Mediterranean border crossings, populism, emotions and postcolonial (post-)memory
AN Original - UNPOP Series
By Gaia Giuliani

In this brief essay for the UNPOP series I will try to discuss existing entanglements and conflicts between Italian public discourses on Mediterranean border crossings and the counter-public political project of a common postcolonial (post-memory). In fact, staying with Marianne Hirsch’s concept, “postmemory” describes the relationship that the “generation after” bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of the experiences of those who came before, which are “remembered” only via stories, images, and behaviours transmitted throughout their upbringing. These experiences were transmitted in such a deep and affective manner, seemly constituting memories in their own right. Postmemory’s connection to the past is, thus, mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation.

I believe that the term postmemory can be used to describe generations of young Black and Brown Italians and Italian residents, who were born from migrants in the wake of the age of migrations towards Italy, only to the extent that we acknowledge both the need of “concrete(ness) and actual examples of inter-generational transmission of diverse traumatic pasts” (see Cristina Demaria and others) and the fact that these memories do not belong to an actual past.

Due to the enduring violence of the “border regime”, memories of Mediterranean border-crossings are reiterated by the experiences of those who relentlessly undertake present Mediterranean “Middle passages”. Luisa Passerini and Giada Giustetto have referred to memory in the context of border-crossings towards Italy as something “living”, based on the “living archives” of survivors. I argue that in these cases memories are not “living” only because bearers of that memory are still alive, but because the enduring border violence against migrant movement produces the collapse of a distinction between past, present, and future, which resembles what Denise Ferreira da Silva has identified in the Black lived experience of post-slavery structural racism. Accordingly, the prefix “post” can only refer to inter-generationality and trans-generationality, and not to the memory of a phenomenon, such as the Holocaust, which occurred solely in the past, unlike anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism.

Steccato di Cutro beach, after the shipwreck on 26 February 2023. Photo by Chiara Denaro, WatchTheMed - Alarm Phone, present in Cutro in solidarity with the survivors, and the families of those who lost their lives at sea. She looks at the sea, where her mother lost her life. She reached Cutro from very far away, after knowing of the shipwreck. Food, clothes and other traces of a shipwreck. A cameraman films the work of the divers.

From the perspective of the Italian context, the lived memories of the relatives of young Black and Brown Italians are often transmitted in private and are still mostly neglected within the public sphere. The lived experiences of their families, which are revitalised every day by migrants’ enduring experiences of surviving the Mediterranean Middle passage, is not discussed in mainstream media and institutions – except for a very limited number of films and TV series produced by Italian television or sponsored by the Italian Film Commission, which tend to be, however, quite stereotypical. Unlike other memories of trauma, namely that of Holocaust survivors and their offspring, which triggered Hirsch’s reflections on postmemory, in Italy, unofficialised memories of trauma stemming from the Middle passages are prevented from engaging the wider public discourse through novels (like Djarah Khan and Espérance Hakuzwimana's), films (like Andrea Segre’s) and documentaries (like Dagmawi Yimer’s) that are produced by protagonists themselves and can testify to the violence of border regimes.

Moreover, these memories and traumas are disregarded and depoliticised, inserted in a hostile overarching discourse about migration that equates Middle passages with a condition of inferiority, reducing migration solely to the poverty, misery, violence, and despair from where migrants or their relatives fled, rather than the outcome of the strenuous search for happiness and healing – a reflection which would require a “responsible gaze” from Italian society. Trauma is not discussed publicly, its elaboration is limited to families, communities, and individuals according to specific cultural and individual coping mechanisms. In general, the specific conditions that generate migrants’ mobility and the suffering caused by border violence are both omitted in the public discourse. Otherwise, when trauma is made visible, as Barbara Pinelli argues, the representation of the experiences of migrant women who are victims of violence during the Middle passage is mediated by ideas of violence, freedom, emancipation, memory, healing, accountability, and justice that are produced within Italian society. This, on the one hand, contrast with their quest for “opacity” – in the sense of Édouard Glissant, that is the right not to publicly recount the reasons of migration and stories of the Middle passage; on the other hand, it results in the continued stripping of these women’s subjectivity and choice to escape and in the silencing of the sense of freedom experienced when crossing the Mediterranean (and other) borders.

Memorialisation practices in Italy are mostly related to the public elaboration over a more generalised “massacre of the innocent Other”. Unlike many initiatives that were born from the collaborative action of local and national activist associations, intellectuals and artists, citizens and migrants – and that targeted both people in migration and Italian nationals – official memorialisation practices have mostly targeted Italian white public opinion and have failed to name the victims, investigate, and take responsibility for the trauma and losses migrants experienced. As Miriam Ticktin argues in the case of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish ethnic background found dead on a beach near Bodrum on 2 September 2015, public remembrances lacking accountability fail to call into question the reasons of the massacre (in this case, border regimes and border patrolling and closures). Rather, they appeal to the sense of guilt of a fragile white national imagined community from which the “innocent Other” is excluded. Instead of the will to end the massacre, public visibility, and memorialisation point to the unaccountable perpetration of violence in the name of national security by Italian, European and international authorities. As a result, migrants, the “innocent victims of a genocide”, continue being perceived in populist narratives as potential victims of the barbarity that structures the “Out there” while being criminalised for illegally crossing national borders. As the research undertaken within both the FCT projects “(De)Othering” and “UNPOP” testifies for, Italian populist right (Lega/Fratelli d’Italia) as well as populist narratives of more traditional parties (i.e. Democratic Party, Forza Italia), and their affiliated newspapers, always oscillate between the two poles of an ontology and a politics of emotions that mobilises the iconography of the “perfect victim” and that of a natural born criminal, both extremely racist and based on colonial archives. In that sense, there’s no contradiction between the state memorialisation of the victims of the Mediterranean Middle Passage, the silencing of individual and collective memories of the violence of the Mediterranean border regime (which kills or let die migrants crossing the basin), and the criminalisation of migrants and “smugglers” (which was officialised in a law that followed the shipwreck and death of more than 94 people offshore Cutro, Calabria, caused by the Italian state’s negligence). Rather than reflecting on a condemnation of border regimes and the Italian state’s and European institutions’ accountability for violence, suffering and death, memorialisation and its politics of emotion (always recalling Italians’ good-willing sentiments rather than the actual feeling of those who lost their beloved) hides – and indirectly legitimises – border regimes’ ongoing production of migrants’ illegality: their shipwrecks are their fault, or someone’s ontologically bad – the “smuggler” – and not that of a global system that produces despair, suffering, the need to leave, borders and migrant trafficking. Finally, through public discourse on border-crossings, memorialisation also fails to prevent the reproduction of the Outsiderness of migrants and their offspring’s (cultural/racial) Otherness, even when they have been living in Italy for years. In Italy’s national community, and in those of many other receiving European countries, this lack of belonging materialises in social and cultural marginality.

This article announces some of the contents of my forthcoming book chapter “Private memory, postmemory and public memory in a battlefield: Mediterranean border crossings, Italian public discourse on the invasion, and the counter-public political project of a common postcolonial (post-)memory” to be published in Guido Bartolini, Joseph Ford (eds.), Mediating Historical Responsibility: Memories of 'Difficult Pasts' in European Cultures. Berlin: De Gruyter

Gaia Giuliani is permanent researcher at CES and Associate professor in Political philosophy (honorary title issued through the National Academic Habilitation ASN 2018, Italy). She obtained her PhD in History of political ideas at the University of Torino (2005). Since then she has worked at the Universities of Bologna, Technology Sydney, and Cambridge, and collaborated as research associate and visiting scholar with the University of Padua, Leeds, London (Goldsmiths and Birkbeck College), Fordham and Venice "Ca' Foscari".