Utopian Failing

Images Roman Schmidt in Eurozine:

In early 1963 they admitted defeat. Conceived in late 1960, Revue internationale was intended by its French, German and Italian founders to be the historic realization of the idea of a “plural writing”. Yet it remained a project and no more. In 1964, a record of the collated material[1] appeared in Italy. Hans Magnus Enzensberger called it the “remnants of a shipwreck”.

Ships run into trouble not when they are in the harbour but when they are on the high seas. If the boards shatter, then the collapse, in all senses, is the result of great activity.[2] Failure results from aiming too high.

This is where the idea of an international journal comes into its own. At the point of failure it is most true to itself. “For indeed”, as Daniel Defoe noted as early as 1697 in his Essay upon Projects, “the true definition of a project, according to modern acceptation, is […] a vast undertaking, too big to be managed, and therefore likely enough to come to nothing.”[3] Defoe portrays the project-maker as a Promethean figure drawing up plans at the margins of the era, stretching the limits of what the era allows. Fascinated yet at sea, he knows that, as he steps into the realm of practice, he may run aground. As he wrote these words, Defoe, the writer and businessman, may well have been thinking of the mountain of debt his own commercial failures had saddled him with.[4]

From the perspective of a “poetics of failure”, then, successful enterprises are suspect of having played it safe from the start. Whatever can be achieved effortlessly, without a critical mass of aspirations, hopes and adversity, cannot claim the title of “project” in the emphatic sense. Somewhere below there runs a line separating projects from things one simply does (admittedly, this line has been drawn absurdly low in recent years, so that today even the most banal tasks in life qualify).