- Mediterranean Crossings: The Politics of an Interrupted Modernity
The Mediterranean region has a rich history, includes a variety of cultures, and is the source of what the West regards as civilization and democracy. When one thinks of the Mediterranean, contrasting terms such as barrier and bridge, division and connection are often evoked.
In the volume under review, Iain Chambers, a professor of cultural and postcolonial studies at the Universita degli Studi di Napoli “L’Orientale” in Italy, puts forward five self-contained chapter essays. The author seeks to present the Mediterranean in a way that acknowledges the multiple and diverse currents and their cultural and historic origins. He takes issue with those who see the Mediterranean mainly in terms of the logic of barriers to be breached and differences to be bridged. The author suggests a less rigid, more open comprehension of the making of a multiplicitous Mediterranean.
Chambers ranges widely, not just looking at broad trends of history, culture, religion, and mythology but also introducing ordinary practices, music, painting, prose, poetry, performance, and criminal gang activity. In his view, borders are porous and transitory, serving often as zones of transit; frontiers are not merely national or military demarcations but subtle exits and entries between the various polities.
Mediterranean Crossings contains several references to what Chambers describes as “the silenced territories of alterity.” A number of examples are presented of current non-Western cultural and religious attributes enmeshed in Europe. Islam, for instance, as well as the monotheistic Jewish and Christian religions that emerged from Palestine and Sinai, was and is also a European religion. [End Page 123]
The Mediterranean as a region and a concept became an object for study following Napoleon’s expedition to seize Egypt from the Ottoman Empire at the end of the eighteenth century. It is the product of modern geographical, political, cultural, and historical classification. Chambers proposes that we think of the Mediterranean in a malleable and unsettled manner, as a continual interweaving of cultural and historical currents and encounters, a continuing pattern of complex transformation.
The cover illustration for the book is a reproduction of an 1829 painting by J. M. W. Turner, Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus — Homer’s Odyssey. We are thus reminded that returning home is mankind’s constant intent and challenge, and this is certainly the case in and around the Mediterranean. But the Mediterranean and indeed Europe have been greatly affected and influenced by what has arrived from elsewhere, especially from the south and east. Chambers sees the Mediterranean “as a sea of migrating cultures, powers and histories,” and he proposes “a more fluid and unstable archive, a composite formation in the making, neither conclusive nor complete.”
Chambers devotes some attention to the question of why it is necessary, more than a century after the declining Ottoman Empire was known as the “Sick Man of Europe,” to negotiate for the modern Turkish republic to re-enter Europe. When, why, and how did Turkey cease to be part of Europe? The answer, acknowledges Chambers, cannot easily be found in reasoned or historical evaluation and probably relates more to a Western European fear of being contaminated, overrun, and ultimately destroyed.
The longest chapter in Mediterranean Crossings is titled “Naples: A Porous Modernity.” Here Chambers draws on his long-term residence to paint a picture of this city, which he describes as the second most populous metropolis of the Mediterranean, after Istanbul. He uses the example of Naples to make concrete many of the themes and hypotheses he posits. Chambers very successfully sorts through the varied strands in the labyrinth of kinship, street culture, local identity, popular memory, and urban folklore. He writes of the great twentieth-century Neapolitan comic Toto, the lack of parks and recreational and green spaces, the influence of the lurking and threatening Vesuvius, and the porosity that allows Naples to embody and incorporate external pressures and foreign elements. Through history, Naples has been both a Greek and an Oriental city with a debt to the southern...