Monday, March 23, 2009

Theory of mixture III: Hybridity

First of all, I must admit that Canclini’s article was a bit difficult to follow. He really deals with numerous complex themes and he doesn’t really focus on the term ‘hybridity’ which gave me troubles to understand its meaning. I hope we’ll clarify this in class.

However the overall impression I get is that hybridity is fundamentally linked with modernity and the different processes that are linked to it such as urban growth, deteritorialisation, migrations and transnationalisation. The former cultural hierarchy that used to be the standard no longer exists because of the amount of interactions, exchanges, migrations that happen all the time between what was before considered as cultural territories. Power relationships are no longer concentric and become more and more complex. Sociopolitical relations are nowadays decentred and multidetermined which has completely changed the nature and the former exclusivity of cultures.

I also think that Canclini's reflexion is very much centred on the idea that territories have been transcended. "All cultures are border cultures". I found really interesting the passage concerning the different cities at the US/Mexico borders. The hybridization of people's cultures there is extremely emphasized. I find fascinating and very optimistic that these processes has helped to develop a much more tolerant and open interpretation of cultural identities. To be honest the reason why I was particularly interested by this topic is because I’ve done my review paper on the cultural identities of Central American immigrants in San Francisco focusing on the mural paintings of the Latin American district.

I think that what this article says is that it is practically impossible today for a culture to stay "authentic" and not to encounter others influences, which is the base for explaining the process of hybridization. The example of historical monuments integrated to the dynamics of the city was a really good example of hybridity; the interaction of memory (history) and change (modernity).

Basically the difference between hybridity and mestizaje for example would be that the way Canclini explains hybridization looks like a report on the state of cultural identities in our modern world, whereas mestizaje is an objective, an ideal to reach. Hybridity has also to do with the strong acceptation and emphasis of these cultural identities at the intersection of different worlds by the people who are directly concerned. Once again I think I’m gonna stop my ramblings here, before saying anything stupid. These concepts become more and more difficult to really understand.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Popular culture as mass culture

Although football is not a fascinating topic for me, I found Alex Bellos's article interesting in its way of presenting futbol in Latin America and in Brazil in particular as one of the main component of the national culture. I guess here, mass culture could be understood as nationally spread. But of course mass culture also implies the major role of the Media in the romanticization and exaltation of sport's events. When I was reading the text, I have really seen an application of Benedict Anderson's view of nations as 'imagined communities'. Football in Latin America gather citizen's imaginations and emotions together towards a similar goal. As the author says, 'football gives Brazilians a feeling of national identity and citizenship'. I was both amused and surprised to read that the national football strip has a stronger national meaning that the national flag. Since the invention of the Olympic Games, it seems like sport has almost become a peaceful way of fighting other countries and to pit states's strenght against other's. A lot of references and terms in the text made me think that sport almost had the same purpose than military assertion for countries. The 1950 World Cup for Brazilians was a way of proving the state's modernity. And yet we know that a state and its army's modernity has always been crucial to the history of wars. For the Brazilian nation, losing the World Cup has been comparable to a military defeat and this historical event has stayed in Brazilians's memories until today while Uruguayans already forgot they won. It was like 'Hiroshima' (I can't believe they even dared making the comparison!. This defeat deserved a monument, like the one to the unknown soldier. This competition was supposed to become part of the national construction of Brazil by asserting the place of the country, as any myths in national histories. Instead it becames a myth of despair, exaggerated and romanticized by numerous books, narratives, movies, but still national. The ideological climat of this 1950 World Cup, both before and after, reminded me of every period of nationalist propaganda preceding wars.

I do have difficulties to decide whether or not national culture has to do with mass culture and popular culture. We usually explain the emergence of nation-states with the expansion of technologies of communication, which means a new ability of massive symbolic diffusion. However can national culture be considered as popular?

Nelson Hippolyte Ortega's article present Telenovelas as a important expression of Latin American popular culture, but he does precise than telenovelas have been highly nationalized and identified to each producing country's identity. So here, telenovelas are both popular and national, as well as being mass culture. The author describes telenovelas as a representation of the public's symbolic and affective world, showing reality and daily life. The producers emphasize people's identification and try to make of telenovelas a family ritual. The melodramatic aspect is supposed to emphasized the importance of the ordinary. To be honest after reading about the Brazilian Hiroshima, melodrama now seems to be a Latin American cultural trait. When we discussed it in class, I was wondering if this emotional exxageration about every events and drama in telenovelas could have an aim of catharsis. Make people living things that shouldn't happen in real life. My understanding of this article is that telenovelas make 'coexist commercial language and popular culture' and this is precisely where lies the tension. At some points, the danger is that telenovelas that are supposed to be an expression of popular culture are took over by commercial exigencies and become populist and demagogist. Mass Media, although they have positive outcomes, are also at the crossroads between commercial and political stakes which force to ask ourselves about the messages in these televisual emissions. Is resignification really possible, or have telenovelas a manipulating and alienating component?

This is always the downside of all our technologies of mass communication; knowing if it really serves as support for the diffusion of popular culture, or if it is used as a mean for shaping people's culture and attitudes, both by politics and commercials.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Theories of mixture II: transculturation

These week's readings discuss several complex academic terms all related to Latin American post colonial societies and there structures. I think that the real complexity raised by such concepts is the different understandings and interpretations of each writers...

The first short passage of Fernando Ortiz's book describes 'transculturation' as a constitutive historical feature of Cuban society. I liked the way he emphasizes the violence of these different phases of immigration for humans themselves: he gives to this historical account a powerful and tragic resonance. I found relevant his definition of transculturation as the transition to a new culture trigerring the painful loss of another; however I had troubles with his comparing of the oppression of African slaves in Cuba to the so-called 'terror' of European oppressors! To refer to his clever and meaningful metaphor, European immigrants have been a real 'hurricane'. To him, transculturation is more than the passage from one culture to another. Ortiz describes the culture acquired as something completely new which mixed both features of the place of origin and the place of arrival. To represent this process he alludes to human reproduction which reminded me of Vasconcelos words in the Cosmic race. His text was full of allusions to reproduction and love as the priviledged way to create a new race. Although Ortiz admits the positive aspect of transculturation, I though he emphasized quite more the dark and difficult side of Cuban cultural intercrossings.

Antonio Cornejo Polar's article concerns heterogeneous litterature and the concept of heterogeneity. I think he explains that contrary to the concept of national litterature, one has to understand that this so-called homogeneity is actually challenged by regional and global categories. Indigenismo is described as one of these heterogeneous litteratures reflecting the diversity of Andean societies. Indigenismo is heterogeneous because it is produced within a sociocultural structure that is different from the one indigenous belong to. He shows not only how indigenismo has been influenced by Western standards, but also that it is mainly the discourse of middle-class activists that 'internalized' the interests of indigenous. Polar explains that 'instead of imagining an impossible homogeneity' (as national ideology does), indigenismo realizes a sort of materialization of Latin American heterogeneity. Thus I understood that heterogeneous litterature were a representation of the Latin American reality of social fragmentation due to history. Indeed, Polar sees his concept of heterogeneity as including a notion of persistant conflict and contradictions whereas transculturation or mestizaje refer to the resolution of originating antagonisms into a synthesis. Heterogeneity is supposed to help understand how multiplicity within a whole social structure generates conflicts. He speaks of a 'contradictory totality'.

Millington's article, although complex as well, helps clarify some points. He also assumes that transculturation is a more neutral and peaceful term. Generally speaking he shares Ortiz's point of view about his concept of transculturation and its application to Cuba. He explains that these processes refered to as transculturals are unique to Latin America. However, I am not quite sure he shares Polar's point of view given that he ends his essay by defining transculturation as a search for resistance to local and international pressure since the emergence of Latin American new nation-states. If true, transculturation also includes conflictiveness.

I found very interesting the passage where he questions the efficiency of 'neoculturation' in Latin America saying that this search for a cultural identity needs to be more than a reaction/opposition to dominant forces. I found that these remarks were really interesting and relevant. His point is that the understanding and development of such concepts as transculturation, heterogeneity, hybridity and others are necessary in order to define 'emancipatory spaces' for Latin America. I have to say he succeeded at cheering me up with this idea, after I struggled to understand these concepts that are all so close to each other!

Monday, March 2, 2009

Folk culture and modernity

I really need to make this first remark after this week's readings and this could be taken as a reflection over the course. We had almost 200 pages to read this week, and I personally think it is far too much... It is too long to read each week, to understand and to analyse, and it is really altering my ability to focus on the same subject! Even though most of the articles Jon selected are passionating, a good thing for this class would be to work on passages less long. But this is only my humble opinion...

Campbell's article appeared first to me as quite difficult, but as soon as he started speaking of its very subject, 'Mexican muralism', everything became clearer. With his study of this original form of art, he exemplifies how modern-states shaped their national foundations through their ability to control cultural productions, especially art, and the symbols they are promoting. Indeed the new Mexican state after the revolution worked at redefining national culture in order to support the legitimity of the newly founded state. Muralism which was an high art has been used to consolidate political legitimacy and stability and to draw a new national identity guaranteeing national unity. Mural practice almost became the official carrier of the state's message. As it is the case for education, this article proves that cultural production has often been driven by a political purpose and led by the power. Campbell especially points out two aspects of this nationalist construction which is not unique to Latin America. He shows how the state tried to make of this new nationalism something common to the whole nation, overcoming social disparities. That is why they took mural art which was an 'high art' and tried to bring it to the masses. Campbell even suggests that provoking the audience was part of this purpose: controversies helped to display mural on a large public scene and to make it circulate. In the same universalist aim, nationalism also use to ally past and present, tradition and modernity and to confuse them. Nationalism often legitimizes a nation-state by drawing on so-called common historical events and traditions, which are myths most of the time. Mexican nationalism using mural art did not escaped to this rule. Vasconcelos called mural practice ' the deus ex machina of the Mexican renaissance' as if the Mexican nation had always existed. Mural art in general was constituted of different allusions to the past (indigenous cultures, colonization, independence...) while creating a completely new imagined nation (The Cosmic race ...)However, this article also shows how soon occurred a class dichotomisation around Mexican muralism. It took place between what was considered as an art belonging to a national culture dominated by an economical and cultural elite, supporting modernization, and a more popular/middle class contestation denoucing the lack of popular representation and resisting to modernization threathening tradition.

Thus, an art that was supposed to carry a new unique national culture ended facing 'popular frontism', which shows that popular culture did not identified completely with the modern state. This is easily demonstrable with the indigenous litterature we read for example.

Concerning The Magic af the state by Michael Taussig, I would first say how hard was this text to understand for me. I do not know about native speakers, but I barely understood completely one sentence out five. I know that the author is an anthropologist and a cultural theorist. In his book, he speak of the modern state in terms of spirit possession and state fetishism which is quite illustrating of the way nation-states built their legitimization through centuries. He puts in relation traditional magical rites with the working of the modern nation-state. The beginning of the passage is a conversation with the Spirit Queen which explains the nourishment of the state by the spirits of the dead. To me, this could be a metaphoric way of explaining how nationalism uses the past to strenghen national identity. This is a very poetic way of portraying the mystical foundations of authority in our modern states. I will stop there to avoid making too much stupid hypothesis. I prefer to wait for a complete explanation in class!

See you all tomorrow!

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Theories of mixture; mestizaje

Before starting, I have to say that I found these two articles extremely interesting although they clearly arguing in favour of two very different opinions. Despite there are numerous points which I do not agree with, The Cosmic Race written by José Vasconcelos is a surprisingly impassioned and confident text. I was really stunned to see how confident is the author accumulating arguments that appear to me as highly controversial and contradictory. Actually, his text is full of strange and even shocking opinions for instance the so-called virtues of Christianity in terms of civilizing peoples (p5)!

The attractive theory of the author is that the four main races of our world are going to mix and create a 'fifth universal race, the fruit of all the previous ones and amelioration of everything past' (p 9). The destiny he sees for humanity is a pretty optimistic and brilliant one. However, the process he describes is especially focused on one race, his own. Latin America has to recover his unity and to lead the fusion 'of all peoples ethnically and spiritually' in a new assimilated human kind. He sees LA as an ethnically homogeneous region which sounds like an unusual conclusion. Thus this mission belongs to the Latin civilization which has proven a greater tolerance towards ethnic differences and a tradition of assimilating all peoples into the national construction rather than destroying dominated races. The mixture of races that became a fundamental characteristic of Latin America since the colonization is the example that should lead the creation of a new synthetic race and the reason why this mission has been given to Latin America.

Although he explains that Latin America does not have an aim of racial domination but a universal mission of racial mixture, there is a clear underlying assumption about a Latin superiority. The way he speaks fosters racial hierarchy. Only Latin people have been able to integrate every race (which is easily contestable). All the qualities necessary to the formation of the fifth race are possessed by 'the mestizo people of the Ibero-American continent' (p38). I really felt a constant glorification of his people and its qualities. I personally have trouble with the idea that a global mestizaje has to be led by a single ethnic group; it sounds really contradictory and dangerous to me especially when he starts speaking of selection within the reproduction process.

Apart from that, what really strikes me is the idealistic mysticism that characterises this text. The author sounds like if he was preaching and many allusions are made to religion. Latin America has a 'divine' mission and possess 'a fine aesthetic sensitivity and a profound love of beauty' necessary for the process. Christianity serves as a justification and the text is extremely messianic. One should also point out how much Vasconcelos is influenced by historical determinism. He thinks that History has an aim and that there is 'a law of history'. The problem I have with his speech, although the idea of a universal integrated race is really attractive, is that he is presenting a complete utopia as something inevitable, necessary and dictated by the law of History and divine providence. The first example of historical determinism that comes to my mind is socialism. This theory also predicts an end to History and an historical pre-determined drive. Preaching for something that we consider as a divine mission and an inevitable outcome, especially if the carrier of the change is a racial group in particular, is a dangerous prod to authoritarianism.

Finally he has a very curious way of interpreting History. 'Spanish colonization created mixed races, this signals its character, fixes its responsibility, and defines its future. The English kept on mixing only with the whites and annihilated the natives'. I believe that mixed race relations actually occurred in North America even if obviously the oppression he describes is true. But Spanish colons did not have a better behaviour towards indigenous. Moreover the following independent national construction that was glorifying mixed race identities has carried on raising questions of racial hierarchy and differentiation.

Rethinking Mestizaje is by contrast very academic and referenced. The reflexion presented by Peter Wade is highly complex and interesting. I think that it answers and contradicts some points made by Vasconcelos, but also goes further than that. The author explains that the concept of 'mestizaje' has many different meanings and possible interpretations. Basically, what Vasconcelos forgets is that a process such as mestizaje almost always contains tensions between spaces of homogenisation and differentiation.

Scholars have usually analyzed 'mestizaje' as an official discourse of nation formation, described as an 'all-inclusive ideology of exclusion' which is a very interesting formulation. This is precisely why I tried to say about Vasconcelos' idealist view of Latin American's mixture of races; a lot of people think that nationalist ideology of mixture perpetuated the marginalisation of racial minorities. The author explains the 'dependence of the ideology on its excluded others'. Indeed, ideology reconstructs racial categories supposed to disappear with mestizaje because ‘it is impossible to conceive processes of mixture without recourse to ideas about origins and roots’. One can also distinguish another face of mestizaje which is a 'resistant' one locating 'mestizo America within indigenousness'. I would personally tend to be more convinced by the first analysis focusing on the elite discourse and the use of the concept of mestizaje in order to serve white interests. That is why I criticized the glorification made in the first article about racial mixture in Latin America. I do agree with the author when he says that 'the discourse of national homogenisation includes within itself complementary discourses of differentiation'.

However, his analysis is much more complex and maybe more optimistic as well. He shows how the concept of mestizaje also has a reality in everyday lives. Through different examples he describes how origins combine and shape ‘embodied persons’. Ethnic/racial differences and crossbreeding are experienced by people and constitutive of their identities. According to the author this is what provides a process of inclusion, because people share this ‘sense of shared mixed-ness’. Thus he proves that there is more in the process of mestizaje in Latin America than an underlying exclusion.

Having said that, he does recognize that whiteness remains favoured and that hierarchies of power still exist, ‘which tend to limit the nature of the space blackness and indigenousness can occupy’. I think that this last sentence is a nice answer to the first article; ‘Mestizaje is a space of struggle and contest. It is not a reason for automatic optimism or for Latin Americans to feel benevolent about their societies simply because mestizaje can have inclusive effects’.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

answer to Florence's comment

I do not know why but posting comments on your blog seems impossible. I don't know if someone succeeded already but you should check if there is any blocking option or something! Thanks

I really had the same difficulties than you while reading these legends my fellow citizen! However, I really like the way you described and analyzed what could be the function of these legends and myths. It is true that we usually recognize to ancient civilizations some knowledge and wisdom we might have lost with our insanely rapid modernization. I would personally say that indigenous people certainly have a lot of things to teach us. Because of that, the moral lesson hidden by these stories has even more a strong impact. It is enough to take the example of Inuit people who actually fight against effects of climate change in their Arctic territories and try to give us advice because they are the first concerned, although they have certainly been one of the most environmentally respectful and less damaging people. I also quite agree when you oppose folk culture and these legends to mass culture. Folk culture is definitely a part of popular culture which appears far more authentic and original. However, these texts have been printed and diffused. These legends have been recently rewritten. We could wonder again if this doesn't undermine their authenticity!

Monday, February 2, 2009

Popular culture as Folk Culture

The authors of this week's readings were apparently both committed to Indian social protest and resistance. On the one hand we have Miguel Angel Asturias (1899-1974) who is described everywhere as a giant of Guatemalan Literature. He even won the Nobel Prize. He was very interested in Pre Colombian cultures, an interest that was celebrated when he died because he had been buried under a Mayan Totem. His writings were very tightly related to politics and impregnated of his opinions. Indeed he claimed openly his opposition to the dictatorial regime of Jorge Ubico and lived on exile for many years. He was also a fervent defender of the Indian cause and identity threatened by imperialism. On the other hand, we have Jose Maria Arguedas (1911-1966) who was a Peruvian novelist, poet, and anthropologist. He was originally Mestizo and learned Quechua before learning Spanish. The topic which seems to have obsessed him all his life was the clash between white "civilization" and the indigenous, "traditional" way of life. In this he was part of the Indigenista movement in South American literature and tried to show in his writings the violence of race relations in rural Peru. Being very pessimistic at the end of his career, he has been criticized by new generation for his romanticism when portraying the situation of indians.

Knowing a little bit more about these two writers really helped me to get the aim of their writings. I have to acknowledge that not being native English speaker did not help me to go through Asturias legends, although the Pongo's dream was far easier to understand.

With their own way, both these writers tried to protect Indigenous and Ancient Native cultures of their Latin American countries. Asturias rewrote Mayan mythological stories and his legends are very marked by indigenous beliefs. Arguedas wrote a large part of his novels in Quechua, the Peruvian Indian language. Moreover they both oriented their writings towards social and political contestation. Doing so they also tried to make their fiction looks like a possible and hopeful future. Arguedas’ writings are however far more realistic and explicit than Asturias’ prose impregnated of magic and complex undercurrents. Arguedas clearly hope for the day when Justice would come and destroy the feudal order, punishing the oppressor. By the way I really laughed when reading the fate of the tyrannical Master! Asturias makes allusions to exile, modernity and technological peril, religious fanaticism. We could also assume that the condemnation of Utuquel for his heretic speech or the immensity of the sacrifice done by the nun Clara of the Indians were examples of the Indians’ oppression. I will prevent myself to make any more assumptions about Asturias’s prose because I really need some explanation before being able to fully understand its deep meaning.

However, my final idea is that these readings answer to this week’s title – Popular Culture as Folk Culture – in the sense that they emphasize the importance of ancient, traditional and native cultures undermined by colonizers. We get one more time this idea that indigenous cultures are being threatened and that this is the whole identity of a people which is in danger and might disappear. Here again, popular culture is defined as the culture of an oppressed and authentic people, as it was similarly suggested in our former readings.