Antonia Lucia Dawes
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Rebuilding the Tower

The concluding chapter returns to Glissant’s reflections about language to think about how multilingualism can be configured as a provisional politics of liberation from racialised power and domination. It examines the humorous and resilient aspects of multilingual edginess that took place throughout the research as a way to think what that politics looks like on the ground. It argues that, both in its everyday manifestations and as part of organised social movements, edginess is the entrenched, counterpoetical and multilingual response to racism as a scavenger ideology that might rise and then be beaten back, only to reappear in another location, and at another moment, as its persistent shadow.

THE WORK OF Edouard Glissant, about the historical connection between language, power and domination, has been the central guiding force of this book. I mentioned, at the beginning, how his use of the Tower of Babel story has helped me to think about the liberatory possibilities of the multilingual talk that took place in the heterogeneous and multiethnic market places around Piazza Garibaldi in Napoli. Beyond the linguistic confusion, violences and silences of the postcolonial world, he argued that it was possible to build the Tower – in every language. (Glissant 1997: 9). This moving notion was as much a description of real processes at work as a call to action. His multilingual counterpoetics described a transitional stage in the struggle for autonomy that was necessary for overturning the relations of power that made transcultural Relation so unequal and violent (Britton 1999: 52). In this book, I have sought to show how the ability to talk in every language was about how to claim the right to be somewhere; how to defend yourself from exclusion and violence; how to live with multiethnic heterogeneity; how to translate for, provide cover for and support other people; how to imagine a better world. These imaginaries eventually animated the ambivalent and partially successful political action the street vendors organised in 2012, a moment that recollected past activism, and prefigured future difficulties.

Via Bologna market was subject to another eviction attempt in June 2017, this time, ostensibly, to make space for an underground car park for the railway station. Descriptions of the market as a ‘souk’ and justifications from City Hall about tourism, public order, and legality again highlighted the racialised nature of discourses around migration and the neoliberal imperatives placed on the use of public space (anon. 2017a). As before, the city’s social movements sprang into gear in solidarity with the evicted vendors and, as before, the market was successfully reopened. Mayor de Magistris clarified, ‘We always help people who want to integrate themselves into our society and respect our laws’ (anon. 2017b).

Whilst staying in Napoli in summer 2018, I walked through Piazza Garibaldi on my way to buy food for lunch. The new metro station-cum-shopping centre had been completed and was open for business. It loomed over the piazza, shaped like a gigantic metal spider. Its steel limbs supported a glass roof over escalators that disappeared into the bowels of the piazza, where rows of chain stores led you to the city’s underground train lines. I thought again of Riccardo – whose shop on Via Bologna had now moved elsewhere to try and pick up more business – and the time he told me that Napoli was in ‘the time of the spider’ with the poor and marginalised as the flies in its net. The piazza appeared completely empty and ‘clean’: there was no rubbish on the streets, very few street vendors were still attempting to set up stalls alongside the big spider and there was a visible presence of police. I had also heard that vigilante groups had been going around with baseball bats and threatening vendors in unlicensed street markets, in particular the Roma markets of scavenged goods. Vicious attacks against black people, in parlicular against black street vendors, had taken place in Napoli, as in the rest of the country, despite the city’s reputation for being more welcoming and open-minded. I was told that people weren’t going out in the evening as much as before. Migrants, particularly, felt unsafe, both with regard to law enforcement and with regard to the local population. Nearby, Via Bologna market was still hanging on, but was quiet and lethargic, in much reduced form. Piazza Garibaldi had been successfully redesigned by City Hall as a popular tourist destination, and the city’s so-called renaissance had necessitated the clearing away of anything that might disrupt the experience.

The following evening, I dropped by Giovanni’s grocery shop whilst I was walking down an eerily empty Rettifilo with my family. After we had chatted for a bit he told me, his voice wobbling slightly with emotion, that, ‘of course we lost Samba’. Giovanni explained how, when he fell ill, he helped Samba’s friends in Napoli raise the money so he could fly home to die with his family. I hadn’t actually heard this sad news. Samba was someone who had been present on a few occasions whilst I was spending time on Ibra’s stall, but was not someone I knew very well. Thinking about what had happened to Samba made me reflect upon the conspicuous absence of so many of the people I had worked with or come to know whilst doing fieldwork in 2012, many of whom I had kept in touch with. I thought about Modou, who had been sentenced in absentia for selling contraband and, when the police caught up with him, was sent to prison. I thought about those who now messaged me with updates and holiday greetings from northern Italy, France or Germany, where they had found work, with or without the correct paperwork. The restrictions and crackdowns on street vending – a key source of informal employment in Napoli – had made it impossible for them to stay there. Many of the activists and cultural mediators I knew had also left the city to seek opportunities across Europe.

Despite this, an unspectacular everyday multiculture endured in Napoli where, as in other towns and cities across the world, an alternative, antinationalist class politics was part of the way in which ordinary people improvised, got by and made their lives (Hall 2012; Simone 2018; Valluvan 2019). Multilingual talk persisted in the face of the awful spectacle of radical incommunicability in progess in the Mediterranean, as disposable people continued to drown trying to cross over into Europe (Mbembe 2019; Gilroy 1993: 57; Levi 1986: 69–79). The ‘edginess’ of multilingual talk – amongst people diversified in terms of race, legal status, religion and language, but united by an understanding of their potential disposability – offered useful insights into the kinds of imaginaries that would be needed to overcome a rising politics of borders and nationalism. Edginess defined processes of transcultural negotiation that were precarious, risky, frightening, but also exhilarating and enjoyable because they were potentially transformative. Both in its everyday manifestations, and as part of organised social movements, edginess was the entrenched, counterpoetical and multilingual response to racism as a scavenger ideology (Fredrickson 2002) that might rise and then be beaten back, only to reappear in another location, and at another moment, as its persistent shadow.

One important dimension of edgy talk concerned the significance of humour. Humour was double-edged: it could both up-end and reinstate power differentials and racialised hierarchies, creating the possibility of convivial openings or violent closures against difference. The frequently humorous multilingual strategies invoked by my research participants walked a fine line between abuse and companionableness, and the grain of both possibilities often resided in the same people. This ambivalent humour was connected to joy, and the transcultural communicative dexterity through which people bantered with each other, made money and resisted marginalisation. I have tried in the book to define where things broke down, where there were limits, and where events on the pavement coalesced upwards and formed into collective struggles that generated links between street vendors, students and other activists.

Another important dimension of this edginess concerned the constant fluctuation between linguistic powerlessness and linguistic resilience. Throughout the book I have reflected on what it meant to not be able to talk, for example with the Bangladeshi street vendors who were attacked in the street in Chapter 6 on the grounds that they couldn’t speak back. I have also reflected on defiant accounts of repossession of language, of migrants telling me they knew when to talk and how to talk in order to gain respect and legitimacy. I have examined episodes of linguistic veiling, when speaking in other languages, or claiming not to be able to speak, offered ambivalent protection and camouflage from violence and scrutiny. These dynamics showed how power differentials shaped the way in which people communicated with each other every day to create new communalities and ambiguous possibilities of unity.

The multifarious languages being spoken – such as Italian, Neapolitan, Wolof and English – occupied different symbolic statuses within emotional trajectories of movement and struggle. They also had racialised ideologies and painful histories attached to them. Their use, and the styles of their delivery, enacted different symbolic purposes in transcultural pavement interactions. The dichotomy of speaking Italian or Neapolitan connected to the wounded narrative of Italian nation-building, and the nurturing of a subaltern local street cred that granted, or denied, respect to the people making their living on the street. The need to speak English was a constant reminder of the cultural imperialism of the USA and the lack of control that they could exert within the world economy. For Neapolitans, this feeling of inferiority, filtered through the memory of returnee emigrants speaking ‘americano’, was further complicated by the fact of having to try and speak English to other people who had been wounded by modernity. Other languages, introduced by people previously only known through a suppressed memory of colonialism, were partially integrated into transcultural talk where it was expedient to do so and where bridges needed to be built.

In short, the people working in Neapolitan street markets often did not have full mastery over the languages in which they communicated with each other. They were always translating, and their linguistic toil was frequently difficult and incomplete. The struggle involved in this daily effort simply to be able to speak to each other was yet another dimension of edginess. Despite the difficulties, communication was nearly always successful, even if it could shift between a transcultural positive and negative. In 2012, the vendors at Via Bologna managed to keep the street market open because of two factors: their ability to translate political objectives and action points across various languages and cultures, and their understanding of the need to take a positive position on the issue of migration and black street vendors in Napoli. These interconnected elements of the vendors’ political organsation were reflected in struggles taking place globally. Roediger and Esch’s work on international labour movements (2014) charted the emergence of social movements that were working explicitly against ‘race management’. Central to such struggles – for example, the Minneapolis Hotel Workers’ strike and Smithfield’s Tar Heel North Carolina Plant wildcat strikes – was a pro-migration political stance and multilingual strategies of organisation that involved providing cover whilst standing alongside those subjected to differential and unequal legal statuses (Bacon 2008).

So, what did these indeterminate and power-laden processes of joking; linguistic resilience; and transcultural, multilingual translation suggest about the realities of living on a constantly shifting plateau of difference? Despite difficulties and breakdowns, the people who participated in my project were able to live with an incomplete understanding of everything that was being said around them, and to them. An acceptance that some of the talk would appear opaque, or not fully discernible, entailed a disposition towards living with difference as something both constant and constantly shifting. This lived Relation had important implications for understanding the contemporary stakes of racism. The global movement of people created a mobile, multilingual babel in all those locations where transcultural encounters occurred, and the result was not chaos but an ever-changing and interactive amalgamation of difference. Accepting opacity entailed a practice of freedom that refused borders and reinscribed what was involved in claiming belonging. It was true that these processes emerged in a polylinguistic Europe, where diverse and heterogeneous linguistic and cultural circuits existed alongside borders, nationalist homogenisation and ‘racial denial’ (Goldberg 2009: 152–192). But, at the same time, ambivalent and partial multilingual counterpoetics were not something that institutions and governments could do much either to encourage or to repress, despite frequent stated intentions to do so. They could no more stop the babel of late capitalism than they could prevent the movement of people looking for choice and opportunities in other places. The edgy languages of the people signified the power of their collective drive.

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Race talk

Languages of racism and resistance in Neapolitan street markets


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