by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn
My experience in Rome this semester has taught me or made me realize anew just how narrow are the contours of the academic specializations and institutional arrangements we have inherited. Not only are they embarrassingly limited, but they are limiting.
My brief exposure to Italian intellectual life here has brought into my view everything from particular writers whose works I did not know before to movements, approaches, events, ideas, places, institutions, and much more. After a couple of decades in the historical profession in the U.S., I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say many American historians today are unaware of intellectual currents in Italy and beyond. Why? That is for another post. Here I’ll just pass on some observations about one of the events here that I found inspiring.
Last post I wrote about the Fulbright seminar on food and sustainability at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, which had ramifications well beyond that topic. Also worthy of your attention, I believe, is an annual conference, organized by the U.S.- Italy Fulbright Commission, the Italian Association for North American Studies (Associazione Italiana di Studi Nord-Americani or AISNA), and Rome’s Center for American Studies (Centro Studi Americani), where the conference takes place. As a Fulbright Scholar this year, I was invited to deliver three talks throughout the week at this year’s conference, “Turning in and Out of the American Century,” which took place from May 7-11. The program is available here.
First, a word on this location. Go see this incredible place if you can. After seeing it, I think we should seek out such centers wherever we go. The Centro Studi Americani is located in a spectacular 17th-century building on one of the most charming cobblestone streets in Rome. When I finally found my way to the Center (this was before I knew a street address and a map without every street, however tiny and un-street-like, does not get one very far in Rome), I walked through a courtyard with statuary, up gracious steps, and through a wrought iron gate (I was buzzed in after announcing myself). The helpful library staff gave me a tour of the serene reading room, the seminar and lecture rooms, and the floor to ceiling bookcases everywhere (it has a library begun at the start of the 20th-century), broken only by huge windows that let in soft natural light. It’s a great place to work–or daydream. Stunning murals glow from the ceilings. When we came to the end of the tour of one room leading to yet another charming room, with high ceilings balanced by cozy, gratifyingly old-school reading/conversation nooks, I was shown the lecture hall in which I would speak. Here it is, from the Center’s website:
Just seeing this room made me bring a whole new kind of energy, and even content, to my little triad of papers. What is so often missing in American academic settings for the presentation and reception of work like ours, I see now by contrast with the parts of the Italian practices to which I have been exposed, is a certain quality difficult to put into words but having to do with respect for and appreciation of the intellectual arts. A valuing of this work in the larger scheme of things. An unwillingness to trivialize it. A sense of its beauty and importance and allure.
Of course, the building could be a fluke. In Italy, the combination of the disastrous economic situation generally and the factors of recent decades in the tragic decline in the humanities have starved in familiar fashion history and closely related disciplines like literature and philosophy. But at this event, and others like it today, there were signs that long traditions of inquiry are stronger than the current obstacles they face. It seems to me this is what we are saying by practicing what we do even when financial and other practicalities and priorities are arrayed against us. It helped to be in a room and a building that silently spoke volumes about the vital importance of the study of culture.
The setting would have rung hollow, of course, without the voices of the particular people involved in the “Seminario”; the Fulbright fellows, of course, but also those from Italy who set the tone of the whole event. For one, the current president of AISNA, Professor Andrea Mariani, who teaches in the Dipartimento di Studi Comparati e Comunicazione Interculturale at the Università “G. D’Annunzio” di Chieti-Pescara. He welcomed us with rare wit and warmth. He embodies that perfect blend of intellectual seriousness and conviviality so rare in modern academe, except in oases like USIH. He told me about AISNA’s journal, which we should know about since we study its themes. (I noticed the submission deadline is June 15 of each year, so if you have something of immediate interest, you should check out submission guidelines and see the contact information on the website.)
Besides other organizers and hosts were the faculty members and graduate students who attended from all over Italy. Although for many English was their second language, many were clearly eager to be challenged with new perspectives at the highest level. Many were literary scholars, though others came from political science, history, and even in at least one case from translation studies, another field that should be more closely entwined with ours. Though aware of postmodernism, many were interested in supposedly old-fashioned approaches–those still based on text and context, not theory unmoored, or worse, mere intellectual politics. From talking at considerable length with some of these students, this radical interest in the written word made them truer contrarians, as in genuinely going against the grain, as USIH clearly is. Their interest in the resurgent conversation about just the kinds of themes we study was manifest. This commonality (not just with Italians but with those throughout the world the neglect of whose serious interest in American intellectual history impoverishes us) could be the basis for an infusion of new blood in the form of collaboration and exchange, the most meaningful kind of support for what we–and they–do.
One more detail I find indicative that there are exciting possibilities for connections between USIH and Italian scholars is that the keynote speaker for this wonderful event was none other than our own T.J. Jackson Lears of No Place of Grace and Raritan fame, among his many other stellar accomplishments. His talk, “Animal Spirits Revisted: American Capitalism and Emotional Life,” was a brilliant tour–for me a parallel, in a way, to the tour I received through the beautiful Center from one room to the other until ending up in the engulfing heart of a room in which we met–through era after era of economic and cultural history as major developments affected the warp and woof of Americans’ emotional lives.
On a personal note, finally getting to meet this scholar I had looked up to for many years had a surreal quality to it. Or maybe the conversation we had in Rome–along with this ideal seminar of students and faculty members, the elegant room in which the conference took place, our host’s genuinely gentlemanly demeanor, and the rest–was too good to be true. These things might help broaden the contours of what is possible in our conversations and scholarship, helping us continue imagining new kinds of events and experiences, or maybe they were just idealized images painted somehow within the isolated chamber of my own mind. Maybe it is just my mind’s own ceiling murals casting everything in a warm glow. As I said, the Center is a great place to work–or daydream.