The Symmetry of Center and Periphery

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #9 in November 2009]

The power of American capitalism projects an image of itself on the minds of people residing both on the margin and at center of the empire. As for many others at the edges of the world, when I close my eyes, I can picture New York City. This stands in contrast to the provincialism of the center, in which there is no mental image of a specific place outside the center. When you mirror yourself everywhere, you see “the rest of the world” through a distorted lens, with the blindness of being wrapped up in yourself, your vision blocked by your own reflections. My hometown, Milano, was only one of the many cities around the world. Now that I’ve left Milano for Chicago, a city in the geographic center of the core nation, I can see that you don’t really need to go somewhere else because everything comes to you, even if filtered.

Living in the periphery can drive those on the borders to leave in search of something better. The real advantage is that you will have learned to live somewhere else, in the cultures of two worlds. After having moved to a different world, you find that what your mom used to tell you remains valid; what you ate is still good; her remedy for the fever efficient. In other words, your cultural core works even in another country. In the end, even if your place of origin, economically, is a subsidiary of the center (one of capital’s peripheral zones), culturally, you don’t feel lesser.

Chicago reminds me of Milano sometimes, for the similar industrial color tone and for those days where the sky has the same flatness. The Italians I have met here seem to me like an island, floating in the sea, with a suspended sense of time. They left for a New World, but they speak languages lost in the village they used to know. They have remained separate for fifty years. It’s like seeing the back of your country. An old voice you were told about but had never really heard.

There’s the girl I once met in a pizzeria in Chicago. She was disappointed to realize that in Sicily she could no longer speak the local language she grew up with at home. Their constant displacement, like mine, is their contribution to the modern world, even if their awareness of it is in doubt. The center/periphery model in my experience isn’t working. Rather, my experience tells me that everywhere we are is a province, self-contained but tied to other places. Ironies pervade; sometimes I laugh about you, and you laugh about me. As Emily Dickinson wrote, “I am nobody, who are you?”◊

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