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Before and After (in and from Italy)

Twenty years ago, the then centre-left government of Italy approved a law that modified the Constitution by providing the individual Italian Regions with federalist powers in the management of health care, which was no longer considered a burden for the State alone, but was entrusted to the various regions of the country. It was the notorious law that changed the so-called Title V of the Constitution (Palermo, Parolari 2015), of which today the main political force, that then supported it, makes amends. There have been too many deaths in Northern Italy during this pandemic, but responsibility does not solely lie with the virus. Cuts in public health care, for example, are also responsible. The legislative demolition of public primary health in Italy, thanks to that law, is at least as responsible as the virus. Specific political and economic choices have certainly overlapped with objective data – the greater incidence of urban settlement in Lombardy and the rarefied population density in Umbria, for example – but it is undoubted that the Central Italian fragments of a “district” and “territorial” previous public health model are resisting. That could be considered as a sort of “Beveridgean” consequence of the right to health conquered in Europe after the Second World War (Sigerist 1943; Atti del Convegno 2012).  

Following this, the question remains: what has happened in these months of quarantine in Italy? Have they made visible a sort of “failure” of the health model of the northern region of Lombardy, which had been the praised icon of mixing the public and the private sectors? Or can this be read as evidence of the “victory” of the southern regions, such as the central Italian model of Umbria, with its centres of anthropological resistance, such as Tullio Seppilli’s social use of anthropological work (Pizza 2020: 49-62)? Seppilli (1928-2017) was the Umbrian founder of Italian medical anthropology, and planned a project of health as a “common good”. We will see about that, only later. We may not find out until after the event. But what is an “event”? And what do we mean by saying “after”?

There are at least five ways in which contemporary anthropology can study the “event”. Stephanie Mauksch (2020), a colleague from Leipzig who has long been committed to ethnographically observing the enterprises of contemporary capitalism by combining anthropology with organization and management studies, explains this in a chapter of a book due out in July 2020. According to Mauksch, the event from an anthropological point of view is: 1) a window on society; 2) an instrument to act; 3) a global form; 4) a space of practice; 5) a process. Taking here the global coronavirus epidemic, the cause of collective dismay, as an event of burning topicality, those five senses seem to me to have in common the possibility of making planetary catastrophe an opportunity for a positive upheaval. Many observers, in fact – and there are many like us – are grappling with a new impression: they have, or believe they have, more time than before. What can this feeling help us say about the contemporary moment?

To answer these questions, I suggest we focus on Mauksch’s understanding of the event as a process. In the change that is rapidly devouring, I must admit that I look with growing sympathy at a statement that had left me hitherto perplexed: in 2007, in one of his lectures, Tim Ingold (2008) argued that anthropology and ethnography are never the same thing. According to him, if anthropology looks comparatively and critically at human beings who inhabit the world to compare and generalize, ethnography is the tool that describes life forms in detail. We have often explained how the latter was the method of the former. But what is the process that unites them? Reflecting on what happens to us, all that remains for us to do is to cling to the dynamic notion of “process” that grasps the facts in progress, and so we may try to make a virtue of hope in the future events more industrious and fruitful through our actions. As we know, one of the main founders of anthropological discourse, Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, was the author of that distinction (1968, 1973). Trained as a biologist, in the concept of structure or generalization he wedded the clear differentiation between natural and social sciences and imported it among us, separating anthropology from ethnography. Of course, I continue to think that he was wrong: I do not believe that the former is nomothetically devoted to making generalizations and the other is instead idiographically committed to observe living people, differentiating only in this from the historiographic or archaeological method. We cannot speak as anthropologists without ethnography, it is true, and we can hardly ever indulge in a detested fast opinionism; we certainly speak in favour of Radcliffe-Brown, but we also say that another anthropologist of that same School was even more correct than his teacher. I am thinking of the main scholar of social change, Max Gluckman, whose work took its impetus from the African context (Werbner 2020). Since the 1940s, he dealt with the theme of the proliferation of spaces and times, suggesting its methodological articulation in his ethnography of change. That is, he considered the event as a process between the extremes of a historical discontinuity and a social instantaneousness, between rupture and contingency. Sure, Gluckman was looking at the post-war crisis, while we are looking at the coronavirus pandemic. And today his ideas on change are forged between anthropology and philosophy to monitor the intensity that promises potential transformative developments in the events examined.

But, military metaphors aside, do the current and post-war crisis have anything in common? In today’s communication systems related to the epidemic, the two crises are collapsing in a very literal sense. As Gluckman (1940), or his “senior” pupil Victor Turner (1969), would perhaps have suggested, speaking of an event as a process means enhancing the conflict that may arise from it, not continuing concealing it for a misunderstood sense of self-regulation, of self-censorship, if not of opportunism, but rather giving voice, body and action to a struggle for the future.

In these strange days, introducing an important interview on the coronavirus epidemic, Marina Davoli (2020), Italian epidemiologist of Rome’s First Local Health Office [ASL Roma 1], made her debut with extreme clarity: “Time in my opinion is the key word in the management of this epidemic”. Now, in the eyes of anthropology, it is perhaps not “time” which is the key word, but “the times”, or even the politics of time (Palumbo 2015, Zinn 2019). For instance: we can ethnographically detect those times embodied in humans waiting, in a spaced line, to evoke only one of the paradoxical physical forms to which our daily reflective experience of sociality is being reduced. In uno tempore, tempora multa latent, wrote in the first century B.C. the great poet Tito Lucretius Carus in De Rerum Natura, and Berardino Palumbo (2015) shows us today the ethnographic and anthropological way to capture at work the heterochronies implicit in the even messianic times of the political struggle against global finance. Temporal plurality, therefore, forms part of a long-standing awareness. On the other hand, scholars of philosophy and politics, at least those who have taken seriously the Marxian concept of “class” (Cavalletti 2009) because they are willing to criticize the West (i.e. to examine the frightening inequalities that characterize it), have always known this (Basso et. al. 2013). They have rethought it with Gramsci, for example (Thomas 2009, Filippini 2017, Crehan 2018). Perhaps, from this point of view, I would reverse the everyday metaphor studied by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Lakoff, Johnson 1980): not “time is money”, but “the [‘filthy’ – in agreement with Marx and also with the hygienists] money is time”. We embody precisely that metaphor, here and now, in the four walls of our home. Of course, for those who have them, those four walls. In this way, then, we experience the strange illusion of time dilation. The epidemic is a day after event:  it always has been like that, and we can probably only critically know it afterwards, and only with the positions that will later be taken concretely in the global social arena. Nonetheless, now we have to conquer for ourselves that “afterwards”. But what will happen? Many are trying to foreshadow this afterwards. Some even manage to get a glimpse of it now. “What will it be?” some ask. To answer, I would use the Perugian quasi-dialectal lexicon and, looking at the Europe of yesterday’s March 27, 2020, I would say: “The moves are not good” [“Gli atti ’n son belli”].  

In conclusion, I think it is better to leave a word about tomorrow to critical philosophy engaged with Italy today. Committed to probing the viral virtues of the moment, and already for this very congenial to me and at least to those colleagues who are willing not to put all the blame on the pathogen, the contemporary philosopher Rocco Ronchi suggested the following: Nonetheless, if the virus has the characteristic of the event (and it would be very difficult to deny it this trait) of the event must also have the “virtue”. Events are such not because they “happen” or, at least, not only because of that. Events are not “facts”. Unlike simple facts, events have a “virtue”, a force, a property, a vis, because they do something. For this reason, the event is always traumatic to the point that we can say that if there is no trauma, there is no event, if there is no trauma nothing literally happened. What events actually do? Events produce transformations. Before taking place, they weren’t even possible. They start to be possible only “after” the event takes place. The event, in short, is such because it generates the possible “real” (Ronchi 2020, my translation). Thanks Rocco, see you later.  


Giovanni Pizza is Associate Professor of Medical and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Perugia where he directs the School of Specialization in Demo-ethno-anthropological Heritage, and the Journal AM. Rivista della Società italiana di antropologia medica. He is the author of numerous studies including (titles in Italian, here translated in English) three books for Carocci publisher in Rome, Antropologia medica. Saperi, pratiche e politiche del corpo – 17th reprint 2019 [Medical Anthropology: Knowledge, Practices and Politics of Body], Il tarantismo oggi. Antropologia, politica, cultura – 4tth reprint 2017 [Tarantism Today. Anthropology, Poltics, Culture] andL’antropologia di Gramsci. Corpo, natura, mutazione – 2020 [The Anthropology of Gramsci. Body, Nature, Mutation]; and a book for the publisher Quaderni di Rivista Abruzzese in Lanciano (Chieti), La vergine e il ragno. Etnografia della possession europea – 2nd reprint 2014 [The Virgin and the Spider: An Ethnography of European Possession]. He edited with Andrea F. Ravenda two monographic issues of two Italian anthropological journals: Antropologia Pubblica. Rivista della Società Italiana di Antorpologia Applicata, and AM. Rivista della Società italiana di antropologia medica, titled respectively Esperienza dell’attesa e retoriche del tempo. L’impegno dell’antropologia nel campo sanitaria – Bologna 2016 [Cultural Experiences of Waiting and Rhetoric of Time. The Engagement of Anthropology in the Health Field] and Presenze internazionali. Prospettive etnografiche sulla dimensione fisico-politica delle migrazioni in Italia – Perugia 2012 (International presences. Ethnographic perspectives on the physical-political dimension of migration in Italy), and with Helle Johannessen the special issue of AM dedicated to Embodiment and the State. Health, Biopolitics and the Intimate Life of State Powers (Perugia 2009).


Acknowledgement: The Author thanks Dorothy L. Zinn for her kind help. A shorter version of this paper appeared in Italian as a paragraph titled Dopo [After], of a collective chapter titled Politiche del tempo all’epoca del Coronavirus [Politics of Time in the Age of Coronavirus], written by two historians of medicine: A. Carlino and M. Conforti, and three anthropologists: B. Palumbo, G. Pizza and P. Schirripa, in the instant book edited by Alessandra Guigoni and Renato Ferrari, Pandemia 2020. La vita quotidiana in Italia con il Covid-19 [Pandemic 2020: Daily Life in Italy with Covid-19] M&J Publishing House, Danyang, 2020.  

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