Race Talk is about racism and multilingual communication. The book draws on original, ethnographic research conducted on heterogeneous and multiethnic street markets in Napoli, southern Italy, in 2012. Here, Neapolitan street vendors worked alongside migrants from Senegal, Nigeria, Bangladesh and China as part of an ambivalent, cooperative and unequal quest to survive and prosper. A heteroglossia of different kinds of talk revealed the relations of domination and subordination between people. It showed how racialised hierarchies were enforced, as well as how ambivalent and novel transcultural solidarities emerged in everyday interaction. Street markets in Napoli provided important economic possibilities for both those born in the city, and those who had arrived more recently. However, anti-immigration politics, austerity and urban regeneration projects increasingly limited people’s ability to make a living in this way. In response, the street vendors organised politically. Their collective action was underpinned by an antihegemonic, multilingual talk through which they spoke back to power. Since that time, racism has surged in Napoli, and across the world, whilst human movement has continued unabated, because of worsening political, economic and environmental conditions. The book suggests that 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 – offers useful insights into the kinds of imaginaries that will be needed to overcome the politics of borders and nationalism.
Napoli is introduced as somewhere from which to think about racism and language within a wider context of migration and austerity. Using the work of postcolonial theorists Edouard Glissant and Achille Mbembe, the introduction proposes thinking about Napoli as a place on the edge of the Mediterranean. It argues that, in Napoli, everyday multilingual encounters in multiethnic parts of the city were mediated by the spectacle of migrant deaths at sea. The edgy talk that occurred in the shadow of a Mediterranean necropolitics – where people were considered disposable and therefore killable – was infused by an understanding of what was at stake when communication was rendered impossible. Edginess constituted forms of talk that were precarious, risky and occasionally frightening, but also exhilarating, sometimes funny, and related to the possibility of survival.
Chapter 1 presents a history of culture and communication in Napoli. It explores the significance of multilingual talk in everyday interactions in Neapolitan street markets as a result of overlapping histories of foreign domination, cultural hybridisation, Italian nation-building, fascism, wounded local pride and migration. The chapter argues that multilingual talk shaped transcultural negotiations in a context where localised historic inequalities and power dynamics were encountering an ever-increasing complexity of human movement, global heterogeneity and attendant racist responses. In order to examine this more closely, connections are drawn between the histories of culture and communication in the city and the contemporary multilingual dynamics of the ever-evolving street markets where the fieldwork was conducted. This is a selective account that considers social and political histories of the city as they relate to the question of talk and language use.
Chapter 2 develops the project’s conceptual and methodological framework. To do this, theoretical work on language use, ideologies and practices is placed in conversation with some of the key debates in critical race-and postcolonial studies. The chapter starts by considering Edouard Glissant’s arguments about postcolonial intersubjective dynamics – what he calls ‘Relation’ – being guided by a fraught, linguistic principle. Other literatures, on the significance of linguistic dexterity, on humour, on mourning, and on urban multiculture and struggle, are then explored. Finally, the chapter considers how the work of Bakhtin was used to develop a heteroglossia of dialogical speech genres over the course of the reserch. This literature allows for connections to be made between everyday talk and highly contested ideological debates around difference, belonging and entitlement.
Chapter 3 explores how people in Napoli described their use of language in relationship to ideas about difference. Talk about talk shaped communication in a number of ways: as a way of reflecting melancholically on what Napoli was, as well as what it was in the process of becoming; as a practical necessity whereby migrants and Neapolitans had learnt from each other through socialisation and working together; and as a means of making claims about belonging, or expressing ambivalent forms of solidarity. People talked about being able to talk, but also sometimes claimed they were not able to talk to, or be understood by, each other. Thus, this chapter explores how people talked about talk, but also considers the problem of communication breakdown, seeking to define the threshold where interactions reached the edge of sociality and failed.
Chapter 4 looks at the forms of banter and catcalling that were such a banal and regular feature of life in Neapolitan street markets. This sexualised and darkly humorous language was invoked on pavements as part of a performance of locally hegemonic masculinities, and in response to paranoias about racial intimacy. The differential experiences of the women in street markets – black women, white Neapolitan women, those working in the market or those passing through – revealed key insights about interconnected patterns of sexual conventions and racialised domination in Napoli. These conventions uncovered a melancholic recollection of colonialism and US military occupation – that continued to demarcate the city in subtle ways – and laid the groundwork for negotiating and managing contemporary fears around racial intimacy.
Chapter 5 explores everyday life in Neapolitan street markets by examining them as sites of precarious money-making for internally stratified and subaltern groups of people. Multilingual market cries – greetings, humour and barter, predominantly in English, Italian and Neapolitan – formed a kind of dynamic market know-how through which vendors drummed up business and legitimised their presence in the crowded and contested spaces of the pavement. However, given the increasing political and public pressure to close down, and limit, the amount of street vending in Napoli during the period of fieldwork in 2012, the tactical deployment of these market cries also revealed how street vendors sought to legitimise their presence and continue making a living in a context where their livelihoods were threatened. Market cries thus revealed an oppositional consciousness through which negative ideas about street vending and street vendors were resisted and renegotiated on the ground.
Chapter 6 moves away from the everyday transcultural negotiations of the previous chapters, which mostly took place between street vendors and their customers, to explore the threat to livelihood faced by the book’s research participants during 2012. The chapter opens with an examination of the widespread racist formulae through which black street vendors in particular were framed as a threat in Napoli. It then focuses on the joking practices of transcultural masculine solidarity against the police as an infrapolitical talk, which both subverted and reinforced hegemonic ideas about black masculinity, migrants, entitlement and belonging.
Chapter 7 explores the ways in which people in street markets actively organised to resist attempts by the State to take away their livelihoods. It looks at the antihegemonic talk through which improvisational and ambiguous forms of solidarity emerged across cultural and linguistic boundaries in the moments when people had to work together as part of an ambiguous, Gramscian-inspired local-popular, and speak back to power. It argues that the multilingual nature of the street vendors’ organisation was central to their struggle and the political transformation they achieved. The chapter offers an opportunity to think about the relations of force that can emerge amongst people subjected to unequal and differential legal and economic statuses – people who also speak different languages, follow different religions, and have different political visions and group interests – but find themselves attempting to transcend these differences and work together to survive.
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.