The Obsession of Identity and its obsolescence
In the early 1970s Pier Paolo Pasolini (assassinated on 2nd November 1975) perceived with the intuition of the writer, of the artist and not the seer’s that a great transformation was taking place in Italy, what he referred to as an “anthropological mutation” (1972, 1975, 1976). At the time Italy too was entering the circuits of “global communication”, more precisely «communication-production», albeit later than other European countries and the West generally.
The expression “global communication”, or “global communication-production”, alludes to the fact that the capitalist system and its correlate market have spread over the entire planet. The market has now become a world market not only in quantitative, extensive terms, but also in the qualitative. This is a total and a totalising market, where needs are satisfied through the acquisition of commodities. Moreover, in social reproduction supported by the communication network, the role of communication is decisive not only in the circulation phase, the intermediate phase in social reproductive circuits, but also in the production and consumption phases. Global communication-production is part of a socio-economic system that eliminates diversity. In other words, lifestyles, customs and habits, even needs are induced, stimulated and modelled by market interests, thus modified and homologated according to equal exchange market logic.
In Pasolini’s view, one of the most striking manifestations of such transformation is “consumerism”, imposing a condition that not even the fascist political movement had succeeded in reaching. The allusion here is to interclassism: the homologation of social classes in terms of shared values, aspirations, desires, projects and planning, that is, ideologies, but without reaching equality. Pasolini experienced this transformation “first hand” in Roman suburbia. Familiar,“healthy” proletarian values had been superseded and set aside by values regulating the new social order associated with capitalism.
In such a socio-economic set up even the notion of “freedom” is transformed and “distorted”. Well after Pasolini, a renowned White House document, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, September 2002) lists “freedom” as a fundamental Western value to be defended – at the time the US was preparing for “preventive”, “humanitarian” war. Of particular significance in this document is the definition of “real freedom”: «If you can make something that others value, you should be able to sell it to them. If others make something that you value, you should be able to buy it».
As had already been observed by Pasolini, the homologation of values, desires and needs has no correspondence in terms of social equality (which is the situation still today), and this leads to a widespread sense of frustration, social inferiority, inadequacy, often the cause of violence with no special goal, in this sense unjustified, the manifestation of profound social malaise. Unmotivated violence, without sense and direction, arrogance and self-exaltation are easily recruited by “political” movements broadly classified under the banner of “fascism”. The Australian philosopher Brian Medlin described this existential situation in terms of “objective despair”.
Semiotics and Semioticians on Identity: Umberto Eco and Charles Morris
In a text of 1995, republished posthumously in booklet format, Il fascismo eterno (2018), Umberto Eco discusses fascism, what he also calls “Ur-Fascism”, typical of reactionary ideologies, still around us today, circulating in different forms and ready to manifest itself in behaviour that is more or less aggressive, anywhere in the world. Eco refers to what he describes as “elitism”, behaviour connected to the ostentation of dominion over others, and to contempt for the weak and vulnerable. Today, considering the widespread tendency towards self-exaltation, always at the expense of the other, with Eco we could speak of “popular elitism”:
Ur-Fascism cannot avoid predicating “popular elitism”. All citizens belong to the best populace in the world, the members of a party are the best citizens, all citizens can (or should) become a party member. But there can be no patrician without plebeians. The leader, who knows full well that his power was not obtained through an act of delegation, but was conquered by force, also knows that force is based upon the weakness of the masses, so weak as to require and deserve a “dominator”. Since the group is organised hierarchically (according to a military model), all subordinate leaders despise their subordinates, and every one of them in turn despises those who are subject to him/her. All this enforces the sense of mass elitism.
Self-exaltation is manifest in terms of identity, where one identity imposes itself over another, involving affiliation to an entity, a community considered “superior” to another whether a question of race, ethnic group, religion, social class, profession, gender, and so forth. Allusion here is to a certain type of identity, so-called “closed identity” by contrast to “open identity”, a notion proposed by the American semiotician Charles Morris with his book, The Open Self (1948), an author known to Pasolini. As Morris observed, whether the identity of the single individual or of the extended, social community, open identity is healthy, closed identity is sick, above all sick with fear of the other: «the persistent barrier to this open self is fear». The upshot is that rather than slip into unhealthy forms of identity that are closed to the other, that reject and repudiate the other characteristic of the tendency towards dogmatism, monologism, totalitarianism, possessiveness, stasis, in a word, fascism, the possibility of health and security (for semiosis and life), if not happiness, can be traced in attitudes opposite to fear, that is, in opening to the other, in hospitality of the word, in the welcome.
The expression “closed identity” alludes to the tendency to reify identity, to fix and freeze identity, to build identity at the cost of denying the other, of sacrificing the other, at the cost of elimination, expunction of the other – this other, the cause of fear. In fact, the other as described here is the object of fear, where allusion is not only to the other from self, but also to the other of self, one’s very own alterity, which cannot be incorporated into identity, but if anything resists identity, is recalcitrant to identity. Alterity involves excess with respect to identification or empathy with a collectivity, affiliation and belonging in terms of an identity of some sort. In fact, all identities involve sacrificial acts even towards the other of self. Identity, of any kind – ethnic, religious, sexual, pertaining to citizenship, social role, profession – implies obedience to given models in reference to which it finds the possibility of its own realization and confirmation.
All communities constructed on closed identity produce their own extra-communitarians, the intruder at the margins of the community, perceived as an antagonist, a threat from which to defend oneself. The extra-communitarian is the other, the stranger, the alien in the face of every individual forming the community; the extra-communitarian is the divergent, the odd one out, not only with respect to every other equal member of the community, but also with respect to every other different and opposed member of that same community – every community is a system of internal equalities, similarities, but also of differences and oppositions (husband and wife, professor and student, employed and unemployed etc.). Of course, difference, divergence, opposition, discord even (unlike contradiction “discord” does not foresee unity and synthesis), in musical terminology the extra-communitarian’s dissonance in relation to a given system is otherwise with respect to difference internal to that system. The extra-communitarian’s diversity is perceived as external, as an intrusion. Even though a question of “relative alterity”, the relative alterity of somebody who somehow belongs to the community is one thing, the alterity of the extra-communitarian who does not belong, another relative alterity, is something else.
When the enemy, antagonist, weak and vulnerable is identified on the outside, as occurs today with the migrant, the extra-communitarian (by contrast to the person who belongs to a given community as a citizen, a given Nation State), self-exaltation finds the pretext to manifest itself. This is an example of what Umberto Eco calls “popular elitism”. But the antagonist, weak and vulnerable, on one side, that in spite of itself legitimizes exaltation of the self, of identity, on the other, is not only traceable on the outside with respect to a given group, nation, community; the antagonist can also be traced internally – indeed, the weaker member internal to a community, to a given identity, favours exaltation of identity under its different aspects.
As Eco claimed, this is how “the will to power” (understood in a very different sense from how this expression is used in Nietzsche’s philosophy) is transferred from the “stronger” to the “weaker”, for example, in the sphere of sexual difference. Eco’s reference here is to what goes under the name of “machismo” which «implies distain for women and intolerant condemnation towards unconformist sexual behaviour, from chastity to homosexuality». We identify with gender before any other form of identity, objectively, directly, without distancing ourselves. To comply with models of behaviour imposed by the dominant notion of gender is to sacrifice alterity, what contrasts with the dominant social model of behaviour, or is simply not a perfect match, what is perceived by the single individual as resisting the dominant model, as not reducible to it, recalcitrant. The sacrifice of alterity involves difficulty, frustration, even despair. And when somebody fails to conform, or decides not to, the consequences are renown: contempt, persecution or, in the best of hypotheses, the form of hypocrisy commonly tagged “tolerance”.
Still today (even in Europe), despite battles won for “human rights”, the official order may oppose “transgression” in terms of sexual gender and stigmatize homosexuality as illegal. And to the extent that the homosexual is criminalized, s/he is subject to punishment by the State, ranging from incarceration to the death penalty. But the truth is that in this case too, as in all others where difference is denied, to take a violent standpoint and practice repression is to highlight and confirm that singularity cannot be eliminated, that difference, alterity can be repressed no doubt, but never destroyed and removed once and for all.
That sexual difference should not be asserted in the form of privilege, dominance, oppression, that sexual difference should not be discriminated is a question of safeguarding the quality of life of the single individual. Public ostentation of machismo and its official support to the point of “state machismo” ends up legitimating repressive behaviour in the “private” sphere, depriving it of its otherness, difference. “Difference” here is not understood as identity-difference, the difference of “identicals”, of the “same”, but as alterity-difference, difference as opening to the other, to the single individual in his or her uniqueness, singularity, un-indifference in the face of the other’s difference, in a relationship of participative involvement with the other, listening and hospitality.
Identity in the Art of Discourse and in the Discourse of Art
Pier Paolo Pasolini was literally victimized by stereotyped, glorified identity, by discriminatory identity in the face of difference. At once a writer and a film director, Pasolini named his filmic production a “cinema of poetry”. With his camera Pasolini achieved what Giacomo Leopardi achieved in literature: “double perception”, detachment from identity, a distanced vision which opens to infinity, to alterity and, therefore, to the space of participative involvement with the other, with Mikhail M. Bakhtin, of un-indifferent responsiveness to the other.
Referring to free indirect discourse as his model, a form of reported discourse especially recurrent in literary writing, Pasolini applies this technique to his film production, developing the «free indirect subjective», where different viewpoints meet and interact. The image projected onto the screen is neither objective (vision external to the character), corresponding to indirect discourse, nor subjective (the character’s vision) corresponding to direct discourse. Instead, it is semi-objective and semi-subjective. Pasolini achieves a sort of interference among different perspectives, as in free indirect discourse, where viewpoints meet, but without identifying with each other, in a space that is dialogical, dissymmetrical, thereby achieving what Bakhtin (in his book on Dostoevskij) calls “polyphony”. Reflecting on Pasolini’s use of the “free indirect subjective”, his “semi-subjective shots”, an essentially new technique in literature and cinema, Gilles Deleuze evidences the effect of contamination between trivial and noble, excremental and beautiful, low and sacred, everyday life and myth.
Through the free indirect subjective photographic image, Pasolini achieves on screen what Dante achieves through literary writing in the Divine Comedy, the condition of “trasumanar”, of transcending the human, going beyond, rendering the human superhuman, inspiring the human to the highest, an elevation beyond the limits of human nature, a condition that is difficult to convey in words: «Trasumanar significar per verba / Non si porìa» (Trasumanar [‘to go beyond the human’] with words / Isn’t really possible) (Dante, Paradiso, 1, vv. 67-70).
Evoking Bakhtin again, this is the condition of “extralocalisation”, “exotopy”, generally obtained in literary writing, which allows the text to flourish in the “great time”, a movement which frees the sign, the word, the image from short-sighted identity, from total and totalising unification, from monological dogmatism – this is the freedom of artistic discourse. Free indirect discourse, in Pasolini’s “cinema of poetry”, the free indirect subjective, is a sign of given socio-ideological conditions; it is the expression of confrontation among different languages, styles, and ideologies; it relativizes points of view and desecrates the monological word. Dante’s “trasumanar”, Pasolini’s “transhumanisation”, which he adapts from Dante, alludes to a self that is not reduced to the limits of being, ontology, a self that with respect to the expression “human being” is more human than being. Here, like (Giambattista Vico’s) humilitas, “human” is connected to humanitas and derives from humus (humid mother earth), not from homo. Trasumanar alludes to the human that is not condemned to a “realistic” vision of the world as-it-is, to its norms, prejudices and stereotypes.
Otherwise than Identity: Alterity and Singularity
In today’s world, gender identity is no doubt in crisis. “Crisis” is also understood in a positive sense, according to its etymology from Greek “krisis” meaning choice; and “krino” meaning to distinguish, discern, reflect and evaluate. In the “global communication” world all identities, sexual gender included, are exposed to a double movement: in the direction of closing and reasserting the undisputable, unquestionable monological compactness of identity; and in the direction of opening and transformation, therefore of interrogation essential to valorization of singularity with respect to an “identity” model or norm. In an interview with Pasolini included in his docu-film on homosexuality, Comizi d’Amore (1965), Giuseppe Ungaretti answered the question as to whether there exists such a thing as sexual “normality” and “abnormality” with the consideration that all humans are different, we are each built differently from the other, consequently we all are “abnormal”, beginning from himself whom as a poet trangresses the laws of everyday speech by creating art, in his case poetry.
Identity, whether male or female, is the expression of the dynamics of construction, imagination and transformation. As sign material, physical-organic and socio-cultural, as live material, identity is always “in a state of becoming”, made of behaviours, gestures, relations, discourses, languages; insofar as identity is relative to given social contexts and historical situations, like all vital identities it can never be static, a compact totality, finalized once and for all. Precisely because awareness of one’s own identity depends on historical-social factors, such awareness is influenced socially in different forms and to varying degrees, which can range from self-satisfaction to despair. The imaginary also plays an important role in the construction of identity and our perception thereof. Deviation from established models and norms passed off as “natural” (at the cost of losing social identity, of exclusion from contexts, rituals and privileges pertaining to the established order) may allow for recognition of alternative behaviours and lifestyles, or instead lead single individuals into the condition of social alienation as they experience unease, even shame, and desire to conceal one’s difference.
Among my references in these pages, I will consider some female figures featured in Pasolini’s theatre and film with a special focus on the problem of “genere”: in Italian “genere” is not only understood in the sense of ‘sexual gender’, but also as a concept, a categorical abstraction, which attributes an identity to a singularity, so that each singularity is characterized in terms of undifferentiated, generic individuality. The singularity of each single unique individual disappears in the identity of “genere”, in the class, concept, category etc.: assembled under the name “woman”, in the abstraction of the concept, Loreta, Dagmar and Paola lose their identity in terms of singularity, uniqueness. In the impersonal abstraction difference as singularity, as non-relative alterity, as alterity irreducible to paradigms, to oppositional concepts, as alterity internal to the same identity group, to the same genre is eliminated, rejected. The abstraction, genre, type, assemblage does not recognize or distinguish other differences from the difference that identifies the abstraction, genre, type, assemblage in question.
Female singularity trapped by identity, gender identity, and the (oft delusory) possibility of transcending the places of dominant discourse is depicted by Pasolini in films like Mamma Roma (1962) and Medea (1969). Pasolini’s women are women who struggle – exceptional, unique figures, extraordinary singularities who resist desperately, in a fight for life –, a struggle in another struggle, that against forms of violence suffered as foreigners, social outcasts, outside the norm, “normality”, out of place. Identity – sexual, racial, ethnic, class, role – is constructed on being, on ontology, on the violence of ontology. Identity as such, in conformity with the logic according to which any assemblage, any affiliation is constituted, is obtained on the basis of indifference to alterity – the self as identity is indifferent to singularity, whether the self’s or the other’s. The relation between identity and alterity is one of juxtaposition, ever stronger today. In other words, the identity-alterity relation is commonly positioned in an oppositional paradigm.
In Mamma Roma (1962) and Medea (1969), Pasolini portrays the feminine from a critical perspective on the order of discourse, which he denounces for its stereotypes concerning femininity. Pasolini is profoundly critical of paradigms that determine conflict, dispute, opposition, he critiques assemblages, genres, types, concepts that accomodate identity-difference blind, even hostile to alterity-difference. In short, Pasolini takes a critical stance towards all those places that cancel alterity-difference, un-indifferent difference, difference associated with uniqueness, non-interchangeability, unfinalisability, singularity. This is “non-relative alterity” by contrast to “relative alterity”, alterity transcendent with respect to the boundaries of identity, alterity as excess with respect to identity.
On the one hand, indifferent, homologating History advances inexorably, imposing irrevocable identities in relations of opposition, in ever more extended oppositional paradigms, that produce ever more generic differences in conflict with each other, that struggle against each other; on the other hand, Pasolini’s films portray female figures that may be described as evolving “outside identity”, in Italian fuori genere, also in the sense of sui generis. These female figures tend to represent a breaking point, an element of resistance, non-assimilation, rejection in the face of the established order, the order of discourse and its stereotypes.
Through depiction (in Italian raffigurazione as opposed to rappresentazione) of his female characters, Pasolini denounces the processes of de-qualification, de-valorisation of the human, the processes of dehumanization, of social alienation, the loss of humanizing values, handed down across generations. He interrogates dominant ideology; the ideology and social planning that orient the global communication world today. With respect to all this, Pasolini’s female characters emerge (in his own terminology) in all their “alterity” – and not merely as “alternatives” –, even in spite of themselves, passively, as in the case of Mamma Roma.
Pasolini placed great value on the distinction between the notions of “alterity” and “alternative”: he used the term “alterity” (alterità) which he distinguished from “alternative” and opposed to “identity” and “identification”. The “alternative” always remains in the sphere of the “same”, it is associated with “identity”. Instead, alterity is the “otherwise” than the same, “otherwise than the being of things”, to echo the title of a book by Emmanuel Levinas, Autrement qu’être ou au-de-là de l’essence (1974).
Identity and its Fragmentation in Pasolini’s Petrolio
Writing in artistic discourse, whether literary or cinematographic, which converges with the movement of depiction, portrayal, aims to render visible, legible that which is other, the invisible (the alterity that identity conceals and tends to englobe). In “depiction” as achieved in the artwork through the indirect word, intransitive writing, the free indirect subjective, the indirect gaze, transhumanising vision, the sign, the word is liberated from reduction to “representation”, from homologation with the reality of the world as-it-is, from the limits of contemporaneity. The artwork transcends representation, reality, the object, and shows things from another point of view; the literary word, art in general reveal the objectivated object with a movement that recovers irreducible alterity in the “great time” of extralocalised, transhumanising vision with respect to reality, as described by Bakhtin. In Petrolio, his last artwork, a sort of modern Satyricon, as he says himself, Pasolini writes as follows on the relationship between writing and reality:
Up to this point the reader will have thought, no doubt, that everything written in this book refers to reality, as is natural, and in any case inevitable. Only as s/he slowly advances and thus retraces the author’s footsteps, will s/he realize instead that this book refers to nothing else but itself. It refers to itself – why not? – through reality as well: that known in common, by convention to the reader and author.
Petrolio is not described as the “poem of dissociation”, where “dissociation” indicates a conventional expedient of the novel, assumed as a narrative rule to ensure the text’s legibility. Contrary to appearances, the expression “poem of dissociation” is intended as the «poem about the obsession of identity and together its fragmentation». “Obsession” and “fragmentation” justify the open character of the artwork as well as its “illegibility”: «my story belongs by nature to the order of the ‘illegible’, therefore its illegibility is constructed: a second nature in any case not less real than the first».
Here too, in Petrolio, considering how narration departs from reality, the inevitable difficulty encountered by expression can be characterized as a sort of “trasumanar”. The author resorts to a mixture of different styles, languages and registers; and all this without “forcing”, given that by virtue of its structure, genesis and history the novelistic genre lends itself to this type of expression .
In his films and literary writings Pasolini questions division among identities, including sexual identity. Another recurrent theme in Pasolini concerns the relation between the “profane” and the “sacred”. Both are addressed in terms of transversality with respect to identity barriers. This is particularly evident in Medea for what concerns the sacred-profane paradigm. In Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel according to Matthew, 1964), the relation between profane and sacred is specified as the relation between “sacred” and “saint”, where “saint” alludes to humanization of the sacred, in the sense discussed by Emmanuel Levinas in his book Du Sacré ou Saint (1977).
Pasolini titles his 1971 collection of poems Trasumanar e organizzar. Particularly interesting from the perspective of transversality and mixing styles is Patmos – written in the wake of the Piazza Fontana massacre in Milan (the terrorist attack in the Banca Nazionale dell’Agricoltura, 12 December 1969) – where the “apocalypse” genre is translated, transposed, transaccentuated in association with ordinary language, specifically the journalistic:
Sono sotto choc
è giunto fino a Patmos sentore
di ciò che annusano i cappellani
morti erano tutti dai cinquanta ai settanta
la mia età fra pochi anni, rivelazione di Gesù Cristo
che Dio, per istruire i suoi servi
– sulle cose che devono ben presto accadere –
ha fatto conoscere per mezzo del suo Angelo
al proprio servo Giovanni.
[…] Lombardi al Governo! Tra voi e il paese c’è un abisso,
È la vostra banalità che se lo scava […]
E chi è sotto choc ride con gli occhi di Antonioni
Il quale attesta come parola di Dio e testimonianza di Gesù Cristo
E anche Pasolini ride,
tutto quello che ha veduto,
mentre Moravia è distratto, beato chi legge,
e beati coloro che ascoltano le parole di questa profezia,
Che ne piangano le famiglie, io ne parlo da letterato.
Oppongo al cordoglio un certo manierismo.
Io sono l’Alfa e l’Omega
Colui che è, che era, che viene, L’Onnipotente;
In Petrolio Pasolini proposes to depict, render visible, legible, that which is invisible, illegible, disorder, chaos, including the linguistic and stylistic, the expression of the crisis of identity, of its fragmentation, the loss of identity. The endeavour to render legible that which escapes possession, control, and remains illegible, invisible, allows for opposites to ring true even though they contradict each other. Based on dissociation, literary writing, in this case the novel, becomes illegible, while instead the legibility of reality is taken for granted. All this in spite of what so-called reality produces, no matter how aberrant, even violent, obsession with identity may be, and the madness in the face of its fragmentation, disanchoring.
The reality that provides Pasolini’s writings, literary and cinematographic, with historical context is in continuous transformation. It is analyzed and depicted in the process of development leading into the socio-economic system of “advanced capitalism”, today characterized as “globalization”. Pasolini identifies and diagnoses this process clearly, without compromise, from its very beginnings, for what concerns Italy between the end of the Sixties and early Seventies.
In the present day and age, the globalization era, obsession with identity is pushed to the extreme, to paroxystic degrees, over the globe, internationally. One of Pasolini’s definite merits is that, for what concerns Italy, he understood what was happening, he was aware from the start of the widespread tendency towards globalised communication, and how it would develop, in its degenerate forms as well. All identities are in crisis, under different aspects, at maximal degrees. One of the most recurrent fears being not losing my identity as such, but losing the privileges attached to identity, ensured by identity. A similar situation occurs, for example, with the problem of unemployment. The unemployed easily perceives hospitality towards the extra-communitarian as threatening his/her privileges and priorities concerning employment, his/her right as a communitarian.
A social plague in global communication, in power and control culture, a horrendous universe, as Pasolini remarked (Il caos, 1979), is homologation, an ever-growing tendency across social behaviours, ideas, needs, desires and imaginaries to identify with each other, yet involving different types of people and social status. Homologation is connected to a drive towards consumerism, and corresponds to the ambition for visibility, the possibility of “connecting” in the global social network, of appearing as a participant in relations pushed to an extreme. Social media today has polarized mass attention between so-called “influencers” and “followers” in relations where what counts as the measure of “friendship” and “success” is not the relation itself, the relation with the other, with the other in his/her singularity as other, the quality of the relation, but rather the quantity, the number of “followers”, of “likes” necessary to be taken into consideration, as the criterion of evaluation of the relationship itself, never mind if only virtual.
In globalised communication, competitiveness between products on the market translates into relationships based on competition among people transformed into merchandise and consumers of communication. Solidarity easily translates into open conflict among identities, one against the other, as in the oppositional pairs: rich/poor, male/female, young/old, heterosexual/homosexual, employed/unemployed, communitarian/extra-communitarian. In this situation, all demands become demands for identification, precisely for the same lifestyle as those who detain power and control over communication, the demand for success: identity against identity.
Pasolini’s writing in its various genres of discourse is topical, today more than ever. This is largely due to a perspective that is constant throughout his work, what Pasolini himself defines as the viewpoint of the “writer”. As such, this viewpoint is capable of perceiving what escapes the attention of others, of intuiting relations where there seemed to be none, of foreseeing what despite belonging to reality is not yet visible.
Thanks to extralocalised vision, to the depicted word, the writer grasps that which evades the direct word of ordinary discourse. Literary writing contemplates the word with an indirect gaze, thus superseding the limitations of the world as-it-is, of ordinary language (which converges with the world), transcending the sphere of being, the order of discourse, ontology. In “Italian literature” at its “origins”, Dante’s Divina Commedia expresses the desire to transgress the boundaries of the present, of contemporaneity in search of a better world. In the splendor of Beatrice’s eyes and smile, the poet is elevated beyond the boundaries of short-sighted identity and transported into the boundless chronotope of unlimited, absolute love. The act in its uniqueness, the “step” (postupok, “act” as “step”), with Bakhtin responsible action, is depicted by Dante in the “trasumanar” of a guided voyage, initially in dialogue with Virgilio and then in flight with Beatrice in the light towards ever brighter new light, new life, vita nova.
Practicing Semiotics through “Writing”
Pasolini’s cinematographic artwork dedicated to reinterpreting myth as opposed to progress in civilization and reason is expressive of an ethical standpoint that attributes a central role to female characters. The female gender in his artistic vision is the place of interrogation, where Pasolini critiques identity, “genere” understood not only as gender, but more generally as “genre”, type, kind.
In contrast to overwhelming assertion of the identical, the same, to obsessive confirmation/reconfirmation of identity, to reproduction of the Identical in terms of abstract categories, those of Genere (Italian for genre/gender/type/kind), of the Subject, in Pasolini’s artistic vision femininity stages the vitality of the human outside genere, outside identity. In contrast to derivation from homo, human-kind, the kind of all kinds in conflict with each other, thus to “humanitas” associated with “humanitarian wars”, a contradictio in terminis, the feminine in Pasolini is performed in terms of humanitas which, like humilitas, is interpreted here as deriving from humus, humid fertile mother earth, fecund earth, cultivated together.
The feminine as we are describing it is not a quality inherent to womankind alone, exclusive to women. On the contrary, the feminine is an “interkind” (‘intergenere’) quality, a “transkind” (‘transgenere’) propensity, a quality of each one (‘ciascuno’), of the single unique individual in relation to another single, unique individual, with an unveiled face. This relation is characterized by listening, hospitality, “preventive peace” (Levinas), outside identity, outside the oppositional paradigm demanded by indifferent identity-difference, outside divisions and uniforms, outside uniformity and the homologation of differences, outside recruitment and the call to arms, to war and conflict, outside violence overall as provoked by affiliation to identity thus described.
In reply to the cultural history of progressive juxtaposition among identities, identities in conflict, one against the other; in reply to narrative about their struggles, manifest or repressed, ever stronger the more identities and differences enter into crisis, the more they produce indifference and homologation, Pasolini often chooses to highlight other possibilities for humanity through his women characters, alternative qualities, openings and orientations. He acknowledges them with a creative vitality, unbridled life forces, a mythological and regenerative capacity to transcend the limits of abstract categories and discourses representative of the “rational social order”, rocking their logic at the very foundations.
Pasolini reflected on language and was familiar with studies in semiotics, the general science of signs, just as he was versed in linguistics, the general science of verbal language. He read authors like Charles Morris, Roman Jakobson, Ferdinand de Saussure, following research pathways on the margins of different disciplines, at the crossroads of the different languages of poetry, literature, cinema, but also ordinary languages, professional languages, the language of journalistic communication etc.
Committed to humanizing the social, Pasolini curated a column, Il caos, for the weekly magazine «Tempo» (1968-1970), and before that Dialoghi for the communist review «Vie nuove». Thanks to its broad perspective with scholars like Morris, no doubt, and before him Charles S. Peirce the founder of “pragmatism”, semiotics takes into account the “reason of things”, with Pasolini the “rational social order”. However, the propensity of life and communication for otherness, for detotalisation as the condition for critical and dialogic totalization, teaches us that reason should not be disconnected from reasonableness. Considering the risks for semiosis and for life inherent in the current socio-historical order, the claim is that the human being must at the very earliest transform from a “rational animal” into a “reasonable animal”. During the last phase of his research, Peirce significantly turned his attention to the question of the “growth of reasonableness”.
In this context of discourse, “reason”, the “rational” is associated with identity, the Same, confirmation of the identical; while the “reasonable”, “reasonableness” tends to otherness, the other, thereby recovering the propensity for dialogue and hospitality. The allusion is to dialogue in the Bakhtinian sense, constitutive dialogue, a synonym for intercorporeality, interconnection among bodies, un-indifferent involvement with the other, a condition for critique and transcendence with respect to identity. It is not incidental that Chilean biologists, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (1980), as well as the Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexküll, studied in semiotics, all theorise dialogism as converging with life.
Owing to its capacity for transversality, for transign, translinguistic, transcultural crossover, Pasolini’s “transhumanising” gaze is a semiotic gaze, open to the other, dialogic and dialogizing, detotalising. For Pasolini to understand communication in its expressive complexity and variety means to understand its implication in the signs of life in its globality; it means to recognize the inevitable condition of compromise, of intercorporeal involvement with the other, inclusive of the non-human other, with the surrounding environment, with the other of the global ecological order.
The situation of crossing, transcendence, in the earthly sense, keeps account of the sign materiality of life, languages, cultures, therefore of the other towards which such materiality is oriented. The vocation of the sign, of expression and communication, is the other. The structure of the transign, of the translinguistic, the transcultural, is dialogic in the Bakhtinian sense of the term, un-indifferent to the other. Indeed, the structure of the sign is determined in the relation of alterity and as such it foresees polyvalency, polylogism, polyphony, plurilingualism, plurality as the very grain of cultural textuality.
Moreover, to recognize the condition of compromission, of dialogic interconnection among sign systems, among cultural, linguistic, axiological systems, among bodies, involves a capacity for human responsibility that exceeds all positive law and all responsibilities with alibis. The latter characterizes instead identity logic. Pasolini interpreted signs, including (if not above all) the symptoms of widespread social malaise in the “horrendous universe” of consumerism.
Pasolini knew how urgent it was for the quality of life on earth and human survival to recognize the condition of interconnection, compromission and dialogism in the relation among different life-forms, among the different spheres of life, of the cosmo, beginning from our relationship to the other. As Levinas says, the other gazes at me (me regarder) and at once regards me (me re-garder). This other cannot but concern me. Independently of decisions made by the subject, of what I decide about the other, I am responsible for that other. Pasolini was well aware of how urgent it was to recognize the human condition of responsibility/responsiveness towards the life universe, the biosphere, hence the sign universe, the semiosphere to which we belong in relations of co-implication with all other life-forms. Interconnectedness and interdependency in the network of life, therefore of signs constitutive of life, is the platform and starting point for the processes of innovation and regeneration, for the birth of new relations, of new life, vita nova, thereby enhancing our capacity for sense and significance in the human world. To recognize this is all the more urgent the more the “reason” of production globally and of communication functional to the former impose ecological conditions that distort and deviate relations between body and environment, whether natural or cultural (bearing in mind that the distinction between “nature” and “culture” is not clear cut, cannot be finalized once and for all, as evidenced by the “sign-mediated” nature of our relations to the world, not to speak of such destructive phenomenon as “anthropisation” of the planet).
The “Feminine” in Pasolini’s Artwork
Pasolini’s open, critical gaze, his uninhibited viewpoint can be traced in his depiction of female characters rather than in dominant male identities, the masculine subject (parodied and caricatured in Petrolio). Masculinity in Pasolini is the symbolic site of power and control, associated with a public role invested with the function of regulating society and sacramentalising relations between the sexes.
The choice of introducing women from real life as actresses and protagonists is a metaphor introduced by Pasolini in his films to signify the vitality of life, characteristic of his female characters: Susanna Pasolini, his mother, in Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (1964) and in Teorema (1968); the writer Elsa Morante, a nameless prostitute in Accattone (1961); Maria Callas in Medea.
Pasolini’s female universe unfolds at the margins of discourse and human action dominated by official ideology. Precisely because of this, his female universe is plurivocal, dialogical, creative. Female figures, and broadening the reference, expressions, voices, perspectives in the feminine, present an excess, a surplus with respect to the limitations and constrictions of common places, the places of discourse, of roles, subjects, identities. These are all recruited to serve the social, rational order; thus the call to arms, to war, in the name of the homeland, honour…
In the monologue forming the only act of Un pesciolino (1957), written for the “Compagnia del Teatro dei Satiri”, but never performed, not so young a woman rebelling against her identity as a “spinster” interrogates identity as imposed upon the singularity of each single individual, “caged in a frame, in an iron schema”, as she says. Her discourse is an indictment against the trap of identity:
When somebody meets you, that idiot, first he puts you into a category, and only after takes you into consideration as a person. He doesn’t understand the appalling mistake…ungodly…beast…an atrocious offence against humanity… To humiliate an individual with an aprioristic act which then remains fixed in judgement against him, ineradicable, ineradicable, even if unconsciously, is horrendous cowardice […] Yes all, all men are made like this: present a Jew to somebody, and first he will be a Jew and only after a man, an individual. […] Damn conformists, idiots, all of them, all of them! […] In this category there is all of life that cannot bear categories: a life where to write “category” is like expecting to write in the water with a finger. Not in your life!, as if you will be convinced of this! Damn Nazis, all of you, all of you! We must all be the same, belong to the category of normality, otherwise big trouble! […] What shame, abominable, to somehow exit the norm: the bet he makes with himself, this cretin of a man, coming into the world, is that of not committing a scandal: because whoever commits a scandal pulls a fast one on everybody else, revealing how in man, in all men, there effectively exists the possibility of scandal: and whoever escapes will then condemn him for the revelation. With all his being. With all his instinct for survival!.
Scandal, that is to say, alterity, difference must be eliminated, otherwise how do we stay in our boxes, in the social cages of identity, in the abstract classifications of the order of discourse?
Pasolini does not simply depict life through his artwork, but rather with his camera he rewrites the depiction that is already present in life itself, invisible, illegible, irreducible to the places of representation, to its replicas, roles, scripts, juxtapositions, struggles, implicit and explicit. Pasolini writes about the extra–ordinary depiction that renders life as life, that restores the word, gesture, face, gaze, laughter and weeping with regenerative, transformative, creative vitality. Depiction is oriented according to the logic of alterity, the relation to others, dialogized listening.
Pasolini says all this through the feminine, above all through images of women, whether mothers, daughters or prostitutes. And he does so not only by representing and objectifying female characters in their identity, but on the contrary by beginning from the irreducibility of each singularity to identity, objectification and representation.
In contrast with the position of the individual in the social and moral orders, with the degradation and hypocrisy that this order itself generates, Pasolini’s women, like Medea and Mamma Roma, are connected to the symbology of unbridled life forces (vital cycles, mother earth, offspring, children, water, light), and to the vitality of restlessness for the other, of fear for the other, rather than fear of the other. Here “fear of the other ” resounds in the sense of fearing the other, so that “of the other” is an object genitive: the other is object of fear, the other as object is feared by the subject. Logical analysis distinguishes between object genitive and subject genitive. In the case of the subject genitive, it is the other who fears, the other who is afraid, the other, subject of fear: subject and object.
Instead, with respect to the third sense, fear for the other, we must leave the subject / object dichotomy, the paradigm of polarization in which the logical order remains trapped: to feel fear of the other as fear for the other, in a relation where the counterpart of difference is no longer indifference but rather un-indifference. In the expression “to feel the fear of the other ”, “to feel the other’s fear”, “of the other” is neither subject genitive nor object genitive. This is the “ethical genitive” in analogy with the ethical dative, traceable in expressions like “salutami tua madre”, “stammi bene”.
Today “fear of the other” in the sense of fearing the other, where the other is the object of the subject’s fear, has reached paroxystic degrees. Defense of identity is exasperated to the utmost. But such paroxysm is not the starting point in the constitution of identity, Hobbes’ “homo homini lupus”, but rather the point of arrival. In globalization, in spite of its potential in a positive sense, the social relation is a relation among individuals mutually indifferent to each other, suffered as a necessity for the sake of individual self-interest, where identity is concerned with itself, with its own difference to the point of obsession, indifferent to the other’s difference, thus enhancing fear of the other as a consequence.
Playing the card of “fear of the other”, as Umberto Eco points out “eternal fascism”, “Ur-Fascism” presents itself in different forms, capable still today of capturing the imaginary of the masses. Trapped in existential despair, the masses are tragically prone to sinking into fascist culture, embracing fascist ideology by degrees, progressively – of course always the “enemy’s” fault! Besides, nowadays as in the past, the “enemy” is a threat to “security”. Such rhetoric legitimizes persecution of opponents and dissidents who refuse such a view of “security”: like those who refuse to accept that people – who would otherwise gravitate towards Europe as migrants and eventual extra-communitarians – should be made to rot in Libya or drown in the sea.
Medea, the Extra-communitarian
In the film Medea Pasolini depicts the struggle between different worlds represented by the mythical figures of Medea and Jason. Medea is mother both in the biological sense – with Jason she generates two sons –, and the symbolic. As a priestess from Colchide in fact, she is mother to the people governed by her father Eete. In a certain sense like Mamma Roma, Medea represents an original primitive culture at the margins of the official world, in Medea’s case the distant and rocky Colchide. Like Mamma Roma, Medea too is attracted by the challenge of undertaking a new life, in her case presented by the arrival of Jason, the traveler.
The scenario depicted in the film Medea is the relation between the sacred and the profane, Medea’s separation from her country, an unbalanced love relationship, the connection between love and death, between fecundity and destruction.
All of Medea’s actions overflow, present excess with respect to the logic of the world, a world closed in upon its own identity. Medea is otherwise than the being of things, transcendent with respect to the order of discourse, to any tendencies to reconfirm the identical. Whether creating or destroying, Medea behaves according to values that connect her to the vital forces of the cosmos, in relations of close interconnection and mutual responsiveness. Paradoxically, all of her actions, even the most destructive, make sense in light of the project for safeguarding the quality of life itself.
Through cinematographic techniques and precise stylistic standpoints, Pasolini exalts the positivity of Medea’s origins, her primordial innocence, the mystery surrounding her, the sense of unfathomableness, unknowability – consider the frequent close-ups on her face, eyes, profile. Medea’s gaze, photographed and projected indirectly by Pasolini, from the side, framing her profile, reaches out beyond the boundaries of the world to reveal her tacit alliance with the Gods, the state of peaceful communion with nature, with the sacred spheres of life.
Medea is intense, regal, vigilant. Her gaze is distanced, dignified and indirect, whether she is participating in the rites of her community of origin or is with Jason. Her actions, her words are perfused with meaning and significance, for all those who enter into contact with her and her world.
Medea is always out of place, in continuous deferral among signs, never totally incorporated by a single identity, constantly interrogating the worlds to which she belongs, of which she is an expression, even the sacred world of which she is a representative. She departs from her father’s world killing his son, her brother, in her flight towards Jason; and as though this did not suffice, she enters into conflict with her husband’s world only to kill his children, her own.
The cinematographic narration begins by depicting Medea in the role of priestess with the task of guaranteeing the quality of life of her original community, its well-being which also involves participating in fertility rites. The element that sparks off the narrative’s subsequent development is betrayal of this same community and its peoples, Medea’s shift towards the unknown other. Medea is never trapped by identity, captured by the community, which is why she is a source of fear. Medea is always ready to take a stance and rebel, in this sense she is a stranger, an eternal stranger. As a stranger even in Jason’s world, Medea remains an extra-communitarian, a witch and a priestess. As the cause of fear she is expelled from the community, rejected.
Although Medea emerges as a powerful, central figure in the feminine, a sense of malaise and restlessness characterises the depiction of this character, representing the condition of marginalization with respect to the worlds she inhabits. With the end of her travels at sea with the argonauts, Medea, at last back on land, seeks signs of the sacred, communication with the Gods. All the same, in that particular episode as well, there prevails a sense of disorientation, unease, estrangement and diversity with respect to the new foreign land: “Ahhh! Speak to me, Earth, let me hear your voice! I no longer remember your voice! Sun!”. Exclusion as a foreigner from the community of Corinth, under the rule of Creon – king, power, tyrant –, is symbolized by the house she inhabits, located outside the walls of the city.
With respect to the secular world as represented Jason and governed by Creon, Medea is the surplus, excess, the exorbitant, the other sacrificed to the end of maintaining the integrity, compactness, identity of that world. Medea is mobile, she passes fluidly from one place to another, from one social status to another, without ever identifying once and for all with any one of them. A complex, undefinable, dynamical figure, Medea crosses over different worlds, genres and roles: sacred/profane, spiritual/worldly, natural/cultural, public/private, official/unofficial, internal/external. She experiences these worlds simultaneously, in all their aspects, as a woman according to different perspectives and prerogatives, priestess, mother, wife, lover, tyrant, paradoxically inviolable in her alterity and at once vulnerable precisely because of this, and because of her perception of the other.
The final tragedy is connected with indifference, closure, rejection by a world incapable of opening to the other, of welcoming and hosting the other, of caring for the other. Murdering her own children, Medea symbolizes maximum rebellion towards a social order that is indifferent, ready to segregate, to recuse and deny the other, to refuse the other, but also and above all towards what a world of this sort ends up producing.
What remains of this figure, Medea, in the common imaginary, in common discourse, the order of discourse, Medea as a commonplace, is the mother who kills her own children. But at a closer look, from a dislocated perspective, outside the order of discourse, out of place, Medea is not only the scandal of a world that expunges the other, but she is also its disgrace: the disgrace of a world that produces figures of this type, that pushes a woman – more precisely, the single individual trapped in a genre and in the identity imposed by that genre – to the extreme limit, a world that produces and continues to produce Medeas.
The Discomfort of inescapable Responsibility for the Other
Tolerance is nurtured by indifference and conceals irritation, even hatred towards the other. As such, tolerance easily translates into intolerance and exclusion. On this account, an appropriate reference is another essay by Eco from the early 1990s, recently published in booklet form, Migrazione e tolleranza, 2019. Under the cover of indifference and hatred there is also a sense of guilt, a bad conscience, which at times re/surfaces.
Fear of the other counsels estrangement and rejection of the other. Jason’s world does not contain Medea who is perceived as a threat to the social order, it does not resist in the face of her alterity. This leads to the decision to ban her, sending her into exile:
Creon says to Medea:
You frighten me – let me tell you this openly – I fear for my daughter. Everybody living in this city knows that as a barbarian, come from a foreign land, you are a great expert in evil spells. You are different from us all: for this reason we don’t want you around us<sup.
But, then, given the gentle and reconciling tone of Medea’s response, such that Creon refers to her words as “sweet” and “humane”, he confesses the real reason for wanting to cast her out with her children. In crossing over identity boundaries an extraordinary relationship is born, one that goes beyond social roles, that is transcendent with respect to the official order of discourse: Creon and the stranger – the witch – face-to-face, faces exposed, one single individual to another, one unique individual to another. His daughter whom Jason intends to marry feels guilty towards Medea and suffers the pain of Medea’s sufferings. Creon in reality fears for his daughter, for what she might do because of her uneasy conscience. Medea must leave precisely because she is guiltless, she must be driven away: her mere presence is cause of guilt complexes. The institution of power intervenes to support those too sensitive to be indifferent to the sufferings of others. Not to see those who suffer is a remedy to avoid being overwhelmed by a sense of guilt, to safeguard a clean conscience, and feel at peace with the world.
To tell the truth, says Creon:
It is not out of hatred for you that I am afraid, nor out of suspicion because of your diversity as a barbarian, here in our city with the signs of another race, […]. But I fear for what my daughter might do: for she feels guilty towards you and knowing of your sufferings, feels pain that gives her no peace.
Logical analysis, as observed, knows only two senses of “feeling fear of the other”, distinguishing between “subject genitive” and “object genitive”; fear of the other either in the sense that the other is afraid – “subject genitive” – or that the other is the cause of fear – “object genitive”. The “other” is subject to or object of fear. So what does Creon say? He says: let me be sincere, it is not that you are the cause of fear or that I’m afraid of you or that I don’t want my daughter to have to live in fear or your presence. It’s that I fear for my daughter. Here “to fear for…” is neither subject genitive nor object genitive. To feel fear of the other as fearing for the other. In logical analysis, to feel the other’s fear is not foreseen in this sense: either subject or object. But in Italian we have expressions like “penso a te”, in English “I think of you”, “I think about you” (not “penso te”, not “I think you”, as in “I know you”, “I possess you”, that is, a transitive verb and its object). The Spanish language has an effective saying, also present in idioms in the South of Italy, which translated into Italian is “amo a te” (a grammatical case not foreseen in standard Italian in relation to the verb “amo”, from “amare”, to love; in French J’aime à toi). “Amo a te” recalls “penso a te”, “I think of you”, “I think about you.” Here the Italian “te”, English “you”, is not intended as an object pronoun in the accusative. “To feel fear of the other” in the sense of to be afraid for the other, of fearing for the other, is a case of using the word indirectly, obliquely, the ethical genitive, by analogy with what is named as the “ethical dative”, “dativo etico” (“stammi bene!”, “amo a te”).
Between two Identity Worlds
The name “Mamma Roma” (here too the character gives the title to the film) is at once metaphor and metonymy of the interrelation between public and private, of the continuity that effectively interweaves different but not separate life spheres, crossing over divisions presented by roles, codes and social conventions. This name indicates the continuity (“synechism” in Charles Peirce terminology for continuity in discontinuity in the sign universe) that life circumstances may either resist and deny or, instead, accommodate and develop. Mamma Roma by profession is a prostitute, as such an outcast, poor, marginalized, boisterous and heartwarming, portrayed as the victim of oppression and control.
Like Medea, Mamma Roma is not only the expression of humility combined with an extraordinary sense of dignity. She also represents unbridled primordial forces, the exuberance of original, primal sense as it gushes forth and overflows with respect to limitations, oppositions, conflicts foreseen by “closed identity” (Morris, author of The Open Self), identity-difference, the kind of difference that eliminates alterity.
Medea and Mamma Roma are both mothers, capable of generating new life, invested with significance beyond the special meaning of ordinary mother-child relations. Regarding contemporaneity, the immediate chronotropic situation, their gaze stretches beyond, towards the future: Mamma Roma, a female figure from post-war Rome aspires to a better life beyond the misery of poverty; Medea looks towards the sacred sphere investing it with social value.
In Mamma Roma the mother-son relationship refers to life conditions on the outskirts of Rome, to a specific class, a given community, relatively small and limited. But as in Medea, the problematics addressed by Pasolini in this film refer to a vaster community, an extended global community, the western world and its value systems, and even beyond.
Pasolini’s writings generally (and not just his films and literary writings) are critical and creative, propositional. They aim to reorganize the universe of sense, therefore life, “trasumanar e organizzar”, as recites the title of his 1971 poetry collection. The expression “writing” as used here resounds with different meanings: in the sense of Roland Barthes’s “intransitive writing”; Emmanuel Levinas’s writing avant la lettre (1982); “writing as modeling”. The latter is adapted from Thomas Sebeok’s concept of “modeling” as distinct from “communication”, where modeling (also named “language”) tells of a syntactical device and a priori with respect to verbal language. Communication in the human world occurs through a great variety of writing systems, historical natural languages, cultures, all based in syntactical modeling, that is, in writing or language understood as a priori modeling. This special device (syntactical modeling) is specific to hominids; its appearance determines a new course in their evolutionary development. Syntactical modeling (or writing thus understood) liberates human communication as the effect of an extraordinary potential for the imagination, the “play of musement” to echo Peirce, for daydreaming, with Pasolini, transhumanisation. Pasolini’s writing resounds with sense and significance responsive to a cosmic, Lucretian vision of the existent. His transhumanising vision invests the world itself with sense, its signs, languages, cultures, evidencing continuity in the dialectics between the specific and the universal, between nature and culture, profane and sacred, close and distant, local and global.
Interrelatedness among worlds, impossible indifference towards life, structural dialogism connecting all lifeforms beyond opposition and the “normality” of conflict among differences are constant themes in Pasolini’s works. He underlines the inexorable condition of interdependency among elements, human and non-human, that together compose ever larger universes of sense and significance. Stories of women like Mamma Roma and Medea reveal how failing to recognize the primary, original and vital condition of dialogical interdependency among the different spheres of life, to valorize the original sense of life, mother-sense inherent in the relation to the other can only end in devastation and death.
Female figures depicted by Pasolini in his films, including Accattone, often come from extremely poor family circumstances, like Mamma Roma. As victims of violence and control on various fronts, they live a life of hardship at the margins of official society, an ambiguous space at the borders of two worlds. But Mamma Roma in particular aspires with all her might to improve her social position, suffering her existential situation as unbearable, tormented by the awareness that other worlds are possible, but for her unreachable; this awareness that makes her desperate, but active. Pasolini introduces the mother-son relationship, complex and problematic, as a metaphor to critique dominant ideology. Mamma Roma’s view of Rome from her window – her home is not located in a township, a suburb, but on the outskirts of the city – underlines the condition of marginalization with respect to the richer social classes, and her desire to identify with them. Mamma Roma knows that she neither belongs to “her” class with respect to which she turns her gaze elsewhere, nor to the middle class which she aspires to reaching, but without success, in spite of having conquered material goods indicating a movement in that direction, objects including a red Vespa for her son Ettore.
Mamma Roma is relegated to the borderland between two worlds, at the margins, trapped and caged by the desire of a new identity, by the wish to replace a social position with another, a social class with another, to claim rights, advancing from prostitution to citizenship in a middle-class urban bourgeois world. Animated by desire of escape, she lives in and of a transcultural world, as she imagines to move across different social levels. Pasolini shows Mamma Roma as she speaks, acts, and struggles with determination, shifting towards the city from the underground, from the subproletariat underclass to which she belongs, towards the lower middle class of the future, which she dreams of reaching, but never will. To this dream she sacrifices values from a distant past she no longer wants to be part of, stretching out to a future through which to redeem herself, but which remains inaccessible. In spite of her iron will and determination, even authoritarian attitudes, imposing herself, she will never belong to the social class she dreams of.
Mamma Roma’s claim to the freedom of crossing over the boundaries of identity, to transformation and improvement in social status is based on work, hard honest work. Mamma Roma dreams of liberated work, work bought and sold on the equal exchange market. Ettore is also caught between two worlds: a past life on the land, on one side, a consumerist future in a progressing world, on the other. But, while Mamma Roma embraces the work ethics of an emerging middle class, Ettore fails at school, is unemployed and disoriented, wholly deprived of values, dreams, projects, wholly dependent on his mother for survival.
With characters like Ettore, but also Bruna, the girl who becomes his lover, Pasolini stages conflict among cultures, the crisis of values, desperation, frustrations afflicting the young. Ettore is not comfortable with his mother’s plans; with respect to his mother he is other, but he finds no escape from his mother’s will, from the tyranny of her determination. Her only son Ettore’s death is the price Mamma Roma pays for her dream of escape.
These stories by Pasolini narrate struggles between the single individual and community, the single individual and genre, the single individual and alienation to which the single individual is condemned by his or her very own difference, an unfair struggle.
For a Semioethics of Alterity
Human life develops through infinite, unfinalisable translational processes, through semiotic processes of transferral, transformation, transmutation, transaccentution, transvaluation – with Pasolini through processes of “transhumanisation” – across different worlds, cultures and languages. This makes for universes of sense and experience ever more enhanced by new relations, new meanings beyond anthropocentric, ethnocentric and glottocentric limitations.
In spite of recurring forms of indifference towards the other, globalization today is also the inevitability of encounter among differences – people, cultures, languages and traditions. In light of this situation and the responsibilities involved for the life of signs and the signs of life and considering the ethical and economical-political implications for humanity beyond the broadly cultural, difference demands reconsideration in terms of relations of un-indifference, of listening to the other, caring for the other, fearing for the other, accounting to the other and for the other. From the perspective of the relation between humankind and nature, culture and nature, this other is also the “ecological other”, the so-called “natural” environment, “mother earth”, particularly significant for a planet marked by “anthropisation”.
This is a global and globalised world, with no escape from the dialogical condition of intercorporeality, whether local or global, as the current Covid-19 crisis has evidenced all too clearly. In the present day and age, we are all interconnected, as never before: the destiny of each one of us is determined by the destiny of every other. Beyond the boundaries of identity, we are all actors together, each one responsible for the other, in a transnational, transcultural, transethnic and translinguistic network of signs and bodies, values and relations.
To conclude returning to a more strictly philosophical-semiotic issue à propos the notion of the “maternal”, “mother-sense” as portrayed by Pasolini in Medea and Mamma Roma: an interesting connection can be established with Victoria Welby and her significs (her theory of meaning), where the concept of mother-sense plays an important role in the architecture of her thought system. Working on language, signs and meaning, on the relation between signs and values, between sense, meaning and significance, Welby discusses “mother-sense” as a quality that invests all human beings alike, each and every one of us, transversally. Mother-sense alludes to the human capacity for opening to the other, for hospitality, co-participative creativity and responsibility, in spite of the dominant tendency to build walls and barriers that impose categories and cages based on identity logic, on identities in relations of opposition to each other.
How semiosis implies ethics and leads to the formulation of the concept of “semioethics” is a major topic in my research. While it is not specifically thematized here, it does provide the theoretical framework. In the face of ecological emergency and social practice threatening human survival, masters of the sign like those cited in this text assure us that other and better worlds are possible, worlds whose destiny is alterity, otherness of the other, the basis and perspective of semiosis described as converging with life. But there is important work to do, work of the specifically cultural order, profound, extensive and semioethically (trans)humanising.
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- Eid., La raffigurazione letteraria, Milan, Mimesis, 2006;
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- White House, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, President of the United States, The White House, Washington, September 2002.
- S. Petrilli, A. Ponzio, Semiotics Unbounded. Interpretive Routes through the Open Network of Signs, Toronto, Buffalo, London, University Press of Toronto Press, 2005; S. Petrilli (Ed.) Semioetica e comunicazione globale, Milan, Mimesis, 2014. ↑
- S. Petrilli & A. Ponzio, Building Nations and International Relations, in S. Petrilli (Ed.) Challenges to Living Together, Milan, Mimesis International, 2017, pp. 135-76. ↑
- See B. Medlin, The Modern World, in S. Petrilli (Ed.) Challenges to Living Together, Milan, Mimesis International, 2017, pp. 275-480; Id., Nuclear disarmament and the defence of Australia, in S. Petrilli (Ed.) Pace, pacificazione, pacifismo e i loro linguaggi, Collana «Athanor. Semiotica, Filosofia, Arte, Letteratura», XXVII, 20, Milan, Mimesis, 2017, pp. 433-445; Id., The Level-Headed Revolutionary. Essays, Stories and Poems, Ed. & intro. by S. Petrilli (in collab.), Adelaide, Wakefield Press, 2021. ↑
- U. Eco, Il fascismo eterno, Milan, La nave di Teseo, 2018, p. 43. ↑
- C. W. Morris, The Open Self, New York, Prentice Hall, 1948, p. 116. ↑
- See. S. Petrilli, The Self as a Sign, the World, and the Other. Living Semiotics, Foreword by A. Ponzio (pp. xiii-xvi), New Brunswick, London, Publishers, 2013; Ead. (Ed.) Challenges to Living Together, Milan, Mimesis International, 2017. ↑
- See S. Petrilli, Migration, an Inescapable demand. The Responsibility of Hosting and the Right to Hospitality, in «Calumet. Intercultural Law and Humanities Review», directed by M. Ricca, 2021, pp. 1-43. ↑
- U. Eco, Il fascismo eterno cit., p. 45. ↑
- See G. Leopardi, Zibaldone di pensieri, Ed. & comment G. Pacella, 3 voll., Milan, Garzanti, 1991, vol. II, p. 2502 [Zibaldone, p. 4418, 30 Nov. 1828]. ↑
- See M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination. Four Essays, Ed. M. Holquist, trans. C. Emerson & M. Holquist, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1981; Id., Towards a Philosophy of the Act [1920-1924], Eng. trans. V. Liapunov, Ed. M. Holquist, Austin, Austin University of Texas Press, 1993. ↑
- See P. P. Pasolini, Empirismo eretico, Milano, Garzanti, 1972, pp. 81-103. ↑
- Ivi, p. 177. ↑
- See G. Herczeg, Lo stile indiretto libero in italiano, Florence, Sansoni, 1963; V. N. Vološinov Marksizm i filosofija jazyka. Osnovnye problemy sociologiceskogo metoda v nauke o jazyke, Leningrad, Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 1929, II ed. 1930; Eng. trans. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Ed. L. Matejka & I. R. Titunik, Cambridge (Mass.), Harvard University Press, 1973, II ed. 1986, pp. 109-40. ↑
- See M. M. Bakhtin, Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo, Moscow, Sovetskij pisatel’, 1963; S. Petrilli, Dialogism and Interpretation in the Study of Signs, in «Semiotica. Journal of the International Association for Semiotic Studies», 97-1/2, 1993, pp. 103-18; Ead., Altrove e altrimenti. Filosofia del linguaggio, critica letteraria e teoria della traduzione in, intorno e a partire da Bachtin, Milan, Mimesis, 2012. ↑
- See G. Deleuze, L’immagine movimento. Cinema 1; L’immagine tempo. Cinema 2, Milan, Ubulibri, 1984. ↑
- See P. P. Pasolini, Empirismo eretico, Milano, Garzanti, 1972, pp. 84-88; S. Petrilli and A. Ponzio, Depicting the vision of the other in the novel and film. Bakhtin, Pasolini, Deleuze, in Philology and Performing Arts: A Challenge, 2014 cit., pp. 289-307. ↑
- See M. Foucault, L’ordre du discours, Paris, Gallimard, 1970. ↑
- See S. Petrilli, Senza ripari. Segni, differenze, estraneità, Milan, Mimesis, 2021, pp. 89-102. ↑
- See S. Petrilli and A. Ponzio, Identità e alterità. Per una semioetica della comunicazione globale, Milan, Mimesis, 2019. ↑
- See A. Ponzio, Quadrilogia. La differenza non indifferente, Elogio dell’infunzionale, Fuori luogo, In altre parole, Milan, Mimesis, 2022. ↑
- See S. Petrilli and A. Ponzio, Fuori campo. I segni del corpo tra rappresentazione ed eccedenza, Milan, Mimesis, 1999; Eid., Views in Literary Semiotics, Ottawa, Toronto, Legas, 2003; Eid., La raffigurazione letteraria, Milan, Mimesis, 2006. ↑
- See S. Petrilli, Translation, Semiotics and Ideology, in «TTR. Traduction, Terminologie, Rédaction. La pédagogie de la traduction: Questions actuelles», V, 1, 1992, pp. 233-64; Ead., The Unconscious, Signs, and Ideology, in «Semiotica. Journal of the International Association for Semiotic Studies», 90, 3/4, 1992, pp. 379-87; Ead., Signs and Values: For a Critique of Cognitive Semiotics, in «Journal of Pragmatics», 20, 1993, pp. 239-51; Ead. (Ed.) Ideology, Logic, and Dialogue in Semioethic Perspective, in «Semiotica. Journal of the International Association for Semiotic Studies», 148-1/4, 2004. ↑
- See Intervento al Congresso del Partito Radicale, in P. P. Pasolini, Lettere luterane, Turin, Einaudi, 1976, pp. 189-90. ↑
- P. P. Pasolini, Petrolio, Turin, Einaudi, 1992, p. 39. ↑
- Ivi, p. 81. ↑
- Ivi, p. 48. ↑
- Ivi, p. 574; see M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination. Four Essays, Ed. M. Holquist, trans. C. Emerson & M. Holquist, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1981. ↑
- See A. Ponzio, Con Emmanuel Levinas. Alterità e identità, Milan, Mimesis, 2019, pp. 149-52. ↑
- See M. M. Bakthin, Towards a Philosophy of the Act [1920-1924], Eng. trans. V. Liapunov, Ed. M. Holquist, Austin, Austin University of Texas Press, 1993. ↑
- See S. Petrilli, Translation as the Doctrine of Inter-genre and Trans-genre Communication: A Semioethic Perspective, in «TTR. Traduction Terminologie Rédaction. Etudes sur le texte et ses transformations», XVIII, 1, 1er semestre 2005, pp. 221-50; Ead., Sign Crossroads in Global Perspective. Semioethics and Responsibility, Preface by J. Deely, New Brunswick, Transaction Publishers, 2010, pp. 208-21. ↑
- See S. Petrilli (Ed.) Maestri di segni e costruttori di pace, Milan, Mimesis, 2021; S. Petrilli and A. Ponzio, The Right to Peace and the Globalisation of Infinite War, in «CALUMET – Intercultural law and humanities review», published online on 10 November 2016. ↑
- See P. P. Pasolini, Medea , in Id., Per il cinema, Eds. W. Siti and F. Zabagli, 2 voll., Milan, Mondadori, 2001, pp. 1205-89, cit. p. 50. ↑
- P. P. Pasolini, Il caos , Ed. G. C. Ferretti, Rome, Editori Riuniti, 1995. ↑
- See S. Petrilli, Riflessioni sulla teoria del linguaggio e dei segni , Milano, Mimesis, 2014, pp. 238-41. ↑
- See M. M. Bakhtin, Problemy poetiki Dostoevskogo, Moscow, Sovetskij pisatel’, 1963. ↑
- See J. von Uexküll, Streifzüge durch Umwelten von Tieren und Menschen, Reimbeck, Rowohlt, 1934; Eng. trans., A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds, in «Semiotica» 89 (4), 1992, pp. 319-91. ↑
- See S. Petrilli, Communication at the Intersection between Nature and Culture. A Global Semiotic Perspective, Eds. A. Galkowski & M. Kopytowska, Current Perspectives in Semiotics. Signs, Signification and Communication, Lódz Studies in Language, vol. 55, pp. 185-202, Bern, Peter Lang, 2018. ↑
- See also D. Reichardt, On the Theory of a Transcultural Francophony. The Concept of Wolfgang Welsch and Its Didactic Interest, in «Transnational 900», 1, 1 (March 2017), pp. 40-56, cit. pp. 50-51; W. Welsch, Transkulturalität. Lebensformen nach der Auflösung der Kulturen, in Dialog der Kulturen: Die multikulturelle Gesellschaft und die Medien, Ed. Kurt Luger, Rudi Renger, Wien, Österreichischer Kunst-und Kulturverlag, 1994, pp. 147-69; Id., Transculturality – the Puzzling Form of Cultures Today, in Spaces of culture: City, Nation, World, edited by Featherstone/Lash, London, Sage, 1999, pp. 194-213. ↑
- See S. Petrilli, The Law Challenged and the Critique of Identity with Emmanuel Levinas, in «International Journal for the Semiotics of Law – Revue internationale de Sémiotique juridique», 2022, 35, pp. 31-69. ↑
- P. P. Pasolini, Per il cinema, Eds. W. Siti and F. Zabagli, 2 voll., Milan, Mondadori, 2001, pp. 141-42. ↑
- See A. Ponzio, Con Emmanuel Levinas. Alterità e identità, Milan, Mimesis, 2019, p. 274. ↑
- See L. Canfora, Fermare l’odio, Bari, Laterza, 2019, p. 17. ↑
- P. P. Pasolini, Per il cinema cit., vol. I, p. 1285. ↑
- Ibidem. ↑
- See L. Irigaray J’aime à toi, Paris, Grasset, 1990. ↑
- See R. Barthes, Le degro zero d’écriture, suivi de nouveaux essais critiques, Paris, Seuil, 1953; Id., L’obvie et l’obtus. Essais critiques III, Paris, Seuil, 1982. ↑
- See S. Petrilli and A. Ponzio, Semiotics Unbounded. Interpretive Routes through the Open Network of Signs, Toronto, Buffalo, London, University Press of Toronto Press, 2005. ↑
- See T. A. Sebeok, I Think I Am a Verb: More Contributions to the Doctrine of Signs, New York, London, Plenum Press, 1986; S. Petrilli and A. Ponzio, Language as primary modeling and natural languages: a biosemiotic perspective, in E. Velmezova, K. Kull, S. J. Cowley (Eds.) Biosemiotic Perspectives on Language and Linguistics, New York, Dordrecht, London, Springer International Publishing Switzerland, 2015, pp. 47-76; Eid., Lineamenti di semiotica e di filosofia del linguaggio, Perugia, Guerra Edizioni, 2016. ↑
- See S. Petrilli, Signifying and Understanding. Reading the Works of Victoria Welby and the Signific Movement, Preface by P. Cobley, Berlin, Mouton, 2009; Ead., Victoria Welby and the science of signs. Significs, semiotics, philosophy of language, Presentation F. Nuessel, New Brunswick, Transaction, 2015; Ead., Nella vita dei segni. Percorsi della semiotica, Milan, Mimesis, 2015; V. Welby, What Is Meaning? , Ed. & Pref. A. Eschbach, Intro. di G. Mannoury, Amsterdam, John Benjamins, 1983. ↑
- See S. Petrilli and A. Ponzio, Semioetica, Rome, Meltemi, 2003; Eid., Semioethics, in P. Cobley (Ed.) The Routledge Companion to Semiotics cit., 2010, pp. 150-62; S. Petrilli, Sign Crossroads in Global Perspective. Semioethics and Responsibility, Preface by J. Deely, New Brunswick, Transaction Publishers, 2010; Ead., Altrove e altrimenti. Filosofia del linguaggio, critica letteraria e teoria della traduzione in, intorno e a partire da Bachtin, Milan, Mimesis, 2012; Ead. (Ed.) Semioetica e comunicazione globale, Milan, Mimesis, 2014; Ead., Signs, Language and Listening. Semioethic Perspectives, Ottawa, Legas, 2019. ↑
- See S. Petrilli, Senza ripari. Segni, differenze, estraneità, Milan, Mimesis, 2021. ↑
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