Affect and Our Historical Memory of Little Italy

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When you walk through Little Italy today, things might feel a bit…off. At first, you could attribute this feeling to the strange combination of things that you’re seeing. Throughout Mulberry Street, there are vast amounts of colorful confetti mixed in with snow and ice on the streets and sidewalks from celebrations of the Chinese New Year. Kitschy souvenirs are almost as abundant as the confetti, and all of this really clashes with the trendy restaurants and boutique shops popping as Nolita (NOrthofLittleITAy) grows. These things are more than just inanimate entities, though. Jane Bennett would describe them as vibrant matter possessing a sort of thing-power because they are able “to animate, to act, to produce effects” (Vibrant Matter, 6). This interacts matter interacts with everything–itself, its physical environment, the people walking on the street, and even the weather–in ways that prevent us from reducing it to merely passive ‘stuff.’

In the windows of shops like DiPaolo’s or Alleva Dairy, you’ll find black and white photographs from times long past, presenting images of first-generation Italians standing proudly in or in front of their newly established businesses. These framed photos are more than just silver gelatin on paper—they have the efficacious power to connect modern Little Italy with it’s cultural and historical past. For the viewer, photographs fabricate a concept of what Little Italy was like 100 years ago, and they have the power to invoke a historical nostalgia that affects the way we perceive and interact with Mulberry Street today. Seeing romanticized images like this affect the way we “remember” (I use this term loosely) the space because the photos conveniently seem to ‘forget’ that this area was home to some of Manhattan’s worst tenement-filled slums. When Italians were coming to America in 19th and early 20th centuries, this “Little Italy” was a stop for the very poor who could not afford to live elsewhere; to move out of “Little Italy” during this time meant an immigrant had found some success and was able to afford to move elsewhere. Today, images that romanticize Little Italy’s past create a simulacra that affects the way we perceive the other vibrant matter (the confetti, the kitsch, etc), which then affects (and perhaps skews?) the way we see perceive Little Italy as a whole.

Theresa Brennan asserts that these visual things we see are not the only elements in the ecology affecting us, though. As humans we have the tendency to discuss affect in terms of what we see because there is a clear boundary between us and our bodies and the physical things we are able to see outside of ourselves. (The Transmission of Affect, 2) But, it’s not just these visual things that affect us—invisible factors like smell are also incredibly potent indicators of space. So, as you walk up Mulberry Street, the smells and the sounds surrounding you are running through you and thus further affecting the way you experience this space.

-Rachel

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~ by rliquindoli on March 3, 2015.

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