Department of French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies
The University of British Columbia
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This is a draft: please do not cite without author's permission
a version of this review was published in the Bulletin of Hispanic Studies 79.1 (January 2002): 130-131.
A review of William H. Beezley and Linda A. Curcio-Nagy (eds.), Latin American Popular Culture: An Introduction. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2000. xxiii + 255pp.
Going against the dictum that popularity is no guarantee of quality, these days cultural historians often ascribe a set of generally positive qualities to popular culture. In their introduction to this set of very interesting essays, for instance, William Beezley and Linda Curcio-Nagy stress "the unique community character" that, they argue, "forms much of popular culture"; they note that, as a result, popular culture "often serves as a synonym for national identity" (xi). Furthermore, they suggest, "popular culture encapsulates the pleasure in everyday life. It offers moments of laughter . . . of delight in jobs well done . . . of escape from dreary daily life . . . and of living well. . . . [I]t makes life memorable" (xi). This vision is more or less the Bakhtinian version of the popular as the carnivalesque realm of sensual excess, a fairly autonomous and self-sufficient arena of pleasure and carnality that, at given moments, erupts into view in its transgressive disruption of official order and hierarchical ritual.
The irony is that almost all the essays that follow this introduction proceed to advance a very different vision of popular culture. Almost without exception, these essays present the state as the body that forcefully attempts to impose a conception of national community upon a fragmented and divided populace, the elite as the social stratum that delights in excess and spectacle, and high culture as the means by which official institutions craft diversions from the dreariness of daily life and instil a sense of memory into the citizenry. In short, rather than a Bakhtinian celebration of the enduring popular, most of the contributors to this volume evince something closer to a Foucauldian scepticism regarding the management of everyday activity, or even a Frankfurt School pessimism arising from the suspicion that popular culture has been all but eclipsed by bureaucratic reason.
Thus, for instance, Pamela Voekel and Matthew Esposito both examine the ways in which Mexico's elite (in the late-eighteenth and the late-nineteenth century respectively) established its power and "crystallized national identity" (88) through spectacle, not least at the moment that it mourned the loss of one of its number, with Voekel concentrating upon the debate between the established elite's desire for excess and ostentation, against the ascendant modernisers who were "flamboyant in [their] modesty" (12), to present to the lower classes an example of self-discipline and restraint. Ingrid Fey and Blanca Muratorio look at late-nineteenth century state projections of national identity on the world stage in Argentina's pavilion at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889 and Ecuador's participation in the Historical American Exposition of 1892, in Madrid,. Similarly, Thomas Benjamin analyses the way in which an image of the Mexican Revolution as abstract, unified, and incarnated in the post-revolutionary state was presented to the Mexican people by means of the modernist Monument to the Revolution in Mexico City. In all these historical examples, popular culture in Beezley and Curcio-Nagy's sense is at best traduced and at worst suppressed or ignored.
Moreover, few of the contributors describe popular culture as anything but reactive. Those who are concerned with the ways in which the people initiate cultural forms do so only to acknowledge that these forms are soon taken out of popular control--as in John Charles Chasteen's fascinating exploration of the black influence on the development of the tango, which concludes that "few indeed" are the "aspects of African dance tradition . . . clearly preserved" in the modern form of the dance (56).
None of which is to criticise any of the individual essays here, most of which are very interesting indeed, although few follow up fully on the theoretical implications of the case studies examined. (Indeed, an anti-theoretical tone is set from the start with the editors' declaration that "the relationship between popular culture and mass or commercial culture raises troubling questions for theorists that will not be considered here" [xv].) Yet surely the collection's title is something of a misnomer. Not only is the book not really at an introductory level, despite the appendages of further reading and (somewhat tangential) suggested film viewings attached to each chapter; overall, it would also better be described as a farewell to Latin American popular culture. At least, it is a farewell to popular culture on the Bakhtinian model: the one essay that sees the popular as a continuing (and still subversive) presence is Graham Holton's study of the calypso which, significantly, is also the only essay that takes on board the popularity (in all senses) of commercial cultural production.
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last updated October 22, 2004