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On February 21 in Codogno, a small town in Northern Italy, the first case of COVID-19 in Europe was diagnosed. By the following day, the recorded cases had risen to 80, almost all in Lombardy, and the first death had occurred.

During exactly the same hours, in Milan, just a few kilometers from the coronavirus outbreak, Anthropology Day was celebrated by hundreds of people. On behalf of the University of Milan-Bicocca, we organized about 40 public events throughout the city, to display the public side of anthropology and its practical applications.

Reflecting on the “pandemic present” holds an orientation for the future.

Anthropology Day was one of the last public events held in Milan. All is still in limbo. Within just a few days the city stopped amid uncertainty and confusion and then emptied out as cases of contagion increased and decrees strengthened measures to isolate the population. Milan and Lombardy quickly became the first “red zone” of Italy and Europe. Locked down at home, not allowed to move and meet with other people, we wondered what could survive of Anthropology Day’s spirit.

Due to social distancing, people’s social lives have drastically moved online. Practices of care, communication, and group activities are now feasible (almost) only in the digital world through social media and video calls. In response to this new context, we reimagined our commitment to public anthropology by launching the blog The right distance: A small ethnographic observatory on isolation as a way to foster an anthropological debate on the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak. The success of the call for contributions has highlighted a wide-spread need to grasp the radical change that is under way. The medical emergency goes hand-in-hand with the urgency to collectively make sense of the sudden upside down turn of habits, expectations, and ways of connecting.

Reflecting on the “pandemic present” also holds an orientation for the future, which is, in Bryant and Knight’s words, “a way of thinking about the indeterminate and open-ended theologies of everyday life.” In liminal times, the blog promotes anthropological analyses of possible future scenarios, anticipating public debates, evaluations, and negotiations about the world that will come. If we were not prepared for the impact of the pandemic and found refuge in the outer space of comfort theories, we now must be collectively ready for the post-pandemic return back to Earth with renovated tools.

At the same time, an orientation for the future acts reflexively on the role of public anthropology itself. Following Antonio Gramsci, crises consist in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born. How we decide to act as public anthropologists in this crisis will define the future of the discipline.

Ivan Bargna is full professor of aesthetic anthropology and media anthropology at the University of Milan-Bicocca.

Francesco Vietti, Giovanna Santanera, and Giacomo Pozzi are postdoctoral fellows in cultural anthropology at the University of Milan-Bicocca.

Ilaria Rebecca Bonelli is a PhD student in cultural and social anthropology at the University of Milan-Bicocca.

Cite as: Bargna, Ivan, Francesco Vietti, Giovanna Santanera, Giacomo Pozzi, and Ilaria Rebecca Bonelli. 2020. “Back to the Future in Milan.” Anthropology News website, May 18, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1404

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