Friday, July 3, 2009


“Siamo africani:” Contemporary Views

De Jorio’s La mimica attempts to return both subjectivity and agency to the Neapolitan common man and woman. His text performs solidarity with the ordinary Neapolitan, defending him as philosophical and complex, while exploiting foreign interest in the Neapolitan picturesque [32]. His representation of contemporary Neapolitan life as centuries-old culture finds contemporary expression on the Comune di Napoli website, “unlike other cities which are in themselves museums, display cases for their art but with no real heart, Naples is famous for the character and drama of its everyday life which is played out by the people who have lived and worked in the historic centre for centuries” [33]. It appears that the show does go on.

Today, Neapolitans appear to re-objectify themselves as a contestatory move: we are exactly what you say we are. And above all, we are not you. When deploying negative stereotypes lodged against them from the outside, Neapolitan self-deprecation is a performance that defines Neapolitan identity as wholly other. Because Africa is the repository or the site of total difference in the European imaginary, Naples becomes Africa. This total difference then becomes a point of pride: to be different is to be special, to stand out. For Kendon, the performativity of Neapolitan gesture is limited to its Austinian work: “a means by which promises were made, blessings accomplished, wishes expressed, contracts agreed to” [34]. He calls the “culture of the basso popolo of Naples in the 19th century” a performance culture (following Hibbitts) [35]. In my experience with the Naples of the early 21st century, the performativity of gesture, dialect, use of proverbs, and self-deprecating reappropriative language, appears to have a wider function, one that may have been in operation when de Jorio was writing: a performance of otherness-as-exclusivity independent of claims to superiority or inferiority.

Shirley Hazzard, an Australian writer who has lived off and on in Naples since the 1950s, writes in her essay “City of Secrets and Surprises” that visitors to Naples “do not take kindly to the devotion Naples inspires in all who know it well. Most galling perhaps is our very acquiescence in the charges: Yes, quite true, the streets are unswept, the museums inconvenient, the services unreliable...Indeed, Naples is often indefensible” [36]. Hazzard goes about defending the city anyway, turning, like De Jorio, to the city’s Greek past. She refers to Naples as Greece’s “northernmost colony” [37] and as “a city of secrets”[38]: “Naples always has something of an air of having survived calamity: it is one theme of her story” [39]. Her Naples is devoid of people, a ghost town of buildings, landscapes, and presepe figures. She writes in a throwback Romantic style, marveling over the city’s apparent contradictions, its “dilapidation and magnificence”[40], its histrionic nature: “Glimpses of the arcane, the grotesque, the diabolical will never fail to startle and estrange--compounded, as in most great cities, by modern violence and disaffection. but few days will pass without some fresh discovery of dignity, delicacy, and endurance--where you are not humbled and exalted by acts of human fellowship and inexpressible grace” [41].

Thomas Belmonte’s Broken Fountain, an ethnography of a poor Neapolitan neighborhood (or rather, palazzo complex), stands at the opposite pole that then inevitably makes contact with Hazzard’s. Belmonte performs a general indictment of poverty within a Marxist critique using Naples as his case study. His remarks on Neapolitan theatricality represent an at least partial misreading of Neapolitan collectivity: “The theatrical quality of life in the poor quarters, the loud, gesticulating style and the aggressive hubris of the individual, is the Neapolitans’ collective commentary on the instability of the socioeconomic and honorific settings upon which they must stage their lives” [42]. Following Fanon, Belmonte labels his subjects the “damned of the earth:” “The damned of Harlem and the South Bronx, the damned of Calcutta and Naples, the damned of Singapore and San Salvador and Manila...”[43]. Belmonte places the poor of Naples alongside the poor of other big cities, and he attends to the specificities of the Neapolitan situation. “In a cultural sense, they [the poor of Naples] are at once excluded and highly selective. By preference they speak and pass on to their children their own language and are content to learn some fragmentary standard Italian in a few years of primary school” [44]. Belmonte concludes his study as his subjects may have done: that at the end of the day, despite conditions and circumstances, they only have themselves to blame:

“At Fontana del Re in a corner strewn now with rubble, beneath the bruised, shattered visage of a lion, the eroded figure of a sculpted stone sea shell recedes into a wall. ‘This was our fountain,’ they told me. ‘Oh you should have seen it, Tommaso. The water played night and day. In summer, the children scampered in it. At night, falling asleep, you heard it, and it was like music.’ The young men told me it was they who had destroyed it. As children, many years before, with iron rods, they had gone every day to hammer and smash it, until they were satisfied and there was nothing left to break. Thereafter, whenever I passed that ruined corner, I tried to imagine what the fountain had once been like, and thought and wondered and sorrowed, the more as I understood how it came to be broken” [45].

Hazzard has spent a half century intermittently in Naples; Belmonte spent one year. The two writers represent the admirer of picturesque on the one hand, and the sorrower over the “ruined corner” on the other. De Jorio represents a middle way. But what do today’s Neapolitans think “siamo africani” means in the 21st century? I sent via email the following questions to several Neapolitan friends to find out [46]:

Quando abitavo a Napoli, sentivo spesso il commento, "noi napoletani siamo africani." Che significa questo secondo voi? Poi per quanto riguarda le serie di invasioni che fanno parte della storia di Napoli, siete d'accordo che i napoletani (voi, le vostre famiglie, i vostri amici, il popolo) si sentono (o si sentivano in qualche periodo storico specifico) sudditi della nazione italiana? Come descrivereste il concetto napoletano di cittadinanza, di un senso civico?

Marcello, who grew up in the Colli Aminei district of Naples, has a degree in Philosophy from the University of Naples, and moved to the US in his early 30s, responded at great length. He understands “siamo africani” in several ways: [1] as representing a certain historico-geographical truth that Naples “in the most authentic and original sense of being a true mediterranean city, belonging to the most ancient ‘cultural core’ of the mediterranean basin, an echo from a distant time where a North African could have said similarly, ‘I am a Greek’ or ‘I am a Roman’ and been telling the truth;” [2] a contemporary disparaging usage that “speaks of the deep cultural divide between Italy and its southern regions;" [3] a way for the northerner “to summarize everything that is ‘wrong’ with Naples, its being dirty, inefficient, corrupt and, above all, incorrigible;” and [4] a contemporary Neapolitan’s “last, desperate act of self-affirmation.”
Marcello’s fourth explanation relates to the central thesis of this paper, that contemporary Neapolitans wield “siamo africani” as a way to identify themselves as Neapolitan. Interestingly, Marcello extends this idea to all negatively construed traits, whether conceived of as circumstantially or culturally determined: “Being intelligent people, they know that they are ‘guilty on all counts, guilty of all the sins they are accused of and, as a last resort, many have chosen to ‘be proud of it’ whatever ‘it’ is and no matter how negative this ‘it’ is, just as an act of ‘sfregio.’” Like Belmonte, Marcello locates the blame for their circumstances with the Neapolitans themselves [47].

Marcello recognizes Neapolitan identity as embodying a mixture of disdain for their failings and pride over their accomplishments. Paradoxically, this pride also encompasses precisely that which they disdain. Marcello blames that undiscriminating pride for his people’s inability to improve their living conditions. Another friend, Diana, from Naples’ newer Zona Ospedaliera, said, “Even during the Neapolitan revolution, they couldn’t quite get it together to make a revolution.”

Gianni, 32 years old, grew up in the Fuorigrotta district, and currently lives in Pozzuoli, echoes Marcello’s idea of Naples as forming part of the larger Mediterranean world, and then offers this overtly polemical explanation:

“Noi napoletani siamo africani...cosa vorrebbe dire? Che siamo neri? Che siamo poveri? Siamo vittime di qualche carestia, di qualche pandemia? Oggi, A.D. 2009 questa espressione non ha ragione di esistere: la città è lo specchio della società cha la popola, almeno credo. Basta, quindi, col considerarsi cittadini di serie B, basta col considerarsi vittime e basta col trovare sempre un capro espiatorio cui addossare tutti gli atavici malanni della nostra città: il terremoto, il colera, la criminalità, la politica corrotta. Certo, sono problemi reali, gravissimi, che hanno tenuto e tengono tuttora la città sotto scacco, ma non devono essere una scusa per perpetuare ogni tipo di inciviltà, per rimanere seduti, immobili aspettando che qualcuno dal cielo ci faccia dono della sua celeste manna, guaritrice di ogni male, aspettando che da sola “l'Africa si avvicini all'Italia”.

Gianni’s exasperation, like Marcello’s and Belmonte’s, lies with this idea that Neapolitans are responsible for their politically, economically, and socially degraded situation, sharing Francesco Trinchera’s view: “I have always heard that a people gets more or less what it deserves” [48]. The content of the associations with Africa are by now well-known. But if one shifts the focus from sociopolitical reality to the realm of culture, this blame is converted into an affirmation of otherness that comprises the core of napoletanità. What I have been arguing is that is is precisely this alterity that matters in the iteration of “siamo africani.”

To my follow-up question about Neapolitan civic responsibility, Gianni replied:

“Per ciò che concerne il concetto di senso civico ho una mia particolare teoria. Credo infatti che tale concetto ci sia stato lasciato in eredità dai colonizzatori greci. Provo a spiegarmi costruendo un parallelismo tra la polis greca, nucleo fondamentale attorno a cui si è sviluppata la cultura ellenistica, e la casa, la famiglia napoletana. Per i napoletani la casa, la propria casa, la famiglia, la propria famiglia, ha il valore che per i greci aveva la polis:”il centro del mondo”, al di fuori di essa il nulla. Esempio, forse un po' azzardato, il “basso”: l'interno è quasi sempre pulitissimo, immacolato, ma basta mettere il naso appena fuori di casa per notare delle situazioni di totale degrado, anzi molto spesso lo spazio esterno alla casa-polis è una sorta di sversatoio. Tutto ciò che non faceva parte della polis non contava, tutto ciò che è al di fuori della casa, non conta.”

Somewhat like Banfield’s “amoral familism” and Belmonte’s adjustment of it, Gianni describes Neapolitan culture as bound up in the family unit with hardly a glance toward a broader sense of community. And like de Jorio, he traces this lifestyle to the Greeks. Gianni’s basso example functions as a spatial metaphor for my argument: whatever lies outside (the home, a sense of self) has nothing to do with the inside; it does not penetrate or, rather, whatever of it penetrates becomes immediately absorbed as already having been there. Marcello reminds me of the proverb, “Francia o Spagna, basta ca se magna:” whether struggling to put food on the table or sitting pretty on the piano nobile of a Vomero hill palazzo, whether provided for by the government, the camorra, or the family, one continues to live as a Neapolitan. “Stereotypes work in this way (synchronically, in contrasting pairs of good and bad images) as instructions in how to behave, or in how to expect people to behave: either one will be confronted by a happy Neapolitan mandolin player, or by a violent and duplicitous camorrista” [49]. In contemporary Neapolitan discourses of napoletanità, both extremes are in evidence. This absorption of every quality leveled at it, makes napoletanità paradoxically impenetrable; every external threat becomes an empty one. And it demonstrates its flexibility. Neapolitan culture is not a stagnant miasma, another accusation like those leveled at African cultures, but rather an extraordinarily adaptable one whose mode of adaptation is to enfold stereotypes into practices and make it all come out Neapolitan.

During my nearly four years on the ground in Naples, I heard Neapolitans from every walk of life complain about each other, about their neighbors or the general populace. They would complain about littering then throw their empty cigarette pack on the ground. They would curse an aggressive driver and then cut off a pedestrian. They would yell about about yelling. Sometimes this was maddening, sometimes it was charming, sometimes I hardly noticed. At a certain point I gave up trying to figure out why the Neapolitans acted in this apparently contradictory manner. What I became interested in is how this mixture of disdain and pride functions as a passive-aggressive mode of maintaining a culture always under threat, like any traditional culture, like any culture that has not been entirely seduced by an ideology of progress. All of Italy functions in this way to an extent, e.g. the notoriously draconian bureaucracy is a national phenomenon. In essence, I am arguing that regardless of the content or from where it is lodged, Neapolitan identity is based on an expression of pure difference: north, south, American, Italian, Vomero, zona ospedaliera, we are not like you. To offer a schema of this process: first, there is the simultaneous acceptance of foreign assessments of the popolo napoletano; second, the act of accepting itself becomes a performance of otherness; and third, the particular content of the otherness is reiterated until it becomes part of the culture, its folkways, like the images of Totò and Vesuvius that hang in every bar alongside Pulcinella figurines and various corne. So, “siamo africani” like “siamo zozzosi, brigandi, calorosi, pittoreschi” operates as a marker of difference, and difference punto e basta elides with napoletanità.

One example: In the film Totò’truffa 62, Neapolitan actor-legend Totò demonstrates how Neapolitans mobilize Africanness. In full blackface and with a giant nose ring, Totò pretends to be the Ambassador of Catongo and says into a telephone: “In casa bubu? In casa bubu? Mbutu? Mbutu? Non buttare niente. E’ peccato! Non buttare... Cosa vola, cosa buole? Ta ta ta bum bum zu, bubu bubu juju.” He then says to the object of his scam of his accomplice, played by Nino Taranto, also in blackface with nose ring, “Questo animalo da che sta in Italia ha imparato parlare in napoletano. Dice pure pommarola in gop. Nel catongo ce ne uno solo [people with the last name Rossi]. Tutti gli altri sono neri. Vedi lui e’ nero, tutto nero. Ci sono anche i gialli ma i gialli sono i peperoni,” In this scene, the juxtaposition of blackness/Africanness with napoletanità functions as a performance of shrewd otherness. When the “real” ambassador arrives with his adjutant (two black men without nose rings), Totò and Taranto escape dressed as Che Guevara and his wife. Totò has played Tarzan, a Turk, a Sheik: all of these representations of Otherness are folded into his Neapolitanness. Totò belongs to Naples—the clever fool who fools everyone.

The statement “siamo africani” speaks volumes about how Neapolitans deal with and iterate difference. They are Neapolitan because they are different from other Italians, north or south, even different from “Neapolitans” from the provinces or from the adjacent quartiere. The persistence of the dialect and gestural language, regardless of its roots in Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, or its physical necessity due to crowded, noisy streets, marks an anti-assimilatory move. Within the broader Italian national imaginary, napoletanità is a cultural commodity, it is “ours” even as the Neapolitans are “them.” Indeed, Neapolitans are taken as “us” for their art, their theater, and film and as “them” for their camorristi, garbage crises, scippi: un posto incantevole che fa schifo.

Andrea de Jorio’s La mimica defends Neapolitans against critiques of their backwardness as it recuperates ancient history and lodges it in the very bodies of everyday Neapolitans. What is reflected in Marcello’s and Gianni’s comments, on the other hand, is how everyday Neapolitans today engage in acts of reappropriation in defense of themselves and protection of their cultural heritage. And in this, they succeed. I would go as far as to say there is no city in the western world with as much resistant, local, cultural specificity as la bella Napoli.

32 De Jorio’s work, it may be said, straddles, “the valorization of nature and classical ruins that characterizes the picturesque in the late eighteenth century [as it] makes way for the valorization of natural man: the primitive, the savage, and above all the folk” (Moe, The View from Vesuvius, 66).
34 Kendon, xcviii.
35 Kendon, footnote 60, xcviii.
36 Hazzard, Shirley, and Francis Steegmuller. The Ancient Shore: Dispatches from Naples. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2008. (49).
37 Ibid, 50.
38 Ibid, 51.
39 Ibid, 52.
40 Ibid, 54.
41 Ibid, 57.
42 Belmonte, Thomas. The Broken Fountain. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979. (135).
43 Ibid, 139. See also pages 107 and 124.
44 Ibid, 140.
45 Ibid, 144.
46 I am still receiving answers to these questions and here provide a hopelessly scant survey of two.
47 What I do not address in this paper but which begs mention is the fact that Marcello, and later Gianni, both enact this method of defining Neapolitan behavior as other to them. They position themselves as exceptional Neapolitans, which I would claim is part of the extreme othering move I have been describing: Marcello and Gianni would not say “siamo africani” in any context, but their distancing from a particular element of napoletanità produces yet another form of Neapolitan identity based on alterity.
48 Quoted from his “The Neapolitan Question: Ferdinand Bourbon and Lucien Murat” in Moe, The View from Vesuvius, 145.
49 Dickie, 21.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

part IV

Interlude: From de Jorio to Troisi

Massimo Troisi, the late Neapolitan actor devoted to napoletanità [27], makes comically explicit the synecdochic function of Neapolitan gesture:

“Veramente c’abbiamo un lavoretto. Allora mio marito ha detto, va bene. Se si tratta di lavorare di meno tanto di guadagnato. Chist’ ha detto no. Forse non ci siamo capiti. Ho detto che teng’ per voi un lavoretto. Mio marito ha detto, un lavoretto, scusate lo dice la stessa parola, lavoretto, si lavora di meno. Chist’ dice no, non ci siamo capiti. Teng’ per voi un lavore...Non guardate a me. Guardate ‘a mano” [28].

In this skit, Troisi is playing a Neapolitan woman, who talks about the trouble she has with her husband. In this scene, Troisi’s hand (open palm, palm down, moving in a circular motion as if polishing a table top) represents the nature of the job being offered to the husband (an under the table job). But in saying, “Don’t look at me. Look at my hand,” the hand becomes more than the truth behind the words; the hand is the gesturing person. Gesture scientist David McNeill writes that the hand that gestures is symbolic: “The hand is not a hand,”[29] but rather that which it is mobilized to express. I would argue that the Neapolitan hand that gestures is symbolic, not only of the thoughts or feelings of the gesturer, but also of the gesturer’s cultural identity: it is not just any hand, it is a Neapolitan hand, the “spokeshand” for Neapolitan selfhood.

Contemporary Neapolitan gestural practice and the use of the dialect continues to keep the outsider on the outside: “The Neapolitan dialect seems to be metaphor itself...Among street vendors, especially, metaphors are heard that are so witty and clever that not only foreigners, but even our own provincials do not understand anything”[30]. Everyone, even a provincial from one kilometer outside the city, is an outsider, and thus the Neapolitan “I” is never them. Private life may be lived in the public sphere on hot summer nights among the inhabitants of the bassi, and public fighting may be a theatricalization that serves to keep public order [31], but in my view, these practices serve primarily to keep the stranger estranged.

27 Troisi’s theater group was called La Smorfia after the Neapolitan book of numbers, as well as being a reference to making funny faces. In his films and interviews, he spoke in Neapolitan dialect and produced exaggerated (even for a Neapolitan) gestures. Troisi was absorbed into Italian culture as “one of us” even as he forcefully presented himself as Neapolitan.
28 Troisi, Massimo, Lello Arena, and Enzo Decaro. “L’annunciazione.” La Smorfia, 1977.
29 McNeill, David. Hand and Mind: What Gestures Reveal About Thought. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992.
30 De Jorio, 271.
31 “De Jorio notes that, with the crucial participation of bystanders, quarrels often become transformed into an event which everyone enjoys, including the litigants themselves. This process may well have developed as a means of social control, keeping quarrels in check and preventing them from becoming dangerous.” Kendon, ciii.

Friday, June 12, 2009

"Francia o Spagna," Part III

Andrea de Jorio’s Neapolitan Pride Project

In his chapter “L’Europe finit à Naples,” Nelson Moe devotes considerable space to a discussion of writings on Naples, characterizing them as swinging “between visions of Arcadia and the apocalypse” [18], between Europe and Africa. Between 1750 and 1885, Stendahl, Renan, Sade, Staël, Dickens, Goethe, as well as many Italians from the north and south, all weigh in on Naples, either demonizing it for its alleged barbarity or glorifying its picturesque quality. 

Andrea de Jorio came from an elite family of the island of Procida and was Canon of the Cathedral of Naples. His interest in gesture, archaeology, and Neapolitan folklore developed during a period of strong philosophical interest in gesture (Diderot and Condillac in mid 18th century France, Engel in late 18th century Germany) and folkloristic-archaeological inquiry into Naples. De Jorio wrote in an atmosphere of support for archaeological research, support that initiated in the Napoleonic period and continued with the Bourbons once they were restored to the throne in 1816.  

De Jorio became interested in compiling a detailed guide to Neapolitan gesture while acting as a tour guide for foreign visitors to Naples’ archaeological museums and sites. As a docent at the Real Museo Borbonico, de Jorio found that comparing the gestures of the ancients found on the Greek painted vases with those of modern day Neapolitans lent insight into how they should be interpreted. “For some years we have had the idea of describing the gesturing of the Neapolitans, so widely praised as it has always been, and of explaining, as well, its perfect resemblance to that of antiquity” [19]. The Neapolitans he refers to are the “commoners,” the street vendors and their clients whom he describes as characteristically vivacious. The “foreigners” are those on the Grand Tour, interested in antiquity and Neapolitan folklore.

“...the questions that foreigners are always asking we Neapolitans about the meaning of one behavior or another, as well as affection for our native land, has increased our determination to its fullest to illustrate, as far as we can, even the apparently disreputable aspects of the very interesting customs of our country that are, in reality, full of philosophy, and could be said to be Roman, Greek, Natural. Indeed, we remain very unhappy that our manner of expressing ourselves with gestures, so noble in its origin, so charming, joyful and pleasing in its performance, so useful and sometimes so necessary for its effects, should be unhonored and neglected still” [20]. 

Here, de Jorio works to transform or unmask the “apparently disreputable” as having noble roots and philosophical function. I regard this move as a precursor to the current strategy of Neapolitan identity formation, one that casts its net more widely to encompass any and every marker of difference.

As a member of the elite, de Jorio simultaneously recognizes and ignores class distinctions, mobilizing the “we” to confirm that there is one Neapolitan popolo. The commoner is noble, and we, the elite, are commoners [21]. Writing before the articulation of the Southern Question, but in conversation with travelers on the Grand Tour, de Jorio’s rhetoric does not fall neatly within either anti-southern discourses of southern elites nor glorifying discourses of the visitor to Naples. There is nothing of the Franchetti belief that southerners cannot help themselves; Neapolitans, from de Jorio’s point of view, do not appear to be in need of any help at all. 

De Jorio completed La mimica in 1832. His study, a “close reading” of body position, orientation, direction, and dynamics, works under the contention that the common Neapolitan folk preserved ancient culture in their bodies; the human body ”as much a historical document as a charter or a diary or a parish register” [22]. Kendon writes that de Jorio’s book acts as a defensive treatise, one that aims to show that the common people of Naples “are worthy of respect” [23]. Kendon also notes that de Jorio “appears to have regarded gesture as a mode of expression shaped by local custom” [24]. In other words, the consistent, tenacious, and resilient gestural practice of everyday Neapolitans generates a positive identity and resists pressures to conform to Italian national and international codes of self-presentation. 

Though de Jorio hoped his book would serve as a practical guide for archaeologists and artists, he appears to have been most interested in defending his popolo against accusations of barbarity. He writes, 

“Finally, we have never intended to enter into quarrels with those superficial writers who too often like to impute ignorance to our low people. If they mean that they are ignorant of mathematics, astronomy, the dead languages, etc., they speak the truth; but if ever they maintain that our low people are lacking in natural philosophy, in talent, in spirit, they are in error. Therefore, in the course of the work, and as far as circumstances permit, in regard to the material itself, we have aimed to show the mistake for which they may be blamed” [25].

Again, it appears that de Jorio was committed to elevating the ordinary Neapolitan in the eyes of the dismissive, often repelled foreigner, because he recognized that the barbarism associated with such ordinary people blemished the image Naples in general (and might negatively affect the reception of his work as well). Schneider writes, “Having studied the classics in England, France and Germany, they [the Grand Tour travelers] made the journey to Southern Italy, as to Greece, in search of an unspoiled antiquity; but the recent histories and societies of the living peoples of these places marred the experience” [26]. This is precisely the circumstance that de Jorio sought to redress in his book. By tilting the perspective on the behavior of the lazzarone from barbaric to noble, he moves to transform the uninformed visitor’s scorn into educated respect.

But de Jorio is also making a proprietary move: by reading the gestural content of ancient images found in Naples and its surroundings, de Jorio was able to locate their value in the bodies and culture of everyday Neapolitans, stripping the foreign archaeologist of his expertise: only a native can understand; the outsider remains outside. By transmuting the barbarous into the noble, de Jorio’s ethnographic project insists upon a complexity of Neapolitan cultural practices that defies any accusations of primitivism. 

De Jorio’s project was to redefine rather than deny foreign accusations of Neapolitan barbarity and backwardness. By tracing the gestures of the ancients forward to the bodies of his “street vendor” contemporaries, de Jorio, in a sense, reappropriates negative stereotypes to produce a positive version of Neapolitan identity.

18 Moe, The View from Vesuvius. 61.

19 De Jorio, 4.

20 De Jorio, 6. It appears possible that de Jorio’s effort to elevate the Neapolitan masses by linking them to the ancient Greeks may amount to a cult of napoletanità, not entirely dissimilar to the later Fascist move to equate modern Italy with ancient Rome: “The cult of ‘romanita’’ remembered the glories of Ancient Rome through everyday practices such as the Roman salute and the omnipresence of Roman iconography on stamps, coins, and public buildings” (Andall, Jacqueline & Derek Duncan. “Memories and Legacies of Italian Colonialism.” Italian Colonialism: Legacy and Memory. J. Andall and D. Duncan, eds. Oxford and Bern: Peter Lang, 2005, (10)). It is precisely the focus on “everyday practices,” whether salutes or idiosyncratic gestures, that leads me to this idea.

21 This reminds me of Marco Purpura’s recent discussion of Gianni Amelio’s comment, “siamo tutti albanesi.”

22 Thomas, Keith. “Introduction.” In A Cultural History of Gesture. Edited by Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991, page 2.

23 Kendon, lv.

24 Ibid, lxv.

25 de Jorio, 10. De Jorio performs a similar defense of the Neapolitan dialect. Under the section titled Dimunitivo, he writes, “Let us tolerate peacefully the contumely with which some foreigners believe they denigrate our language, calling it a language of children because of the copious number of diminutives with which it abounds. Rather, let us celebrate the glory of speaking an idiom that is so rich and capable of expressing with a single word both the object and its quantity” (183). He also cites Galiani’s Vocabolario delle parole del dialetto Napoletano, che piu’ si socostano dal dialetto Toscano, con alcune ricerche etimologiche sulle medesime degli Accademici Filopatridi. Opera postuma supplita, ed accresciuto notabilmente (96). 

26 Schneider, Jane. 4.

Friday, May 22, 2009

"Francia o Spagna," Part II

The Southern Question...that is not the question!

Naples does not fit squarely either within discourses of Italian colonialism or of the Southern Question. As a stop on the Grand Tour, a repository of “Italian” culture and (Greco-Roman) history, as an urban capital, the Southern agrarian discourse of the likes of Franchetti and Villari noticeably omits Naples from its equations [9].

Although Neapolitans have been considered backward, superstitious, pagan, ignorant, villainous (like their Sicilian brethren), they do not seem to have been specifically targeted for immigration to Africa. Anthropologists of the southern Italy like Banfield and De Martino have focused on pastoral regions such as Lucania and the Salento, the most isolated areas untouched by external influences [10].

If anything, the relationship of Naples to Italian colonialism was as a cultural and psychological midway point between rational Italy and fantastical Africa, a sort of gateway to the dreamscape of the Red Sea [11].

Though a site for Italian colonial propaganda (e.g. La Mostra d’Oltremare), Naples was not re-dressed by the Fascists, and does not run parallel to the construction of the city of Asmara, for example, or of Eritrean identity vis-á-vis the Italian state [12].

The divisions in Naples run along class, not racial, lines in vertical patterns: the rich on the Vomero hill, the poor below; the privileged few on the top floor of a palazzo nobile, the indigent many in the illegal street-level bassi.

It might be possible, however, to address contemporary Neapolitan identity in terms of Jorge de Alva’s sense of postcoloniality: “subjectivity ‘after’ the colonial experience as a subjectivity of oppositionality to imperializing/colonizing (read: subordinating/subjectivizing) discourses and practices”13].

I am thinking specifically about a Neapolitan “subjectivity of oppositionality” in which the foreign tout court is considered a colonizing force. “Siamo africani,” in this sense, speaks to being the ultimate Other, which I seek to demonstrate as the fundamental content and structure of contemporary napoletanità. Jane Schneider writes, “Within the political economic tradition, there is a compelling argument that the difficulties of the South are rooted in a colonial or near-colonial past” [14].

However, I hesitate to push Schneider and de Alva further because I am quite sure that the colonial/postcolonial framework is ultimately unsuited to understanding contemporary Neapolitan identity construction.

In the broadest sense, Naples and urban centers in general are not the focus of the Southern Question architects, in particular in the intermingling of the question with the Italian colonial project. Franchetti et al. concentrate on the southern peasantry: “Within parliamentary discussions of ‘demographic colonialism,’ agriculture came into focus as both the target and the apparatus of Italian rule” [15].

The poor, unskilled laborers of Naples would probably have been the last on the list to be sent to settle Eritrea, seeing as they might have been perceived as a risk to the maintenance of Italian prestige and power in the colony [16].

Even those who sought to address the problems peculiar to Italy’s urban sites tended to produce Naples as unrepresentative or as a representative extreme. In “The Emergence of the Southern Question in Villari, Franchetti, and Sonnino,” Nelson Moe acknowledges Naples’ uneasy fit in the rhetoric of Villari’s Southern Letters: “In his first Southern Letter on the camorra, Villari thus raises not so much the ’question of the cities’ as the ‘question of Naples,’ unique and incomparable” [17].

9 Rhiannon Noel Welch is my preferred source on this subject. Welch, Rhiannon Noel. “Leopoldo Franchetti’s
(Re)productive Southern Bodies on the Colonial Front.” Unpublished paper, 2008.
10 Banfield, Edward C. The Moral Basis of a Backward Society. New York: The Free Press, 1958; De Martino,
Ernesto. The Land of Remorse: A Study of Southern Italian Tarantism. London: Free Association Books, 2005.
11 Pianavia Vivaldi, R. Tre anni in Eritrea. Milan: Cogliati, 1901. [Please forgive the absence of the quote and page
number: I lent my copy to a friend and he took it with Naples!]
12 I am, of course, alluding to Fuller, Mia. ”Wherever You Go, There You Are: Fascist Plans for the Colonial City of
Addis Ababa and the Colonizing Suburb of EUR ’42.” Journal of Contemporary History. Vol. 31 (1996), 397-418.
13 Quoted in Loomba, Ania. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. London and New York: Routledge, 1998, (12).
14 Schneider, Jane. “Introduction: The Dynamics of Neo-orientalism in Italy (1848-1995).” Italy’s “Southern
Question:” Orientalism in One Country. Oxford and New York: Berg, 1998. (12). 15 Welch, 3.
16 Barrera, Giulia. “Racial Hierarchies in Colonial Eritrea” in A Place in the Sun: Africa in Italian Colonial Culture
from Post-Unification to the Present, ed. Patrizia Palumbo, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
17 Moe, Nelson. “The Emergence of the Southern Question in Villari, Franchetti, and Sonnino.” Italy’s “Southern
Question:” Orientalism in One Country. Oxford and New York: Berg, 1998, (56).

Thursday, May 21, 2009

I've got Naples on my mind

Ciao a tutti! I finished my papers, woohoo!, and am ready to share this, my first academic piece on Naples. Feedback appreciated! I am going to attach it in installments because it's twenty pages long. It will be like reading a serial novel or something except with some really annoying academic jargon. I'll start with the INTRODUCTION:

“Francia o Spagna, basta ca se magna:” Neapolitan Identity Formation in the 21st Century

I lived in Naples from 2004-2008, and in that time, on several occasions, I heard various Neapolitans say, “Noi napoletani siamo africani.” What does it mean when a 21st century Neapolitan says “siamo africani?” Is it a reference to Naples’ history of multiple, consecutive invasions and occupations? Is it a reiteration of northern stereotypes of the south, of supposed backwardness and lack of civiltà? Has it to do with Naples’ geographic proximity to Africa? Does it mean, “We are poor?” Oppressed? Have a closer relationship with the earth (and thus our volcanic nature)? None of the above? All of the above?

Depending on who is saying it and in the context of what discussion, “siamo africani” may indeed signify none, all or part of the above. When asked about the meaning of “siamo africani,” S., a 42-year-old hairdresser from the centro storico, said: 

no coloniati per niente!!!!! sai il napoletano secondo me umile e del popolino!! ti posso dire che non sie mai sentito sudito del italia per niente !!! e neanche adesso !!! siamo un popolo che va avanti e anche in passato alla giornata sempre inventando ora l’inventare la dimenticato u po !!! ma vive per il giorno e stare bene la chi vuole bene !!!  in qualunque stato sociale sai intende con forme diverse ma uguale ; e proprio per questo noi ci sentiamo africani  e anche i siciliani sono un po come noi !! gli africani sono sempre stati  sotto un dominio come noi !!!  e s’intende che somigliamo agli africani per la sopravivenza e compromessi per saltare un altro giorno !!!![1]

Here, “siamo africani” is both rejected and accepted, enunciated as a grave expression of imagined solidarity with an undifferentiated mass of people from the “dark continent” as it is dismissed as an insult lodged at il popolino from the outside. [2]

This paper argues that “siamo africani”—the existence of multiple meanings of the phrase, its content at any given iteration, aside—operates as an Austinian performative [3], a speech act that produces a specific contemporary version of Neapolitan identity while it preserves traditional napoletanità. In the construction of this identity, “siamo africani” comes to mean extreme alterity [4],which in turn becomes the meaning of “siamo napoletani,” an all-encompassing identity based on the reappropriation of any and all positive and negative stereotypes leveled at common Neapolitans by both northerners and elite southerners, foreigners and natives. In 21st century Naples, “siamo africani” appears to function as an extreme version of “strategic essentialism” [5] through which napoletanità is protected against outside influence and corruption.

Methodologically, this paper intended to place “siamo africani” within contemporary anglophone discussions of the Southern Question and Italian colonialism. But what I discovered there forced me to swiftly remove it. This literature has largely ignored the specificities of Naples as a site of inquiry, often eliding it with a general notion of “the South,” and thus offers little insight into the function of deploying a phrase such as “siamo africani” today. [6]

  So, in pursuit of a legacy for my claim that “siamo africani” generates Neapolitan identity as alterity and protects traditional napoletanità, I turn to Andrea de Jorio’s 1832 La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire napoletano [7]. I was introduced to de Jorio through my work on Neapolitan social and aesthetic gesture [8]. How de Jorio’s work and person might complicate some of the findings in Moe and Dickie cannot be addressed here. Rather, I examine how de Jorio’s work might shed light on the performative function of “siamo africani” as it manifests in contemporary Neapolitan society. The absence of de Jorio and La mimica from histories of the Southern Question is striking not only because de Jorio’s life spanned a large portion of the period under investigation (1769-1851), but also because the content of his text is a direct response to foreign images and interpretations of Neapolitan culture.

Following my discussion of de Jorio, I will address two fairly recent writings on Naples, a memoir and an ethnography, in conjunction with interviews I conducted in April 2009 with two Neapolitans. I hope these diverse methodological strategies will illuminate rather than obfuscate a complex process of Neapolitan identity formation.

1 Email exchange with the author, April 2009.

2  The presence of actual African immigrants—mainly visible along the main shopping thoroughfares with knock-off designer bags lined in neat rows on sheets spread out along the wide sidewalks, sheets whose corners may be deftly scooped up and heaved over shoulders to disappear into the sun-deprived vicoli of the Quartieri Spagnoli, or strolling through the neighborhood around the central train station—did not seem to trouble these associations. Comparisons between Naples and Africa historically have been grounded in ignorance of any particular African reality, not to mention the history of Italian colonialism. If people spoke to me about the Africans it was with a mixture of pity (for their precarious legal and economic status) and admiration (for their rapidly learned Neapolitan dialect). Never have I heard any specific reference to Eritreans, Libyans, Somalis, Ethiopians. These statements are never made in the context of a discussion of the history of Italian colonialism. In my experience, when Neapolitans want to make a generally racist statement they usually say “marocchini.” 

3 Austin, J.L. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975.

4...there is no other way of imagining this land of lack than as Africa, the alterity of Europe.” Moe, Nelson. The View from Vesuvius: Italian Culture and the Southern Question. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. (146).

5 Spivak, Gayatri. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. London: Methuen, 1987.

6 I am referring here mainly to: Dickie, John. Darkest Italy: The Nation and Stereotypes of the Mezzogiorno, 1860-1900. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999; and Nelson Moe’s The View from Vesuvius.

7 For this paper, I will be working from Adam Kendon’s translation of de Jorio’s text. All de Jorio quotes will be cited as de Jorio; quotes from Kendon’s introduction will be cited as Kendon. de Jorio, Andrea. Gesture in Naples and Gesture in Classical Antiquity: A Translation of Andrea de Jorio’s La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire napoletano. Translated by Adam Kendon. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000.

8 De Jorio is mentioned in Luigi Barzini’s The Italians. In his section on Italian gesture, Barzini cites de Jorio and then proceeds to misread him quite thoroughly. For this paper, it is important to note that Barzini is writing critically of Italians as an Italian and may be understood as being part of a lineage that includes de Jorio, a Neapolitan writing about Neapolitans. Barzini’s tone, unlike de Jorio’s, is quite disparaging, but he nevertheless performs an Italian identity that is marked by a love-hate relationship with its own kind. See Barzini, Luigi. The Italians. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996, (64-65).

Saturday, May 16, 2009


I just noticed that it has been nine months since I last blogged. Wow. I could have had another baby in that time! Instead, I finished my first year of grad school. Well, almost. I still have two papers to finish.

The reason I am blogging now, when I should be writing papers, is that one of these papers is about Naples. So stay tuned because I'm going to append portions of it in the next couple of days.

I hope I haven't lost you all.