Scuola senza fine (School Without End)

Adriana Monti

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Unreformable: Week #2 Scuola senza fine (School Without End)
Adriana Monti

40 Minutes
Courtesy of Cinenova, London

Artist Cinemas

Streaming till November 30

A group of women following the worker-union-sponsored “150 hours” course to complete their secondary school education are mentored by feminist, activist, and writer Lea Melandri. Adriana Monti follows the women as they reconsider their role as housewives and the effects of this type of political education on their self-narration.

The film is presented alongside a conversation with Lea Melandri conducted by Christina Chalmers.

D’amore si vive is the second installment of Unreformable, an online program of films and accompanying texts convened by Adelita Husni Bey as the eighth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

Unreformable runs in six weekly episodes from October 18 through November 28, 2021, streaming a new film each week accompanied by a commissioned interview or response published in text form.

Orphans of politics: A conversation with Lea Melandri on dependency, autonomy, love
By Christina Chalmers

In their world, the transmitter transmitted at top volume, the receiver didn’t receive and everybody talked and nobody understood.
—Amalia Molinelli, I pensieri vagabondi di Amalia (Amalia’s Wandering Thoughts, 2002)

In Adriana Monti’s Scuola senza fine, we see Amalia Molinelli theorizing about atoms following her studies in physics and chemistry. I find it hard not to allegorize her eccentric story of the movement of atoms as a humorous recounting of the frenzied ways men engage in sociality. A mess of hurled and self-aggrandizing transmissions, but no one listening at all. In the film, those rejected from official politics and education start taking notes on the ways sociality, knowledge, and sexuality are organized, frequently with humour, sometimes with a sense of loss. This careful study had previously been denigrated, denied, or described as an irritant and a bore. Molinelli criticized this diminishment which, she said, called feminism boring only because it was attempting to destroy obedience and the enforced framework of the family. For her, “It is obedience that is boring, because it destroys freedom.”

The dispersed, atomized, and centrifugal elements of a social formation, the orphans of politics—a phrase I take from Lea Melandri’s 1977 The Original Infamy describing women’s condition—begin to recompose themselves, but not according to the fever dreams of a civilization attempting its own recomposition, through violent forms of love and dependence, which romanticize their own coercive harmonization. These women compose and recompose themselves in play, laughter, dance, new forms of choreography and chance, which, reformulating Lea Melandri’s words in the film, are “without guarantees.” Which is to say, without the idea that anyone else can guarantee one’s life. But opening onto a sense of autonomy, grounded in collectivity.

We only see a sliver, an excerpt, a fragment of this work, which lasted ten years. Instead of the orphans returning to seek recognition from the “families” that have rejected them—from the union, the party, the educational institution, the interior of domestic life,—they form new centres of gravity, an orphanage that becomes a sociality, a new form of politics. Women’s unsatisfying childhoods are given back over to the space of play, becoming intertwined with solidarity and love.

This is Melandri’s critique of “complementarity.” The work of feminism would no longer be the complement to Marxism, as a refracting hyphenated accessory, and women no longer the complement, secondary and contingent, to the essential, necessary consistency of Man. Instead of the elevation of the diminished term in this illusory mirage of complementarity, in the key of what Italian feminists derided as “emancipationism” (the conquest of liberal rights), Melandri proposes “liberation,” a different dynamic movement that no longer seeks to equalize the plane of masculine transcendence. Instead the “off-topic” and offside position would be taken up as antagonism, as integral reformulation of the whole field.

This is what we see in the film. A Copernican revolution, or inversion, is experienced, that at times can be, confusingly, softly, vertiginous. The students in the film talk of the decades-long “void” and emptiness that has defined their life, but find within it a paradoxical fullness, and a need to speak. Vagabond thoughts, where the vagabond is no longer tied to a masculine prodigal return, but released to a feminine aperture.

Lea Melandri (LM):
I want to give a little preamble about feminism in the 1970s.

Christina Chalmers (CC):
Go ahead.

Those ten years when I was involved with the 150 hours school were very important to me, especially in understanding the original contribution of feminism, even with respect to Marxism. It wasn’t just a correction of Marxism, but truly a new culture that was born, antagonistic to its repression of women. What’s known of Italian feminism elsewhere are other things, mostly the Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective and Luisa Muraro, and the thinking based on “sexual difference,” but to my mind even that feminism negated the real radicalism of the ’70s. Little is translated into English that isn’t from that school. A great division was created from the ’80s onwards that few understand elsewhere. There was a difference between the Women’s Bookstore Collective and my project, the Free Women’s University, which came out of the 150 hours school and then continued in the journal Lapis. This was another strand of feminism, which I belong to.

I hope a greater variety of work will be translated. There’s so much!

That strand of feminism was a challenge that was more radical on questions of domination, exploitation, violence, that went to the root of things, further upstream, compared to Marxism. One of feminism’s great realizations was that women’s sexuality has been completely cancelled out. To say that it’s been negated is to say that it’s a sexuality almost entirely put at the service of men, so often identified with procreation, the procreative obligation. Women have been cancelled out as individuals. There has been a very profound expropriation of women, not solely an appropriation of the female body as many other Marxist-feminists said at the time, but something deeper than this. It’s not just being appropriated, but the entire identification of women with a feminine destiny, seen in the problem of care as an extension of women’s natural vocation for motherhood. This extension of motherhood is not just “work,” as people used to say in Wages for Housework, since domestic labor is an aggregate of macroeconomics without which it wouldn’t exist—work and love are completely mixed up in it. Or rather, love as we have inherited it, not as we would like it to be. In this fastening of women to the idea of motherhood there is something more than just not recognizing its character as work and exploitation. There is a kind of power. A power to make oneself necessary to the other, to make oneself indispensable. This is a substitutive kind of power.

Can you explain this notion of substitution further?

In terms of motherhood and care you give so much energy and so much of yourself to your children but also to men, to your brothers, lovers, male friends, etc. In this, care is a power. Motherhood contains a kind of power. You have power over another being, male or female, who completely depends on you, in whichever phase of their life. The male infant is totally at the mercy of the mother, totally impotent. I see care as a power; as for the legitimation that you get from being a mother—well, I see mothers as often, even against themselves, being a medium for the law of the father. This was the great intuition of the feminism of the ’70s, to understand how women internalized and incorporated the law of the father, and made it their own. The victim speaks the language of the aggressor.

Feminism was always delegated to the maternal. 1970s feminism broke with this, both rupturing with this recuperation of motherhood and beginning to speak instead of the individual, of women’s lives and female sexuality. Separating sexuality from motherhood. The radicalism wasn’t just in “The personal is political” or that kind of slogan, but was also finding in personal life, in the lived experience of every woman, an unwritten history, an enormous patrimony of history. We tried to rediscover this for ourselves, inside what had been considered the private. Our practices attempted to transform this privatization of the history of the power relationship between the sexes, but also its naturalization. That means also the reduction of male and female to these roles, considered both a private and a natural fact. Women were supposed to always be mothers, even if they didn’t have children. Women had to interiorize these roles just in order to survive, they carried with them the same visions of their own lives, sometimes trying to take power in these positions, sometimes pleasure.

You were just mentioning the kind of love we have inherited, linked to violence. You also spoke of the “enormous patrimony of history” that is contained in the private lives of women, and which comes out in the fragments of the women’s writing in the film. It made me think of a contrast between this “patrimony,” simultaneously specific to the individual life while common or accessible to all, and the inheritance of patriarchal concepts and practices, like love.

It’s an enormous archive of culture. A patrimony, an unwritten history… incredible cultural resources that have been privatized. Or, consigned to the private. We quickly understood, in the process of autocoscienza [feminist self-awareness/consciousness-raising] in the 1970s, that each woman lived her own sufferings, her own pain, as a private fact. And as a natural fact. Male culture, let’s say, which we’ve inherited over thousands of years, is a public history. That masculine culture had social space, basically the space of the world—it’s a culture that’s passed across the routes of the whole world, even if it’s linked to individual lives it passes across the world stage, traversing spaces, times. It has created institutions, languages, knowledges, powers. It has had the chance to develop and express itself in History, through changes of history even. There’s a massive difference between that and what we discovered with the leap in consciousness of the 1970s, reflected in the 1990s with neo-feminism: We discovered that what was considered only “the private,” or “natural inheritance,” held in nuce the seeds of a history. It was linked to a history. Not only that. When we started to recount our lives, starting from the body, sexuality, motherhood, our writings spoke to an entire area of history that History doesn’t recount.

The patrimony of male thought repeats thousands of years of public history. In the feminine one we were trying to bring this deep experience into history—to bring it forwards, rethink it in the light of traditional history, politics. To bring politics to the threshold between nature and culture, to bring it to the borders of the unconscious. Interrogating the unconscious, and deeply-held formations—these could not be ignored. A revolution of history, politics, culture as traditionally understood. Feminism revolutionized the very concept of culture, the concept of knowledge, and it revolutionized its languages.

I want to move to the film specifically and ask about the critique of the concept of culture in the film. Recently I was reading Carla Lonzi’s Vai Pure [Go Then, 1980], where she clarifies the relation between objects of culture, transmitted publically, for posterity and recognition between men, and the attempt to overcome or repress affective relationships that are part of the life that goes into these objects. In the film, some of the women, such as Amalia and Ada, say they want to “make their own contribution to culture,” but this isn’t based on a repression of affective ties. One of the things I find beautiful about the film is how it makes us conscious of the emotional background and the framework of personal relationships necessary for bringing this contribution to light. Is there another idea of “culture” in the film than the negating, repressing one Lonzi discussed?

Here too, I’m going to give a prelude. In the film there are only four women, apart from me. Adriana [Monti] chose some of the women (housewives) who were in my courses in 1976. I began—in fact, I was nominated—as teacher for this course in ’76. Before this, I worked in a middle school, out of necessity. Then I asked to be placed with adults, and there were these 150 hours courses, and I asked to teach them, and it was my great luck, truly something like grace, a gift of life—it was the high point of feminism in that moment, in the 1970s, and I was completely absorbed in feminist practices—to have met, in the first course that was attended by women, these forty women, all housewives, in this area of Milan called Affori, who had practically forced the union to open a course in that part of the city for them. The union didn’t want the housewives, they didn’t understand why, or what housewives had to do with school. The 150 hours school was an achievement of the worker’s movement, a conquest of the metalworkers, and it was an extraordinary right to study because it guaranteed 150 hours of courses free and paid by the union to those who were working in factories and so on, and likewise 150 hours paid by the government. It was a right to study, but the unions saw it essentially as worker training, political education, and union formation for the workers. Then forty housewives arrived. “What on earth do these women want?” These women have no need for a school diploma, what would they even do with it? They’re housewives!

I had the great fortune of meeting this first group in Milan. Extraordinary. As one woman remarks in Adriana’s film, she remembers her son pushing her out the door to go to school. She said, as soon as the door had been opened and she could leave the house, she never wanted to go back. For me, when I arrived, it was very emotional to meet these forty women. I wanted them to speak about their own lives (luckily I was able to create whatever syllabus I wanted), and soon gave them the opportunity to make culture out of their lives, their experience. To write, above all, about themselves, after my own passion for writing. When these women who had barely had any schooling started to write, they wrote extraordinary things. They were true thinkers, philosophers. In those domestic interiors they had thought about so many things, about their lives, about relationships with children, men, the body, sexuality. They knew so much about the lives of women. But they’d never had the chance to put this knowledge into words, this other kind of culture.

After that first year, they wanted to continue. I had to invent things. We called them Monograph Courses: I would call a feminist friend, who would come and talk about literature, science, art—each one would come and talk about a different topic. Then there was also yoga, and so on. As more women were arriving for a new 150 hours course, these women who had already graduated were attending these Monograph Courses in a room next door. After that they wanted to do a two-year-long experimental school, and after that they went to do an exam in a public school. They really wanted to continue to “acculturate” themselves. Even by confronting themselves with traditional knowledges—philosophy, science, etc. And then a co-operative was born, with Adriana, so we could all continue together, for ten years. “School without end”… Ten years of school!…

What was the originality of this practice? Each of us [teachers] had her own course of study. We were women who came from feminism, but we were also women who had studied and taught philosophy and so on. Here we were forced to put our scholastic development, our intellectual and cultural training, into question, on the basis of these women’s lives, or let’s say, well, their lives interrogated us. What they said about themselves interrogated our knowledges, and our cultural formations. I came from a peasant family, extremely poor, and I had the privilege to study, but I had spent twenty years in that family, a large part of my life. I experienced not just poverty but violence against women, I slept in a room with my parents. I left with the privilege of studying but I carried with me an experience that was tough for a child, and for an adolescent woman. After I entered middle school, I often used writing to enter into a relation with my teachers. I tried to use the medium of writing to recount what had happened, my painful lived experience, linked to sexuality. When that happened, I’d be told that it was written very well, but that it was “off-topic.” “Off-topic.” That “off-topic” was my entire life, the painful things in my life.

That “off-topic” also explains my encounter with these women from Affori in Milan, no? It explains why I entered into a relation with them with such passion and emotion: because I saw my mothers in them, my grandmothers, the women from my town. I saw my life, and what I hadn’t been able to say about myself. I saw in them that part of me that hadn’t entered into my books, into culture. I pushed them in a way because I thought, You’re able to write for me. Amalia Molinelli in particular, who was a peasant woman from the Emilia region, who resembled me and also had red hair. I really adored Amalia. She wrote this beautiful book, The Wandering Thoughts of Amalia, which we collected afterwards and published. She wrote extraordinary things—she, who was a peasant woman and had barely gone to school—recounting the condition of women. In Adriana’s film (it’s important to mention this), the part with the voiceovers where we are all speaking in turn—these are our writings. They are fragments of our writings that came out of the course, mine and theirs.

There was a relationship between us—those women who were and those who weren’t intellectuals—that was very intense. I was at their houses practically till nighttime, I ate with them, I got home totally destroyed from tiredness. I was always with them. I, who was the daughter of peasants from the Romagna region, who by the way are exceptional dancers. When there’s the part in the film where we go to my hometown, you see two people dancing. The music was always waltzes, mazurkas, tango. Adriana has taken my parents and got them to dance, but she shot only their feet! She made them dance for a whole day, practically. I never let my parents see the film, out of shame. Just to say, anyway, that I love dancing. In the course with the women I went to a great many parties where we danced. Later we went to the ballrooms in Milan, ten or twenty women together. People would say, “Who are you?” And I’d reply, “We’re on a class trip!” Dancing was fundamental—in the film there’s lots of it. We danced a lot, we ate, in Ada’s house in particular. There was this strong element of affection, emotions—a common body created between women. It was a kind of body of love, if we can call it that. In that context, words flowed more easily. Writing came spontaneously. We created a situation which allowed us to say a lot, about everything that had been closed up in their lives, seemingly since forever.

They were very confident about having a lot to say to us, too. There’s this image of the proletarian woman, women who don’t have anything…but no, they were incredibly proud. There was often this omnipotence, of saying “I know, I have knowledge in my body.” When they went to the public school to do the exam, the examiners didn’t even get to ask the questions. As soon as these women got into the room, they took their notebooks out and started writing things down. The examiners weren’t able to ask traditional questions, because the women just said, “No, we are the ones who know.” They interrogated mathematics, anthropology, philosophy. They made knowledge on the basis of their lived experience, sometimes ingenuously, but with enormous forcefulness. As if to say, “We are the bearers of a culture that will interrogate and change the other culture.” The 150 hours school was a great laboratory to confront this problem of how to construct another language.

Feminism asked us to create another language. I define it as a language that is capable of reasoning using one’s own deep memory, with the experience of childhood and simultaneously with social languages, with external languages. Basically, to take the hinges off traditional knowledges and languages. In later feminism when it migrated into the university this wasn’t always done. I agree with bell hooks. These new modalities of understanding are not brought forward by the academy.

I really admire your book, The Original Infamy, that you were writing at the time the film was made, where you talk about women’s survival, dependency, and autonomy. Another book of yours I think of when I watch the film is How the Dream of Love is Born (1988), where you talk about the “dream of love” as a way of encoding forms of dependency. In the film, you describe that women are taught to believe that another person, especially a man, ought to “guarantee her life.” Could this example of collectivity perhaps be a form of autonomy from this guarantee? Also in the sense of being “without guarantees,” open to possibility? This could provide a new affective infrastructure.

I really agree. At the end of the 1970s I made a shift. In the 1970s we talked a lot about sexuality, essentially. Motherhood, but mostly in the sense of the daughter’s relationship to her mother. So that also brought us to homosexuality, desire of women for the mother’s body. The moment of love was never named. The word “love” was barely mentioned. In fifty years of involvement with feminism I still barely hear it. People never name it. Even now, when talking about the question of violence against women, people talk about husbands. I agree that no one kills out of love. But love has something to do with patriarchal violence. Violence is often committed by loved ones. This means that we have to ask ourselves what kind of love we have inherited. The idea of love we have inherited is one that confuses, and is confused with, power relations and violence.

In the ’80s, I started analysis. I was suffering heartbreak, but it wasn’t quite because of the loss of the specific partner. It was the loss of the illusion of love. The dream of love as intimate belonging to another being. It took me back to my adolescence, this dream of love. I was in analysis, I was still in Affori, with the women who are in the film. It was the moment when I confronted the topic of love, and how false it is to attribute this fabulation to women, as though women created the dream of love out of feminine sentimentalism. Love is the scaffolding of all civilization. In the sense that, after separating nature and history, body and thought, masculine and feminine—all of history goes in search of, and in fact creates, this dream of recomposition. With the figures of gender, which are affected by the originary differentiation of masculine and feminine, woman is equal to body, emotion, nature, whereas man is equal to the principle of thought, etc.

These figures of gender structure power relations—masculine privilege, culture, and thought transcending the body in a kind of hierarchy. However, these figures also structure the dream of love. Especially in the Romantic idea of love, where it’s described as the harmony or recomposition of diverse natures. There is a fascination in the figures of masculine and feminine insofar as these are seen to be complementary. These are also put into a hierarchal relation, but the complementarity gives you the illusion that you complete yourself only with the other. I wrote the book on the dream of love about this question, and especially about Sibilla Aleramo who was a great thinker who deeply analysed the dream of love and anticipated the thought that, actually, this complementarity is an optical illusion of sorts. Here we actually have man at the centre. The woman is the one who is “complementary.”

Why is it that we can say that this collective work, together with other women, can displace the idea that you need dependence on another? The dream of love prolongs, in the amorous life of adults, the relationship between the mother and child, this primary relationship where one is completely fused with the other. This dream fixes the woman in the role of mother, making it so that even in adult life the woman is always mother and there is always this dependence. It’s clear that creating a kind of sociality between women which contains within it affection, intelligence, and love means to displace that fixity of dependence which is sited in the couple and it means to corrode the couple, to begin to understand that there can be at once love, affection, and solidarity.

I’d also like to add a parenthesis here. When I was in the hospital with COVID-19 earlier this year—and I’ve lived by myself forever, from time to time a rare love would come along but we would not live together—I realized that every time I had problems, those two or three times I had major health problems, I found myself surrounded by a very big family, full of women from multiple cities in Italy. In fact, in hospital the first thing they ask you is whether you’re single. I said, “Yes I’m single, but I have the largest family one can imagine.” With COVID no one could visit me, but letters of support came from all over Italy, from people who knew I wasn’t doing well. That’s just to say, it’s very true that feminism has produced other means and forms that can perhaps loosen this dependence on the couple, this structure. We carry along with us, I repeat, our childhood, the adolescence of the world—we carry this within us. But since men have held women in the role of mother, this childhood never ends, it just never ends.

Here might be a good moment to bring out something that resonates, for me, a different kind of unendingness. There are a couple of Italian phrases the title reminded me of. One is the phrase from ’68, Anche l’operaio vuole il figlio dottore(Even the worker wants a son who is a doctor), which sought an enlargement of the right to study. Another is the title of a play by the famous Neapolitan playwright Eduardo de Filippo, Gli esami non finiscono mai (The exams never end, 1973). This became a common phrase in Italian, used to express exasperation at being held back by forms of social blockage. In both cases there is a thwarted aspirationalism proper to the male worker. What difference do you see between these aspirations and the senza fine, “without end,” the endlessness of education in the film? The title also recalled, for me, Freud’s famous “interminable” work of analysis. I wanted to ask how the title resonates for you.

First I have to say that we all hoped that the courses and the right to study would stop being limited to the middle school diploma. The idea, which was ambitious, was that the courses might continue. We wanted permanent education. Permanent also means “without end.” Permanent means that perhaps we would have an even better society if the 150 hours school, made for workers, would continue and go past middle-school level, making new courses of various kinds. The right to study had to continue. But this didn’t happen. I think that even for the male worker it would have been really important to be able to enrich his own languages, his own patrimony, etc.

Why, though, is the “without end” different, when speaking about the practices of women? Here we’re talking about another kind of problem. It’s not just about having more words, more vocabulary, it’s not just the problem of enlarging one’s cultural area, but the question of interrogating culture. This is a different thing. However, I do think that men should also be doing this. I think men too ought to do autocoscienza, to interrogate their own “virility.” They too carry within themselves a script for the masculine gender.

I recognize the slogan you mentioned—when people talked of the right to study and cultural enrichment and so on. People were thinking more in terms of emancipation, mainly from the condition of the worker. While in feminism instead we talked of liberation. With this type of practice, in the school but above all in these relationships, we initiated something more like a liberation, from conditionings, from models, but also from those kinds of languages, from that kind of culture, that history. There, the “without end” meant precisely, beginning a process that was incredibly long. I believe that we are not even at the beginning of it. We have only just intuited the path and its course is long.

Lea Melandri is a leading Italian feminist thinker and activist. Since the 1970s she has taught in schools at various levels and in courses for adults, and currently teaches at Milan’s Free University for Women where she is also president. She was engaged in the feminist “practice of the unconscious” in the 1970s, and also convened the group Sexuality and the Symbolic in the 1980s. Melandri was editor of the magazines L’erba voglio (1971-78, with psychoanalayst Elvio Fachinelli) and Lapis (1987-97), as well as of columns for various Italian newspapers such as Noi Donne, Extra Manifesto, L’Unità, and Carnet. She is the author of many books in Italian on femisnsit topics and theory, including L’infamia originaria (The Original Infamy, 1977), Come nasce il sogno d’amore (How the Dream of Love is Born, 1988), and Amore e violenza (Love and Violence, 2011; English translation published by SUNY Press in 2019), and continues to write and advocate for women’s rights. In 2012, Melandri was awarded the Ambrogino d’oroby by the city of Milan. A collection of her interviews translated to English will appear in Elvira Roncalli’s book The Future of the World is Open, forthcoming with SUNY Press (2022).

Christina Chalmers a writer, researcher, and filmmaker currently focusing on a doctoral thesis on Italian Marxist-feminist thought in the 1970s, specifically concepts of economic and political inheritance in the matrix of a feminist hermeneutic. Other research considers theories of critical distance, critiques of individualization in the family, and the legal history of outlawry. She has translated poetry and philosophy from Italian, including poets Patrizia Vicinelli and Andrea Zanzotto, and Italian psychoanalyst Elvio Fachinelli’s On Freud (MIT Press, forthcoming 2022). Her book of poetry, Subterflect, will be published this year by Distance No Object press in London. Other poetry has been published by 1080 press, Truant of the Stintless Sun (2021); and Materials press, Willingness (2017); and recently in the journals Senna Hoy, Mask magazine, and Fanzine. Her short research films have been shown in NYC and London. From Edinburgh, Scotland, she currently lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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Adriana Monti is an Italian-Canadian independent producer, feminist filmmaker, and author. She started her career in Italy in the late 1970s by developing a collaborative and experimental style that allowed the women who were the subjects of her research to take an active and creative role in her films. Monti is the founder of the experimental film school Lanboratorio di Cinematografia – Albedo, where she taught and managed while she was finishing Scuola senza fine in 1983. She also taught film history and film production at the Women’s Free University and at the Film and Television School in Milan. Monti moved to Canada in 1996, where she worked for fifteen years as reporter and story producer at OMNI Television Rogers Media, and started her own company A&Z Media Ltd. In 2012, she produced Icework (a Mark Thompson’s Chalmers Award Project), and a series of shorts, and began development on Never too Late to Create in collaboration with a group of seniors at Christie Gardens residence in Toronto. In 2010, her film Three Women, Adapting Life, Adopting Lines was broadcast by OMNI. Her films continue to be presented in festivals and institutions worldwide.


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