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.