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Collective Writing – Critic’s corner

wu-ming

Countercultural Collective Writing in Wu Ming

by Fabrizio Di Maio (University of Birmingham)

Wu Ming, which means ‘anonymous’ in Chinese, is a pseudonym for a collective of four contemporary Italian writers active in literature and popular culture since 2000, formerly known as Luther Blissett Project (1994-1999). They have written both historical collective novels and solo novels.[1] In the latter, the author is indicated with numbers rather than their proper names, in order to demystify the role of authorship. Their anonymity aims at deconstructing the modern conception of the author as a figure often invented and exploited by the literary industry.

Furthermore, they have transformed historical fiction using both classical and modern sources such as epic, crime, horror, thriller, spy and adventure novels, thus creating a hybrid literary product. Wu Ming are also media saboteurs and militant activists. They use a trans-media approach to propose cultural activities, blogs and creative events, drawing attention to political corruption and social injustice, and leading a ‘guerrilla’ against the modern cultural industry.

Wu Ming have declared in an interview that they usually compare their collective writing to 1970s Dutch ‘Total Football’.[2] The ‘Total Football’ was played by the Dutch football club Ajax and by the Netherlands National Football Team during the 1970s. It represented a revolutionary tactical theory of football in which any player could take over the role of any other player in a team. In this changeable system, no player had a fixed role. Even the goalkeeper could play as a defender in particular circumstances. This kind of innovative strategy required a very efficient organisational structure and an excellent team spirit. This is what Wu Ming aim to accomplish: a collective writing in which each author adapts his own skills to suit the needs of the collective. In their work, the difference between a solo and a collective novel is mainly in the editing process. When they are writing a group novel, every bit of text written by any of them is discussed and constantly reprocessed by the collective.

Wu Ming, thanks to their collective writing, demystify the current trends of contemporary narrative by creating a new literary ‘object’ balanced between popularity and complexity. Although the central plot of their historical novels does bear a resemblance to popular literature, it is embroidered in a difficult and challenging narrative structure with all kinds of subplots, asides, historical digressions and numerous characters that require an attentive reader.

Their collective writing is also characterized by its being open to influences from the interaction with their readers on the web. Wu Ming use blogs and online exchanges as part of their writing process, thus encouraging readers –who are intended as an important element of this process – to interpret and construct meaning.

The interconnection between their literary work and their cultural project reflects one of the most essential feature of Wu Ming, as both writers and militant activists. These two main activities are deeply interlinked with each other and open alternative ways to construe history that, in turn, will become a critical tool to understand political issues that define the modern era.

Analysing their blog Giap!, it is evident that Wu Ming are in part influenced by the responses they receive from the readers of the texts they upload. I suggest here that the topics of political corruption, social injustice and biased historical reconstructions emerging in Giap! find, in due course of time, a more literarily appealing way in all their historical novels, from Q (1999) to L’armata dei sonnambuli (2014).

Regarding the reception of Wu Ming’s collective writing, it is worth noting that Wu Ming have been positively reviewed by English and American critics,[3] whilst they were at times bashed from a number of Italian critics, in particular by Bonura and Brullo. This can be linked to the fact that Wu Ming’s theoretical patterns and conceptual categories are largely derived from theories of mass media and Anglo-Saxon popular culture. Many critics outside Italy paid attention to Wu Ming’s countercultural aspect, highlighting the literary militancy as the most significant feature of their work. What is interesting are the expressions used to depict Wu Ming: they are seen as ‘Guerrilla novelists’,[4] ‘Art terrorists’,[5] ‘A band of militant storytellers’.[6] Wu Ming are indeed seen as media saboteurs who lead a ‘guerrilla’ attack against the modern cultural industry, using interactivity, social networking, blogs and online conversations as part of their collective writing process.

While all these features have been recognised as remarkable by Anglo-Saxon critics in both the UK and the US, the Italian critics mentioned before have harshly criticized Wu Ming, especially from conservative newspapers and magazines. They suggest that Wu Ming’s narrative reflect too much their ‘no global’ activities and their condemnation of both capitalistic world and those parties allowing exploitation of workers. For these reasons, Wu Ming should be merely considered poor provocateurs and their work without any literary value.

According to Bonura ‘In letteratura, quattro cervelli messi insieme per scrivere un’opera fanno zero. Forse anche meno’.[7] It is worth noting that this denigration is conducted without knowing how Wu Ming actually work together, as Bonura himself admits.

Brullo gives another interpretation of Wu Ming’s collective writing, suggesting that it is collectivized and consequently must be interpreted as either communist or fascist: ‘E poi, come diavolo scriveranno a dieci mani i favolosi cinque? Capitan Sovietico scrive un capitolo e SuperGuevara un altro? Oppure scrive tutto l’Uomo Maoista e gli altri fanno l’editing? Misteri della scrittura collettiva e perciò collettivizzata e perciò comunista come fascista e perciò pressoché inutile da scrivere come da leggere’.[8]

From my point of view these critics have misunderstood Wu Ming’s collective writing, defining their novels without any real literary value due to a biased attitude towards Wu Ming’s underground culture, Marxist background and the ‘centri sociali’[9] from which they emerged, and to their approach politically imprinted on a left-wing ideology. It seems to me that prejudicial concepts and the lack of deep analysis leads to superficial opinions entangled with political bias.

In conclusion, I argue that Wu Ming, through their collective writing, aim to give new power to the literary word by combining ethic and style and rethinking some essential literary concepts such as the role of the modern narrator. The choice of the name is significant for this group of militant storytellers: Wu Ming recalls both political dissidents reclaiming democracy and a rejection of the present cultural system that turns authors into celebrities. Because of these characteristics, I think that Wu Ming’s project must be seen as a truly innovative contribution, a project with the potential to link literature and political activism in an unprecedented way.

 


 

[1] Their collective historical novels are Q (1999, as Luther Blissett), Asce di guerra (2000), 54 (2002); Manituana (2007), Altai (2009), L’armata dei sonnambuli (2014).

[2] “The struggle continues” by Gordon Darroch, in Herald Scotland, Sunday 11 October 2009. http://www.heraldscotland.com/arts-ents/book-features/the-struggle-continues

[3] See Darroch, Home and Jacobs.

[4] Home Stewart, “Wu Ming Interview. Guerrilla Novelists” in Art Review. Available from: http://artreview.com/features/wu_ming_interview/

[5] Darroch Gordon, “The struggle continues” in Herald Scotland, Sunday 11 October 2009.

[6] The Celluloid Liberation Front, “Wu Ming: A band of militant storytellers” in New Statesman, 29 May 2013. Available from:  http://www.newstatesman.com/world-affairs/2013/05/wu-ming-band-militant-storytellers

[7] Bonura Giuseppe, “Wu Ming, quattro cervelli ne fanno uno?” in L’Avvenire. Quotidiano della Conferenza Episcopale Italiana, 28 aprile 2007.

[8] Brullo Davide, “I rivoluzionari perdono la faccia” in Libero, 13 marzo 2007.

[9] These are public locations where members of a community gather for group activities. They represent an extra institutional political aggregation leaded in general by ‘extraparlamentari’ left activists.

 

Fabrizio Di Maio is researcher and teaching associate at the University of Birmingham. He graduated summa cum laude in Italian Literature at the University of Rome 3 (Italy) in 2002, obtained a MA in Comparative Literature at the University of Sorbonne Paris IV (France) in 2005, and a PhD in Italian Studies at the University of Rome 2 (Italy) in 2010. He taught Italian Language and Literature at the University of Gabès (Tunisia) in 2010-2012, and at the University of Grenoble 1 (France) in 2012-2013. He published two monographs: Pier Paolo Pasolini: Il teatro in un porcile (2009), and Ottiero Ottieri, un caso letterario (2014).

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