McKenzie Wark on Tue, 29 Jul 2003 18:46:28 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Luther Blissett's Q

Luther Blissett, Q, William Heinemann, 2003
reviewed by McKenzie Wark

Q is a terrific read, an epic from "the bowels
of history."(517) The story follows two main
characters. One wants to overthrow the
social order. The other is a spy in the service
of the forces who want to maintain it.

Q is the spy, in the pay of Father Carafa, an
ultra conservative figure, rapidly rising up
the hierarchy of the Catholic church. The
other main character is a radical protestant,
who sets himself against both the corrupt
power of the Catholic church, and also
against Luther’s Protestant reformation. For
the more radical protestants,  Luther is a
political tool in the hands of a rising
mercantile class, not a friend of the peasants
and artisans.  His is just a new kind of
authority, which is "putting a priest in our
souls" (353)

These two characters cross paths many
times, from one end of Europe to the other,
until coming together for a final
confrontation, in Venice, where their
identities will finally be revealed to each

If that were all there were to it, this would
be a fascinating, but ultimately over-long
genre novel – the historical thriller. But Q
is not so much a novel as an anti-novel. The
confrontation between the two characters
ends up something of an anti-climax. It
provides a narrative impulse to get the
reader through to the end, but the real
narrative strategy it conceals is quite

In Q, conflicts are never resolved, merely
deflected, transformed, shifted to another
level. Yet that does not mean that in
renouncing the bourgeois novel’s sense of
narrative closure and harmony, that Q falls
for the other dominant form, pulp serial
fiction, which creates the necessity for each
new installment out of the inevitable
incompleteness of the episode. In Q, our
hero learns from his struggles, grows wiser,
avoids old mistakes. This is a didactic novel,
but with a different purpose. It is about
learning how to struggle against the ruses
of power and get by.

One of Q’s lessons is not to get too bogged
down in identity. Our hero changes his
name many times. He adapts, he sheds
failed strategies. He finds new friends, new
structures of belief and methods for reading
the signs.

This is not unlike the authors of the book
themselves. The Luther Blissett who wrote
this book is Roberto Bui, Giovanni
Cattabriga, Federico Guglielmi and Luca Di
Meo. They emerged out of a milieu in which
Luther Blissett was a popular pseudonym
for all kinds of radical actions, avant-garde
provocations and spectacular pranks. But
they too have moved on, and now call
themselves Wu Ming.

In Q, the Blissett crew finds a form and a
narrative to hold together a popular account
of all that a generation has learned in
various struggles. The book can be read as
an allegory for the history of the late 20th
century. The folly of Mao and the prudence
of George Soros can all be read between the
lines in the actions of the books many walk-
on characters.

Or, one can read Q as a more local allegory,
for a series of struggles waged by the
Italian left from the 80s to the 90s. It may
not matter whether these allegorical
readings are actually intended. One of the
effects of the book is to encourage
allegorical reading – and some skepticism
about it. The many radical protestant
leaders who populate the first third of the
book are forever using the bible as an
allegorical machine for reading the signs of
the times – with very mixed results. Just as
60s Marxists read every hiccup of capitalism
as heralding the ‘crisis’, Q’s true believers
see everywhere the coming apocalypse.

English language readers will find some of
the background material familiar if they
have read Norman Cohn’s book about
radical sects, The Pursuit Of The Millennium,
or Raoul Vanegeim’s The Movement of the
Free Spirit, or even Greil Marcus’ Lipstick
Traces. The latter was famous for insisting
on a subterranean link between the Sex
Pistol’s John Lydon and the radical
Anabaptist John of Leyden. Leyden is a
featured character in Q, but a much less
romantic one.

This Leyden is emblematic of the reactive,
persecutory forces that can seize hold of a
radical movement from within, just at its
moment of triumph. There is a remarkable
study here of the forces and pressures that
can lead a militant movement into self-
delusion, worthy of Guattari.

Those familiar with radical European avant-
gardes will find much to chuckle over in Q.
In this version of the 16th century, radical
forces use theology and religion in much the
same way as the avant-gardes use theory
and art. There is a useful dialogue with the
Situationists in these pages. Blissett seems to
have a fondness for the practical strategies
of the SI. The derive, or the drift: the
wandering through cities, cutting across the
order of the working day is artfully applied
here to give wonderful portraits of medieval
Venice, Antwerp and Münster.

The whole book can be read as one long
exercise of the other SI strategy.
Detournement, or the detour: the
appropriation and correction of existing
texts, plagiarism in the service of a militant
education. The genre of the historical thriller
and popular histories of the Reformation are
here freely plundered and repurposed as an
almost Brechtian learning-book for
"awkward people" (403)

At one point a character utters the famous
line "let the dead bury the dead." (160) It’s
an expression Blissett have pinched from
Marx, knowing full well that he in turn stole
it from that original revolutionary text -- the
Gospel of Matthew. All the great lines in
history happen three times: the first time as
tragedy, the second time as farce, and the
third time as detournement.

Ironically, for a book set in the 16th century,
there is a very contemporary focus on ‘new
media’, which in the context of the times
means the printing press. The book is both
an early artifact of commodity production
and exchange, and something that points
beyond it. Throughout Q, the book keep re-
appearing as a market opportunity for a
growing merchant class, and an impossible
commodity that may be freely pirated and
distributed beyond commodity exchange.
Blissett locates the paradox of the vectoral
economy of our own times, where
information is the stake in a struggle over
private versus communal property, in the
very origins of the mechanically reproduced

Q is divided into three parts. The first
concerns peasant uprisings and radical
protestant movements that sought to
abolish private property and both secular
and religious authority. The second looks at
the movement of the free spirit, which
employed a strategy of seduction rather
than revolution, seeking to create a new
world within, rather than against, the old.
The third takes up the rise of a new Papal
authority that radically shut down the space
of theological pluralism, and the struggle to
open up what we would now think of as a
‘public sphere’.

This could be read as an allegory for political
theories of the late 20th century, moving
from 30s Marxism to the 60s new left to 80s
radical democracy. It is also interesting the
way the terrain of struggle moves from the
locus of the city to a more nebulous space of
information, made up of networks of oral
and textual vectors. The status of the text
changes across the three parts of the book.
In the first, a text is a tool for struggle; in
the second, a form of subjective self-
management; in the third, part of a
network, a milieu that makes many different
kinds of thing possible.

The last third of the book revolves around a
book within the book, a work written by
progressive forces within the Catholic
church that restates in popular language the
radical theses of the Protestants called The
Benefit of Christ Crucified. This book within
the book strategy will be familiar from
postmodern fiction, as a device for drawing
attention to the formal, textual dimension of
the work. Or, perhaps closer to hand, it is a
technique repeated over and over in the
popular anti-literature of Stewart Home.

As with Home’s anti-novels, Q uses the
book-within-the-book to ask questions
about how to read the book-outside-the-
book, the book in the world. It’s more the
reverse of the postmodern strategy than a
continuation of it. It’s not about the formal,
textual play within, it’s about the way a text
moves through the world.

Blissett may be speaking of Q as much as of
The Benefit when they describe it as a
"mediocre book". Unlike Guy Debord, who
pondered out loud about whether to
include his statements to the police in his
Collected Works, Blissett judge their work
in terms of how it circulates, rather than on
its textual perfection. "Books only change
the world when the world is capable of
digesting them." (408)

Q is a useful reality-check for avant-garde
tendencies that, in diving head first into
‘new media’, forget their own pre-history in
the avant gardes of the past. The real skill
displayed in this book is not ‘literary’. The
actual writing is serviceable and generic. The
skill is in taking the avant-garde strategies
of detournement and making a popular,
readable work out of it. This is a textbook
for a ‘catholic’ avant-garde, with something
for (annoying) everybody.

At the risk of perpetuating a stereotype,
one aspect of Q that strikes me as rather
‘Italian’ is the fondness for conspiracy and
dissimulation as an explanation for world
events. I’m reminded of Sanguinetti’s On
Terrorism and the State, in which that
latter-day Situationist accused those
involved in armed struggle in Italy in the 70s
and 80s of being the dupes of the secret
police. Throughout Q there is always a
conspiracy afoot. But then conspiracy is,
after all, the popular route to understanding
social totality, as Fred Jameson once

In one remarkable way, Q is not an allegory
for past events, but for present and future
ones. The book ends with our hero and his
crew escaping from Venice for the real
center of the world – Constantinople.
Carafa’s vision of how power works has
come to pass. The public sphere has closed
down, taking with it a more ‘moderate’ and
diffuse order. Carafa has triumphed by
recognizing what is really required for "the
foundation of a millennial power", namely "a
gigantic and complex apparatus that
inculcates that message in people’s thoughts
and deeds." (611) One that is based on fear.
What could be a more prescient description
of our present situation?

Q is in some ways an optimistic book. Sure,
the popular revolts of the first part are all in
vain. The scams of the second part get
people killed. The attempt to open a space
for free thought and life within
communication of the third part is
foreclosed. A millennial power triumphs,
and it’s not a pretty sight. But then, "the
illustrious names of the defeated and the
victors remain in the chronicles, available to
anyone who wants to reconstruct the
intricate events." (626)

Benjamin had said that "not even the dead
are safe", but what he didn’t count on is
that power always leaves a trace of those it
has vanquished in its own account of its
own triumphs. It’s a question of a narrative
resurrection, where the return of the
marginalized, the disempowered is still
possible. A return, not as victim, but as a
different kind of hero. The kind of hero
who works in situations, does what is
possible, and moves on. A Luther Blissett.

                   ... we no longer have roots, we have aerials ...

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