2000 Book Reviews
OLD CITIES, NEW ASSETS: PRESERVING LATIN AMERICA'S URBAN HERITAGE. By Eduardo Rojas. Inter-American Development Bank. 1999.
UNESCO World Heritage Sites
UNESCO adopted the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World
Cultural and Natural Heritage (abbreviated as the World Heritage
Convention). According to the World Heritage Convention,
"cultural heritage" is a monument, group of buildings or site of
historical, aesthetic, archaeological, scientific, ethnological or
anthropological value. On the left, there is a list of Latin
American cities which have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
These heritage sites constitute, together with many others, a common heritage, to be treasured as unique testimonies to an enduring past. Their disappearance would be an irreparable loss for everyone. Yet, many of the memorable features of these cities are threatened with neglect, decay, deterioration and disappearance.
This book addresses the preservation and restoration of the urban legacy of Latin America. As this is a book published by the Inter-American Development Bank, it is not a poetical dirge about the loss, but a pragmatic presentation of strategies and tactics.
The near universal experience is that the preservation of urban heritage should not be the sole responsibility of governments, which have to contend with many other competing demands for resources that never seem to be enough. Rather, the many success stories have all involved the joint involvement of multiple interests --- the national government, the local government, civil organizations, cultural societies, international philanthropists, local donors, business investors, real estate developers, business operators, local residents and so on.
This book documents the progress of urban heritage preservation in three cities: Cartagena (Colombia), Quito (Ecuador) and Recife (Brazil). The approaches were actually quite different.
What should be clear from these very different examples is that there is no one safe formula for success.
(posted on 12/28/00 by Roland Soong)
THE CHACO WAR: Bolivia and Paraguay, 1932-1935. By Bruce W. Farcau. Praeger Publishers: Westport, CT. 1996.
Now and then, many of us will pick up a war history book. Such books are interesting, because they are about human behaviors and qualities in times of extreme stress. There are many books written about the American Civil War, the two World Wars, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, etc. This book is about a lesser known war in the history of Latin America. We quote for you the well-written preface:
The word "tragic" has been applied to every war in history, but there have been few wars that word fits more perfectly than the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay. That the war was fought between two of the world's poorest nations over three long years and that it claimed the lives of nearly a hundred thousand men out of a total combined population of less than five million was certainly sad. That the war was fought over one of the most worthless pieces of real estate in existence was undeniably insane. But the truly tragic aspect of the war was, to my mind, that it was fought during the heyday of the League of Nations, by two tiny, landlocked countries without the means of producing any of the materials needed for modern warfare, and yet none of the efforts of the League or other individual states to seek an early end to the conflict prevented the war from running its bloody course until the two sides were simply too exhausted to continue.
In this book I have tried to paint a human face on a decidedly inhuman war. The war was fought largely by illiterate peasant infantrymen, many of whom had never left their home villages nor wanted to, and the horror of modern warfare carved its mark deep into their beings. The war was characterized by incredible hardship, such as soldiers of any country have rarely known. While the Bolivian leadership acted, with notable exceptions, with ignorance and incompetence, many of the Paraguayan commanders exhibited talent and professionalism on a par with even the German Army in World War II. I have attempted to bring out these aspects as well as the frustrating haggling surrounding the peace negotiations that continued all through the war, but above all, I have tried to bring to life some of the many remarkable characters whose actions shaped the course of the conflict.
It has been said that Americans will do anything for Latin America except read about it. When I first became interested in this period of history, during my assignment to the U.S. Embassy in La Paz, it seemed to me to be the ultimate indignity to the thousands of men who fought and died in this needless war that their suffering and sacrifice should go unnoticed by the world at large. There were lessons in this war that the world could have learned and still might, and I hope that this book will help to pry open the door, even if just a crack, for the rest of the world to view a forgotten corner of the globe, a forgotten time, a forgotten people, and their forgotten battle.
Here is how the war ended, not with a whimper but with a bang ...
On 14 June word finally arrived that a cease-fire was to go into effect at noon. At 1130 hours the Bolivian troops received orders to open fire with all weapons in the direction of the enemy all up and down the front. The idea was that this would dissuade the Paraguayans from violating the cease-fire with a display of firepower. The Paraguayans, however, feared that a Bolivian offense was in progress, and returned fire with every weapon in hand. It was the final act of insanity in an insane war. No one appears to have kept track of how many men were needlessly killed or maimed in this final thirty minutes, but the episode was symbolically of the entire war, an action without logic designed to impress others, which had its cost in flesh and blood.
At noon the firing died away and was replaced with an eerie silence. Then, here and there, one could hear a yelp of exultation. Gradually, the Chaco was engulfed in a sound it had never heard, laughter. Braver souls jumped upon their parapets. Although fraternization had been strictly forbidden during what was at first only to be a ten-day truce, everyone knew that the war was over, and men were soon trooping across the once-deadly no-man's-land to get a look at the enemy, to trade caps for machetes, or just to exchange an abrazo. Bolivian planes swooped low over the trenches and dropped flowers on friend and foe alike.
(posted on 11/4/00 by Roland Soong)
U.S.A.: A CARTOON HISTORY. By Ilan Stavans.
Illustrated by Lalo Alcaraz. Basic Books, New York. 2000.
The idea of a didactic cartoon is not totally novel. The Mexican cartoonist Eduardo del Río, aka Rius, pioneered the use of cartoons to explore serious intellectual subjects in a succinct and humorous manner (his most popularly known opus is Marx for Beginners).
In Stavans' own words, "In developing the manuscript for Latin U.S.A.: A Cartoon History, I consciously sought to combine the solemnity of so-called serious literature and history with the inherently theatrical and humorous nature of the comics. The experience was liberating: as an essayist, I am handcuffed by the abstraction of words, by the merciless need to make a cohesive, persuasive argument with words only. Cartoons and comics present the perfect stage to blend words and images, and engage the reader with their freshness, imagination, caricatures, and fantastical and delightfully irreverent overtones."
This particular format would appear to have obvious limitations, since it is impossible to deal with any complex ideas in depth. For example, the panel on page 74 reads, "José Enrique Rodó was an Uruguayan intellectual. In 1900, he published a book titled Ariel. In it he argues that the youth in Latin America needed to find their own character, their own road to success, and not to imitate the United States blindly. Rodó also wrote that when compared to North America's materialism, Latin American was much more 'Spiritual'." This description would seem to give short shift to such an influential book.
However, to my mind at least, it is not clear whether there is such a thing as the minimum adequate coverage (which is probably a myth created by insurance salespeople!). As I glance at my bookshelf, I see that Friedrich Katz has devoted a hefty 985 pages to The Life and Times of Pancho Villa, meanwhile in Edwin Williamson's presumably well-respected The Penguin History of Latin America, this same historical figure is presented as "the former bandit Francisco 'Pancho' Villa" (page 382) who was defeated by Obregón on "15 April 1915 at Celaya, a town close to the capital" (page 386) and then "pre-emptively murdered in August 1923" (page 394). The writing of history is very much a creative act formed by the subjectivity of the author in presenting, organizing and interpreting 'facts,' and the more important issue is whether a particular piece of work is informative, thought-provoking and transformative.
This book is also not an official Latino history according to Ilan Stavans. As much as possible, the narrators present their own histories. Commentary on the sideline are offered by iconic figures such as the calavera of José Guadalupe Posada, a toucan, Cantinflas, a masked wrestler and a beautiful señorita.
Who is the audience of this book? The second panel on the left of this page contains a quote by Kathleen Alcala. Unfortunately, this book may not be the right beginner's book for Latino history. There are too many sketchy ideas and too much name-dropping for the beginner to understand or appreciate, although this book can be the basis to begin a learning process under guidance. But someone who is already well-versed with the subjects would undoubtedly find this panoramic presentation quite impressive, thought-provoking and amusing.
The illustrator of this book is Lalo López Alcaraz, who is the most famous Latino cartoonist today (see the related links below). Stavans gives this description, "His strips are about mischief and caprice, poking fun at human nature without compromising historical integrity. I trust his strips and my ideas are complementary echoes, echooooooes ..."
(posted on 10/28/00 by Roland Soong)
Para Nunca Olvidar: Voices from Guatemala A review of the various means of historical documentation of the Guatemalan civil war (posted by Roland Soong on 10/1/00)
DEMOGRAPHIC RESPONSES TO ECONOMIC ADJUSTMENT IN LATIN AMERICA. Edited by Georges Tapinos, Andrew Mason and Jorge Bravo. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK. 1997.
What is structural economic adjustment? The general term refers to changes or reforms in the economic structures of nations. Here, it specifically refers to the economic reforms, better known as shocks, that took place in Latin America during the 1980s and 1990s. These economic adjustments were precipitated by the preceding period in which Latin American nations borrowed heavily from international banks while running high internal government deficits. When this unsustainable circumstance came to a head, external help from agencies such as the International Monetary Fund came with conditions. For these lenders, the problem was not going to be solved by throwing more money at a bad situation, but fundamental reforms were required to address the root of the problem. Such structural economic reforms usually led to reduction of the public sector expenditures, the privatization of public properties such as utilities, currency devaluation, liberalization and deregulation of the economy including removal or reduction of entry barriers, import quotas and duties as well as greater transparency.
What are demographic responses to structural economic adjustments? This obviously presupposes some form of connection between economic structure and population demographics. Although this book does not get into this aspect, the connection is well-known. For example, the table below shows the age distributions by socio-economic class in Lima, Peru. The three age distributions are quite different for a couple of obvious reasons. On one hand, the upper A/B class has lower morbidity, due to better nutritional, health and medical conditions. On the other hand, upper A/B class have fewer children for a combination of reasons.
(source: INEI y IBOPE Time Perú)
One immediate consequence of the structural economic adjustments was the disappearance of investments. The economic crises began with moratorium on debt payments to the international commercial banks, which in turn suspended new loans to the entire region. This obviously made economic growth difficult to achieve, as well as making the hard currencies needed for debt payment hard to come by. Another consequence of the structural economic adjustments was the drop in the purchasing power of wages, with hyperinflation rampant in some countries. At the same time, the lack of investments and the shrinking of the public sectors resulted in higher unemployment.
In the Overview to this book, demographics was thought to respond to structural economic adjustments in three main ways:
Policy and Institutional Factors
(1) Drop in public and private expenditures in health and medical services, with attendant increase in epidemics (e.g. cholera, dengue fever, etc.)
(2) Drop in public expenditures in water supply and sanitation services
(3) Drop in public and NGO-run family planning services
(4) Drop in government agricultural subsidies, price supports and supplementary food programs
(5) Inability to cope adequately with natural disasters (such as earthquakes)
Changes in Vital Rates
(1) Reduction in quantity and quality of food
(2) Postponement of marriage
(3) Postponement of pregnancy/birth, since childbearing and childrearing implies high opportunity costs
(4) Increase in infant mortality rates
(5) Increase in adult morbidity rates, especially among the poor
(6) Increase in rural-to-urban migration in search of better economic opportunities
(7) Increase in international immigration to countries with better economic opportunities
Changes in Family Labor Situations
(1) Increase in unemployment and underemployment
(2) Increase in hours worked
(3) Increase in persons holding multiple jobs (e.g. government functionary during the day, taxi driver at night)
(4) Increase in housewife participation in labor force
(5) Increase in children participation in labor force
(6) Increase in postponement of education to enter the labor force
(7) Expansion of informal sector in the economy
This list of the human costs and liabilities of structural economic adjustments seems logical. Absent any empirical evidence, they remain theoretical conjectures. This book presents a series of empirical studies that address these issues. Unfortunately, the evidence presented is not quite definitive, with the obstacle being the tremendous difficulty of collecting a dataset that encompasses all the relevant variables which interact and counteract with each other. Thus, for example, we can speculate that we should see an increase in children participation in the labor force, but it might be plausible to conjecture the exact opposite as children stay home to perform domestic work while their mothers go out to work.
But while we may never gain the intellectual satisfaction of obtaining the perfect set of logistic regression equations for the distributed lag model of cross-sectional time series data, the human toll of structural economic adjustments cannot be denied. What is unclear is whether the steps could have been less painful than these shock therapies, as the independent path chosen by Malaysia in the late 1990s turned out to be.
(posted by Roland Soong on 7/6/00)
THE BOOK OF DISQUIET 1998. By Fernando Pessoa. Translated by Alfred MacAdam. Exact Change: Boston, MA.
This book was based upon writings on disordered scraps of paper found in a trunk after the death of the Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935). Necessarily, the book consists of a series of unconnected entries, which are unified by their disquieting nature. The New York Times Book Review describes them as "limpid, aphoristic, gorgeous, sometimes maddening and utterly original ..." and the Voice Literary Supplement describes them as "a fractured assemblage of quasi-symbolist reveries, cynical epigrams, musings on quotidian torpor, and gorgeously wrought depressive fits ..."
The translator of the book Alfred Mac Adam wrote, "The Book of Disquiet is unique as a reading experience and yet it embodies everything specific to the act of reading: it takes us out of ourselves, makes us see ourselves in new ways, and shows us how to become other than what we are." Here is an example (Entry #129):
I'm in a trolley, and, as is my habit, I'm slowly taking notice of the people sitting around me. For me details are things, words, sentences. I take apart the dress worn by the girl in front of me: I turn it into a fabric that makes it up, the work that went into making it --- but I still see it as a dress and not cloth --- and the light embroidery that outlines the part that goes around the neck. I see that collar separate from the silk used in the embroidery and the work involved in it. And immediately, as in a primer on political economy, the factories and the labor unfold before me --- the factory where the cloth was made, the factory where the twist of silk, darker in tone than the dress, was made, which went into making the twisted little things in the border now in their place next to the neck; and I see the components of the factories, the machines, the workers, the seamstresses, my eyes turned inward penetrate into the offices, I see the managers trying to be calm, I follow, in the books, the accounts involved in it all; but it isn't only that: I see, beyond that, the domestic lives of those who live their social lives in those factories and those offices ... All of them pass before my eyes merely because I have before me, below a dark neck, which on its other side has I don't know what sort of face, a common, irregular green edge on a light green dress.
The entire life of society lies before my eyes.
Beyond all that I sense the loves, the secret life, the souls of all those who worked so that this woman seated in front of me in the trolley can wear around her mortal neck the sinuous banality of a band of dark green silk on less dark green cloth.
I become stupefied. The seats on the trolley, made of a tightly woven strong straw, carry me to distant regions and into multiple industries, workers, workers' houses, lives, realities, all.
I leave the trolley exhausted and sleepwalking. I just lived an entire life.
You too can try this exercise --- you are reading this on a computer monitor ... what about all the workers, managers, capitalists and factories that brought this monitor to its position in front of you, and their labors, their wages, their work relationships, their social lives, their families, their dreams ... ? Yes, this reverie is better than any novel that someone else can write (except that it is not as disquieting as this book?) ...
(posted by Roland Soong on 6/13/00)
LIBERALISM IN THE BEDROOM: QUARRELING SPOUSES IN NINETEEN CENTURY LIMA. 2000. By Christine Hunefeldt. The Pennsylvania State University Press: College Park, PA.
This book is first of all how archival research can be used to produce a learned work. Whereas contemporary sociology is dominated by the methods of sociological and demographical research, historical sociologists do not have the luxury of going back in time to interview informants. For this book, the author spend three years reviewing the documents of 1,070 conjugal suits filed in Lima's archbishopric. In some cases, a couple begin a suit at an ecclesiastical court, then started on in civil or criminal court, and many years later wrote a will, thus providing a history of their conjugal strife over many decades. This resulted in an insightful and even entertaining account of the quarreling spouses' relationships, gender roles, social attitudes and expectations, as well as the relevance of socio-economic class and race.
Here is the case of one woman (p.124):
Antonia Solís, in a letter written in 1817, stated that many years earlier she had gone from Yauricocha (a mining center) to the nearby town of Tusi to gather some potatoes for her children, whom she had borne out of wedlock. When she arrived at Tusi, she met the teniente de cura (local priest assistant), Don Mariano Medrano. To her great surprise, this stranger generously offered to help her, even to the extent of giving her shelter in this house. Antonia felt suspicious about this strange behavior and declined the offer. A few hours later, the priest sent one of his servants to Antonia to asked her to come to dinner. She kindly thanked him for this invitation but rejected it. The priest was upset and offered yet another invitation, this time sending out the town's mayor and other local authorities to bring Antonia to him by force. The whole town was watching and wondering why a woman who had just arrived would be treated so badly. Antonia was led to the convent house where the priest was waiting. Drunk and angry, he accused her of being a prostitute. He then threatened to marry her to the first bachelor coming along the road. He ordered the mayor to go out and grab the first available victim. Antonia protested and let the priest know that all that was happening was a violation of her rights. She refused to consent, arguing that no banns and other formalities had been carried out and that she had a family to care for. No tears were sufficient to stop the priest. Struck by fear, the mayor came back after a while with an Indian called Manuel Chagua, who also was a stranger in Tusi. Antonia and Manuel were obliged to hold hands while the priest read out the matrimonial liturgy.
Although Manuel insisted on his conjugal rights, and Antonia several times found herself in precarious situations, the marriage was never consummated. Antonia eventually bought her way out. For years she had never had money or time to present her complaint in Lima, but in 1817 she was ready to fight for an annulment. ... many young and inexperienced Marías and Antonias were married to men they did not like or want. Only later in their lives would these women learn that there were some interstices in the church's matrimonial regulations that allowed them to challenge a priest, and that their consent was important to validate marriage.
When one reads accounts such as these, one can only come to the conclusion that the Catholic value system is a sham rife with hypocrisy and malice. Yet the book also shows that the system contains its own germs for self-destruction, as the system and its rules can be used against itself through these conjugal suits. But while we can sit back now and look at the follies committed by our ancestors, we should not be complacent to think that we are now perfect. Just ask, what might future generations think about us ... ?
(posted by Roland Soong on 5/11/00)
FLOODS OF FORTUNE: ECOLOGY & ECONOMY ALONG THE AMAZON. 1996. Michael Goulding, Nigel J.H. Smith and Dennis J. Mahar. Columbia University Press: New York.
MULTI-AGENT SYSTEMS: AN INTRODUCTION TO DISTRIBUTED ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE. 1999. Jacques Ferber. Addison-Wesley: New York.
The first book presents a holistic view of the development and conservation drama unfolding in the world's largest rainforest and river ecosystem, the Amazonian floodplain. Of the three authors, Goulding is a scientist (Amazon River Project, Rainforest) and journalist (ABC, National Geographic, BBC, Scientific American, etc), Smith is a professor of geography (University of Florida) and Mahar is an economist (the World Bank's Representative in Brazil). The book is nicely illustrated with more than seventy color photographs.
The second book deals with the scientific enterprise of multi-agent systems, where by one can plan, design and create universes of relatively independent and autonomous artificial entities ('agents') capable of collaborating in common tasks, communications, adapting, reproducing, perceiving the environment in which they move and planning their actions to fulfill objectives defined either extrinsically (such as an objective function) or intrinsically on the basis of a general objective of survival. In other words, this is a computer science book.
Why are these books being reviewed here? What do they have in common?
The first book is a multi-disciplinary study of the Amazonian region. The chapter headings are
The organization of these chapter headings that there are multiple actors in the Amazon --- the land, the river, the seasons, the fish, the animals, the insects, the birds, the plants, the indigenous people, the loggers, the farmers, the fisherman, the miners, the industrial developers, etc. Alternately, the region can be approached through a number of disciplines --- geology, human geography, ecology, environmental conversation, marine biology, plant biology, agricultural science, forest management, mineral engineering, transportation science, economic developmental economics, public policy, and so on. The histories of these actors and systems are necessarily intertwined, and there cannot be a history of a single actor or system without reference to the interactions with the others. This explains why it was necessary to have authors coming from different disciplines.
The second book is about a new paradigm in computer science. Instead of attempting to provide solutions through an all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-controlling centralized system, we talk about a distributed system of intelligent agents who have explicit knowledge with which to comprehend the world. Each agent is a specialist who is endowed with knowledge of a specific domain. It is recognized that an agent cannot know everything in the beginning, because knowledge is presumably boundless and always developing. This knowledge is acquired not just as a set of declarative axioms and procedures, but it is also the cumulative effect of the continual interaction between the agent and the world.
Carl Hewitt has described a type of organisation which he calls Open Information Systems, in which knowledge is not the sum of the knowledge of all the agents, but the result of the interaction of several micro-theories, that is, of learning and know-how associated with agents. Each micro-theory, although coherent in itself, may perhaps come into conflict, or even be in total contradiction, with other micro-theories coming out of the same organisation. When combined actions take place, the agents possessing these micro-theories then have to negotiate to determine which is the best joint action to undertake. (p. 236).
All these concepts of micro-theories can be very well integrated into a multi-agent perspective. Owing to their essentially limited character, related to a context, every micro-theory is representative of the knowledge of an agent. Or, more precisely, all knowledge associated with an agent has the value and the importance of a micro-theory. In a multi-agent system, no agent has total knowledge or possesses an overall truth relating to the world. All knowledge is therefore local and all truth relative.
Nor can knowledge be reduced to learning. Even if artificial intelligence was for long the champion of declarative knowledge, of learning defined by itself, irrespective of its use, it has since realised, in connection with distributed artificial intelligence, that we cannot understand knowledge which has been experienced, that is, meaning, without referring to the behavior of an agent situated in an environment and in relation to other agents. For this reason, more attention has been paid to know-how, to what is also referred to as an agent's skill and shrewdness, than to the 'book knowledge' that the agent may have. (p.237).
If we believe in the principles that underlie multi-agent systems, then we cannot avoid the conclusion that the problems that exist in the Amazon today can be solved only by political means among various special interests. Whilst we would have preferred to have an all-knowing, all-powerful entity make the always correct decisions for everyone, this is just wishful thinking. The question is really about how we can develop a system in which the rules of representation and interactions of the various agents are equitable.
(posted by Roland Soong on 4/9/00)
AMERICAN TELEVISION ABROAD: HOLLYWOOD'S ATTEMPT TO DOMINATE WORLD TELEVISION. 1998. Kerry Seagrave. McFarland & Company Inc: Jefferson, North Carolina, USA.
The author of this book is credited with a number of other books, which seem to be very interesting just from their titles: Tipping: An American Social History of Gratuities (1998), Baldness: A Social History (1996), Policewomen: A Social History (1995), Payola in the Music Industry: A History, 1880-1991 (1994), The Sexual Harassment of Women in the Workplace, 1600-1993 (1994), Drive-In Theaters from Their Inception in 1933 (1992) and Women Serial and Mass Murderers: A Worldwide Reference, 1580 through 1990 (1992).
This particular book is about how a few American companies have tried to dominate the world's television screens from 1940 to today. A priori, the ambitious scope of this book is likely to be the cause of some unevenness of coverage and depth. That is to say, given the absence of a standardized global tracking system, the amount of secondary research materials will vary unevenly across regions and time. To give a Latin American example, for the 1980's, the author was able to refer to two journal articles --- Maria C. Wert. "Global television flow to Latin American countries." Journalism Quarterly 65 (Spring, 1998): 182-185 and Livia Antonla. "Television flows in Latin America." Communication Research 11 (no. 2, April, 1984): 184-198 --- and provide a detailed analysis of amount of US-imported television programming in a select number of countries. Unfortunately, we lack any sense of historical progress (what was it in 1940? 1950? what is it now?) or spatial generalization (especially given the emphasis on inter-country differences due to import quotas that differ by country and over time).
This book contains a great deal of citation of news clippings and reports. Here is Latin America in the last decade --- At the beginning of the 1990s, the book describes how US programmers such as CNN, ESPN, TNT, MTV and HBO OLE were filling the air with American programs dubbed in Spanish, charging very low subscriber fees and expecting to lose money with a total revenue of less than US$30 million. By mid-1995, we found that about 100 cable/satellite channels serve a pay television market worth US$2.5 billion. Those are just the facts and figures. The analysis and interpretation are just absent. The reader would have dearly liked to know just what happened here to cause this rapid expansion of pay television. Instead, in between, we got a recitation of certain corporate musical chair routines --- "Warner had then partnered with Venezuela's Marte TV, and Fox joined Mexico's Grupo Televisa" without any idea of their significance or impact, and some glib quotes --- Warner executive Michael Jay Solomon saying, "Because U.S. programs always have been extremely popular in Latin American, major producers and distributors see little need to spend much on production."
If you read this review so far, you probably have the impression that we don't like this book. Speaking for ourselves, we actually like the book. Our point is that if you have a strong point of view already, then the facts and stories cited in this book will corroborate, reinforce or temper it. But this book would be problematic for someone using it to develop a point of view for the first time.
(posted by Roland Soong on 3/06/00)
A FINGER IN THE WOUND: BODY POLITICS IN QUINCENTENNIAL GUATEMALA. 1999. Diane Nelson. University of California Press: Berkeley, California, USA.
From the back cover of the book we read,
"Many Guatemalans speak of Mayan indigenous organizing as "a finger in the wound." Diane Nelson explores the implications of this painfully graphic metaphor in her far-reaching study of the civil war and its aftermath. Why use a body metaphor? What body is wounded, and how does it react to apparent further torture? If this is the condition of the body politic, how do human bodies relate to it --- those literally wounded in thirty-five years of civil war and those locked in the equivocal embrace of sexual conquest, domestic labor, mestizaje, and movements of social change?
Nelson addresses these questions --- along with the jokes, ambivalences, and structures of desires that surround them --- in both concrete and theoretical terms. She explores the relations among Mayan cultural rights activists, ladino (nonindigenous) Guatemalans, the state as a site of struggle, and transnational forces including Nobel Peace Prizes, global TV, and gringo anthropologists, and shows in addition how the notion of Quincentennial Guatemala has given focus to the overarching question of Mayan --- and Guatemalan --- identity. With freshness and wit, Nelson moves easily from incisive political analysis through contemporary cultural theory to ethnographic observations. Her work has special relevance to ongoing discussions of power, hegemony, and the production of subject positions."
As interesting as this description sounds, it shortchanges the intimate personal tone of this book. For example, instead of launching immediately into a theoretical discussion of the cultural war for the nation-state, she began with a personal story. In 1984, she traveled to Nebaj, which was located in a remote valley. As she walked around town, a group of children asked about her name. When she replied, "Diana," they all started yelling: "Queen of the Lizards! Queen of the Lizards!" This was not an anti-imperialist war cry, but a reference to the alien leader in the science-fiction series "V: The Series" (see Visitor Home Page). That show is the story of a group of humanoid (but they are really lizards) alien visitors led by their Queen Diana who promised friendship and benevolence for mankind while secretly stealing the natural resources (including harvesting humans for food!) of Earth, and the efforts of a small human Resistance Movement to fight for liberation. The point here is not about the postmodernistic shock of encountering children in a remote place with only one television set in the whole town who were familiar with American television characters, but for these children to have learned about resistance tactics against an occupying alien force (in the military and cultural senses) through a Hollywood production.
(posted by Roland Soong on 2/16/00)
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