Theses Doctoral

Inscriptions of Poison: Aesthetics, Remediation, and Environmental Catastrophe in Contemporary Italy’s Postindustrial South

Pisapia, Jasmine Clotilde

"Inscriptions of Poison" is an ethnographic, textual, and aesthetic engagement with possession, pollution, and the temporalities of poison in contemporary Italy’s postindustrial South. Drawing on extensive fieldwork in the city of Taranto (Puglia)—one of Europe’s most polluted cities—as well as archival work on Ernesto De Martino’s anthropology of possession rituals, this study of toxicity focuses on the southern Italian region of Puglia, which was the backdrop of two contrasting, yet interwoven histories of postwar modernization during the so-called “economic miracle” of the early 1960s. Puglia was the birthplace of the continent’s largest and most hazardous steel factory and simultaneously, the terrain of De Martino’s Gramscian anthropology of preindustrial folklore and agrarian rituals, yet the region’s role in industrial modernity and the study of ritual have rarely been examined in tandem. Re-reading the region’s intellectual and cultural past through a contemporary ethnography of industrial ruins, this dissertation interrogates the afterlives of possession in the ecological crisis of the present.

For centuries, Italy’s South has been represented as “picturesque”—as the occluded of European modernity and the object of exoticization, folklorization, and racism. The environmental devastation and exposure these landscapes endure today cannot be thought outside their longstanding exploitation facilitated by this image as the nation’s “internal other.” Informed by these representations, contemporary environmental discourses amplify an image of a poisoned South, perceived as the source of pollution, rather than its victim. Intervening in the longue durée of this representational history, the dissertation explores a central fragment of Puglia’s cultural history of illness and healing: the possession ritual of tarantismo, traditionally performed by women to expel the poison of a tarantula. This ethnography of Taranto’s environmental catastrophe rethinks tarantismo in the present, as both a continued exposure to illness and the displacement of traditional methods for dealing with environmental risk.

Drawing on De Martino’s work on the ritual, including his canonical work "The Land of Remorse" ("La terra del rimorso") (1961), as well as the archive of his fieldwork in Puglia, this study reads his corpus against the grain, finding it a philosophical account of “crisis of presence” that is mobilized as an analytic lens for the region’s current environmental catastrophe. This re-reading follows the trajectories of poison ethnographically, in its most varied material and affective forms: the venom of tarantulas, cloud-like dioxin emissions, contaminated milk, photographs of glittering iron ore dust, and the concealment of a wig. A central task of the work is thus to consider the intermedial relations between text, image, and theory, alongside toxic matter—to incorporate an intellectual history as the discursive part of a “material-discursive” analysis of ecological crisis. These interrelations are performatively engaged in the dissertation’s experimental use of text and image, while informing an understanding of toxicity as a material and metaphorical form inscribed (and remediated) through different media.

By examining images and imaginaries of poison in Puglia, this ethnographic study of the aesthetics of toxicity demonstrates that the sensory field of environmental catastrophe affords a privileged terrain of political struggle. Intervening in current debates in ecocriticism and environmental humanities about the role of art and aesthetics in re-imagining human/nonhuman relations in an ecologically unstable world, "Inscriptions of Poison" analyzes the potency of industrial poison, while simultaneously revealing the bodily, psychological, religious, and aesthetic strategies deployed by the people of Taranto to understand, live with, and survive it.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Morris, Rosalind C.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 19, 2022