Over the past few days, images have been circulating of a hairpin turn in the road on a hill 15 kilometers from Cesena that suddenly imploded on itself, with the disintegrating road surface and uprooted trees all vanishing into a large and placid mound of earth. The speed of the event leaves an impression that is a strange mixture between the apocalyptic and the innocence of nature, as the violent opening of the chasm takes only a few seconds to recompose itself into a sleepy and, I would even say, pacified landscape.
All, of course, can be seen on the same smartphone screen through which we have had the opportunity to live through what feels like several thermonuclear apocalypses, alien invasions, terrorist attacks and a number of wars. One might consider it yet another example of a storm observed from a safe distance – quand on est au rivage – thus the sublime spectacle of a cataclysm that is raging, but from such a distance that our safety is assured, except that in this case the hydrogeological disruption was not somewhere far away in the background, but under the observer’s own two feet.
With this in mind, the images from the Cesena hillside might help us in the process of moving closer to understanding what is happening, putting in sharp focus that the formulation of our common and most pressing problem is so basic that it fails to get our due attention. The issue is the age-old-one of surviving the rains, even in the age of the James Webb telescope or self-driving cars – an objective that a wide variety of populations dispersed on the borders of empire are accustomed to face with far more realism than can be found in global agendas and at global summits. Our own mountainous areas, now depopulated, undoubtedly hold an ancestral knowledge on the subject that the metropolis has entirely delegated to technical experts or the consumption system, conveying it under the low-shelf-life forms of the picturesque shot or the expert interview.
It is no accident that in the plot of post-apocalyptic novels or films, the character who takes on a key role often turns out to be the figure of the handyman, the somewhat off-kilter character who until a moment before spent a suspicious amount of time tinkering with mechanical contraptions in his garage.
This points to the fact that in certain circumstances, the knowledge that saves us is for the most part that of someone who puts their hands to things and knows how to work with their hands, something quite ancient that is once again standing out in the future of automation.
Many delays and emergencies of various kinds have come together these days in Romagna, in a macabre rendezvous, and this should lead us to rethink the relationships between the past and the future, which also map out to the relationships between the hand and the brain, including in their geographical and social articulation. At the very least, it’s a matter of becoming aware that the most “up-to-date” political cultures and their centers of power, so quick to brand any form of conflict as obsolete, are not proving quite contemporary enough to be able to confront the threat, both ultramodern and prehistoric, of rain. But the emergency on which I would like to insist is an epistemological one, because we are increasingly deprived of the knowledge embedded in the experience of local territories and their problems.
The local territory is, in the end, seen as the subject of interests or needs, but its function for conveying knowledge and informing policy hardly survives the accusation of backwardness and parochialism. Whenever it organizes to make its case, it is always perceived as attacking the authority of doing and innovating; and even when its cause is obviously valid, it runs up against the barrier of budgetary constraints. During the lockdown months, it almost seemed as if this trend had been brought to a halt and there were many who finally recognized the disempowerment of local neighborhoods and inland areas as a major cause of the health collapse – but the peripheral seems destined to remain peripheral.
For the right, this is a traditional reason for their success, because the periphery has always offered a rich sampler of untapped potential and opportunities for symbolic reparations, while the so-called left continues to dream the technocratic government dream, in which it’s never a question of taking sides, even between forms and subjects of knowledge that stand in opposition, but rather of submerging their hierarchical and constitutively conflicting relationships under the flood of so-called “development.”