Affect and Trauma in Italy

By Andrea Hajek  

Over the past few decades, the role of memory communities in keeping alive forgotten or silenced memories of police repression has proven essential in Italy. This is due not only to the low commitment or unwillingness of the State to bring justice to these victims: in many cases the State has also been involved in the violence. Thus, in a commentary to a television documentary, Ilaria Cucchi – the sister of 31-year-old Stefano Cucchi, who died in an Italian prison in 2009 – described the situation of her family and, by extension, of other families of victims of police repression in Italy, as follows:

 …were it not for our perseverance, for the fact that we turned our anger into the courage to say “We will not accept being denied the truth” – were it not for this, then the stories  [of our loss] would just end, they would have ended on that day. And we realize that, as we go on, we are the only power that we have.

In this blog post I would like to focus on a case of police violence that occurred more than 30 years ago. On March 11, 1977, Francesco Lorusso, a medical student and sympathizer of a left-wing extra-parliamentary group, got involved in a conflict between left-wing and Catholic students at the University of Bologna. The conflict led to severe police repression during which Lorusso was shot in the back, an incident which provoked an urban upheaval where Lorusso’s friends and companions physically vented their frustration in the city. This resulted in more public order measures aimed at bringing down the newly arisen student movement. Lorusso’s death thus marked the final stage in a deeply rooted conflict between the student movement and the local Communist authorities. The wound left by the incidents of March 1977 never healed, though, as the police officer who shot Lorusso was absolved on the basis of a disputed public order law, and the numerous requests by Lorusso’s family to open a new investigation remained unanswered, until the present.

In my book Negotiating Memories of Protest in Western Europe. The Case of Italy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), where I analyze the way Lorusso’s memory has been reconstructed, re-activated, and negotiated by different social groups in Bologna since the 1970s, I use the term “affective labor” to discuss the role of Lorusso’s family in the process of obtaining truth and justice. Post-Marxist philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2004) define affective labor as an “immaterial” labor that “produces or manipulates affects.” Rather than producing a material object, as for example a statue or a commemorative plaque, it provokes an “affective state in another person.” I’m thinking in terms of a commemorative march or any kind of creative form of memory work, where private suffering is turned into collective grief, as for example the annual gathering of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, in Buenos Aires. In short, affective labor expresses a moral duty to remember.

This kind of memory work was necessary to gain more public consensus, Lorusso having been involved in riots with the police and therefore not an entirely innocent victim, in the eyes of the public opinion. It was only by producing “affective states” in local citizens, who would have no “automatic” sympathy for an alleged rioter, that his family could counter the official memory of the events of March 1977, according to which Lorusso’s death was no more than a tragic accident, and Lorusso something of a hooligan. Attempts to produce “affective states” in other people include, for example, participation in an annual commemorative ritual, which saw the occasional participation of families of other victims of political violence in those years.

A second and more important driving force behind the family’s affective labor was the need to overcome the trauma of Lorusso’s death, a trauma caused not only by a sense of injustice, but also by the feeling that the community no longer existed for the family. Authorities never really listened to the family’s pleas for justice and truth, whereas the political nature of the incidents exposed their loss to misinterpretations and moral judgements by the local community. The loss or inability to narrate one’s traumatic story in public results in the victim’s loss of a place in history and, subsequently, the continuation of a sense of trauma. In this as in other cases of police violence and political violence at large, in the 1970s and more recently, the family was therefore excluded from society. Hence, affective labor was employed not only for the creation of a wider public consensus but it was also crucial in the very process of coming to terms with Lorusso’s death, considering the family’s silenced position in society.

Largely unsuccessful in its attempts to convince local authorities to reopen the investigations and create some official recognition for Lorusso, the family sought to gain public consensus mostly through the creation of local memory sites, including a commemorative plaque in the street where Lorusso was shot. Word goes around that a wooden statue, made in 1978 by the father of one of the student movement’s leaders, is soon to be located in the university zone. This may perhaps make Lorusso’s memory more visible and official, but whether it will heal the wound of 1977 is another question.

In more recent times, the families of victims of police repression have found new ways of creating “affective states” and sharing their trauma, i.e., investigative documentaries, as in the Cucchi case, and the Internet. The latter has indeed become a powerful medium for activists and victims’ families to construct a “memory culture” that goes beyond traditional, official commemorative rituals, bringing the “dead memory” of violent incidents back to life and turning victims of violence into living memorials, thus preventing them from becoming a sort of common place in national historiography. For these groups, memory is not about grieving but about the moral duty to give silenced memories a place in history, and in the present.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Social Trauma and Activism

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