Treading «softly, silently, attentively» … to get lost in the South

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This article belongs to the Figli di Annibale stream.


If a piece of writing could ever hold the echo of song – its rhythm and expressive depth, its evocative imagery – then surely Franco La Cecla’s musings on «getting lost» (perdersi in Italian: the title of the book I discuss here) reverberate of the delicate atmosphere and lyrical details conjured in Gianmaria Testa’s song «I seminatori di grano» (the seed casters): an ever poetic meditation on the erratic, vulnerable search for a place of dwelling.

This is the tale the songwriter tells: one of treading «softly, silently, attentively», by someone searching «for that which was not there» in a space still unknown and undecipherable. And yet, this very passage populates place. Through a casting gesture that gifts, at every cautious step, something previously absent; with gaze «absorbed (in)» and hands «reaching (for)» the elements, in search of a tactile, carnal grip on the stage of exploration.

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Vincent van Gogh, Six mains et deux semeurs (1890) Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

These slow, pondering gestures vividly capture – in an intensely poetic manner – the essential motions of a culture of dwelling, to which anthropologist Franco La Cecla devotes his book. By «culture of dwelling» La Cecla refers to those rituals and habits, often taken for granted, through which the complexity of the process of entering into relationship with place becomes collectively intelligible and accessible. To really contemplate belonging, La Cecla suggests, it is first of all necessary to nurture an ability to negotiate the eventuality of getting lost, of not being able to find an orientation when the coordinates of one’s dwelling falter.

In that sense, La Cecla’s work can be read on one level as an elegant argument in favour of immanence as a perspective that ought never to be relinquished, since it is only from within that one can begin to «make inroads» into otherness; otherness which – however absent it may seem – always lingers at the turn of a corner, in unexpected velocities that propel one into sudden accelerations or unexpected slowing down, or simply in the unsettling intensity of a gaze. Immanence – to accompany the world in its making from within – is a much more reliable position than to look in from the outside, or from above, as though to pin places down to a manageable closure (which is the sort of operation architecture routinely undertakes, according to La Cecla), leaving them unable to evolve further.

When it is contemplated in relation to the act of dwelling, immanence implies embodied presence, and a mode of thinking that is sensuous, incarnate and spatially aware; something La Cecla calls «emplaced mind» (mente locale in Italian, where it is used as an idiomatic expression – fare mente locale – meaning roughly «to think, so as to situate oneself in relation to an arresting situation»). To speak of emplaced mind cues an awareness of place nurtured through close and often unspoken intimacy facilitated by the imperceptible (collective) process of imitation/variation that etches gestures and bodies – vesting them as bearers/innovators of the cultural legacy of a particular group – before those gestures and bodies can be described in words, hence at a pre-linguistic level. The full complexity of this notion La Cecla manages to capture effectively in this short passage>

The geography of the world is not a literary text, notwithstanding what scholars of semiotics and comparative literatures say. To boil down place to stories [that narrate it] means to not be able to touch it, to feel the irreducible quality of one-to-one scale, its tangibility. Places are presences, hence they have the instantaneous and unpredictable glimmer of presence (p. 151).

What does all of this have to do with the South? In my modest opinion, a tremendous amount. Particularly for those who are eager to taste the intimate significance of inhabiting the South, today, and not simply of turning it into a topic for learned debate. In fact, the South-in-its-dwelling is precisely a space shot through with practices, gestures, attempts at cultural codification that – like glaciers in motion – are difficult to appreciate if not through the material traces and the ridges they carve, silently redrawing the geography and the meaning of the South as a place that invites staying, returning, growing and creating, harbouring and landing.

It is this physical and experiential process of crossing (the South), as opposed to a conceptual abstraction (ever present in the trite refrain around the «Southern Question»), which affords an entry point into the ongoing self-production of the South, understood less as the border on a map, and instead as «an ensemble of social practices: that is [as] organisational fabric woven with facts and possibilities» (p. 23) that are constantly reconfiguring and evolving.