By Joseph Reigle
While social isolation has taken me away from Rome, it has given me more time to read. One of the destinations I have turned to for thoughtful reflections on our shared COVID-19 predicament is The Point Magazine’s Quarantine Journals. The journal collects daily reflections on the life of the mind from individuals in quarantine. A March 29, contribution from Becca Rothfeld in Somerville, Massachusetts, considers how quarantine has thrown her mind into disarray, paralyzing her attempts at writing or even reading. Rothfeld compares her conundrum to the following passage in the novelist W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz,
The panic I felt on facing the start of any sentence that must be written, not knowing how I could begin it or indeed any other sentence, soon extended to what is in itself the simpler business of reading, until if I attempted to read a whole page I inevitably fell into a state of the greatest confusion. If language may be regarded as an old city full of streets and squares, nooks and crannies, with some quarters dating from far back in time while others have been torn down, cleaned up, and rebuilt, and with suburbs reaching further and further into the surrounding country, then I was like a man who has been abroad a long time and cannot find his way through this urban sprawl anymore, no longer knows what a bus stop is for, or what a backyard is, or a street junction, an avenue or a bridge.
The analogy between the structure of language and the structure of the city struck me as particularly poignant for our class. We are trying to understand, analyze, and describe a city through language or through maps that have their linguistic code of edges, nodes, and landmarks. Even our quantitative analysis is a process of codifying patterns and shaping a narrative. The urban model Sebald describes immediately reminded me of Rome’s distinct historic urban center, which spreads out into younger peripheral districts. I think Rothfeld’s description of mental paralysis may also apply to our experience of separation from our subject of study, Prenestino. Our mental maps are not representations of the city itself, but representations of the city as it exists in our memory.
In “Interpretation and the Sciences of Man,” the philosopher Charles Taylor (another author I have been able to engage in quarantine), raises a basic question about linguistics and extends it into a broader assessment of methodology in the social sciences. Taylor asks, what are the criteria of judgment in science? And how does one know if an interpretation is correct? He critiques the idea that we can be unbiased observers that extract “brute” data and analyze it empirically, resulting in unobjectionable conclusions. Rather, we know from linguistics that the “meaning” of a situation, a subject, or a group of subjects, only occurs within a “field” of other meanings. In other words, the meaning we assign to a subject is dependent on the context we are interpreting it in. Significantly, humans interpret actions through the language of emotions, feelings, and desires we have available. Taylor describes,
Our actions are ordinarily characterized by the purpose sought and explained by desires, feelings, emotions. But the language by which we describe our goals, feelings, desires is also a definition of the meaning things have for us. The vocabulary defining meaning–words like “terrifying,” “attractive”–is linked with that describing feeling–“fear,” “desire”–and that describing goals–“safety,” “possession.”
But a problem arises when we encounter terms whose meaning can only be interpreted within the context of other meanings, which we do not know.
To understand these concepts we have to be in on a certain experience, we have to understand a certain language, not just of words, but also a certain language of mutual action and communication, by which we blame, exhort, admire, esteem each other. In the end, we are in on this because we grow up in the ambit of certain common meanings. But we can often experience what it is like to be on the outside when we encounter the feeling, action, and experiential meaning language of another civilization. Here there is no translation, no way of explaining in other, more accessible concepts. We can only catch on by getting somehow into their way of life, if only in imagination.
Taylor’s essay influenced my perspective on our neighborhood study. During my visits to the neighborhood, what have I been conditioned to see or not to see? Moreover, the reflection by Rothfeld incited a similar question even more relevant: now being home, social-distancing in Binghamton, NY, in the context of a global pandemic, what am I conditioned to recall about my time in Prenestino?
Additionally, I think these texts carry implications for the tools we use to analyze from afar. Interpreting a city through Google Maps privileges a satellite perspective and neglects the type of knowledge which exists in a narrative and emotional context. Similarly, our statistical data is constrained by the methodology and range of ISTAT, as well as our blind spots and biases as observers during our street surveys.
Different Romans can tell vastly different stories about their city. This is already evident in the disparity between the assessments of Prenestino given by Guilia Barra, a local activist, and Silvano, president of the San Luca bocce club. How can Malatesta station be seen as a site of “invasion” (Guilia) and as the “vibrant center” (Silvano) of the neighborhood? It could be the different contexts from which the two interviewees are speaking. The Boccifila president is probably more economically secure. As a long-time resident of Prenestino, housing is not a worry. And an increase in real estate value in the area means his assets are increasing too. Whereas for Guilia, who is younger, her economic condition is likely subject to more frequent change. Moreover, her perception of the neighborhood comes from a different historical context. She sees the developments as an invasion by corporate forces that neglect the needs of residents and the social vitality of the area. Between these two, the same neighborhood exists in nearly opposite worlds. I imagine that the perspective of Prenestino from an immigrant would be similarly distinct.
I see the Lynch maps our class produced as a way to explicitly identify ourselves as speaking from the context of our homes. I brought the knowledge and the biases I learned from my home-neighborhood–my subjective context–with me when I went to Rome. And ultimately, my portion of our neighborhood report will be written from this context. I don’t see this as a fault but rather a strength. By identifying who I am–my culture, my values, my language–as a reader of a text (in this case a city), I am in a better, more honest, position to interpret it.