Convergence / Politics / Vol. 2 No. 3

Earth Interregnum

Torkwase Dyson, Plantationocene (Black Water 1919)

Image Credit: Torkwase Dyson, Plantationocene (Black Water 1919). Acrylic, graphite, string, wood, ink on canvas, (2019). Courtesy of the artist.

In the fall of 1926, Antonio Gramsci, the Sardinian journalist and agitator who had risen to lead the Italian Communist Party (PCI), was arrested by Mussolini’s Fascist government and charged on the pretext of violating the recently enacted “Exceptional Laws in Defense of the State.” He was sentenced to five years’ internment on the island of Ustica. Subsequently, in the summer of 1928 a show trial extended this sentence to twenty years, and Gramsci was transferred to the penal institution at Turi, near the city of Bari, where he would live in painful, debilitating confinement until his death in 1937.

It was in Turi, a supposedly “special” prison for the physically and psychologically infirm, that Gramsci began to fill the little journals that would eventually constitute his legacy. Supplied with books and periodicals sent to him by his brother and sister-in-law, he began to work in his first notebook on February 8, 1929, filling it with quotations and reflections on his readings, commentary on texts he could recall from memory, an evolving outline of his research plan, as well as stray notes and other minutiae. Over the next eight years he filled thirty-three of the notebooks with writing on a wide range of topics, from history to politics to culture.1 In 1930, Gramsci began to fill the third of these prison notebooks, in which he left to us one of his most memorable formulations. Reflecting on the interlocking set of upheavals which gripped “the great and terrible world” outside of his prison walls that year—the Wall Street crash of 1929, the rise of far-right movements across Europe, and the fortunes of the PCI under Fascist rule—Gramsci described a world awaiting some as yet to be determined resolution:

That aspect of the modern crisis which is bemoaned as a “wave of materialism” is related to what is called the “crisis of authority”. If the ruling class has lost its consensus, i.e. is no longer “leading” but only “dominant,” exercising coercive force alone, this means precisely that the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously, etc. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.2

In ancient Rome, the interregnum named the period between the death of one sovereign and the crowning of another. In this empty time, the law of the old ruler was suspended in anticipation of the new law to come. For Gramsci, the concept of the interregnum described a dead zone of sorts, a political gulf in which the forces of Italian Communism and Fascism struggled to build political legitimacy and hegemonic rule atop the grave of the old bourgeois political order, exhausted in the wake of the First World War. He described his contemporary moment as intensely contested. The future, it seemed, was no longer the property of the old bourgeoisie, but it was an open question as to who could claim it. Meanwhile, the morbidity of the situation lay both in the slow death of the old regime and the indeterminate status of the political projects which aimed to replace it. What this new arrangement would look like, whether it would be liberatory or authoritarian, Communist, Fascist, or neo-bourgeois, was unclear in a moment of such instability. The old was dead, yes, but where precisely the new life lay, which political tendencies were ascendant and which only appeared so, zombie-like and liminal—none of this could be predicted with any certainty.

Gramsci described a particular historical conjuncture in the passage quoted above, but his enigmatic language—whether or not it was brought on by an awareness of the prison censor’s eye—lent this meditation a prophetic tone. In the decade since the last global financial collapse, this formulation by the long dead Italian Marxist has been returned to us. It appears in the title of books— Gilbert Achcar’s Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2016); Nancy Fraser’s The Old is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born: From Progressive Neoliberalism to Trump and Beyond (New York: Verso, 2019)—and on the opinion pages of the New York Times, functioning as a shorthand for a great variety of ominous developments. Something about the words—be it their timeliness or untimeliness—returns them to us in this era of chaos and collapse.

Today we face a set of crises eerily similar to those that haunted Gramsci’s third notebook. A global recession—the second in a generation—threatens to become a global depression; far-right political parties vie for state power across Europe; and old political norms vanish en masse. Meanwhile, in wealthy countries like the United States and Great Britain, the efforts of a nascent social democratic left have been beaten back and undermined by a sclerotic political center with little vision or popular enthusiasm. After a decade marked by global working-class struggles against austerity on the one hand and reactionary mobilizations against refugees and immigrants on the other, the spectacular defeat of the liberal technocratic consensus and the electoral triumph of figures like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro alone would seem to qualify our era as one in which morbid symptoms abound. But to this grim ledger we must now also add biological and geological revolts: viruses spawned by global commodity agriculture and a planet that is warming so quickly that one-third of its people will be consigned to “near unlivable” heat by 2070. At this juncture, it is no exaggeration to say that the political crisis of authority that Gramsci described has taken on a planetary dimension as we barrel toward a dangerous future without a politics commensurate with global catastrophe. But even as our knowledge of the necessity to act (whatever that may mean) grows, this understanding is haunted by the instability of our contemporary moment, which for all its concrete terrors feels decidedly immaterial at times—fluid, suspended, uncanny, awaiting resolution. How then are we to think this great combination of crises without recourse to the old? How are we to understand the coming catastrophe and imagine its resolution even as it is destabilizing our ability to do so?

In Lars von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia the famously misanthropic Danish director’s sheer lyrical pessimism achieves something proximate to catastrophic thought, and in doing so grasps a particular quality of experience that comes into being during the interregnum, or state of exception. As von Trier has described it, Melancholia is a film that externalizes something like a depressive state on a planetary scale in order to reimagine the disaster film, but it is also a film in which we see and know like the depressive. The movie follows two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), as their lives unravel in advance of Earth’s cataclysmic encounter with the rogue planet Melancholia. This domestic drama unfolds across two acts: In the first, Justine’s lavish wedding collapses and she leaves her fiancé in a sardonic commentary on bourgeois ritual; while in the second, Claire’s wealthy, highly composed family life comes apart in the anticipation of Earth’s destruction. As the planet draws near, it disrupts natural systems and cultural codes alike: Earthworms wriggle out into the new moonlight; electrical systems fail; Claire’s husband abandons his family by suicide. The sisters too experience a shift in their relationship. Claire begins to panic as finality dawns and Justine becomes eerily calm. The film ends with the two sisters huddled with Claire’s son in a tipi made of sticks as Melancholia rushes toward the screen, first destroying the horizon, then the characters, then the image itself as the immense conflagration fades to black and leaves us, the viewers, with nothing but the dark.

But Melancholia turns on the fact that we have already seen this happen. In operatic fashion, the film opens with a “Prelude,” a montage of short, enigmatic, and fragmentary scenes, which culminates in an extraterrestrial vision of the planet Melancholia crashing into and destroying the planet Earth. Because we have seen the film’s end before its narrative truly begins, one experiences Melancholia with the foreknowledge that its events occur within the interregnum, that the satire of family life, or the dissolution of the marriage must be judged against a new and terrifying horizon. Even the most pitiful moments—as when Justine’s husband-to-be delivers his vows and says with all sincerity, “I believe that I’m the luckiest man on Earth”—become morbid reminders of the world’s end. Through his cruel trick of chronology, von Trier sets his narrative of familial collapse against an even grimmer horizon of planetary demolition, and while the film offers little by way of political instruction, its intellectual pessimism grasps with real certainty the fact that not only will the coming crisis destroy or reshape the world, but that all of this is already underway; it cannot be prevented, only endured.

Giorgio Agamben described the resolution of the interregnum as a state managed process that followed the logic of mourning, but for Gramsci—writing from within the moment of suspension—the logic of the interregnum was melancholic.3 In a passage that echoes Freud’s own description of melancholia as a “blocked” work of mourning, Gramsci wrote of the future: “Will the interregnum, the crisis whose historically normal solution is blocked in this way, necessarily be resolved in favour of a restoration of the old? Given the character of the ideologies, that can be ruled out…Meanwhile physical depression will lead in the long run to a widespread scepticism, and a new ‘arrangement’ will be found.”4 Unlike von Trier’s film, Gramsci does not prophesy a definite future, but he does insist that it will not and cannot involve a return to the past. In America, the state under Trump is tragically unequipped to meet the crises we face, but so too was the previous political order he upended. The “new arrangement,” whatever it is, will play out in terms set by a warming and thus unstable planet. Many more morbid symptoms will appear. And any liberatory struggle for survival will necessarily need to be an international fight to hold the world in common.

Works Cited
1 Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks: Volume 1, trans. Joseph A. Buttigieg (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 2.
2 Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers Company, 1989), 276.
3 Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 70.
4 Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV, trans. James Strachey (London: London the Hogarth Press, 1994), 257; Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, 276.

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