Introduction to “Italian Thought on COVID-19”

By Laura Odello and Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg

June 4, 2020

“Italian Thought” is a category probably put forward, but certainly made current, by the Italian philosopher Roberto Esposito. The English term for this “school” is also used in Italy, indicating thereby that it came into being via a detour through the anglophone world. Its “Italianness” is therefore immediately somewhat contaminated—which is one reason we chose to add “Inside and Out” to the title of our seminar. “Italian Thought: Inside and Out” gathered together a group of Italian thinkers who are for the most part philosophers, political scientists, and critical economists. Many of them have their roots in the extra-parliamentary Marxism of the late 1960s and 1970s (the so-called Autonomia and Operaismo [Workerism] movements).

In 2010 Esposito published Living Thought, a sort of overview of what he considers as the specificity of Italian Thought. In the book he makes two potentially contradictory claims: first, that Italian Thought came into being after the respective demises of German Philosophy (the Frankfurt School, essentially, but also Heidegger) and French Theory (poststructuralism and the linguistic turn); and second, that Italian Thought has always existed from its origins in Dante to the present day. Its defining characteristic is its emphasis on the category of life; for this reason—so Esposito holds—Italian Thought has contributed a more refined theorization of Foucault’s concept of biopolitics.

The seminar began with a critical reading of this text by Esposito. We interrogated his notion of “life” and its Christian overtones. We wondered about the rhetorical strategies deployed to link thinking to national identity, as well as—and as a consequence—those strategies that excluded other categories (such as gender and race, or psychoanalysis). We continued over the next weeks to read some of the key texts of 20th-century Marxism (Gramsci, Tronti, Autonomia, etc.), after which we moved to more contemporary texts, such as Massimo Cacciari, Gianni Vattimo, Adriana Cavarero, Toni Negri, and Pier Aldo Rovatti (who joined us via Zoom).

By the time Rovatti spoke to us at the beginning of March, COVID-19 had hit Italy in a dramatic and unforeseen manner. The Italian government took a series of exceptional measures that led on March 9 to the imposition of a national state of quarantine. But even already before that, in late February, a national debate exploded on the pages of Italian newspapers in reaction to an essay signed by Giorgio Agamben in the left-wing Il Manifesto. In “The Invention of an Epidemic” (L’invenzione di un’epidemia). the philosopher asserted that the climate of panic spread by the government and the mass media was nothing but the ideal pretext to expand restrictive measures in line with a “state of exception.” He announced this while also noting its underlying biopolitical paradox: “the limitations on freedom imposed by governments is accepted in the name of a desire for safety, caused by those same governments who now intervene to satisfy that desire.”

Other interventions by Agamben would follow, and he would be criticized from all quarters. A national and international debate ensued, often as virulent as COVID-19 itself. Given the prominence of Italian intellectuals in this debate, our seminar could not ignore the pandemic devastating Italy, nor the theoretical implications of this debate, implications that put into play the very terminology we had been studying together and that now took on renewed and urgent meanings: “life,” “immunity,” “biopolitics”…

Once our seminar went online at the end of March, it naturally took on these discussions and integrated them into our syllabus. If these discussions in Italy, as in the rest of the world, were overwhelmingly male voices, two of our seminar guests contributed to open them up to a feminist perspective. Silvia Federici, on Zoom with us on April 20 to discuss her now classic Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, afterwards did an interview on the pandemic with two of our students as part of our blog. On April 27 Leopoldina Fortunati was with us via Zoom, and for that occasion she wrote a Manifesto delle donne, a Women’s Manifesto (also translated by us) that demands the full recognition of the domestic labor performed by women in this crisis.

We express here our immense gratitude to all our students who worked hard to choose, translate and curate the texts, images, and videos found on our blog. We are particularly grateful because they—in the context of a collaborative seminar—had to do this work from afar: COVID-19 did not stop them from collaborating in thinking together. Indeed, all of them worked well beyond “course requirements.” This blog is the result of their labor and is dedicated to them: Pablo a Marca, Nicholas Andersen, Arlen Austin, Fabrizio Ciccone, Sara Colantuono, Katherine Contess, Geophrey Darrow, Julie Valentine Dind, Morris Karp, Alessandro Moghrabi, Katia Rozenberg, Andrea Sartori, Mariam Tarek Ibrahim Aboukathir, and Francesca Zambon.

Italian Thought on COVID-19: Table of Contents 

Laura Odello is Visiting Assistant Professor of French Studies. Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg is Director of the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women and Professor of Italian Studies and Comparative Literature.