Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California

California Italian Studies

California Italian Studies banner

Italy and the Epistemes of Contagion: Touch, Contact, Distance

California Italian Studies is now accepting submissions for the thematic issue of Volume 11, titled Italy and the Epistemes of Contagion: Touch, Contact, Distance (to be published in 2022).*

Submissions in either English or Italian.

Deadline for submissions: August 15, 2021, although earlier submissions will be given priority.

Submissions should be made directly through the California Italian Studies submission form.

Unless encouraged otherwise, submissions should not exceed 30 pages of double-spaced text, or 10,000 words.

Submissions should fulfill at least one of the journal’s criteria for selection:

a) an interdisciplinary scholarly study that combines the practices of multiple disciplines, making significant use of the tools of one discipline in the service of another, or that studies a cluster of scholarly works representing the approaches of various disciplines to a single topic.

b) a comparative work that relates the history, culture, society, artistic products or languages of the Italian peninsula, islands and diasporas to other geographical, cultural and linguistic formations.

c) a critical work that, in studying a given object, engages in theoretical or methodological reflection on its own approach and its implications within larger disciplinary and interdisciplinary contexts.

Please direct inquiries to both/either:

Rhiannon Noel Welch (Italian Studies, UC Berkeley)

Cristiana Giordano (Anthropology, UC Davis)

Contagion has perhaps never before preoccupied all corners of the world, all at once, as it does today. The ‘virus that knows no borders’ is erecting palpable ones around all manner of human activity in the name of stopping the spread of COVID: from the oft-photographed shower curtain hugs or at-the-window visits between elderly people and their loved ones, to ‘shutdowns’ that confine the privileged classes to their home offices and computer screens, and ostensibly ‘prophylactic’ border closures from countries where the outbreak rages, uncontained. Meanwhile, the death drive that has long haunted neoliberal governance has come starkly to the fore: individuals deemed ‘essential’ to the economy are de facto disposable, forced to choose between life and livelihood (indeed, for communities of color the world over, ‘livelihood’ has become a tragic oxymoron, insofar as protecting ‘the means of securing the necessities of life’ entails accepting elevated levels of risk to one’s health). The languages of health and well-being have been transferred from the biological body to the economic one, as the ‘health’ of the economy requires the sacrifice of human life, its exposure to viral contact and contagion.

Yet for all of the boundaries and fissures it has brought into stark relief--from systemic racism and the brutality of border regimes, to economic inequality, between ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’ work, between self and other--the very nature of a pandemic has reminded us of our shared vulnerability, creating an opening that made the waters of Venice translucent again, returned the carbon-choked streets of Milan to pedestrians and bicycles, and crystalized inspired calls to ‘remake the world.’ We have witnessed how social movements, like viral videos or contaminated air, are contagious, as millions of people have taken to the streets in cities and towns across the globe to protest the murder by police of George Floyd and the countless other black people he came to represent.

With one of the highest death rates in the world, and an ill-prepared healthcare system, Italy was the first European country to impose a nationwide lockdown in early March. Long before it became ground zero for the coronavirus in the West (only to be clamorously eclipsed by the US), the thought of contagion has persistently inspired cultural production in Italy--from Boccaccio to Tiepolo and Manzoni, to Agamben, Cimatti, and Esposito, Italian art and philosophy have long pondered the contours, colors, and textures of contagion, and its paradoxical status as both a condition of and a threat to the human community. Roberto Esposito once incisively argued that German philosopher Elias Canetti‘s formulation of “a perverse short circuit between touch [tatto], contact [contatto] and contagion [contagio]” lies at the heart of (colonial) European modernity, and “liquidates contact, relationality, and being in common.” Similarly, Walter Benjamin related his seminal discussion of the parallel relationship between the rise of fascism and the aestheticization of war, and the loss of aura to the growing gap between “haptic” or “tactile” appropriation and the dominance of detached, strategic vision in modern politics. As a crisis narrative, contagion makes visible a cluster of other, deep, ongoing crises; it highlights the symptom, so to speak, making it more tangible. Indeed, in Italy, it’s no coincidence that the discursive field most often traversed by contagion beforethe explosion of COVID was the so-called “migration crisis.” In the imperial West today, contagion thus begins to resemble something like an episteme--the condition of possibility for thought, or at the very least, cultural production, whether acknowledged or implicit.

Volume 11 of California Italian Studies welcomes studies of penetrating theoretical import and encourages methodologies that are comparative, thematic, interdisciplinary, or cross-cultural.

Among the questions we invite contributions to consider are:

● The multiple origins of Italian literature may be considered as marked by contagion, bracketed as they are between Boccaccio’s rendition of the Black Death in his Decameron and Manzoni’s account of an 18th century plague in Milan. What role have artistic and scientific discourses of contagion had in the making of Italy and Italians through the centuries?

● What is the relation between representations of contagion(from graphs, charts, and other figural regimes to oil paintings and novels) and contagion as episteme, contagion as the condition of possibility for thought, or cultural production (or forms of relationality?)

● Where is the edge/border between contagion as metaphor or figure and ‘literal,’ viral contagion (ie: ‘viral videos,’ an example of the bending and extension of medical terminology as a metaphor with both positive and negative connotations)? What other metaphorical transfers are active in pandemic times, past or present?

● What is at stake--medically, ethically, culturally, politically--when bodies and populations are reorganized through different degrees of contagiousness (superspreader, asymptomatic, carriers, viral load, immune, having antibodies, etc.)?

● In what ways is the pandemic a break, a crisis, a rupture from a previous status, or just the emergence of an ongoing state of affairs that were already chronic and critical?

● What are some historical precedents or presuppositions that shape our ability to apprehend ‘contagion’ today?

● How does living in/with contagion alter our sensorial experiences of time-space?

● How do contagion logics rearrange the relations between self and others, in the paradoxical attempt to isolate in order to care for the community? What civic, political, psychic, and cultural selves are being produced and erased in the process of keeping the community “safe”?

● What does it mean to think ‘interdisciplinarity’ through the lens of contagion?

● How does the pandemic force us to rethink the purported boundaries around bodies (skin, flesh, but also political bodies like nation-states, etc), be they discursive or material?

● In what ways have contagions inspired works of art and performance, fiction and documentary accounts, contemporary and past? How do the arts help us understand what is at stake in the contemporary world through the work of poetics and narrative, images and installations, evocative objects and affective montages?

● The history of medicine and public health is punctuated in Italy, as elsewhere, by both scientific discoveries and communal, symbolic responses to contagious diseases. Considering instances from the 1348 plague (or prior pandemics) to the sixteenth-century ravages of syphilis and the modern AIDS and coronavirus, how can insights from the history of medicine and health--and the particular Italian case--contribute to more general understandings of pandemic and localized health crises, historical and modern?

● How have Italian mobilities (diasporic, migratory, etc.) been thought through the lens of disease and contagion?

*Non-thematic submissions to our journal are accepted on a rolling basis, and, if accepted, will be published in the order in which they have been accepted, and as space becomes available in our volumes.