Talk and the transcultural
in Race talk

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.

If Italian, as I was learning it, seemed studied and clear and, in its crystalline grace, evocative of female beauty, Neapolitan struck me as primitive and flowing and masculine.

(Belmonte 1979: 5)

THE ABOVE QUOTE, taken from Thomas Belmonte’s famous ethnographic account of the Neapolitan poor in the 1970s, emblematises the fraught relationship between language use, inequality and power in Napoli that I explored in the previous chapter. In The Broken Fountain (1979), Belmonte examined forms of culture and community emerging in a city suffering from deep-set economic decline and high unemployment rates. His thesis was that the cultural practices associated with the Neapolitan poor, such as playing up to the caricature of the sly, comedic and streetwise Pulcinella character in commedia dell’arte tradition, were ‘compensatory practices’ in an under-industrialised city, rife with unemployment, that didn’t allow ‘genuine’ culture to emerge (xxi). He explained that the strength of the poor lay in their ability to mitigate extreme physical and moral suffering with semi-legal activities and a redemptive joking culture. However, he argued that they did not organise politically because of their deep-seated respect for bourgeois power (124–143). For him, this view of a supposed cultural subalternity and limited political vision amongst the Neapolitan working classes and lumpen poor was first guided by the impression that Neapolitan talk made on him. Like many other visitors to the city, he arrived in the field already preconditioned to think of the difference between what was Neapolitan and what was Italian, in terms of intersecting racialised, classed and gendered hierarchies.

Other ethnographers have also described an initial fascination with language use in Napoli. In The Art of Making Do, Jason Pine (2012) described arriving in the city with the initial intention of studying local language and gesture. His thoughtful and reflexive attempts to learn Neapolitan eventually led to an ethnography about the city’s neomelodic music scene and its connections to organised crime. Pine’s account of the difficulties he encountered gaining respect and inclusion as a Neapolitan speaker amongst Neapolitan men, and his reflections on the importance of a forceful linguistic dexterity in the Neapolitan spoken by both men and women on the street, spoke to the centrality of language use in everyday life in Napoli (63–69).

I, too, came to this project interested in language. Part of this was personal. My mother was born in a village about an hour’s drive from Napoli. She married my British father in 1980, and my sister and I grew up in the Home Counties. We were raised bilingual, speaking English and Italian. However, my Italian grandparents spoke only Neapolitan and many of my relatives, who could speak Italian, chose to speak Neapolitan a lot of the time outside work. My sister and I were instructed not to learn Neapolitan, although we did understand it and learnt to speak a bit. I very quickly perceived the stigmatised status of Neapolitan language and how that located people in terms of class status, levels of education and respectability. Outside the family, people’s frequently shocked reaction to my fluent Italian revealed the ambivalent processes at stake in the recognition of a linguistic subject who didn’t quite look Italian enough to be Italian.

But my question, on returning to Napoli as a researcher, was about what these fraught maps of culture and communication looked like for people speaking from a much more vulnerable, precarious and urgent position than I was. In the introduction and Chapter 1 I described the wider context of migration and austerity that had an impact upon the street markets where I did the research for this book. I started to depict the multilingual babel that was the soundscape of everyday life as I moved around Napoli. I argued that edgy multilingual talk in the heterogeneous and multiethnic street markets where I did my fieldwork took place in a wider context of racialised antimigration sentiment – where people were dying in the Mediterranean as they sought to cross over into Europe – and austerity measures that were impinging on people’s ability to make enough money to live on.

In this chapter I will address the question of language within broader scholarly debates about contemporary racism. I will show how theoretical contributions around racism and language have helped to form the conceptual framework that I have used whilst writing up the findings of the research. As already stated, I have been particularly influenced by Glissant’s argument (1981, 1997) that postcolonial intersubjective dynamics – what he calls ‘Relation’ – have been guided by a fraught, multilingual principle through which people have negotiated the violent legacy of colonialism and racial hierarchy. Other literatures, on the significance of linguistic dexterity, on humour, on mourning, and on urban multiculture and struggle, have also been useful and important. Gathering field data related to talk, and theorising the results, involved articulating the links between discourse and practice, or understanding language use within the material context of its deployment: in other words, learning to pay attention to how culture, meaning and language vitally constituted the economic, political and material (Drew and Hall 1998: 222–225). As I expand on below, I have done this through a Bakhtinian analytical lens (Bakhtin 1984 [1965], 1986), whereby a ‘heteroglossia’ of dialogic speech genres revealed the connections between everyday talk and highly contested ideological debates around difference, belonging and entitlement that existed at the local, national and international level.

Glissant’s multilingual counterpoetic

Edouard Glissant’s notion of Relation (Glissant 1981, 1997) has helped me to think more carefully about how everyday multilingual and transcultural encounters at my street market sites were wrought through by historic connections between language and power. Glissant talked about there being two forms of historically inflected identity: ‘root identity’ and ‘Relation identity’. He explained that a pulsation towards monolingualism had been intimately linked to the nation-building projects and imperialist endeavours that accompanied the rise of modernity in the West (1997: 23, 49; 1981: 51). The symbolic and material violence of this encounter generated particular forms of ‘root identity’, or the idea of a transparent and clear form of belonging, which founded itself in distant past and myth, and ratified itself through the possession of land (1997: 43). The relationship between different languages in this environment, particularly when one language officially dominated over one or more spoken languages, was political and thus generative of inequalities and oppression (Glissant 1981: 560–561). Glissant defined this linguistic inequality – which, in his case, focused on the distinction between French and Creole in the French Caribbean – as ‘diglossia’: the domination of one ‘vehicular’ language over one or several other ‘vernacular’, or spoken, languages (1997: 118–119).

On the other hand, Glissant explained that a non-reductive relationship towards difference, a ‘Divers non universalisant’, had also occurred as a result of the various encounters of modernity, and this had allowed for the emergence of transverse, non-hierarchical and non-generalisable cultural configurations. ‘Relation identity’ was linked to this conscious and chaotic experience of transcultural interaction that was not interested in a rooted legitimacy: it ‘gives-on-and-with’ (Glissant 1997: 44). His poetic of planetary Relation, or Relation planétaire, started from the irreducible difference of the Other and an attitude of equality and respect to them ‘as different from oneself’ (Glissant 1981: 27, 799–800). Diversity, or Divers, was the most important value in Relation, as it created a totality or unity that exploded traditional definitions of centre and periphery and was never fixed, but produced itself through constantly shifting interconnections. As such, it was uncontainable and chaotic because it lacked a permanent essence. The logic of hybridity triumphed over one of rootedness or legitimacy (Britton 1999: 11–17). He argued that this violent but consensual creolising result of colonial contact was multilingual and central to the chaotic reality of living with a constantly diversifying divers (Glissant 1997: 5).

Glissant called this multilingual reality a ‘counterpoetics’ (1981: 627–628; 1997: 5). He described counterpoetics as the predominantly oral and verbal strategy of communities whose means of expression were constrained, partial and contradictory. Based on an understanding of a necessary engagement with the language of the oppressor, he described counterpoetics as something that refused assimilation but, rather, abrogated and assimilated to produce something radically different (Britton 1999: 30–34). Glissant’s understanding of the relationship between language and collective action shifted throughout his life. He moved from a focus on identity and subjectivity, as constituted through language practices, to an understanding of creolisation as a point at which language would become so diverse that it would be no longer possible to speak one language that was clearly demarcated from any other. For Glissant, counterpoetics represented a transitional stage on the path towards that goal (Britton 1999: 48–52).

Glissant has contributed overall to an understanding of what I am calling the edginess of the verbal-ideological processes that formed the bedrock of my fieldwork, by demanding that full attention be paid to the implications of chaotic, incomplete, ambivalent, humorous and resilient multilingual communication in everyday interactions. He argued that it was important to pay attention to the linguistic creations springing from the friction between different languages to produce innovative speaking practices or innovative relationships to speaking (1997: 104). Importantly, he said that this required an attitude towards understanding interactions across the boundaries of difference that allowed itself to remain opaque: it paid attention to the texture of the weave between people and did not seek to clarify and elucidate everything (1981: 14, 19; 1997: 90). This challenged the western concept that linked acceptance of the Other to detailed and transparent understanding of them, constructing them as an ‘object of knowledge’ (Britton 1999: 18–19). Instead he stated that it was necessary to attempt to untangle the diglot linguistic creations people produced through plural and mobile forms of cultural meaning-making that were playful, horizontal and tactical (Glissant 1981: 793–6, 1997: 20). This revealed the ‘penetrable opacity’ of Relation: ‘a world in which one exists, or agrees to exist, with and among others’ (Glissant 1997: 14).

The opaque, playful, risky, exhilarating and generative linguistic edginess that I witnessed were evidence that it was possible to exist in a normal, fluid and continually evolving Relation with other people differentiated by ‘race’, class and legal status. The patterns of culture and communication that existed on the street markets where I did research indicated that talk was almost always possible, despite being frequently painful, partial and ambivalent. However, these interactions existed despite, and because of, a proximal context of radical incommunicability in the Mediterranean, where a ‘necropolitics’ (Mbembe 2019) ruled that it was acceptable to allow people to drown at sea because their lives were deemed disposable. As Achille Mbembe explained, from the twentieth century a juridical order was established that set in place the right of the sovereign State not simply to foster or disallow life, as Foucault argued, but to kill – (67). Borders, frontiers and colonies became key to the recognition of State authority and spaces of exception where it was possible to rationalise and civilise the act of killing by suspending juridical order and waging constant war (76–77). There, necropower was deployed in the destruction of a mass of people who had been classified as disposable and so therefore could be consigned to ‘death-world’ or to the ‘living dead’ (92, emphasis in original). Talk was important to the constitution of necropolitics. Other work that has reflected on the possibilities for talk in spaces of exception, such as the camp (Levi 1986: 69–79) and the slave plantation (Gilroy 1993: 57), has shown that these spaces were ‘not a community if only because a community, by definition, implies the exercise of the power of speech and thought’ (Mbembe 2019: 74–75). Rather, as Paul Gilroy argued, those consigned to such spaces of exception were expelled from humanity. Their only possibilities resided in ‘rebellion, suicide, flight and silent mourning’ and, if kept alive, they remained in a ‘state of injury’, in conditions of terror and violence (Gilroy 1993: 57; Mbembe 2019: 74–75).

Urban transcultural dexterity

Having established what was at stake in the everyday multilingual and transcultural talk that I recorded in my fieldwork, I now turn to the wider anthropological, sociological and sociolinguistic work on racism and language that I have drawn on. This starts with a literature about the importance of being able to deploy communicative zeal and prowess in city spaces: something I describe, using the work of James Trotter (2008a, b), as ‘urban transcultural dexterity’.

As Trotter noted in his work on prostitution in South African port cities, the ‘cultural dexterity’ of his research participants came from knowing how to converse fluently and confidently in multiple languages that were not their own. He described this as an urban phenomenon that was multilingual and transcultural, enabling an everyday ‘practical cosmopolitanism’ despite a wider racialised context that would encourage division and separateness (2008a: 684–685, 2008b: 87). On one of my first days doing fieldwork at Via Bologna I was stopped by a Senegalese man as I walked down the market clutching a notebook. He made a jokey show of rushing at me and shouting in Neapolitan, ‘Put that away! I’m guappo!’ As Pine noted in his work, the figure of the guappo was ambiguously connected to the streetwise and possibly violent personage of the camorrista (Pine 2012: 133–135). The unknown Senegalese man was warning me that I looked too officious with the notepad and would make everyone in the market uncomfortable and suspicious. He was also teaching me a valuable lesson about the importance of performing an agile linguistic dexterity in Neapolitan street markets, particularly if one might be perceived as an outsider. By making a big scene in Neapolitan, and claiming a very specifically Neapolitan street identity, he was showing me how to gain respect and inclusion through the way I spoke.

These pragmatic attempts to mitigate difference at my field sites were inextricably linked to the performance of particular kinds of locally hegemonic forms of masculinity (Connell and Messerschmidt 2005). Two important examples of these local masculinities included the figure of the guappo, and the figure of the cunning and comedic Pulcinella character of Neapolitan commedia dell’arte tradition. These were a significant feature of everyday practical cosmopolitan encounters in street markets. They were ethnically marked and masculine performances that, however, migrant men and women were also able to buy into in an attempt at claiming inclusion, even if this could have ambiguous and uneven results. For example, u’maschiolona – which could be translated as ‘ladette’ – is a term that can be used to describe women who speak loudly and with masculine bravado in public. Being able to show linguistic prowess – by conversing loudly and forcefully in a rapid Neapolitan (Pine 2012: 63–74), or by showing off skills in English and other languages – was central to these hegemonic masculine performances.

An important strand of sociolinguistic and anthropological scholarly work on language and speech in ethnically diverse, urban settings – mainly based in a northern European or American context – supports these insights about linguistic aptitude and everyday negotiations across transcultural boundaries. The collection of essays in Language and Superdiversity (Arnaut et al. 2016) brought together work that integrated ethnography and sociolinguistics in approaching multi- or polylingual and ethnically diverse contexts. Unlike much historic sociolinguistics, the book was interested in investigating the context of communication – its social relations, cultural ideologies etc. – through ethnographic immersion, and so connected much more closely to sociology and anthropology (Blommaert and Rampton 2016: 33). Similar studies on language negotiations and multiculture have been published in the King’s College London Working Papers in Urban Languages and Literacies. For example, Ben Rampton (1997a, b, 2003, 2010) explored how new ethnic identities and a sense of ‘liminality’ had been creating innovative ‘language-crossing’ practices or contemporary vernaculars that challenged dominant views about insiders and outsiders within a culture. This work grew out of work on language, ethnicity and difference by linguistic anthropologists in the 1970s and 1980s, in particular the work of Smitherman, Labov, Gumperz and Hymes, which exposed the way in which traditional notions of language groups and speakers as ideological formations were tied up with exclusionary and racist ideas of nationhood and ethnicity. For example, John Gumperz’s work on interethnic miscommunication explored ways in which intonation, tone and rhythm produced misunderstandings during transcultural interaction, perpetuating negative stereotypes about minority groups of people (1982: 172–186; 2003). Dell Hymes argued for a need to study ‘ways of speaking’ – how people actually encountered and made use of languages around them – in order to understand wider questions of inequality in social life resulting from race, classed and gendered cultural patterns, institutions, and value systems (1996: 26, 56–9).

Much of the fine-grained attention to semiotic and linguistic detail in sociolinguistic work in the Italian context has also been superseded by a more macro focus on language practices and tactics. Such work carried out in Italy in the 2000s reflected a profoundly multilingual contemporary situation where the status and proliferation of different codes, repertoires and linguistic/social variables appeared along a constantly shifting speech continuum (Parry 2010: 327–328). There was little agreement amongst experts as to the discrete categorisation of people’s language into different patois or koiné dialects; Italianised dialects or dialectised Italians; popular, folk or ‘working class’ Italian; informal, regional or common Italian; or formal regional or common Italian. John Trumper (1989: 31–37) – like many sociolinguists following the work of Gumperz and Hymes – argued that what really mattered for understanding the Italian situation of diglossia was how and why people chose to switch between codes, not what the variability between codes actually was.

Anthropological studies from the 1980s and 1990s, which explored the use of creole by black and white young people in the UK, also examined the connection between language, social differences and racialised inequalities (Gilroy and Lawrence 1988; Sebba 1993; Le Page and Tabouret-Keller 1985; Hewitt 1986). This work emphasised the significance of switching between different languages – as a form of resistance against institutional oppression (Gilroy and Lawrence 1988: 132–140; Sebba 1993), and as ‘acts of identity’ whereby claims about ethnicity were linked to linguistic questions and, in hostile circumstances, drew communities closer together (Le Page and Tabouret-Keller 1985). Roger Hewitt’s book White Talk, Black Talk (1986) looked at the use of Jamaican patois by black and white young people in south London as a ‘formulaic corpus’ that could be drawn on to ‘transpose struggles over power into struggles within signification’ (8, 98). Supporting my own observations about locally hegemonic masculinities in Napoli, Hewitt’s exploration of the ritualised ludic and competitive uses of creole amongst black and white young men signals the ways in which the semiotics of gender could be appropriated by racial and ethnic referents (170–179). He concluded that, whilst all social relations among groups of people would need to be transformed in order to overthrow racism, ‘partial alternative structures of association, of coding, of symbolism’ were also engendered in the interactive processes between black and white people that represented a ‘semantic “guerilla tactics”’ (205, 235).

Janus-faced humour

The forms of top-down racialised and economic subordination experienced by my participants worked alongside a differential power dynamic within the groups of people working next to each other on the pavement. This was frequently manifested through joking language and comedic behaviour. Humour was Janus-faced: it acted at times as a form of comedic self-effacement that created a convivial transcultural inclusivity, whilst at other times it was a violent power slap-down and racialised act of domination.

Luisa Passerini’s work on irreverent behaviour, ‘“subversive” slips of the tongue’, double meanings and wit referring to the baser functions of the body during fascism has been helpful for understanding this. She argued that irreverent behaviour revealed the small ways in which people sought to undermine the authoritarian regime and retain small amounts of dignity and autonomy. The oppression of free speech and, as already mentioned, the move to create a unifying ‘totalitarian language’ were key dimensions of fascism. However, this resistant comic behaviour of the people was double-edged. It both subverted and restored order to become merely a ‘collective sneer’, and could also allow people to be hurt and sent up at the same time (Passerini 1987: 67–126). Passerini also pointed out the ideological potential of such language practices. In a later work she described how the laughter and mockery of the piazza got passed up to the students protesting during 1968 to become part of a cultural guerilla tactic designed to critique and transform social reality through language (1988: 112–114). In a different context, Geneva Smitherman’s work on speech play in African American cultural forms described humorous language and wordplay such as ‘playing the dozens’ or ‘your mother’ jokes as a form of stress release and social commentary amongst subaltern people who would be in danger were they publicly to lash out (1977, 2006: 99, 2007).

Mikhail Bakhtin’s work identified certain spatio-temporal instances when the utterance has a greater transformative potential. In Rabelais and His World (1984), Bakhtin argued that during carnival ‘a special idiom of forms and symbols’ worked to turn the world inside out and to up-end hierarchy in a way that was not merely destructive, but also regenerative (1984: 10–12). He accepted that over the centuries the ‘festive laughter’ of the carnival had diminished, but its utopian character survived in the raucous, Billingsgate language of the marketplace (9). This laughter was generated by abusive and insulting language, as well as profanities and threats that had an ambivalent nature, working to destroy but also to regenerate. Comic imagery, which particularly focused on the grotesque functioning of the body with relation to food, sex and defecation, also worked on the same principle. Bakhtin explained that the ‘familiar speech’ of the marketplace was related to laughter because it was excluded from official speech and so took on the ambivalent and yet utopian potential of carnival (17–18). The temporary suspension of hierarchies created an ambivalence during communication allowing for new kinds of meaning to emerge (6). However, while the carnivalesque marketplace could temporarily recode relations of dominance and subordination across the whole social structure, it failed to do away completely with power and often functioned in complicity with it, participating in the abuse of those who were more vulnerable (Stallybrass and White 1986: 9). The idea of the carnivalesque and its relevance to marketplace interactions very practically influenced the way I thought about the selection and definition of research sites in this project. The festive laughter of my market sites spread out along the pavements of the city centre and onto the main forms of public transport that carried my vendor participants and their merchandise to and from work. It also infiltrated different contexts, in particular the city’s student and anti-racist networks, informing the kinds of social struggle that took over my street market sites during the research.

In Domination and the Arts of Resistance, James Scott argued that disguised public expressions of dissent, in the form of gossip, jokes and codes, were important because they revealed the ‘infrapolitics’ of the powerless. Culturally informed verbal practices such as jokes, euphemisms, exhortations of despair and codes created a disguise of ‘ideological insubordination’ from where people could construct an antihegemonic ‘imaginative capacity’ that might or might not be acted on depending on the situation (Scott 1990: 19, 90–92). These strategies were often only partially successful. For example, he described ‘linguistic veiling’ – pretending not to speak or understand – as a key infrapolitical protective strategy of powerless people. But, whilst this could be an effective survival strategy, it also gave fuel to stereotypes about the inherent inferiority of subaltern groups of people. It illustrated the ways in which people were obliged to carry out a performance of dominance whereby the hegemonic public transcript was reproduced by both the dominant and the dominated (32–26).

The topsy-turvy and ambivalently political humorous interactions that were such a common feature of my time researching the street markets in Napoli were also suffused by the particular configurations of male power and leadership that developed between Italian unification and the end of the Second World War, creating a local context of sexuality. In particular, this related to the potential threat of racial intimacy between Neapolitan women and black migrant men, which was the subject of aggressive joking. I have already spoken about the way in which locally hegemonic masculinities – in particular the guappo, a Pulcinella-esque joking figure and u’maschiolona – informed the daily joking negotiation of cosmopolitan life in Neapolitan street markets, on the part of both men and women. The ambivalent and contestable nature of these daily gendered performances was legitimised by a pervasive white supremacist and patriarchal fear about taboo manifestations of racial intimacy. This is evidence of the significance of sexuality in everyday social, economic and cultural relations, as described in the now classic feminist text by Gayle Rubin. In ‘The traffic in women’ (1975), Rubin argued that, over the course of history, a set of sexual conventions, practices and systems had given rise to, and continued to perpetuate, a hegemonic ‘sex/gender system’. Under this system women were subjected to particular rules when it came to their sexual behaviour and any transgressions they might be considered to commit. Important black and anti-racist feminists of the same period pointed out that non-white women were subjected to different codes and conventions in this regard (hooks 1994; Carby 2000; Ware 2015). They asked that attention be paid to the intersection of race, class and gender in particular sexual worlds. For example, bell hooks examined the conditions under which racial intimacy has been lived and governed in the USA in order to show the ways in which white women have participated in the racist oppression of black women (1994: 93–110). In her study of lynching in the USA, Vron Ware’s work explored how racial terror was justified by the spectre of the rape of a white woman and hysterical fears about black male sexuality (2015: 167–224). The anthropological literature on sexual preserves in rural Italy from the same period showed how rules around sexuality and public intimacy were maintained through joking (Reiter 1975: 58) and the sexual division of ‘verbal roles’ – distinct topics of talk, and the practice of maintaining secrecy amongst men or gossiping amongst women (Harding 1975). These studies of humour as a way of managing sexual worlds have been useful in understanding the Janus-faced joking about racial intimacy that formed an important feature of my fieldwork.

Melancholic, monolingual and postracial language attitudes

Napoli’s particular history, described in depth in the last chapter, infused the talk of Neapolitans in my research with a kind of discursive melancholia, as Butler has described it (Bell and Butler 1999: 170), where talk, and talk about talk, recalled histories of cultural erosion and departure as well as contemporary difficulties with worklessness and a lack of future prospects. This occurred at moments where participants referred to ongoing loss as a way of talking about everyday, lived transcultural encounters. This kind of melancholic approach to loss and subordination entailed a process of grieving that could potentially unpick the cultural inheritances that perpetuated racism in ways that were both ambivalent and aggressive and (Ramazani cited in Clewell 2002: 54). As such, it was politically significant because accounts of Neapolitan subordination were commonly used – by people doing anti-racist organisation as well as people in the street – in order to connect Neapolitan historic victimhood to an anti-racist appeal for welcoming migrants to the city. However, these melancholic strategies often didn’t work – or only worked partially – as a ‘politics of speech’ because it was too easy to avoid rethinking and reframing the ritualistic accounting of loss in relationship to unequal structures of domination in the contemporary moment (Bell and Butler 1999: 165–166). As Clewell noted, reflecting on the work of Ramazani and Freud’s later work, melancholic rage often disallows a move beyond itself into a process of mourning, where ambivalent and contingent attachments to new individuals and situations would enable a more revolutionary relationship between past, present and future (Clewell 2002: 56).

In Napoli, melancholic discourses around language and culture loss prevented any real coming to terms with either Napoli’s historic subordination or its involvement in Italian imperialism and fascist violence. This ‘postcolonial melancholia’, as Gilroy (2004) has described it, made it difficult for people to connect Neapolitan modern history to the contemporary situation of migration to the city. It allowed Neapolitans to claim they were innately welcoming and friendly to new arrivals because they were historic victims of racialised oppression. I would like to argue that this produced a particular form of Neapolitan postracialism where accounts of Neapolitan goodness and past victimhood allowed for claims to be made about the mutuality of people’s life experiences that denied the insidious effects of racial hierarchies (Dawes 2018).

Under postracialism, race is silenced as a particular category of domination with its own history and context, often in favour of a focus on poverty, inequality, economic entitlement and class struggle. Critical scholars of race have argued this has led to a collapse in anti-racist solidarity and mobilisation whilst racial suffering continues to exist (Gilroy 2012; Goldberg 2009: 19, 158; Lentin 2011, 2014). David Theo Goldberg argued that this widespread ‘racial denial’ held particular weight in the European racial context, where the emergence of particular racisms was intimately tied to the context of migration and so-called ‘migration crisis’, and where the ‘political economy’ of migration criminalised migrants, removing their rights at the same time as it thinned out the rights of European citizens to access work, healthcare and security (2009: 177, 181–183). The fates of the Neapolitan and migrant vendors in my research were intimately linked, as they themselves claimed; but their collective experience of work and social struggle needs to be examined without, as Gilroy has suggested, reducing analysis to a ‘deterministic’ and relativistic idea of the relationship between race, class and experiences of injustice (380). As such, I have used the notion of melancholia and interconnected Neapolitan victimhood and goodness to highlight these dangerous postracial tendencies that appeared frequently at moments where it became necessary to organise collectively in defence of their livelihoods.

Another key way through which melancholia manifested itself was a protective regional identity that focused on the racialised and hierarchical status of different languages, in particular Neapolitan. Geneva Smitherman argued that hierarchical ‘language attitudes’ allowed dominant groups of people to use language in a simple way as a tool of oppression against the powerless: ‘who’s speaking “the” language and who’s speaking only a dialect of “the” language depends on who has the army’ (Smitherman 1977: 193–199). Instead of leading to claims about postracialism, a negative inferiority complex about the status of the Neapolitan language – something that was emblematic of decline and marginalisation in the Italian south – sometimes enabled a collapse into nationalistic and racially exclusionary tendencies. Migrants who could converse in Neapolitan were often congratulated and supported for their linguistic dexterity. But those who could not were often disregarded and blamed for the mistreatment they experienced on the part of people in the street, the police or local organised crime groups. Some of the same Neapolitans who spoke melancholically about their subordinated status in Italy as southern Italians – a status that I have argued was frequently tied up with speaking Neapolitan – also called for migrants to assimilate linguistically in order to survive and be accepted in Napoli. At this point hierarchical ‘language attitudes’ about Neapolitan were invoked to excuse an exclusionary and assimilatory pride that could be conceptualised as a Neapolitan ‘monolingual nationalism’, using Ulrich Beck’s (2005, 2007) work on ‘methodological nationalism’. This was a kind of postcolonial melancholia that refused to account for and open itself up to the lived reality of globalised and cosmopolitan difference. In these moments the highly precarious and contingent status of transcultural linguistic dexterity revealed itself. Thus, ideas about melancholia, postracialism, language attitudes and monolingual nationalism allowed me to think about the moments where communication was refused, broke down or failed: when talk became the violence of not talking at all.

Urban multiculture and place-making struggles

Racialised place-making struggles were an important feature of the daily functioning of street markets around Piazza Garibaldi whilst I was in the field. This place-making involved difficult processes of transcultural economic collaboration in situations of economic precariousness and informality, where some people were undocumented, some people were selling contraband and some people had not paid their vendor licences. On an everyday basis, this necessitated forms of safeguarding, compromise and warning systems that were designed to mitigate the impact of police incursions into markets. As my research progressed many of the sites I was working in were being closed down, and the attempt to resist this coalesced into an organised struggle involving Neapolitan and migrant street vendors, supported by anti-racist and migrant rights activists.

The book’s reflections on the liminal and improvised precariousness of urban life have been informed by the work of critical urbanists Suzanne Hall and Abdoumaliq Simone. Hall’s work on London described the city as ‘shared spaces of intersection’ where hybrid and intercultural relationships were the result of the hard work involved in travelling across time and space and building new economic opportunities (Hall 2009: 55–56, 2012). Her work on the economic and cultural lives of Rye Lane and Walworth Road in south London (2012, 2013, 2015) also argued for the significance of the ‘intercultural proficiencies’ (2015: 22) that underpinned everyday sociability and economic collaborations amongst people from over twenty countries of origin, a third of whom (in Rye Lane) could speak four languages or more. This economic and cultural diversity was placed within the context of a national and international anti-immigration politics that limited her participants’ rights and possibilities. Simone’s writing about endurance in the urban south has suggested that processes of improvisation – where human lives are held together and worked out through provisional solutions that are both constantly specific and changing – are vital resources in locations that have been rendered uninhabitable for those that must live there (2018: 4–12).

The findings of my research also draw insights from ethnographic work about urban multiculture, everyday transcultural interactions and economic activities in the city of Napoli, particularly based on work carried out from the late 1990s onwards (Dines 2002; Sarnelli 2003; Schmoll 2003). Camille Schmoll’s work examined the transcultural collaboration that underpinned retail activities in the city as part of a pragmatic, everyday cosmopolitanism whereby people had learnt to negotiate encounters with difference in order to facilitate trade and economic activity. Dines’ writing on urban planning processes around Piazza Garibaldi from the 1990s (2002, 2012) noted the multilingual nature of economic transactions and everyday sociality, as well as remarking on Piazza Garibaldi’s appropriation as a principle site of protest for both migrants and unemployed Neapolitans (2002: 184, 2012: 2019). Sarnelli (2003) described the use of obscenities and mimicry between Neapolitan and Senegalese traders in Neapolitan markets as revelatory of ambivalent, everyday encounters with difference.

Don Mitchell’s work has been useful for understanding the spatialisation of struggles between different street vendors and the State that I witnessed. In The Right to the City he argued that the production of particular kinds of space according to the logics of capital made it impossible for other sorts of people who needed that space to survive. Those who needed it for its use-value – in Napoli this would be the migrant and Neapolitan street vendors – were seen to threaten the exchange-value of that space as envisaged by the State (Mitchell 2003: 177–178). With the election of Mayor de Magistris in 2011, City Hall’s vision for growth involved redesigning Napoli as a popular tourist destination. In order to protect the exchange-value of the spaces it wished to transform, the way in which the space was put to use by the poor, particularly through street markets, needed to be limited. This was justified through discourses about those street markets as disorderly and illegal. However, Mitchell also argued that new spatial and cultural reconfigurations could be made by the people being excluded from particular spaces in the city, and this showed the ways in which these spaces could be won and protected through active and on-going struggle (2003: 3–6).

The forms of everyday collaboration, through which street vendors in Napoli struggled to retain and obtain legal permissions to sell their goods in the most profitable spaces of the city, crossed racialised boundaries and implicated groups of people stigmatised and segregated along the lines of race, class, gender and legal status. They often also involved informal economic practices, such as warning unlicensed vendors of the arrival of police patrols, sharing spaces on market stalls or turning a blind eye to any contraband being sold. These transcultural practices can be thought of as a type of hustling that, as Stuart Hall et al. argued in Policing the Crisis, requires a defensive, or oppositional, class-consciousness about what it means to be stigmatised and marginalised in order to secure the survival of whole communities of poor and racialised populations, particularly living in urban contexts (Hall et al. 1978: 381–391). In their work about marginalised and subordination communities in cities, Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg (2009: 8) and Loïc Wacquant (1998: 4) noted that skill as a talker was key to the economic success of the street hustler. Street vendors in Napoli relied on a conscious resistance against negative ideas about street vending in order to protect their livelihoods. As I explore in the section of this chapter on urban transcultural dexterity, this required a proficiency in multilingual talk.

Antonio Gramsci’s work on the relationship between structure and superstructure, relations of force and the problem of the national-popular has offered further useful guidance in conceptualising the urban place-making struggles that took place during my fieldwork. His argument centred on the disconnect between the Italian intellectual class and the popular mass movements below them, resulting in a lacking ‘national-popular’ capable of bringing about change (Gramsci 2000: 366–367). For Gramsci the solution to this lay in a national class alliance between the southern Italian peasantry and the northern industrialised proletariat who could act as the hegemonic force. This would mean overcoming the animosity that had been created between the two groups to bring about an alternative ‘national-popular’ (Chambers 2008: 8; Gramsci 2010: 54, 118, 141). Gramsci suggested that there were three key moments in the formation of the relations of force that were capable of struggling against a period of crisis: first, measurable relations of social forces in the structure; second, the formation of a group’s self-aware political consciousness and an understanding that one group’s corporate interests could be translated to, and also become the interests of, another subordinated group at both national and international levels; and third, the introduction of decisive action and military force. He argued that it was this second moment that was fundamental in marking the passage from structure to superstructure and is what underlay his argument about the need for collaboration between different groups of people (Gramsci 2000: 201–207). Gramsci’s ideas can be applied to the processes at work in a particular place and time (Hall 1986: 417–421, 433–434; Said 1993: 57), and Pasquale Verdicchio has suggested that Gramsci’s idea of alliance could be applied to the indigenous and emerging subalterns in contemporary Italy as a result of globalised markets and globalised movements of people (1997: 162). Thus, when examining the multilingual and transcultural nature of the struggle that took place at Via Bologna market in Napoli, I use the idea of an emergent ‘local-popular’ in the multilingual and transcultural collective that took place in the street markets I worked in. I argue that the successes and failures of this local-popular connected to other struggles of stigmatised and subaltern groups across the city and country, and globally.

Bakhtin’s heteroglossia

I used the philosophy of language of Mikhail Bakhtin/Valentin Voloshinov to think practically about how to analyse talking practices in street markets from the perspective of place-making struggles and collective action.1 Voloshinov and Bakhtin’s writings about language have suggested ways in which the collective material condition of the utterance is connected to and negotiated within society’s larger ideological superstructure. Voloshinov stated, in Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, that the utterance was ‘the most sensitive index of social changes’ and of changes ‘still in the process of growth, still without definitive shape and not as yet accommodated into already regularised and fully defined ideological systems’ (Voloshinov 1986 [1929]: 15–19). He suggested that the sign, or utterance, had ‘two faces’ because its role in social change was affected by having to pass through intersecting and different social interests. This ‘social multiaccentuality’ was key because it revealed the ambiguous role the utterance played in the articulation of ideologies, particularly at moments of ‘social struggle’ (23–24). According to Voloshinov, individuals used culturally, historically and ideologically available language to speak, and thus ideological habits were deeply rooted in language. However, ideologies were formed as part of a dialogic reasoning so they always had a ‘contrary theme of common sense’ that challenged the dominant ideology of the time (Billig 2001: 217–220). Therefore ideas about the world were generated and reimagined through talk as part of a ‘dialogic’ process. Talking was not simply about transmitting ideas but originated in the interactive and reciprocal social processes that I was interested in understanding in Napoli (Maybin 2001: 64).

Voloshinov further clarified that the relations of production in a particular social and political system governed this dialogical verbal contact between people. He suggested paying close attention to the unofficial discussions, exchanges of opinion or chance exchanges of words in ‘speech performances’ that made references to issues surrounding work, politics and ideological creativity in particular contexts (1986 [1929]: 20). Each speech performance was then subjectified through the responsive understanding of a listener who went on to produce a counterstatement. The ensuing collision between different social accents generated a site of struggle where cultural meaning was contested and negotiated (Voloshinov 1986 [1929]: 40–41). For Voloshinov there were multiple evaluative layers that framed the production of meaning out of the many possible connotations and associations in each ‘speech act’. The authority of the person producing the utterance played a critical role in defining the boundary between the listener and the speaker. Meaning then arose out of an ‘electric spark’ between the listener and the speaker: the listener orientated towards their own inner consciousness while the balance of inequality and subordination affected the transmission and absorption of particular ideas (Maybin 2001: 68–69).

Bakhtin conceptualised the production of meaning in language as a struggle occurring through ‘centripetal’ forces that sought to unify and centralise the ‘verbal-ideological world’, versus ‘centrifrugal’ forces of ‘diversification’ that, at their height, allowed for open and provisional discourse. This tension operated at all levels of language and among all social groups (Bakhtin 1981 [1975]: 271–272, 291–292; Maybin 2001: 65–66; Smith 2004: 63). He identified a number of ‘speech genres’ that were central mediators of this tension-in-language. The themes, constructions and linguistic styles of Bakhtin’s ‘speech genres’ were particular according to situation, and functioned in ways that were plastic and flexible (Maybin 2001: 66). He wrote, in a later essay, that ‘typical situations’ and ‘typical themes’ of speech communities generated their own speech genres as a result of ‘particular contacts between the meanings of words and actual concrete reality’ (Bakhtin 1986: 61, 87). ‘Types of relations’ between the participants in a conversation and ‘particular conditions’ of communication also gave rise to particular speech genres and styles of their delivery (1986: 64). The utterances that made up these genres were filled with ‘dialogic overtones’, reflections and refractions of past utterances, that were taken on and adapted by the speaker (91–92, italics in original). Multiple, unmediated ‘speech genres’ cohabited, contradicted each other, and multiplied at the same time creating a hybrid ‘heteroglossia’ that governed the relationship between language and culture (Bakthin 1981 [1975]: 270–272, 291–292; Maybin 2001: 66–67; Smith 2004: 63). They also played a particularly important role in moments of crisis to provide a ‘descriptive frame’ that allowed subaltern people to ‘think, act, and survive’ in the face of hegemony (Ries 1997: 1; Smith 2004: 53).

Researching heteroglossia in street markets

I started the process of exploring ways of entering the field and identifying gatekeepers in 2010. Initially I spoke to a number of members of the Social Science and Humanities faculties at the Orientale University in Napoli about my ideas. They put me in touch with other researchers and activists who were also involved in the city’s anti-racist scene. Through them I met people working full time as immigration advisors and cultural mediators for the city’s migrant population. These people took me on tours around the city centre and introduced me to others who were organising politically in support of migrant rights in various locations. One key group were people associated with Lo Ska, which stands for Laboratorio Occupato di Sperimentazione e Kultura Antagonista, or Occupied Laboratory of Experimentation and Antagonistic Culture. Lo Ska is a social centre located in the historic centre of Napoli that was occupied as a result of mobilisations by the student movement against changes being made to the university fees system in 1994. From the beginning they sought to build solidarity and action with groups of people outside the university context, in particular with migrants on whose behalf and alongside whom they have mobilised politically (Dines 1999). Over the course of a series of trips to Napoli from London between the middle of 2010 and late 2011 I attended political meetings and public events, and helped with a few Italian language lessons. This commitment continued once I entered the field full-time in December 2011. I attended weekly meetings of the Anti-Racist Forum, a body set up to share knowledge and resources about the various struggles people were facing in the region, which later ceased to exist. I also decided to organise my own English and literacy classes at the Zayd Ibn Thabit mosque in Piazza Mercato, again through a friend who was a cultural mediator. I did this in the hope of giving back in some way to the communities who were helping me with my project, and as a way of contributing something meaningful to the wider anti-racist efforts in the city (Dawes 2019).

I often broke the ice with the people I was meeting by asking them what their favourite swear words were. This produced interesting results. On one occasion, early on in the fieldwork, I was taken to a Burkinabé restaurant by a friend on the anti-racist scene. One Burkinabé man told me his favourite swear word was Che sfaccima e’ burdell’ (in Neapolitan, sfaccima means semen and burdell’ means brothel, or chaos). He had picked this term up in a side job as a nightclub DJ. Another responded that he enjoyed using the insult Va a fa mmoc a chi t’è muort (in Neapolitan: ‘Go and ejaculate into the mouths of your dead ancestors’), to much hilarity, with Neapolitans working next to him in the fields. This led into a longer discussion about the ways in which the Neapolitan language had changed to become more vicious and yet also playful. Expressions that, in the past, would have led to violence, were now being employed humorously and tactically in transcultural interactions in order to make claims for belonging and acceptance. These extended conversations enabled me to get to know the biographies of my main research participants and helped them to understand what I was interested in finding out. They also provided opportunities for them to tell me what they thought were the most serious issues Napoli faced with regard to migration and racism. I was often told ‘put this in your book’ or, on one occasion, pressed to turn away from street markets and my questions about swear words. A man from Burkina Faso who was a political refugee told me: ‘What you really need to understand is what’s going on with migrants and the oranges.’2

My tentative first approaches eventually led me to the street markets and pitches that were to become my main sites, and the traders who were to become my main research participants. In the end I focused on street markets over other possible sites because it was there more than anywhere else that horizontal and spontaneous interaction could take place across racialised boundaries despite and because of a wider context of antimigrant racism. The important role that Neapolitan anti-racism played at the beginning of the project continued throughout, most of all because of the flow of information and support that went back and forth between migrant rights groups and the street vendors themselves. By seeking access through anti-racism I was able to trace the connection between struggles that took place in markets and organised collective action that relied on political networks across the city and country.

Inevitably this still told a particular story about racism and resistance. Lo Ska had a history of organising politically alongside migrants predominantly from the Maghreb and West Africa. This meant I was able to gain access to the African market in Via Bologna, and a whole network of Senegalese street vendors working across the city, because of the longstanding relationship between Omar, a Senegalese cultural mediator, and the anti-racist scene that operated out of Lo Ska. Similarly, I was introduced to a group of Chinese street vendors by Wu, another cultural mediator who had long participated in putting together intercultural events and other political initiatives alongside Omar. Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities in the city also worked as street vendors, but the connections between their community and the wider activist networks with which I was connected were less strong. It was clear that there was a longstanding tradition of anti-racist collaboration and struggle in Napoli involving predominantly young Italians and black African men who were mainly first-generation migrants. In appearance, though not in organisational structure, this sought to mirror other historic anti-racist struggles, particularly in the USA. Activism in the city was under severe strain whilst I was there. Power struggles and an acute lack of funding made it very difficult for people to work together on collective, common goals. So, it is possible that South Asian community groups were working together with Neapolitan activists, but I was just not party to these projects because of the political fragmentation amongst activists.

The central challenge of my fieldwork had to do with the multilingual nature of talk in the field. I speak English, Italian, Neapolitan and French. I also came to recognise Wolof and interact at a basic level in it whilst I was in the field. I wrote my field notes in a combination of languages, mainly Italian and English, and I was writing and thinking about the research in more than one language right from the beginning of the process. In practice I cannot claim that I understood everything that was said during fieldwork, as so many different languages were being spoken. In cases where I was unsure about something I asked those around me to interpret and I checked the accuracy of data I had gathered by showing transcriptions and field notes to my field participants. I also used audio recording as I got to know my research participants better and they came to trust me more, because my interest in language meant I wanted to pay attention to the exact wording of what was said in order to quote precisely in the finished work.

Towards the end of the fieldwork I let those who were interested in doing so read all the notes I had made whilst with them. I deliberately made the notes in Italian so they could read them if they wanted to. This provided them with an opportunity to correct things they thought I had missed or misunderstood and take back anything they had said or done that they were uncomfortable with me writing up. I should note, however, that only those born in Italy accepted my offer, with my other research participants telling me they trusted me, or intimating that they found it difficult to read large amounts of text. Whilst I was working with Ku, Wu read the notes I made on his behalf. With everyone else I decided to discuss the general content of my fieldwork, emphasising anything I considered particularly important or sensitive. My attempts to put in place more contested and collective processes of knowledge production were imperfect, but it was the only realistic compromise I could come to in the circumstances.

As I was gathering data, I paid attention to the ways that particular types of talk and patterns of communication, such as swearing, greetings, rumour and switching between languages, mediated the ways that people constructed meanings about racism in Neapolitan marketplaces in my data. This was based on my experiences in the field, as well as my readings of other work examining the way talk related to broader questions of cultural meaning-making, outlined throughout the chapter. Drawing on the work of Bakhtin/Voloshinov, I analysed this data ‘dialogically’, paying close attention to how language use amongst my research participants produced meaning through interaction and negotiation. This required a close reading of the context, social setting and circumstances of the interaction, also taking into account my own presence there. Over the course of collecting, organising and going through the data, I began to define a series of speech genres, as Bakhtin described them, through which a heteroglossia of ideas about difference, belonging and positionality were being worked out in Neapolitan street markets. These genres were constituted by the particularities of the time and place of the research, as well as local taxonomies of communication and their performative characteristics (Finnegan 1992: 142–145). They were not fixed conventions but dialogical forms of speaking that were spread and renegotiated through repeated iteration (Ries 1997: 4). These patterns of communication, and their relationship to a wider terrain of economic and political struggle, began to tell a story about the bigger issues at stake in the enactment of a daily multilingual Relation in Napoli’s markets.

In the process of writing the book I have translated the dialogues and notes I recorded into English. In recognition of the fact that issues around representation and language were fundamental to the spirit of the project, I have not sought to hide the nuts and bolts of this process in the following chapters. Dialogue is coded in the text to give an idea of the different languages being spoken: anything that was said in Neapolitan is in italics, anything said in Italian is in normal type and anything that has been transcribed directly without being translated is underlined. All extra descriptions of the scene have been put in bold.3 I have also integrated this into my interpretation of the different kinds of meaning-making at play in Napoli.

I have tried to render a sense of the multilingual chatter of the field in my translation in a way that is sensitive to the language-based power dynamics that shaped intersubjective interaction, the effort involved in speaking across transcultural divides and the reductive temptation of monolingual tendencies. Sometimes this was quite difficult. For example, in a later chapter I will talk about the earning activities of a group of men who Neapolitans call pacchisti. They were essentially scammers who tricked passers-by into buying a smart phone and then sent them away with an empty package. This scam was called fare il pacco, or ‘making up a package’. In this case I decided not to translate the term at all but to explain what they did and how it formed part of the local cultural context around Piazza Garibaldi. I also decided not to translate the word negro, which was often used to insult or describe black men. I wanted to preserve the weight of its use on the street in Napoli without decontextualising it from Napoli’s colonial and fascist past. It is not a term simply borrowed and translated from American popular culture. As Federico Faloppa has shown, the word came into use in romance languages – as in Anglo-Germanic languages – in the colonial period to designate an individual belonging to an inferior race (Faloppa 2011: 29). In general I have avoided translating into standard English and tried to produce a translation that ‘foreignises’ the text, bringing the reader to Napoli to some extent (Temple 2004).

This is a book about talk and language use, but the chapters are also interspersed with photographs taken by my participants and I with disposable cameras during the research period. These photos are of the participants’ market stalls, the streets in which the markets were situated, the participants themselves with their customers at work, the demonstrations we went on and dramatic events that took place whilst we were together. Given the urgent nature of social conflict around race in Napoli, photographic methods helped to lend immediacy and understanding about the people participating in the research. They also became part of the research context itself and affected how people were positioned and regarded in ways that were gendered, racialised and classed. The photos have been woven around the book’s narrative to provide further visual notes on the dialogical, fluid and ambiguous performances of people in multiracial street markets.

Each of the chapters that follows starts with a piece of southern Italian – generally Neapolitan – music or poetry that is intended to frame the key concerns of that chapter within a local or regional history that has particular implications for contemporary transcultural encounters in Napoli. These excerpts, shown in the original language with an English translation alongside, connect the past to the present and act as the sonic background of the ethnographic material in the rest of the chapter. Alongside the use of imagery, they form part of an approach to critical race- and postcolonial studies that foregrounds multiple ways of knowing and engaging with the social. Chambers and Cavallo have also argued that music is central to the construction of Neapolitan cultural identity, as the city is a crossroads and meeting place of different cultures and creolised histories (Chambers 2008; Chambers and Cavallo 2018: 4). The street is where the counternarratives ingrained in Neapolitan cultural production are reinterpreted and given life, in particular through the connections between popular music and the city’s anti-racist squat scene (Chambers and Cavallo 2018: 14–15). Globally, music has been so important to the history of anti-racism (Gilroy 1993), and its use in this book makes explicit the links between the everyday intersubjective processes of the street and the voice of the people agitating for social change.


1There is some confusion over the authorship of Voloshinov’s and Bakhtin’s works (Maybin 2001: 4). In so far as both address the voice, dialogue and ideological nature of language they are treated in this text as being of the same author, or a single set of theoretical ideas, although the two different names will be used when referencing.
2He was referring to the awful living conditions of African fruit pickers in Puglia and Calabria, and the 2010 race riots in Rosarno, Calabria.
3Please refer to my Note on the text (p. xi) for a full explanation of how I translated and coded dialogue in the book.

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Race talk

Languages of racism and resistance in Neapolitan street markets


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