Project meeting, Cambridge, 13 June 2014

Present:

Austin Fisher, University of Bedfordshire (AF)
Robert Gordon, University of Cambridge (RG)
Alan O’Leary, University of Leeds (AOL)
Catherine O’Rawe, University of Bristol (COR)

The discussion was intended to rough out the route to large funding applications in early 2015 (AHRC, ERC), with AOL leading the ICIH project and AF, RG and COR as co-investigators. A short published piece on the project by AOL was used as the basis for the conversation. Many thanks to RG for organising refreshments.

Timeliness

Certain moments and types of filmmaking have been seen as having a privileged relationship to the Italian nation and its history (neorealism, auteur cinema, the cinema d’impegno), but this is changing. The Italian Cinemas/Italian Histories project (#ICIH) is one manifestation of an exciting moment in which the discipline is rethinking its priorities and values, and in which the authors of standard works (e.g., Peter Bondanella) are reconfiguring their approaches under the influence of intellectual challenges and of debate in new forums (e.g., the annual Italianist Film Issue, the Quaderni del CSCI and the Journal of Italian Cinema and Media Studies).

‘History’

AOL was keen to postpone or bracket the definition of ‘history’, intending that one of the goals of the project should be to discover what history might actually mean. However, it was felt that a pragmatic or working definition was needed in order to establish investigative categories and the criteria of inclusion/exclusion (of films etc.), and in order to avoid collapsing by default into understandings of history as synonymous with the ‘real’ or even with ‘politics’. AOL proposes the following as the basis for discussion – could the intersection of Jordanova’s three categories offer something like a working definition?

History is everywhere, and by that token it is both on display and an integral part of daily life. But what is ‘history’? It is usual to distinguish between two meanings: the past and the study of the past. To these I would add a third – a non-academic, often barely articulated sense of other times, a ‘history’ shaped by emotions, fashion, style, personal experience and popular memories.[1]

Distinctiveness and scope

The project is intended to be a large one – how to make it feasible? Are there are models for this study in other fields? Planning could be done in terms of outputs: imagine the publications or resources you might wish to create and work back from those (and write in financing for them to a grant application).

What will it mean to analyse ‘Italian’ constructions of the past? It will be important to distinguish the approach in #ICIH from the traditional ‘nation and history’ account. Gender has somewhere to be a guiding term. Notions of flow, transnational and ‘trans-media’ need to challenge the static idea of nation that has informed some past approaches. The project needs to take account of how the modes of consumption and distribution define the cultural moment and therefore the understanding of the past. The phenomenon of history (and location) tourism is linked to the modes of consumption and might also be an object of investigation. Heritage itself needs to be understood as a mode of engagement with the past, and material offshoots of the consumption of history (as in the example of wedding fashion discussed by AOL in his article) might offer a cluster of phenomena to investigate.

AF suggested a further metaphor (to supplement that of ‘ecology’ in AOL’s article) to orient the project: ‘meme’.[2] Although Richard Dawkins’ idea of the ‘cultural meme’ was heavily criticized, perhaps a less mechanical use of the term allows us to capture the diffuse or decentred workings of culture, and to access relationships and the transcultural (instantiated, for example, in remakes or migrating tropes).

Roles

How might the project be articulated into themes and/or parallel lines of enquiry? It makes sense for the project partners to lead different strands, perhaps as follows:

AF – the transnational; Hollywood and the understanding by Italians of their own history; a case study on the 1970s, and the ‘naturalization’ of American modes to deal with specifically Italian conditions. Already working on cinema about the past that is not set in the past (e.g., certain Gialli).

RG – the history and analysis of conceptual modes for understanding the past. Memory, nostalgia, conspiracy – all have had their moment in the hermeneutical spotlight in the Italian context. Other modes include sacrifice and counterfactuals, and the use of different generations (and ageing) as the index of past/future: the human life cycle as a way of processing history.

AOL – survey of the modes of the history film in Italy (book already in progress); supervision of post-docs using statistical and ‘distant reading’ methods for capturing large scale features and continuities in Italian films ‘on history’; hypothesis-testing and empirical investigations of viewer responses to history film (using eye-tracking technology etc.).

COR – interested in devices to represent history: music, anachronism, stars and performance. Also critical discourse about availability or absence of appropriate actors for representing the past, and questions of gender in relation to this. Embodiment and history is a key concern.

Academic partners

Many colleagues (Italianist and others, in the UK, US and Europe) are already involved in the project though informal and formal contact, workshops, conference panels, interviews on the project website, and so on. These will be kept informed of the development of the project and of future events. For the purposes of an application, a series of events based around the project strands will be outlined, including a list of keynote speakers. An advisory board is important, made up of colleagues who have successfully managed a major project in the past. This advisory board should also include one or more non-academic partners.

Impact

An AHRC application has to have a significant impact component, and ideally, this aspect of the project should already be in development. If impact is to have a intellectual payoff, then engagement with non-academic partners needs to feed back into the research questions. Early collaboration with external partners is therefore advisable. AOL is already developing links with schools in Italy and the UK (with a study day planned for late November in London), and he is developing a collaboration with the BFI-funded body that supports film clubs and societies in the UK. AF is the organizer of the ‘Spaghetti Cinema’ annual conference and film series and something might be programmed in the future. For the purposes of an application, short institutional letters of support from non-academic partners are desirable.

What next?

AOL to begin application drafts and to make contact with potential members of advisory board. Impact events and collaborations with non-academic partners to be developed.

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[1] Ludmilla Jordanova, ‘History, “Otherness” and Display’, in Hallam and Street (eds), Cultural Encounters: Representing ‘Otherness’ (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 245-59 (p. 245).

[2] Cfr. Ian Robert Smith’s forthcoming The Hollywood Meme (Edinburgh, 2014).