We wanted to begin by sharing a conversation about some central ideas and concepts that are crucial to the motivations for the project, but which will have different meanings and significance for participants in the network. We thought that it was important to begin by stating our own perspectives.
Charlotte Ross: The project is about ‘queer’ Italy; what does this mean to you?
Julia Heim: Queer is a series of lenses, approaches, challenges, ways of seeing. Perhaps series is the wrong word because it connotes succession or linearity. To me queer is about mess. I am not only interested in the ways that queer acts counter to dominant discourses or norms. I think queerness can be creative and alive, and also disruptive, without always having to stand in opposition. Queer and even our QuIR [the network] can and does speak to various politics, aesthetics, theories, approaches, language plays, histories, temporalities, and identities… but honestly I don’t want those words to be separated by commas, I want them to mix together, and I don’t want the linguistic frames I am creating by writing this to be as limiting as they feel to me. Think of the 1958 movie The Blob (dir. Irvin Yeaworth), okay, so to me queerness is the blob, you can cover anything with it, it grows, it changes and is changed by the thing it is consuming, and at the same time the blob itself is queer identity, queer embodiment.
Why bring Italy into the picture? Anglocentricity has played too much of a role in globalized queer discourses. We must not erase the history and activism of LGBTQAI peoples living and working outside anglophone contexts, we must not shape their experience by anglophone theories and ideals that have a tendency to rewrite or cancel out the richness of difference just as they claim to embrace it.
This. Is. Going. To. Be. Good (if good is queer and queer pushes moral imperatives to the brink of failure).
CR: I must admit that I find the image of The Blob really disconcerting since it feels quite suffocating, but in a more productive way (for me) it also evokes the idea of contamination. In English the term has very negative connotations but in Italian the verb ‘contaminare’ is often used to convey the kind of reciprocal influence you allude to; the idea that queer cultures, discourses and ways of being might impact on those people, places and spaces that they touch, and alter them in some way as well as being altered in turn. This is one way in which I hope this project will investigate ‘queer Italy’: by analysing the ways in which notions of queer that have developed largely in the anglophone context have been translated, disseminated and received in the Italian context. How have they ‘contaminated’ the Italian context and language, and how have they been ‘domesticated’ (to use a term from translation theory), i.e. how have they been taken up, developed, modified and re-elaborated. However as you point out, it is vital to avoid reproducing the problematic tendencies of anglophone culture to assume that it is the source of all creative and/radical thinking, so we will be looking at ideas and discourses that have developed in Italy, many of which have not received any significant attention outside that country, and which may not be clearly labelled under the heading of ‘queer’, but which have queer potential or energy. The work of Mario Mieli is one example, but there are many more Italian thinkers, activists and artists whose queer ways we will be learning about, exploring and analysing as part of this project.
I like your view that queer can be both in clear opposition to dominant norms, and oblique to them, since queer is also about challenging any kind of binary opposition. I have always found David Halperin’s definition of queer productively elastic: he describes it as ‘whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant’ (Halperin 1995: 62). Being ‘at odds with’ can indicate a strong disruption of, antipathy or resistance to socio-cultural norms (which might be heteronormativity, traditional gender norms, norms of whiteness, or of embodiment, for example), but it can also mean a less oppositional, although still challenging position. Queer can manifest itself in all kinds of forms and in all kinds of places. It can be associated with high theory, or with a club night, with a clearly and forcefully articulated activist strategy, or with a more hesitant, half-mumbled message. It can be a fleeting moment, or a sensation. It can be playful, creative and regenerating, but for many queer-identified people their way of being in the world still leaves them subject to multiple forms of violence.
In relation to ‘queer Italy’, this project is absolutely not aiming to pin down a limiting definition of what ‘queer Italy’ might or might not be, but instead it will be seeking out multiple, mobile, morphing queernesses in modern and contemporary Italy: queer subcultures, texts, discourses, practices, activism, moments, spaces, performances, politics and modes of embodiment. It will explore how activist/cultural/political interventions both constitute a vibrant, vital, pulsing network of queerness and have sought/are seeking to ‘queer’ Italy; and here again, this queering is happening in a variety of ways: disrupting normative discourses and models, both in a creative drive, and in an attempt to carve out liveable spaces for queer folk. The workshops we are organising will be hosted by some eminent scholars of queer theory, like Dr Marco Pustianaz, at the Università del Piemonte Orientale, and Dr Lorenzo Bernini at the Università di Verona, whose work has been vital to the development of queer scholarship and research communities in Italy. Participants will include established and emerging scholars of Italian culture and queer theory who are based in Italy, the UK, France and the US, among other places, and who are opening up critical debates in many crucial and important ways. Alongside scholars, participants will also include artists and activists, since their experiences and perspectives are vital to our understanding of recent and contemporary political campaigns and cultural activities in Italy.
JH: At first, reading your response to my initial thoughts, I was drawn to your use of contamination; I appreciate the abjectness in it and the appropriation and use of something that is socially understood as rejected or othered. I must say that in light of recent political events in the United States, the place where I live, my feelings about this project and my relation to it have changed, or at least the priorities of importance have shifted.
Let me explain.
I am a genderqueer person. I have, until now, never felt scared to say that out loud. I was brought up in New York, and had surrounded myself by a community of people that allowed me to explore the intricacies of my often shifting subjectivity and its expressions. This position of privilege–while still othered and often policed by people on all sides of the American political spectrum–afforded me the opportunity to seek a more academic and critical approach that extended my queerness beyond my own embodiment of it. Since the start of this project the political and social landscape of my country has drastically changed and I have a great need to pull back and focus on my own subject position, my own physical body as a queer body that finds itself in a much more tenuous and dangerous place. I fear for myself, for my friends, for my community and those communities that are at risk, at legislative risk but more imminently at physical risk.
The intention of this network is to gather not only academics, but also artists and activists. One of the things that I want to emphasize within the created community of this network is the ways that we can learn, protect, and empower one another. What can we understand from those who have fought to protect themselves in the face of regimes and communities that have blatantly sought a kind of social eugenics that not only othered them but made them fear for themselves? As I help organize this network and these workshops above all else I need to keep the physicality of my body in mind, and I hope that this is just one small way for me to take action to protect myself and those who are not afforded the voice I am privileged enough to be using right now.
CR: Thanks for sharing your thoughts and concerns. It is certainly a frightening time for anyone who doesn’t easily fit into normative, monolithic identity categories since the balance has tipped away from the slow acquisition of rights (or the apparent promise of this) to a much more hostile scenario, and there have been too many tragic incidents just this year alone, in the US, in Italy and in many other countries. To pick up on a couple of key-words you use, privilege and empowerment are really important ideas that we will be reflecting on critically throughout this project. Those who are able to use their voices to support others whose voices are less audible, or more stigmatised, need to speak up now. We hope that this project will bring together scholars, artists and activists to celebrate defiant forms of radicalism in the face of powerful normative forces, and to offer some critical insights into a variety of queer cultures, discourses, experiences and politics in Italy.