The Mistra Environmental Communication Research Programme Component at the Institute of Communication Studies and Journalism (ICSJ)

Interview with Gerardo Nicoletta

Gerardo Costabile Nicoletta is visiting researcher at the ICSJ of Charles University. In 2021, Gerardo is responsible for the audio-visual case study on finance and environment within the WP5 MISTRA-EC project.

Anna: How did a boy from a very small village in Southern Italy become academic? Was it your dream since you have been young or the clash of coincidence?

Gerardo: It is actually a very difficult question. It was basically a coincidence because I grew up – as you mentioned – in a very small village by the sea and there was a cell of the former Communist Party, which was mainly made by the fisherman and that time abandoned. There I start to study the party documents in their tiny headquarter I was very triggered by their background, languages, stories. Since I was a teenager, I very enjoyed studying, but to be honest, I have never dreamt about a job: being an academic is my (current) position in the socio-technical division of labour.

What were the most interesting topics for you?

I am very engaged in the understanding power-knowledge relationship especially regarding how culture and academia can transform and shape society. What fascinated me the most was to study how cultural capital constructs hierarchies and, thus, inequalities. Such interest informed the rest of my academic path. This is probably the reason why I hardly tell anyone that I am an academic researcher. This kind of shyness has helped me to develop a sort of under-cover ethnographic attitude in daily activity. Omitting my professional status consent, most of the time do not inhibit the naturality and spontaneous opinion or practices and to avoid the embarrassment caused by the perceived higher professional status. This is particularly true in my current fieldwork, the rural areas of Southern Italy, where the strong difference between urban professionals and villagers has been historically produced as power leverage.

When did you start to profile as an academic? Back in high school?

Oh, no, I used to be a musician… (laugh) But then I went to university and studied sociology (at Faculty of Social Science of Naples – editor’s note) where I followed the teaching of important world-system theory scholars. When I started, my bachelor’s degree, I was already used to think about society in terms of conflict, as a language that was inside me naturally due to my political experiences. During my bachelor studies, I was extremely lucky of encountering marvellous professors who introduced me to different theories and methodologies which profoundly helped me to ‘unthink social sciences’. And it opened my mind. Coming from a communist teenhood, reading Karl Marx’s since my 16, the encounter with international post-Marxists transformed my way of understanding social relationship and empowered my worldview. Thanks to these teachings and following the advice of my research fellows and I went outside Italian academia to avoid the too narrow national approaches on social affairs. And this choice changed it all. I successfully applied to a Master of Arts in Global Political Economy at the Sussex University of Brighton in the UK. There I studied with amazing professors as the neo-Gramscian Kees Van Der Pijl whose teaching helped me enormously in elaborating an original interpretation of the role of technical governments and economists in the Italian neoliberal turn I elaborated in my MA dissertation which posits the basis for the successive research.

I researched you, and I found that in 2013 you started your PhD at the University of Naples with the topic of the politics of expertise in Italy and the EU looking at the disciplinary separation of social sciences with a particular focus on economics. Isn’t it a huge step from sociology to economy?

I would say that what you label as ‘step’ was one of the proper objects of my research. The dissertation investigated economic expertise, as a power device composed of different elements, concurred to produce hierarchical and uncountable institutional spaces in the EU using abstract language and mathematical tools. However, this conceptualization of economic expertise stems out from a critical understanding of the history of social sciences. If you see the evolution of economics as ‘science’ we now today, you will notice that it emerged in the XIX century as a specific philosophical and linguistic articulation of the political strategies of dominant social formation to deal with the re-appropriation of conceptual apparatuses of classical political economy by other social formations. The separation of the domain of economic from the rest of other aspects of social life is the terrain whereby sociology emerged as ‘auxiliary’ government science.

It is a very unusual thought. Could you explain it more for our readers?

Sure. I am one of those scholars that do not believe that there exists such a thing as the economic aspect of life, conceivable as separated from political, cultural, and social aspects. It takes a big effort and training to think about ‘the world’ exclusively in an anthropological way, or a sociological, or economic way. If you embed this undisciplined history of knowledge in a Foucauldian discursive analysis, you can see thus that knowledge is always socially and discursively constructed for specific purposes related to particular social, political and technical division of labour.

Thank you for explaining. And now back to your academic experiences. After your PhD, you took an academic break and went to France to become a seasonal picker. Combining your village origin, you mentioned that it influences your perspective. How?

After few months of my PhD dissertation defence my academic dream, as you called it, was temporally suspended. Due to my financial condition, I needed to work and through a friend, I found seasonal work in French wine harvesting of big firms to earn some money. As you know, France and Italy are the biggest exporters of wine, and both compete to conquest international markets. The Italian export-oriented agricultural sector is based on the highly intensive labour activity of migrants. A strict and marginalizing legislation over migrant workers creates cheap labour as the true added value of the competitive agricultural strategy in Italy. Being a seasonal worker in France forced me to confront my privilege as well as to question the socio-environmental processes behind my food habits. Through this direct participation and my body experience, I got the opportunity to witness what lay behind ‘natural products’ in terms of production of cheap -migrant- labour-forces as well as the construction of agrarian spaces and organic impact on biological life. Through this experience, I decided to get beyond the analysis of the urban industrial dimension of the performative functioning of economic discourse. Thanks to this unintended ethnographic inquiry, I started to frame new questions of research about how nature is constructed discursively by economic discourses. The recognition of this socio-environmental entanglement constituted then the starting point for an inquiry about the promotion of food excellence in Italian food festival with a more political ecology approach.

And this linked environmentalism and your current participation in MISTRA Environmental Communication…

Yes. The discovery of the discursive construction of valorized environments helped me to engage in a reflection about how the environment is constructed, and its communication plays a fundamental role in its reproduction or contestation. The discursive construction of nature, as a fundamental part of the environmental communication scholarship, has become the privileged field of investigation I am currently developing. Having the opportunity of collaborating with MISTRA is for me a unique occasion to confront my wisdom about economic discourse in construction of nature and to further explore the socio-environmental entanglement in media and communication.

How do you see your role within the programme? In Work Package 5?

I am taking the advantage of sharing my research in a rich environment where the analysis of discourse is applied to the investigation of how nature is articulated. This debate is a very productive site where I can experiment with my post-disciplinary perspective on economic discourse, which can in turn enrich still an unexplored aspect of economic rationalism in environmental communication. Indeed, the media are often the centre of their analysis whereas the language of economics plays a key role also in environmentalism. The richness of my contribution is the denaturalization of economics categories in environmental communication, especially regarding the financial aspects.

What do you do in the current stage of research?

As the main contribution for the MISTRA project, I am currently engaging in audio-visual analysis of the Swedish TV series to understand how specific economic discourses construct environmental crisis and their policies as a new site of valorization, a precious occasion to enforce profitability. Speaking concretely, imagine the situation: corporate financial capitalism has been the force responsible for the current environmental catastrophe. Despite that, global governance offers to the financial capitals the opportunity of playing a leading role in managing the environmental crisis, In my opinion, this is possible because people trust economics as the taken-for-granted in media of communication. So, my purpose is to decode these media representation and insert theme in a broader transnational socio-political picture of what is going on in global finance.

You mentioned the TV series analyses. Did you find something surprising so far?

Sadly, I was not so surprised. (Laughs) Because that is something that confirms these global tendencies but in the context of Sweden. For example, in one TV series, I analysed the regulation of the environmental crisis through financial tools like green bonds. This is pretty much crazy. After the 2008 crisis in financial public debates, the word sustainability referred basically to financial institution behaviour and condition in gambling and speculation in the secondary market. Today, also thanks to the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has outshone the critical debate about global finance, we are not talking about financial sustainability, but the financial sector as a re-articulator of environmental sustainability. So basically, this semantic overlapping signals that political powers are leaving environmental crisis management in the hands of the bank sector.

Thank you for your explanation. I found your perspective on the research very fascinating and interdisciplinary. If the readers are interested more in your output, we can end this interview by recommending to your output called Capturing Neorurality: how economic discourses construct nature in the Italian export-led competition strategy which you presented on the Staff Member Research Seminar of the Institute of Communication Studies and Journalism at Charles University. The Seminar took place on Monday 26 April 2021.

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