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).

6 comments:

regina di roma said...

Very interesting post. You know, I have hear the saying more than once that "Africa begins just south of Florence." Sometimes I think it's true.
Only in Italy...

Lisa said...

Get out! I wasn't sure if this was for real or not until I kept reading on. It's a mixture of intellectual-talk and you-just-talking-to-your-buddies. It's very you! And congrats on your first year completed!

Kataroma said...

This is great! So glad you're able to use your experience in academia. I must admit that even though I have an MA in the humanities (Soviet history) - I have NO idea what a lot of the jargon means. I guess things have changed a lot in 13 years...

regina di roma - I'd heard that "Africa starts south of Rome" - well I guess it depends on your perspective.

KC said...

Very interesting indeed. I love the title, it's really insightful.

Gil said...

Glad to hear you are okay. This story is too funny because about ten years ago a very intellectual African woman I worked with told me that due to the fact that my grandparents were from Naples that I was African and should let the HR department at work know. It was great to have such a smart younger sister!

DD said...

just realised you left these blogs, can't wait to read them in detail. I'm saving them for after the move so I can add nostalgia into the mix... We move Sat 4th July - independence day...(for my husband at least). Miss you. D xx