There's a passage in Multitude where Antonio Negri tells the story of two other Italian writers, each writing a book about their travels in India. The story is there to teach us about singularity, what it means to be unique, but also comparable and common.
|Monkeys frequently appear in Indian ecosystems. When
an old friend of mine was planning to spend a year
working with a literacy NGO in Sri Lanka, we warned
him to watch out for monkeys who had been trained to
pick pockets. We may have been a little racist.
Alberto Moravia was an anti-fascist writer, atheist, and wrote with a clinical precision in his style. I know him best as the author of the novel The Conformist, which I’ve never read. But I’ve seen the cinematic adaptation of The Conformist many years ago, so long ago that I can barely remember it.
Pier Paolo Pasolini was a provocateur writer and filmmaker, whose political sympathies leaned toward the autonomist movement. He was openly gay in a robustly homophobic Italy.
His film Salo: 120 Days of Sodom is famous for how its grotesquerie and cruelty shocked Italian society. I haven’t seen that, but I’ve read a small novel he wrote about street gangsters from the slums of Rome, A Violent Life. I found it on a bookshelf in my grandparents’ old house in Montreal; it used to belong to my father.
Pasolini was killed on a mafia hit in 1975, brutally beaten and mutilated, then run over multiple times with his own car.
Moravia wrote An Idea of India. Negri describes it as a story of Moravia’s confusion at this country. He tried to understand it, but constantly found himself utterly and completely alienated from Indian culture and society no matter how many places he visited and how many people he spoke with.
He ended up simply grasping at ideas that barely made sense, and certainly couldn’t cover all of what he found so strange and otherworldly about the country. Moravia thought of India as a pure Other, utterly unlike his own country and social world.
Pasolini had an opposite experience that looks more progressive at the outset, but is actually just as blinkered. He travelled, met people, and saw poor people struggling to get by. He saw people with simple dreams working hard and looking for the opportunities to achieve them.
There were even street urchins running through the streets of Mumbai, and Pasolini saw that they were exactly the same as Italy’s.
|Everybody has to eat. It's just a matter of what you eat.
Negri’s lesson from this story is that neither Moravia nor Pasolini are right. That’s because they both see the culture of India only in comparison with their own Italian and European culture. They take Europe as the neutral standard of comparison: How different or similar is India to Europe?
In asking that question, no matter what their answer is, they end up missing the point. Because the real question that guides you to find out the nature of a place and a culture you don’t know isn’t, “How does it resemble or differ from my own?”
It’s “What’s all this? What’s going on here?”
Those kinds of questions take you to the nature of the culture, history, institutions, politics, families, moralities, of the place and people themselves. That’s really all that singularity means, despite some of the talk in academic philosophical circles about how difficult this term is.*
* I think this reputation is just because Gilles Deleuze primarily developed the contemporary concept of singularity, and a lot of people in the academy presume Deleuze’s writing and ideas to be difficult and obtuse. Once you realize that he’s actually writing very clearly and explicitly the entire time, you understand that these terms aren’t difficult at all.
When we understand what’s going on in a place and among a people, we can work out what’s similar and different compared to our own culture. Or what movements exist in common between our cultures, where they can help each other.
But that kind of solidarity only starts once you approach that culture without preconceptions. Accept what is for the way it is, and you won’t feel lost or deluded at all. You’ll have learned with respect about another’s nature. That’s the beginning of a global movement.