Roma, Tuesday, February 12, 2002
In his celebrated Viaggio in Italia (1953), Roberto Rossellini portrays two protagonists, a wealthy mid-aged British couple, Katherine and Alexander Joyce (played by Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders), who rent a luxury villa in the vicinity of Napoli for what seems like a last attempt to save a dwindling marriage game. While in Italy, the couple, either separately or together, visit the usual tourist sites --Capri, the Naples archeological museum, the lava fields of Vesuvius, Pompeii, the catacombs of Fontanelle-- and their marriage begins to disintegrate. But as soon as, towards the end of the film, Alexander proposes, in a typically haughty Victorian style, divorce to Katherine, as a "solution" to their ongoing struggle, they are "saved" in the last few moments by what looks like a religious ritual in a small town on the Amalfi coast, and to which they've been unwillingly and unenthusiastically drawn to become among its participants. But in what has been described by many critics as a weak film ending, Rossellini seems to be suggesting that Anglo-Saxon-American rigidity --or its blindness to the presence of the Other-- gets another chance once blended with Mediterranean street life, that of southern Italy, and which mixes a warm climate with religious rituals, and psychologically tortured individuals with the presence of a rich archeological and historical past open for investigation --assuming, of course, that you still have the eyes to see it. The film is in fact about this ability to see and comprehend another culture, one that looks at its past as a continuum between archeology, history, architecture, religion, rituals, and street life. Thus, the "poverty" of the south, and its historical alienation from the rich hegemonic north, are given a new twist. Rossellini's camera thus systematically discovers the Napoli region, and rather than simply portraying it as a décor for a decadent and bored English couple, it is there to be discovered, and its discovery transforms the protagonists themselves, but each one differently, so that their relation begins to take a different meaning. Instead of relating solely through their Victorian manners and repressed sexuality, and which the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would have said that they both incorporated as their de facto habitus, the Napoli region becomes the medium through which their hubris takes shape --a medium of self-transcendence and internal meditation. That kind of narrative construction, which for its time --the 1950s-- was considered as a breakthrough, in that it broke with the conventional Hollywood linear narration (and also adopted by the fascist cinema of the 1930s and 1940s), has become since then more of a norm in avant-garde cinema, in particular with the likes of Bergman, Godard, and Antonioni, who have mastered an expertise in depicting isolated characters incapable of loving and being loved, and incapable of communication, and whose attractive natural and urban surroundings become the only medium for self-reflection.
One need not go that far to see how societies and civilizations fail to communicate with one another, that inability to see through the image, and to translate images into thought and vice versa. If in Rossellini's Viaggio the theme of looking is the predominant one it's because, in his view, individuals are absorbed in their daily doxa, which they take for granted, and which prevents them from looking at the Other, a fortiori the ones that are the closest to them. Thus, the two protagonists discover at their own dismay, and from the early scenes where we see them driving in their luxurious Bentley, that they are like strangers to one another. That strangeness of the other correlates to a strangeness towards Italian civilization, its culture and people.
If it is typical of academic culture to degrade the image to the point of perceiving it as an "illustration" to a text, it is because the image provides us with this uncanny feeling of the strangeness of the other, which always posits itself as something that simply exists and is present to our senses as such. The mass-media, which like academic culture, has no clues on how to represent that other, too often portrays a society as an entity that has just emerged from a freshman's "textbook." Thus, for example, in the short one-hundred day episode of the Afghani war ("operation enduring freedom"), which surprisingly turned as a quasi-success for the Bush administration, CNN, the largest and only international American network, had to rely almost exclusively on foreign --mostly British-- correspondents for its coverage of the war. While on the British side, the BBC had an alert team that was mostly English, where women and minorities under Commonwealth rule played a big and decisive role. One therefore wonders why the wealthiest and best equipped network on earth, and which in turn is a product of the wealthiest and most tech-savvy society in world history, was unable to form an American team throughout the ongoing Afghani war. The English, and in spite of Thatcherism and its ravages on the Oxbridge academia in particular, have been able to maintain a minimal level of consistency in their programs. The classics are studied, and a sense of what the "canon" is --irrespective of discipline-- has been maintained, while the rich colonial heritage of the British has been transformed into a critical inquiry of past and present history. An institution like the BBC maintains a professional ethics that involves training young recruits from colleges, something that the big American networks are unable to provide due to the lack of a serious tradition in covering international affairs.
Profiting from a short break in the last week of January, I headed south to Napoli. In the fast Eurostar, which as usual was an hour late, I shared a "table" with three Italiani: a young couple in the company of a dwarf who could have been kin-related to the other male. The dwarf asked me if I was willing to exchange seats, a proposal that the young woman, all dressed in an attractive black outfit, very quickly rebuffed, saying that it was unnecessary. As the train moved from Termini, her friend pulled a set of recently purchased DVDs from a plastic bag. They all looked proud of what they had just purchased in Rome: a dozen or so of American movies, from Mission Impossible up to The Matrix and Titanic. The couple then pulled down the thin window curtain, and sat in an awkward position, their backs to the window, in order to watch The Matrix on their DVD-equipped portable. But, regrettably, half an hour before reaching Napoli, their portable ran out of battery, so they were left without conclusion to their high-tech American adventure. Since the early 1980s the auteurist cinema of Rossellini, Antonioni, and Pasolini has run out of steam, and practically ceased to exist. One wonders whether that cinema, which their auteurs had jealously protected, and which saved Italy from its Fascist past, ever had any large following at home. Sure it created many followers and adepts at home and abroad, but was it ever a mass phenomenon? The question would have been irrelevant were it not for the massive infiltration of the Hollywood culture in the Italian imagination, and with the dubbing of all foreign movies --the Italians are probably the only ones in the world who painstakingly dub even Iranian films-- that foreign culture becomes de facto Italianized, as if already part of the local customs. By the 1990s, such ridiculous movies as My Beautiful Life have managed to win several Oscars. The half-paralyzed 90-year old Antonioni, who just completed Eros in the northern region of Tuscany, must be contemplating postmodern Italy as a complete disappointment --or maybe he's all too familiar with pseudo-innovations.
The large Napoli station predominates Piazza Garibaldi, a massive square that acts as a center for communication and exchange. The Garibaldization of space, visible all over Italy, is even more forceful in the south. It is as if the "unification" of Italy, promoted and engineered in the 1860s by the all too powerful but fragmented northern élites and the House of Savoy in particular, needed a constant reminder in the persona of Garibaldi. Hence all those piazzas, monuments, streets, cafés, hospitals, schools, etc., bearing his name as if he would be suddenly forgotten if all were to be dropped. Admittedly, the romantic Garibaldi, whose social representations have nothing to do anymore with the real historical character, is a more attractive phenomenon than the more intellectual Cavour and the reclusive Mazzini. Yet, all three share a portion of an ideologized public space, so that the holy trinity is ever present to our senses ad nauseam.
I check into one of those modern hotels overlooking the Piazza. Modern architecture, in particular when it fails to be imaginative, homogenizes space to the point of making it indistinguishable from one society and civilization to another. I found myself into one of those hotels which are a direct replica of all the ones I used to check in for conferences and workshops, and which for an insecure city like Napoli become a secure heaven, a well protected space, clean and comfortable, complete with a cabled TV and mini-bar.
I was therefore eager to go out for the real world outside, that risky space of a southern city like Napoli, and I began with a lunch on a restaurant right on the Piazza Garibaldi (I avoided a restaurant on the opposite side with the name of Cavour: I thought I would have that for dinner and then Mazzini for breakfast). As I ordered, the client on an adjacent table realized that I must be a tourist, and in a broken English began lecturing me on the unsafe nature of the territory I've just stepped into. Coming himself from Florence, he presented Napoli as a filthy city with lots of crimes and illegal activities. "You'll have to be very careful: always check your pockets, your bags, cash and credit cards." I've heard and read lots of things about Napoli, but I'm already more concerned and on high alert: "Is it that unsafe?," I asked. "Do you mean that I should not go out at night and constrain myself to the few 'safe' neighborhoods only?," I added with anxiety. At that point, my neighbor, as if to make his point even clearer, began a long historical exposé. "Napoli, as you probably know, has been for a long time under lots of foreign occupations: The French, Spanish, Bourbons, etc., so that its people have in their blood a spirit of revenge. They would like to rob you whenever the opportunity is present." Never mind that Florence itself had witnessed a similar pattern of foreign occupations and disunity, which had irritated the likes of Machiavelli, but for the moment I was more concerned with what "theft" concretely meant: "Are you implying that they could kill you for your cash or camera?," I kept asking with that same anxiety. And, in reply to my question, he ventured into another exposé on the mafia and its modus operandi. The mafia, he claimed, is composed of four major groups, all of them in the south, the main one being located in Palermo (Sicily) where all the "movement" had originated, and while he went into great detail through the various groups and factions, he forgot to mention the essential, namely that the historical origins of the mafia go back to the 1860s, at the precise moment of Italy's "unification," a movement coordinated through the north's hegemonic wealth. With that forced and premature unification, the old feudal foundations of the south, and Sicily in particular, had suddenly been dismantled, so that feudal rights and corvée labor could no more be sustained. "Private property" emerged as a new and uncontrollable notion with political implications that were yet to be formulated. What many were unaware of at the time was that private property is indeed costly to protect, or in other words, its transaction costs are much higher than the old feudal relations that protected familial property through kin relations and the like. "Private groups" therefore soon emerged to "protect" those properties that were to fall into private hands. Since their protection could not be promoted by the nascent and weak state institutions --that would have been too costly an alternative in terms of the required political and legal institutions, not to mention the need for a well trained and "clean" police force, judiciary, fencing and guarding techniques, etc.-- the mafia emerged as a de facto heterogeneous group that acted as the "guardian" of your property. They soon consolidated into various factions, first throughout the south, and then into the immigrant communities of some major American cities (e.g. Chicago), and thus were able to impose their now all too familiar system of intimidation and forced "tax"-collection, a system that covered their expenses as a de facto protective force at the service of "their" own communities. But they soon imposed their services to "other" communities on that thin "borderline" that separates the "legal" from the "illegal" (or what is commonly perceived as such).
The existence of the mafia, however, is commonly perceived, as in the discourse of my "neighbor," as an aberration in the manners of a naturally violent south, which had to protect itself against foreign occupation and subservience. The northern hegemony, however, and the difficulties in implementing a compound of "rational" values that center around free and unlimited exchange, private property, and the modern nation-state and its judiciary, are dissipated in favor of more common sense explanations centering around a primitive "state of nature" that the southerners are unable to transcend, probably due to something innate in their character and climate.
Napoli was for a long time the only city that controlled the economic activity of that multi-layered south. The difficulties of controlling a mountainous territory with much less arable lands than the north, are all too easily forgotten as historical factors that hampered the efforts of the Napoli bourgeoisie which hoped to transform its city into a modern commercial hub, as were Florence, Venice, Milan, and Genoa, at some point, prior to their decline in the seventeenth century. But the difficulties of the terrain were truly insurmountable, thus providing a leeway for various rural groups to impose themselves between the city and its indomitable countryside. It is, indeed, such historical difficulties that give contemporary Napoli, and more generally the south, that feeling of being outside the norms of the nation-state, a feeling that could be shared within various "zones" in the big American cities, while in many Middle Eastern and Asiatic societies that "insecurity" is controlled by a violent and monolithic state, which in itself is one of those abusive groups that promotes itself as the guardian of your property rights.
When my neighbor finished his exposé, I was wondering whether his intention was to tell me to be careful about mafia groups in the city. Well, as usual, I was wrong: he had just provided me with all the good news. "The mafia, he added, will only kill one another, but never people like you or me. For sure, they have other things to do than waste their time on people like us." That's good to know, and as I rejoiced at the precious time of the mafia, I was quick to ask him, "Where does all that atmosphere of insecurity come from then?" And there he embarked upon another of those long exposés, which was the most informative for my purposes, because that was the bad news. To cut a long story short, the poor of Napoli and various "foreigners" (North Africans, Arabs, East Europeans and Russians) have developed various theft techniques, which all amount into bluffing your victim and place him or her into some unusual situation. Only then you might realize that your wallet or watch has suddenly vanished.
When the food finally came I felt like I already had more than enough. My neighbor said he had to leave, and he came by to my table to thank me for my attention, which he said was "unusual" for a "tourist." I left the restaurant even more insecure and not knowing what to do next. Words and images have for some time provided me with a symbolic medium to control the world around me, and hence to dominate all kind of insecurities, hatred, or fears in my soul. The image, however, brings in each frame a fragment of the world to us, while language symbolically dominates that world through a coercive practice, which does not have to "correspond" to anything out there. The image therefore forces fragments of the world into our perceptions, as reshaped through the medium of the lens. My first instinct was to find something that I could frame, as if I wanted to capture my first insecure moments in Napoli. Right at the entrance of the restaurant was a bus stop which had four glass panels. One of them was apparently smashed overnight, and its fractured glass was still lying on the floor. People were waiting for their respective buses, most of them standing in silence and keeping some distance from one another, their backs to the restaurant's entrance. Framing the bus-stop from behind in wide-angle with a portion of the Piazza as a background was my first image, and that was followed by several shots of the people standing in silence. A couple of young men came to inquire whether I was a journalist: they must have thought that I was interested in the smashed glass panel rather than the passengers. After all the latter were so uninteresting, and that's precisely why I was attracted to them.
As in many Mediterranean cities I've visited in the last few years, the camera turns immediately into a subject of attention and conversation, if not a risky enterprise, and Napoli was no exception. The poorer the society, the more the private dissolves into the public. In effect, a characteristic of modern societies is their bourgeois individualistic nature, to the point that many would consider an unsolicited snapshot as an "intrusion" upon one's freedom, and in Europe, more so than the United States, legal battles could follow. In Napoli, however, various kinds of neighborhoods are juxtaposed to one another, to the point that within only few blocks one could move from an individualistic culture to one that is more openly populist, a phenomenon which Fernand Braudel has described as one of "dislocation," and which in the phase of pre-capitalism, between the 15th and 18th centuries, implied various types of markets juxtaposed to one another, from the primitive barter to the very specialized money market economy. In the context of modern Europe, however, when a city of the magnitude of Napoli manifests such a dislocation, it's probably because it has been historically unable to "contain" and "integrate" the various elements of its population in such a way to render it more cohesive. People keep pouring in from the south or from neighboring or faraway countries, then opt for a neighborhood that fits them best, and they seem to remain in that state for ever. However, compared to the alarming and racist "zones" of many large American cities, Napoli's poor neighborhoods do not live in isolation from the rest of the city, and that's precisely its charm and power. Thus, the Corso Umberto I, a main artery which connects the Piazza Garibaldi to the seaport, is your regular shopping avenue, where merchants do not parade their commodities on the pavement (or the street for that matter), but keep them in well protected vitrines. However, all the streets that connect the Corso with the sea corniche west, are a different world altogether.
At three in the afternoon, and after swallowing two long exposés, I was happy and surprised to discover some of those popular neighborhoods as soon as I left the Piazza, right on the first street west of the main Corso. It was like suddenly plunging into one of those poor neighborhoods in Damascus or Aleppo. Water drips from the laundries perching all over the small balconies; all kinds of commodities were directly exposed all over the streets, thus practically annihilating the pavements; the streets-pavements (the two categories mix) often serve as an extended living room, complete with TVs, dinner-tables, and kids doing their homework; and graffiti fill what remains of the walls, often with direct political messages, or color drawings of some landscape of an idealized location or country. But above all, it's the sight of all those people who offer themselves directly to the public without any mediation. Thus, rather than feel insecure, one wonders how they can give so much of themselves that easily. When a mid-aged man asked me half-jokingly to photograph his wife, hoping that someone in the US might get attracted to her and thus marry her, he was, I think, only overtly expressing a Freudian wish for his wife's disappearance, which many bourgeois would only keep hidden in their nightly dreams.
Yet, compared to other eastern Mediterranean cities, poverty is here contained, as if this permeability between the private and public, the home and street-life, and the violence in social relations, are mediated by local customs that place a limit to all this effervescence, and in a visible effort not to necessitate unwanted state intervention. The genius of Italian disorder, assuming that's the right way to describe that ordered chaos, is that it reduces the power of the state without, however, crippling it. It is thus left to a landlord's own discretion to decide how many of her tenants' leases will she officially declare, and thus pay all due taxes accordingly, and how many of her tenants will be declared as "guests." Property buyers routinely adjust their high taxes by only declaring two-thirds of the price, while the remaining one-third is paid cash under the table. In every circumstance, therefore, and with Italy's "illegal" economy close to $60 billion, citizens are considered educated enough on their own to decide what the borderline between the legal and illegal ought to be. It is still amazing that Italy could rank as the sixth industrial nation, right after France and Great Britain.
In this sunny afternoon I therefore began to feel "safe" even though my camera metamorphosed into that obscur objet du désir: an old man summons me to go "home" right away and never come back; kids, thinking (again) that I'm a reporter, were distracted from their football game and wanted to know in which newspaper my photos will be published; African dwellers, selling pirated CDs, had to hide their faces; but then everything must have been "illegal" in some way, and the level of risk had to be decided case-by-case.
I was therefore happy to reach the seaport: Beirut gave me that awkward habit to look for the Mediterranean wherever I can find it. Coming out from those dark neighborhoods to an open area with lots of sunlight so suddenly and unpredictably has disoriented my sense of perspective: I did not know what and how to frame anymore. Once you're in there you think you'll never go out, and there I was right on the Mediterranean, which at four in the afternoon, with all the sun in my eyes, did not look too romantic. I badly needed to sit in a café to write down some notes: having already burned two rolls of films, I now wanted the words. But as in many Italian cities --except perhaps for Florence-- cafés are easy to find but unfit for concentration and contemplation. Space is indeed expensive, and hence the preference given to drinks at the bar, while tables, if they're available, are a very precious and rare entity. If you've ever used a toilet in Italy you would know for certain that space is indeed very precious.
I was neither able to find a café nor a toilet, or at least nothing decent enough to match my taste. As it was getting dark, I came back to those popular neighborhoods from the western sea area. I opted this time for another set of nightly photographs with high-speed film. Is religion the opium of the people, as Marx and Engels arrogantly declared? Maybe we should seek a more subtle Weberian interpretation of all those Madonnas in such popular neighborhoods. To be sure, religion increases proportionally with poverty, but, on the other hand, poverty makes religion simply more visible. Otherwise, Catholicism is an inherent trait of Italian society at large. Even Pasolini, the same one who concluded the auteurist film genre with Salò, did also Il Vangelo secondo Matteo, an indication that even Marxism only nicely blends with Catholicism in a society like this one. The Madonnas came in so many artful genres, and hence carried so many different meanings, that one could only feel overwhelmed by such a variety. They seem, however, an indication of a socialization of public space, one that remains out of control by the state and its institutions. Again, here, the private blends nicely with the public: a Madonna in memory of a young couple who died in an accident, another one for a just-born child, and a third for an old man of the neighborhood, while the majority simply stood there for no obvious reason. Their design and cost obviously reflects social status and rank: even among the poor individuals are not equals, and the Madonnas are there to testify for those numerous signs of distinction.
Back to the Corso Umberto I, which at seven in the evening was much active than early in the afternoon. As I lost hope for the café (and its corresponding toilet), I began a search for a restaurant. Surprisingly, that turned out to be a problem too. Thus, unlike the other major Italian cities, in which restaurants are on every corner, Napoli had them well hidden. Was it a real estate strategy? A sign on the Corso pointed to a Chinese restaurant in one of the back-streets nearby. As I'm heading to the place, one more time a man cautions me from using the camera too overtly: "They'll simply follow you and seize the occasion to grab your camera." I was therefore more than enthusiastic once I reached the restaurant, in particular that since coming to Italy in August that was the first time that I sought for a Chinese restaurant as a place for calm and meditation. I therefore seized the opportunity to write as soon as I got there. Not for long, however: after barely thirty minutes of quietly heaven, a small group of young men (and women?) came by and from the entrance smashed the bar with eggs. Were they celebrating mardi gras? Or was it racist hatred? Unhappy that they'll have to clean all the bottles one by one, and all the mirrors and napkins, the Chinese servers had a rough night, and they were particularly disturbed that there might be another round waiting for them. They were formal, however, that that was the first time that such an incident ever happened to them.
At ten the Corso Umberto I was now totally empty, and all its shop windows reminded me of post-war Beirut in their heavy metallic protective curtains, while the few ones that sported no such protection were smashed: their thick glass, however, managed to endure all kinds of rough onslaughts to the point that pricey commodities were kept exhibited as if it was a no risk situation. It was like moving in a long dark metallic tunnel with no end in sight, as if the public sphere of that city was made up of its shops: once they're all closed by eight, it's a dead space. Except perhaps for people like me still hoping to find something, but what exactly? I moved back west to the popular neighborhoods, which even though riskier, did not sport that depressing nightly look. On my way back to the Piazza, and going through the same system of the rugged iron facades (even the interphones in the lobbies were protected by squared metallic plates), a large well lit place quietly stood on the horizon. Hoping that I would finally find the café of my lifetime I headed in its direction, but to my dismay it turned out a porno theater. It had a fairly large entrance and lobby, clean and well lit with excessive neon-lights as if it was an emergency room. In its disturbing cleanness it looked even better than my four-star hotel, while the few other scattered movie-theaters did not look as promising.
At eleven the Piazza Garibaldi was now a place for prostitution (hence the location of the porno theater) and drug trafficking, with few entertainment spots where various "deals" would be concluded. Hence the few cafés that were still open, and I spotted one right next to the restaurant where my journey had began early in the afternoon. Now my neighbors were two east European prostitutes having their cappuccinos on an adjacent table. The blond one proposed a "ride" in her Lexus for 400 euros. Would that include the Golfo di Napoli? "It would be more than that," she whispered. East European prostitution has so much overwhelmed the market that Italian prostitutes must be spending their last days with their grandmothers, to the point that Berlusconi thought of addressing the situation by "legalizing" the oldest métier in the world and "acknowledging" it in few "zones" in each major city. In short, each city, assuming it wants to, would "vote" for its own red-light district, but a "zone" would have to be sacrificed for the task beforehand. Apparently, Venice might be the first to head in that direction by the summer.
In Viaggio Alexander Joyce, having just returned from Capri, goes for a drink in a luxury hotel in downtown Napoli, and on his way out meets that prostitute in a fur coat (at that time they were still mostly Italians). After signs of hesitation, he picks her up in his Bentley and takes her for a "ride." (As prostitutes have become a quasi-élite group, all this now takes place the other way round.) They stop in what looks like a heavily treed park, and there begins a short conversation, which turned out for Alexander the only bit of "intimate" talk he ever had. They leave, however, without consummating their lust.
The blond Romanian prostitute told me that her "rides" provide her with a net income of over $7,500 monthly. In addition to her Lexus, and a two-bedroom, she owns a share for $100,000 in an office compound near Bucharest. The sole purpose of her intensive labor in Napoli is therefore only to refund her debt, and once she's done with it, she'll leave. She could then peacefully live in Romania with the rent of her office compound. Now the 400 euros look like a plausible investment in a second-world east European economy. Berlusconi must therefore be worried like hell that all that prostitution money is leaving Italy through its porous borders and banking system, hence the urge to "legalize" in spite of the resistance of the Catholic Church and the Vatican --advanced capitalism, if you wish.
By midnight the train station has become like its surrounding Piazza, a refuge for the homeless, and a network for prostitution and drug trafficking. Last year a photography magazine carried an article by a British photographer detailing his arrest for having done fashion photographs inside a station. Apparently, there's a law prohibiting photographs in many public buildings. Should I therefore take the risk? I was unable even to verify whether that law still holds in my situation.
Past midnight, and I'm finally back to my room. Bush was preparing his dogmatic show for The State of the Union address: I turn CNN off and go to bed.
The next morning was cloudy but with no rain in sight. As I longed for this sight of the city as a totality from the Mediterranean, I took the ferry to Capri. Alexander Joyce took that same ferry hoping to escape from the hellish conversations with his wife, and which in their silences and mockery of marital life were the pièce-de-résistance of Viaggio. I was more like those nineteenth-century western travelers, such as Gerard de Nerval, who needed to embrace those difficult Mediterranean cities from the perspective of the sea prior to plunging into their labyrinths.
Capri at this time of the year was a ville-fantôme. As I toured the island by foot it was obvious that Capri is the anti-Napoli Disneyland. It was mostly closed, and preparing itself for the summer: the four-five months of the summer engender so much profit that it could sleep well for the remaining part of the year. At the center, a newly designed Prada shop was completely deserted. Its empty étagères reminded me of a famous photo by the German artist Andreas Gursky: entitled "Prada II," the large-format photograph, which sold for a record-high of $200,000, depicted two long rows of empty étagères, which had to be cleaned even further through computer manipulation. Gursky's minimalism only hopes to point out to the importance of design in selling fashion. I framed the mountains of Capri reflecting through the front glass on the empty and newly designed shelves of the Prada store. While it's waiting empty for its wealthy summer customers, it sits there as a symbol for the new cool consumerism of the jet-set generations: universal brands that could be identified all over, and which are not limited to a tiny élite. It's this ability to make-believe that everyone can afford something at Prada that has made such brands ubiquitous all over the world. Better still, the new yuppies are designing stores that look like "public spaces": once you're in you wouldn't know anymore whether you're in a clothing store, an art gallery, or a museum, and if it could be any of those three it's because the world of commodities under advanced capitalism needs to blur all such distinctions. It has, indeed, become a nuisance to come to a store only for a pair of socks. You'll have to come for your socks and realize that there are art works all over, so that the two spaces need not be differentiated anymore. In the next decades designers will have to keep in mind that "shopping" has become an art all by itself, and that by blurring categories the shopping space itself will become one where a consumer will feel that he or she is participating into something even more important than a simple act of exchange. We'll therefore not simply be happy with what we bought, but also with the space itself, so that "going to Prada" will become like "belonging" to a club of devotees, complete with a website, artistic agenda, and even political encounters of the third-kind.
While returning to Napoli in the late afternoon, I thought of a popular French song: "Capri, c'est fini, je ne te reverrai plus jamais." I don't know if I'll ever see Capri again --maybe for a faculty meeting-- but for now I had enough. What in fact was waiting for me in the capital of the south was more spectacular. This time I headed east of the Corso Umberto I, and there stood the center of the old city in all its magnificence. Mediterranean cities are known for protecting their domestic homes through internal courtyards, but Napoli has pushed that system even further by creating bourgeois residences that only connect with the street through a large wooden gate, while all the apartments give to an internal courtyard. All kinds of specialized markets, which tend to focus on a particular craft in every street, surround those bourgeois residences. What apparently happened at the turn of the twentieth century was a Haussmanization of Napoli, and the Corso Umberto I was therefore built with that notion of a clearly designed avenue, one that would bypass all the internal divisions between neighborhoods, clans and factions, and would impose that new disciplinary order that would eventually contribute in the plan of a better controllable city. The Corso had therefore cut the old commercial and residential center in two, between a popular western part that connects with the port, and an eastern part that is still residential and commercial. However, its bourgeois buildings seem to have fallen prey to the lower middle classes, if not to the impoverished populations, while the wealthiest went either further east or north. It was as if the original plan of the Corso was to create a cordon sanitaire for that commercial and residential hub by cutting it from its more delinquent part. It therefore symbolizes an urban project that was planned with a hegemonic state in mind, rather than tailored for the bargains of the traditional patrilineal power-relations.
Thursday was my last day, and my train was scheduled for five in the afternoon. I thought of the Golfo di Napoli, Vesuvio, Pompeii, Amalfi, and all the rest. At the station a driver proposed a "ride" for 100 euros. But I wasn't interested. I felt like doing all Napoli as a totality, crossing all the areas in all their varieties in the five hours or so that I've got left. I felt like the entire history of capitalism was there, all condensed very visibly in a single space. Time and the changes in the logic of capitalism between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, and then the industrial and technological revolutions of the last two centuries, have all juxtaposed their own space, each one on its own rather than having them absorbed by one another, as was the case with Paris, London and Berlin. The logic of each space tends also to be self-contained on its own, as if the neighboring one did not exist. One could therefore imagine a Napoli with a post-industrial high-tech environment that would keep the other spaces without absorbing them. And Napoli would still live happily while absorbing another techno-scientific space of relatively cheap labor.
The so-called Italian neo-realism, whose point of departure
was supposedly Rossellini's Roma, città aperta,
was neither about "genuine" locations nor non-professional
actors as is commonly argued. It's about a landscape achieving
the status of a "person": how to describe a city
in words and images, and how such a description transforms the
characters themselves. Napoli is therefore all about that character-as-landscape.