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Ruth Ben-Ghiat and Stephanie Malia Hom, eds. Italian Mobilities

New York, Routledge, 2016, pp. 206, Hard Cover $1 48, ebook $ 49.46.


Jutting from the European continent towards the Mediterranean Sea, the Italian peninsula has long been a crossroads between Europe and the world beyond, serving as an important node in multiple global networks. Ben-Ghiat and Hom’s edited volume of eight essays explores three aspects of Italian history and culture that have cemented Italy’s nodal position in the last two centuries: emigration, colonialism and immigration. While the connection between these three topics has been amply recognized by scholars in the past fifteen years, monographs and edited volumes tend to focus primarily on one of them, touching upon the other two tangentially. Italian Mobilities stands out from such texts by constantly focusing on the interconnectivity of all three. This feat is accomplished, in part, by the editors’ decision to not group the essays by topic, which would neatly separate them as distinct categories. Instead, the essays move through these categories freely, building their own organizing logic internally as each essay dovetails into the next. 

This collection begins with a rather big, but necessary, question: how is Italy a mobile subject? By focusing on the policies of repatriation from and to the colonies right after World War II, Pamela Ballinger is able to simultaneously engage with the histories of emigration and colonization, and to underline some of the bases for Italy’s restrictive attitudes towards immigration today. The tensions between coming and going are further analyzed by Nicholas Harney through the framework of neoliberalism. He reveals that despite the unequal flows to and fro, agency is created and exercised within and through these restrictions of movement. From anthropological, juridical, and economic perspectives, the book switches to a cinematic one as Rhiannon Noel Welch brilliantly analyzes Amelio’s Lamerica (1994) through the theoretical lens of an «immunization paradigm,» where immunity forecloses community, thus revealing the ambivalent politics of even the most well-intentioned films. In Hom’s detailed account of the Centro di Identificazione ed Espulsione at Ponte Galeria, the symbolic contact zone of Amelio’s Lamerica becomes a real place in the outskirts of Rome, exposing the often-forgotten non-places which maintain the hierarchical structure of today’s mobility order. Like any other commodity, mobility is not equally accessible to all, and when people dare to take what has not been allowed to them, they are detained in a judicial limbo, where they are both guests and enemies of a system that refuses to acknowledge their subjectivity. 

Like a leaping fish, the rest of the book jumps in and out of pools of emigration, colonialism and immigration through the lenses of the social sciences, economics, law and the humanities. The text is thus able to provide a comprehensive and fluid account of Italian mobilities, of the ebbs and flows of people through the Italian peninsula over the last one hundred and fifty years. For example, Guido Tintori’s essay ponders the paradox of the Italian legal system that gives citizenship to descendants of Italian emigrants living abroad – even when their connection to Italian culture is tenuous at best – while denying it to second-generation immigrants who were born and raised in Italy. Francesca Locatelli investigates the birth of the Italiani brava gente myth within the complicated relationship between colonial authorities in Eritrea and Italian settlers, and points towards its legacy in today’s racist discourses regarding immigrants from Africa. Áine O’Healy focuses on one of the most important locations of today’s immigration debates, the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. Through an analysis of different audiovisual texts, she breaks down the island’s discursive construction in relation to the multiple constituencies that inhabit it geographically as well as discursively. Lastly, David Forgacs focuses on Italy’s Mediterranean geography, particularly its long coastlines, as the physical, symbolic, historical and juridical points of contact between the incoming and outgoing flows of people, as the militarized thresholds that articulate Italian anxieties of vulnerability. 

Italian Mobilities brings together Italian Studies and Mobility Studies. By engaging the fluid and decentralized concept of mobility through the fixed (though often contested) frame of the Italian nation-state, it is able to foreground the pressure points between mobility and immobility, rootlessness and dwelling, change and stasis that affect the lives of millions of people today. Its comprehensiveness and inclusivity of topics is noteworthy, but in a way is also its drawback. With only eight chapters, Italian Mobilities can only show the tip of the iceberg. It leaves the reader wanting more depth in each topic, as well as an engagement with other forms of mobility such as tourism. Yes, the absence of tourism is clearly marked as a choice by the editors in the introduction, so that the book could focus «on those who move for labour (not leisure) opportunities» (p. 9). However, given that one of the editors (Stephanie Malia Hom) wrote one of the best books on Italian tourism only three years ago (2015), the absence is all the more felt. 

Overall this is a great read for anyone who studies Italian emigration, colonialism or immigration, as it allows the reader to see quite clearly how these three topics are deeply interconnected. It lays bare the synchronic and diachronic global webs that run through Italy, connecting and disconnecting multiple flows of people.

Avy Valladares (Berkeley City College)


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