Cogut Institute for the Humanities

What Can “Remaining” Mean Today?

Originally published March 15, 2020, in Italian by the Gazzetta del Sud. Translated and annotated by Morris Karp and Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg.

This publication is part of a collaborative project devoted to analyzing the Italian philosophical response to the COVID-19 pandemic, developed in the Spring 2020 graduate seminar “Italian Thought: Inside and Out” taught by Laura Odello and Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg.

“ In the age of absolute mobility, the coronavirus crisis has suddenly forced most people into a condition of immobility. Anthropologist Vito Teti outlines an idea of what ‘to live,’ ‘to stay,’ and ‘to remain’ in a place can mean in this emergency. ”

Staying at home today, in the time of the coronavirus, is very different from a philosophy of staying that preceded the catastrophe we are now living. While this is not an apocalypse, it makes us think of the apocalypse. For a long time I have been concerned, and I’m still concerned now, with the “anthropology of remanency,”[1] of “that which remains,” of “staying.” Placed between anthropology, history, literature, psychoanalysis, I have written many books, essays, articles on these issues. All around Italy — especially in the inner areas, in the places of depopulation and abandonment — I have followed and taken part in initiatives that were organized by local groups, associations, and communities engaged with initiatives of resistance, resiliency, “remanency,” regeneration.

My “I stay in Calabria” today may seem a prophecy come true, almost the easy acceptance of a destiny. On the contrary, the fact of having wondered for such a long time about the ethics, the beauty and the necessity of remaining — as the result of a political, cultural, and existential choice — makes it even more painful and arduous to come to terms with a “remaining” that is not one of choice, but one of necessity, of civic belief and sense of responsibility.

My idea, my conception, my practice of “remaining” had nothing to do with stasis, immobility, waiting, apathy. Rather, it was the decision to live and inhabit a place differently, to establish a true relation with places, to imagine remaining in a place as an act of restlessness, mobility, and change.

To remain — I wrote a thousand times — makes sense only if one feels exiled, uprooted, “corsair” [2]. If one feels out of place in the place where (sometimes by accident) one decides to live. I have been and felt out of place, I have travelled much and walked much. I feel part of a “nomadic tribe,” always wandering and restless. Everywhere, even when I’m still, I ask myself “what am I doing here?”. I belong to a history of mobility, emigration, escapes, and returns. My grandfather on my father’s side, Peppe, and some of my uncles have for decades been in the United States, in Argentina, and in other parts of the world. When I was eight years old I saw my father returning from Toronto, where he had gone when I was only eighteen months old. My schoolmates and my friends from the village fled, crammed into cars ten at a time; they left amid the tears of the family and the neighbors.

Toronto was a kind of expansion of my home, of my neighborhood (ruga [3]): it was my village beyond my village. Just in these last months, together with Salvatore Piermarini [4], before he passed away, we organized pictures and stories of almost forty years of explorations in our World Village of Toronto. This project now goes on, thanks to the commitment and generosity of Alberto Gangemi.

For me to remain, therefore, is indissolubly connected to leaving, traveling, emigration, returns, whether real or imagined. To remain, to leave, to return are all different aspects of the same phenomenon that concerns all parts of the world and that in our times assumes specific features: we live in places that are depopulated every day and that at the same time are places of possible hospitality, places that call us back. In “what remains” — in the search for memories, slivers, traces and signs of the past — I have never looked for an improbable lost world, possibly an uncontaminated Eden. Because one can never go back, and because we always begin from the present we have received; for that present we are responsible, and in that present we have to invent and to look for a path, one that never carries us backwards.

“What remains,” for me, as I have written, means to search and to gather together, with pietas, fragments, memories, stories, teachings of a gone world in order to give them a meaning in the present, to redeem a past which often has been repressed, to have at our backs villages and universes that we can refer to during new journeys. In these days, many commentaries oscillate between nostalgia, the myth of the past and apocalyptic ideas, cheap optimism with slogans such as “nothing will be like it was before,” “everything will pass,” “this is the occasion to change lifestyle.” I have often read in these positions much good faith, but also much rhetoric. Ever since I was a child, I have been living in situations where I was told that, after this event, everything would surely change. And everything changed, but nothing changed: humanity seems incapable of learning from the past or of slowing down; when the fear passes, everyone starts running again.

Not that we didn’t see the limits: it’s that we don’t want to respect them. Not that we didn’t stop in time, but that humanity does not know how to stop, how to restrain itself, how to choose sobriety, balance, respect for nature and for the environment. Humanity imagines to move away from the fragile animal it is, in order to become a God.

Not that we didn’t receive the warnings and the risks about humanity’s mad rush; not that there were no attempts to advance new models and lifestyles, new practices, new forms of community. The fact is that we don’t take responsibility unless faced with extreme danger (and often not even then). It is precisely the people who got us into the worst who decide that everything could be worse than before. They are the irresponsible ones who now demand responsibility from the powerless, from those who never made a decision. Or they demand responsibility from those who have been taught to think that everything is possible, that every good is always accessible, that every success is forever and for free. I think we must take charge of the devastation caused by the powerful and the policymakers and that we should demand, not just that everything return to how things were before, but that things become better, different from before.

Often these days I think that what remains of my day, that everything I will do and everything I will write from now on, will necessarily be marked by what has happened. I believe that even my books, ready for publication or currently in press, will have a different “taste” and “sorrow,” a different pace compared to the one they would have had before. One of the books I was working on has a chapter titled “The end of the world,” an homage to De Martino, but also to my childhood when I heard and witnessed stories of social and cultural “apocalypses” [5]. At the beginning of this pandemic it seemed to me that telling the story of our ancient world, of our mothers and fathers, no longer made sense or had to be done differently. Then I thought that maybe, right now, in order to seek to establish a link between yesterday and today, between before and afterwards, between today and a future which is uncertain and open, our stories may be of great significance; they can have a regenerative value and be strategies to recuperate a new presence [6] and seek new paths.

In order to find again a presence that can bind past and present, today and tomorrow, I have wondered over which people, what stories, true memories, past facts I would like to bring with me in my “suitcase of memory and hope.” This past year I lost my mother and Salvatore Piermarini, two people with whom best I could have discussed, shared, and argued. I think however that, together with many other important and real people, they will continue to be here tomorrow. I think it pleasant to exchange impressions, feelings, to signal a book to read and music to enjoy. I think that it would be nice, instructive, regenerative, in the face of this “plague,” to tell stories, of people and of facts that we can’t do without, that have marked our lives and our memories. What are the vicissitudes, the people, the stories we miss today, ones we would like to keep with us also “afterwards”?

More than reading reflections and meditations about the present, I would like to know what today we can and want to save of ours and others’ pasts. Let us sit down, virtually; let us communicate from the balconies, from where we may look at the clouds, the roads, the doors, the mountains, or look into ourselves — both similar to and different from Boccaccio: stories of toil, of real life, of worlds we would like to keep and carry with us, memories and teachings that come to us from the past, from our experiences, for a desired future to come.

[1] The word “restanza” is a neologism created by Vito Teti, indicating a field of inquiry regarding the phenomenon of depopulation and the resistance to it. We decided to translate it with “remanency.”

[2] Teti’s use of the word “corsaro” here is possibly a reference to Pasolini’s collection of articles entitled Scritti corsari (Milano: Garzanti, 1977).

[3] In the calabrese dialect ruga means a small neighborhood in a village, or a street.

[4] An Italian photographer and writer, Piermarini collaborated with Teti in several projects such as Le strade di casa (Milano: Mazzotta, 1983) and Pathos (Soveria Mannelli: Rubbettino, 2020).

[5] Ernesto De Martino (1908–1965) was an Italian anthropologist. His last project, on cultural apocalypses, has been published posthumously with the title La fine del mondo. Contributo all’analisi delle apocalissi culturali [The end of the world: Contribution to the analysis of cultural apocalypses] (Torino: Einaudi, 2019).

[6] In Ernesto De Martino’s writings the concept of presence (borrowed from Husserlian phenomenology and its Italian reception) is the theoretical guideline for the clarification of the concept of ethnos.

Vito Teti is Professor of Cultural Anthropology in the Department of Literature and Philosophy at the University of Calabria, where he is also the founder and current director of the Center for the Study of the Anthropologies and the Literatures of the Mediterranean. He is Italy’s representative at the International Commission on the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition. His research focuses on the eating habits of the peoples of the Mediterranean, the anthropology of travel and migration, the rituals and feasts of traditional and contemporary societies, and representations of the Italian South, the latter with a special interest in the question of depopulation. Questions of melancholy and nostalgia, the anthropology of places and abandonment, emigration and literature, are among his interests. He has published several collections of essays, historical novels, and short stories (which have been translated into English, French, and Spanish), as well as photo reportages and ethnographic documentaries.