Italian Pop Philosophy

Tommaso Ariemma

Batman and Spider-Man as Renaissance statues. A statue of Wolverine from X-Men citing a painting by Lucio Fontana, in Until the End (2003). These works by Adrian Tranquilli well illustrate what has happened in Italian culture in the last fifty years, with a progressive erosion of the boundary between supposedly “high” culture and mass culture considered inferior. These works well illustrate the labours of pop-philosophy: a philosophical current that has sparked much controversy in the public debate of the last decade, setting as its goal the overcoming of the media-culture hierarchy between high and low.

Attention to mass-cultural phenomena is certainly nothing new in Italy, especially if we consider an ancestor of pop philosophy: namely, Umberto Eco’s 1964 work Apocalyptic and Integrated. This was a text in which not even the young Eco overly believed, but it provoked a lively debate, precisely because a segment of Italian culture showed itself decidedly irritated by what had been done in the text, with its use of the tools of “high” culture to understand mass culture. For this reason, Eco’s analyses of Superman, Charlie Brown, and others, became renowned. He had not had any notions of generating controversy, for he thought that it was now only normal to consider certain pop phenomena to be worthy of attention. The disputes following the publication of his text proved an indicator of the difficulty that such analyses could face in finding acceptance.

Maurizio Ferraris’s Dove sei? Ontologia del telefonino (2005) represented a real turning point in Italian pop philosophy’s anticipatory experiments. In this book, there is no attempt to analyse and understand the phenomena of mass culture by using the tools of “high” culture, as in Eco’s work; rather, the analysis of the mobile phone provides the starting point and the instrument to broaden the horizons of philosophy. In the case in question, the mobile phone serves to reveal an entire ontology of social objects (like that of the mobile phone, in fact) based on the centrality of writing and the documentation that results.

The mobile phone — a pop object particularly dear to Italians — thus became a pretext, but also an ally, for polemicising against what the author saw as a postmodern drift which had infected Italian culture, according to which reality does not exist, but only interpretations. This postmodern mantra — as thus simplified by Ferraris — is set in the crosshairs in order to mount an open polemic against the principles of the “weak thought” coined by his teacher Gianni Vattimo. Ferraris’s new realism advocated a return to objective reality, consisting of mountains and lakes, but also of the binding documents that are fundamental to our existence. His method, the ontology of the mobile phone — although decidedly vintage compared to the developments and orientations of contemporary philosophy — is more interesting than its theoretical content: pop phenomena are not only stimulating to analyse, but even more than that, they are a fundamental ally of philosophical discourse. They are, to all intents and purposes, what gets talked about, the inauthentic in which we are inevitably immersed, and which philosophical discourse has often left aside, relegating them to the rank of merely superficial phenomena. Yet, pop phenomena such as the mobile phone incorporate entire philosophies and thought-systems.

A few years after the publication of this work, texts began to come out that did not share its philosophical content, but which decidedly intensified the intuition behind its method. In Ferraris’s text, the mobile phone had only served as a cue — with a few weary references back to it elsewhere in the text — providing room for a popularised version of the Italian philosopher’s recent research. Yet in works by other authors, such as La filosofia di Dr. House (2007) by the Blitris collective and La filosofia di Lost (2009) by Simone Regazzoni, the television series in question occupied the entire field of philosophical analysis. No less important was these works’ lack of popularising purpose. Philosophical work regarding pop phenomena was done using clear and accessible language, calibrated on the same wavelength as the pop subject matter called into question. Popularisation was rather more of a collateral effect of this. ollaterale.

The texts by Regazzoni (himself part of the Blitris collective) initiated the debate on Italian pop philosophy, because various scholars began to confuse this type of pop philosophy with the specific research that had become fashionable in the United States, which saw academics publishing texts with a clear popularising purpose, using pop phenomena as a pretext or metaphor. Thus Homer, the famous Simpsonscharacter, could provide an accessible metaphor for a philosophical concept like Nietzsche’s superman, as in the collective text I Simpson e la filosofia (2001), the most renowned work of pop philosophy.

Italian pop philosophy defends its dual vocation, simultaneously both experimental and popular. This clearly shines through from Pop filosofia (2010), edited by Regazzoni. This set of essays is a true manifesto for an exercise that is profoundly different from the one taking place in United States. It is not meant to be a vacanza intelligente for academics who do not take themselves too seriously, but a highly classic philosophical exercise that makes use of the material which stands at greatest distance from such an exercise.

Italian pop philosophy is aware that it operates in a particular historical juncture, which is seeing many products of mass culture such as TV series, graphic novels, video games, social networks, and bodily practices, become much more complex than they once had been. So, all the more reason, then, to seek an alliance with pop phenomena. This means an alliance to reach a wider audience than the readers of academic works, but also one that seeks to breathe life into to an “unprejudiced” philosophy that does not forsake thinking about any kind of phenomenon because of its own “prejudices”. This is, therefore, a philosophy that makes public debate its priority field of action. In 2011, the year following the publication of Pop filosofia, a festival was launched explicitly dedicated to what has now become a true philosophical genre, Popsophia, with touring events in the Marche region. Directed by Lucrezia Ercoli, over the years the festival — which celebrated its tenth anniversary in summer 2021 —has become a point of reference for many exponents of pop philosophy in Italy, participating as if members of a genuine philosophical laboratory. It especially involves young people who have made pop philosophy their privileged research-path, such as the aforementioned Regazzoni and director Ercoli, Tommaso Ariemma, Alessandro Alfieri, Monia Andreani, Cesare Catà, Andrea Colamedici, Riccardo Dal Ferro, Maura Gancitano, Selena Pastorino, Salvatore Patriarca, and many others. Each brings their own contribution, choosing a particular field of mass culture on which to focus. Thus television series can make us reflect in a new way on the concepts of beauty and narration; pornography can reveal the dark heart of democracy; Shakespeare can be the secret ingredient most used by mass culture, wrongly considered remote from high culture; rock music or politically incorrect journalism can become phenomena with much to reveal about contemporary society, together with our behaviour on social networks and the influencers that guide it.

The festival, together with its protagonists, declares itself heir to the thought of Gilles Deleuze, who coined the term pop philosophy in the 1970s. This means going beyond the limits of the academic essay, experimenting with practices and writings that can take philosophy beyond the university walls into the city squares or into the virtual spaces of the web.

The festival formula has thus intensified its spectacular form, creating original philoshows, musical performances cross-pollinated by philosophical discourse. Added to that, exponents of pop philosophy such as Riccardo Dal Ferro, Andrea Colamedici and Maura Gancitano, have created further possibilities for pop philosophy online. Colamedici and Gancitano founded Tlon, a publishing project active in various media (with a publisher, a Facebook page and an Instagram profile with a large following), which has in turn promoted philosophical festivals such as Prendila con filosofia (2020) and Festa della filosofia (2021), where the pop approach takes centre stage.

Popularisation is not the primary goal of pop philosophy. Yet, over the years, it has demonstrated that it is indeed well-able to do it, taking advantage of its conversance with pop languages. On YouTube, Rick DuFer, alias Riccardo Dal Ferro, has created a highly popular channel that mixes philosophical classics and pop culture. In high schools, since the publication of La filosofia spiegata con le serie tv (“Philosophy explained with TV series”, 2017), thanks to pop phenomena philosophy instruction has encountered a real didactic method which is today used by many Italian teaching staff.