How to close an institution

The absence is justified, I promise. I’m currently finishing chapter four of the thesis. It has been a fascinating journey. I immersed myself in the extraordinary practice of Giuliano Scabia and Compagnia della Fortezza and I had the opportunity  to finally study Italian anti-psychiatry with the necessary attention. Of all the incredible intellectual and political practice developed in Italy between the 1960s and the 1970s, anti-psychiatry is one of the richest, and undoubtedly one of the movements that radically changed the face of Italian society.

Here is John Foot’s beautiful, short introduction to the work of Franco Basaglia. Enjoy!

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The Life of a Writer

Roald Dahl on working as a ‘businessman’ in the City of London in 1934. And on writing, of course.

I enjoyed it, I really did. I begun to realize how simple life could be if one had a regular routine to follow with fixed hours and a fixed salary and very little original thinking to do. The life of a writer is absolute hell compared with the life of a businessman. The writer has to force himself to work. He has to make his own hours and if he doesn’t go to his desk at all there is nobody to scold him. If he is a writer of fiction he lives in a world of fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not. Two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For those two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock. The writer walks out of his workroom in a daze. He wants a drink. He needs it. It happens to be a fact that nearly every writer of fiction in the world drinks more whisky than is good for him. He does it to give himself faith, hope and courage. A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.

R. Dahl, Boy: Tales of Childood (1984)

Research, Politics and Paywalls

‘Il Valle non c’è più’. ‘the Valle is no more’, said F. bitterly at the end of his intervention to what was arguably the most heated debate at the 2014 Euronomade meeting in Passignano sul Trasimeno. We were a large group, at least fifty people, crammed outside the auditorium under the afternoon sun. Few seconds of silence followed F.’s words.The thought of having lost the physical and symbolic centre of of an extraordinary movement suddenly hit us. One thing is reading about it on the paper, another one listening to the occupiers’ voice.Ruminating over the end of the occupation might not be the most useful activity, and yet, this is perhaps the right moment to start reflecting upon the Valle’s achievements, potential and setbacks. At Euronomade we only begun to scratch the surface.

teatrovalleoccupato esterno

For those among you who do not know the Valle Occupato’s story, you can have a look at the special issue of Theatrama or at the documentary Occupying the Commons, both good introductions for the English speaking public. I have been following the occupation since the very first days, albeit from afar.  Their work was so unique and inspiring, and yet so little known in British theatre circles. I got in touch with the occupiers in the summer of 2012 but I managed to visit them only in March 2014. It was a difficult moment. The Angelo Mai collective had been evicted only a week before my arrival, the dialogue with Rome City Council was at a standstill, and the authorities had just rejected the Teatro Valle’s application for legal personality. Tension was palpable. And yet I found many occupiers willing to talk to me, happy to answer my questions or to have me around during assemblies. Considering the circumstances, they had been incredibly generous with their time.

I went to the Valle out of curiosity and political solidarity, and with the best of intentions. I wanted ask questions, to understand, to listen. I hoped I could be able to help. I listened, I asked my questions, I observed, I tried to understand. Helping, though, was a different matter altogether, and I left the Valle feeling in debt, a debt I could not repay. I justified my trip to Rome telling myself that academic writing that could potentially amplify artistic practice. And in part, it is true. My paper on Teatro Valle at the IFTR Conference gathered quite a crowd, and the Q&A went far beyond the allocated fifteen minutes, eventually taking up most of our lunch break. Researchers from all over the world wanted to know more, to understand, to dig deeper to see if the Valle’s story could illuminate other political and artistic practices.Yet, I cannot help wondering if I am the best person to tell this story. What perspective can I possibly bring? How do I relate my reflection to the occupiers’ struggle? Although sympathetic, I am outside of that struggle. I cannot consider myself an activist. And I cannot shrug the feeling that my research parasitically exploits their work.

Three years of observing and listening to the occupied Valle – and indeed the other occupied arts spaces all over Italy -were bound to have an impact on my practice too. The rich debate around the commons, the backbone of Valle Occupato, eventually compelled me to radically reconsider the nature of academic work and scholarly research. What can research give back to struggle or to an artistic practice if only other scholars listen to our conference papers? How can we engage in a broader discussion if our articles hide behind a paywall or are available only to the lucky few affiliated to an academic institution? Who are we writing for? Does our work benefit anyone or anything except an increasingly self-referential academia? When I stepped into the occupied theatre I expected to encounter a lively political experiment. What I could not foresee is that the occupation would slowly but irreversibly transform my understanding of scholarship, my conception of the researcher’s function, my view of academic institutions. And that, at the same time, it would confirm that there is still a higher education worth fighting for.

Independence and its language

As some among you may know, I happened to grow up on a relatively small island. I lived there until I was 24, and, since I left, I look back at my native land with a mix of frustration and longing. An island in the Mediterranean might sound exotic, and yet, life in Sardinia is not always easy. The natural wonders are balanced by 25% of youth unemployment and a biting economic crisis. In addition, the island has been blessed by a political class that I would euphemistically define inadequate (don’t get me started, you really don’t want to). I never stopped caring about Sardinia and when a postcard arrived here in Bristol inviting me to go back to vote for the regional elections, I sadly had to admit that a trip back home was not possible.

There is a particular reason to follow closely this particular regional election and the unusual electoral campaign. It is the presence of a group of outsiders that are openly challenging the national parties that still gather the vast majority of Sardinian votes. ProgRes is a young independentist party that has conducted a remarkable electoral campaign. They campaigned with very little money, traveled up and down the island to meet ordinary citizens, set up a series of  public OSTs on labour, economy, public education, public health, culture, tourism and environment (OSTs open to anyone are unheard of in Italian politics). But the most innovative feature of ProgRes’ approach is that it marked a radical break from old independentist narratives and truly revolutionised the language of Sardinian independentism.

I know what you might imagine when I say ‘independentism’. Few random stereotypes: angry, aggressive, clinging onto imagined traditions, scornful of national and European authorities (considered the source of all evil), its only policy seem to be ‘Italians go home’ (substitute Italian with any other hegemonic force) and, in the worst cases, mildly to openly racist or homophobic. Did I get it right? Well, it is not the case, not this time. ProgRes did away with old independentism, with its tendency to define itself uniquely on ethnic grounds, and to its scornful and often openly aggressive attitude towards the “Italian”.  Instead it focused its campaign on public participation, and aimed at nurturing a dialogue with voters (mainly through the already-mentioned OST and a clever use of social media. The ultimate goal is not ‘independence’, but rather, ‘the end of dependence’ from a state that still slips into patronizing attitudes and even promotes quasi-colonial policies.

Moreover, ProgRes’ attention to civil rights, sustainability, environment, culture and public education draw the movement closer to contemporary independentist movements such as the National Scottish Party, rather than to the old “sardista” tradition. It might seem banal, but in a country like Italy, where political discussion still revolves around the former PM’s trials, and where the parties of the left ignore these issues and prefer to embrace openly neoliberal policies, this is quite something.  Promises? Perhaps, only time will tell, for the moment, this energetic bunch of outsiders has managed to shake Sardinian politics. Since ProgRes entered the arena, the major national parties have lost a good amount of their usual haughtiness.

The outcome of this regional election is still uncertain. Independence is an ambitious goal, it requires long-term planning and politicians capable of taking the risk. ProgRes seems to be well aware of this. Rather pragmatically, they don’t see it happening in the near future. What matters now is the end of another type of ‘dependence’. Dependence from decisions made in the continent, dependence from industrial powers, cultural dependence from a national hegemonic force. If Sardinians will finally start considering the island a centre rather than a periphery, we are on the verge of a cultural revolution.

To write or not to write

On the web there are very few things as desolate as a neglected blog. Well, I am guilty. I started this blog in the summer of 2012 to document the extraordinary experience of the Mellon School at Harvard (by far the best academic experience I have ever had) and I haven’t published anything since. Not that I haven’t been writing in the last year and a half. As I opened the blogger main page this evening, after several months of absence, I found, to my surprise, few unpublished drafts that my perfectionism always prevented me from sharing. Why? The answer is simple enough. Fear. I was, and I am, afraid of exposing myself, of not being good enough, of failure. And I am not the only one. Kaite O’Reilly explained it here. But I am determined to comply with Eleanor Roosevelt little piece of advice (“Do one thing every day that scares you”) and to make an attempt at overcoming my creative fears.

The funny thing is that up until few years ago writing was pleasurable, exciting, calming. I used to find some kind of meditative stillness and contentment in the act of writing. I haven’t experienced it in a long time. What happened in the meantime? Well, I started writing in my second language, which isn’t always easy, and I started a PhD. That’s when I stopped writing for pleasure. Since then the most demanding exam committee decided to permanently take residence in my head, systematically sabotaging most of my creative endeavours and turning the writing process into toil, pain and sorrow. Doing a PhD has been the single most challenging thing I have ever done; research tested my patience, my strength and my self-esteem. Like most PhDs I went through rough patches and fought with the most common academic beast: self-doubt. And towards the end of this often painful process I was rewarded with three invaluable gifts: a heightened self-awareness, a resilience forged in blank page panic and financial hardship, and a voice.

The pleasure of writing depends on the courage of writing. As Umberto Eco said, with the exception of the groceries list, one always writes for someone else, for a real or imagined reader. I must confess that had been skeptical about blogging and social networking. Blogging in particular seemed an activity apt for those who love the sound of their own voice and take particular pleasure in imposing their opinion upon the world wide web. Well, I can take the risk. Now I can. I shall write, then. About what? Well, as wannabe academic blogger I should definitely write about art and politics. And anything in between.

Not quite closing remarks…

The Mellon School of Theater and Performance Research has ended over a week ago. On our final day at Harvard we all began to realise that the summer school’s impact on all of us as researchers and as individuals was going to be deeper than we initially thought. The Mellon School 2012 was a privileged   space of cultural exchange, it created a community that will hopefully gather again in the near future. We shared ideas and doubts, we challenged each other’s assumptions about our research, we nourished our everlasting love for theatre and performance.
Love. Intellectual love. These are the words that emerged during our round up session on 15th June. And perhaps no other word best explains the intellectual exchange we immersed ourselves in. I do believe that he quality of our debates (that went on far beyond the excellent seminars, lectures, and workshops) was greatly enhanced by the profound care we demonstrated for each other’s work. Not a secondary element in the current academic climate. And away we go, back to our work, back into the world. Sentimental, I know, melodramatic, even. We called it “Melloncholia”, that peculiar mix of nostalgia, longing, gratitude and sheer joy that grabs us when we think about our two terrific weeks at Harvard. It will stay with us for a little while.

Right, now I feel like a school girl at the end of a summer camp. Back to business, then.

Constellations

There was a certain thematic unity in the way the Monday session developed. Seminars, discussions and lectures somehow seemed to shed light on one another in unexpected ways.
From our Theatre and Democracy seminar with Bernadette Mayler, to the dissertation workshop with David Kornhaber, and Freddie Rokem’s lecture at the end of the day, we kept finding, discussing and analysing images from Bertolt Brecht’s exile. Brecht and Margarete Steffin working on The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui; Brecht playing chess with Walter Benjamin in Svendborg; Brecht far from the theatre where he belonged, with writing alone to voice his frustration. These images kept floating around us all day long, every time we looked at them we discovered something new, not only about B.B., but also about the remarkable circle of intellectuals and artists that gathered in Svendborg between 1933 and 1939, the six years between Hitler’s “resistible rise” to power and the abyss of WWII.
The images triggered some of the most fascinating discussions of the summer school about the nature of artistic collaboration, political commitment and resistance.

With Freddie Rokem we talked again about Brecht’s exile, but also about dramatic writing and practice (Weigel as the author of Courage), and we stopped to reflect upon the relationship between dramaturgy, interpretation and adaptation. “Dramaturgy is about changing the rules of the game as you go along”, says Freddie Rokem, it’s a hermeneutic process that exploits the aporias in the text, it displaces signs to create new meaning.

One image seems to stand out among the others, a synthesis of our reflections on text and dramaturgy, war and exile, collaboration and creation. A dialectical image? The aesthetic embodiment of dialectics at a standstill? Courage lugging her cart endlessly around the revolving stage, strenuously marching against the course of history.

Bodies

The first week of the Mellon School closed with a heated discussion on corporate bodies, body politic, and gender. Henry Turner’s lecture on Thursday attempted to articulate a concept of corporation and of the corporate body that goes beyond the current legal meaning of the term and takes us back to the early-modern connotations of the term. We can, therefore, conceive the corporation as an entity “distinct from the sum of its parts”, and yet “coincident with its parts”. Guilds, universities, unions, fraternities, and, certainly, theatre troupes, do share the characteristics of corporate bodies. Membership implies a series of duties, privileges, responsibilities, and a share of the profit, all elements we can recognise, for instance, in The King’s Men and in other troupes of Renaissance England.

The latin corporatus derives from corpore, “body”, and yet, what is left of real bodies within the corporate body? What is left of plurality, difference, agency? Is it productive to conflate radically different types of associations, collectives, and social and economic groups under the umbrella term of “corporation”?  Where does it lead us? I have the feeling that the terms “corporation” and “corporate body” are too strongly linked to a very specific legal vocabulary to be of any use to the humanities or to political theory. Turner stated that a wider concept of corporate body would entail an all-encompassing entity that goes beyond gender, class, and race, an argument which triggered a dense and productive debate. However, noble as it is, such a concept crumbles down when measured against history. Most institutions and organisations that claimed to be beyond class, race, and gender, are in fact tailored on the necessities and agendas of white, bourgeois or aristocratic, heterosexual males. As feminist thinkers reminded us, even philosophy is male:

[M]an, the subject who reigned over discourse, universalizing and making absolute the partiality of his sex, also included and assimilated me. Man spoke and thought also for my sex, an absent and unrepresented sex, yet included in that male-neutral subject. (Cavarero, “The need for a sexed thought”, in Bono and Kemp, Italian Feminist Thought: A Reader. p.183)
There is a certain epistemological violence in much of Western philosophical tradition which for centuries smuggled an allegedly singular, universal, neuter and disembodied self, banishing difference and corporeality from discourse. Sometimes we still fall into this trap. It’s subtle, and it entices us with promises of equality, freedom, and justice.

Whilst John Harvard looks over us

The Thompson room at the Barker Center is a large XIX Century hall, high ceilings, paneled walls. Just opposite the entrance, an impressive fireplace occupies great part of the wall. On top of the mantelpiece a bust of John Harvard. I don’t quite know what to make of his gaze, not completely benevolent, not judgmental either. I cannot avoid it, anyway. The Mellon School of Theater and Performance Research at Harvard started on Monday, as we gathered in the Thompson room enthusiasm was high, participants and faculty members were all looking forward to getting started.

This second edition of the Summer School has mustered 29 postgraduate researchers and early career scholars coming from the United States,  France, Germany, Brazil, United Kingdom, Poland, and, well, Italy, for two weeks of intense work on “theatre and philosophy”. The institution represented here are among the most the most prestigious, Yale, Cambridge, Columbia, Berkeley, Freie Universität Berlin, Central School of Speech and Drama.

It’s difficult to sum up these first four days of summer school, how intense and thought-provoking the discussions have been, how the Mellon School has in just four days gone beyond my most optimistic expectations, but I will attempt to do it in few words.

In his introductory lecture Martin Puchner set the scene for a productive debate that we developed in the following two days and that is still growing now. The aim of the 2012 Mellon School is to bridge two fields, theatre and philosophy, that have often looked at each other with suspicion if not with open hostility. Our aim here is to “use philosophy to unsettle theatre, and to use theatre to unsettle philosophy” (and after four days at the Mellon School I can say that Martin’s statement supremely summarizes the work we have developed so far). His paper reflected on the origins of the antitheatrical prejudice in an important part of the western philosophical tradition. A prejudice that has been modulated differently through the centuries, and that is most commonly based on epistemic (Plato), ethical, or aesthetic grounds (Nietzsche). And yet, the well-established tradition of the philosophical dialogue, from Plato onwards, presents us with texts too similar to dramatic texts to be ignored. And perhaps is Plato the one who can paradoxically bridge theatre and philosophy. The same Plato who, as a young choregus, supposedly burned his first tragedy to become a pupil of Socrates. “Come hither, O fire-god, Plato now has need of thee!”, according to Diogenes Laertius these are the choregus words as he abandons theatre to become a philosopher. I would not swear upon the historical accuracy of the quote, and yet, isn’t this refusal of theatre far too similar to gestures of modern avant-guardes who wished to destroy the old to make room for the new? To get rid of a previous dramatic tradition in order to build theatre anew? Or do we simply take pleasure in toying with the idea of Plato the dramatist, reclaiming him for us, stripping his thought naked after two millennia of Platonism?