The Original Infamy

Lea Melandri

Preface 

Lea Melandri’s “The Original Infamy” appeared in L’erba voglio in the spring of 1975. It was reprinted in an anthology by the same name in 1977, paired with a previously unpublished essay, “The Irreducible Gap,” under the heading “Critique of Survival.” 

1977 was a boiling point for the Italian autonomist movement. By February, the rupture between autonomists and the Italian Communist Party (PCI) over the latter’s alliance with bourgeois power and its “historic compromise” with Christian Democracy had become irreversible. This refusal of mediation on the part of the movement was accompanied by an uptick in armed violence on all sides. The killing of Francesco Lorusso of Lotta Continua by Carabinieri in Bologna during a riot that March sent shockwaves across the country, catalyzing further rebellion.

Melandri occupied something of a liminal position among Italian feminist critics of Marxism and the extended milieu, neither fully affirming autonomism nor rejecting its political potential. As she emphasizes in her prefatory note to the 1977 anthology (below), she understood her decision to republish these texts as a contribution to those elements in the ongoing uprising that sought to break with both liberal and Marxist orthodoxy. Drawing on the author’s experience in autonomous women’s collectives, “The Original Infamy” shows how a rigorous feminist practice can accelerate the collapse of these dying political forms. Against recuperative efforts by universities and political institutions to co-opt the feminist movement’s organizing models while neutralizing the threat they posed to the intellectual order, Melandri sought to underscore their insurgent character. 

This possibility depends in part upon the critique of the artificial severance of the private realm from the political. In spite of its appearance as a pseudo-natural site of difference, “the personal” is not an individualizing tendency that erupts into the political from “outside.” In fact, it is this very illusion that sustains imaginary political unities such as that of a totalizing economic class. While her critique is more directly leveled at proponents of a narrow dialectical materialism, it also implicates those second wave feminists whose slogans rejected this presumed division without interrogating its source.  

“The Original Infamy” probes the relation between sexual difference and “the social,” calling attention to the triangular structures of familial domination that underwrite the reproduction of bourgeois society. As she illustrates, the divide between revolution and conservation rests upon a denial of the gendered mechanisms of survival, relegated to the private realm. Melandri identifies survival with the fulfillment of what we experience as an “original” or baseline need, one which is at the same time irreducibly gendered. Survival here is a condition into which we are thrust back, or to which we are returned, wherever the artificial separation between personal and political is enforced, a perpetual childhood in which our “pleasure and vitality” lies frozen. Echoing the existential feminism of French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, Melandri demonstrates that whereas women’s survival is trapped in immanence, in the materiality of the body, and in reproduction, that of men is positioned as transcendent, an affirmation of affect and power. So long as the latter is guaranteed by women’s submission, any effort to draw our political bearings from within the separation of the sexual from the economic will only ensure their further subjugation. In this way, Melandri links the suppression of sexual difference to the perpetuation of bourgeois forms of political organization. The possibility of a genuine rupture with bourgeois sociality is therefore contingent on a reassessment of dependency and archaic forms of sociality.

The critique of this dependency reveals the potential lying beyond the illusions on which it rests. To that end, it might even turn out that “the ‘non-existence’ of women is also their strength,” if this means that “those who can clearly see what lies at the origin” are singularly positioned to demystify it. Such a demystification would also sweep away with it those “fictitious solidarities” on which revolutionary politics has long rested, as a necessary precursor to the birth of authentic ones.

- Leijia Hanrahan, August 2021


Authors’ note1

It’s been almost a year since Elvio Fachinelli proposed putting out a book collecting some of my articles published in the journal L'Erba Voglio

Throughout this period, the time dedicated to the actual work (rereading-writing) was very short as compared with the time I spent thinking about doing it, or putting it out of my mind entirely.

The doubts that led me to believe, from time to time, that it was best to abandon or postpone it were various: excessive self-esteem or utter self-deprecation, uncertainty about the actual meaning of certain writings, an ill-concealed ambition to say entirely original things, embarrassment and suffering at having to endure the contradiction of individual work within the framework of a common practice with other women.

I have often thought, and I am still convinced, that writing a book becomes anachronistic once there emerges a political practice through which to analyze the relationship between individual and collective, sexuality and writing, etc. If I have opted to tackle the ambiguity and contradictions of this work anyway, it was essentially under the impetus of two events: a profound modification of my life, which I could define as "personal" only by misrepresenting the practice of political relations with other women, from which the change originated; and the resumption, in recent months, of a movement of struggle that, even in its most heterogeneous components, has deeply incorporated themes and ways of doing politics that appear destined to be banned by bourgeois institutions and dogmatic Marxists alike.

May these writings serve as a contribution to the "withering" [deperimento] of Politics, but also of Sentiment, of imaginary sexuality, of compulsory escapism, of unhappy loves. 

-Lea Melandri, March 1977


The Original Infamy2

Two institutions, the school and the family, merge into an ideal order, the Delegated Order. Franti's smile is infamy, it is the different that does not hesitate to break the idyll of a consenting majority.3

As the revolutionary militant thinks back to his private dreams, the suspicion arises that Politics itself is but a dream. All that was pushed aside, denied, or held apart shamefully returns, in the form of insidious dissenting “voices,” the “voice” that “discriminates, divides, indicates a difference.”

But inside, in the rift, Franti's smile leaks out: an infamous smile that kills both his mother and Malfatti, the Heart and Politics.

In recent years, while parties large and small reinforce their hierarchical and bureaucratic structures, their imaginary pyramids of ancient family "geometries," revolutionary spontaneity has discovered more and more clearly the truth of everything that bourgeois ideology has chased out of the public sphere, relegated to the ghetto of the household, the man-woman relationship, or individual deviance. The search for circularity and synthesis between the personal and the political, artificially separated, appears as the final shore beyond which either a new mode of political existence is born, or politics itself dies as a collective project for liberation. 

The difficulties that autonomy encounters in its various forms of aggregation (autonomous assemblies, consciousness-raising groups, communes, etc.) are no different from those that push “disappointed” militants to reconstitute the party as a separate site of politics. But, for those who have left even this illusion behind, the risk lies instead in a return to private life.

Nostalgia and repetition continually creep in wherever the appearance of different and freer attitudes is felt as a threat of loneliness and marginalization as compared to a sociality that, although recognized as imaginary and repressive, is [at least] less disturbing.

Slavery accustoms one to a fear of freedom. The idea of movement carries with it that of paralysis, like its shadow. 

At this point, one wonders if we are not always too hasty in drawing boundaries between conservation and revolution. If by conservation we do not only mean the defense of privileges, but, in a broader sense, submission to norms and relationships that guarantee an alienated survival, then the boundary shifts and enters into the history of each person, touching upon the most “private” situations.

Fantasy and reality have always been intertwined in our private/social history. In order to give substance to abstractions (money, exchange value), the capitalist organization of production had to present itself as an unchangeable objectivity (nature). Everything associated with it has suffered the same fate: the divisions of labour, technology, the individual-society relationship, etc. The “naturalness” of economics and politics is the ruse [l'inganno] of capitalist ideology, preserved in part even by those who seek to destroy it.

Discovering glitches in a machine that seemed perfect therefore means exposing its attempts to lay claim to reality. Once the social no longer appears to us in the false solidity of what is objectively, outside of and totally other than us, it is easier to see the kinship that it has with each of our personal histories.

Over the past few years, the image of an unshakeable and rational system has suffered a crack that cannot be easily repaired. The ideological and moral mystifications on which bourgeois society has been sustained up to now are collapsing, and basic guarantees of subsistence can no longer be taken for granted.

It might seem like the most auspicious moment to put an end to mass dependency. Some certainly counted on it. But there are also signs that point to contrary trends: the revaluation of institutions (school, family, party), the nostalgia for a return to the private sphere, the emergence of new forms of magico-religious escapism as a shelter from loneliness and uncertainty. In addition to being more topical than ever, the problem of dependency is now loaded with complex and profound implications. In the face of a crumbling order, the various efforts to plug the rifts and drown out dissenting voices respond to a need for conservation that is no less material than physical self-preservation in the strict sense. Even among those heralding the collapse of the capitalist pyramid, not everyone can suppress the temptation to climb the ranks of organizations that are “alternative” only in appearance.

Conservation returns us to survival. What is there that you cannot risk losing, besides food, in order to ensure life?

Both individual subject and social subject, under the current economic structure, have alienated connotations: those individuals bourgeois ideology describes as active, free, autonomous subjects are in reality reduced to passive objects, abstract individuals; by contrast, the mass of producers and performers is comprised of individuals unknown to each other, isolated and dispossessed of the product of their work. By opposing the social subject (class) to the individual, as if the class were already itself, objectively, the subject of revolution, dialectical materialism risks attributing concreteness and revolutionary force to an entity no less abstract and alienated than the individual.

The search for a concrete individuality is therefore inevitably linked to the search for a new sociality.

When we speak of the “personal” and the “political” as two instances present within the revolutionary movement, there is a risk that we project a consistency and a polarity to two moments that are instead merged and confused. To descend into the history of what has been seen only as private and individual is like being swallowed by a funnel. Real time and political intention become more and more blurred, while a depth without history seems to take shape, where there stirs only a handful of intense passions, always the same. The “personal” takes on the appearance of the different: a sort of immutable yet suppressed “nature” that resurfaces once again, introducing disintegration and confusion into a social fabric that likes to represent itself as homogeneous.

Beyond the truths that all these dangers express (partiality versus imaginary unity, conflict versus fictitious solidarity), however, one can end up unwittingly reproducing an ideological mystification: to see as a “natural” and separate impulse what is at once the effect of, and the support for, the perpetuation of a distorted and abstract sociality.

Jealousy, rivalry, and the demand for love are the distorted face of an interpretation of the social that passes directly through the dualism-triangle of familial relations.

From this starting point, an alienating and destructive model of survival cuts across the whole of social organization, with only minor differences.

In a group of women who aim to give a concrete, non-ideological basis to their political relationship, the arrival of new people triggers a discussion about whether the group should keep itself open or give itself a minimum of regulation.

But who are the “newcomers”? M. declares herself openly hostile to any new presence that feels like a “rival” of the group, since it risks diverting the attention and love of the group. The group is clearly configured like a third person/group to whom we imaginatively give (or are afraid to give) a face. Our history seems irremediably marked by triangular relationships.

“Could there ever be an ‘active fourth’?”, L. wonders.

For G., the group is welcoming, warm as a mother's belly. Not always; sometimes she feels like a stranger and barely recognizes anyone. When she feels comfortable, she wants to talk. Her voice is penetrating, voracious, but also betrays the fear of being devoured.

For others, the group does not have the face of a particular woman; they want it to remain neutral, anonymous. The most deeply rooted fundamental structure of all interpersonal relationships is thus reproduced, but in a recognizable fashion: the duality / triangularity of the type of social relationship that the family imprints on each of us. Whatever the face of the group (the mother, the parental couple, etc.), the original situation is there, implicated in the fragile reasonableness of our discourse, in the poise of our bodies. Freeing speech means “betraying oneself,” by revealing impulses and images partly unknown to ourselves, but without going so far that we fail to sense in them the reappearance of something that we already know. It is not by chance that making explicit the request for affective guarantees in a group of women can arouse deep terrors: they fear rejection because it is an intolerable repetition of our original abandonment, but also acquiescence because it recalls fusional fantasies, deadly embraces; as if lacking the reassuring difference that men possess, that difference that has made them historically powerful, women find themselves facing one another without any boundaries, mutually permeable.

Before the meeting is over, one of them proposes to meet for dinner, to meet the others outside the group so as to more easily distinguish the faces and voices of each of them from their own fantasies. The meeting takes place a few days later in a bar where the music is so loud it is nearly impossible to hear one another. The need to refer to an anonymous group/person resists the desire for freer relationships. 

The ‘active fourth’ is born slowly and with difficulty. Meanwhile, survival.

A woman has decided to separate from her husband. She spent the evening alone; she fell asleep right away but woke up with a headache. She imagines falling seriously ill and being taken to the hospital. She wants her husband to know and be moved by her fate. Other fantasies: to strip herself of all desire and devote herself to religious meditation; or another: to become like her reserved, thrifty mother, sacrificing herself to family obligations.

We can escape from dependence, from waiting for someone or something to arrive from outside and guarantee our life, but what remains forbidden is to play freely.

The privilege of man consists also in allowing himself to “be hungry” and, at the same time, to “play.” An alienated balance between survival and pleasure based on separation, but which allows one to escape the suffering of those who are forced, in the absence of pleasure, to “be hungry” and feel ashamed of it.

Breaking the circle of dependence means entering a transitional phase, where the risk is to eliminate not only the corpse of an alienated existence but also the pleasure and vitality frozen in a sort of forced childhood.

Survival must be rethought from its point of origin: an indication that applies not only to the analysis of the specific alienation of women, but to all those political organizations that stress autonomy as an essential moment in the creation of a real political collectivity.

The moment it takes up such themes (survival, the personal, etc.), the political practice of feminist groups collides with an ideal Order and Unity that continually returns without much variation in the history of the Left. In this case, partiality presents itself unequivocally as diversity and dissonance, a threat of change and new unforeseen contradictions.

The fact that women have given themselves organizational forms that disregard all pre-existing models, and that appear spontaneous (in the sense of "non-organizations") only to those who have hierarchical and bureaucratic structures in mind, shatters the illusion of those who still hope that the conflict between men and women will be pacified within the Great Single Class Unity.

When an order, whatever it may be, feels threatened, the reaction is the same: censor, fetter, integrate.

For women, even in adulthood, survival continues to present itself in its original form: the need to be nourished, the need to feed, the need to be loved, the need to give love. It does not appear, or else only rarely, as the elaboration of needs in the various forms typical of male development – affirmation, power, competition.

The activities of man – whether economic, cultural, artistic or political activity – also bear the sign of the original relationship of dependence on the woman-mother. But with the added difference that arises from the privilege of being able to place oneself in a position of power with respect to the mother.

Affective survival is guaranteed to man, even in the absence of maternal figures, by the awareness of playing the role of those who ‘can’ or who ‘possess.’ The world, such as it is organized, and whatever the economic, political and cultural structures that govern it, confirms for him daily his hereditary possession: the submission of women.

All cultures, G. Róheim argues, can resemble the history of an individual with his neuroses, his defenses, his anxieties. Civilization as an extension of childhood? But those who can “create culture” are those who, in one way or another, have satisfied the needs of childhood, those for whom separation from the mother has been possible, because they were able to repeat the original bond with other women. This does not mean autonomy and freedom with regard to primary relationships, but only the fact of setting foot on solid ground, on a 'material' sturdy enough to leave us free to “do something else.”

Economic survival and affective survival (to be loved – to be fed) are originally indistinct. Even eroticism is an integral part of the relationship by which life is transmitted. The separation that follows (production – reproduction – economic relations – family relations – work – sexuality) is already the sign of a deep alienation whose roots lie in a sexist and patriarchal structure even prior to its anchoring in the structure of capitalism.

The way it presents itself in the daily experience of women, survival appears as if it had neither time nor history. The point of arrival and that of departure remain at the place of origin, a fixity and immobility that provokes a paralysis or mutilation of “doing.” It is only at the cost of great effort that a woman succeeds in making the work of men her own, while maintaining a kind of reserve with respect to it. Her energy remains obstinately linked to the search for an ideal maternal love, which is weighed down by fear and feelings of guilt. Motherhood is the only “doing” possible: to transform herself from an abandoned daughter into a generous mother. The experience of maternal abandonment-betrayal leaves her in the position of having to seek definitive proof of her existence and of her value in men.

She thus finds herself dispossessed of life and of the meaning that her life could take, forced to bring her impulses within the limits imposed by man for the satisfaction of his own, to measure and mystify her desires so as not to repeat the experience of abandonment.

But the “non-existence” of women is also their strength. Those who can clearly see what lies at the origin, because they have never been separated from it, are the bearers of a truth that shakes up all the social and political analyses that were founded on the denial and mystification of even this very origin.

The attempt in many quarters today to carry a political practice developed by the womens’ movement over to the platform of congresses, universities, or political parties is the conservative reaction of those who feel that their daily privileges and their credibility as intellectuals or politicians are being threatened.

But now what is new – that the critique of survival can become part of a political practice – has happened.

Nourishment and love, sexuality and doing, play and necessity can only be reborn together.

Translated by Howard Slater and Ill Will.

Notes

  1. This note introduces the collection of essays published in 1977 as L’infamia Originaria (Milano: Edizioni l’erba voglio, 1977), 7-8.

  2. First published in L'Erba Voglio, n. 20, March-April, 1975. Reprinted in L’infamia Originaria (Milano: Edizioni l’erba voglio, 1977), 11-20. 

  3. “The poor woman, urged affectionately by the master, came out. A moment of great silence followed. When the door was closed, the master looked back at Franti with a terrible gaze and said to him, punctuating the syllables: ‘Franti, you are killing your mother, you are killing Malfatti.’ We all turned to him; and the infamous man smiled.” from “Franti’s Smile” by Stefano Reggiani, L'erba voglio, No. 20, 1975.