Department of French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies
The University of British Columbia
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jon.beasley-murray@ubc.ca

This is a draft: please do not cite without author's permission

 


a version of this essay was published as the translator's introduction to Beatriz Sarlo,  Scenes from Postmodern Life. Translation of Escenas de la vida posmoderna: arte, cultura y videocultura en la Argentina. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. vii-xix.


"In Argentina"

 

Beatriz Sarlo is without doubt one of the most significant intellectuals working in Latin America today. She is professor of Argentine Literature at the University of Buenos Aires, director of the journal Punto de Vista, and author of numerous books and articles on topics that range from nineteenth-century literature to contemporary avant-garde film. With her work on Punto de Vista, and with collaborators such as Carlos Altamirano and the novelist Ricardo Piglia, she tested the limits of what could be said during Argentina's military dictatorship, and has since helped set the terms for intellectual debate during the democratic transition and neoliberal revolution that have followed. With her articles and books that have been published and distributed throughout the region and elsewhere, she has contributed to defining and consolidating the increasingly important field of Latin American cultural studies.

Sarlo is also at ease as much in the US or the UK as in her native Buenos Aires, in English as much as in Spanish, and with Anglophone and continental European traditions as much as with Argentine literary and cultural history. She has been a visiting professor or researcher at, among others, the universities of Columbia, Berkeley, and Cambridge, and she has both been influenced by authors such as Theodor Adorno, Raymond Williams, and Pierre Bourdieu, and also intervened into the debates that have arisen from these authors' work, debates about cultural studies, postmodernity, and the role of the intellectual. Throughout, however, she has always been concerned with what it means to be an Argentine intellectual, not only re-reading the canon of Argentine texts and authors, and analyzing Argentine cultural history, but also taking often a very prominent stand in the public and political life of her country. Sarlo's significance, in other words, is in part due to her ability to translate ideas and arguments (in both directions) between a specific national context and a transnational intellectual community. As such, it is only surprising that more of her books have not already been translated into English.

Yet Sarlo is well aware of the conflicts and complexities that haunt cultural translation. Elsewhere, in a book devoted to an analysis of what she terms the machinery of culture, Sarlo examines the pitfalls as well as the possibilities inherent in the translations effected by another prestigious Argentine journal, Sur, and its director, Victoria Ocampo. Financed largely by Ocampo's own money, and impelled by her energy for bringing people together, from the 1930s to the 1960s Sur introduced to Latin America the writings of figures such as André Malraux, Alberto Camus, and Jean-Paul Sartre, while providing also a showcase for Argentine writers, above all Jorge Luis Borges. Yet Sarlo argues that Ocampo, who herself wrote always in French which she then translated into Spanish, fell into the trap of imagining all culture to be commensurable, and all differences to be annulled through translation. When, inevitably, misunderstanding and conflict arose in her dealings with European intellectuals, Ocampo was not equipped to deal with the humiliation and disappointment that could ensue.

If Ocampo was archetypically modern in her faith in the power of a universalist, cosmopolitan discourse to make cultural difference ultimately irrelevant, Sarlo here shows her postmodern inflection at the outset by stressing the specificity of the place from which she speaks. Her first sentence declares that "here we are . . . in Argentina." The book as a whole then investigates the implications of writing from a particular perspective about general concerns. Sarlo analyses the ways in which the sense of a common discourse that would bridge differences such as those between the national and the international, high culture and mass culture, or public and private has tended to disappear in the transition from modernity to postmodernity, only to re-appear in new guise. Sarlo is as skeptical of the claim that in postmodernity the mass media and globalization offer a new "common culture," as she is of the notion that modernity's sense of commonality could ever be taken for granted. Yet she insists that there is no use giving up and abandoning this question: the negotiation between commonality and difference should still be high on our political agenda.

What does it mean to be "in Argentina"? Argentina's founding political myth is that of the urgent choice between "civilization or barbarism," between European refinement or the "South American destiny" of atavism, desire, and violence. Underlying and structuring this myth is an anxiety that Argentina is in fact neither civilized nor (suitably, exotically) barbaric, in other words that, whatever choices Argentina may make, civilization and barbarism, sameness and difference will always cohabit somewhat uneasily. Faced with the violence and the civilized, modern barbarism of the military regime that governed the country in the period from 1976 to 1983, Sarlo and her collaborators on Punto de Vista returned to the founding texts of Argentine literature and politics to rethink these myths and anxieties and so also, indirectly, to construct resources for thinking about the contemporary situation. One result of this detour through the nineteenth-century forced upon Sarlo by the exigencies of censorship and clandestinity was the reconceptualization of this anxiety as an advantage. If Argentine culture was both international, cosmopolitan ("civilized") and local, provincial ("barbaric"), this cut both ways. As Sarlo would later say of Borges, a writer who during the 1960s and 1970s had been despised by the third worldist and nationalist Argentine Left not only for his political views but also for his valorization of European high culture: his cosmopolitanism enables him to reinvent Argentine literature; while "by reinventing a national tradition, [he] also offers Argentine national culture an oblique reading of Western literatures." It is this oblique relation to the West that means that "there is no writer in Argentine literature more Argentine than Borges." It is this same oblique stance that Sarlo takes towards postmodernity.

"In Argentina," the "social landscape . . . is recognizably part of the Western world," while it the same time exhibits certain illuminating differences or deviations from the model to which those of us in the "first world" are accustomed. These differences may be subtle: they may be a matter of contrast above all, in that "here the contrasts are extreme." The Argentine mall culture that Sarlo describes, for instance, is part of a phenomenon prevalent throughout the world, and part of a process of "Los Angelization" whereby often international architectural firms replicate models first tested in the US or Europe, which are then filled with globally identifiable chains and brands; "there is a way in which all shopping centers are the same." Yet, as Sarlo points out, the mall depends not simply on pointing up its participation in global consumer culture, but also on turning its back on the city in which it is situated; in Argentina that divide between the mall and what surrounds it is all the more extreme. Though the mall tries to relocate its customers in an elsewhere in which geography and history would be erased, in Argentina that relocation is all the more clearly a dislocation, constituting a process of exclusion and symbolic violence.

In other words, Sarlo is here tracing the contours of what could be called a "peripheral postmodernity," just as earlier she had examined Buenos Aires's "peripheral modernity" of the 1920s and 1930s. To read the transition from modernity to postmodernity at the periphery reveals, first, that postmodernity has no special prerogative over globalization. The shape of Argentina's modernity was heavily determined by the massive immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe that immediately preceded the period that Sarlo studies. These immigrants brought with them their experiences, memories, and cultural practices and also, second, impelled an extremely rapid urbanization and expansion of the cultural market for the newspapers, magazines, and serial novels that Sarlo analyses. This immigration and cultural and social renovation led to Argentine culture being above all a "culture of mixture . . . in which cultural traits typical of the traditional elite persist at the same time as there is a huge process of importation of commodities, discourses, and symbolic practices." When it comes to Scenes of Postmodern Life, then, Sarlo notes the ways in which peripheral modernity in some ways prefigures postmodernity; but she is equally concerned that those who make comparisons between (for example) soap operas and serial novels should know as much about serial novels (to which she has dedicated another book-length study) as they know about soap operas.

No doubt, whether in modernity or in postmodernity, many of the cultural similarities between the periphery and the global center (whether that be Europe or the United States) are a function of the postcolonial desire to imitate or reproduce trends that originate first in Paris, London, or New York. Often such imitation is seen as a double degradation: it contaminates third world culture while producing only a pale shadow of the culture that is imitated. In either case, authenticity is said to be compromised. At the periphery, nationalist critics of globalization lament the ways in which local traditions are changed or erased. At the center, the common (Eurocentric) assumption is that nothing of interest can come from the South. Sarlo, however, turns her position at the periphery of a globalizing world system to advantage by pointing out the ways in which, in Argentina, certain tendencies become evident that would elsewhere be missed; these tendencies have as much to do with our postmodernity as they do with hers.

For even mimicry, as some postcolonial critics have also argued (and as Borges allegorizes in his "Pierre Menard"), holds the power to surprise; even the most slavish repetition of the same will also introduce what may turn out to be a rather un-nerving difference. Argentina (and perhaps especially Buenos Aires) provides a particularly good refutation of the argument, shared by cultural nationalism and Eurocentrism alike, that imitation entails degradation. Other Latin Americans are often quick to point out that Argentines have always been unusually attentive to fashions and trends originating elsewhere. There are many jokes that play on the apparent loss of national identity that may seem to ensue, such as the one that states that the only difference between a Uruguayan and an Argentinian is that an Argentinian is a Uruguayan who has been to Paris. But, in the first place, this same attentiveness ironically (as the joke itself indirectly suggests) helps to mark Argentine national identity, a point also made by Sarlo elsewhere in a discussion of the influential early nineteenth-century poet intellectual Esteban Echeverría and his journey to Paris and back. In the second place, the eagerness with which European and US trends are reproduced in Argentina often means that they are thereby found there in an accentuated and exaggerated form. Such has been the enthusiasm for the theories of the seemingly quintessentially French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, for instance, that there are now more Lacanian analysts in Buenos Aires than in the whole of France. Similarly, today plastic surgery is more prevalent in the Argentine capital than it is in Los Angeles or New York (or in any other country in the world). Sarlo here embarks on a series of reflections that derive from this uncanny amplification (rather than degradation or diminution) that imitation entails. Thanks to hyper-real or hyper-faithful mimicry, in Argentina the consequences of what is initiated elsewhere can be more clearly and starkly visible.

Cultural mimicry at the periphery, allied with the failure or absence of programs of economic redistribution, entails then especially an accentuation of the differences that also pervade the metropolitan center. The third world (and perhaps especially Latin America) is often either celebrated or condemned as a "land of contrasts." It is condemned for its contrasts of rich and poor, for the fact that destitution and crumbling public services exist side by side with immense wealth and a booming private sector. Sarlo echoes this condemnation in so far as she refuses the neoliberal mantra that claims that profits from stockmarket booms or the revenue circulating as a result of the consumerism of the few will somehow trickle down to the millions who are struggling to survive in the countryside or in the urban informal economy. At the same time, however, rather than simplistic denunciation that lays the entire blame for such inequality at the door of (for instance) corruption on the part of the local elite, she prefers a systematic analysis of the way in which the global economy and transnational cultural and social trends combine to construct an international system of hierarchies and contrasts.

On the other hand, Latin America is celebrated (and sold) as a series of "lands of contrasts" by a strange alliance of the travel industry and culturalist romantics who point to geographical extremes (from glaciers to beaches, rain forests to pampa) and a cultural patchwork (traces of traditional and indigenous culture co-existing with post-Fordist industry or hi-tech consumption) to produce the image of an exotic smorgasbord to delight the traveller, whether that be the long-haul tourist or the cultured reader of "magical realist" literature. This is a fetishism of difference (and, indeed, in the case of commentary on magical realism, also a projection of that fetishism into Latin American culture; so Laura Esquivel, for instance, is read as providing a legitimation for a more general sentimental attachment to the exotic, dressed up as cultural refinement). It also involves a suspension of critique. As such, Sarlo refuses such celebration; her point throughout is that Argentina is "like almost everywhere else in the West," albeit sometimes more so, and sometimes less so. If, in Argentina, difference is marked by intensity, and by the intensity of certain contrasts, this is no exotic "Latin spirit." Difference, for Sarlo, is the occasion for critique even when it is not the object of critique.

Sarlo offers an alternative to the celebrations and lamentations of postmodernity found elsewhere. This is because, in Argentina, she takes an oblique approach to the political issues at stake, an approach filtered through Argentina's own political history and also through her own history of cultural and political engagement.

Twentieth-century Argentine political history is dominated by Peronism and by the reactions that Peronism elicited. (And as Sarlo indicates in her discussion of Evita as Argentina's first television icon, Peronism also dominates twentieth-century Argentina's cultural history.) Juan Perón governed for ten years from 1945, with Evita an icon by his side until her early death in 1952, and with the support of the overwhelming majority of Argentina's working class, before being overthrown by a military coup. Over the next twenty-five years, and although his Peronism was proscribed and Perón in exile in Spain, the political sphere was haunted by the legacy of his rule and by whispers of his possible return. If populism's claim is to be all things to all people, from Madrid and exercising influence without responsibility Perón could encourage a variety of groups with very divergent aims that he could be their salvation, too. In particular, many on the increasingly radicalized Left and many young people inspired by the Cuban revolution and third worldist ideologies united under the banner of Peronism, and some, such as the montoneros, formed guerrilla groups that would fight under that banner. Others on the Left, some of whom also took up arms, were violently opposed to Perón, albeit equally opposed to the military regime of the time. The situation become still more complicated when Perón finally did return in 1973, repudiated the Peronist Youth, died after only a few months in the presidency, and left power in the hands of his second wife, Isabel, who was surrounded by the most unsavory of Peronist Right-wing elements. Peronism and the Left were both split along a variety of lines, and there was increasing violence as well as economic collapse. In 1976 another coup brought a military junta to power whose aim was to eradicate subversion and presumed subversion by any means possible, and who initiated the so-called dirty war in which 30,000 were killed or disappeared. This regime only renounced power in 1983, in the wake of Argentina's humiliating defeat in the war with Britain over the Falklands/Malvinas islands.

By the early 1970s Sarlo was heavily involved with the non-Peronist radical Left and, along with a group (including Altamirano and Piglia) associated with the Revolutionary Communist Party and the Communist Vanguard party, edited the cultural journal Los Libros ("books"), whose theoretical agenda was influenced by Lacan and Althusser. However, as the Revolutionary Communists grew closer to Isabel Perón's government, this group distanced themselves from the journal, before it was closed by the military in 1976. Sarlo now writes about this period as something of a political and theoretical dead end, particularly in so far as aesthetics (and questions of cultural form) came to be subordinated absolutely to politics (and the question of reproducing the correct ideological line).

The most bloody years of the dictatorship were 1976-1978, and this was a period in which any cultural or political activity, such as a reading or discussion group, had to take place in conditions of utmost clandestinity. Sarlo recounts that by 1978 and after the football World Cup hosted by Argentina, there appeared to be some slight opening, and with the help of Communist Vanguard Sarlo and her group founded Punto de Vista ("point of view," on the basis that all had a right to their point of view). Under the conditions of dictatorship, Sarlo and others contributed articles under pseudonyms, and the journal had to subordinate politics to aesthetics, or rather to approach politics obliquely, through a re-reading of the Argentine literary canon and cultural history. As such, the journal's editorial team became increasingly interested in critics such as Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, and Pierre Bourdieu who seemed to offer the resources for this historical analysis, and also indirectly to suggest ways of thinking about the conditions of possibility for the construction of public space and public debate.

In the early 1980s, as it became easier to believe that the dictatorship's days really were numbered (and so Punto de Vista finally felt able to publish an editorial, and its contributors able to write under their own names), the journal had to rethink its possible future within the context of a transition to democracy. It became clear that for most of those connected to the journal, there would be no return to the revolutionary Marxism taken in the 1960s and 1970s, and Sarlo was one of those who moved most clearly to a position closer to social democracy though she, along with a group of returning exiles, helped found the Club de Cultura Socialista (Club for Socialist Culture). With the election of the neoperonist Carlos Menem in 1989, whose economic policies were neoliberal but whose rhetoric traded on the legacy of Peronism, and as can be seen in Scenes of Postmodern Life, Sarlo had identified the major objects of her critique to be neopopulism and neoliberalism, rather than capitalism tout court. By the 1990s, she was a political advisor to Frepaso, a new center-left political alliance formed in the wake of Menem's victory, and particularly to Frepaso's senator and candidate for governor of Buenos Aires province, Graciela Fernández Meijide, a former human rights leader.

Thus in the background of Sarlo's critique of neopopulism, which elsewhere she associates with cultural studies and implicitly also with the US academy, is also an entire history of Argentine populism. Twentieth-century Argentina has lived through or in the shadow of the most thorough-going and successful experiments in political populism--although a corollary of Peronism's success was that it was also the most unsuccessful of populisms, and that it led to the great national disaster that was the 1976 military coup and the dirty war. This, indeed, is a key characteristic of populism: at its most successful, it is also only ever a short step away from calamity; in populism, success and failure almost coincide. The aim or endpoint of populism is to produce the country as an absolutely homogenous unit, a cross-class alliance that admits no contradictions, presided over by a transcendent state personified by the populist leader. While temporary or limited alliances are always possible, the closer that a populist movement comes to achieving its absolutist goal, the more it touches upon a breaking-point, a point at which the repressed differences reassert themselves. This was exactly what happened in Argentina in the early 1970s, when the tensions between the left-wing Peronist Youth and the institutional defenders of the Peronist State exploded into violence, and created a vacuum into which the military intervened. Populism promises and claims to create a common space and a common culture, but its only answer to social contradictions and tensions is to gloss over them with the sleight of hand that points to a phantasmatic enemy elsewhere (the oligarchy, international capital or, in fascist variants, a stigmatized racial group such as the Jews).

For Sarlo, neopopulism is equally an empty gesture that promises an empty community; it is simply that where classical populism stressed the state and the caudillo (or the caudillo’s wife) and his love for the people as the site of this imaginary reconciliation, neopopulism asks us to put our faith in the market and its invisible hand. In either case, populism old or new demands that its subjects surrender their critical faculty for a dependence on an affective investment, whether that affect be cathected to the state and its public spectacle or to the commodity and the private spectacle of a televisual fantasy.

Sarlo’s critique of neoliberalism is similarly uncompromising. She argues that neoliberalism is the mirror image of neopopulism in that it aims to exclude affect entirely from its discourse of technical planning. Neoliberal expertise produces a "desensitized environment" in which questions of value are redundant and intellectuals become simply technocrats. Her attitude to traditional liberalism is more ambivalent, however. Indeed, here lies what is perhaps the crux of this book. While Sarlo’s argument often flirts with a nostalgia for the heyday of the liberal intelligentsia, when intellectuals were both respected and critical public figures, she is equally aware of the impossibility of such a return. On the other hand, while Sarlo is acute in her critiques of postmodern phenomena such as zapping and video games, it is clear also that she is drawn to the intensity of feeling and participation that such phenomena offer, as a refuge from what is otherwise the sterility of neoliberal society. Her prose style reflects this enthusiasm, and the occasional conflict between style and content that result manifest the extent to which her argument remains finely balanced between an optimistic belief in the possibility of transcending particularity and a half-feared, half-enthralled desire to explore the possibilities of a more deterritorialized flows.

It is no coincidence that the one concept that resists translation in Scenes of Postmodern Life should be the most crucial concept. The Spanish word público is used to mean both public (as in "public sphere") and audience (as in a television program’s audience). Sarlo’s wager is that the expansion and proliferation of audiences within postmodernism may also provide the occasion for the reconstruction of a public sphere in which politics could be the subject of informed and critical debate. Her fear, however, is that the fragmentation of the public represented by the proliferation of segmented audiences means the end of that liberal dream. Sarlo is attempting to mark out a new role for the engaged intellectual. Hers is an uncertain but heartfelt faith in the possibility of intellectual engagement: the "door is still ajar" for critical thinking. as she puts it, but no more and no less than ajar.

 

Bibliography

A much longer bibliography of Sarlo's books, articles, and interviews, compiled by Adán Griego, is available online at http://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/sarlo/biblio.htm

King, John. Sur: A Study of the Argentine Literary Journal and its Role in the Development of a Culture, 1931-1970. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

-----. "Las revistas culturales de la dictadura a la democracia: el caso de 'Punto de Vista.'" Literatura argentina hoy: de la dictadura a la democracia. Ed. Karl Kohut and Andrea Pagni. Frankfurt: Vervuert Verlag, 1989. 87-94.

Moreiras, Alberto. "The Order of Order: On the Reluctant Culturalism of Anti-Subalternist Critiques." Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 8.1 (June 1999): 125-145.

Nouzeilles, Gabriela. "The Sense of an Ending: National Community, Liberal Values, and Postmodernity." Unpublished paper, 1999.

Sarlo, Beatriz. El imperio de los sentimientos: narraciones de circulación periódica en la Argentina 1917-1927. Buenos Aires: Catálogos, 1985.

-----. Una modernidad periférica: Buenos Aires 1920 y 1930. Buenos Aires: Nueva Visión, 1988.

-----. La imaginación técnia: sueños modernos de la cultura argentina. Buenos Aires: Nueva Visión, 1992.

-----. Jorge Luis Borges: A Writer on the Edge. Ed. John King. London: Verso, 1993.

-----. Instantáneas: medios, ciudad y costumbres al fin de siglo. Buenos Aires: Ariel, 1996.

-----. La máquina cultural: maestras, traductores y vanguardistas. Buenos Aires: Ariel, 1998.

-----. "Cultural Studies and Literary Criticism at the Crossroads of Values." Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies 8.1 (June 1999): 115-124.

----- and Carlos Altamirano. Ensayos argentinos: de Sarmiento a la vanguardia. Buenos Aires: Ariel, 1983.

 

JON BEASLEY-MURRAY
University of British Columbia

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last updated October 22, 2004