Lookin' for a Home: Independent Oral History Archives in Italy
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In 1970, Italian activist historian and cultural organizer Gianni Bosio wrote, in his description of the work of the Istituto Ernesto de Martino, Italy’s arst and most important sound archive and research center for people’s cultures, Just as the advent of the printing press marked the passage from the city-states to the Signoria, from a mainly oral shared culture to the use of means of communication as an expression of the ruling class, the advent of the tape recorder once again provides the culture that relies on oral communication with the means to emerge, to become aware of itself, and thus to unravel all those forms of expression that can be placed against, not alongside, the forms and genres of the ruling culture. The analogy with the advent of the press was crucial. As writers from Eric Havelock to Jack Goody have shown, the advent of writing accompanied and accelerated the development of Western rationality by making language available for analysis and study and therefore for self-awareness.1 The tape recorder, Bosio points out, does the same for the voice: speech ands a stable and reproducible support that allows it to be objectiaed and analyzed. The voice, a universal means of communication , can thus achieve the same degree of self-rebexivity and self-awareness that was earlier reserved for a more restricted medium such as writing. Bosio was less interested in the fact that the tape recorder allowed scholars a closer study of nonhegemonic cultures than in the fact that it enabled the working classes to study themselves, their culture, and their history. The working class might use the tape recorder not just to speak for but also about itself and most importantly to listen to itself. The tape recorder, then, would not merely provide another source for historians and anthropologists but would indeed disrupt the categories, hierarchies, divisions of labor in history and ethnology in the academy, in the labor movement, and in the Left. When the working class speaks for itself and hears itself, leaders and scholars are less necessary. “There are many in the Left,” Bosio went on, “who think the tape recorder is an irrelevant , useless, or diabolical instrument. . . . When the working class movement generates leaders and ofacers who attempt to exorcise the tape recorder, it is time for the movement to grow up and exorcise its own leaders.”2 The idea that the tape recorder allowed the working class to speak for itself also blurred the distinctions between disciplines and sources. Named after Ernesto de Martino, the great Italian ethnologist who arst recognized the historical and political signiacance of southern Italian rural culture as well the role of what he described as “progressive folklore” in the north, the institute identiaed all forms of oral culture and tradition as sites of working-class memory. For example, the rediscovery of the extraordinary tradition of anarchist song created a heightened awareness of the importance of this half-forgotten movement and provided radical movements and leftist dissenters with a songbook that remains very effective today. As Bosio put it, the hegemonic and academic division of “folkloric man” from “historical man” had to be overcome by placing folklore in history and using it as a historical source as well as by recognizing its bearers as historical agents—“citizens of our own country” in de Martino’s phrase. This generated one of the most peculiar traits of the Istituto Ernesto de Martino and of its related 219 ⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮ Lookin’ for a Home Independent Oral History Archives in Italy Alessandro Portelli ⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯ institutions: the uniacation of music, oral history, and other forms of expression. This is a consequence of the global approach to research: the same aeld encounter may yield both music and stories.3 The tapes in the de Martino archive, then, hardly ever fall neatly into the categories of ethnomusicology, folklore, oral history; it was necessary to develop a brand-new method for cataloging them, since established systems were inadequate. Conversely, this meant that the history of the working class, through its own forms of expression, would replace the history of the party and of the union. While leftist history took into account only experiences that could be represented as leading to the formation of the Communist Party, Bosio and his colleagues resurrected the memory of “heretical” groups (from anarchists to nonorthodox Marxists and religious utopists) and studied such aspects of working-class life as religion, ritual, and social life. Inevitably, the Istituto de Ernesto Martino remained somewhat...