· Vatican City ·

Family portrait

 Ritratto di famiglia  DCM-004
02 April 2022

Fragile, imperfect, but vital as a dance and with a line of resistance. Interview with Chiara Giaccardi

I was offered the opportunity to compare Chiara Giaccardi’s reflections on the family -a theme as vast as the ocean, her analysis, in particular-, with the line of resistance of the family in this accelerated social space-time, marked as it is by the traumatic experience of the pandemic. For some reason, I don’t know why, it was the title of a novel by the Israeli writer Eshkol Nevo, which I had read a few years ago, which came to my mind without apparent congruity in my early attempts to organize my thoughts.

His is a great novel, titled The Symmetry of Wishes, which has been translated splendidly into Italian by Ofra Bannet and Raffaella Scardi who are, by the way, a mother and daughter translating duo. It is not, however, strictly a story about the family. The protagonists are four friends on the threshold of their thirties, a time when they have already shared their youth and therefore their studies, the army, many dreams and their first loves. What binds them together like atoms in molecules, even in moments when they are physically distant, is a deep emotional energy, a chemistry of feelings fed by the need to confront each other on every aspect of everyday life and the doors that suddenly open onto tomorrow. They watch the 1998 World Cup final on television. France is playing against Brazil, at home in Paris. The four of them try to imagine,  “who” and “where” they might be at the next final. They even write it down on a piece of paper, to be kept as a secret and discovered together, at the 2002 edition of the World Championship. In that instant, an intense dance of approaches and departures begins, which, after all, is at the very heart of the movement among friends.

However, I wonder if we might be able to say the same for the family. Can that elusive definition of what a family is be represented as a choreography? Can it be imagined as a dance? Trapped by now in this simile, I can only share it, starting from here, from this sensation of bodies in movement. By incorporating the fact that Chiara Giaccardi’s gaze goes beyond the professional dimension (she teaches Sociology and Anthropology of the Media professor and directs the magazine “Comunicazioni Sociali” at the Catholic University) her gaze is enriched existentially. With her husband Mauro Magatti, who is a sociologist and economist, she ‘dances’ in an enlarged and colorful family with many children, both biological and adopted; while she grew up in a courtyard of an even larger family: the Eskenosen association, a “tent” pitched in Como, almost as if it were an echo of symbols, near the lake.

Chiara explains, “In 2006 (the year of the World Cup in Germany, won by Italy!, I think), thanks to the generous hospitality of the Secular Institute of Saint Angela Merici, Company of Saint Ursula we renovated an old building so that we could live there and host migrant families at the same time. We could offer them temporary accommodation and an attentive closeness, inspired by listening and sharing, with a view to assist their inclusion in the social fabric of the city”.  Why Eskenosen? The inspiration comes from the verse of John “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”; in literal translation it would sound like “he pitched his tent among us” or “he made himself a tent for us” from which Eskenosen, a past tense verb containing the word “tent”. “And in this tent Mauro and I too, over the years and especially in these last two marked by the pandemic, have been able to learn, with our children and other families that you either climb together or you fall down”.

In one of the prefaces to the exhortation Amoris Laetitia written with Mauro Magatti, Chiara Giaccardi called the family “a patrimony of humanity”. This is not the banner of a political group or a religious movement, but “an extraordinary place of relationship and growth that belongs to everyone”. Wittgenstein was probably right when he said the same word can describe completely different essences when pronounced by different people. The word “family” is no exception. As Chiara explains, “Covid has forced us to understand how fundamental the family is. If there were no families, society would not have held during the pandemic. The family has been a school, I’m thinking of online learning, it has improvised itself as an infirmary, for the continuous quarantines, and also as a playground, even in cramped spaces and contexts unsuitable for it. Families have therefore been able to reinvent an everyday life with meaning and beauty from one day to the next. In this the image of dance is central because the family is an imperfect choreography, it is fragile, but still a movement, which is the essence of life. Without movement we are stumps, we are not alive”. Georges Bernanos thought in the same way when in Monsieur Ouine he observed: “We always talk about the fire of hell, while hell is cold”. Hell is the opposite of movement, it is the crystallization of inner dynamism. Ice, not an iridescent flame.

Therefore, according to Chiara, all this choreography of imperfect desires - because they are true – “can be experienced without hypocrisy only in the family, where ties cannot be revoked and are not chosen. If the scenography, that of the dominant model, states that everything outside is calculable, the dance in the family is not. Where, outside, everything must be perfect, inside the walls of the house it is not.  In the family we experience otherness, the unpredictability of daily life, we also celebrate the hardships and human imperfection”. Physical confinement, during the intermittent weeks of the various lockdowns or quarantines, has at least had the positive effect of rediscovering the quality of family relationships, with their load of imperfections. Thus, not only has “health” surpassed “work” in the so-called macro-scale of values, but trust in the people who embody the closest affections, starting with parental ones - as intercepted by indicators of subjective well-being - has increased significantly. Of course, the confinement in some cases has also exasperated pathological interpersonal dynamics, generally the pre-existing ones; at a demoscopic level,however, “trust in the family” has increased. The trouble is, as Chiara Giaccardi points out, that all around the numerous “tents” pitched in the contemporary world, “the cultural climate proves hostile to the family. And for this very reason it reveals a myopic gaze”. With his often cynical existential tone, French writer Michel Houellebecq, in this case a contemporary one, has the protagonist of his latest novel say, “The family and married life, these were the two residual poles around which the existence of the last Westerners was organized, in that first half of the twenty-first century, so meditates Paul Raison, the protagonist of Annihilate. He grapples with a society that is condemned without appeal and almost resigned to survive. Other formulas have been contemplated in vain, by people who had had the merit of sensing the wear and tear of traditional formulas, without however being able to conceive of new ones, and whose historical role had therefore been entirely negative. The liberal doxa insisted on ignoring the problem, full as it was of its naive belief that the attraction of profit could replace any other human motivation and could, by itself, provide the mental energy necessary to maintain a complex social organization. It was patently false, and it seemed obvious to Paul that the whole system would meet with a gigantic collapse, the date and manner of which could not yet be foreseen”.

The “system” is the one now dominated by digital rationality as interpreted and enslaved by liberalism and supported by the force of technology. It is a structure based on the individuation of logarithmic governmentality, “on what Gilles Deleuze - says Giaccardi - called ‘society of control’ thirty years ago, where individuals have become ‘dividuals’, mere statistical samples of data for markets, the result of a process of radical individualization”. We are hardly aware of it when we buy something on Amazon or browse the Net looking for information, but Artificial Intelligence, in addition to replacing human performance in many areas of work, has already begun to reorganize them entirely. In what way? By acting on time, by subjecting the time of work and that of everyday domestic life to a computational logic. In other words, the triad of increased surveillance, algorithmic evaluation and modulation of time is deeply affecting the very structure of society. This connects - as suggested, for example, by the scholar Kate Crawford - a microphysics of power, that is, the disciplining of bodies and their movement through space, with a macrophysics of power, a logistics of planetary time and information that innervates the entire planet. Moreover, it even reaches “the family”. Chiara Giaccardi continues, who has reflected and written about these profound movements and their daily impacts together with Mauro Magatti in Nella fine è l’inizio. In che mondo vivremo [In the End is the Beginning. In What World Will We Live]. (Il Mulino, 2020): “Houellebecq, even with his hard, often cutting gaze, succeeds in describing the crisis we are going through and thus invites us to go beyond it, suggesting perhaps the need to overcome the moralistic, at times pharisaical, approach in which even many Catholics are still caged”. It is on this level that perhaps the pandemic “has probably given us a wake-up call. To free thought and discourse on the family from the sterile shoals and ideological oppositions in which contemporary debate has relegated them. Today we can say, first of all, that the family is not simply an agency of socialization, a cell of society or a functional nucleus of social roles. In other words, the family is neither a sociological category nor a rigid and immutable model. The form of the family, as in a dance, has changed over time and exceeds its historical declinations, starting from the traditional form”, which is perpetuated in advertisements for popular household brands in Italy probably.

“By now, it should be evident that in the family, meaning prevails over function”. And it precedes it, thus freeing up space for desire: “Mauro and I, like many parents during the pandemic - says Chiara - have experienced the sense of limitation directly. Moreover, of this lack, which, however, opens up to gratuitousness. Margherita Guidacci’s verses come to mind, when she says, “The impossible only makes man’s life possible. You do well to chase the wind with a bucket. From you, and from you alone, it will let itself be captured”. Only where sense prevails over function, that is, in the imperfect family, does everyone become indispensable; for example, the grandfather with Alzheimer’s, the sister who goes crazy, the neighbor’s child who cries and wakes us up in the middle of the night, a disabled child”. Human frailties that in a system devoted to perfection would instead be considered obstacles and hindrances, they would become waste. Here it is, then, as a possible definition beyond ideologies, “The family is a relational nucleus that is stable over time, affectively warm, centered on relationships of reciprocity and care in the interweaving of genders and generations”. In order to arrive at this definition, and thus overcome dogmatism - explains Chiara Giaccardi - the work of the National Observatory on the Family set up at the Ministry was also important. Chiara took part in it as coordinator of the Scientific Technical Committee. “We actually managed to trace a participatory, transparent, inclusive path. A dialogue that is dialogical and not dialectical, attentive to the different positions and sensibilities that become an asset only when the concern is not ideological. We actually started from a common ground, on which to bring together the different points of view, and attention to minors was first among them. This means attention to children who are yet to be born, and to those who suffer from all the conditions that, as Article 3 of our beautiful Constitution states, prevent the full development of the human person and reveal the true faces of inequality. These include educational poverty, material poverty, parents who are unable to harmonize family time and work time, for reasons that often do not depend on them”. Perhaps, simply, this could be because they are single parents. The change of pace is a change of perspective, and therefore requires conceiving the family as the node of a network, where, “We need open borders, relationships that go beyond the walls of increasingly narrow and uninhabitable apartments, we need the ability to rethink the very places where we live”. In addition, we need to free ourselves from the obsession that the word ‘family’ can once and for all fix the form and even the substance. If we think about it, words can also become mental cages from which it is difficult to escape. Perhaps it is useful to imagine that individual words are not trees but forests, woods to be explored to find in the shadows all the nuances of the objects they represent through language. Chiara Giaccardi argues, “So we could realize how the family is ‘emblematic’, because it represents a window on complexity, one of the few places where we can grasp the inter-sectionality of processes and if this is not understood we cannot act in a useful and regenerative way after the pandemic. Or how the family is ‘transductive’ and ‘resilient’, since it has transformed incompatibilities into new ways of dealing with critical issues, including the pandemic”. Romano Guardini said it well, stating, “The family represents the strongest natural obstacle against the absorption of the individual”. In short, what the Observatory is trying to develop is a contextual hermeneutic, “the only one that we believe allows us to promote the necessary change in a context in which we are trying to reverse the falling birth rate and in which birth policies and instruments such as nursery schools, single allowance, calibrated taxation are certainly necessary, but insufficient”. Mononuclear or de facto families, with the patriarchal form of life gone, the family - on its own - would not be able to cope. And who would not make it would be, above all, boys and girls who, as never before in these last two years, have had to suffer existential solitude and that sense of disorientation, of a lack of references and of “home” that a present mutilated by the prospective depth of the future has been transformed into a cold prison. Every family, Pope Francis reminds us, “is always a light, however dim, in the darkness of the world”. It is a fragile flame, which despite everything it dances, and continues to dance.

by Marco Girardo
A journalist at the national newspaper, “Avvenire”