A review of Calvino’s Complete Cosmicomics
’In the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being, which, under the existing relationships, only cause mischief, and are no longer forces of production but forces of destruction (machinery and money); and connected with this a class is called forth, which has to bear all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, which, ousted from society, is forced into the most decided antagonism to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of all members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness, which may, of course, arise among the other classes too through the contemplation of the situation of this class. (…) Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the changing of men on a mass scale is, necessary, a change which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it, can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages, and become fitted to found society anew.’
The German Ideology
Science fiction and pro-revolutionary literature share the same highest of high priorities, namely the separating out of moments of freedom from the reproduction of existing constrained relationships. Both discourses are most concerned with the image of an overflowing of activity which cannot be mapped back onto the co-ordinates of already established behaviour but which, on the contrary, defines itself on its own terms and may thus be presented as exceptional.
Freedom is always novel and freedom always steps out of all established registers in its wilful creation of a new register. What is free is thus understood as traces of consciousness commingling with fragments of activity within a unified project; freedom is always to be evaluated on the terms it generates itself out of the mixing together of its constituent parts.
’The shock of freedom works miracles. Nothing can resist it, neither mental illness, remorse, guilt, the feeling of powerlessness, nor the brutalisation created by the environment of power. When a waterpipe burst in Pavlov’s laboratory, not one of the dogs that survived the flood retained the slightest trace of his long conditioning. Could the tidal wave of great social upheavals have less effect on men than a burst waterpipe on dogs?’
But, once it has lost it glimmer, the image of freedom becomes that of caprice in relation to fate. As time lapses, the faded image of what it means to be free is transformed into the defining constraint on reproduced activity. Oppression is never more than freedom plus time.
Somewhere within that most esteemed collection of science fiction stories Cosmicomics Italo Calvino considers the freeing of shellfish from their submarine greyness. He notes that their achievement of colour is not complemented by their developing sight so that they might somehow gain benefit from their achievement. He represents this ‘just so’, the why it had to be, as a delicate process of accidental developments, of distribution of faculties, of the interplay of internalities and externalities, of constraints and the overcoming of constraints, of collapsing complexities and destabilised simplicities, of enticements and dead ends, of slow builds and sudden rushes.
In particular, Calvino presents the relationship of experimental engagements of the self (wherever this may be located on the circuit of material forces) within the context of a blank world as a series of subjectively achieved breakthroughs. He records how the evolution of sight does accompany the embodiment of visuality in the world but he also considers how the capacity to gaze is allocated to a different organisation’s line of descent than the developmental line of what is to be gazed upon – and yet, we discover, that far from having separate lineages the looking and the looked upon are necessarily integral to each other even if they do not inherit the same genetic patterning.
The object of my study here is Calvino’s displacement of the concept of work-activity from what is ordinarily understood as such (as encapsulated in the Theses on Feuerbach) to the works and activities of that which we have previously thought performs neither.
During those long moments of equilibrium in the world, when nothing much is happening, and everything slides gradually without a fanfare, my attention slides too and away from the agitations of those whose function it is to make a difference. Slipping further, my preparedness is then disconnected from the horizon where I had just now been looking for punctuating, emergent events, for extinctual crises and upfolding cataclysms, for any and all those eruptions which are going to shake new terms from out of the sky and down upon us. Quite unexpectedly, I pass into a state where I am neither looking for the signs nor listening for the prophets of the signs. And during such times I find myself engaged with, as if for the first time, all in the world that does not, and will not ever, change.
Because nothing is happening, my attention is drawn rather to the work, which is not a work at all, of that which is acted upon – to the stoney ground. That is to say, my attention is attracted to the passive role in the relation of the revolutionisers to the revolutionised.
My interest begins to attach itself to the receptor unit in communication, to the cloud of reactions which does not appear of its volition but is perhaps only ever defined by the actions of external forces. This cloud is divisible into two distinct modes:
A. affectiveness – by passivity, by reaction, susceptibility, suggestibility, responsiveness, pliability, permeability, mutability;
B. impermeability – by neutrality, by resistance, by inertia.
My interest in nothing doing, is primarily located in that substrate through which active principles either percolate down or flow across. Why is it that so much of the world does nothing but is content to either be changed from the outside, or even remain as it is? To focus the question more sharply, why is it that the communism as proposed by communisers is vulgar, forced, artificial whilst that which appears spontaneously within the communised is subtle, natural, well-proportioned? Why do we naturally prefer to find instances of communism than instigate it?
My interest then, is directed towards the work of receptor units, the passive bodies, the inert materials, the mute objects, the acted upon, in-themselves, subjects.
’I’m talking about sight, the eyes; only I had failed to foresee one thing: the eyes that finally opened to see us didn’t belong to us but to others. Shapeless colourless beings, sacks of guts stuck together carelessly, peopled the world around us, without giving the slightest thought to what they should make of themselves, to how to express themselves and identify themselves in a stable, complete form, such as to enrich the visual possibilities of whoever saw them. They came and went, sank awhile, then emerged, in that space between air and water and rock, wandering about absently; and we in the meanwhile, she and I and all those intent on squeezing out a form of ourselves, were there slaving away at our dark task. Thanks to us, that badly defined space became a visual field; and who reaped the benefit? These intruders, ho had never before given a thought to the possibility of eyesight (ugly as they were, they wouldn’t have gained a thing by seeing one another), these creatures who had always turned a deaf ear to the vocation of form. While we were bent over, doing the hardest part of the job, that is creating something to be seen, they were quietly taking on the easiest part: adapting their lazy embryonic receptive organs to what there was to receive: our images.’
The Spiral (from The Complete Cosmicomics)
The narrator, an unidentified mollusc, is describing how he has evolved a beautifully coloured and perfectly proportioned spiral shell. It is strange is it not, he observes, how his shell, this calcareous exoskeleton secreted from ectodermic cells within that part of his anatomy called the mantle, and supposedly developed as a mode of defence against predation, should also realise itself in terms of a visually pleasing logarithmic spiral growth, and an equally aesthetic complementary set of colours when he and his kind do not possess sight.
The narrator, and his kind, are visual objects and yet cannot see themselves. He goes on to explain, first in terms of love, and then in terms of the external evolution of sight, the work, his work, of passivity; he describes how the loved draws forward the lover, how the image catalyses the development of the eye.
The mollusc’s account of evolution here shifts its focus from the ‘active’ work of genes and instead emphasises the passive role of environment – sight is drawn out of bodies by the establishment of a visual field. Living beings develop the capacity to respond to visual stimuli, and this responsiveness enhances their existence, because there are things in the world to stimulate them visually.
By the same means, whilst the things I think about do not have to possess the capacity for thought for me to think of them, it is still the case that what seem like my thoughts actually belong to them as much as to me. And by extension, whilst the process of my existence is attuned to change in the world I do not record my attempts at change as changes but only as a continuation of the same terms of my self. So it is that whilst change is my project I am not able to satisfactorily effect it. I am waiting to be changed by that for which change is not, as far as I can make out, the project.
Why do we prefer to find instances of communism than instigate it? This has something to do with the law of unintended consequences. Every intervention into a complex system will produce outcomes that are both unpredicted and undesirable… we find we cannot successfully unify our plans with the actions which were supposed to realise the plans.
Whilst we are greatly satisfied with that which is undesigned (the shells we disinterestedly find on the beach whilst deep in thought on other matters) and whilst we are heartily pleased with that which we encounter outside of our own projects, that which surprises us and throws us back into a simple and unreflected upon relation with it, we are to the same degree discontented with that which we have authored – because it has spiralled irregularly beyond our intentions, because we are responsible for it. And we feel most responsibility for that which we are least contented with.
Transformation is typically described in terms of the actions of agents of transformation, and yet nothing would change at all if the passive figure in the relationship were not susceptible to the actions of that agent.
The world in which we live is not changing in response to the efforts of communisers and would-be revolutionaries and this has little to do with either the quality of their efforts or their selection of incorrect opportunities for intervention.
The world is not changing because the great passive, unchanging mass, is not receptive to, or even commensurate with, the messages of the agents who are attempting to act upon it.
And strangely, as soon as the work of passivity has been undertaken, that is, as soon the world becomes receptive to the works of would-be revolutionaries, it has already passed into a state of transformation in advance of the buzzing, exhortatory messages intended for it. And therefore, from the perspective of the agents of change, who would seek to lead it, the world remains equally impervious, passive, inscrutable even at its most revolutionary junctures.