Modern Languages

Transnational Italian Studies

By Charles Burdett and Loredana Polezzi

Putting together a volume for LUP’s ‘Transnational Modern Languages’ series has given us the opportunity to ask a lot of questions about the intellectual rationale of Italian studies. Questions that regard the nature of the object of our studies, the ways in which it can be brought into focus, the relation between different historical periods and between varying modes of approach. Posing this type of question, through working closely with the contributors to the volume and the editors of the other books in the series, has also involved interrogating the purpose of our branch of study and its capacity to address issues of pressing topical concern.


Perhaps the most fundamental of all these questions is what constitutes our object of study; what, in other words, we are looking at when we say that we are pursuing Italian studies. Possibly the easiest or most intuitive answer is to say that we are studying Italian society or the cultural/linguistic features, as they have evolved through time, of an area that corresponds roughly speaking to the confines of the nation state we today refer to as Italy. Such a definition has the advantage of apparent simplicity but it immediately poses a number of problems: to begin with, Italy’s history as a nation state dates only from the latter part of the 19th century; secondly, by drawing too close a link between territory and culture, we imply that cultures are self-contained entities and, perhaps unwittingly, we subscribe to rather than critique a number of nationalistic narratives; and thirdly, such a model is insufficiently attuned to the fact that people, ideas and practices are, in every sense, mobile.

Situated at the centre of the Mediterranean, close to Africa and the Middle East, for centuries the site of imperial ambitions of one kind or another, Italy is in no way isolated from the major currents of world culture – and this is even before we begin to consider the magnitude of the Italian diaspora in the 19th and 20th centuries or more recent demographic changes within Italy itself. With these facts in mind, it is more appropriate to say that the object of our studies is not an essentialized notion of Italian culture but rather the entanglement of practices that, through human mobility and through the unfolding of cultural and social processes, has created distinctive realities and ways of being associated with ideas of ‘Italian-ness’, whether these are located in Italy or in many other parts of the world. Cosmopolitan networks and their intellectual pursuits, but also migration with its multiple routes and colonialism with its history and its post-, neo- and de-colonial legacies all inhabit the history of Italian cultures and continue to haunt their present.

If working on the volume has given us the opportunity to reflect on what we consider to be the object of Italian studies, it has also given us the chance to bring together approaches that can help to illuminate the transnational, hybrid nature of what we refer to with the term Italian culture(s). The four sections of the volume – devoted to language, spatiality, temporality and subjectivity – do not aim to be exhaustive but are meant to provide key examples of how Italian cultures are articulated at different moments in time, in different locations, by and for different people, and in a multiplicity of languages. Contributions discuss comics, cinema and literature, as well as the multilingual practices of community associations and internet networks. Contemporary labels such as ‘Made in Italy’ or ‘la fuga dei cervelli’ are read against their prefigurations in 16th-century Venice or 18th-century Naples. Moving between the chapters of the volume, we encounter new readings of ‘usual suspects’ such as Dante as well as much less predictable presences, from Renaissance translators to anti-G8 demonstrators. The history of Italy is re-told through the global networks of colonial and migration history and, in the process, questions are also asked about class, gender or race. And the tools used to illuminate each moment, each place and each case range from archival research to postcolonial theory, from psychoanalysis to translation studies.

With its range of topics and approaches, the book encourages us to think about the underlying purpose of Italian studies, what makes it relevant as well as coherent as a subject, and how we need to rethink the curriculum to ensure that the discipline is both fit for and relevant to today’s world. At its core, we find the inquiry into the tightness with which linguistic and cultural practices are woven together in determined spaces and at specific moments in time, and how the interrogation of cultural products as well as cultural practices enables us to develop the capacity to see this complex articulation. Once decoupled from its rigid, normative association with the space of the nation state, its narratives and its official language – or at least, once we read these in tension with their internal complexity and their transnational dimension – Italian culture becomes a much more inclusive, diverse and mobile notion. This approach to Italian studies and, more broadly, to the field of Modern Languages, helps us to develop a vantage point from which we can see the dynamism of the major forces which, through both confluence and conflict, shape our social life at both local and global level.

Studying the complex routes of Italian culture and their articulation we travel very widely – as do the chapters in this volume – and we see each moment in time, each specific set of practices as part of the interconnectedness of social phenomena, with their economic and environmental points of pressure as well as their ceaseless processes of transformation.

Transnational Italian Studies is part of the Transnational Modern Languages series.

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