The following review was written by Australian writer and hacktivist McKenzie Wark, and posted on the Nettime list in July 2003.
McKenzie Wark is the author of three books, Virtual Geography, The Virtual Republic and Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace. He was a co-editor of the Nettime anthology Readme! and with Brad Miller co-produced the multimedia work Planet of Noise. He lives and works in New York.
Some of his texts are available here and there.
An interesting interview is here.
Click here to listen to his speech "Escape from the Dual Empire".
WM1 wrote to Wark: "I think you laid too much emphasis on our alleged Situationist influences, even if it is true that the SI's practical proposals were much better and more promising than Debord's theory."
Wark replied: "Quite so. I could have made a connection instead to Negri, who is well known here now, but that might have bored you even more!"
WM1 commented: "Hey, you're right now that I think of it! :-)".
Luther Blissett, Q, William Heinemann, 2003
reviewed by McKenzie Wark
Q is a terrific read, an epic from "the bowels of history."(517) The story follows two main characters. One wants to overthrow the social order. The other is a spy in the service of the forces who want to maintain it.
Q is the spy, in the pay of Father Carafa, an ultra conservative figure, rapidly rising up the hierarchy of the Catholic church. The other main character is a radical protestant, who sets himself against both the corrupt power of the Catholic church, and also against Luther's Protestant reformation. For the more radical protestants, Luther is a political tool in the hands of a rising mercantile class, not a friend of the peasants and artisans. His is just a new kind of authority, which is "putting a priest in our souls" (353)
These two characters cross paths many times, from one end of Europe to the other, until coming together for a final confrontation, in Venice, where their identities will finally be revealed to each other.
If that were all there were to it, this would be a fascinating, but ultimately over-long genre novel the historical thriller. But Q is not so much a novel as an anti-novel. The confrontation between the two characters ends up something of an anti-climax. It provides a narrative impulse to get the reader through to the end, but the real narrative strategy it conceals is quite different.
In Q, conflicts are never resolved, merely deflected, transformed, shifted to another level. Yet that does not mean that in renouncing the bourgeois novel's sense of narrative closure and harmony, Q falls for the other dominant form, pulp serial fiction, which creates the necessity for each new installment out of the inevitable incompleteness of the episode. In Q, our hero learns from his struggles, grows wiser, avoids old mistakes. This is a didactic novel, but with a different purpose. It is about learning how to struggle against the ruses of power and get by.
One of Q's lessons is not to get too bogged down in identity. Our hero changes his name many times. He adapts, he sheds failed strategies. He finds new friends, new structures of belief and methods for reading the signs.
This is not unlike the authors of the book themselves. The Luther Blissett who wrote this book is Roberto Bui, Giovanni Cattabriga, Federico Guglielmi and Luca Di Meo. They emerged out of a milieu in which Luther Blissett was a popular pseudonym for all kinds of radical actions, avant-garde provocations and spectacular pranks. But they too have moved on, and now call themselves Wu Ming.
In Q, the Blissett crew finds a form and a narrative to hold together a popular account of all that a generation has learned in various struggles. The book can be read as an allegory for the history of the late 20th century. The folly of Mao and the prudence of George Soros can all be read between the lines in the actions of the book's many walk- on characters.
Or, one can read Q as a more local allegory, for a series of struggles waged by the Italian left from the 80s to the 90s. It may not matter whether these allegorical readings are actually intended. One of the effects of the book is to encourage allegorical reading and some skepticism about it. The many radical protestant leaders who populate the first third of the book are forever using the Bible as an allegorical machine for reading the signs of the times with very mixed results. Just as 60s Marxists read every hiccup of capitalism as heralding the 'crisis', Q's true believers see everywhere the coming apocalypse.
English language readers will find some of the background material familiar if they have read Norman Cohn's book about radical sects, The Pursuit Of The Millennium, or Raoul Vanegeim's The Movement of the Free Spirit, or even Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces. The latter was famous for insisting on a subterranean link between the Sex Pistol's John Lydon and the radical Anabaptist John of Leyden. Leyden is a featured character in Q, but a much less romantic one.
This Leyden is emblematic of the reactive, persecutory forces that can seize hold of a radical movement from within, just at its moment of triumph. There is a remarkable study here of the forces and pressures that can lead a militant movement into self-delusion, worthy of Guattari.
Those familiar with radical European avant-gardes will find much to chuckle over in Q. In this version of the 16th century, radical forces use theology and religion in much the same way as the avant-gardes use theory and art. There is a useful dialogue with the Situationists in these pages. Blissett seems to have a fondness for the practical strategies of the SI. The derive, or the drift: the wandering through cities, cutting across the order of the working day is artfully applied here to give wonderful portraits of medieval Venice, Antwerp and Münster.
The whole book can be read as one long exercise of the other SI strategy. Détournement, or the detour: the appropriation and correction of existing texts, plagiarism in the service of a militant education. The genre of the historical thriller and popular histories of the Reformation are here freely plundered and repurposed as an almost Brechtian learning-book for "awkward people" (403)
At one point a character utters the famous line "let the dead bury the dead." (160) It's an expression Blissett have pinched from Marx, knowing full well that he in turn stole it from that original revolutionary text -- the Gospel of Matthew. All the great lines in history happen three times: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce, and the third time as détournement.
Ironically, for a book set in the 16th century, there is a very contemporary focus on 'new media', which in the context of the times means the printing press. The book is both an early artifact of commodity production and exchange, and something that points beyond it. Throughout Q, the book keep re-appearing as a market opportunity for a growing merchant class, and an impossible commodity that may be freely pirated and distributed beyond commodity exchange.
Blissett locates the paradox of the vectoral economy of our own times, where information is the stake in a struggle over private versus communal property, in the very origins of the mechanically reproduced word.
Q is divided into three parts. The first concerns peasant uprisings and radical protestant movements that sought to abolish private property and both secular and religious authority. The second looks at the movement of the free spirit, which employed a strategy of seduction rather than revolution, seeking to create a new world within, rather than against, the old. The third takes up the rise of a new Papal authority that radically shut down the space of theological pluralism, and the struggle to open up what we would now think of as a 'public sphere'.
This could be read as an allegory for political theories of the late 20th century, moving from 30s Marxism to the 60s new left to 80s radical democracy. It is also interesting the way the terrain of struggle moves from the locus of the city to a more nebulous space of information, made up of networks of oral and textual vectors.
The status of the text changes across the three parts of the book. In the first, a text is a tool for struggle; in the second, a form of subjective self- management; in the third, part of a network, a milieu that makes many different kinds of thing possible. The last third of the book revolves around a book within the book, a work written by progressive forces within the Catholic church that restates in popular language the radical theses of the Protestants called The Benefit of Christ Crucified. This book within the book strategy will be familiar from postmodern fiction, as a device for drawing attention to the formal, textual dimension of the work. Or, perhaps closer to hand, it is a technique repeated over and over in the popular anti-literature of Stewart Home.
As with Home's anti-novels, Q uses the book-within-the-book to ask questions about how to read the book-outside-the-book, the book in the world. It's more the reverse of the postmodern strategy than a continuation of it. It's not about the formal, textual play within, it's about the way a text moves through the world.
Blissett may be speaking of Q as much as of The Benefit when they describe it as a "mediocre book". Unlike Guy Debord, who pondered out loud about whether to include his statements to the police in his Collected Works, Blissett judge their work in terms of how it circulates, rather than on its textual perfection. "Books only change the world when the world is capable of digesting them." (408)
Q is a useful reality-check for avant-garde tendencies that, in diving head first into 'new media', forget their own pre-history in the avant gardes of the past. The real skill displayed in this book is not 'literary'. The actual writing is serviceable and generic. The skill is in taking the avant-garde strategies of detournement and making a popular, readable work out of it. This is a textbook for a 'catholic' avant-garde, with something for (annoying) everybody.
At the risk of perpetuating a stereotype, one aspect of Q that strikes me as rather 'Italian' is the fondness for conspiracy and dissimulation as an explanation for world events. I'm reminded of Sanguinetti's On Terrorism and the State, in which that latter-day Situationist accused those involved in armed struggle in Italy in the 70s and 80s of being the dupes of the secret police. Throughout Q there is always a conspiracy afoot. But then conspiracy is, after all, the popular route to understanding social totality, as Fred Jameson once remarked.
In one remarkable way, Q is not an allegory for past events, but for present and future ones. The book ends with our hero and his crew escaping from Venice for the real center of the world Constantinople. Carafa's vision of how power works has come to pass. The public sphere has closed down, taking with it a more 'moderate' and diffuse order. Carafa has triumphed by recognizing what is really required for "the foundation of a millennial power", namely "a gigantic and complex apparatus that inculcates that message in people's thoughts and deeds." (611) One that is based on fear. What could be a more prescient description of our present situation?
Q is in some ways an optimistic book. Sure, the popular revolts of the first part are all in vain. The scams of the second part get people killed. The attempt to open a space for free thought and life within communication of the third part is foreclosed. A millennial power triumphs, and it's not a pretty sight. But then, "the illustrious names of the defeated and the victors remain in the chronicles, available to anyone who wants to reconstruct the intricate events." (626)
Benjamin had said that "not even the dead are safe", but what he didn't count on is that power always leaves a trace of those it has vanquished in its own account of its own triumphs. It's a question of a narrative resurrection, where the return of the marginalized, the disempowered is still possible. A return, not as victim, but as a different kind of hero. The kind of hero who works in situations, does what is possible, and moves on. A Luther Blissett.
... we no longer have roots, we have aerials ...