Pasolini: Linguistic Analysis of a Slogan

[This excellent essay by the inimitable Pier Paolo Pasolini first appeared in the 17 May, 1973 edition of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera under the title The madness of Jesus jeans. It appears more recently under the current title in the volume Scritti corsari, which is the version used for this translation.]

The cant1 of business is a cant that is purely for communication: the places where it is used are places where science becomes “applied,” they are, that is, places of pure pragmatism. The technicians speak amongst themselves a specialist jargon, yes, but it is strictly functional; rigidly communicative. The linguistic canon that is in use within the factory, on the contrary, tends to be used also outside of it: it is clear that those who produce want to have with those who consume a business relationship that is absolutely clear.

There is only one case of expressiveness — though of aberrant expressiveness — in the purely communicative language of industry: the slogan. In fact, the slogan must be expressive, to make an impression and to convince. But its expressiveness is grotesque, because it becomes immediately stereotypical, and it forces itself into a rigidity that is the opposite of real expression; a rigidness that is eternally iridescent, offering an infinite interpretation.

The finite expressiveness of the slogan is itself the apex of the new technical language that is replacing human language. It is the symbol of the linguistic life of the future, that is, of a world without expression, without particularities and cultural diversity, perfectly homogenous and acculturated. Of a world that to us, the last confidants of a complicated, magmatic, religious, and rational vision of life, seems like a world without life.

But is it possible to foresee a such a negative world? Is it possible to predict a future as “the end of all?” Someone — such as me — tends to do just that, out of desperation: love for the world that is tried and proven impedes me from being able to think about another world that may be just as real; a world in which other values, analogous to those that make precious existence, can be created. This apocalyptic vision of the future is justifiable, but probably unjustified.

It seems insane, but a recent slogan, which has become celebrated lightning-fast [fulmineamente], for “Jesus Jeans”: “Thou shalt have no other jeans before me,”2 situates itself as a new fact, an exception in the fixed canon of the slogan, revealing an expressive possibility unforeseen, and indicating a different evolution to that which orthodoxy — suddenly adopted by the wretches who want to see a dead future — was too reasonable to expect.

One sees the reaction of l’Osservatore romano3 to this slogan: with his antiquated, spiritualistic, and slightly fatuous, stupid Italianness [italianuccio]4, the columnist from l’Osservatore strikes up a threnody, which is anything but biblical, to make a victim of the poor, defenseless innocent. It is the same tone with which, for example, lamentations are made against the rampant immorality in literature or cinema. Though in such a case, the whining, prissy tone conceals the menacing desire for power: while the columnist, acting the lamb, laments in his own well-spelled Italian, behind him this power works to suppress, wipe out, and crush the damned who suffer precisely because of this power. The magistrates and police officers are on guard; the state apparatus places itself diligently at the service of the (holy) spirit. The legal processes of power follow l’Osservatore’s jeremiad: the scholar or filmmaker who blasphemes is immediately beaten and silenced.

In the cases, then, of humanistic revolt — possible in the environment of the old capitalism and the first industrial revolution — the Church had the potential to interrupt and suppress, brutally contradicting the formally democratic and liberal will of the state power. The mechanism was simple: a part of the state power — for example, the power of the magistrates, or police — assumed a conservative or reactionary function, and, as such, automatically put its instruments of power at the service of the Church. There is therefore a double link of bad faith [malafede] in the relationship between Church and State: for its own part, the Church accepts the bourgeois State — in the place of a feudal or monarchic one — conceding its consent and support, without which the State could not have subsisted: in order to do this, however, the Church had to permit and approve of the liberal demands, and the formality of democracy: things that it would only permit and approve of in order to obtain from the State power the tacit authorisation to limit and suppress them. Authorizations, for their part, which the bourgeois power conceded willingly. In fact, the bourgeois power’s pact with the Church regarding the instrumentum regni was nothing more than this: masking its own substantial illiberalism and antidemocracy by entrusting its illiberal and antidemocratic function to the Church, the bourgeois power accepted the Church as a superior religious institution in bad faith. The Church, in short, made a pact with the devil, that is, the bourgeois State. There is no contradiction more scandalous than that between religion and the bourgeois, the latter being the opposite of religion. A monarchy or feudal power was more favourable to religion. For this reason, fascism, as a regressive moment of capitalism, was less diabolic, objectively for the Church, than the democratic regime: Fascism was a curse, but it did not undermine the Church, because it was a false ideology. The agreement between Church and State was not sacrilegious in the thirties, but it is today; because Fascism did not even scratch the Church, while today Neocapitalism destroys it. The acceptance of fascism was an dreadful event, but the acceptance of bourgeois civilisation was a definitive action, whose cynicism is not merely a stain, the nth stain in the long history of the Church, but a massive, historic error which the Church will pay for with its decline. It didn’t grasp — in its blind angst over stabilisation and eternal fixation on its own institutional function — that the bourgeoisie were acting in a new spirit that certainly wasn’t the old fascist one: a new spirit that would initially compete with the religious spirit (keeping only clericalism), and would finish then by taking its place, supplying man with a total and unique vision of life (and therefore not have need of clericalism as the instrument of power).

It is true: as I was saying, the pathetic lamentations of l’Osservatore’s columnist were immediately followed — in the style of “classic” opposition — by action on the part of the judiciary and the police. But it is a case of survival. The Vatican found old, loyal men in the apparatus of state power: but they were, indeed, old. The future neither belongs to the old cardinals, nor to old politicians, nor to the old magistrates, nor to the old policemen. The future belongs to the young bourgeoisie who has no further need of possessing power using its classical instruments; who no longer knows what to make of the Church, which, by now, has generally finished with belonging to the humanistic world of the past which formed an obstacle to the new industrial revolution; the new bourgeoise power in fact needs consumers of a completely new pragmatic and hedonistic spirit: a universe technological and purely mundane in which the cycle of production and consumption can develop according to its own needs. For religion, and above all the Church, there is no longer space. The repressive struggle that the new capitalism still combats through the Church is a delayed struggle, destined, in the logic of the bourgeoisie, to be soon won, with the subsequent “natural” dissolution of the Church.

It seems crazy, I repeat, but the case of the “Jesus Jeans” sheds a light on all this. Those who have produced these jeans and have launched them into the market use for the customary slogan one of the ten Commandments, showing themselves to be — probably without realizing it — already beyond the threshold at which you forsake our way of life and mental horizon.

There is, in the cynicism of this slogan, an intensity and an innocence of an absolutely new kind, although it has probably matured extensively in recent years (at least, a brief period in Italy). It says in fact, with the conciseness of a phenomenon—already complete and definitive—which is revealed suddenly to our conscience, that the new industries and new technologies are completely laical, but with a laity that no longer compares with religion’s. Such laity is a “new value” born in the entropy of the bourgeoisie, in which the authority of religion wastes away, surviving only because it is still a natural product of enormous consumption and a folkloristic form that is still exploitable.

But the appeal of this slogan is not only negative, it does not, that is, only represent the new way in which the Church was brutally reshaped to that which it now is: there is, in the slogan, an appeal that is also positive that is the unforeseen possibility of ideologizing, and therefore rendering expressive, the cant of the slogan and therefore, presumably that of the entire technical world. The blasphemic spirit of this slogan does not limit itself to an apodixis, to a pure observation that fixes expression to communicativeness. It is something that is more than just an unbiased good idea (the paragon of which is the Anglo-Saxon “Jesus Christ Superstar”): on the contrary, it lends itself to an interpretation, that cannot be infinite. It conserves in the slogan the ideological and aesthetic characteristics of expression. This means — maybe — that the future, which to us — the religious and humanistic — appears as obsession and death, will be in a new way, history; that the necessity of pure communicativeness of production will be in some way contradicted. In fact, the slogan of these jeans does not limit itself to communicating the necessity of consumption, but it presents itself even as the nemesis — though perhaps unconscious — that punishes the Church for its pact with the devil. This time, the columnist of l’Osservatore is truly helpless and powerless: even if the judiciary and police, put immediately in Christian fashion into motion, were able to rip this manifesto and this slogan from the walls of the nation, it is, by now an irrevocable fact. Its spirit is the new spirit of the second industrial revolution and of the subsequent mutation of values.

  1. I have used this term to distinguish ‘language’ in the traditional sense (It: lingua) and the Italian linguaggio. Linguaggio can mean (amongst other things) something like ‘a language used by a particular subgroup,’ but without the connotations of ‘jargon’. 

  2. Non avrai altri jeans all’infuori di me. 

  3. A daily paper owned by The Holy See, published in Italian, which reports on the Pope’s public affairs, as well as publishing editorials by clergy. 

  4. The suffix -uccio/a signifies a negative aspect, or a pejorative. Cf. the word parolaccia (swear word), which is made up of the parts parole (word) and the suffix -accia. Therefore, italianaccio means ‘Italianness,’ but is a pejorative term. 

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