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Collective Writing – Academia

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‘Qualsiasi narrazione è un’opera collettiva’: Wu Ming’s Collective Writing

by Kate Willman (University of Warwick)

A self-styled ‘band di romanzieri’,[1] the Wu Ming Foundation started out under the auspices of the Luther Blissett project, ‘a multi-use name, an “open reputation” informally adopted and shared by hundreds of artists and social activists all over Europe’.[2] As well as engaging in politically-motivated pranks, the future members of Wu Ming wrote the best-selling novel Q in 1999 using the name Luther Blissett, which marked the beginning of their literary career.[3] Subsequent novels were signed Wu Ming, which means in Mandarin alternatively ‘five names’, although there are now only three members, or ‘anonymous’, used by Chinese dissidents desiring freedom of expression. Solo projects or collaborations with other authors have seen the individual members using numbers rather than their proper names. This, combined with their refusal to appear on television or have their photographs taken, is part of Wu Ming’s aim to undermine the figure of the author, both as a celebrated personality and as an isolated genius working alone, calling into question the modern author-function, as theorised by Foucault.[4]

Yet, the collective nature of their work goes beyond the fact that their jointly written historical novels do not have a single author. There is a sense of the collective too in their choice of a polyphonous approach to their depictions of the past, telling their stories from various perspectives, most notably even making a television set speak in their 2002 text 54. Another deliberately choral element of their novels is to be found in the inclusion of documents, such as reports or newspaper articles. This creates different accounts of the same event and foregrounds the workings of historical memory as part of Wu Ming’s political and ethical commitment through literature. They thus encourage their readers to reconsider the historical moments they address, whether the aftermath of the Second World War in 54 and Asce di guerra, the years leading up to the American Revolution in Manituana, 16th century Europe in Q  and Altai, the French Revolution in L’Armata dei Sonnambuli, or the First World War in L’invisibile ovunque.

The wide range of sources that contribute to these representations tend to be attributed in the filmically entitled ‘Titoli di coda’ at the end of their novels, in which they tease out the intertextual elements of their work. This gives a sense that, as Wu Ming 2 and Antar Mohamed state in the ‘credits’ of their text Timira: ‘Qualsiasi narrazione è un’opera collettiva’.[5] They go on to explain that a narrative can be collective not just because it is written by several authors, but also collective because the finished product of a book is not simply its text but its paratext too, and because the story can be made up of many strands taken from different sources: other books, newspapers, films, voices in a bar or on the streets.

The final collective element is the readers. Aside from making their texts allegorical and open to interpretation to encourage readers to construct meaning, Wu Ming often provide extra material online. In the case of Manituana, not only did Wu Ming release a trailer on YouTube and create a website with supplementary information about the story and period in which it was set,[6] but in the text itself readers can find a key to access a special website reserved only for those who have read the novel, called ‘livello 2’, where there is further information on the characters and subject matter, as well as a bibliography, a comments thread, a section entitled ‘diramazioni’ in which people can contribute spin-off stories, and a section that details Wu Ming’s collective writing technique. This both deepens the readers’ experience of the narrative and also gives them a participatory role in it, as they must actively seek out this extra information and choose what to interact with. The collective have also attempted to involve the internet community in writing the original texts themselves, in what they refer to not coincidentally as literary jam sessions, again using a music metaphor.[7] For example, Ti chiamerò Russell, created between 2001 and 2002, began with the first chapter of a science-fiction novel written by Wu Ming, and then anyone could write and send in subsequent chapters to be selected by a jury online. This led to the creation of the literary collective Kai Zen, and such activities also undoubtedly paved the way for other collaborative literary projects such as Scrittura industriale collettiva. Italy in the new millennium has been a particularly fertile ground for new techniques of collective writing and reader participation that Wu Ming in many ways pioneered.

In doing so, they have drawn on the work of Henry Jenkins, who argues that in today’s world we are experiencing a ‘bottom-up participatory culture’, [8] in which we are no longer passive consumers, but can play an active role in the creation of media, as seen through fan communities, social networks and blogs. Wu Ming’s online presence also springs from their widely read blog, Giap, as well as a Twitter account with over 60,000 followers (@Wu_Ming_Foundt). They use these platforms not only to discuss contemporary literature and initiate online literary projects, but also to become involved in political campaigns, for example against the TAV (Treno Alta Velocità).[9] By using new technologies, this band of writers can try to engage with the wider public in a way that is relevant to the world we live in, and expand their collective writing and political message beyond the pages of their novels.

Another part of Wu Ming’s commitment to the democratisation of the Digital Age is their adhesion to ‘copyleft’ principles, making their texts freely available for download online, as well as publishing in the traditional way. This means their stories can be re-appropriated and re-elaborated by anyone, as shown by the spin-offs and soundtracks that have been created from their novels.[10] Once again, this seems to go against the modern author-function theorised by Foucault, which he strongly linked to copyright laws: ‘The author is the principle of thrift in the proliferation of meaning […] he is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, decomposition, and recomposition of fiction’.[11] Wu Ming, by contrast, lend their texts to the proliferation of meaning and encourage such freedom with their fiction.

Yet, to what extent has the democratisation of technology extended into literature, and do Wu Ming truly achieve the anonymity enshrined in their name? There is a tension between their community project and the now powerful voice they have on the Italian literary scene. They bring out their books with the publishing giant Einaudi, and Wu Ming 1’s ‘Memorandum’ of 2008, which described the similarities between recent hybrid texts, coining the name New Italian Epic, was downloaded over 30,000 times within a few months of being published online,[12] as well as sparking a heated and widespread debate. Wu Ming 1’s controversial pronouncements on Italian literature, combined with his and the other members’ various solo texts, mean that Wu Ming’s voices not only carry cultural currency, but are also becoming increasingly distinct from one another. The author is alive and well even within this faceless collaboration.

With spin-offs beyond writing, such as the musical act Wu Ming Contingent, or workshops on story-telling known as Wu Ming Lab, the possibilities for their future collective work continue to proliferate. Evidently, Wu Ming have created, as the tagline of their blog states: ‘Una comunità di lettori e non solo’.

 


 

[1] Wu Ming, ‘Wu Ming Foundation: Chi siamo, cosa facciamo’, Giap, http://www.wumingfoundation.com/italiano/biografia.htm

[2] See http://www.lutherblissett.net/.

[3] Not coincidentally, Q is very much concerned with issues surrounding identity and authorship, from the mysterious character ‘Q’ of the title to the name-changing main protagonist, who could be seen as a reflection of Luther Blissett themselves as an identity-shifting entity that arranges protests and hoaxes, and engages with the subversive potential of the printing press.

[4] Michel Foucault, ‘What is an Author?’ in The Essential Foucault: Selections from The Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, ed. Paul Rainbow and Nikolas Rose (London and New York: New Press, 2003).

[5] Wu Ming 2 and Antar Mohamed, Timira. Romanzo meticcio (Turin: Einaudi, 2012), p.503.

[6] See http://www.manituana.com/documenti/0/0/it (accessed 07.08.15).

[7] Wu Ming, ‘Laboratori di scrittura collettiva e jam-sessions letterarie’ http://www.wumingfoundation.com/italiano/comunitari.htm.

[8] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York and London: New York University Press, 2006), p.243. Wu Ming wrote the introduction to the Italian translation of this text.

[9] See Wu Ming’s No TAV archive on Giap, http://www.wumingfoundation.com/giap/?tag=no-tav.

[10] For example, Yo Yo Mundi wrote a soundtrack to 54 and Q was adapted for the stage (as Wu Ming 2 tells Henry Jenkins, ‘How Slapshot Inspired a Cultural Revolution (Part Two): An Interview with the Wu Ming Foundation’, http://henryjenkins.org/2006/10/how_slapshot_inspired_a_cultur_1.html).

[11] Foucault, op. cit., p.390.

[12] Wu Ming 1, ‘Premessa alla versione 2.0 di New Italian Epic’, http://www.wumingfoundation.com/italiano//WM1_saggio_sul_new_italian_epic.pdf, p.1.

 

 

Kate Willman is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Modern Languages Research (University of London), where she is developing a comparative project on 21st century autofiction, as well as preparing her PhD thesis on the New Italian Epic for publication. Before undertaking her PhD at the University of Warwick, she did an MA in Comparative Literature at King’s College London and a BA in French and Italian at the University of Bristol, where she also returned to teach in the Italian Department between September 2015 and June 2016.

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This entry was posted on October 3, 2016 by in Critic's corner.
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