Poetic” publics: Agency and rhetorics of “netroots” activism in post-earthquake L’Aquila


Pamela Pietrucci

Department of Communication, University of Washington, Seattle




In this essay, I analyze the rise of post-earthquake activism in L’Aquila as an exemplification of counterpublics’ transformation into social movements endowed with “poetic” agency. Engendering “poetic agency,” for a counterpublic and for a social movement alike, denotes being able to bring forth change in the world and being able to generate change in a creative, “poetic” way. In this sense, poetic assumes a connotation that opposes the Habermasian perspective of a public sphere in which only a rational-critical discourse can be engendered as check on the State.


In the case of L’Aquila, I contend that the post-earthquake social movements’ capability of effecting change in public life through poiesis has been enhanced by the possibilities of the Web 2.0 and by the activists’ acknowledgement of new ways of political participation in a world of spectacularized politics. In this instance, strategies such as the exploitation of alternative “public screens” on the web and the use of “minor rhetorics” to contrast the mainstream media portrayal of the post-disaster situation worked together in a creative and spontaneous effort to improve the condition of the people living in the area affected by the quake.




Counterpublics, Public Screen, Social Movements, Web 2.0, Spectacle.


The post-disaster situation in L’Aquila


Decline is not the only possible narrative. Viewing contemporary public discourse through the prism of the public screen provokes a consideration of the emergence of new forms of participatory democracy.


De Luca and Peeples, From Public Sphere to Public Screen.


On April 6, 2009, a catastrophic earthquake of magnitude 6.3 struck the central-southern Italian city of L’Aquila, the capital of Abruzzo. The earthquake, and the seismic swarm that preceded and followed it, wreaked massive destruction on the once-picturesque medieval town. The seismic event completely annihilated downtown L’Aquila, the historic, economic, and social heart of the city. Most of the ancient churches, almost all of the historic palazzi, the seats of local government, the historic buildings of the University of L’Aquila, the medieval walls of the city, and many residents’ houses collapsed reducing the historic and artistic city center to rubble, literally pulverized. The heart of L’Aquila was named zona rossa, “red zone,” and it is still mostly inaccessible to the residents of L’Aquila and the general public, garrisoned by police forces.


In addition to the symbolic loss of the once lively center of the city, L’Aquila and its residents experienced significant further losses and practical consequences. More than 300 people died during the night of April 6, the majority of L’Aquila’s 70,000 residents lost their homes, and a considerable number of them also lost their businesses and jobs, not to mention the disintegration of their social life and sense of community. The post-catastrophe desolation in L’Aquila and the Italian government top-down management of the emergency through the Civil Protection Agency (CPA) generated a unique situation that led to the rise of citizens’ activism and their engagement in the post-earthquake political discourse.


In the aftermath of the quake, the CPA organized tent cities for the evacuees where the residents of L’Aquila spent months in precarious living conditions and under the strict surveillance of the CPA. Justifying its actions by claiming that it had to keep social order in the post-catastrophe emergency, the CPA de facto enforced the suspension of the residents’ civil rights through such extreme measures as prohibiting free association and democratic discussion among the residents of the tent cities and prohibiting, though often violated, free access to both people and information from outside the camps, including journalists and leafleting. Oddly, these special measures remained in place for a fairly long period, until the tents were disassembled by the CPA, long after the situation of immediate emergency. In fact, the tent cities hosted the evacuees for more than seven months (until December 2009) in a city known to be the coldest in Italy.


The shock of the earthquake, the pain for the loss of loved ones and a normal life, the situation of frailty and hardships together with the constant surveillance by the CPA brought the residents to exasperation. This situation enhanced the will of resistance to the governmental power’s oppression and the will of participation in the re-birth and reconstruction of L’Aquila. The residents of L’Aquila reacted to the top-down post-disaster management rising up to support their right to be involved in the process of decision-making concerning the reconstruction of not only the city but also their own destroyed lives and social identities.


The first target of the activists’ protests was the local division of the CPA, named DiComaC, an acronym for Divisione di Comando e Controllo. The activists claimed that this “Division of Command and Control,” with its strict surveillance on the tent cities and their residents, contributed significantly to keeping the real catastrophic situation of L’Aquila outside of national public and political discourse, keeping it outside of the realm of non-filtered media visibility as much as possible.


Despite the extensive news coverage of the earthquake in the immediate aftermath of the event, as time went by the images showed on Italian public and private television networks started representing only a selected part of the post-disaster reality. Mostly, portrayals were suffused with the image of a “miracle” in dealing with the emergency and the reconstruction, focusing attention on the construction of temporary houses in the outskirts of L’Aquila, and neglecting the dramatic situation of the city center and of the evacuees’ everyday life.


The post-earthquake management has been framed by mainstream media as a great success for the government. This portrayal has been developed by defining the management of the post-earthquake emergency as a “miracle” realized by the CPA and by organizing a series of image events to convey a spectacular and positive representation of the situation of L’Aquila. Notably, mass media elevated Prime Minister Berlusconi as a triumphant figure. He was constantly visible on the public screen, and seen participating in all of the image events broadcasted in national and international new reports. The Prime Minister could often be seen in a firefighter’s yellow helmet visiting the evacuees in the tent cities, giving speeches from the midst of the rubble, escorting political leaders inside the red zone of downtown L’Aquila, and symbolically giving the keys of the new temporary houses to local families. These images have become iconic in representing the closeness of the Italian President to his people, the generosity of the State, and the personal empathy and effort of the Prime Minister to help the disadvantaged.


A wide variety of media image events contributed in the spectacularizion of the post-disaster situation, including: The G8 Summit, which brought all of the most important political leaders of the world to L’Aquila during summer 2009, when the seismic swarm was still scaring the local population; the symbolic inaugurations of the new towns built to host the evacuees, called Progetto C.A.S.E; and several visits of the Prime Minister in the construction sites of the new temporary housing complexes. For both the Italian and international audience, all these events portrayed the image of a city that was already going through a process of re-birth. They portrayed the image of a “miracle” realized, or at least in course of realization.


Unfortunately, for the residents of the tent cities and for the citizens of L’Aquila that had to leave the town after the quake, the rhetoric of the “miracolo Aquilano” represented a very open and visible mystification that heavily clashed with the reality of things. The constant stream of broadcasted positive images and messages misrepresented the local reality and ended up generating widespread discontent among the citizens of L’Aquila who failed to identify their situations with the images that were passing for reality on national television.


During the summer 2009, L’Aquila citizens who resented the government media campaign, constituted 14 Citizens’ Committees united in a network, the rete dei movimenti (network of movements) whose tasks were those of: 1) Ensuring democratic participation in rebuilding; 2) Ensuring the public transparency during the process of allocation of funds for the reconstruction (Padovani 2010); 3) Resisting the mainstream media representation of the post-earthquake reality and deconstructing Berlusconi’s metaphor of the “miracolo Aquilano.”


The Citizens’ Committees “3e32” and “Epicentro Solidale” (Solidarity Epicenter) engaged in intense media activism during the G8 Summit, attempting to show to a national and international audience that the reality in L’Aquila was “another thing,” and precisely it was “the complete opposite of what they show [on TV]” (Puliafito cited in Padovani 2010). They did so through the diffusion of messages via mail, social networks sites, blogs and through the organization of visual/spectacular protests, and the dissemination of symbolic images through online and offline modes of communication.


Most importantly, the local activists recognized the need of media visibility as an integral part in resisting the spectacular image events staged by the government and the misinformation that those images were spreading at the national and international level. The local activists recognized the need to appear on media screens in order to enact the democratic participation that the post-disaster management denied them. In a context where politics turned into spectacle, the activists realized that the only possible way to fight against media misinformation was to fight back in the same battlefield, that is, in the realm of images and media spectacles. In the activists’ words, they were aware that it was necessary to “perforate Berlusconi’s media spectacle” and to “break the semantic glass” that had been thrown on the city after the earthquake (Alessandro T., cited in Padovani 2010). In a nutshell, the Citizens’ Committees activists were determined to stage a counter-spectacle in order to re-appropriate the democratic right of participation in local politics and to make a change in their reality by using images and spectacles as weapons, by disseminating awareness on the public screens by any available technological means. The social movements’ use of mainstream and alternative public screens, the dissemination of images via the web, together with the counter-spectacles and the creative representation of the local reality in movies, documentaries, videos, songs, and books, contributed in significant ways in bringing forth changes in the post-earthquake situation: 1) It made it possible for the citizens’ voices to be heard and to become an active part in the post-disaster management; 2) It made it possible for the citizens to re-appropriate their rights and freedom; 3) Most importantly it generated material changes in the policies for the reconstruction.


Challenging Warner’s perspective on social movements’ agency


In this essay I argue that the case of post-earthquake L’Aquila can aide in deepening our understanding of the potential agency of discursive counterpublics in their transformation into social movements. Counterpublics and social movements alike are capable of agency, as the case of L’Aquila demonstrates, specifically the kind of agency that Warner defines “poetic world-making” (Warner 2002). Divergently from Warner, I argue that counterpublics’ transformation into social movements does not diminish their potential agency in relation to the State and does not necessarily represent a negative transformation that implies a loss of the “poetic” potential of change in favor of the rational discourse typical of politics. On the contrary, I will analyze L’Aquila activism to show how a discursive counterpublic turned into a social movement while maintaining and increasing, in the metamorphosis, its inherent “poetic” capability of carrying on a change in the material world.


Specifically, I contend that, in the case of L’Aquila, the possibilities of the contemporary technologic and wired society, like Web 2.0, enhanced the post-earthquake activist group’s capacity to make a change in the local public life. The case of post-earthquake L’Aquila provides an example of a growing counterpublic engaged in an active resistance to a mainstream discourse and in a process of change-making through poiesis. The term poiesis denotes the meanings of “creation” and “creativity” at the same time, it denotes a creative way of making and changing the world. Thus, the example of L’Aquila activism challenges Warner’s pessimistic assumption that “For many counterpublics, to do so [to enter the temporality of politics in the transformation of a counterpublic into a social movement] is to cede the original hope of transforming, not just policy, but the space of public life itself” (Warner 2002). The case of L’Aquila post-quake movements challenges Warner’s pessimism because it shows that the agency of social movements can be effective and “poetic” at once.


Warner’s discursive publics: Public and private, space and agency reconsidered


At this point, it is appropriate to debunk the terminology concerning the theory of public/s that I attempt to revise through my analysis. I will do so by providing my reading of Warner’s principles of publicness, by deepening some strategic concepts in this theory, such as the theorization of space and agency, and by problematizing the dichotomy of private and public. This conceptualization arises from Warner’s text in that this text suggests such interpretations; however, my reading represents an expansion of this theory based on the case of current activism in L’Aquila.


In the outset of his influencial essay Publics and Counterpublics, Michael Warner declares that his aim is not that of defining “the public” in the Deweyan sense of “social totality,” and not even that of defining a public as a concrete audience or crowd. Warner asserts that his task is that of talking about “that kind of public that comes to be only in relation to texts and their circulation” (Warner 2002). In order to clarify his conception, he starts the list of features pertaining to the specific kinds of publics he wants to theorize. He suggests the following seven principles of publicness:


1. A public is self-organized. Warner contends that a public is self-organized because it exists only for the fact of being addressed. In this sense it is autotelic - its only aim (telos) is that of coming into existence as a public for the discourse which generates it. A public “is a space of discourse organized by nothing other than discourse itself.” Warner recognizes that this idea of public is circular, but this circularity is essential to this phenomenon. Public’s reality lies in fact in “this reflexivity by which an addressable object is conjured into being in order to enable the very discourse that gives it existence.” Moreover, the author points out, space and physical presence do not make a difference for a public: Multiple publics exist and they are different from crowds or an audience that instead require presence. A public is a cultural artifact for which “any empirical extension will seem arbitrarily limited because the addressee of public discourse is always yet to be realized.” Therefore, a public seems to be a space-less potentiality, but this doesn’t mean it is unreal. Only because “the available addressees are essentially imaginary” and in principle open ended, we do not have to infer that they don’t have empirical reality. All potential publics are self-organizing and “they exist by virtue of their address” (Warner 2002).


2. A public is a relation among strangers. The self-organization of publics through discourse also means that people are identified through their participation in the discourse in the first place, therefore they cannot be known in advance. A public thus “unites strangers through participation” (Warner 2002).


3. The address of public speech is both personal and impersonal. As potential members of multiple publics we should understand public speech in two ways, as addressed to us and at the same time as addressed to strangers. “The benefit in this practice is that it gives a general social relevance to private thought and life. Our subjectivity is understood as having resonance with others” (Warner 2002). In this sense, a public is a virtual space where the private can have significance by virtue of what makes that private a commonality in a specific public. Thus Warner’s publics resist the Habermasian ideal of the focus on common issues in the public sphere (Habermas 1967). For Habermas, entering the public sphere means bracketing private interests and focus rationally on common issues. For Warner, we become part of a public precisely because of the commonalities that discourse creates between our private and the private of potentially innumerable other strangers.


4. A public is constituted through mere attention. Publics exist only by virtue of being addressed, therefore, a member of a public must present some degree of attention in order to become a part of it. A public for Warner starts with attention, continues with renewed attention and ceases to exist when attention is not paid it anymore.


5. A public is the social space created by the reflexive circulation of discourse. Warner states that no single text can create a public, no single voice or genre, not even a single medium. Rather, publics are created by the concatenation of texts throughout time. Only when there is a previous discourse and a potential responding discourse, a text is able to address a public. In this sense Warner defines a public as “an ongoing space of encounter for discourse” (Warner 2002). We can think of discourse as a conversation and publics are the context of interaction, the social space created by the reflexivity of discourse.


6. Publics act historically according to the temporality of their circulation. A public acts accordingly to the time of the circulation of discourse that creates it. The more punctual the circulation is, the more likely is the possibility of activity, and the closer is a public to politics.


7. A public is a poetic world-making. Public discourse potentially addresses anybody, it is performative and it characterizes the world in which it attempts to circulate. It can also be defined as an “engine for social mutation” and in this sense it is, in other words, poetic (Warner 2002). I interpret this term as poiesis, which means “to make” or “to bring forth action” that transforms and continues the world. Nevertheless, “poetic” in Warner’s theory also stands to contrast the “rational-critical” discourse typical of the Habermasian conception of the public sphere. In Warner’s conceptions, public discourse, speech or performance attempts to define in advance its circulation and the world in which it will circulate through its address to a public. The self-organizing public, as a consequence, is the precondition for the realization (poiesis) of the world characterized by public discourse. The public would therefore be the agent of a poetic-world making, where poetic has the double meaning that implies action/agency, and a kind of agency that is in contrast with the public sphere’s rational kind of discourse that characterizes politics.




While sub-publics are just specialized publics, focused on, or characterized by particular interests, counterpublics are instead constituted through a “conflictual relation to the dominant public.” According to Warner, a counterpublic is aware of its subordinate status. For this reason, “counterpublic discourse also addresses those strangers as being not just anybody. They are socially marked by their participation in this kind of discourse […] the subordinate status of a counterpublic does not simply reflect identities formed elsewhere; participation in such a public is one of the ways in which its members’ identities are formed and transformed. A hierarchy of stigma is the assumed background of practice. One enters at one’s own risk.” (Warner 2002). This conception of counterpublic is definitely more radical if compared to Fraser’s “subaltern counterpublics” which “formulate oppositional interpretation of their identity, interests and needs” (Fraser 1990), or Asens’s “discursive identities” as “explicitly articulated alternatives to wider publics that exclude the interests of potential participants” (Asen 2000).


Warner’s counterpublics are in conflict with dominant publics, namely those publics that can take their discourse and lifestyle for granted, “misrecognizing the indefinite scope of their expansive address as universality and normalcy.” Counterpublics, Warner points out, “are spaces of circulation in which it is hoped that the poiesis of scene-making will be transformative, not replicative merely” (Warner 2002). Thus, counterpublics, paraphrasing principle n° 7 can be thought as agents of poetic change-making. Indeed, in their poetic world-making they ought to produce social change against the “replicative” world-making of dominant publics.


Virtual and material spaces of publicity: Radicalizing the permeability of public and private in the age of Web 2.0


In the forum on Publics and Counterpublics that appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, Wittenberg expands on the concept of space that Warner employs. Wittenberg reminds us, at the outset of his essay, that space and visibility are fundamental in any exercise of power (Wittenberg 2002). He also notes that, consistent with other theories of publics and public spheres, Warner uses the term space in a “quasi metaphorical” or “quasi metaphysical” way in order to preserve the theoretical basis of the existence of the public as text-based entity and as a potentiality that manifests itself in the tension between a material/empirical and a notional/discursive conception of space. Wittenberg asserts: “This spatializing terminology aids the theorist in representing the coherence of these otherwise nebulous social identities by transmuting them from adjectives into concrete nouns.” Moreover, “spatial terms help the theorist to mark publics as specifics, locatable phenomena within the built social and political environment, as well as to begin to describe the way in which publics distinguish and demarcate their own specific character within the wider realm of social relationships” (Wittenberg 2002). Wittenberg stresses the internal tensions between the abstract, discursive, and almost metaphysical character of publics as “potentiality” of discourse, as Warner theorizes them, and their empirical and material possibility of their realization in the world. For Wittenberg, when we think about publics as text-based we have to give up both the common understanding of the public as an entity “which is ‘outside’ in the civic social environment,” and the Habermasian conception of public as the counterpart of the private, in fact, “You may as well read or write public discourse in the privacy of your own home, and indeed, given the present momentum of the media, you are increasingly likely to do so,” Wittenberg states (Wittenberg 2002) while hinting at the new online modalities of communication.


Warner’s theory, in principle n° 3, collapses the public/private dichotomy, radicalizing one of the common reconfigurations of public sphere theory, which questions the distinction between public and private by re-thinking the borders between the two as “permeable” and “loosened by removing the restriction of deliberation in the public sphere to the common good” (Asen and Brower 2001).


Moreover, Warner’s theory enmeshes the material/empirical (as a potentiality) with discoursive/metaphorical (based on circulation of texts) conception of publicity, which allows the possibility of thinking about spatiality of publics and counterpublics in a double, and equally valid perspective. This double perspective recognizes publics and counterpublics as discursive and text-based potential entities, which have at once a material potential substance that realizes itself in the aggregation of strangers as addressee of a specific discourse. The ontology of publics (and counterpublics, and social movements) is thus discursive on the one hand, and potentially material on the other hand, both features being present at the same time. In this perspective, the character of counter/publics can be conceived as potentially visible “outside” in the civic social environment on the one hand, as happens for example in rallies, marches, sit-ins, protests, and also “invisible” or virtual on the other hand, but equally present and ideally “materializable.” Rethinking the spatiality of publicity, and collapsing the opposition between the public and the private once and for all, make it easier to make sense of the phenomenology of publicity in the age of the interactive Web 2.0. Rethinking the spatiality of publicity means conceiving it in the same time as a “space of discourse organized by nothing other than discourse itself” (Warner 2002), that nevertheless has an actual spatializing potential, which makes it also material and endows it with an effective agency in the world. The space occupied by counter/publics and their evolution in social movements can be both material and tangible or virtual and volatile, like the space occupied on the internet or in media screens. Thus, a “spatialized” conception of publics, a conception which is still discursive, but not purely metaphysical, is a conception that helps collapse the dichotomy of materiality/discourse in theorizing publicity in its new manifestations through blogs, social networks, online forums, instant messaging. It also helps make sense of the new activism, which is more and more mediated by the Web 2.0 modalities of circulation of texts in the attempt to organize action to make change in the material world.


Agency, publicity and “minor rhetorics”


Visualizing publics and counterpublics in the space, be it a material or virtual one, makes it easier to endow them with an agency that in Warner’s essay is suggested but not rigorously theorized. As evidence of this ambiguity in Warner’s essay, the responses on the Public/Counterpublics forum are mainly concerned with the consequences of: “Going out in public” for Wittenberg (Wittenberg 2002), or on “the limits of political transformation” for Deem (Deem 2002), or on rhetorical pedagogy conceived as a “postal system” of a public for Greene (Greene 2002). In every case, the concern about the possibility of agency of publics and its consequences is a major one in this literature.


Moreover, Warner’s theory of publics complicates the question of agency because it refuses one of the common reconfigurations of public sphere theory, namely the reconsideration of the separation between public sphere and State. (Asen and Brower 2001). Warner adopts a model that Asen and Brower would define “separatist” when he states that publics organize themselves independently of state institutions. For Warner, they “lack any institutional being” and specifically, they “lack the power to transpose themselves to the generality of the state” (Warner 2002). This “separatist” conception, in Warner’s theorization, problematizes publics’ possibility of agency. Debates over the reciprocal influences of state institutions and public discourse demand the reconsideration of Habermas’s theorization about the separation of public sphere and the state where, “unencumbered by the constraint of either realm, the bourgeois public sphere could engender rational-critical discourse that would serve as a critical check on the state” (Asen and Brower 2001). However, the many reconfigurations of this opposition between state and publics see these two entities as inescapably intertwined, with the latter functioning as a constant source of information to the former and vice versa.


Warner’s position in these contrasting perspectives on the imbrications between state and publics, and particularly in the issue of publics and counterpublics’ agency, can be articulated as follows: Publics and counterpublics lack any institutional being and they cannot transpose themselves to the generality of the state. This separation, however, does not assume a lack of possible agency from the part of publics (or counterpublics). Nevertheless, this agency is not characterized like the Habermasian rational-critical discourse of the bourgeois public sphere; rather, its essence is “poetic.” Publics for Warner are “poetic world-making” according to principle n° 7, and counterpublics are “poetic change-making”. They are endowed with a possibility of agency which is radically different from the one theorized by Habermas. Their agency is poetic. Poetic because it creates the discourse that makes and bring changes in the world, and also because this kind of discourse is essentially creative and is radically different from the rational-critical discourse of the Habermasian bourgeois public sphere, which can exist only in a world where public and private can be represented and lived as two separated realms. In Warner’s theory the opposition between public and private collapses, and therefore the rational-critical Habermasian discourse is not an option. Nonetheless, Warner’s poetic agency disappears when one of these groups become “institutionalized” such as, he suggests, when a counterpublic becomes a social movement that poses itself in direct dialogue with the State.


In one of the responses to Warner, Deem ( Deem 2002), expanding on the rhetorical characteristics of the discourse of counterpublics and of their possibility of agency, contends that, even in the cases in which counterpublics/social movements adapt themselves to the language of the status quo (of the institutions), they often do it with the aim of deconstructing that specific language from the inside. In what follows I will describe this strategy analyzing the case of activism in L’Aquila that used the spectacular language of images to stage counter-spectacles that responded and attempted to deconstruct the ones staged by the Prime Minister. Deem names this strategy “minor rhetorics” following Deleuze and Guattari’s work on “minor literature”. She contends, in fact, that in the case of counterpublics, “minor rhetorics use the language of the majority in such a way as to make that language stutter; they slow down, interrupt, or halt the movement of language. This conception of rhetoric short circuits appeals to transcendence and pushes language to its extreme” (Deem 2002). Minor rhetorics can be defined a “poetic” rhetorical strategy, therefore the use of minor rhetorics by L’Aquila social movements suggests that their dialogic proximity to the State does not necessarily causes a loss of their poiesis modality of resistance. On the contrary, the opposite is a possibility that we can, and should, take into account.


Activism in L’Aquila: Camping, “wheelbarrowing,” living in the “debris of democracy”


Verba Volant, Sisma Manent.

Epicentro Solidale


YES WE CAMP! Collision of realities


Two days after the earthquake (on April 8, 2009), as firefighters dug the bodies of missing people out of the rubble and the death toll was rising every hour, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told the survivors of the earthquake to lift their spirits and think about the accommodation in the tent cities as a “weekend of camping.” However, this statement did not resonate well with the thousands of people who were forced out of their wrecked homes. Journalists reported disappointed survivors’ comments, such this one from The Times:


If Berlusconi thinks we are all on a camping holiday, I invite him to do a swap,” said Vincenzo Breglia, as he stood outside his tent on a sports field on the outskirts of L’Aquila. “He can come here to sleep and I will be prime minister. Let’s see how he likes spending the night in freezing temperatures with no hot water.”


Berlusconi, in the while, insisted that there was nothing inappropriate in his remarks, as reported in the article cited above, and in many others.


After 3 months, 50,403 evacuees were still living in temporary accommodations. According to the Report of the Assisted Population released by the Structure for the Management of the Emergencies (in Italian S.G.E.) on June 30, 2009, there were 20,011 people residing in the tent cities, 19,749 in hotels on the coast, and 9,643 staying in “Autonomous Accommodation” (autonoma sistemazione) as guests of relatives.


During this time, there was a frenzied atmosphere in L’Aquila because the city was undergoing preparations for the upcoming G8 Summit in the midst of the post-catastrophe situation. In order to organize a show of international solidarity, Prime Minister Berlusconi decided to move the gathering from La Maddalena to L’Aquila. Allegedly, Berlusconi arranged this change to avoid wasting the millions of Euros allotted for the G8 preparations in La Maddalena by investing them instead in the devastated territory. Berlusconi declared: “It’s a big effort. We would like to be dressed up in one’s Sunday best, but they will find us in overalls.” Berlusconi also stated that he was sure that the No-Global movements “will not dare to come here and protest heavily; they won’t have the heart to hit a land that is already severely devastated by the earthquake.” This decision drew conflicting feelings from those in L’Aquila. Many people welcomed the idea because of the visibility and attention that the G8 Summit could attract to L’Aquila’s catastrophic situation. However, critics considered Berlusconi’s decision a strategic move to internationally promote the media spectacle of the miraculous recovery, the “miracolo Aquilano,” that he had already started promoting at the national level. According to these critics, the decision marked a good opportunity for the government to keep G8 protestors under stricter surveillance by holding the G8 in that particular locale. A successful gathering in L’Aquila, with neutralized protest forces, could represent a media spectacle capable deleting the bad memories associated with the Genoa G8.


In this controversial context, on July 8, 2009, 50 activists from the Citizen’s Committees drove to a mountainside determined to enact a peaceful and strategic protest to connect with international audiences. As Barack Obama and other world leaders landed in L’Aquila, the activists gathered to catch the attention of these leaders and the thousands of journalists stationed in the media headquarters. They placed huge letters that read “YES WE CAMP!” in a position on the mountainside that could not be missed by anyone staying at the Guardia di Finanza, the coumpound where the G8 meeting was taking place. The slogan, with its parody mimicking of Obama’s motto, was designed to attract international attention to the situation of the Aquilani that was carefully kept out of public visibility in those days. Photographers, documentary filmmakers, and freelance reporters went with the activists to the mountainside to film the counter-spectacle while banners, pins, and flyers with the same slogan were appearing all over L’Aquila. The activists wore T-shirts with the slogan “Forti e Gentili Sì, Fessi No” (Strong and Kind Yes, Dumb No), which grew in popularity after the protest. The activists had designed T-shirts to respond to politicians who praised the Aquilani people as “forti e gentili” (strong and kind) and the respect they had for how these people coped with the disaster, unintendingly offending the Aquilani’s dignity. Activists found this statement disingenuous because, while praising the Aquilani people, these politicians treated them differently in terms of tax breaks than people from Irpinia and Umbria, where other emergencies happened in the past. In order to demand equal fiscal relief, the activists wanted to convey the idea that people from L’Aquila might be indeed strong and kind but were not so dumb as to be deceived by differential treatment. These T-shirts became a must-wear for every Aquilano who claimed to care about the economy and the rebirth of L’Aquila.


Overall, the Yes We Camp! counter-spectacle was considered successful because news reports covered it at an international level. By early evening, even The New York Times reported the protest and interviewed one of the activists (Padovani 2010). Moreover, Yes We Camp! was not the only spectacular protest in the days of the G8. Parallel protests and events were also organized to enhance local public visibility and support the No-G8 march that gathered activists from all over the world. The Citizens’ Committees also organized The Last Ladies march and L’Aquila Social Forums (Padovani 2010).


As the activists thus constituted themselves as an active counterpublic, this first period was characterized by spectacular modalities of protest that sought to attract attention and public visibility after a period of denied citizenship. The activists recognized the media screens “as the contemporary shape of the public sphere, and the image event designed for mass media dissemination as an important contemporary form of citizen participation” (De Luca and Peeples 2002).They endeavored to make an instrumental use of the mainstream media in order to re-appropriate their citizenship, as they lucidly state in the interviews discussing the Yes We Camp! provocation. Moreover, they filmed and photographed all of their activities to disseminate the images via the world wide web. The Citizens’ Committee 3e32 started a collection of video recordings to regularly upload in their website that now constitutes an extensive archive documenting all their creative actions of protest. They have a media crew, “Media Crew Case Matte,” which constantly documents the citizens’ activities, disseminating the videos online. Many documentaries have been realized to document this first stage of activism in L’Aquila, including: Yes We Camp! and Comando and Controllo by Alberto Puliafito, and Draquila (a mix of Dracula and L’Aquila) by Sabina Guzzanti. Many movies have been filmed to describe the post earthquake plight, including: Into the Blue by Emiliano Dante, Il Miracolo Aquilano by Stefano Mutolo and Marco Iannini, Canto 6409 (Chant /4/6/09) by Dino Viani, La Città Invisibile (The Invisible City) by Giuseppe Tandoi, Tornando a L’Aquila (Going Back to L’Aquila) by Franco Nero, Eutanasia di un Capoluogo (Eutanasia of a City) by Claudio Romano, and more. In fact there are so many now that the media started talking about a new “movie genre.” In addition, hundreds of blogs about post-earthquake life proliferated on the web. The most popular is diceche.com by Francesco Paolucci e Mauro Montarsi, who satirize about the Aquilani’s quake paranoia and fear, as well as the political evolutions of the reconstruction. They do so using the Aquilano dialect and usually videorecording from a camper while drinking the Genziana-root liquor, typical of the Abruzzo region.


Another example of creative public activity is the cover of the song Domani (Tomorrow), which was originally written and published by a group of the most influential artists in Italy to finance the reconstruction of the Teatro Stabile d’Abruzzo and of the Conservatory of L’Aquila. On December 2009, months after the release of Domani, the bloggers of diceche and the band Malìa from L’Aquila started a Facebook group to gather a collective of Aquilani artists to release a cover of Domani in Aquilano dialect, titled Domà. They re-wrote the lyrics in the local dialect to tell the story of the earthquake from an insider’s perspective. In the words of the coordinators of the project, Domà is:


A critic and ironic narration of the life after the earthquake. We decided to re-write the lyrics to tell our stories, in our own voices. We wanted to re-unite L’Aquila music scene’s artists in a collective that can generate future collaborations. One of the objectives that we have accomplished has been that of meeting again, in person, many of people that had to leave because of the earthquake.”


Notably, the “poetic” agency of the Aquilani counterpublic worked not only to reconstruct the lost sense of citizenship and public visibility in the post-earthquake situation but also to reconstruct the sense of identity and community among Aquilani citizens that collapsed with the material city on the night of April 6. Counterpublic’s poetic agency in L’Aquila presented a private and public dimension that enmeshed in the urge to express the desire and need for change.


THE PEOPLE OF THE WHEELBARROWS: Transition into the red zone


For the government, the completion of Progetto C.A.S.E during the winter of 2010 marked the definitive realization of the miraculous recovery. The daily news on TV covered the materialization of the “miracle” by showing the images of the 19 new towns built in the outskirts of L’Aquila, including the inside of the furnished apartments and some of the families as they moved in. The media coverage often reported that every family hosted in the Progetto C.A.S.E. even found a bottle of sparkling wine and cake in their new apartment to celebrate the symbolic rebirth of a normal, comfortable, and happy life.


However, many Aquiliani were preoccupied with controversies about the realization of this project. The new complexes of temporary accommodations could host only 15,000 people, though this only represents 1/3 of those in need of homes. As well, according to the critics, these homes were much more expensive and less environmentally sustainable than alternatives such as wooden removable temporary houses or containers. Moreover, this urbanization of the rural areas around L’Aquila also changed the territory by ruining the beautiful mountain landscapes of Abruzzo, neglecting to plan the integration of the new towns with the reconstruction of the “old” L’Aquila, as strongly advocated by Aquilani, and ignoring the need of new infrastructure that would make the new towns livable. In addition, the Aquilani pointed out that, in order to resolve the city’s situation it was also necessary a parallel RE-construction of the city’s damaged and recoverable buildings and of the city center.


The Aquilani protested pacifically to express these concerns and their perspectives about the future of the city. Notably, on February 21, 2009, they enacted the symbolic protest of the “1,000 Keys to re-open the city”. In this protest, the citizens who used to live in downtown L’Aquila gathered around the barriers and fences that block the red zone to hang the keys of their homes there, to convey the message that they wanted their city back.The protest was again organized via the internet, and the slogan “Riprendiamoci la città” (Let’s take back our city), together with their symbolic act, was designed to bring the attention to the problem of the rubble in downtown L’Aquila that impeded the project of a “re”-construction. The citizens started demanding the prompt removal of the mountains of debris as a first step towards the recovery of the city center and of the communal and social life that used to take place there.


The concerns about the Progetto C.A.S.E. and the frustration for the lack of attention to the city center turned into rage when a corruption scandal involving the Head of the CPA, Guido Bertolaso, made the headlines of national newspapers. Bertolaso, the hero of the emergency management and of the “miraculous” recovery, was placed under investigation for a sex/corruption scandal concerning illegal assignments of contracts. Allegedly, the illicit contracts that Bertolaso assigned in exchange for bribes and sexual favors revolved around the management of “big events” and emergencies, including the G8 and the “re”-construction of L’Aquila. According to the GIP (Giudice Indagini Preliminari) Rosario Lupo, the judge in charge for preliminary investigations, phone tapping revealed that the entrepreneurs involved in the scandal with Bertolaso defined themselves as a “gelatinous system of corruption,” a “task force of bandits,” or a “ring” (cricca) capable to “steal the stealable.”


The rage of the Aquilani turned to outrage and disconcert when a phone-tapped conversation between two of the entrepreneurs under investigation was published in every national newspaper on February 18, 2010. The two entrepreneurs Francesco De Vito Piscicelli and Pierfrancesco Gagliardi were recorded during the night of April 6, while they were talking about the huge amount of money that they could make exploiting the “opportunity” of the earthquake. Specifically, they chatted about “smiling in happiness” in their beds at 3:30 am when thinking about the business generated by the post-earthquake reconstruction. They even encouraged each other to act fast to get the most out of this opportunity. The Aquilani were furious and shocked upon hearing this news, and they reacted with equal outrage on the internet, where they began to plan for the next action. They created several Facebook groups, and one of them, “Quelli che alle 3e32 non ridevano” (Those who were not smiling at 3:32am), became central in spreading the word to organize the next rally. Gathering almost 74,000 members, this group launched the idea of a new mass protest in the red zone in order to express: 1) the refusal of corruption and of the “ring” in the reconstruction of L’Aquila, conveyed by the slogan “Il Gran Rifiuto Della Cricca” (The great refusal of the Ring); 2) the disillusionment towards the state institutions, which were still neglecting the rubble in downtown L’Aquila, delaying the reconstruction; 3) The need for transparency and participation in the reconstruction.


The Aquilani were determined to re-appropriate their city. They decided that the most effective way of recalling attention to this problem was by showing that they wanted and needed to be a part of the solution of the problems of the post-earthquake reconstruction. In addition to the Internet messages, on February 28, 2010, the Sunday morning of the protest, a text message in Aquilano dialect spread virally around the mobile phones of the citizens of L’Aquila. The text read: “Sveglia, rizzete e vè a lavorà con noi pè sgombrà L’Aquila dalle macerie!” (Wake up and come work with us to remove the rubble from downtown!). That day the Aquilani gathered around the borders of the red zone in overalls, carrying wheelbarrows, yellow security helmets, shovels, and trash containers. They carried banners reading “Smaltiamo I Commissari, Ricicliamo le Macerie” (Let’s dispose of Officers, and Recycle the Rubble) to protest against the alleged corruption of the “Commissario” for the reconstruction, Bertolaso and his team.


The “Popolo delle Carriole” (people of the wheelbarrows), as the media began to call this movement , broke into the red zone and started to work together to clean up the rubble that was lying abandoned on the streets, sorting out the recyclable materials and starting to carry the waste material out of downtown L’Aquila. They invented a neologism to describe their Sunday activity: they called it Scarriolare (Wheelbarrowing), a verb coined from the word “carriola” (wheelbarrow), that soon became the symbol of the protest. The people of the wheelbarrows decided to meet every Sunday to work together to move the rubble away from the city center, as a means to sensitize the authorities about the necessity of putting an effective plan into action in order to rescue the city center that had been left abandoned after the earthquake.


In the following months the people of the wheelbarrows became more and more involved in the organization of actions and rallies that could bring back media attention in a crucial moment for the future of the city. Their “scarriolata” had been able, for the first time, to show to the national public what was really going on in Abruzzo and to gather national support and solidarity to lobby the government for fiscal relief. Last, but not least, the people of the wheelbarrows organized a series of events to take place over the summer 2010, in downtown L’Aquila, with the aim of gradually re-appropriating the social spaces of the city and of denouncing the situation of the several monuments, churches and piazze by showing directly to the rest of Italy the state of abandonment and negligence toward a place that used to be considered one of the Italian historic and artistic jewels, and one of the most lively and stimulating locations for studying or living in central-southern Italy.




The latest rally organized by the people of the wheelbarrows took place on November 20, 2010. Despite the adverse weather conditions, 26,000 people from all over Italy participated to respond to the plea of the Aquilani which had been disseminated via the internet and asked to the Italian people to go to L’Aquila and symbolically bring a yellow hard hat to participate “in removing the rubble of democracy.” The rally L’Aquila chiama Italia- Macerie di democrazia, was meant to promote the reconstruction of L’Aquila by collecting the signatures necessary to present a popular initiative of law, written by the Aquilani, to the Parliament. Moreover, the rally was organized to gather national solidarity in L’Aquila and to expose what the activists defined the “rubble of our democracy” (Macerie di democrazia). The activists from 3e32 and the other Citizens’ Committees used the metaphor of L’Aquila as the “epicenter of an Italy in a constant State of emergency, environmental, legal, occupational,” and the debris of L’Aquila as a metaphoric materialization of the “rubble of the Italian democracy.”


The rally called for a national participation to expose the “deceit of the Miracolo Aquilano.” Among the round of speeches delivered by the Aquilani and by other activists, one deserves particular attention because of its topic and its peculiar style. Antonello Ciccozzi, Professor of Antropology at the University of L’Aquila, delivered a protest speech called “Miracoli e Telemaghi” (Miracles and Telemagicians). The video of the speech has been circulating widely on Facebook, published on the websites of the Citizens’ Committees, and transcribed by its author in his blog “La città nascosta” (The hidden city). “Miracoli e Telemaghi,” although delivered in an angry attitude, is a speech that uses irony to reverse the images associated to the Prime Minister’s metaphor of the miraculous recovery. The speech is divided in two parts which illustrate the “extraordinary miracles” realized in L’Aquila after the earthquake. According to Professor Ciccozzi, the first one, a “truly incredible and notable miracle,” had been that of having instantly forgotten about the 309 victims of the earthquake, and of the responsibility of the Commissione Grande Rischi (Commission Great Risks) in having contributed to the deaths of those citizens. The CGR, in fact, had been temporarily placed under investigation for having missed to alert the population and having, instead, reassured the Aquilani the evening of April 5 by encouraging them to “drink a good glass of Montepulciano wine, and go serenely to bed.” Subsequently, and “miraculously,” suggests Ciccozzi, the accusations were dropped and the investigation closed. The other miracle, the symbol of the Miracolo Aquilano, says Ciccozzi, is, indeed the Project C.A.S.E:


The Project C.A.S.E. is a miracle because in a situation of huge economic crisis, groups of national entrepreneurs have been able to operate in miraculous conditions: making huge profits, not having to respect the rules (because of the state of emergency), and exploiting masses of underpaid workers. Built with huge costs, the Progetto C.A.S.E is barely hosting the half of the people in need of an accommodation, and the miracle is that the other half has been hidden, leaving our city abandoned, and producing a landscape ruin in our territory. I think this has been truly a miracle, and a miracle in the miracle has been that of making this choice appear to be necessary by hiding the many other possibilities of housing, hugely more sustainable, hugely less expensive and equally comfortable, only to grant to that “ring” of entrepreneurs a 300-400% profit. On our disaster.”


Ciccozzi’s speech, along with the organization of the national rally into the red zone, contributed in definitely thorning apart, for the national audience, the image of the Miracolo Aquilano.


As of today, the Aquilani activists believe that this is the first step in order to start a path of real recovery, less miraculous perhaps, but supported by the rest of Italy and by the participation of each and every citizen.




For Warner, when a social movement starts dialoguing with the State, it loses its “poetic” capability of change-making typical of counterpublics. In this essay, I argued against this stance by rethinking some of the tensions that arise from this theory and improving the understanding of social movements as engines for creative social change in the age of the interactive Web. By rethinking the spatiality of publicity as a private virtual space that can be expanded in a public materialization, we can make sense of the new Web 2.0 modalities of publicity and participation. Moreover, by coming to understand how the dimensions of public and private lose their boundaries and ultimately overlap in our contemporary world, it is possible to problematize public modalities of dialogue with the state and the institutions. It is likewise possible to conceive of the possibility of agency of counter/publics and social movements differently from that characterized by rational-critical discourse which assumed a strict separation of private and the common good: An agency which is poetic instead and that aims to bring forth change in the world through creativity. This kind of agency sees the private as publicly relevant precisely because we associate in publics, counterpublics, or social movements, when we recognize the private commonalities that constitute us as groups. In conclusion, the case of post-earthquake L’Aquila activism demonstrated that this “poetic” agency has the potential to be effective without being impersonal, and incisive, despite its different modalities of affecting the institutions.




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The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441