Friday, March 26, 2004

How Should Italy Respond to English Hegemony? (by Steve)

SIENA (#36)

Francis Alberoni wrote an article called “English Hegemony? It’s Clear in the Decline of San Remo” published in Italian the Corriere Della Sera on Monday, March 8th, 2004 and translated here in English. In it, he observes that globalization is dominated by an Anglo-Saxon civilization and the English language and argues that as English dominates, it tends to diminish the power of ideas specific to other languages and civilizations in its path. Superficially, this seems true: one might even say, obvious. At a deeper level, however, it is fundamentally flawed because it does not really reflect how cultural exchange operates in the context of competition between civilizations.

First of all, there is nothing new about this process of cultural change driven by the competition between and dominance of one civilization over another: in fact, the Latin civilization and languages that Alberoni defends is itself the result of years of cultural exchange, assimilation and domination. Consider the Etruscans. Many believe that the arch, arguably the most important contribution of Roman Architecture and Engineering was actually borrowed from the Etruscans while other Etruscan arts and language were destroyed in the process of Roman assimilation. (Apparently these were less interesting to the Roman war machine). In their empire, the Latins tolerated religious and cultural diversity but insisted in a uniform code of law and justice and military system which left it’s mark everywhere it reached, including Anglo-Saxon England! In return, Longobards, Goths and Visigoths not yet assimilated left their mark on the Italian landscape with their initial invasions as did their Carolingian and Frankish Empires. Medieval Christianity and the so-called International Gothic Style were profoundly influenced by Nordic, Celtic and Germanic traditions. In Italy, the rise of the city states culminating in the Renaissance were also affected by Asian ideas introduced during the Crusades and explosion of Mediterranean commerce that followed in its wake. Aren’t we glad we don’t have to multiply Roman numbers? And where would we be with out the zero?

Latin cultures and civilizations did speak Latin languages but were not impermeable to ideas from outside that proved useful. The force of assimilation is not new and it is not unidirectional. When civilizations meet, ideas flow in both directions. The Latin culture and languages themselves are a result of centuries of bi-directional exchange.

In addition, the diffusion of ideas is not a smooth, mechanical process the way heat moves through a solid. In fact, although the language survived, many of the concepts and cultural achievements of Rome – those same assets that Alberoni is concerned about protecting – have been lost and recovered once before. For 1000 years Roman systems of irrigation, transportation, justice, civic administration, philosophy, art and literature were effectively lost. Ironically enough, were preserved unknowingly in the archives of the Church and enthusiastically in the Middle East and North Africa where they were studied in Arabic! This legacy of Rome re-emerged in the city states of Northern Italy only in the 12th or 13th Centuries to form the intellectual core of the Renaissance and Western Civilization.

And is it even appropriate to consider an Italian or even Latin civilization distinct from a Western one? Was the Enlightenment French? English? Dutch? Was Modernism German or was it essentially Western? Who invented Capitalism? Aren’t the similarities much more significant than the differences? Does it matter if these core truths are encoded in Spanish, Italian, French or perhaps Dutch, English or even German! Cultural exchange is bi-directional and ebbs and flows. Assimilation happens. But, occasionally, so does the re-emergence of apparently long-lost cultural identities. And important ideas can be modeled in any language.

Ironically, the implicit political argument – that Italian cultural institutions should somehow resist contamination with English in order to preserve its unique “economy, science, communications, literature, film, art and music” and its “categories, concepts, and emotions” – is likely to have exactly the opposite effect, accelerating the process of decline. Speaking foreign languages, interacting with foreigners and consuming their products does not by itself “weaken” a language nor does it “reduce a people’s capacity for expressing what they have to offer.” To the contrary, suggesting that the new generation of artists and thought leaders should somehow resist this influence only drives those excited by these ideas and trends abroad. Instead, this generation of Italian artists and entrepreneurs should do precisely what their ancestors did in the city states of Northern Italy: they should embrace the civilizations around them, speak their languages, take their ideas and produce their own version for themselves and for export, infusing them with the character, sensibilities and perspective that makes this part of the world so unique.

COMMENTS from the original blog

2004-03-26 16:03:0336 sarah
Re: How Should Italy Respond to English Hegemony?  (by Steve)
wow. this is deep stuff. :)

2004-03-28 04:42:1736 Roz
Re: How Should Italy Respond to English Hegemony?  (by Steve)
Sooooooo,  your piece brings to mind  the whirlpool called globalization.    Doesn't the last sentence in your posting lend itself, with minor substitutions, to the general issues of globalization? No, I'm not going to get into the economic exploitation right now.  Primarily, I'm thinking about the response of threatened cultures (Islamic, for instance).  As Sarah so aptly observed:  this is some deep stuff!

2004-03-28 21:19:30 stefano
Re: How Should Italy Respond to English Hegemony?  (by Steve)
Exactly, Roz.  I think this guy is actually feeling threatened with obliteration or irrelevance through assimilation but instead talks about how certain ideas can't be expressed in certain foreign languages, as if to point out the loss to the world if his culture is lost.  Of course he is right on this account.  But at best he is unclear or at worst totally wrong when it comes to both the root cause and the (implied) prescription for survival.  Cultures are actually in a constant state of change.  Exchange with neighbors is constant and bi-directonal, now even more than ever.  Just think for a moment of the impact of Italy on American TV, fashion, cuisine, automotive engineering, design, art, history, philosophy, math and science.  What does cultural hegemony mean anymore?  If change is the only constant and this is the result, can you call this obliteration through assimilation?

With regard to being ""deep,"" I am sorry.  I write this to learn, rather than to impress.  I appreciate your comment.

2004-03-31 02:46:3536 Roz
Re: How Should Italy Respond to English Hegemony?  (by Steve)
Upon reading my comment I decided it  was a bit too cryptic, even for me!.  I think the position of the writer is a human response  to the fears of  assimilation:  being subsumed, consumed and finally, doomed.  There are huge benefits to civilization  because of assimilation, but  rarely has assimilation occurred without  long periods of bloodshed and turmoil.  I think the globalization issue has created a new era of tribalism, and the article is just one example of people hunkering down.....that's what I didn't say in my first comment.   I don't have an answer, though, to the question.  I just see the  issue.  Any answer I think is good requires a caveat:  ""in a perfect world....."" and that just isn't  what we have.

2004-04-01 03:02:2536 antinori
Re: How Should Italy Respond to English Hegemony?  (by Steve)
Ciao Stefano,

I agree that a culture and society needs to always be accepting and open to foreign influences in order to bring new ideas.  This happens naturally when foreigners are living, working and studying in the host country.

Culture, society, and economics are all intertwined.  A nation with a unique and ancient culture and history has a strong pride in itself, evident in the accomplishments of its own heroes, famous architects, artists, philosophers, scientists and inventors.  This builds the national character and pride.

But culture aside, a powerful nation has always been able to influence the less powerful ones.  Usually it has been economics or the desire for military expansion of these powerful nations that has caused lesser cultures to be subverted and lessened.

While I am of Italian (and Polish) ancestry, I have not had the opportunity to study and experience Italian culture as much as I have the Japanese culture.  This is an interesting history from the perspective that Japan as an island nation was insulated from the mainland and was able to develop and maintain its own culture over centuries, closing itself culturally and physically by virtue of its geography.  Japan was able to pick and choose the foreign elements to assimilate regarding written language, art, politics and government, and military organization and technology.  Japan found it necessary, and was forced, to open its doors to progress and influences by international forces, especially after 1850 or so.  Today though, to a foreigner, Japan can seem a very bizarre mixture of its own unique Japanese culture coexisting with imported popular culture, from the US, Asia, Europe and all over the world.  This strong national pride and character has allowed Japan to be very competitive in its economy, industry and international trade.  But an inferiority complex does seem evident sometimes in talking with the people in general, as they strive so hard to stand out and be a part of the international community.

I think Italy compares to Japan in its ancient culture and old world history.  And situated on a peninsula, it has afforded itself some geographical and cultural insulation as well.  After Rome and the pagans, Christianity exerted its huge influence on Italy, as did the Muslims, especially in Sicily, with African proximity.

So I agree that assimilation of foreign influences is a natural phenomenon, with primarily beneficial effects on the culture, no matter how hard a nation tries to close themselves off from these influences.

Saluti a te e la tua famiglia,

da Paolo Antinori
North Andover, MA

2004-04-07 22:01:21 stefano
Re: How Should Italy Respond to English Hegemony?  (by Steve)
I completely agree, Roz.  This is exactly where Alberoni is coming from.  I did a little more research and found that he has a long, long record of strongly advocating English instruction in the schools.  He is far from an isolationist, although that might not come across in this particular article.  But rational thought and the study of History are antidotes to the ""hunker down"" response which leads to the turmoil and bloodshed you write about.  If he really thought about it, he'd realize that Rome was one of the most significant influences on English culture.  Who is assimilating whom?  It is more complex than the emotional argument of US vs. THEM would have you believe.

2004-04-07 22:12:1236 stefano
Re: How Should Italy Respond to English Hegemony?  (by Steve)
Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Paul.  I wonder if it is the ""stronger"" culture in terms of economic and political force, however.  There is some evidence to suggest that the Romans acquired significant technology and art from the presumably weaker Etruscans who mysteriously disappeared.  But did they disappear?  Were they assimilated by their more powerful neighbor?  Or did the Etruscans actually take over Rome hiding this fact by adopting their language?  There is some evidence that Etruscan families ""latinized"" their names and some even became part of the ruling elite.  And many of their concepts -- a key part of Alberoni's argument -- live on in Roman culture and by way of England, France, Spain and now the US, virtually every country on earth.

Sometimes useful ideas from the weaker culture actually dominates the politically stronger one.  It actually depends on the ideas themselves.

2004-05-05 16:53:1636 Barbara
Re: How Should Italy Respond to English Hegemony?  (by Steve)
As Sarah says, this is deep stuff.  I am very impressed with your essay writing skills and think you should submit something on this topic to the "My Turn" column of Newsweek after your return from your six-month stay.  I interpret your essay as a vote against provincialism and the nationalistic trends which have brought so much misunderstanding and armed conflicts to the world.  I wish more people would travel abroad to realize that all are richer when we interchange ideas.

2004-05-05 20:38:1036 stefano
Re: How Should Italy Respond to English Hegemony?  (by Steve)
Thank you, Barbara.  If I had known there would have been readers who were English professors, I might have been more careful!  But I am glad you enjoyed the piece.

I am actually trying to write on a variety of topics to see how much I actually like the writing process these days and also to find out if anyone out there finds them interesting.

You are correct in your understanding.  One of the topics I am very interested in writing about is Globalization.  I find that much of what I read paints a very black and white picture for or against.  I am interested in exploring the possibility of teasing apart some of its constituent parts.

2004-05-21 16:56:3136 TheGuinz
Re: How Should Italy Respond to English Hegemony?  (by Steve)
And speaking of the Anglo-Saxons, let's hear it for King Canute!

Here is the reality - English is the dominant internation language.  period.  It's here.  It's done.  It's over.

And how about some perspective - let's keep Italia pure for Italian things, like, uh, religious persecution, organized crime, paternalism, hatred of all things French, especially French wine...

And how about some irony - it has been estimated that English vocabulary is about 10% Germanic and 90% Romance.  Most of our freaking language comes from Latin/Greek.  I say we go back to the way English was before 1066...

My old man died this year, and with him went the last opportunity for me to speak in ""Camposanese"", a weird variant of mangled Italian frozen at about 1910.  I use phrases that very few people understand anymore ('o baccause, 'o aisebocchese).  I would say, out of 17 cousins on my father's side, the 3rd generation that is, exactly 1 could carry on a conversation in dialect.  Halt, tide, halt!

However, myself and 4 members of the 4th Generation make wine every year, and it ain't no White Zinf.  ON Xmas Eve we eat capitone, baccala and sarde, to say nothing of pulpo.  At Easter it's casatiella, and pastiera.  I have a garden in which I grow nothing but tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.  And when I make eggplant parm, it ain't breaded, because Granma's wasn't, just like it ain't in Camposano today.  AS the tshirt my daughter Angelina got me says, you bet your culo I'm italian...

The gig is this - if it's important to you, you preserve it.  If things italian are worth lamenting their loss, then they are worth going out of your way to patronize.  If young Italians are attracted to ""global"" culture it's either because it speaks to them more than the traditional culture, or their parents and grandparents failed to show them what is so much better about it.

And let's stop blaming Americans for all of this.  Like the Europeans don't have a fleshy hand in it! Puhleeze.  Ever hear of Nokia??

2004-05-28 21:14:1936 stefano
Re: How Should Italy Respond to English Hegemony?  (by Steve)
Oh!  I've been waiting for Gavino to weigh in.  You picked a good discussion to join, too.

King Kanute?  Was he the King who passed a law against the tide?  I agree with you, Gavin, these are patterns that are larger than us and cannot really be controlled or manipulated -- at least not on a global scale -- by laws, policies, and borders.

I had a friend from Campobasso who called Americans a 'bastard race.'  I laughed hysterically (instead of being offended) because one look at the guy made it clear that he had Arab and Greek ancestors and his girlfriend was Norman.  Purity and states simply don't exist, except in some warped and detached peoples' minds.

And you are also right about survival.  Good (useful) ideas survive.  Take syncopation, for example.

One final thought.  The other day I was in the Museum of the Works of the Duomo of Siena.  The largest painting in the history of Italian art is there:  an alterpiece by Duccio di Buoninsegna, from Siena.  It was broken apart in the 16th or 17th Centry and many of the pieces are in the US and England.  Italians always whine at this point in the story.  ""Damn imperialists,"" they exclaim.  But my Art History Professor has an answer for them.  For every ambitious and agressive American there who wanted the art, there was a greedy Italian ready to sell it to him.

For every profit-making, product or service America pushes into Europe, there is a willing consumer who percieves value in the transaction.  I assume that is what you mean when you say it "speaks to them," Gavin.

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