Italia reloaded. Ripartire con la cultura

May 7, 2012
Italia reloaded. Ripartire con la cultura Book Cover

by Christian Caliandro and Pier Luigi Sacco 
Il Mulino, 146 pp., 13.50 €

JULIANNE VANWAGENEN - Culture as investment

In the book’s premise, authors Christian Caliandro and Pier Luigi Sacco clearly state their goals for the work: (1) distinguish between cultural production in Italy that safeguards Italy’s artistic and historic assets and cultural production that makes contemporary cultural strides, (2) reassess the widespread conception of Italy’s artistic/historical patrimony as a tesoro (treasure) and Italian culture as giacimento di petrolio (oil field), and (3) to investigate the role of historical removal and collective amnesia in the construction of the Italian national identity. The goals are lofty. They touch on some of the hottest academic topics discussed around Italian culture today, and seek solutions for a sort of stagnation, a sense of hopelessness and lethargy that touches seemingly all aspects of Italian contemporary society. Yet, Italia reloaded is concise, forcing its arguments into clearly stated assertions which are then concisely extrapolated upon and defended. Interestingly, and true to what will be their ultimate thesis, the book is concerned with a real-life physical problem that underlies and affects politics, the job market, and the economy in Italy, yet the content is almost entirely cultural. Caliandro and Sacco study the country through examples of literature, film, art and architecture, hoping to reveal trends and truths about Italian identity which they can expand upon to explain national phenomena. As they say: “Present notions of culture and politics revolve around the concept of identity, both collective and individual.”
Specifically, the authors point out that culture today can only exist if it impacts a nation’s economy in some significant way, identifying two types of cultural productions that can impact an economy: passive and proactive. In passive cultural production the public is treated as a consumer base and nothing more. When activated, however, cultural productions involve and actually create the public, initiating a communal desire to play a role in and even impact culture. The first, and crucial, step towards a proactive public is establishing the desire in the individual to learn to give meaning to a cultural experience. The authors here claim that the ability to judge cultural productions is nearly dead in Italy and that this affects every sector of society. The assertion is counterintuitive and fundamentally ironic, for worldwide Italy is seen as the fertile breadbasket of Western culture, millions around the world travel to Italy every year to witness the cultural treasures warded there. Caliandro and Sacco argue that it is precisely for this cultural patrimony that Italian culture stagnates today. The problem is so deep and so engrained that it has become part of our language and thus does not register the alarm that it should. Some alarm words for the authors are found in the above statement: “witness”, “cultural treasures”, “warded”, which they claim amputate the culture from the body of the place, and by amputating it, essentially kill it. In fact, the authors argue quite convincingly that Italian culture has been placed in a tomb rather than the scrigno (treasure chest) that has been ascribed to it.
This removal of culture into another a realm, (a realm of the tourist, a realm of the consumer, a realm of the honored, untouchable, and, above all, past, concluded, and fully penetrated/interpreted) is just one of the ‘removals’ that Caliandro and Sacco claim has, in a way, switched off the Italian public. Italians are like the zombies they have so admired in films since the 1970s. Zombies, interestingly, in the 1970s replaced vampires as the most horrid of supernatural beings to haunt the collective mind. Zombies, are strikingly divergent from the traditional anthropomorphized vampire legend; they are human, they are neither dead nor alive, and they go through the instinctual acts of ‘living’ without volition or purpose, they simply consume. A zombie is “a vampire devolved by a postmodern and postindustrial slant: lobotomized, primitive, irresponsible.” The zombie wave splashed on all shores of the West, yet for Caliandro and Sacco it is particularly meaningful to the state of mind of audiences in Italy, for zombies lack, above all, memory (individual and collective) and thus lack that which it means to be human. They are returned to a state similar to that of cavemen. Zombies devour humans as a substitute for real human experience and in doing so directly influence the community by further destroying collective memory and initiating a zombie state.
If passive cultural curation is the reason for the Italian economic and innovative stagnation, then, Caliandro and Sacco claim, it is the removal of collective memory that has allowed a passive culture to rule for so long on the peninsula. A nation that refuses to remember is a nation that cannot resolve its problems. Like an individual who refuses to look deep within herself for the root of an issue that manifests itself continually, that issue will take over and disable the individual, halting all growth. Caliandro and Sacco write (using the first-person plural as they do throughout the book, speaking to and implicating the Italian reader): “In Italy, issues cannot assume a lucid, conscious, critical dimension, precisely because we, as a society, have at this point un-learned how to confront, in a mature way, opinions and interests that are different from our own. We cannot confront these conflicting viewpoints because we have given up the desire to assume the responsibility for our own history.”
This inability to critically analyze problems manifests itself in all sectors of Italian society and creates the resulting stagnation. For if a team gathers to problem-solve, and is unable to choose the best solution, all solutions will be allowed, and the pianificazione strategica will become a wish list of good, mediocre, and old ideas. Caliandro and Sacco do not extrapolate from this theoretical moment onto a range of specific societal examples, but the reader can imagine for herself. From this moment meritocracy is lost, here nepotism is born, here politicians become allowed to speak without acting, here innovation is either nonexistent or low-quality. The authors expand their argument, as they have throughout, into the arts. They cite the lack of historicity and therefore the lack of depth, truth, meaning, and judgment in contemporary Italian art. A poignant example is the reconstruction of the Brigate Rosse cell for Aldo Moro, 3,24 mq, by Francesco Arena, which includes a plastic Panna water bottle, though plastic bottles were virtually nonexistent in the 1970s, and which for the authors highlights a certain a-historical, a-philological tension ever-present in the present-day Italian artwork.
The great threat to Italy’s future, the authors claim, is once again cultural. They do not threaten the death of the Italian political or economic state, rather, they warn that the great Italian cultural heritage, if left amputated from society and controlled solely by profit and tourism, will devolve into a Disneyland that slowly morphs away from that which it truly was historically and towards that which tourists want it to be and that which is most profitable. The changes have already begun, as one sees in Rome, for example, where there are sections of town for tourists and sections for Romans, where there are restaurants that serve ‘real Italian food’ and restaurants that serve chicken fettuccine alfredo for tourists, a dish that does not exist anywhere in Italy as far as this reviewer has found, and where internationals and hotels exist in the city’s center and citizens are forced to the outskirts.
Not all is lost, however! The authors hope to coax readers out of the deep depression that has set upon them by finishing on a high note, with examples of cultural works that have succeeded and which seek to get beneath the façade Italy has constructed over its amnesia. The authors cite Wu Ming, the writing collective (who in their 2011 collection of short stories L’anatra all’arancia meccanica similarly utilize Disney to dismay the Italian public), and the genre of the New Italian Epic as precisely that which is needed right now in Italy: a cohesive, effective narrative that is interwoven with solid references from popular culture, that constructs a coherent but non-rigid relationship between art and the world, and that is ardently concerned with a total overhaul and redefinition of realism. What Italy needs most, the authors maintain, is a re-conception of culture as the access-route to economic and social opportunities in the postindustrial world.
Italia reloaded is a significant piece of literature both in the relevancy of the issues it raises and in the solutions it proposes. Most interesting in the reading is its relentless adherence to idea of national culture as national identity and as power. The President of the United States, Barack Obama, is cited in the book’s premise as listing ‘cultural production’ as the third most important reason for which the United States is the number-one world power. The French philosopher, Jacques Rancière, might argue that cultural production is the number-one reason for a country’s global status, and he would almost certainly argue that cultural production is the number-one source of power within a country. According to his 2004 The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, he who garners the nation’s gaze or he to whom a nation lends its ear will be he who invents the image in which that nation understands itself. Whether a leader uses a specifically relevant conception of the national image to gain power, or whether he maintains power already gained by wielding an image that circumscribes his goals, it is arguable that in the 21st century, cultural productions will more effectively steer individuals’ choices than direct force of any sort. Furthermore, while the 21st century has created more passive citizens who can be easily influenced as they sit in front of a screen, it has also created, as Caliandro and Sacco rightly point out, a more empowered citizen, who has many more tools for production and distribution than ever before, and who thus is better situated to redistribute the sensible away from monolithic powers and towards the grass-roots community. For these two reasons - that the contemporary citizen is particularly susceptible to self-definition through cultural productions, and that he is more able than ever to take part in the continual creation of national identity through culture by taking part in that culture - Caliandro and Sacco focus on the realm of humanities, rather than the political or economic realm, as they search for a national solution to political, economic, and cultural woes.
Therefore, this book’s investigation does not lead to the Palazzo Madama where the Senate meets, but to university auditoriums where convegni sulla cultura (conferences on culture) take place. The book does not blame the Prime Minister or Parliament, at whom Italians so often point the finger, but the academics whose poor practices make conferences habitually run so late that discourses are cut short or deleted, discussions are shallow or eliminated, and whose amnesia apparently runs as deep as the rest of Italy’s, for they follow a series of conventions which can be reported on and praised but which are full of rhetorical topos and empty ideas. These conventions give the impression of an academia that wants to present the desire for change without any real change, they prefer the standard of the ivory tower. Sacco and Caliandro remind their readers of the irony of this attitude, an irony which academics should recognize best of all: the ‘classical’ and ‘high’ Italian culture that has been segregated from Italians and ‘safeguarded’ as the most valuable national asset became so important in its day and remains relevant today precisely because of its iconoclasm and contemporary relevance. Italy treats its cultural patrimony as a natural resource, and at this point, it is no more than that. It is now as dead as any fossil fuel and as changed from what it was as ancient living plants and animals are changed in their secondary form as petroleum.
It seems to this, albeit non-Italian, author that Italia reloaded is an utterly relevant book for the present moment in Italy. It demands the attention of humanists, those who should ‘safeguard’ culture, i.e. keep it alive, but who have let it petrify in the hands of profiteers. It is the duty of humanists—professors, artists, musicians, film makers—to give culture back to the Italian people. Caliandro’s and Sacco’s goal, as stated in the title, is to Ripartire con la cultura and it gives Italians involved in the humanities all of the explanations, tools, and threats they need to begin the process of (as ripartire variously translates into English) ‘starting again’ with culture, ‘reapportioning’ culture, and ‘sharing out’ culture.