The hyper agora

Fieldnotes from the Italian lockdown (Fase Uno)

Christina Jerne

The Italian state has deleted the public space in the most physical sense. Nobody is allowed outside the domestic sphere for any reason but to work, and very few jobs are considered essential. Even factories were shut down during the first phase of the lockdown. This means that the entire social fabric of the country, whose cities pivot around around the square, la piazza, and other open spaces characterized by spontaneous, mobile and rich interaction, is lacerated. The online piazza has exploded: social media content has become fuller, more frequent, more confused, and mimetic as some people have more time to read and write. But Italian sociality and language is known for its corporal and unmediated character. In fact, the first reaction was to take the body to the only private space that had a public façade to it: the balcony. Singing, solidarity actions and dancing soon filled the only block of space that could be witnessed by others. But the energy and enthusiasm stopped quite soon; people were not necessarily watching and coordinating co-presence and testimony is tedious. The balcony soon retracted back to the private domain it had been before.

The agora, the Mediterranean urban space that accommodates social and political life, has not been eradicated or locked in; rather, it has gone hyper.  It has simply transferred into the only physical public space that is licitly available; the supermarket.

Due to the Government guidelines that restrict supermarket visits and numbers of visitors to the bare minimum, entering the public space has become a decision that requires much time, preparation and deliberation. Leaving the house implies downloading, printing[1] and compiling an updated version of a formal permission form that is carefully verified and then presumably archived, or placed in the dimenticatoio, the “forgetter”. Regardless of whether or not you meet the police you will meet the eyes of your neighbours, the new surrogate executive arm of the Technocracy, who diligently monitor the amount of times you have left the house. Sometimes they report it to others, even by distributing pictures or comments on how correct, necessary, virtuous, or obscene your shopping habits are. In fact, in parallel to the emergence of official codes of conduct, another set of rules, far more restrictive, is enforced by the local population. Leaving the house also requires preparing and purchasing appropriate clothing, which has come to mean wearing a mask, gloves, and a casual semi-sloppy attire that was otherwise considered unworthy for provincial supermarkets, like the one I frequented in a Sicilian town. It requires planning meals ahead of time and thinking of food as nutrition rather than pleasure. If the household is composed of more than one person, it entails delegating somebody (typically the head of the household) to face the hour-long queue to enter the supermarket, and to carefully cater to the needs of the others that may be in the care of the domus (neighbours, sick or elderly friends, lovers).

The result is that the agora has changed in nature and composition. The first notable difference is that it is almost entirely populated bymen. Most of them wear longer hair, tracksuits and faces that are at once eager and hesitant to talk. The occasional woman either appears to have desperately escaped the domestic entrapment, or is barely legally accompanied by a man and several judging stares. The majority of supermarket employees, typically women, are therefore on the receiving end of the exhaust pipe of collective sexual, emotional and social tension. They have come to take on a sort of public purgative function. They have also gained may other new roles, among which, the task of patrolling the isles for those who clog up the supermarket, either because they are new and unfamiliar to the act of shopping, or because they see in their weekly supermarket visit their only chance to go out, and replace it with their previous Sunday promenade. These shoppers spend a considerable amount of time seeking out obscure products and asking every other human where they might be able to find it. In alternative, or when their attempts at chatting others up have failed, they phone their friend or lover in the discretion of the dry foods isle, away from the ears of the wife, the housemate or the father in law, and with the comfort of a snack at hand. Aperitivo.

Many aspects of the agora remain unaltered. The political, administrative and even spiritual life of the community continues to populate the public space. Because the topic of conversation is filtered to Covid-19 content and its live unfolding local specificities, political discussions are animated and elaborate. They occur across isles, merging conversations between shoppers, phone calls, WhatsApp group messages, live commentaries from diverse official media outlets and popular meme machines. It’s like walking around in a huge chatroom.

The bureaucratic machine, whose gargantuan weight is fully unclothed by the minuscule enemy, stands ready to help the poorest shoppers at the gates of the supermarket. The impressively fast coordination of emergency relief between Rome and periphery, expressed here in a decentralized food stamp system, hesitates to show its full potential due to the materiality of the last transaction: the encounter between the supermarket employee[2] and the food stamp holder.

In this municipality, the food stamps are delivered to your doorstep by Red Cross volunteers in the form of monopoly-like banknotes with various denominations, the highest being 50 Euro and the lowest 10 Euro. In order to unlock their worth, you must validate each individual banknote in the supermarket by checking in at the front desk with the ID of the head of household, whose name will hopefully appear in the latest updated parchment of excel file. Delegation is permitted in praxis, because of familiarity, exhaustion, and the seemingly permanent the lack of paperclips. In order to use the validated banknotes, you must spend 1 Euro cent more than the nominal value of the banknote. A shopper cannot save the rest for later or accumulate credit during their limited validity period. In conformity with the Government’s temper, it’s either black or white: you spend it all, or you don’t spend any. For some obscure reason, this municipality has decided to issue about 60% of its banknotes in the denomination of 50 Euro, 30% in 20 Euro and about 10% in 10 Euro. Needless to say that this adds a whole new level of arithmetic to planning your stocking of food for the future.  The result of this intricate infrastructure of solidarity are the most bizarre baskets, whose first layer is comprised of solid budget staples that gradually blend into layers of articulate fetish objects. No toilet paper, nor alcohol will be found in these trolleys: rather, branded products advertised in glamourous commercials, ranging from hefty wheels of rare reserve cheese to the most expensive version of Kellogg’s Xtra Muesli, a rare choice of breakfast in this part of the world. You never know exactly where in that pile that fatidic 1 Euro cent that will give you access to the worth locked up in that food stamp might be hiding. The unfortunate cashier is then to receive these goods and conclude the transaction by starting another articulate bureaucratic operation that I will not bore you with. Suffices to say that the lack of paperclips is here substituted with a lack of staples.

Just like the piazza, the supermarket also has developed areas of prayer and confession, one at the depth of the building and one at the exit. The first is represented by the charcuterie and butchery section, where a team of dedicated male slicers is waiting to hear your personalized request, as was already customary pre-lockdown. In this hyper era, they are also prepared to receive an explanation and justification for your choice of not selecting the pre-packaged beef, but of queuing up and making them cut up your preferred part and cut of cow. Here shoppers justify by referring to the need to keep the children cheerful, to keep up the libido, to celebrate recurring festivities, to distract grandmother from “la Guerra senza botti” (the war without fire) etc… The butcher nods from behind a sweaty mask, patiently listening to the queue of bored, fearful, exasperated tales of men who buy trance after trance of beast. When feeling particularly empathic, they personally select a cut of charcuterie, and in the form of an over-the-desk communion, they pass the customer an oral latex offering, which is received in all solemnity: he lowers his mask, engulfs and (usually) stops speaking.  In silence, he approaches the end of his shopping: the Exit. Here, after paying for his deed, he can choose to donate part of your groceries to the Red Cross’ collection carts that are patrolled by hard-working volunteers who give you a discreet nod of appreciation when they hear the tinker of solidarity.

The agora lives on, even without the streets of the polis. Or in the words of an ancient Sicilian proverb: cu nasci tunnu un pò moriri quatratu/ If you’re born round you can’t die square.


[1] As a result, a fervid clandestine printing market has emerged. Among other things, this market has exposed the incredibly low rates of PC and internet access, previously grossly overestimated due to the use of smartphones. The transferal of public education online has revealed for instance that only 4 in 10 families in the South of Italy (33,8% nationally) has access to a PC, not to mention basic digital literacy skills. The consequences and details of the Printing Devolution deserves at least a book of its own.

[2] Previously in the vest of customer nudger or phychologist.

About the author

Christina Jerne is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Anthropology, Copenhagen University. She works with economies of organized crime, social movements and political economy. She is currently writing a book on how Italians fight mafias through economic forms of collective action. She is a core member of CEI (Community Economies Institute).

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