Humanizing an Icon

review by Don Moore

Antonio Negri Illustrated: Interview in Venice
by Claudio Calia
Translated by Jason Francis McGimsey
Red Quill Books
188 pgs
ISBN 9781926958132
On the back cover of this terrific little book, is an endorsement by Antonio Negri himself. It reads:

I’m rather old now… Claudio [Calia, the author/interviewer/illustrator,] has given me back my youth. He interpreted the years when I fought, with joy, together with a multitude of comrades, for a generous idea of democracy. Claudio knows how to show the energy, the wisdom and the hope of that epoch…

This is an excellent summary of this graphic novel’s achievement: It is a commix-style version of an interview with Negri by Calia which took place in Negri’s home in Venice between December 2007 and March 2008. What struck me —as I sat in my chair and read the book in one very short sitting— is the amazing breadth of historical and philosophical material the book covers, while containing so few actual words on the pages. For anyone even marginally acquainted with Antonio Negri’s writing, they will know that it can be very densely written and complex in its breathtaking range of critical and philosophical influences. In my opinion, Negri’s recent collaborations with authors such as Michael Hardt and Claudio Calia has helped to clarify and perhaps popularize his at times quite difficult writing style, and therefore may help to introduce this important and already influential theorist to an even broader audience.
Personally, I have come to relish the experience of reading commix-style journalism and historical graphic novels —Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman, and Chester Brown— for the ways in which the form, at least in the hands of such talented writers as the ones I just mentioned, allows for an interpretive breadth of the material. Similarly, reading Calia’s text, I often get the sense I am inside the interviewer’s own head, being distracted by a passing fly, or the ring of the telephone—immediate, subjective experiences that bring the interview alive yet, nonetheless, often interrupt and radically shifts the articulation of Negri’s version of events and his own biographical details. We are, at every point in this postmodernist-style graphic novel, reminded that this is only a version of Negri’s own story, being told in a rapid, stream-of-consciousness style, yet with a breadth of experience and detail that is rich and satisfying. I felt as if I was experiencing the story in an immediate way, as if it is being relayed by Negri himself from his armchair. Yet, at the same time, the commix illustrations allow for highly structured interruptions of explanatory materials, recreations of events with informatively exaggerated details, clips from a (seemingly rather boring) two person play written and performed by Negri and Raffaella Battaglini, as well as news clippings and memorabilia from the rich and remarkable lifetime of Negri’s experiences.
Is this book a contribution to contemporary post-Marxist, leftist political theory? It’s far too short and condensed to be thought of as an example of Negri’s theoretical writing. However, it is nonetheless an excellent summary and important contextualization of the early formation of Negri’s philosophical thinking —from his early revolutionary political work to his more contemporary ideas about globalization as Empire and the mulititude. The book also gives some insightful context regarding the significance and similarities between the Italian and European versions of the 1968 political uprisings which were, at the time, so influential on left-leaning political and critical theory.
My favorite part of the book —aside from the winking red plastic glowing bust of Lenin that is the ever-present third participant in the interview— is the way in which it so effortlessly humanizes the iconic figure of Negri. I met and had a brief conversation with him once during a visit he made to McMaster University in 2006. I must admit, however, that I feel as though I had a more intimate, informative, and “personal” experience with the man reading this comic book than I ever did meeting him in person.
View the video trailer for this book.
Don Moore is a lecturer at the University of Guelph-Humber and Wilfrid Laurier University where he teaches film, media studies, critical and cultural theory.