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META Humanities

MEditerranean Summer School of Theoretical and Applied Humanities

Spaces, Cultures, Aestetics an Ethics
5th July - 16th July 2010
Faculty of Humanities Koper, Slovenia

Seminar Proposal
Have we (Mediterraneans) ever been “modern”?
Agnese Vardanega

This seminar proposal should be part of course B “Space, Memory, Identity” of the Summer
School, aimed at investigating the relations between culture and space in late modernity. The main
objective of the seminar will be providing students with a better epistemological awareness of some
categories involved in the relationships between space, time and identity.

1) Research base
According to Giddens, a distinguishing characteristic of modernity is the disembedding of social
relationships from time and space1. I will try to look into this idea to show its relevance in the
interpretation of the processes of constructing of territorial identities.
Late modernity may be considered as characterised by the extreme consequences of social
reflexivity and disembedding processes on (social) space-time splitting, and thus on identitarian
processes. To focus the analysis of late modernity on the Mediterranean area, it seems necessary to
adopt a critical approach both to the modernization process and to its self-representations2.
In particular, considering the world in its globality, it is now evident that modernization has not
been (and is not) a single global process, but a differentiated and fragmented one, with possible
unintended and unpredictable outcomes. Furthermore, social scientists are now widely aware that
modernization theories have been produced within modern societies, often reflecting their utopias
and desiderata (apart from describing and criticizing them).
This perspective leads us to raise several questions, related to the theme of this Summer School.
Has modernity replaced tradition? Or is tradition a modern category, used to elaborate “the past of
the future” and the various so-called “cultural resistances”? Are people still guided by the narratives
of modernity, or do they orientate themselves referring to multiple universes of discourses? Is this
multiplicity a characteristic of post-modernity, or has it always accompanied modernization, though
eclipsed by the dominant modernistic ideology?
In short, and to paraphrase Latour, “Have we ever been Modern?” 3. A question that fits perfectly
for Mediterranean countries, characterised by differentiated cultural backgrounds and patterns of

2) Guiding categories: symbols and institutions between presence and absence

Cultures and symbols, as well as social institutions, have to deal with the problematic nature of
“absence”4, rather than face-to-face interactions5: symbols refer to objects that are not actually
present; history refers to facts that are past; predictions, to facts that are future; hypotheses, to facts

1 A. Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity, Stanford Univ. Press, 1990.

2 N. Luhmann, Observations on Modernity, Stanford Univ. Press, 1998 (or. ed. 1992).
3 B. Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, Harvard Univ. Press, 1993 (or. ed. 1991).
4 M. Buscher and J. Urry, 2009, «Mobile Methods and the Empirical», European Journal of Social Theory, 12(1).
5 B. Latour, «A sociology without objects? Remarks to inter-objectivity», Berliner Journal Fur Soziologie, 11 (2),

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that are possible; agreements, norms and roles to behaviours that are expected; and so on.
Disembedded modern institutions actualize (= make real in the present) what is distant in time and
space – absent – so that distant or past actions may have consequences here and now.
The same category of identity has to do with “absence”. In accordance with Ricoeur 6, in fact, we
may intend “Identity” in two senses: as idem-tity and (at the same time!) as ipse-ity. While the
second meaning refers to specificity (I am a unique individual, different from the others), the first
one refers to the (perceived) continuity in time (I am always the same individual, in the course of
the time). This second meaning of “identity” is problematic because of the «continuous shifting
between being present … and being absent»7 which is typical of social experience8.

3) Program description

(i) Time orientation: identities between past and future

The concept of “tradition” is the product of a reflexivity towards time that has guided the
modernization processes in Western countries9: the Progress (the modern orientation toward the
future) has been conceived not only in terms of technical and economic development, but also in
terms of discontinuity with the past. At the same time, however, the denial of traditions has its
counterpart in an almost obsessive quest for roots and identity (which gives origins to memorials
and/or revivals).
If the “Moderns” (since Descartes) have generally had this ambivalent relationship with
tradition, this is particularly true for those countries that experienced the so-called “peripheral
modernization”, and where this ambivalence has been often embodied and objectified in the
structure of social differentiation: besides the typical difference “town / countryside”, we may also
recall “north / south” or “middle class / rural class”. Similarly, ethnic conflicts have dominated the
modernization of countries with a colonial past, or without a dominant national identity (and/or self-
We may come to the conclusion that different and conflictual visions (or utopias) about the future
are often the basis of conflicts over “authentic” traditions and identities. In this sense, identity may
be conceived as a socially constructed “fil rouge” that links the past to the future, and that serves to
give a sense to the present.
Since it is well known that “memory” is a selective process, it could be thus interesting to
analyse – from the outlined perspective and in order to interpret the processes of identity
construction – some of the elements that underlie this selection (see also iii).

(ii) Spaces: between utopia and a-topia

“Places” – drawing on a distinction brilliantly conceptualised by De Certeau10 – are the
modalities through which social relationships and cultural processes are (re-)embedded (like in
Latin locus, or Greek tópos), while “spaces” may be defined as intersections of actual movements
and practices, or as the sites of social practices, or again as practised places.
With this perspective, and referring to a typical postmodern issue, places and spaces are always
both physical and virtual.
Indeed, virtual and/or distance relationships are not characteristic only of the late (or post)
modernity: in the Mediterranean area, peoples have long been in political and commercial
relationships, and have always embedded these relationships (together with several representations
of the “Others”) in their cultures and places. Movement has always constituted this area as a
multicultural space.
6 P. Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992 (or. ed. 1990).
7 M. Buscher and J. Urry, 2009, «Mobile Methods ...», cit., p. 101.
8 As already pointed out by Georg Simmel.
9 Luhmann, cit.; Giddens, cit.
10 M. De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Univ. of California Press, 1984 (or. ed. 1984).

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A space defined by transit and movement, may, in the words of Augé, be denominated a “non-
lieu”11. Not inhabited, but “only” transited. This acceptance of the category of “non-place”
(introduced with a different meaning by De Certeau) really exemplifies the «academic neglect of
various movement»12, and the persistent preference accorded to what is stable, still, and – for this
only reason – “structural”.
Modern attempts to fix identifiable places (nation states) by means of boundaries and narratives,
seem to be destined to collide, in late modernity, with “simultaneity”, the new modality of re-
integration of space and time. People in fact can have distance relationships in real-time, integrating
distant peoples and cultures in the constitution of new “spaces”, beyond political and time
Thus, while boundaries persist, self-definitions pass through them, defining new and
differentiated relations between places and identities.

(iii) Objects between discontinuity and permanence.

Finally, I would like to examine the role of “objects” in constructing places, in framing
interactions, and as vehicles of meanings. This perspective – developed by Landowski and Latour in
particular – was adopted in the study conducted in Roseto degli Abruzzi, aimed at observing (by
means of visual techniques and interviews) the effects of the presence of part of the L’Aquila
community, struck by the earthquake of April 6th 2009 and temporarily dis-placed to coastal tourist
According to this socio-semiotic approach, indeed, objects are not only vehicles but also
“actants” of meanings, since they contribute to make a place (or social situation) interpretable in
given ways, and thus “to make people do things” (to quote Latour). This applies not only to
technological objects, but also to home furniture (like in Goffman’s analysis of social dramas), as
well as to art works or monuments in public spaces or towns.
Actually, objects substitute – are in place of – human actions, being present when humans are
absent, and serving the purposes for which they were made. According to Latour, there is no other
social structure beyond this world of objects (“intentionated” actants), that constitutes the continuity
between micro and macro, structures and interactions, past and future, actual and possible, presence
and absence.
Whatever we may think of this extreme position, sociosemiotics of the objects has proved to be
fruitful for analysing – often by means of visual methods – different kinds of social practices,
ranging from place-making to the usage of spaces and consumer products, in order to show possible
relationships between objects, social meanings and (inter)actions. In particular – and for the
purposes of this seminar – it could be used to study material cultures in relation to collective

11 M. Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, Verso, 2009 (2 ed), (or. ed.)
12 M. Buscher and J. Urry, 2009, «Mobile Methods ...», cit., p. 99.

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