films and their political implications and goals.
When Jean-Luc Godard’s described Pasolini oeuvre as “une pensée,” as a meandering thought-provoking thought, he was clearly referring to the ontology expressed in Pasolini’s works. This ontology is best outlined in the dialogue between Ara H. Merjian (a renowned Pasolini specialist) and McKenzie Wark (a philosopher and cultural critic whose writings are indispensable today) titled “Residues of the Sacred” (127–42). In their lively exchange these scholars show that Pasolini’s cinema technique “is its philosophy, one which replaces words with actions and things. He quite famously—and polemically—makes the cinema itself the touchstone of a new ontology. For Pasolini, film does not simply record reality, it is part of a reality which is already, in a fundamental sense, cinematic.” (127). The ontology Merjian refers to could easily be associated within Gadamer’s hermeneutic philosophy, where “Being, that can be understood, is language” because “interpretation is an insertion [Einlegen] of meaning and not a discovery [Finden] of it.”
Philosophy, like art in general, does not record reality but rather belongs to it. It interprets art from within in order to generate new meaning. This is also why for Pasolini, similarly to Gadamer, “the forging of new language [is] not an end in itself but a means to articulate the present. Such that we see the past of this present anew and see possible futures anew also” (142). The ontological status his movies, novels, plays, and poems acquired is hermeneutical because they are also attempts to avoid the bind of metaphysics. Just like Heidegger opposes “the desolation of the earth from metaphysics,” Pasolini rejects the subjection of the “subproletarian or popular classes, i.e., the South or the Third World, to its technocracy” (266). Pasolini sees “the everyday rural peasant life and subproletarian life in the city as opening onto something that, at least for a moment, escapes commodification” (129). This is also the goal of the hermeneutic ontology of Heidegger, Gadamer, Richard Rorty, and Gianni Vattimo: to escape various philosophical frames (metaphysical, rational, and technical) for the sake of freedom. In the last chapter of this marvelous edited collection Tusa accurately defines Pasolini’s oeuvre as “a militant assault on the fictitious assemblages of the state of affairs, on the violence of the present, inscribed in its images” (323).
It is interesting to note that Vattimo responds in a similar way to this violence when he calls upon “a militant hermeneutics” in his latest book. Like Pasolini, “hermeneutic thinkers are more or less explicitly accused of being crypto-terrorists and fomenters of social disorder” because they “contrast the tightening of the social order.” Although there are several examples in the history of hermeneutics that we could refer to—Luther’s challenge of the ecclesiastical authorities by translating the Bible, Freud’s to positivistic physiologies, and Rorty’s to analytic philosophy—it is clear that Pasolini can be considered a hermeneutical thinker to the same extent as the philosophers that praise his oeuvre, as this volume demonstrates.
Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. He is author of many books, including Being at Large: Freedom in the Age of Alternative Facts (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020) and Why Only Art Can Save Us: Aesthetics and the Absence of Emergency (Columbia University Press, 2017). His opinion articles have appeared in the New York Times, Al-Jazeera, and the Los Angeles Review of Books among other international media outlets.