Funeral rites

On Nanni Balestrini's 'Blackout'

To understand Italy one must understand the United States. — Sylvère Lotringer / Christian Marazzi 

Nanni Balestrini’s Blackout is a requiem for the generation of 1968, whose hopes and ideals were exhausted by the time of the poem’s composition in 1979. The original impetus for the poem was the blackout in New York on July 13, 1977, that lasted for twenty-five hours and drew widespread media attention due to countless episodes of violence and looting. Balestrini believed this event provided a powerful potential for collaboration with the singer and musician Demetrio Stratos. Balestrini’s text, he intended, would be a series of works based on the blackout in New York to which Stratos would insert sounds, noises, and his own voice, distorting and manipulating the sound and using film projections and light shows.

But the project was never realized. As a result of the mass arrests in Italy, conducted by chief judge Pietro Calogero on April 7, 1979, Balestrini was indicted for his alleged association with a terrorist group. But the authorities were unable to prove his membership, and when he was released, he fled to France, as so many others were beginning to do at the time. Meanwhile Stratos fell seriously ill with bone marrow aplasia and was hospitalized at Memorial Hospital in New York. He died on June 13, 1979. What was to have been an electrifying performance of music and text, a call to action, was no longer possible. The performance at the Rotonda della Besana in Milan was cancelled. While in France, Balestrini began to collect the materials that would eventually become the long poem Blackout. He was creating a map to understand the political climate that had led to his self-imposed exile, examining the sequence of historical events whose consequence was his repression in Italy, and asking why no further revolutionary action was possible. In a sense, Blackout faithfully records the end of a world, the disappearance of a series of perspectives and ideals that had characterized the late ’60s and ’70s during an extraordinary period of creativity and hope. But Blackout is as much an elegy as it is a call to action for future generations to counter the ever-present problem of power.

The problem of power

At one point in Blackout, Balestrini writes, “This poem should not be published because it is a political manifesto.”[1] The historical events with which Blackout is concerned and toward which it is critical began with the wave of conflicts in 1968 at the universities and factories (important for the poem under discussion is the Fiat factory in Turin) and eventually spread throughout the West. The protests culminated in the “troubled autumn” of 1969,[2] eventually involving the entire Italian working class in strikes, demonstrations, and acts of sabotage.[3] The discussion in Italy was now directly engaged with political problems, the central problem being the “problem of power.”[4] The State’s response to these strikes and demonstrations was the legalization of police violence and the systematic use of arms in police confrontations.[5]

An important phase in the movement occurred in the late ’70s with an increase in unemployed workers who were university educated. The feminist movement emerged, as well as gay activist collectives. Free Radio created an uninterrupted flow of music and words that could be accessed in homes. There were experiments with collective forms of living. Communes were set up by squatters in various neighborhoods. All this was an attempt to transform society at the cultural level.[6]

On March 7, 1977, the student movement took over Bologna (a stronghold of the PCI) and Rome. There was violent conflict in Rome. Five days later, Rome became the stage of a six-hour battle including thousands of youths. Over the following days, the movement invaded the city of Bologna. The PCI’s ability to maintain public order was undermined, and the state resorted to brutal repression throughout Italy. Hundreds were arrested in Bologna and elsewhere, radio stations were closed, journals and magazines confiscated, bookstores shut down.[7] It was clear that the movement was in crisis. As a collective, it could not reconcile its members’ ideals with the growing violence and state repression. Armed warfare had begun to take center stage, eventually engulfing the entire movement, out of which emerged the Red Brigade that engaged in terrorist acts.[8]

The strength of terrorism was the symptom of a larger crisis within the movement, namely its inability to actualize a program for implementing its ideals. The arrests of April 7, 1979, were a direct result of the state’s desire to eradicate every attempt by the movement to supersede terrorism.[9] About twenty people were arrested on suspicion of being “dangerous terrorists,” including Antonio Negri, who was accused of being the “secret leader” of the Red Brigade. Balestrini himself was indicted and fled to France. It was no coincidence that the chief prosecutor, Pietro Calogero, was a member of the PCI. Those arrested were neither caught in the act nor found in possession of incriminating documents. The charges were serious and often carried a life sentence.[10] The accusations were based on the reports of defendants, taped conversations, and the word of informants. The possibility of a new epoch free from capitalist domination was becoming questionable: the state was closing off any possible transition to an era of liberation, and arrests were not based on fact.[11] As we read in the 9/11 Commission Report with regard to the accuracy of implementing strategic plans in times of war: “It is therefore crucial to find a way of routinizing, even bureaucratizing, the exercise of imagination.”[12] This “institutionalizing” of the imagination was one instance among many attempts by the United States to silence any opposition to its official policy here and abroad. The American struggles have always been a key point of reference in Italy. If anything, the importance of the Italian situation resided in its ability to extend the American struggle further because of the continuity of the class struggle in Italy. As Balestrini writes, “I am convinced today for the first time that our problem is really an American problem.”[13]

The 1960s in America were a turbulent and creative time: a time of civil rights activism; healthcare reform; the rise of Black nationalism and the formation of the Black Panthers; the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a staunch anticommunist; outrage here and abroad about the United States’ heavy-handed approach to Vietnam; the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention and the reaction of the police; the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; the Bay of Pigs invasion; the Cuban Missile Crisis; the Stonewall riots; and the rise of a counterculture movement against mainstream liberalism. The ’70s were marked by the oil crisis in 1973 and the energy crisis in 1979, making it perhaps the worst decade in terms of economic performance since the Great Depression. It was a decade that witnessed the Kent State massacre; the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Richard Nixon; the burgeoning feminist movement; the creation of environmental groups; the launch of Skylab, the first US space station; the Three Mile Island nuclear accident; and the blackout in New York. It marked the decline of the counterculture of the ’60s and the consequent rise in conservative politics, signaling the end of a world of creativity and hope. Blackout depicts a transition from the serene landscape of the opening sections to the “river of blue jeans,”[14] which suggests a movement away from open spaces to a confined space. For Balestrini, the desire for freedom doesn’t end there, but reemerges, from the darkness of “the cinema,” into a world of new possibilities — new strategies to counter threats to freedom. 

Like at the cinema when the film ends[15]

The opening section of Balestrini’s Blackout was compiled from a tourist guide of Monte Blanc. The poem begins, “in front of a landscape of immense beauty that opens onto the glaciers … the view is incomparable in good weather but often obscured by fog” (11). Space is unconfined by the “the immense silence of the dazzling glacier” (11). Nature is impersonal. The geographic names lose their local color and enter the realm of the mythical, the dreamlike.[16] There is a sense of continuous expansion, “the gaze distinguishes the Oberland peaks on one side and the maritime Alps on the opposite” (11). We are in the realm of limitless possibility. The effect is strengthened by the use of exceptional adjectives (“immense,” “dazzling,” “glittering” and “superb”) and nouns (“vista” and “panorama”). Hyperbole dominates the opening section. In this way, the poem achieves its solemn and contemplative tone. Here in this open space we imagine the play of light. There is a sense of overwhelming brightness.

In the second section, the movement of the poem is away from the heavenly and toward the terrestrial: “for days a poster illuminated the walls of Milan” (14). But this vertical downward movement occurs with a sense of foreboding in the natural world: “a splendid sky” gives way to “threat of storm” (12). We are in the presence of life, the world of man. There is an explosion of color, “a river of blue jeans.” The mountain peaks have become walls. The scene changes from the Alps to a street in Milan. The valleys become the Arena of Milan, where the memorial concert for Demetrio Stratos was held on June 14, 1979. We are fully in the throes of action and far away from the contemplative serenity of the poem’s opening lines. The poem zooms in to witness looters “in the Bronx inside an Ace Pontiac reception room” who “knock down a steel door take 50 new cars and start the motors simultaneously … a 50 year old woman with a shopping bag” entering “ a store saying today she shops for free,” and on “111th street a crowd moves hurriedly amid the ruins of the supermarket like hundreds of ants carrying out the goods” (29–30). We hear “a young woman … Afreeka Omfress,” who says, “it really is wonderful they are all out together on the streets there is a party atmosphere.” We are in New York during the blackout of 1977.

In section 20 of Balestrini’s poem, we read a fragment of Antonio Negri’s response to police questioning the ability of the state to respond effectively to the demands of members of the movement. “In the first place the definitive fall of the state’s ability to mediate power by law,” the result of which is the increased struggle for power: “the relationship has become a relationship of power” (34). Another significant event in the poem concerns the US space station Skylab’s reentry into the atmosphere and the growing fear that it may strike a city. The poem enters a world of chaos, violence, and uncertainty, from the silence and stillness of the glaciers to the conflict in the streets. The light has gone out.

Light alternates in the poem between natural and artificial. In the fourth part of the poem we encounter a destructive element of artificial light: “the 500 Watt bulbs were mounted at a distance of about 5 meters and aimed directly at the window of the cell” (59). Here the light is the all-seeing eye of the state — Foucault’s panopticon. It is the eye of truth that persecutes: “you persecute your persecutors with the truth.” The brilliant light becomes a cause for alienation and inhibition. Light becomes an instrument of torture. The prisoner is unable to sleep under the bright lights and “the sleep” that overtakes him “during the day” is “systematically disrupted by the prison routine that began at 6am” (60); “From the night of August 1st three floodlights illuminated my cell every day.” The prisoner writes, “I was very nervous and unable to read I couldn’t retain any thoughts for a long time nor reflect on my situation.” The absence of artificial light is a blackout, “like at the cinema when the film ends” (63). It is unlike the darkness that follows day, which is a time of rest. The blackout is a time of alienation and destruction, rebellion and social protest.

Blackout is a collective lament that celebrates and welcomes the end of a myth. Blackout was to be a collective call to action, a choral song; its subtitles refer to music and point to its original conception as a performance piece. The poem revives an ancient lyric genre, the threnos, a public performance of lamentation. The poem opens with the memorial concert for Demetrio Stratos, but also invokes the “celebratory” atmosphere among looters during the blackout in New York that recalls the clandestine activities of terrorist groups, particularly the Red Brigade. Hope has degenerated to violence and repression; the movement has failed to realize its program of liberation. The destruction of individual freedom through harmful and unhealthy work in the factories (“they are not thinking of the day they will leave Fiat // the work you do each day is boring and harmful” [18]), the arrests of April 7 (“Doctor Pietro Calogero our substitute magistrate for the republic approves the actions of the penal procedure #710/ 719 A” [43]), the collective rituals where every kind of violence and destruction is unleashed in the name of apparent freedom — these are some of the many metaphors for death that circulate in the poem. Death is accompanied by images of loneliness and despair, and a desire to escape its inevitability. In part 4, section 45, we read of “a common fear of being alone” (67), and in section 43, that there is “so much anger” (65); in section 44 we read a phrase taken from a program note for the memorial concert for Demetrio Stratos: “this concert represents the desire not to give in to death” (66). The song of collective lamentation transcends personal grief.

Unlike a traditional epic that sings of origins in a fabulous manner because the bard is at a distance from the events, the language in Blackout is drawn primarily from news clippings. At the conclusion of the poem, Balestrini includes a list of the various magazine articles and books from which the poem’s phrases are taken. We also find a diagram illustrating Balestrini’s systematic organization and compositional rigor. The poem uses repetition to create a series of complex cross-references; the method is the equivalent of a musical theme with variations. In the words of Pierre Boulez, “structural relationships are not defined once and for all … they organize themselves … according to variable diagrams.”[17] On each page, four phrases are repeated from the previous page. The iterations are not only of whole phrases; sometimes parts of phrases or extensions are added. The last phrase in part 3, section 32, reads: “because we know almost everything we need to know” (50). The first phrase in section 33 reads: “get to the point what does it mean to create impenetrable sanctuaries” (51). And the next line is: “because we know almost everything we need to know and we don’t need lessons.” These phrases were taken from the prosecutors’ questioning of defendants arrested on April 7, 1979.

The following excerpts illustrate how parts of phrases appear along with their extensions: 

Italian justice is not guilty (section 33, line 8)
not guilty of foul play they say lightly and in bad faith (section 34, line 10)
as those who really engage in foul play say lightly and in bad faith (section 35, line 2)

a tiny fanatical elite supported by sleazy backers (section 33, line 4)
a tiny fanatical elite that attempt to exorcize their frustrations supported by sleazy backers (section 34, line 2)
that attempt to exorcize their frustrations (section 35, line 6)

there won’t therefore be a bit of wisdom other than much caution behind the silence and obscurity of intellectuals (section 34, line 6)

a bit of wisdom other than much caution behind the silence and obscurity of intellectuals (section 35, line 4)
behind the silence and obscurity of intellectuals (section 36, line 2)

Of course, as the phrases change so do the relations between them and between other phrases in a section. In this way, Balestrini is able to create a patchwork of cross-references and multiple voices. Renello writes: 

Resuming and modifying the definition of Boulez, [one can say that in Balestrini’s Blackout] the series is the germ of a hierarchical classification based on a few properties, equipped with greater or lesser selectivity, which enables you to organize a finite set of creative possibilities with respect to a given character. (144) 

In Blackout, Balestrini creates a framework for multiple voices: a secular cantata.

In opposition to the biblical “fiat lux,” a blackout is a sudden disappearance of the light. Initial surprise — “in front of a landscape of immense beauty” (11) — yields to despair for a darkness that seems to engulf everything. Death involves everything and everyone. Language fails and gives way to primal terror: “there was a collective guttural cry when the lights went out” (67). But light and dark are reciprocal. The luminous vision that opens the poem is reached through the experience of blackout in the form of violence and revolt. In the last section, the poem suggests a passage from the dark that closes the text and sanctions the end of a world, a movement indicated by the subtitles. At first there is “a loss of memory or an event of fact” (10) followed by “the extinguishing of all stage lights to end a play or scene” (25), “suppression censorship concealment etc.” (41), and finally “a momentary lapse of consciousness or vision” (59, my emphasis). Paolo Virno, a member of the Autonomist paper Metropoli, who was arrested in June 1979, wrote, 

The natural corporeal reality of [the] individual, his or her socially enriched senses, instead of constituting the tedious and superfluous empirical zone in which value is produced, suggests a different criterion of productivity, no longer based on the blind necessity of self-preservation or “time-saving,” but rather on the variegated time of consciously planning activities … which, after all, is what Marx alluded to when he spoke of the composer of music and the work of art as anticipations in terms of a form of production without domination.[18

In Blackout, the end of the ideals and hopes of the generation of ’68 is announced as an inevitable process and the conclusion of a cycle. But if the “lapse of vision” is “momentary,” then a new beginning is ever present in the ashes of a failed utopia.

And so the final credits have appeared on the screen. The film is over. There is silence. But suddenly we are conscious of others in the dark with us. The viewing of the film has been a collective experience. We stand up and head for the exit together. Outside there is light again. Perhaps sun or rain. We go our separate ways immersed in our own thoughts. But we are in the world again and anything is possible — if not collectively on a large scale then through individual choice, the choice to live according to one’s will and desire and without judgment of others. Balestrini’s Blackout is just such a call to action, but not by way of traditional politics or worldview. The struggle, as the poem suggests, is not over, but continues under a different set of historical circumstances and with different methods and strategies. Balestrini’s provocation is urgently needed, especially here in the United States, where it is increasingly evident that people are encouraged to act like the “automaton” the poem speaks of, who “faithfully follows orders” (54), “who has no personality,” and is “only an arm driven by a mind that is foreign.” It is at once a subversive primary document of a bygone revolutionary period, and an explosive poem rich in implications for our present time and for the future. 

1. All translations are my own, from Nanni Balestrini’s Blackout (Oakland, CA: Commune Editions, 2017), 53.

2. In 1969 the Partito Communista Italiano (PCI) was criticized and superseded by the student movement. The “troubled” autumn of 1969 refers to the extraordinary wave of student protests in the factories. The final break with the PCI occurred during the “Historical Compromise,” the alliance between the PCI and the Christian Democrats, the result of which was the people’s subordination to the will of big capital in the name of economic revival. This alliance came about after the Chilean coup and the oil crisis of 1973. The following years witnessed the rise, both financially and institutionally, of the chemical and energy sectors in world capitalism. This significantly impacted the worker’s struggle toward socialization and resulted in layoffs, inflation, and chronic unemployment. At the same time the Chilean experience exposed the deficiency of old models of socialist government. But the revolutionary movement did not cease, and in the ’70s it grew among the youth and among students who mobilized into various groups. One was called “Potere Operaio” (Worker’s Power). It was made up of workers and neo-Marxist intellectuals and was a major presence in the factories of Padua and at the University of Rome. In May 1973, Worker’s Power dissolved and split into two groups. One went underground and grew increasingly militant, eventually becoming the Red Brigade. The other group, with Antonio Negri, Franco Piperno, and Oreste Scalzone, went on to create the extraparliamentary Autonomist movement. They were a true mass movement comprised of students, the unemployed, and those living on the margins of society. See Franco Berardi, “Anatomy of Autonomy,” in Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi, eds., Autonomia: Post-Political Politics (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2007), 151.

3. The numerous collectives forming during this time were opposed to the official communist party (PCI) doctrine. In 1969 the PCI was criticized and superseded by the student movement. In the early ’70s the worker’s movement gained a base on the national level, participating in elections and distancing itself from the old forms of policy making. In Italy, the effect was a destabilization of the politics of the Center-Left, an alliance of Christian Democrats and Socialists that was created during the 1964 recession, whose attempts at economic reform were vague and ineffective. The Christian Democrats in particular were considered largely responsible for the rise in power of the bourgeoisie class in Italian society and the dominance of the church on people’s lives.

4. The state concluded that its principal enemy was Autonomy. This network of alliances represented a new form of social organization that no longer accepted the political line of the PCI. They were not interested in seizing power. Sylvère Lotringer writes, “Opposed to work ethics and hierarchy as much as exclusive ideological rigidity, they invented their own forms of social ‘war-fair’ pranks, squats … pirate radio, sign tinkering — extending the spirit of May ’68 over a broad social landscape.” Lotringer, “In the Shadow of the Red Brigades,” in Lotringer and Marazzi, Autonomia, v.

5. This was the bloodiest phase of the worker’s struggle. Many were killed in the streets if they did not halt at police barricades. Chance passersby were wounded or killed if they wandered into a demonstration. The casualties in the movement seemed endless. This law, inherited from the fascist period, was directly responsible for the rise in terrorism and the increase in militant organizations and clandestine armed warfare by a growing number of proletarian youth. Terrorism would become a major crisis for the movement in the mid-1970s.

6. As Berardi writes, “The cultural revolution of 1968, which upset forms of behavior, values, human relationships, sexual relationships, the relationship to country and home, has ended by creating a social stratum that is recalcitrant before the notion of salaried work, fixed residence, and fixed position of work.” “Anatomy,” 155.

7. Berardi writes, “Now one began to discover that social democracy, even though introducing new elements into the communist worker movement tradition of the Third International, was not necessarily in contradiction with totalitarian, violent and Stalinist trends. In fact the two aspects were mixed in the PCI, which had become a component of bourgeoisie democracy by abandoning every type of violence against the existing order [while] at the same time [maintaining the] violent force of totalitarianism against the revolutionary movement.” “Anatomy,” 159.

8. The Red Brigade had grown from the workers’ struggle in the early years of the ’70s. This militant faction came from factories in Milan, Turin, and Genoa. At first, kidnapping of factory managers and acts of sabotage were linked with the workers’ struggle. But soon, they would break with the movement and develop into an aggressive militant organization against the state. Their clandestine operations culminated with the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, president of the Christian Democrats.

9. Berardi writes, “Superseding terrorism meant creating a foundation for pacification and for the reconstruction of conditions needed for the class struggle. To pacify … meant to remove the obstacles constituted by the more than one thousand political prisoners.” “Anatomy,” 162.

10. According to CARI (the New York Committee against Repression in Italy), “The deep crisis within the Italian political system enabled the leading parties (the CD and the PCI) to look for ‘scapegoats,’ thereby diverting attention from the real problems. The PCI, after its Historical Compromise with Christian Democrats, was encountering increasing disillusionment within its rank and file. … The PCI [had] willingly paraded itself as the main defender of law in order to gain respectability.” CARI, “April 7: Repression in Italy,” in Lotringer and Marazzi, Autonomia, 173.

11. Berardi writes, “For in truth it is in that territory of the imagination that the real war is being fought. On one side of the battle is Dissuasion (the infinite power of the State, the all-seeing eye, the all-knowing brain, the all-imagining mind), on the other is Liberation of the creative energies of a proletariat whose intellectual potential is immense, but whose conditions of material existence are cramped and miserable. This is the real contradiction, the real war. … The performance of April 7 has shown that the power structure can win the war today by invading the realm of the imagination.” Quoted in CARI, “April 7,” 173.

12. The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks, The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (New York: WW Norton and Company, 2004), 344.

13. Balestrini, Blackout, 37.

14. Balestrini, 13.

15. Balestrini, 61. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text.

16. Gian Paolo Renello, “Blackout: Un’epica della fine,” in Balestrini, Blackout e altro (Rome: DeriveApprodi, 2009), 132. My translation.

17. Renello, 144. My translation.

18. Paolo Virno, “Dreamers of a Successful Life,” in Lotringer and Marazzi, Autonomia, 117.