From the Venetian to the European Archipelago: The Geo-filosofia of Massimo Cacciari


From the august heritage of Plato’s philosopher-kings, the philosopher and long-standing political activist Massimo Cacciari represents a certain step down: the philosopher-mayor. As philosopher, he has been the author of numerous books, ranging from early, Marxist readings of German 19th- and 20th-century social philosophy; through various meditations on modernist culture such as Dallo Steinhof (on fin-de-siècle Vienna), Adolf Loos e il suo Angelo (on the Viennese modernist architect and his writings), and Icone della Legge (which treats figures of modern Jewish culture such as Franz Rosenzweig, Franz Kafka, and Arnold Schönburg); through works of high metaphysics and theology such as L’Angelo Necessario and Dell’Inizio; to works that will be my primary focus today, Geo-filosofia dell’Europa and L’Archipelago. Already as a teenager, Cacciari was involved in leftist politics, organizing in the 1960s in the contentious industrial areas of Venice and Mestre, and was a collaborator, along with such figures as Manfredo Tafuri, Alberto Asor Rosa, Francesco Dal Co, Mario Tronti, and Antonio Negri in the left Marxist journal Contropiano. In the 1970s, he was a PCI deputy to the Parliament.  More recently, he was mayor of Venice from 1993-2000 at the head of an independent progressive list; he ran unsuccessfully a “Lista Cacciari” in the regional elections in the Veneto; and he is a deputy to the European parliament.  During his time as mayor of Venice, during which were published both Geo-filosofia dell’Europa and L’archipelago, Cacciari also was the principle architect of a proposal for a federalist reform of the Italian constitution, and he has been the primary figurehead of a left federalism, both critical of the Northern Leagues and sensitive to the new energies, ideas, and potentials that their emergence represented for Italian politics (I’ll come back to this when I discuss Cacciari’s relation with the federalist theorist Gianfranco Miglio, one of the principle thinkers behind the Lega Nord).

Despite this impressive record of achievement as both philosopher and politician, Cacciari neither embodies the Platonic dream of a philosophy stamping politics to the shape of the Idea, nor has he retained its latter-day Marxist translation in a ideal of the dialectical unity of theory and practice.  What Plato had conjoined in imagining the ideal republic, the city subjected to the reign of a single truth, a single logos–that of the Idea–Cacciari again disjoins, recognizing the necessary gap between philosophical reflection and political action. Indeed, in Geo-filosofia he explicitly addresses this topic in Plato’s Republic, arguing that Plato’s own thought does not advance the philosopher-king as a realizable ideal, but rather dramatizes his impossibility as a measure of the real condition of the polis as it is given here and now.  And the following exchange in an interview of 29 April 2003 in Quintostato suggests that this disjunctive cohabitation of philosophy and politics is a condition that Cacciari embraces as axiomatic for both his philosophical and political activities:

Interviewer: In your philosophical work, I find striking the separation that you have indicated between investigations of a metaphysical and ontological sort about liberty and that practical conception (typical of Anglo-Saxon culture) that wants to resolve the whole political question of “liberty” into a pure determination of the rules.  At the same time, however, you seem also to assert that even if these are two opposed interrogations, they must somehow–dramatically and ambiguously–dwell together.  Thus on the one hand, there is the description of our situation that affirms an articulated, irreducible plurality of subjects; on the other hand, there is the problem of constructing a system of rules.

Cacciari: The terrain of political battle is, in effect, this.  If there are effective contradictions here, and not just a multitude of dispersed interests, the terrain on which the conflict will be decided will be that of constituting a system of rules.  The formal, juridical, normative, institutional terrain will be the decisive one in contrast to a time in which it was decisively the economic.  Thus it will be an intellectual battle.  In the epoch in which the decisive factor is the social mind (il cervello sociale), the contradiction will a contradiction between minds (cervelli). It will be a highly intellectualized contradiction.

* *  *

The roots of Cacciari’s “geo-filosofia,”along with his federalism and heterodox vision of Europe, must be sought in his earlier work, particularly that work concerned with modern architecture and its broader cultural and artistic context.  Here I will recall Cacciari’s long-standing affiliation with the late Marxist historian of architecture Manfredo Tafuri, with whom he cooperated in the editing of Contropiano; Cacciari later also became a professor of aesthetics in Tafuri’s program at University of Venice.

MAnfredo Tafuri Tafuri_HDM_W2004

Tafuri was engaged in a very powerful critical project that had two main features. First, he sought to understand the disciplinary ideologies internal to modern architecture, which attempted to resolve the contradictions of modern capitalism by architectural–and often, technological–means, placing the professional architect in the role of social engineer, social planner, and utopian artist of the real. Second, he showed how, within the dialectic of capitalist development, particularly between the world wars, this architectural ideology played a pivotal role in the process of techno-bureaucratic rationalization embodied by the very widespread notion of planning.

In turn, Tafuri’s response to this set of problems was three-fold.

1) He firmly rejected any view of architecture as a closed disciplinary practice; architecture, in his view, could only be studied as a focal point of a social history of urbanism, which must account for interconnected, but irreducibly contradictory political, technological, economic, and cultural contexts.  I would call this his shift from architectural history to an interdisciplinary history of urbanism.

2) He was particularly critical of the tendency of modern architects to generate social utopias, centered on technology and planning as objectified in architectural projects; as a counter-discourse, he very strongly affirmed both the work of anti-utopian architects such as Mies Van der Rohe and pessimistic theoretical perspectives that refused resolution of contradiction and conflict. I will call this his “tragic” motif in Tafuri’s work, in which tragedy becomes positively valued as an ethic of endurance in the face of irreconcilable difference, a positive resistance of the temptation to overcome conflict in ideological and utopian discourse.

3) Finally, he and his followers, including Cacciari, engaged in a detailed program of research into the genealogy of architectural and urban discourse and modern tragic philosophy, which led them to study, above all, German and Austrian social thought, literature, and philosophy.  Hence, one of Cacciari’s early books was entitled Metropolis, which comprised essays on German urban social thought from Sombart, Simmel, and Weber to Walter Benjamin, along with an anthology of texts from these thinkers rendered into Italian.   I will call this “the turn to the north” as the space in which a broader European destiny had, in the early decades of the 20th century, been most powerfully concentrated.

In the course of the nineteen-seventies, Cacciari himself turned increasingly from Marx to Heidegger, Nietzsche, and Benjamin as his theoretical masters, but he retained the three foundational motives in Tafuri that I identified: an interdisciplinary focus on the city and its history, tragic anti-utopianism, and the inspiration of Austro-German modernism.  Nor had his more specific dialogue with Tafuri come to an end. In fact, one can see as a certain acme of their relationship Cacciari’s review of Tafuri’s and Francesco Dal Co’s important two-volume history of modern architecture, which rewrote the history of architecture as a series of defensive responses to a changing division of intellectual labor, due to developments in capitalist economy, urbanism, science, and technology.

Taking as his point of departure Paul Valéry’s 1921 dialogue “Eupalinos, or the Architect,” in which the souls of Socrates and Phaedrus in the underworld discuss the thoughts of the architect Eupalinos and Socrates expresses his regrets at having been a philosopher instead of a constructor, Cacciari entitles his review “Eupalinos or Architecture.”


A reading of Valéry’s dialogue of the dead and Heidegger’s essays on “dwelling,” the 1951 discourses “Bauen Wohnen Denken” and “. . . dichterisch wohnet der Mensch. . .”,  which situate dwelling within the residual site of poetry while finding it in no actual place in the world, together lead Cacciari to emphasize the negative implications these texts develop regarding the possibility of authentic dwelling.  As works of literature and philosophy, these texts hold out an explicitly inactual and perhaps impossible measure, against which the actual impoverishment of dwelling and building can be taken.  This impossibility of dwelling and building for dwellers, however–the condition of modern nihilism, in which, perhaps as Hölderlin was already suggesting, there was no actual place that could be poetically occupied, no “measure on earth”–is what disciplinary architecture is so much at pains to disavow and overcome. And one could say that Cacciari rereads in such Heideggerian terms Tafuri’s and Dal Co’s Marxist critique of architectural ideology: in their activity as critical historians, they hold open and stand within the space of the absence of dwelling in the modern age, resolutely drawing the implications for architecture.  As Cacciari writes:

Non-dwelling is the essential characteristic of life in the metropolis. . . . The ‘history’ of contemporary architecture is therefore,a phenomenology of metropolitan non-dwelling.  Or it should be such, since contemporary architecture aims at restructuring itself as the possibility of dwelling within the metropolis.

It does so insofar as urban planning becomes a disciplinary branch of architectural thought.  In pursuit of recapturing the metropolis as a space of dwelling, reoccupied with “places,” urban planners seek to harmonize the variegated languages of metropolitan functions within a larger totality, a “logic” of the city, its universal “Logos” that allows translatability between distinct realms and at all registers and levels:

Through its very origin and nature, ‘urban planning’ creates a change in perspective: the impotence of ‘classic’ dwelling; but it also addresses the multiple languages of metropolitan functions (and the consequent destruction of the very possibility of dwelling) as languages intrinsically capable of being ‘sublimated’ into a logical system, into the very logic that ‘urban planning’ would represent or incarnate. 

Underlying the practice of urban planning, then, is the ideal of harmony: the “harmonization of metropolitan functions, of the creation of a ‘homeland’ common to all of them–and the assessment of their real conflict as a mere appearance that hides and mystifies a ‘profound,’ ‘substantial’ Gemeinschaft“. Critical studies such as those of Tafuri and Dal Co, but also artistic and philosophical practitioners such as Alban Berg and Ludwig Wittgenstein (both discussed in Dallo Steinhof), offer dissonant, differentiating counterdiscourses to that of “harmony,” to a universal urban Logos embodied in planning and techno-science. In the context of the rethinking of metropolitan existence by modern architects and urban planners, their rejection of “harmonization” and offering of alternative ways of thinking about relations of part and whole, methods of “composing” differences, dissonances, and multiples languages without reduction to a common measure take on a crucial epistemological and political value.

* *  *

Geo-filosofia dell’Europa and L’archipelago take up precisely this frame of reference in relation to the problem of European identity posed so starkly by the end of the Cold War, the move towards European integration and expansion, and the internal changes brought about in Italy by the reorganization of the party system and the emergence of the bloc of the alternately federalist and secessionist Northern League, the post-fascist Allianza Nationale, and Berlucsconi’s medial post-party Forza Italia.  In keeping with my remarks at the beginning of the paper, however, nowhere in these books does one find any reference to this topical context, with which Cacciari the mayor and political representative was contemporaneously deeply engaged.  Instead, the points of reference are Greek historical, philosophical, and dramatic writings (Herodotus, Thucydides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Parmenides, Plato); medieval philosophy and theology (Augustine, Nicolas of Cusa, Raymond Lull); modern political philosophy (from Hobbes to Carl Schmitt); and other philosophical writings (especially Nietzsche and Heidegger) The argument of this diptych of books is thickly interlaced with close textual readings of the sources. Since I do not have time here to examine any of these readings in detail, I will try to pull out a few key arguments and return, in conclusion, to the more practical political problems of Cacciari the mayor.

Cacciari’s heavy concentration on Greek texts is motivated by his desire to establish a “geo-philosophical” genealogy for European self-identification, for European distinctiveness with those it defines as others and with its internally “othered” spaces, for the practice of drawing and reinforcing distinctions as a historically constitutive element of the European imaginary.  At its origins lies the relation between land and sea in the archipelagal world of ancient Greece. For the Greeks, in Cacciari’s view, the sea represented a dangerous, seductive force that disrupted the primordial territorial basis of life-in-peace, the cosmic correspondence of a territory and a people: “This sea has a current that carries away and that transforms–towards no-place”. The logos  represented by the sea-faring Greek becomes mobile, productive, expansive, powerful; but also homeless, without a proper abode, without dwelling.  From the time the Greeks took to the sea, relinquishing their terrestial Nomos in favor of an undetermined thalassocratic transcendence, a being-always-elsewhere, a dynamic of perpetual war, both external polemos and internal stasis, became integral to Greek political life.

But the sea is also a communicating bridge between multiple islands and insular languages. It is a medium in which the individual languages, local myths, and stories are collocated, compared, and confronted with one another.  Paradoxically, this confrontation holds two tendencies together in a single moment: the implication of a more general Logos that comprehends all these insular voices and a recognition that in each this totality is always absent, not-yet or already-lost. Each insular logos appears an individual “declination” of a more global Logos that is nevertheless never accessible as such.  This multiplicity of declensions of this Logos gets projected backwards as nostalgia for a lost totality that existed once before the time of separation and forward as a utopian return to wholeness.   But the present is marked by division, decline.

Cacciari’s subsequent discussion of the Greeks, as well as his reading of other sources, traces out a series of responses to this predicament, successive attempts to stabilize the logic of war, dissonance, and multiplicity in favor of peace and unity. In the European intellectual heritage, these responses have focused especially around such master concepts as sovereignty, the idea, and harmony, which in turn are the primary objects of Cacciari’s deconstruction.

As with his previous arguments about urban planning and its utopian attempts to harmonize the multiplicity of metropolitan functions within a unitary logic, so too in relation to the archipelago of Europe, with its multiple logoi, the greatest danger lies precisely in the nostalgic-utopian desire to overcome multiplicity in a timeless unity. Ultimately, it is not so much defense against spatial or cultural dispersion, but rather against perishability, against the subjection of Europe to history and to the necessity of its decline, that motivates this desire.  It is Europe’s inability to shake the spectre of war, especially the haunting internal dissension of civil war, that compels the Europe’s desperate search for definitive pacification through the Idea and the Sovereign. Which is another way of saying that Europe has been unwilling to accept that which brought it into being, the contingent, historical, “occasional” nature of its unity that it initiated with its thalassocratic departure from a territorially grounded power. Europe does not want that which gives it its archipelagal identity; it does not want itself, which would mean accepting its historicity, its declension into multiple logoi, the necessity of its decline (and Cacciari here plays constantly on Spengler’s title Der Untergang des Abendlands, Il Tramonto del West). He writes:

There dominates today, through all the dogmas and all the churches, the resistance to decline, or worse, a violent resentment towards those presumed to be responsible, or, further, the acadia of resignation (that represents nothing other than resentment having by now reached exhaustion).  Europe does not will its own completion, and thus it does not will itself–it doesn’t want to believe in that which makes reference to its own being as occasus.  It fears this, it conceives this as simple, immediate destiny, it sees it as a product of external force, instead of willing itself as that which is going down.

Cacciari thus views Europe as unable to accept its own historicity because to do so would imply accepting its own ending. As Mircea Eliade suggested in his Myth of the Eternal Return, written in the wake of World War II, there is a powerful existential impulse to flee from history into the consolations of cosmic myth, often centered on the figure of the sovereign and a sacrally grounded political order. So too more recently Benedict Anderson sees the “imagined communities” of the modern nation as fulfilling a primordial need to lend meaning to the chances of life and death, as giving shape to a fraternity that is worth dying for en masse. “It is the magic of nationalism,” Anderson writes, “to turn chance into destiny.” The nation replaces historical contingency with the necessity of mythic time.

Cacciari, however, seeks to hold onto the occasional nature of Europe, the necessity of its decline, and resist the temptation of mythic, national, sovereign reunification and reterritorialization.  In common with Jean-Luc Nancy’s projection of an inoperable community and Giorgio Agamben’s conception of la communitá che viene, Cacciari wishes to imagine an archipelagal form of community that is a contingent figure of relation traced by the “navigation” between places, between voices.  He writes:

Is it possible to conceive a community of islands in perennial navigation, each one away-from and towards (contra-versus) the other? Only if each one knows itself and manifests itself to itself not as a simple individuality, as a resolved, complete, fulfilled unity, to be imposed at the center of a hierarchically oriented space. Only if each one, knowing itself, will discover in itself the same complexity, the same variable and unpredictable ‘geometries’ that make up the harmony of the archipelago. Only if each one discovers within itself, that multiplicity of forms and of lógoi that in its travels it has seen-and-heard.   The islands are distinct–but also distinct are the languages  that inhabit each.  Truths dwell within.  What we discover is a societas– a societas that ventures the whole range of possibilities, from tyranny to stasis, from servitude to parresía–and all these terms replicate themselves one after another. No “external” relation would be conceivable without this society “within”.

What Cacciari envisions is a reciprocal movement of dispersing European sovereignty in an archipelago of federated units, at the same time as the sovereignty of the European self is dispersed into an interior aggregate of multiple logoi and insular fragments without an overriding unity.  Anticipating my conclusion, I could speak of a federalized European self, to be mirrored on the macrocosmic scale by a federalized, archipelagal politico-cultural space without a sovereign state:

Thus the space of the archipelago is by nature resistant to subordination and hierarchical succession; no island constitutes its fixed axis, capable of structuring its ensemble in the form of a State.  

* * *

But I want to give the last word not to Cacciari the philosopher, but to Cacciari the politician, and ask what could this highly abstract, even abstruse geo-philosophy and religiously-tinged theory of inner conversion mean for a man concerned with coalitions, constitutional reforms, and regional development?


There is a necessary gap.  But I will suggest something of this with two final references.  One is Cacciari’s complex and surprising relationship with the theoretical architect of right-wing federalism, Gianfranco Miglio, who was for a short time aligned with Umberto Bossi.  We might see this as an instance of what it might mean to turn oneself towards an other in an openness to the multiplicity of voices within.  Cacciari notes that his arguments with Miglio, beginning in 1982 with debates around the Weimar Constitution, was the origin of his own left-wing version of federalist reform.  But the extraordinary respect between these two very different thinkers and political figures was truly an instance of what Nietzsche called “star friendship,” in a sea-faring passage from The Gay Science  to which Cacciari is fond of making reference:

We were friends and have become estranged. . . . We are two ships each of which has its goal and course; our paths may cross and we may celebrate a feast together, as we did. . . . But then . . . our tasks drove us apart again into different seas and sunny zones, and perhaps we shall never see each other again. . . . There is probably a tremendous but invisible stellar orbit in which our very different ways and goals may be included as small parts of this path; let us rise up to this thought.  But our life is too short and our power of vision too small for us to be more than friends in the sense of this sublime possibility.– Let us then believe in our star friendship even if we should be compelledto be earth enemies. 

Finally, as to the question of where one might make a practical test of dispersing sovereignty into an archipelagal space, in an interview in 2000 with the Padovan journalists Giorgio Lago and Gianni Montagni, Cacciari asserted that both the Veneto and Europe as a whole constitute that space:  “There is no separation between the reflection on an archipegal Europe and my idea of the Veneto, nor could it be otherwise.  In this historical moment, federalism is the sole instrument to make the Veneto function and to put it tune with Europe.”


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