Calling the Southern Question into question

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This article belongs to the Figli di Annibale stream, and was co-authored with Giovanni Travaglino.


Whenever the topic of the «Southern Question» is introduced, a patient is already lying ready on the couch: the «sick man» being the Italian Mezziogiorno, plagued by social backwardness and weighing down on the development of the rest of the country with its criminal legacy. A diagnosis of this tenor is usually a precondition for summoning hordes of experts to craft possible treatments, in the hope that they will work. To call into question the «Southern Question», then, is akin to engaging in a Foucauldian genealogy of this controversial historical category. To stay with the «sick man» metaphor: a genealogy involves a detailed examination which strives to grasp the condition of «sickness» as something more than a neutral state of affairs, but itself the outcome of a process involving an institutional setting – the hospital – that assimilates the «sick» subject as its patient. Speaking out of metaphor, such a reversal of perspective is one that can help problematise received understandings of Italy’s Mezzogiorno, in the hope of opening up the otherwise tired and limiting imaginary signified by the «Southern Question», as the stock definition of a historically and socially contested situation. This reversal is precisely the method adopted in the symposium organised by a new team of researchers at the University of Kent (UK).

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On September 4, 2015 the University of Kent hosted a symposium titled «Change, Resistance, and Collective Action in Southern Italy», organised by two expatriate researchers working for the same institution – Maria Ridda and Giovanni Travaglino – and sponsored by the International Society of Political Psychology and the Interdisciplinary Network for Social Protest Research (INSPR). The common thread running through the various presentations delivered at the symposium was precisly a critical examination of the usefulness of a concept like the «Southern Question», in order to make fertile inroads into the social and historical complexity of Italy’s South. Indeed, regional disparities are a reality in many other European countries, but it is distinctive of the Italian situation that these disparities have coalesced into a narration signposted by the idea of a «Southern Question» (Jim Newell). This has occurred at the cost of flattening the debate on a supposed exceptionalism of the Mezzogiorno, losing sight of the possibility that disparities may themselves grow out of more diffuse historical processes. These include, for instance: the continuity of Italian «internal colonialism» with other instances of colonial expansion globally, like for instance the French conquest of Algeria (Iain Chambers); wide-ranging transformations in the global mode of production, as evidenced by new forms of precarious employment and social unrest that are not exclusive to the Mezzogiorno (Victoria Goddard); the internal dynamism of a criminal phenomenon like the mafia, which can be critically recast from the symptom of a specifically Southern Italian backwardness to a type of highly-differentiated economic organisation endowed with great operational flexibility (Felia Allum); and finally the complexity of urban spaces in cities like Naples, which justify an examination of hitherto unexplored comparative horizons, such as alongside other post-colonial cities like Mumbai (Maria Ridda). In all these cases, in other words, the Italian Mezzogiorno can be woven inside new spatio-temporal constellations that free the political imagination from received reference terms, disclosing new paradigms for understanding and practical engagement (Saverio Stranges). Specifically, the relinquishment of the ethico-political construct signified by a label such as «the Southern Question» makes room for a broader analytical and comparative focus. One that no longer addresses the South as a place defined by a geographically specific sociality, as though it were alien and incommensurable – a perennial state of exception – vis-à-vis diffusely-occurring instances and processes of collective action (Giovanni Travaglino). This effort to re-situate the South in the midst of novel constellations of meaning, of course, cannot be divorced from a critical re-appraisal of its historical evolution, and particularly the active creation (as opposed to the pre-existence) of a «Southern Question», as part of the Italian unification process (John Davies).

All contributions to the symposium are going to appear in an edited collection to be published by Routledge. Moreover, footage from the symposium is forthcoming on http://inspr.eu/gallery/.