regime of signs: an immigrant’s supplement to the italian dictionary



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When in Italy, speak sign language. Faster and more emphatic than words, universal in a country otherwise divided among dozens of regional oral dialects, modern Italian finger signs were first catalogued by mid-century futurist and designer Bruno Munari. Published in 1963, Munari’s Supplement to the Italian Dictionary is a small, neat book of black-and-white photography. Each page is a new gesture, and each gesture comes with interpretative captions in four European languages: French, German, English and Italian.

Bring the tips of your fingers together in a cone to say, “What do you expect?” Shake violently for extra rudeness.

The preface credits 19th century scholar Canon Andrea de Jorio for Italy’s first dictionary of gestures: Mimicry of the Ancients in Neapolitan Gestures. But while De Jorio’s work traces Italian gestural argot back to the city of Naples and then further back to ancient Greek colonists, Munari’s Supplement seems to look forward: The photographs of hands are framed so tightly that they float independent of their owners, of context or history, of etymological roots or branches. Each gesture captured by the camera is captioned as a freestanding moment of vernacular design, the Futurist mission being to abandon old Italian aesthetics in favor of a new, technologically-mediated Italianismo: Italianness.

Touch your genitals to ward off bad luck.

“Clean the streets of all these ethnicities that destroy our country…I don’t want to see black, yellow, brown…” Last month in the Northern Italian city of Treviso, two-term ex-mayor Giancarlo Gentilini was fined 4,000 euros for hate speech. Although sometimes referred to as an “Italianista” for his racism, Gentilini is a member of Lega Nord, a virulently anti-immigration Northern Italian political party that has also been calling for secession from Italy since the 1990s. Claiming cultural differences between the wealthy industrial North and poorer, agrarian South (and blaming the South’s Africa-facing shores for immigration), Lega Nord separatists would happily abandon ancient Italian patrimony like Rome’s Coliseum for the chance to found “Padania,” a new fantasy nation projected upon the north’s geographically vague Po Valley.

Form two L-shapes with your index fingers and thumbs and swing them to suggest a pair of swinging balls for “boring.”

Padania has no historical precedent. It doesn’t need it. Support for an all-white neo-terroir is broad enough that in March 2014, two million Northern Italian avatars participated in a digital referendum on Padanian independence. When independence won, the main piazza of Treviso filled with flags and banners flashing the symbols of their pseudo-nation: the green “Alpine Sun,” the Venetian “Lion of St. Mark,” and a Christian crusader with sword raised.

Brush the side of your thumb against your cheek to say that someone else is a hard-ass.

Two months later, north remains united with south. Treviso continues to answer to Rome, its poll for independence a useless Google cache. But during the following European elections, an unexpected current of support for the northern fringe party appeared in an unusual place: the south. Quadrupling the previous year’s take, Lega Nord candidates won 106,000 votes across the south and center of the country, where a wave of more than 40,000 migrants and refugees have arrived from across the Mediterranean since the beginning of the year. On Italy’s southernmost island of Lampedusa, one in five voted Lega Nord.

Bring both index fingers together in parallel to show two parties in secret agreement.

Recently, a Lega Nord politician publicly addressed future would-be immigrants by posting an online video featuring five different immigrant men from places like Angola and Pakistan. Prominently subtitled in Italian, each tells the camera in his native language, “Don’t come to Italy.” They explain that in Italy’s economic crisis, newly arriving migrants are likely to starve.

In Italian sign language, tap your flattened hand, palm down, against your ribs for “hunger.” Twirl extended index and middle finger near your cheek for “I prefer to eat spaghetti.”

But in Treviso, there is a barber from Inner Mongolia with a belly so fat it nudges the backs of clients’ heads while he cuts. His salon is next to the train station, and his prices are posted in bright yellow Chinese and Western numerals on the glass. Most of the heads that float in for a cut belong to older Italian men. They come in alone. The waiting room is always quiet. Whenever someone rises to pay, the barber signs “13” with long-nailed fingers.

Lift all 10 digits in the air and then raise again the right-hand thumb, index and middle fingers for 13 euros.

To fellow foreigners, though, the barber occasionally signals an insider’s 3-euro discount. As other clients sit silently, flipping through paparazzi photos of Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi in Chinese gossip magazines, he switches to a different vernacular and signs the price “10” in Chinese finger-signs.

Form a cross with left and right index fingers, then tap them together discreetly to say “10.”

Images via cityofsound, Brainpickings






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Caitlin S. Hu

Caitlin Hu edits COLORS. She has previously collaborated on books of political theory and contemporary philosophy, translated French philosophy into English and back again, and worked as a chef. Current projects include a book review series for Bitch Magazine and translations/reviews of new philosophy for Vrin Éditions. Caitlin is very interested in magic. @colorsmagazine





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