Remembering Pasolini, Thinking About Calais

by | 2 Nov 2016

Pasolini’s courage and passion is more relevant today than ever as Europe slips into the hands of a dangerous rhetoric of fear which finds shape in the form of normalisation of zones of exception.

“Porcile” (“Pigsty,” 1969)Forty-one years ago, on 2 November 1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini, a Marxist, an intellectual, a film director and a poet was murdered by a 17-year-old boy and maybe more collaborators who were never identified. His death was extremely brutal: Pasolini was beaten with a nailed stick and run over by his own car several times. The way Pasolini was exposed to violence before he gave his last breath almost became a symbol of his own artistic legacy. Often, parallels have been drawn between the two. His art in many ways was about exposing the brutality of dominant power structures, and he was not intimidated by revealing this in his work in all its naked ugliness. In fact, violence — especially sexual violence — was a tool in Pasolini’s art to attack the establishment and the hegemonic power structures within consumerist capitalism, which he saw as a more dangerous and a worse form of fascism. In this essay I will not be remembering Pasolini simply because it is the 41st anniversary of his death; but, rather by this occasion, I would like to refer to him as an inspiration in thinking about contemporary identity politics, especially issues about immigrants and refugees in the Western political sphere, and more importantly the violence which has been normalised mainly through ignorance and passive acceptance in today’s society. Pasolini was never afraid of venturing into the dark side of the human existence and of stripping it to the bone so that his audience could see the complex relationships and interrelated power structures that created a foundation for totalitarianism. He did this for the sake of his artistic passion and was never afraid to put himself personally into spotlight in doing so; which many speculate eventually cost him his life.

Pasolini’s brutal death in a way became the continuation of his artistic expression and sealed it, as he very famously once said himself: “Death effects an instantaneous montage of our lives; that is, it chooses the truly meaningful moments and puts them in sequence, transforming an infinite, unstable and uncertain [….] present into a clear, stable, certain, therefore easily describable past. It is only thanks to death that our life serves us to express ourselves.”[1.Pier Pasolo Pasolini, Heretical Empiricism, ed. Louise K. Barnett, Indiana University Press 2005, USA, p.236] It seems to me that to this day death brought only a certain kind of expression to Pasolini’s life by attaining him the courage and passion he deserved in his quest for truth, along with his refusal to be part of a system that exploited and oppressed. Pasolini’s art, however, continues to invoke curiosity and the language of this work is well alive today. There is no question that death in Pasolini’s case did not touch his art and the message he tried to give to his audience. He continues to puzzle and inspire, and therefore in some ways is yet immortal.

Today, as racism and scapegoating leads to an enormous increase in the normalisation of states of exception within European polity, we have to remember Pasolini’s courage, passion and honesty more often. The materialisation and destruction of the so called Jungle in Calais is a good indicator of how — in Agamben’s words — the Camp is actually a “hidden matrix and nomos of the political space in which we are living” rather than “an anomaly and a historical fact.”1Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford University Press 1998) 166. But to analyse this hidden matrix we need to be able to challenge the current power system’s hypocritical morality claims, which often times go hand in hand with dangerous discourses of fear and the dehumanisation of the others. At this point, Pasolini gives us an important clue about where to look if we want to understand the system’s violent encounter with the so-called others, be it refugees, foreigners or immigrants. This is the very the intersection of human life and dominant power structures, where personal and political can clash in the ugliest ways possible.

From the above perspective I find Pasolini’s depiction of subjectification and the subject’s relationship to sovereign power in general fascinating. In his most famous work Salò, which is based on Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, Pasolini attacks sovereign power through sadomasochism. This movie focuses on the subjectification of young captives by fascists during the last days of the Mussolini era, in the puppet state of Salò. The subjectification of these young people takes place through various acts of sexual and mental violence, sadism and torture in extreme ways. As a result, the viewer is challenged in every possible way and is made sure to feel the discomfort in his/her seat. The villa which is used by the fascists and their libertines as a prison for the young captives becomes a microcosm of a fascistic regime, where all kinds of atrocities take place in a ritualistic manner to satisfy the needs of the captors and their collaborators. The viewer becomes a part of this microcosm as s/he is made to witness the power games that are taking place on the most primitive level, where the captives are now only objects to satisfy the needs of their captors.

From a simplistic standpoint, many might underestimate this movie as a grotesque, pornographic film that does not go further than a certain kind of depiction of evil in relation to fascist ideology. However, Pasolini in this work does more than generalising evil like, for example, main stream Nazi films. He is in fact more interested in the current system than in fascism as a historical fact and attacks it for its false morality. It seems to me making the viewer part of this sado-masochistic ritual through the camera lens in such a shocking manner is his way of urging the audience about the fact that fascism is yet to be overcome. Sadly, one would find today a lot of similarities to the atrocities depicted in Salò in different political contemporary examples – the most obvious being the pictures from the infamous prison in Abu Ghraib.

As Agamben later on points out in his work with reference to Sade, the representation of sado-masochism here is not different than a depiction of bare life — a life devout of any political value. According to Agamben, sadomasochism is “precisely the technique of sexuality by which the bare life of a sexual partner is brought to light.”2ibid 134. Just as Sade did in his story, representing sexuality on a purely political level shows how human life can be organised on the basis of bare life.3ibid. As such the symmetry between homo sacer and the sovereign, is the same one which ties the sadist to the masochist, the victim to the executioner.4ibid 135.

As Agamben emphasises the modern aspect of this phenomenon, this perspective also relates to the idea of useless violence from a different angle within broader power relations of subjectivity in terms of how the victim can be degraded to the point of bare life. Primo Levi explains that this is necessary “to make it possible for [executioners] to do what they were doing. In other words: before dying the victim must be degraded, so that the murderer will be less burdened by guilt. This is an explanation not devoid of logic but which shouts to heaven: it is the sole usefulness of useless violence.”5Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (Sphere Books 1989) 101.

However, violence can take place in different forms and not in ways always so obvious like in Salò and Abu Ghraib. The mere fact the violence does not come in its most obvious form does not mean that pattern of sado-masochisim as explained above does not exist in today’s society. The latest refugee crisis clearly showed how the non-acknowledgement of the presence of violence in consumerist capitalism became the usual way the refugees, foreigners and eventually everyone who does not fit in the norm will be treated. Today we have become face to face with a huge problem of being simultaneously ignorant of our own existence and others’ suffering and, most importantly, we choose to forget how these two are inherently linked together. This brings me closer to where Pasolini stood in his critique of a society where consumerism and the norms of the petite bourgeois dominated on every level, which led to a certain kind of numbness to the extent that today, for example, we can easily block out the reality of thousands of people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. At the same time, we continue to blame foreigners for taking our jobs, not easily being integrated into our civilisation because they lack something in their identity; or simply, we are scared that they will in some way or another disrupt the ways within which we are so used to live. Our priorities are obvious: paying our mortgages before we die and consuming the best we can. In this process, foreigners are kept apart and are anything but us: sexual predators with an uncontrollable libido, useless beings who are not worth to live within the borders of Western civilization etc. Foreigners are dehumanised because it makes easier for us to ignore, forget and let them die when in fact it was easy to save them. What we do not realise is that as we dehumanise we are dehumanised at the same time. As we complain we are the victims of a certain kind of foreign invasion, we continue at the same time to collect corpses from the beaches of our beautiful Mediterranean resorts. As we continue to do so, sadly we become predators ourselves and contribute more to an endless cycle of violence and to the dichotomy of victim and predator. Within this environment, our only life source would be not to be the next foreigner and our only hope not to find ourselves one day inside a zone of exception, because within the cycle of scapegoating it becomes increasingly difficult to estimate the next scapegoat.

Global Justice Now Flickr (2015)

Global Justice Now Flickr (2015)

It would not be wrong to say that what is taking place with the recent refugee crisis has led to one of the worst human atrocities since the World War II in the Western World. The way the situation in Calais took place together with the banality of representations of refugees in mainstream media and by the politicians were influential tools in how this crisis is managed and also constructed in the imaginaries of the rest of the population in the Western World. Refugees are the foreign others in the public consciousness, whom should be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, it seems the only thing that is being avoided or delayed is an internal struggle that is rooted in the unjust foundation of a system we are so eagerly trying to protect. We have to recognise that we cannot solve the problems of this system by simply projecting it on others, but only by looking inside — both on a social and most importantly a personal level. Pasolini could do this perfectly, by bringing an entirely personal perspective to a political one and by projecting a vision which foresaw all the contradictions on the way. Borrowing from Julia Kristeva, the term foreignness, if analysing the problem of foreigners is about discovering our disturbing otherness and acknowledging the foreigner within us.[7.Julia Kristeva, Stranger to Ourselves (Columbia University Press 1991) 191.] we have to be grateful to Pasolini, because there is no better person than him with his bold aesthetics to wake us up to our own foreignness; maybe to the point of screaming it loud to our face. It is time for us now to recover from our numbness once and for all.

Mujde Kliem is a lecturer in politics at Middlesex University.

  • 1
    Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford University Press 1998) 166.
  • 2
    ibid 134.
  • 3
  • 4
    ibid 135.
  • 5
    Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved (Sphere Books 1989) 101.


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