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Book review: A Thousand Little Machines

Book review: A Thousand Little Machines

A/traverso magazine and its editor Franco “Bifo” Berardi were central to the Italian autonomist movement and animated the tumultuous events of 1977

The reception of autonomist political ideas into the English-speaking world has always been a peculiar and fragmented affair. Often this has been due to the lack of comprehensive translations or an excessive focus on a limited range of figures within the movement. Ed Emery, through the Red Notes project, played a pivotal role in translating key materials from the 1960s and 1970s, making them accessible to a broader audience. Sadly, today many of the books produced are out of print or no longer available. In this context, the publication of A Thousand Little Machines: A/traverso and the Movement of ’77 marks a significant moment in recovering and exploring critical materials from the autonomist movement, particularly those connected to the tumultuous and vibrant movements of 1977.

The book, beautifully designed and thoughtfully put together, makes striking use of photographs by Tano D’Amico and others, capturing the essence and dynamism of these movements. It goes beyond traditional Marxist party frameworks to delve into the politics of desire, experimenting with art, poetry, and design. Through this lens, the period of autonomous politics comes alive not merely as an engagement with culture but as the very medium through which a new, joyous, and convivial form of politics and life could emerge.

Ostensibly A Thousand Little Machines traces the social history of a magazine, A/traverso. However, it is much more than a mere chronicle of a publication. The book unfolds as a social history of the forms of social movements articulated through the production and circulation of the magazine. In May 1975, Franco “Bifo” Berardi took on the primary role of editing and distributing A/traverso, which put him in contact with numerous small political groups across Italy. The sales of the magazine enabled the production of more small magazines and newsletters, leading to a multiplication of autonomous print projects throughout the country. From this emerged a network of over 150 ‘red points’ – distribution nodes for movement-produced media – equivalent in sales to a daily newspaper, but produced by dense, transversal networks of people creating their own publications.

The first issue of A/traverso bore the subtitle “small groups in multiplication,” aptly reflecting its process of dispersed production and distribution. This process facilitated the growth and proliferation of an autonomous culture through the print medium. It represented a significant departure from the vanguard party model, which traditionally disseminated the “correct line” through a centralized newspaper. Instead, A/traverso fostered a dispersed and polyvocal medium of communication. This approach was further amplified by the rise of punk fanzines and the use of free radios as social media, epitomized by the creation of Radio Alice. A/traverso remains a unique and, in many ways, a peculiar magazine, as might be expected from any publication that sought to expand the experiments of the artistic avant-garde on a mass scale. Attempting to pin down precisely what is meant by “Mao Dadaism” might seem a futile exercise; it is as much a prank and provocation as it is a serious conceptual category. This playfulness is at the heart of A/traverso’s appeal, documenting how thousands of people across Italy explored their desires to live differently through the medium of print publications they created.

A Thousand Little Machines is a wonderful book that captures a historical moment still resonant today. It delves into a period when people, disillusioned by precarious work conditions and ineffectual political parties, sought to forge new paths. This sentiment, strikingly similar to contemporary frustrations, is explored with the joy and sarcastic irreverence characteristic of the 1977 movements. The book’s narrative is both a historical exploration and a call to draw inspiration from the past, particularly the creative and joyful resistance that defined the era. It excels in illustrating how culture and politics were intertwined for the autonomist movement. Here we see how engaging with art, poetry, and design was not a substitute for political action but a means through which a new form of politics could be realized. This cultural engagement fostered a sense of community and collective identity, allowing for a diverse and inclusive movement that transcended traditional political boundaries.

A Thousand Little Machines: A/traverso and the Movement of ’77 is an essential read for anyone interested in the history of autonomist movements, radical politics, or the interplay between culture and political activism. It provides a comprehensive and engaging account of a period marked by innovation, experimentation, and a relentless quest for a better way of living. It serves as both a historical document and a source of inspiration, reminding us that even in the face of adversity, joy and creativity can be powerful tools for political and social transformation.

~ Haduhi Szukis

A Thousand Little Machines: A/traverso and the Movement of ’77. Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, edited by Jamila Squire and Seth Wheeler. ISBN: 978-1-838-4851-9-1. 232 pages, £15

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