Department of French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies
The University of British Columbia
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Vancouver, BC
Canada V6T 1Z1

jon.beasley-murray@ubc.ca

This is a draft: please do not cite without author's permission

 


Review

A Review of Jens Andermann and William Rowe (eds.), Images of Power: Iconography, Culture and the State in Latin America (New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2005)

 

This collection's editors, Jens Andermann and William Rowe, declare that their aim is both "to advance the subject of iconography and the state" and "to re-politicise the practice of Latin American cultural studies" (6). It is not clear, however, that the essays that follow achieve either of these objectives. This double failure is no coincidence. In other words, it is in part precisely because the essays fail to engage seriously with either iconography or the state that they also fail to do more than repeat, perhaps even help entrench, the now familiar gestures of (not just Latin American) cultural studies.

The first rule of cultural studies would seem to be an insistent rhetoric of complexity. These authors are endlessly uncovering ambiguities, ambivalences, and above all paradoxes everywhere they look. For instance, Beatriz González Stephan finds "neogothic paradoxes" in the "subversive stitch" of women's contribution to the Venezuelan National Exhibition (64); Trinidad Pérez sees a "paradox" in the fact that the Indian founds but is excluded from the Ecuadorean nation (118), a fact that generates an "altogether paradoxical" process of assimilation and erasure (120); for Andrea Noble, "what ultimately emerges" from her study of photography in the Mexican Revolution "is a paradox" (213); the masses, in Graciela Montaldo's article about mass and multitude in Argentina, are fated to have a "paradoxical destiny" (236); while Claudio Canaparo, too, declares his essay to be concerned with what he claims is the "paradox" of literature's dissociation from the world (241); finally, Gabriela Nouzeilles ends her analysis of travellers' accounts of the Patagonian desert with the conclusion that "all pursue the lost object of modernity whose loss is, paradoxically, their justification" (269).

The world is a complex place. But why so many reminders of that fact, especially if this is the only work an analysis does? Moreover, the concept of "paradox" brings with it the notion of a peculiarly final and irredeemable complexity. At least the old Marxist stand-by, "contradiction," which ambiguity, ambivalence, and paradox have here displaced, implied moving beyond the dichotomies that it identified. Contradictions are productive; I am not so sure about the often facile paradoxes that cultural studies reveals with such panache.

But it is not as though the world according to cultural studies is static. Far from it: the second rule gleaned from this collection is an equally marked insistence on contestation, struggle, and negotiation. Alvaro Fernández Bravo, then, presents "culture as a battlefield over images rather than as the rigid crystallisation of a self-identical past" (91); Florencia Garramuño's analysis of tango and samba uncovers a "complex story of ardent negotiations and struggles" (127); Hendrik Kraay's account of a festival in Salvador de Bahia finds "bitter contestation" (166) and a "century-old struggle" that "continues, with neither [side] fully victorious" (188-189); Noble suggests that the question of "who 'owns' the meanings that circulate around the image" is "a matter of negotiation between [. . .] mutually imbricated groups" (200).

There is less unanimity on the precise modes of interaction between subaltern and elite; metaphors of theatricality, dramatization, and performance also abound. But the stress is on the ubiquity and intensity of interaction. Counterbalancing the great social aporias marked as paradoxes, then, is the teeming activity of everyday struggle, usually the more everyday the better: expressed through comics (in Gordon Brotherston's contribution), portraits made from human hair and even breadcrumbs (in González Stephan), and gossip, rumour, and urban legends (in Mary Louise Pratt's essay). But in turning to such everyday sites of negotiation, these contributions turn from the state, always a problem for cultural studies, and return to civil society. Indeed, their accounts of culture as negotiation, as site for the construction of hegemony, allow for a substitution of culture for state.

There is hardly an essay here that really addresses the state. Claudio Canaparo's account of the role of technology in Argentine state expansion and territorialization is a notable exception. Likewise, beyond the introduction (and perhaps Noble's essay) there is little attempt to understand iconicity: everything devolves either to how images are received, or to blurring the boundaries between image and word (such that images are treated as literature and vice versa ). We are left, then, with cultural studies as a repetitive program equipped to find discursive negotiation and everyday struggle at the local level, but stymied by its identification of intractable paradoxes structuring history's longue durée. Mary Louise Pratt here berates humanists for failing to denounce the language of "public discourse" and "policy talk" (278). But we might equally attend to our own depoliticizing language of paradox and negotiation, which sees only the same thing over and over.

 

 

JON BEASLEY-MURRAY
University of British Columbia

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last updated July 30, 2005