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the tailor of ulm

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Lucio Magri in the current New Left Review:

At one of the crowded meetings held in 1991 to decide whether or not to change the name of the Italian Communist Party, a comrade posed this question to Pietro Ingrao: ‘After everything that has happened and all that is now taking place, do you still believe the word “communist” can be used to describe the kind of large, democratic mass party that ours has been, and is, and which we want to renew so as to take it into government?’ Ingrao, who had already laid out in full the reasons for his dissent and proposed that an alternative course be taken, replied—not altogether in jest—with Brecht’s famous parable of the tailor of Ulm. This 16th-century German artisan had been obsessed by the idea of building a device that would allow men to fly. One day, convinced he had succeeded, he took his contraption to the Bishop and said: ‘Look, I can fly’. Challenged to prove it, the tailor launched himself into the air from the top of the church roof, and, naturally, ended up in smithereens on the paving stones below. And yet, Brecht’s poem suggests: a few centuries later men did indeed learn to fly.

I was thinking “The Tailor of Ulm” would make a bad name for a good blog, a good left group blog. I’m sniffing around for one of those, a name, by the way, so send suggestions but only if they’re really, really good. Anyway, it’s hard to knock pieces like Magri’s, as there is some value in taking ourselves yet again on a quick trip through the narrative of left high and left low and left nearly gone and landing back at “What is to be done?”

But… there is also a way, I think, that pieces like this one, that follow this same trajectory through the continued pertience of our line of thought and work but the “to be honest” poor prospects that anything presently existing could be harnessed into real work, these pieces performatively, reiteratively on some level enforce the stasis that they describe.We hear again that new histories of the immediate past, new theorizations and adaptations of the line need to be developed in tune with current conditions, we hear that there are valuable lessons in the past but that new work remains to be done to render them current, and so on. There is a way that space-filling, talking issuelessly through the gap, becomes tyrannical in itself. It has, this sort of piece, become a genre unto itself, and as such builds guiderails into the flow of ideas, has a determinative effect on future productions, comes to frame (more rigidly and effectively than one might expect – genres are very powerful) ever more constrictively the place where this ever-announced new growth would arrive. It is the fault of no one piece – this is not Magri’s problem – but en masse, these things enforce depression, tacitly instruct that the way to solve the problem is to name the problem again and again and again and again until, what, men learn to fly.

It feels like bad form to head in the “Whereof one cannot speak…” direction…. Ooof… just like that, with the Witty reference, it dawns on me I’ve written this post before. See? The nastiness of genres. They breed like the mice Magri mentions in the piece, Marx’s mice, the mice we can’t stop mentioning, anticipating, baiting… You see what happens when you duck again below the cabinets to check….

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 15, 2008 at 9:45 am

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