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Of Ghosts and Survivors: The History and Memory of 1968 in Italy

  • Author(s): Carbotti, Rosaria
  • Advisor(s): Spackman, Barbara
  • et al.

The year 1968 saw the rise of a manifold protest movement among Italian university students that evolved well into the late 1970s and spread to all segments of society. Today, the memory of this collective experience represents one of the most haunting episodes of the 20th century. Torn between celebrating national events and giving in to cultural amnesia, the Italian cultural discourse around ’68 appears deliberately opaque. In recent historiography, fiction, and film this momentous year appears to be condensed in a puzzle of contrasting snapshots that do not fit well together. On one hand, it is remembered as a watershed event that altered the course of the nation’s history and the lives of individuals in radical ways. On the other hand, many ’68 storytellers mourn the complete erasure of their experience from contemporary culture and criticize the moral wasteland that is associated with the current political arena when contrasted with the vanished hopes of the past. From Luisa Passerini to Guido Viale, from Erri De Luca to Giovanni Moro, a generation of protagonists and witnesses of those times raise through their work a number of urgent questions that deal with issues of periodization, selective perception, genealogical inheritance, and a paralyzing feeling of melancholia. Such questions do not seem to find answers within traditional historical or sociological approaches. At the same time, these accounts pose problems of their own, as they reflect a desire to simultaneously preserve and shatter the memory of 1968 as it has come to be celebrated in popular culture.

My dissertation is in dialogue with a vast intellectual constellation that encompasses historical, theoretical, literary, and cinematic readings of 1968. As I investigate the existing narrative production around the ’68 phenomenon, I question what lies at the heart of the possessive forms of memory that have come to characterize our present approach to that time. In doing so, I challenge the current widespread view that sees possessive memory as an obstacle to a proper understanding of the past. On the contrary, I argue that it is precisely by looking closer at the stumbling blocks that seem to hinder the flow of historical narrative surrounding ’68 that we might get at the core of our collective attachment to that time, a bond that is shaped by the labor of forces and emotions that cannot yet be put to rest. My research pays particular attention to the ways in which the memory of ’68 has been defiantly organized at the narrative level as an attempt to resist periodization. Thus, I interpret such resistance as a way to protract the presence of ’68 beyond its temporal confines and ultimately deny the symbolic death of a groundbreaking collective experience. Through the analysis of the narrative figuration of the ghost, I explore the ways in which melancholia — the feeling of painful attachment to a lost ideal — can be taken to be an affirmative disposition that originates a form of critical agency on the part of the ’68 storytellers. The imperative need “to begin with oneself” — to impose the primacy of subjective affect, understanding one’s involvement in social phenomena as the merging of individual and collective expression — becomes a melancholic act of rebellion against the objectifying discourse of history. From this perspective, I take 1968 to be reactivated as a temporal category against which the present needs to be questioned in order for a future to be imagined anew.

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