Graziella Parati and Ben Lawton, eds. Italian Cultural Studies.
This fine volume includes 14 essays that were originally presented at the First Annual Italian Cultural Studies conference, held at Dartmouth College in October 1999. The editors divide the book into two parts: "Theoretical and General Observations" and "Practicing Italian Cultural Studies." Essays in the first section deal with the critiques of/opposition to cultural studies as a field of scholarly inquiry in general (its fluid methodology, seeming ahistoricity and emphasis on socio-political rather than literary issues) as well as its problematic position in Italian in particular. Irene Kacandes, in "What is at Stake in Doing Cultural Studies," addresses the issues of "methodological eclecticism" in cultural studies and the accusation that cultural studies emphasizes pop culture and consumer opinion rather than effecting a critique of the producers of culture. Kacandes counters that cultural studies offers a way for academics to get out of their ivory tower of irrelevance and reassert the socio-political agenda of humanities criticism, an agenda needed to negate the "ubiquitous resistance to the increasing pluralistic and interdependent nature of contemporary societies" (5). Rebecca West turns the discussion back to the field of Italian studies in particular. Resistance to cultural studies is generational since many established scholars of Italian literature in the United States who were trained in philological approaches to a canon of specific texts view cultural studies as another veiled attempt to replace literary exegesis with obtuse theory making that denies the specificity of Italian texts or their importance as primary objects of analysis. This discussion is continued by Maria Galli Stampino who documents similar reactions against cultural studies in Italy where it has been called "another incarnation of two previous evils, deconstruction and political correctness" (40). Resistance to cultural studies is also based in the fear that it undermines what Italian literary critics are trying to accomplish, namely the construction of a canon of literary texts that can be presented, in Italy and abroad, as the product of a distinct and unified nation-state. Stampino sees cultural studies as "a challenge for all of us to pass on to our students a sense of the complexity of every experience, at any time and under any circumstance.... If it helps us hone our pedagogical ability, then it will help us teach those invaluable skills, such as critical thinking, that have traditionally singled out a liberal arts curriculum for the formation of a responsible, mature members of society" (47). She ends by saying that cultural studies is no stranger to the Italian cultural tradition if one properly recognizes the place of Antonio Gramsci in that tradition.
Indeed, methodologies seem to need origins and the last two essays in the theoretical section focus on that issue. Joseph Buttigieg argues elegantly and persuasively that Gramsci's return to De Sanctis as his methodological father was a critique of Fascism's cynical culture politics and a swipe at Croce's aesthetics which separated the various spheres of knowledge and practical activity. Gramsci terms Croce's posture of "disinterest just that--a posture" (60), which Buttigieg compares to contemporary proponents of the "autonomy of the aesthetic" (62) in the recent "culture wars." Nicoletta Pireddu bravely tries to rehabilitate Paolo Mantegazza, Lombroso's competitor in racist, antisemitic and misogynist theories. Pireddu reiterates the arguments of West, Stampino and Buttigieg that cultural studies grew out of literary and artistic issues and not as a result of an attempt to ignore them. Mantegazza's method is a more dynamic interaction between the humanistic and the anthropological meaning of culture than that of Gramsci (75). Pireddu claims that Mantegazza's oeuvre can be interpreted as a challenge to the positivistic and narrowly bourgeois mentality of a post-unitary Italy (83). Nonetheless, she cannot deny the use of his anthropological method and writings to totalitarian ends in the next century.
The proof of the value or interest of cultural studies lies more in its practice than its theorization and the nine essays in the second section show how cultural studies contributes positively to the expansion and transmission of knowledge about Italian culture, literature and history. Two essays focus on contemporary non-canonical texts such as the autobiographical text of a militant from Italy's years of lead (Marie Orton, "Counter-Memory, Irony and Testimony: The Case of Mario Moretti") and the autobiographical writings of two women interned in Italy's now defunct mental asylums (Daniela Orlandi, "The Pain of Mental Illness Before and After the Closing of Insane Asylums in Italy as Witnessed by the Writings of Lia Traverso and Augusta F."). Giancarlo Lombardi unveils a highly innovative contemporary civilization course that integrates literature, film and popular television programs with critical theory ("Teaching Italian Cultural Studies at Smith College"). Yet, in practice, most of the essays continue to dialogue with the theoretical issues brought up in the first part. Adrian Randolph in "Donatello's Bronze David. Politics and the Homosocial Gaze" argues that cultural studies should "open up a zone for the mediation between contemporary concerns and the historical record" (29). He offers a reading of the counter male gaze in the Renaissance which, although unprovable in its generalizations about homosexuality in the Renaissance, does explain why a work of art had the power to be considered beautiful "for a particular culture at a particular point in time" (Kacandes 7). The question of identity is central to proponents and opponents of cultural studies arguing for or against diversity vs. universal values. Proponents of cultural studies in French, for example, use the method to deconstruct a monolithic myth of France as a unified culture that produced masterpiece after masterpiece of universal literature (see, for example, essays in Marie France LeHir and Dana Strand, eds. French Cultural Studies: Criticism at the Crossroads [Albany, NY: SUNY P, 2000]). A comparable monolithic myth of Italian culture and literature on the international academic market is only a recent and partial phenomenon at best. As Natalie Hester states in her essay, "Traveling Italians and the Grand Tour Culture of the Seventeeth-Century," at that time "there existed no cohesive sense of peninsular identity that could be reinforced or challenged by going abroad" (112) although Italian cities were perceived as important harborers of essential knowledge for the bildung of citizens of other countries. Sandra Carletti's article on readership or the lack of it in Italy further explains the apprehension noted by Maria Galli Stampino towards practitioners of an approach that questions the literary canons that are only now being constructed in order to promote reading in Italy. Sarah Patricia Hill examines how fascism's attempt to posture as the legitimate successor of the ideals of the Risorgimento (an attempt circumscribed by fascism's fundamental and unresolved conflict between its revolutionary origins and reactionary politics), shapes the portraits of the Italian family in Alessandro Blasetti's 1933 film 1860. Norma Bouchard intertwines debates over whether cultural studies privileges consumers over producers of culture, universalism over specificity and diversity, in her well-informed analysis of Bocelli's crossover music that crosses the Atlantic if only to participate in a globalized popular culture. Universalism vs. Specificity is again addressed in Roberto Dainotti's penultimate essay, "The Importance of being Sicilian: Italian Studies, Sicilitudine, and Je ne sais quoi." By his own admission Dainotti is `playing' with the contradiction inherent in the idea of a global culture, a contradiction he sees as the basis of Sciascia's creation of the concept of sicilitudine. If Sciascia used the concept as a critical tool to examine how capitalist culture had reproduced itself on the island as a "mafia borghese" (211), he also wanted to question the category of universal literature. Participation in a global culture may fight on one level the negative stereotypes about diverse peoples but the refusal to participate in that same global culture is necessary if the subaltern is to speak critically and not be silenced again.
Self-reflexive and self-critical, the essays in this volume, the first of several volumes that will be dedicated to the question of cultural studies in Italian, essentially debate the how and what to teach when teaching Italian on all levels As Rebecca West states, the dearth of public debate over how our field is changing is the best argument for "the fundamental importance of venues such as this one, in which we can begin to carry out a collective and collaborative consideration of our own field's trajectory in recent years, as well as the fundamental issues such a trajectory raises" (25). Given the centrality of these considerations, it is clear that this excellent volume and subsequent ones will be a necessary reading for Italianists concerned with analyzing, understanding and teaching about the elusive but enduring madrepatria.
CAROL LAZZARO-WEIS University of Missouri
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2003|
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