On ‘Abject Objects of Enquiry’

What are the proper objects of scholarship? What is the function of that scholarship? These well-worn but perennial questions are raised again with particular force in relation to the study of recent and contemporary events and ‘low’ cultural forms in Italy.

Ellen Nerenberg and I have organised a session at the the American Association of Italian Studies (AAIS) conference in Zurich, 23-25 May 2014 and a two-day workshop in Bologna on 27-28 May to discuss these questions. we call the ongoing project ‘The Abject Objects of Enquiry’.

Strong resistance remains in the discipline of Italian Studies to the expansion of our field of study—perhaps even to Cultural Studies per se. There is a suspicion that the objects of inquiry are trivial and ‘without content’, and that the methods employed are insufficiently rigorous. There seems to be a division in the discipline of Italian Studies between a celebratory, ‘heritage’ account of Italian culture, which still sees literature as its core concern, and one that might be loosely described as ‘anthropological’, which takes the totality of culture as its purview. Remarkably, this division seems truer of work on the Twentieth Century or contemporary periods than it is of the Medieval period; Medieval Studies adopts a more holistic approach to the study of culture, perhaps recognizing this as necessary if anything (including the canonical authors) is to be understood in its totality and proper context.

The project is bringing a wide-ranging group of scholars together (names TBC) to investigate what’s at stake in the study of the range of Italian culture. Scholars of different media and periods, from the Italian as well as the Anglophone academies, will work to interrogate the proper range of our concerns and the appropriate terms of engagement. We will articulate the arguments for a holistic and non-prescriptive approach to the study of Italian culture and clarify the point of study.

Here’s the roundtable panel we’ve organised at the AAIS conference, scheduled to take place at 4pm on Saturday 24 May.

Roundtable title: What we research and Why we teach

A lively debate at AAIS 2013 (at the roundtable ‘Italian Film and Media studies, Present and Future, 1) concerned the relationship of research to teaching. What kind of competencies do we hope to give our students and how is this goal served by the themes of our research? Some felt that the material taught had to be ‘nourishing’ and needed to challenge the ‘insularity and narcissism’ of the contemporary student; this position translated into a canonical idea of the syllabus: the ‘best’ would challenge and improve the student. Others argued that students should be equipped to deal with the range of media (including new and social media) and cultural production; such a position assumed a mix of high and low, but preferred the un-canonized. Both positions seem to reflect the research priorities of the speakers themselves, and perhaps pointed to a division in the discipline between a celebratory, ‘heritage’ account of Italian culture and one that might be loosely described as ‘anthropological’. This roundtable is designed to develop this debate and to make explicit the assumptions behind the various positions. 

Chair: Aine O’Healy, Loyola Marymount University


Ellen Nerenberg, Wesleyan University
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, New York University
Manuele Gragnolati, University of Oxford
Alan O’Leary, University of Leeds
Gius Gargiulo, Université Paris X – Nanterre

And here are some of the questions we have asked the participants to consider in Bologna:

  • What ‘abject’ categories do you work on in your research?
  • Do you choose/are you allowed to teach this material, and at what level?
  • Why do you consider this material to be worthy of study?
  • What are the intellectual challenges in the study/teaching of this material?
  • Who are your interlocutors?
  • What are the conditions specific to your discipline, university, country and university system, stage of career, etc.?
  • How has your research/teaching of your ‘abject’ category been facilitated or hindered?
  • What are the implications for your career path?
  • What are your experiences of publishing?
  • Is there a proper set of objects for Italian studies?
  • Should Italian studies preserve a core shared canon (with ‘abject’ topics peripheral) in order to protect its institutional position?
  • How can the study of ‘abject’ categories be protected in circumstances where Italian and the humanities are under threat?
  • What is the future (institutionally and in terms of topics) of the study of the ‘abject’ in the (Italianist) academy?