Issue 2: Feminisms

Finding Resonances with Carla Lonzi

Giovanna Zapperi with Federica Bueti

April 1st, 2016

Jacqueline Vodoz, Carla Lonzi with a friend, mid-1970s © Fondazione Jacqueline Vodoz e Bruno Danese, Milano.

I am not quite sure when or how I came across Carla Lonzi’s writing. It happened in the casual manner in which sometimes one’s life changes in unexpected ways. Lonzi’s writing did not change my life, but it offered me an opportunity to reflect upon it. Lonzi’s feminist practice is a work of unearthing, undoing, and undressing that shakes up the foundation of our culture and beings. What has society made of me? Who am I? Lonzi ceaselessly questions her sense of self, the place society had assigned to her, refusing to conform to social roles and fixed identities. An art critic, a feminist, a poet, a woman, but above all a subject seeking freedom, Carla Lonzi represents a unique figure in the history of Italian feminism. I discussed her radical life and thought with writer and researcher Giovanna Zapperi. I met Giovanna some years ago — I think it was 2013 or may be 2014 — through a mutual friend. Giovanna teaches History and Theory of Art at École Nationale Supérieure d’Art in Bourges, France. She is currently working on a book on Carla Lonzi which will be published next year (2017). She has also edited and prefaced the French edition of Autoritratto [Self-Portrait, 1969] published by JRP Ringier in 2012. Our conversation happened partly via email and partly in person, when, back from the US where she had been lecturing on Carla Lonzi, and on her way to Paris, where she lives, Giovanna agreed to meet at a bar in the district of Kreuzberg in Berlin. What follows is an edited version of a much longer exchange.


Federica Bueti: Carla Lonzi was a particularly influential figure in the Italian radical feminism scene of the ‘70s. Some have described her as a difficult and uncompromising woman. For Giovanna Zapperi, who is Carla Lonzi?

Giovanna Zapperi: I don’t think I have a definitive answer to this question, perhaps because Lonzi spent all her life trying to escape the very idea that one can be subject to definitions. I would say that Carla Lonzi was an Italian art critic, a feminist, a writer, and a poet. And yet, as someone who struggled against such categories and their power to reduce life to a sum of roles and identities, my own attempt to define her activity will inevitably remain provisional and incomplete. Lonzi experimented with ways of writing “differently” in the context of 1960s-1970s Italian culture, when the country’s social structures were shaken by a growing political contestation — from the workers strikes in the 1960s, to the 1968 revolts, and the autonomous movements that emerged throughout the 1970s — and, of course, a mass feminist movement. She wanted to undo the roles linked to her oppression, while constantly trying to articulate her subjective experience within a collective endeavor.

FB: I wonder what you mean exactly by “differently”; how does Lonzi’s writing make a difference?

GZ: When I say writing “differently”, I am thinking of the way Carla Lonzi experimented with language. She chose words carefully in order to avoid academic jargon and the formatted languages of art criticism or philosophy. I am not sure if you’ve noticed, but in her diary Taci, anzi Parla [Shut Up. Or, Rather: Speak 1978], Lonzi attempts to use a language as close as possible to her lived experience. An important aspect of her experimentations with writing deals with the process of “undoing” existing ideas, imaginaries, literary forms, concepts she considered colonized by patriarchy. In Itinerario di riflessioni [Journey of Reflections,1977], she puts it beautifully: “Logorare continuamente i legami incosci con gli uomini” [“perpetually wearing out the unconscious relationships that keeps us tied to the male world”]. Lonzi firmly believed in the need to “logorare”, of “wearing out” cultural norms and relationships that shape how we perceive ourselves. For Lonzi, writing is one place where these ties can be unmade.

FB: I came across Lonzi’s writing almost by accident six or seven years ago. Back in university, in Milan, my art history professor never bothered to mention Lonzi’s involvement in the Italian art scene of the ‘60s. It was as if she had never existed in the history of Italian Modern art. She had been erased, and this made me really angry. When and how did you come across Carla Lonzi’s writing?

GZ: Well, I guess that your experience as a student is a very typical one. It was the same for me. I was an art history student in the 1990s in Italy, and nobody ever mentioned Autoritratto. At that time, I knew that Carla Lonzi was a prominent Italian feminist — although I had not read her texts — but I didn’t know about her art criticism. As a young art history student and a feminist, I was interested in the debates taking place in the Anglo-American context: I was reading Linda Nochlin and Griselda Pollock; Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto was translated into Italian in the mid-1990s I think, as well as Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter. My encounter with feminist theory happened through these readings. Certainly, the way Carla Lonzi’s name is bound to the history of Italian feminism has contributed to obscuring the relevance of her previous activity as an art critic. But I also think there are more structural reasons for her erasure from the field of art history, which have to do with the discipline’s sexism and with the nature of Lonzi’s criticism itself. All this is to say that I was not aware of Autoritratto until, in the mid-2000s, Patricia Falguières mentioned it to me because she wanted to edit a French translation of Lonzi’s book, which she asked me to curate. Autoritratto came out a couple of years later at JRP Ringier, with the support of Maison Rouge in Paris, and with the help of Marie-Ange Maire Vigueur who did a wonderful translation from the Italian. This was the start of a journey I am still immersed in, which led me to work on Lonzi’s writings and challenge many of my previous ideas about Italian feminism and feminist art history.

FB: Autoritratto, a book-montage made from interviews recorded with 14 Italian artists, questions the role of the art critic and the relationship between artist and critics, and deconstructs art criticism by proposing a style of writing based on participation, exchange and non-linearity. Autoritratto is an important example of a non-conventional approach to art criticism and an extraordinary piece of Italian art history.

GZ: Despite the fact that Autoritratto is an extraordinary resource for the study of Italian art in the 1960s, it never became a canonical text. On the contrary, it must have seemed incompatible with official art historical narratives, as well as with the kind of cultural packaging through which Italian art was promoted internationally in the 1970s and 1980s under the banner of “Arte Povera”. In this book, Lonzi experiments with the construction of a relational subjectivity; but there is a subject, and this subject is Carla Lonzi. This subject is caught between the fragmentary nature of the conversations and the montage of the book. There is a desire to question the authority of the art critic as much as the position of the author who writes from a distance. Autoritratto presents a tension between the subject, Carla Lonzi, and the multiplicity of voices composing the book. She is part of the book both as a voice among artists’ voices, and as the person who transcribes and then creates a montage from conversations. Interestingly, the artists at that time were happy with the outcome. The image of the artist that emerged from Autoritratto did not correspond to the way they wanted to be represented. In the end, they still preferred the conventional artist-critic relationship. Unlike Carla Lonzi, they were not ready to undermine their own institutional role.

FB: In her preface, Lonzi explains that the collected conversations are not so much responses to artworks, but to a desire to be in conversation with them. The artwork becomes an occasion for an encounter. What is, in your opinion, the political and cultural relevance of Autoritratto? Where does the radicalism of Lonzi’s position lie?

GZ: Lonzi’s radicalism lies in her editorial choices, and more crucially, in her challenge of established forms of knowledge production. What does it mean to be the object of someone else’s knowledge? What does it mean to occupy the position of the one who speaks on behalf of others? These are the fundamental epistemological questions addressed in the book, which are still relevant for contemporary emancipatory politics. In composing Autoritratto, Lonzi was looking for a way to escape the “inauthentic profession” of art criticism, in favor of a participatory process that could be personally transformative. Lonzi’s undoing of art history’s epistemic structures are addressed throughout the book: the dispersed, heterogeneous, and collective subjectivity that challenges established notions of authorship; the adoption of a non-linear temporality created through editing and montage; and her rejection of formalism with its privileging of vision, as opposed to participation, dialogue and horizontality. What is perhaps even more striking is the way these counter-discourses emerge from the actual structure of the book.

FB: Very often scholars and critics tend to divide Lonzi’s life into two moments: a before and after Autoritratto, separating the art-critic from the feminist. But, even in her “feminist” writing, Lonzi continues to reflect on art and on its social economies. Her critique extended itself beyond magazines; it happened in her diary, her conversations with Pietro Consagra (collected in the book Vai Pure [Now You Can Go]). How can we bring Lonzi back into a debate on art and artistic practices today, so as to prevent her legacy from being erased from the history of art twice? I think your commitment to write about Lonzi addresses this need.

GZ: My work on Lonzi is very much about challenging the idea of the two Carla Lonzis: the art critic and the feminist, as if these two domains were separate. Of course, for Lonzi herself, there was no possible reconciliation between her activity as an art critic, and her engagement as a feminist. However, as you mentioned, despite this rupture in her biography, Lonzi continued to reflect on art and its patriarchal structures from a separatist feminist stance. When she abandoned art criticism, in 1970, Lonzi decided that she no longer wanted to be identified with an activity or a role in which she felt alienated. Her withdrawal did not only concern the art world. It signaled the beginning of a process of dis-identification from the roles that organize and hierarchize life. However, I believe Lonzi’s rupture with art criticism can be productively addressed within a feminist critique of art. After four decades of feminist interventions in the art field, we need to reconsider her ideas as a set of transformative practices that affect us in the present. Artists were the first to understand the creative potential of Lonzi’s feminism and radical undoing of the institutional forms of art criticism. The intertwining between the creative process of becoming a subject and a shared experience of liberation is precisely what connects Lonzi’s feminism to her art writings: both are predicated on horizontal relations, participation, and anti-institutional politics. Lonzi’s writings on art cannot be separated from the motivations that led her to embrace feminism, even when she started feeling alienated in her role as an art critic, and became increasingly committed to artists rather then artworks. This was clear to some of the women close to Lonzi, such as Carla Accardi, the only female artist in Autoritratto. I want to call attention to Marta Lonzi’s response to the art world’s reaction, which deemed Carla Lonzi’s rejection of art criticism regrettable. In 1995, she writes that Carla’s feminist path needs to be addressed as a problem that directly concerns art. Perhaps Lonzi’s critique of art was erased precisely because it challenged the patriarchal structures of the art world, and the institutional language of art criticism and history.

FB: You previously referred to Lonzi’s diary, Taci, anzi parla: Diario di una femminista [Shut up. Or Rather, Speak: A Feminist’s Diary], a diary of more than 1300 pages she wrote between 1972 to 76. In it, Lonzi reflects on the practice of “autocoscienza” (translated as “self-consciousness practices” though the Italian word suggests an auto-induced, self-determined, or self-directed process of achieving consciousness). Can you explain what autocoscienza is?

GZ: Autocoscienza takes place within a group. It’s a practice aimed at creating relations between women outside of patriarchy. This practice cannot happen in solitude. The diary is a personal reflection on the type of relationships explored through the autocoscienza groups.

FB: Her diary as medium could be seen as a deferred type of autocoscienza, where two consciences, the reader’s and Lonzi’s meet. Reading the diary has been a transformative experience for me. I learn from Lonzi’s words and experiences. Reading her has made me reflect on my own life. How would you describe this kind of experience then?

GZ:Of course, the writing of the diary is very much connected to the practice of autocoscienza, but they are not the same thing. What you’ve experienced is something I share with you and with many other people who have read the diary. But I think that what you are describing here is called “resonance”.

FB: Resonance was an important idea for Lonzi. In the diary, she dedicated a little poem to it: “In principio/ era la Risonanza/di Sara in me/di me in Sara." [ In the beginning/ was Resonance/ Of Sarah with me/Of me with Sarah].

GZ: I like this term very much…Resonance is a relationship that can be established between two or more women who do not necessarily live in the same place or time. It’s a way of seeing one’s own experience reflected in the experience of someone else. It’s a form of mutual recognition. For example, in the last years of her life, Lonzi was working on an unfinished manuscript Armande Sono Io! [I am Armande!] published ten years after her death. We are left with a series of notes and considerations about Lonzi’s desire to collect the stories of a group of women, known as Le Preziose or “blue stockings” women who used to meet in 17th century Paris. Lonzi approaches the history of these women not so much as a historian, but as a someone who recognizes something of her own life in the experience of women living three centuries before her. For Lonzi, feminism opens the possibility of finding resonance with other women.

FB: You wrote a very interesting essay, Il Tempo del femminismo: Soggettività e storia in Carla Lonzi [Feminist Time. Subjectivity and History in the Work of Carla Lonzi]. In this text, you reflect on Lonzi’s attempt to undo the linearity of patriarchal time and bring emphasis on the present.

GZ: For Carla Lonzi, feminism is the present. Lonzi articulated this idea in Sputiamo su Hegel [Let’s Spit on Hegel]. The pamphlet is a critique of the Hegelian model of history as a forward movement, a linear progression, which is also crucial in the traditional Marxist idea of revolution. She elaborates on the present when she describes the feminist subject as “soggetto imprevisto” [unexpected subject]. The unexpected subject breaks with the continuum represented by the history of patriarchy, which is also the history of women’s exclusion. Moreover, Lonzi’s writings chronicle a search for female autonomy that challenges all inclusive ambition to be part of an already written history. In her anti-dialectical understanding of historical time, history itself is understood as a male construction from which women are structurally excluded. As she writes in Let’s Spit on Hegel, feminism interrupts both chronological continuity and the monologue of (patriarchal) history. Accordingly, a woman who speaks for herself is an “unexpected subject” who interrupts the course of history. This interruption is a transformative gesture. Seen through this understanding of history, Feminism is neither a promise nor an objective. Rather, it is something embodied in each and every gesture that interrupts patriarchal history, “a gesture of freedom” as Lonzi describes it, that creates the conditions for the emergence of a political subject. The rupture, the unexpected, is a way of moving away from the patriarchal logic, from the logic of causes and effects, from the idea of a promised future. Let’s Spit on Hegel was written in 1970 when the constitution of “women” as a new collective political subjectivity was about to emerge.

FB: Today we hear that we lack perspective on the future, and hence, that we need to think of ways of imagining the future anew. At the same time, I think that our idea of the future is still very much connected to the idea of a linear progression… I wonder what the potential of thinking the present as the time of change might be.

GZ: The present as the time of feminism is a powerful idea still, and perhaps especially today when the motor of our neoliberal society is “promise”: the promise of a career, a better future, money and so on. But it’s just an empty promise. To think of a change in the present is also a way of fighting the idea of a future to come, the very idea of a promise, the patriarchal structure of history.

FB: The idea of an authentic way of living and writing seems to have been one of Lonzi’s central concerns. I often wondered what she really meant by “authentic”. Reading her, I always get the feeling that she meant something more than the simple idea that we need to rediscover a “true” self. Do you agree?

GZ: In my view “authenticity” is one of the most complicated notions in Lonzi’s feminist vocabulary, and I think that any comprehensive reading of it would be misleading. If we want to try to draw a genealogy of authenticity, I think it would lead us, on one side, to the modernist notion of art’s autonomy, on the other, to French existentialism’s use of the term. Carla Lonzi was very interested in French culture and Jean-Paul Sartre’s influence for her generation is huge. Lonzi’s notion of authenticity interests me because it’s crucial to both in her art criticism and in her feminism. However, the original meaning of “authenticity” as a means to describe the artist’s freedom and autonomy is fundamentally displaced once it becomes a key feminist term. I am very much interested in this translation/transformation of an artistic concept into a new feminist vocabulary. Of course this is also where things start getting complicated! To put it very simply, for Lonzi authenticity refers to the process of dis-identification from what constitutes “woman” as an already available category. Lonzi’s “clitoral woman” refuses to occupy the role of “woman” — thus opening up the possibility of becoming something else, something no longer based on the repetition of oppressive roles, clichés and stereotypes. The idea of a woman’s authenticity describes the unfinished process of becoming a subject (and thus the unfinished project of women’s liberation). However, to me there is a fundamental ambivalence in her use of this notion. Authenticity is often described as something that is already there and that needs to become manifest. This is perhaps what I call the “remains” of the modernist notion of authenticity, which Lonzi’s feminism ambivalently reactivates. If you read Carla Lonzi’s diary Taci, anzi parla, you can see how “authenticity” sometimes becomes an ambiguous signifier, a site where conflicts between women are played out and where power dynamics are simultaneously challenged and re-established. To me, authenticity remains an unresolved problem since it signals a feminist desire for autonomy, but also the political impasses of Lonzi’s relational feminism.

FB: In what ways it becomes a political impasse?

GZ: I think that Lonzi’s use of the word “authenticity” comes from an artistic vocabulary linked to a modernist idea of authenticity as individual freedom of the artist. If the figure of authenticity is the artist, the art critic can only be “inauthentic” — which is what she declares in Autoritratto. You can imagine how problematic that is. So, why does it become a political impasse? Because on the one hand, authenticity seems to become an objective, and hence it implies the idea that there are “authentic” and “not-authentic” women; and on the other hand, it reintroduces asymmetries and conflicts between women — who is authentic and who isn’t. In a sense, the ambivalence of “authenticity” always threatens the process of transformation so central to Lonzi’s feminist practice.

FB: In Taci, anziparla: Diario di una femminista, Lonzi described authenticity as an experience.

GZ: Well, Lonzi said many contradictory things! The idea of authenticity also refers to women’s alienation. According to Lonzi, the body is crucial to both the power structures oppressing women’s lives and to any process of liberation. Women’s alienation from their own body and sexuality can be undone through unexpected gestures opening the path towards autonomy and freedom. There is a powerful aspect in the notion of “authenticity”, namely recognizing that we are what society asks us to be. “Authenticity” exposes the conflict between what we are, our desires, and what we are expected to be.

FB: I found a beautiful poem in her diary: "Prima Ero/ciò che pensavo/Adesso sono." [Before I was/that which I thought/Now I am].