The Columbus Affair: Imperatives for an Italian/American Agenda
(Casa Lago Press, 2021)
Signing Italian/American Cinema: A More Focused Look
(Ovunque Siamo Press, 2021)
The two books that I have in front of me are at once similar and quite different. What makes them similar is their Italian American context and the semiotic approach that the author, veteran student of the Italian American experience and Dean of the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute in New York City, Anthony Julian Tamburri, employs. The difference is their content and targeted reader. The Columbus Affair is a brief overview of the question as to whether Italian Americans should continue to celebrate Columbus Day, a federally recognized holiday, and whether Columbus Day’s name should be changed, and the old sailor relegated to the dustbin of history. Moreover, Tamburri uses Columbus Day as a platform to lay out a broader agenda for an Italian American cultural politics, the “imperatives” of the book’s subtitle, for both the Italian American community at large and scholars and students of Italian American and ethnic and diaspora studies. The writing in the just around one hundred small pages that make up the little volume, including works cited and index, intends to reach a non-specialized audience, although occasionally Tamburri reverses to academic jargon, of which he alerts the reader at the very beginning of the volume. Despite this alert to the reader, the jargon is unnecessary. The critic must try to write for everyone using a language that is at once accessible and sustains the intellectual discourse he or she is after. Words such as “semiosphere” and “prestidigitation” do not achieve that. The use of the jargon is even more out of place in a book that in crucial ways relies on public writings, especially in digital format as it is often the case these days. Signing Italian/American Cinema, instead, is a collection of five scholarly essays. The first introductory chapter is followed by the analysis of Italian director Emanuele Crialese’s 2006 immigrant saga Nuovomondo (which Miramax re-titled Golden Door for the North American market), Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott’s 1996 cult movie Big Night, Bob Giraldi’s 2000 Dinner Rush, Martin Scorsese’s 1973 breakthrough film Mean Streets, and a few closing pages. While still accessible to the non-specialized reader, this small collection is conceived for a professional audience.
The Columbus Affairs takes as its starting point an article that appeared in August 2020 in La gazzetta italiana of Cleveland, OH. In it, the two authors, John Vallillo and Pamela Dorazio Dean reported on the change of name of Columbus Day in the northern Ohio city, renamed Italian American Heritage and Culture Day, as well as the Akron City Council’s resolution about that same decision, which, the authors continued, had four objectives. Firstly, it sanctioned the Italian American community’s right to celebrate Columbus Day, albeit under a different name, as part of its history. Secondly, it acknowledged the contributions past and present that Italian Americans made to the various areas of social life in the Akron area. Thirdly, it recognized the financial contributions of Italian American clubs and societies to scholarships and charities. Finally, it aimed at ending the assault on Columbus Day once and for all (good luck with that). Tamburri takes up the first three points to propose a program of intellectual action to tackle the Columbus Day question and some of the issues that it raises.
The volume begins by briefly reconstructing the way Columbus went from an original national hero in the United States thanks to the likes of Washington Irving and others starting at the end of the eighteenth century, into an Italian in 1892 in the aftermath of the New Orleans lynching of eleven Italians and thereafter, thanks to “a much more concerted effort by the Italian prominenti themselves to change the general perception of Italians from working class immigrants to a population of a more sophisticated lot”—although Tamburri fails to tell the reader what this sophistication entailed, whether it was solely a question of class and status or something else was at stake beside that. Such omission is problematic because according to Tamburri, to know this historical trajectory is essential to make a personal decision on the fate of “Columbus Day, its symbolism, and the impact that such a semiotic phenomenon that is the sign/Columbus/ can have.”
Following Charles Sanders Peirce, the founder of American pragmatism (although he preferred the term pragmaticism) and, more to the point here, a founding father of semiotics, Tamburri embarks in the analysis of Columbus as a sign. This is the only way, he argues after another brief excursion on Columbus vis-à-vis his historical voyages and “deeds,” that the sailor might survive. To save Columbus, he concludes, one must “rise above the literal and enter into the realm of the symbolic,” thus making the navigator and the holiday attached to his name a question of representation.
This is the fundamental issue with the book. By reducing Columbus to a sign and relegating him and, consequently, Columbus Day to the realm of the symbolic, one runs the risk to detach the symbol itself and its meanings, whatever these meanings might be, from the materiality of their history, past and present, and their consequential impact, including, if not especially, the vexed and yet crucial question of historical memory. By way of rising above the literal and reducing Columbus to a sign, one erases the materiality of the symbol itself, as if symbols had not a history themselves, as if they were not produced in specific times, spaces, and places. It is no coincidence, after all, that the most recent public debate about Columbus as well as other historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson and General Lee in connection to colonialism, racism, and white supremacy (which is what occasioned this book) began with the attempts, the requests—even the violent fights about and over removing concrete statues that somebody built (and that others paid for)—not to honor those historical figures, but, rather, to attach to those figures a meaning for the time when and the place where the statues were erected. Which is to say, embedded in the (hi)story of symbols in question here, there is also a regional, even local perspective or point of view that escapes Tamburri. Columbus and Columbus Day might stir the animus of many in New York or Akron, but, for example, not many people bother with the navigator in central North Carolina where I live, although very many do get animated, to put it mildly, when it comes to a request to remove the statue of the Confederate Soldier in the little town of Graham, which still stands tall, fenced, and, at times, guarded (I let you guess by whom). This conceptual approach might also be the reason why, despite the book’s thematic focus, the critical sources about the Genovese navigator are few and far between. One significant absence is Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America, still today one of the finest books on Columbus and the history he belongs to, let alone the problems he raises historically and for our times. This paucity is not due to lack of availability or the author’s lack of competence. Quite the contrary. They are widely available, especially in our ever increasingly digital era, and Tamburri, who also has access to text written in Spanish, knows his Columbus and Italian American history.
The question here is the theoretical presupposition on which the book is built. Whereas modern societies have separated economic practices from symbols, and one might as well point out here that, in terms of periodization, in many ways Columbus voyages can be considered the beginning of modern societies as we think of them today, modes of exchange and modes of production are also modes of symbolizing that uncover hegemonic formations, of which symbols are a concrete constitutive part and cogent reminders. No less important here, the contrary is also true. Modes of symbolizing are also modes of exchange and production. One might ask what was left behind and gained in the exchange that produced the Columbus statues and Columbus Day, beginning with what the author calls “a presumed attempt by President Harrison to remedy, if one could, the lynching of eleven Italians the year before in New Orleans.” At this point in history, the main problem of the Columbus story is not the crimes against other human beings that he committed, which, of course, it is. Rather, it is the question of the other, as the subtitle of Todorov’s previously mentioned book reads, and the equilibrium of the planet that Columbus altered, of which his crimes are the material foundation. What this means in the first place is that any discussion about Columbus must consider as an essential and constitutive part of the symbolic meaning of Columbus today the question of the other in relation to the gigantic, unprecedented material transfer of natural resources and capital from Central and Latin America to the European powers, the Spanish crown to begin with, and what that meant and led to, including the colonization of North America by the English, the French, and the Spanish empires and the resulting Atlantic slave trade. After all, one thing Columbus did was to bring whiteness to this hemisphere and connect it to the processes of its colonization. No less important, and indeed intertwined with any discourse about Columbus is the question that Edmundo O’Gorman posed at the very beginning of his extraordinary little book called The Invention of America, which anybody who writes on the Genovese navigator would do well to read, “the need of giving a satisfactory explanation of the way in which America appeared as such on the historical scene.”
Tamburri offers comments on the legal decision of 1823 in Johnson vs. McIntosh that sanctioned the expropriation of Native American land by the US government and denied sovereignty to the Indigenous populations of the US In this way, first he links “Columbus and his deeds to the eventual appropriation of lands owned by Native Americans.” Then, he juxtaposes the expropriation of land and sovereign rights to the historical importance of Columbus voyages as well as to other flawed figures of our history like Washington and Jefferson. He does this to raise the issue of the philosophical contradiction that such figures embody. For Tamburri, the way out of these contradictions, beginning with Columbus, is to think of them as a “question of moral relativism and semiotics” from our post-Enlightenment and post-Civil Rights perspective.
Perhaps so. But I am not convinced that we should think about historical events and figures and what they represent and meant historically solely in those terms thanks to a questionable, to say the least, notion of pre-Enlightenment temporality that underscores an equally questionable notion of modernity. It is dangerously reductive to think of those events and historical figures in this way and along those premises. The problem is not so much the question of Columbus, per se. It is the way one uses Columbus to think historically and theoretically, essentially making the West and modernity coincide. Years ago, reasoning about Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Lee Daniels’s The Butler, Adolph L. Reed Jr. posed the very simple and yet enlightening question of why at one point in history—which accidentally can be dated to Columbus’s voyages and its aftermath—a certain group of human beings felt the need to enslave another certain group of human beings on a continental scale and in a systematic way; a mode of production and organization, we might say. Why did that occur at that precise time and place in history? Why not earlier or later? And to what end? What was its purpose?
Likewise, the process that produced the Italianization of Columbus occurred at a time of expanded and intensified geographical circulation of goods, people, and capital; the concomitant specialization of the labor process; and the heightened complexity and dynamism of macro-level social organization. Is there a link between Columbus, the European imperial powers’ expropriation of land and resources from the Indigenous population in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’, the migratory movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the Americas, and certain historical and discursive hegemonic formations? I ask this question because Tamburri raises, albeit very briefly, the question of “class and whiteness,” and, especially with regard to Italian Americans, what he calls “the slippery slope of (a) how exactly do we define whiteness and/or (b) the desire to be white,” a condition and a status that Italian Americans, regardless of how one defines whiteness, had to achieve once they disembarked from the ships that, like their more famous ancestor, brought them to a different continent. In other words, is Columbus the symbol of the Italian Americans’ achievement of whiteness? Is this the meaning of the previously cited “sophisticated lot”?
The Italian experience in the United States began in racial contexts everywhere across our country and the “concerted effort” of the prominenti, their reclamation of Columbus and the erections of the first Columbus statues began at the same time as Jim Crow and the building of the statues of the Confederate soldier, General Lee, and other such figures. Among them, Reed Jr. reminds us in another extraordinary little book that he recently published titled The South: Jim Crow And Its Afterlives, was the Liberty Monument, “erected in 1891 to commemorate the explicitly white supremacist Crescent City White League’s uprising perpetrated seventeen years earlier.” The League, Reed Jr. continues, “represented itself as defenders of a ‘hereditary civilization and Christianity menaced by a stupid Africanization.’ It’s worth noting that for decades many Italian Americans also were affronted by the monument, which they associated with the 1891 lynching of Sicilians by White League veterans who invoked the spirit of September 14, the date of the original insurrection, in their bloodlust.”1 (my italics)
Tamburri does not say whether Columbus is the symbol of the Italian Americans’ achievement of whiteness or the sophistication that the prominenti sought was to embrace whiteness and thus have access to the privileges that whiteness guarantees in our country. He remains ambiguous, if not altogether silent about this as well as other positions he illustrates and comments on in the volume. But if this is not the case, why then raise the issue of “class and whiteness”? On the contrary, if it is the case, then, again, how can one address that question by reducing Columbus to a sign given the concrete as well as symbolic force whiteness is in American life and history? Even if one does not intend to embark in such a discussion, why limit the suggestion of further reading on Italians and whiteness to one book in the text and two in a footnote? Why not make available to the readers at least an initial, however brief bibliography on such a theme at the end of the book, especially considering that he intends to address and educate a general readership?
Such a void is even more puzzling because in the last section, the one dedicated to Italian Americans and cultural politics, Tamburri laments the lack of and the need for “a national strategy” that goes “beyond Columbus” as well as “a long-term plan of cultural awareness” for Italian Americans, beginning with the constitution of think-tanks. One can hardly disagree with this position, which is why it is surprising that in his ruminations about Columbus there is no mention of past and present views of Columbus in Italy, especially at a time when race is increasingly becoming part of the public discourse about Italian and European identity and the preoccupation of new Italian literary diasporic voices. Moreover, cultural criticism and the public discourse in the US is currently invested in school curricula, settler colonialism, and white supremacy. In the end, one is left with the impression that The Columbus Affair is a rushed attempt to enter a conversation that has been ongoing for a long time but to which scholars of Italian American studies have until recently paid scant attention.
Chronologically speaking, it is a long way from Columbus to the Mancusos, the Sicilian family made of three men and one woman (the mother and grandmother of the three men) that in the early twentieth century emigrates to the United States in Emanuele Crialese’s film Nuovomondo, the subject of the very long opening piece of Signing Italian/American Cinema. Yet, thematically speaking, the distance is not that great. And that should not surprise us. Neither Columbus nor the Mancusos, after all, really knew where they were going, albeit for different reasons. Certainly, they did not know what they would have encountered in the new (for them) lands where they disembarked. To an extent, this is what these essays are after, the discourse around the old vs. the new world in several Italian American contexts, although the ones who do not really know, in this case, are the viewers of Nuovomondo and the other movies here analyzed, in the sense that Tamburri aims at opening these visual artifacts in terms of their “signification.” The premise of this as well as the other three articles, in fact, is that by reading them “we shall also come to the realization that the more ‘informed’ the viewer, the greater the potentiality of signification of the text in question.” Especially because Tamburri’s audience here is the scholarly community, this statement comes off as critical platitude, just like the reminder that “both spectator and filmmaker are responsible for the production of meaning of the film in question” also does. By now, these are well established critical notions. Furthermore, such a view reflects an overemphasis on textualism at the expense of the evaluation of the filmmakers’ artistic vision that instead of opening the hermeneutic possibilities of the works in question limits them, as it does not address what is not present in the cultural artifact, which is as important, if not more important than what is in it. A case in point is when Tamburri suggests that “Crialese tells his story through pictures, not with words” and, accordingly, proceeds to build his argument around the close reading of several passages in the film. However, he does not account for how concretely silence enriches those images, how it speaks for them, thus conferring them some specific meaning that otherwise would not be there. This is a movie in which the first word is uttered well after the opening scene, which in cinematic time is an eternity. A very good instance of the importance of silence in Nuovomondo is the scene when the ship that takes the Italian emigrants to the United States leaves the harbor, where beside “a quasi ominous clanging and one or two other boat sounds,” silence dominates. Tamburri does note more than once how the emigrants remain silent at various points in the movie, but he does not explain what that means or does for the movie.
The second essay on Big Night combines sociology and semiotics by way of using Irvin L. Child’s categories of “in-group reaction,” “apathetic reaction,” and “rebel reaction” and Charles Sanders Peirce’s notions of “firstness, secondness, and thirdness as rehearsed in his [Peirce’s] Principle of Philosophy.” It is a mix put at the service of the juxtaposition between the old and the new world through the analysis of specific scenes and characters. This is all for the good. Any opening of the text is a welcome critical addition. The problem, however, is that at times, while suggestive, this kind of criticism goes too far, as when Tamburri closes a section on the italianità of Primo, one of the main characters in the movie, writing that Primo “underscores the prim[ø]acy of all things Italian.” There is a self-congratulatory tone here that returns repeatedly throughout the book, also mirrored in the self-referentiality of the works cited, and the use of Latin expressions such as “in sensu amplo.” Rather than adding to the critical discourse, this approach sounds redundant and pedantic. For example, when, in the article on Bob Giraldi’s Dinner Rush, which has the merit to bring attention to a movie that, while hardly a work of art, presents several interesting aspects on the interplay between food and identity that Tamburri analyzes in depth, one reads that a certain scene “at the end of the movie proves equally constitutive as fertile ground for a broad range of potential significability of this cinematic text.” Or when we are told that “Eating hence is no longer for mere sustenance” (was it ever?).
The book closes with an article on Scorsese’s Mean Streets, the strongest of the collected pieces, also because it begins with a colloquial, friendly personal tone where the voice of the writer is finally at the service of the criticism and, conversely, the reader. The article focuses on the role that an informed spectator, in this case an Italian American or somebody who is at home in an Italian American community, plays in decoding the meaning of Scorsese’s film, with particular attention to language and racism. Specifically, Tamburri focuses on the Jewish and African American presences in the film, and the hermeneutic depth that words such as “‘mazzacrist” (Christ killer) and “moulinyan/melinjan” (a derogatory term for a Black person) add to the movie for the previously mentioned informed reader. The latter, Tamburri argues, is better positioned to understand the code-switching that such words trigger and the relationship that language entails with power rather than identity. Once again, Tamburri analyzes the relationship between filmmaker and the viewer’s subject position within the larger binary framework of old vs. new world. What Charlie, the film’s main character, does when he lets racism thwart his desire to meet a beautiful African American woman is letting the old world’s notion of “sticking to your own” prevail. Although Tamburri briefly includes the issue of Charlie’s religious faith and his devotion to St. Francis of Assisi in his analysis, he does not consider how gender might enrich the “unlimited semiosis” he argues for in this and other scenes he writes about. Since the focus of his close reading is on scenes that include Jewish and African American women, one would expect the critic at least to address the gender issue in relationship to racism. Likewise, and perhaps more importantly from a structural standpoint, Tamburri does not situate the racial analysis within the larger framework of whiteness. Especially because Tamburri concludes that Scorsese’s picture has greater “significatory potentiality” than most Italian American films, one wonders what is the role that whiteness and gender play in relation to racism and how their combination would increase the film’s “potentiality.” In the end, the overemphasis on textual analysis is what makes Signing Italian/American Cinema as unsatisfactory as The Columbus Affair.
- The monument was removed in April 2017.