Rhetorical Topographies of Post-Earthquake L'Aquila: Locality, Activism, and Citizenship Engagement

Research output: Book/ReportPh.D. thesis


This dissertation examines citizens' activism in the city of L'Aquila, Italy, after the destructive earthquake of April 6, 2009. A natural catastrophe such as L'Aquila earthquake brings up feelings of human powerlessness in front of the destructive fury of nature. It conveys an instant and overwhelming awareness of the fragility and impermanence of everything we normally consider static, durable, and stable -- including human lives, places, buildings, and the experience of every day life. By forcing people and communities to face the unexpected on such a large scale, a catastrophic event like the L'Aquila earthquake interrupts the flow of everyday life and re-defines the new normal as one characterized by a state of emergency, insecurity, and dependence. The people and communities that happen to inhabit such a context are also forced to re-negotiate the meanings of what surrounds them and adjust their perspectives to the new experience of their everyday lives. Beyond metaphor, the L'Aquila earthquake caused a mutation, not only of the material texture of the territory of L'Aquila, but also of the lives and experiences of those affected by it. The earthquake, in the words of a local resident, changed "the meanings of many things" for the Aquilani, both the personal meanings attributed to life experiences, and the shared social meanings that guide communal life. This dissertation project will investigate the public dimensions of the drastic changes generated by the earthquake that also affected the lives of the Aquilani in very serious and dramatic ways. The mutations that I consider relevant to this project are those concerning the representations of the disaster by the Italian state institutions and the mainstream media. Those representations often collided with the experiences of the local residents, thus creating a deep disconnect between the local public of the Aquilani and the larger Italian public. This disconnect was largely an effect of the politicians', entrepreneurs', and journalists' exploitation of L'Aquila's disaster. The earthquake generated a sort of "semantic void" on the territory of L'Aquila that was often occupied by political narratives that interpreted the post-earthquake plight in ways that did not exactly resonate with the perspectives of the local residents about their own situation. The Aquilani, who were also experiencing that symbolic and material vacuum in their daily lives, were also trying to ascribe new meanings to their situation, but in contrast to more official depictions, the narratives that emerged locally strived to recreate the broken sense of community, not to benefit a specific configuration of political or economic power. The political discourse about post-earthquake L'Aquila has thus generated a series of public misunderstandings, polarized narratives, divergent accounts, and often colliding and confusing perspectives about the recovery and reconstruction of the town. In order to study citizens' activism and local public discourse, in Chapter One I conceptualize the heuristic of locality as a critical tool to study rhetorics of protest and social resistance. I theorize locality as a critical lens that foregrounds the situated character of rhetoric, its cultural emplacement, and the specificity of the public modalities of protest considered in their unique context of enactment. Using locality to study the rhetoric of social resistance does not simply entail identifying and cataloguing the topics and issues associated to protest discourse in relation to a specific place. Rather, focusing on this perspective encourages scholars to look at the different rhetorical possibilities or opportunities arising in specific contexts, places, or circumstances, and at how those opportunities are realized through specific modes of publicity within a bounded geographical locale. Using locality for the rhetorical study of protest and civic engagement also highlights the connections between public modalities of protest and the inventional resources available to citizens and activists in a given spatio-cultural context, and it highlights the inter-relatedness of public discourse, embodied performances, non-human persuasion, and the ways spaces and places affect local practices of citizenship engagement. Locality, in conclusion, emerges as a heuristic that allows scholars to map rhetorical topographies of under-represented narratives in protest rhetoric and civic engagement. In Chapter Two, through a series of case studies, I explore how L'Aquila activists and citizens mobilized to re-appropriate their civic voice, their communal spaces, and their right to participate in making decisions concerning the reconstruction of their town. Specifically, I illustrate how the dramatic changes generated by the earthquake shaped the public modes of protest that the activists employed within their reality of destruction by analyzing the protest rhetoric of the Aquilani. By analyzing a series of local protests from a rhetorical perspective, such as for example the "Yes We Camp," "The Last Ladies March," or "The People of the Wheelbarrows" protests, I explore the ways in which the local modes of citizenship engagement succeeded in affecting the political discourses about the management of the emergency and the future reconstruction of L'Aquila, and over time also positively impacted the social and communal life of the local residents. In Chapter Three, I perform an extended case study about local citizens' activism and the divergent public discourses related to the trial of the Major Risks Committee (MRC) scientists in L'Aquila. On October 22, 2012, surrounded by journalists and media from all over the world, an Italian Judge read the verdict concluding the controversial trial of the members of the MRC. De Bernardinis, engineer and former vice-president of the Civil Protection Agency, and the six scientists who participated in the MRC meeting in March 31, 2009 were found guilty of multiple-manslaughter and all sentenced to six years in jail by the court in L'Aquila. The jail sentence immediately generated a reaction of outrage in the public sphere and prompted an instant mobilization of and uproar from the international scientific community. The aim of this chapter is to suggest a different reading of the events that took place in L'Aquila, by illustrating the divergent narratives about the MRC meeting produced by the main parties involved in the trial. Such a reading pays closer attention to the local discourse around the trial, and foregrounds the perspective of the Aquilani that has been under-represented in its national and international coverage. Specifically, this chapter explores how the Aquilani's testimonies about the "disastrous reassurances" communicated to the public by the MRC worked rhetorically to persuade the judge, and affected the outcome of the trial. By mapping the narratives that circulated in L'Aquila along side those circulating nationally and internationally in the technical spheres, this case has revealed that it is necessary and productive to think about citizenship engagement also when looking at technical and political discourse in context. The case of "the L'Aquila Seven," in brief, demonstrates that it is not sufficient to advocate for public inclusion from below in technical discourses: it is also necessary to encourage scientists and experts to think of themselves and of their role as one that is not detached from the communities they serve. In the case of the MRC meeting in L'Aquila, the gap between the information discussed by the scientists and the information received by the local citizens generated dangerous and deadly consequences. In this chapter, I suggest that bridging the communicative gap between scientists and citizens does not only involve recognizing citizens as experts. It also involves recognizing experts as citizens. Namely, it is necessary to look at the relationship between citizenry and experts from a perspective that emphasizes community, citizenship, and the necessity of continuity and connection of technical and public discourses. This change of perspective can make the experts accountable for the ways in which their assessments get turned into management, policies, or recommendations for action in specific settings.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages233
Publication statusPublished - 2014
Externally publishedYes

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