I would like to reiterate the invitation I made in class: try to be in touch with the ongoing Italian (and European) social, cultural, economic and political life. Here you can find the links to a selection of news:
Pope calls for 'ethical renewal in Italy'; Italian Scientists challenge Albert Einstein's 1905 theory of relativity; Italian parents trying to get rid of their 41-year-old stay at home son; Will Amanda Knox soon be free?; Despite Wiretaps and Economic Woe, Berlusconi Endures; Kobe Bryant gets $6.7 million offer to play in Italy.
Reading online newspapers articles — see the section “News Europe-Italy” of the blog — is an simple way to construct a better and updated interpretative framework for our course (and your experience abroad in general). The risk to remain trapped in a partial representation of Italy and Italian people is, in fact, very high. Since the Grand Tour, the leading themes of the foreigner experience in the peninsula are connected with a dreamy, and to a lesser degree intellectual, approach towards “Italy without Italians”. Such romantic coup d'oeil “Under the Tuscan Sun” may conduct to an illusionary, alien-ated experience of Italian and Florentine social reality.
According to Roland Barthes (Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972) “identification” is one of the key figures of the rhetoric of myth regarding other people and cultures. The identification process reveals the inability to “imagine the Other”: in the experience of confrontation otherness is thus reduced to sameness. Shortly: the foreigner projects his/her images (acquired through the media and the ongoing social discourse) on the other. The recognition dialectic is therefore blocked, crystalized around some stereotypes. This does not mean that the Other — in our case Italians and Florentines — is a “victim” of the touristic gaze; we make profits, we sell and we are active protagonist of this play. As social scientists, we need to reconstruct the script of the play, to identify the frontage and the backstage (Goffman).
Sometimes, when the other cannot be reduced, there is a rhetoric figure for such an emergency: exoticism. “The Other becomes a pure object, a spectacle, a clown” (Barthes, 1972, 152). Another mechanism identified by Barthes is the “deprivation of history”. Italian anima locus (soul of a place) is usually composed by the following features: art, history, wine, olive oil, fashion, dolce vita, passion, etc. All these themes are surely part of the Italian identity, but they do not exhaust it: there is more to say and the representation needs to be updated. For instance, the image of the Italian extended family that gathers everyday around the dining table, with several children running around the house, is false: we have one of the lowest fertility rate in the world.
Italians are often “deprived” of (at least) 150 year of their history. It is obviously impossible to grasp “who we are” bracketing out: how we became a republic, two world wars, the fascism, the strongest communist party in the west, our compressed modernization process, and so on. And even if the interpretation of the natives is primarily made adopting the Renaissance framework — “the” myth of Florence shared by people all over the world, through which one legitimately decides to see our reality — the aesthetic appreciation of art is perhaps the main facet guiding people’s expectations in their encounter with our cultural reality. Some other (and very important) social, political and philosophical aspects of Renaissance, and their relation to the present, are overshadowed.According to W.I. Thomas (The Unadjusted Girl. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1923) “If men define things as real, they are real in their consequences”. It is the “self-fulfilling prophecy” (R.K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press, 1968).
Italo Calvino in the novel Invisible Cities (1972, 44) indicates a possible way to escape the “hall of mirrors” and enhance the awareness of oneself and of the cultural other.
“You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours… Or the question it asks you, forcing you to answer, like Thebes through the mouth of the Sphinx”.