In this section, we publish short reviews of books on Latin American media. These reviews will be valuable to people who are seeking to learn about Latin American media because very few published resources exist on the subject, and they are not widely known or available. We also hope to introduce some books which are not completely about Latin America, but contain interesting sections that are relevant or pertinent to Latin America. Following the grand tradition of our beloved New York Review of Books, these reviews are also excuses for engaging in critical discourse.
We should point out that these reviews are completely independent of the book authors and publishers, and the views represent only those of the reviewers.
I AM RICH POTOSÍ: THE MOUNTAIN THAT EATS MEN. 1999. Stephen Ferry. The Monacelli Press: Italy. (160pp, 88 color plates) Available at Barnesandnoble.com and Amazon.com
I Am Rich Potosí, a book of documentary photography, reveals one of the darkest secrets of Latin American history. Along with 88 finely printed color plates, the work includes an introductory essay by Eduardo Galeano, historical quotes and engravings, and excerpts from Stephen Ferry's journal.
Once world-famous, Potosí is now a forgotten city 16,000 feet up in the desert highlands of Bolivia. Few people know that for almost 250 years (1573-1815), Potosí was the focal point of the genocidal treatment of the Andean peoples, a forced labor camp where over three million indigenous men were compelled by their Spanish colonial masters to work and die inside the Rich Mountain; and few people are aware that these Quechua and Aymara slaves extracted from Potosí such fantastic quantities of silver that they ultimately affected the course of world history.
I Am Rich Potosí looks closely at the fascinating culture of the present-day miners of Potosi, who work deep within the mountain that was the tomb of their ancestors. In their labor, daily life, sacrificial ceremonies, and festivals, these thousands of miners and their families re-enact and interpret their history in richly symbolic ways, demonstrating not only the tragedy of their past, but also the heroism of their cultural resistance across the centuries. Over a period of eight years, Stephen Ferry returned many times to Potosí, the poorest place in all of Latin America, seeking to understand its grief and its raw beauty, and to communicate its importance to the outside world.
To see images and text from I Am Rich Potosí, please click here.
As reviewed by Library Journal: Freelance photojournalist Ferry has made numerous trips to Potosí, the magnificent Bolivian mountain that has yielded more silver than any other mountain region of the world. In the 16th and 17th centuries, this wealth went to Spain and Europe at a tremendous cost to the indigenous population: Indians were enslaved by the Spanish and died by the thousands in the mountain. Today, approximately 18,000 miners work in the mountain, living in one of the poorest places in South America. These photos reveal their life and work. With an introductory text by the eminent Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano and excerpts from Ferry's own journal, I Am Rich Potosí illuminates the complexity of cultural intersection and the grandeur of the mountain. These beautiful, full-page photographs provide both a historical record and a passionate denunciation. Recommended for large public, academic, and specialized collections. -- Sylvia Andrews, Indiana State Library
(posted by Stephen Ferry on 12/17/99)
PRIVACY AND PUBLICITY: MODERN ARCHITECTURE AS MASS MEDIA 1998. Beatriz Colomina. The MIT Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts.
This book advances the argument that architecture is more than buildings that we can experience firsthand, but it also exists as a representation through drawings, photographs, writings, films and advertising. It is the mass media, which have come to define twentieth century culture, that is the true site within which modern architecture is produced and consumed. We were especially attracted to this extraordinary preface:
"This book has been with me for a long time. I don't know exactly when it all started, but I do know when I first wrote something that one way or another has ended up here. It was 1981. New York. I was writing in Spanish and then translating into English. When, soon after, I tried my hand at English, I was shocked at the extent to which not only the way I was writing had changed but even what I was saying. It was as if with the language, I was also leaving behind a whole way of looking at things, of writing them. Even when we think we know what we are about to write, the moment we start writing, language takes us on an excursion of its own. And if that language is not ours, we are definitely in foreign territory. Lately, I have started to feel that way about Spanish. I have managed to become a foreigner in both languages, moving somewhat nomadically through the discourse on an unofficial itinerary. Traces of this complicated movement can be found throughout this book. The text is somehow suspended between the languages and times in which it was constructed."
(posted by Roland Soong on 11/06/99)
ENTERTAINMENT-EDUCATION: A COMMUNICATION STRATEGY FOR SOCIAL CHANGE. 1999. Arvind Singhal and Everett M. Rogers. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc: Mahwah, NJ.
Entertainment-education is the process of designing and implementing media messages to both entertain and educate, thereby increasing the audience's knowledge about educational issues (such as family planning, adult literacy, political participation, economic self-sufficiency, etc), create favorable attitudes and change overt behavior. This book describes the concrete applications of the entertainment-education process in a number of places all over the world, including two Latin American cases.
In chapter two, the authors describe the remarkable success of the telenovela Simplemente María. This was a television soap opera broadcast in black-and-white on weekdays for 21 months from 1969 to 1971 in Peru, consisting of 448 one-hour episodes. This telenovela was enormously successful in its time. At the episode of María's wedding, a crowd of about 10,000 people gathered in the plaza outside the Church of Santa Teresita del Niño Jesús in Lima, dressed in their best clothes and carrying gifts for the couple. The newspaper El Comercio reported, "Last Saturday, fiction became reality for many viewers: María wed Maestro Esteban in a real Church, with real people, with guests, with a real priest, with a reception, with champagne, with gifts for the bride and groom People were dressed in their best outfits; several people fainted, gripped by their emotions. Women cried when María finally said 'yes' to Esteban."
The odd fact was that there was no formal research done at the time of the broadcast. The authors conducted their research in the 1990s by interviewing the principals as well as audience members. Amazingly, these viewers were able to recall and discuss a telenovela that they had seen twenty-five years ago.
The authors list the major effects of Simplemente María. The central character María Ramos was a rural-to-urban migrant from the Andes to Lima. She worked as a maid during the day and attended adult literacy class in the evening. She worked as a seamstress using a Singer sewing machine, launched her own fashion business, lived in a large mansion and moved to Paris. It was observed that (1) sales of Singer sewing machines soared wherever this telenovela is shown; (2) enrollment in adult literacy classes rose; (3) rural-to-urban migration rose; and (4) provided concrete proof of the potential of the entertainment-education strategy.
Chapter 3 of this book is about the work of Miguel Sabido at Televisa in Mexico. From 1967, he was the writer-producer-director of these telenovelas:
|1967||La Tormenta||French invasion of Mexico|
|1968||Los Caudillos||Mexican struggle for independence|
|1969||La Constitución||Principles underlying the drafting of the Mexican constitution|
|1970||El Carruaje||Story of Benito Juarez|
|1975-76||Ven Conmigo||Adult education|
|1979-80||Vamos Juntos||Responsible parenthood|
|1981||Nosotras las Mujeres||Status of women|
|1981-82||Por Amor||Family planning|
|1997||Los Hijos de Nadie||Street children|
The strong effects of Ven Conmigo was demonstrated by a real event. In one episode, the students in the telenovela visited the Mexican government's Adult Education headquarters on Avenida Insurgentes in Mexico City to pick up their free literacy booklets and other study materials. On the day following the broadcast episode, 250,000 newly enrolled adult learners converged to the location to obtain the same materials, thus causing a tremendous traffic jam. When this episode was broadcast in Peru, there was a great deal of frustration because the street did not exist in Lima.
The work of Sabido at Televisa provided the empirical and theoretical basis for the launching of entertainment-education projects in India, Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania and elsewhere in the world.
Of course, we must say that we prefer to see that entertainment media can serve useful educational purposes. In fact, we find ourselves rooting for their successes. Yet, we must admit that we are somewhat uneasy about the positivistic assumptions of the whole notion. How the masses just passive receptacles to be manipulated? Where is the boundary between the ethical and the deceitful? Might we not learn something from the massive failures of propaganda machines of totalitarian regimes?
Family Planning Media: That's Entertainment: An article by Suzanne Tedesko about the impact of media on family planning practices in Latin America. Published originally in IN CONTEXT # 31 (1991).
(posted by Roland Soong on 9/9/99)
MODERNITY AND THE ARCHITECTURE OF MEXICO. Edited by Edward R. Burian. Foreword by Ricardo Legorreta. University of Texas Press, Austin, TX. 1997.
This is a collection of nine essays by architects and architectural historians. The chapter titles are:
Mexico, Modernity and Architecture: An Interview with Alberto Pérez-Gómez.
Politics and Architectural Language: Post Revolutionary Regimes in Mexico and Their Influence on Mexican Public Architecture, 1920-1952. By Antonio E. Méndez-Vigatá
Modernity in Mexico: The Case of the Ciudad Universitaria. By Celia Ester Arrendondo Zambrano
Architecture and Place: The Stadium of the University City. By Alberto Kalach.
"The General and the Local": Enrique de Moral's Own House, Calle Francisco Ramírez 5, Mexico City, 1948. By William J.R. Curtis.
The Architecture of Juan O'Gorman: Dichotomy and Drift. By Edward R. Burian.
The Architecture of Carlos Obregón Santacilia: A Work for Its Time and Context. By Carlos G. Mijares Bracho.
Juan Segura: The Origins of Modern Architecture in Mexico. By Antonio Toca Fernández.
The Architecture and Urbanism of Mario Pani: Creativity and Compromise. By Louise Noelle Merles.
Why the interest in modern architecture? This is because architecture is a public arena in which social, political, economic and cultural forces come to do battle, and the results are highly visible and long lasting. In the context of Mexico, here are some challenging questions:
The most important Latin American
contribution to global modern culture is the magical realism in literature
(Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende et alia). Is there a
connection between magical realism and developments in Mexican
architecture? Burian wrote, "I think that it has been a lost
opportunity .... There was never that kind of complementary effort in
Mexico, to my knowledge. ... Carlos Fuentes ... mentioned literary texts
that portrayed the quality of vernacular Baroque churches, with their very
austere and abstract exterior severely contrasted with the dark space of its
interior with it golden, luminous retablo, which produce the quality
of a dream-like experience ..."
It is one thing to discuss the aesthetic
values of exemplary architectural projects, but it is important to place the
social significance of these projects in proper perspective. Thus
Méndez-Vigatá wrote: "While the state commissioned many buildings by a
group of young architects, architecture as a profession failed to affect society
as a whole, since in terms of the total number of buildings, relatively few are,
and were, designed by architects. In fact, most of what is built in Mexico
are vernacular buildings, informally built by their occupants, using materials
and techniques readily at hand. The reality of most government-sponsored
building is ultimate symbolic, rather than dramatically solving the overwhelming
social needs of the nation."
When one speaks of modern architecture in
Mexico, are we to conceive of an abstract, borderless Modern Architecture
that dropped in on Mexico? or is there a distinctly Mexican form?
Curtis wrote, "It is, of course, an old story, this determination of
North and South America to misunderstand each other. In the case of
Mexico, the usual friction was perhaps exacerbated by entirely contrasting
political schemes of modernization, and by a continuing amnesia north of the
border about the degree of cultural continuity between the southwestern
United States and Mexico. In any event, the emphasis upon a
"Mexican" identity needs to be examined carefully for what it is:
an ideological construct that has struggled with the problem of integrating
new and old, Hispanic and pre-Hispanic, center and region, city and country,
cosmopolitan and Indian, modern and mestizo, national and
And if you wish to talk about a Mexico
identity, what exactly is that? Is there one (and only one)
Mexico? Méndez-Vigatá wrote: "Antonio Caso, the Mexican
philosopher and president of UNAM from 1920 to 1923, revealed in his book El
problema de México y la ideología nacional: 'One of our national
characteristics is the fact that we have not solved the problem of
adaptation of two human groups with diverse cultures ... How can a people be
formed with two such dissimilar cultures? How can we realize a
collective soul with such heterogeneous factors? In the end, how can
we create a congruous whole out of the incongruity of the conquest?'
Anyone who has visited Mexico has undoubtedly been struck by the fact that
there are many Mexicos ... many different cultures and modes of living ...
and many different ways of thinking and visualizing our identity at the same
time and the same place. This has accounted for many of the political
problems and cultural ambiguities that have characterized our history, since
a unified project for a country never existed. The indigenous has
often clashed with the occidental aspects of our culture. However, the
lack of a coherent, unified view of ourselves has not hindered our desire
for one. In order to satisfy this longing, we have utilized the
devices at our disposal to create the illusion of a single, coherent, and
unified Mexican culture, including ideology, politics, historiography, and
the production of art and architecture."
In the postscript, the author posed these provocative questions, "Is what we do as architects an autonomous aesthetic practice, or does meaning arise out of the social, cultural, and climatic experience of place? Given the current economic and ecological realities in Mexico, how should one build? Could the confrontation of these realities ultimately result in a richer, more meaningful architecture that engages labor, systems of production, materials and their assembly, and tectonic order?"
(posted by Roland Soong on 9/5/99)
STUNTED LIVES, STAGNANT ECONOMIES: POVERTY, DISEASE AND UNDERDEVELOPMENT. By Eileen Stillwaggon. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ. 1998.
ON THE RIM OF MEXICO: ENCOUNTERS OF THE RICH AND POOR. By Rámon Eduardo Ruiz. Westview Press, Boulder, CO. 1998.
Stillwaggon's book describes the living conditions of the poor in Argentina, who are afflicted with diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, tuberculosis, lice, Chagas' disease, parasitic infections, etc. Many of these diseases are preventable, but for the lack of health care, social and sanitation services.
Ruiz's book describes the living conditions of people who live on the border between Mexico and the USA, dealing with issues such as political economy, illegal immigration, narcotic smuggling, environmental pollution, etc.
While these books deal with two very different countries, there is a common theme --- that many of these problems are exacerbated, if not caused, by institutional weaknesses and indifference. Now, the subject of institutional failure is not restricted to Latin America, but can be found everywhere in the world for which there are many, many books written. In this review, we will not try to deal with the specifics of Mexico and Argentina, which would have required an extensive treatise. Rather, we will analyze our intellectual and visceral reactions as readers to these two books, especially with respect to the style and tone.
First, from Ruiz's book, we read some quotes.
Tijuana has a celebrated case of international water pollution. Millions of gallons of raw sewage flow into the Tijuana River and then into the Pacific Ocean, where wastes drift onto Imperial Beach, an estuary in San Diego County. The water contains, according to San Diego health authorities, bacteria for amoebic dysentery, cholera, hepatitis, encephalitis, and polio. "The water's real dirty, and it stinks ... This is the most polluted beach in the nation," said one lifeguard.
The cities of Nogales, Agua Prieta, and San Luis Río Colorado, Sonora bailiwicks, do their share. A member of El Colegio de Sonora, a think tank in Hermosillo, classifies the three cities as "notorious polluters of the urban environment." One woman resident exclaims that "we are sitting on time bomb," but there is scant public awareness; nothing will be done "until we see people die off like flies."
The scene repeats itself in El Paso-Ciudad Juárez, where both cities are supplied by the waters of the Rio Grande. Lawrence Nickey, director of the El Paso City-County Health District, who once swam and finished in the Rio Grande, says, "I wouldn't put my big toe in it now."
Farther down the river, at Ciudad Acuña, Piedras Negras, and both Laredos, residents worry about water quality. Neither Ciudad Acuña nor Piedras Negras has treatment plants, and the one at Nuevo Laredo treats no more than 60 percent of that city's water. Leslie Kochan, an American writer, maintains that "levels of bacteria along some points between Nuevo Laredo and Lake Falcon," because of the dumping of raw sewage into the Rio Grande, "are so high that it makes the late one of the largest sewage ponds in the United States."
In Brownsville, an inexplicably high incidence of babies stillborn without brains, the New York Times has reported, leads "people to suspect contamination from industries across the border in Matamoros, where the same phenomenon has appeared." At Brownsville, to paraphrase El Mexicano, where the Rio Grande is virtually a toilet for untreated human waste as well as receptacle for waste from maquiladoras in Matamoros, María Guadalupe Esparza, one of sixteen mothers, won at least $100,000 in a court settlement of $17 million from forty maquiladoras; in a lawsuit filed in 1993, the mothers accused the firms of killing or deforming over a dozen newborn babies with factory emissions and the burning of toxic wastes at the dump in Matamoros. Esparza's child, who suffered from anencephaly, a birth defect that the lawsuit linked to toxic emissions, "died the moment they cut the umbilical cord," she explained. In one heavily Mexican-American colonia of South Texas, a study discovered that 90 percent of its residents had contracted hepatitis before their thirtieth birthday.
These quotes above should provide the impression that this book is a compilation of events and quotations which have been carefully gathered by the author over a long period of time. The material is presumably impeccably correct. When we read this seemingly endless litany over 233 pages, we cannot help but get very angry at this senseless waste. Yet, we do not where to direct our anger towards. If the culprit is The System, then it has no human face, and no one and everyone is held accountable. All in all, this leaves us with a sense of frustration.
By way of comparison, let us look at Stillwaggon's section about the cholera epidemic in Argentina and read some quotes.
In May of 1991, the health minister of the province of Buenos Aires, Gines González García, said that 1,600 health centers were being built to combat cholera (Buenos Aires Herald, May 19, 1991, p. 13). In fact, none were built.
After eleven people had died from cholera in Argentina, government officials made several statements. First, President Menem announced that cholera is not a disease of poverty. That did not influence the actual course of the disease, which has affected only the poor. Second, Menem announced that cholera would never reach Buenos Aires. It did. Third, the health minister announced that the government would send $4 million to dig wells and build water purification plants in towns in Salta. He said that in less than thirty days there would be running water in twenty-five Salta towns (Buenos Aires Herald, February 12, 1999, p. 11). The money never got there ... Fourth, officials at the city waterworks in Buenos Aires assured the population that the city water was good, "unless the installations are substandard, allowing filtration from sewerage, storm drains" (Buenos Aires Herald, February 10, 1992, p. 4). In a city with 100,000 water main breaks per year, that is not very reassuring.
Government officials complain that the Indians are not adapting to the sanitary emergency. They still drink from the puddles, they do not use the latrines that have been built since the crisis began, and they eat raw fish from the Pilcomayo (Clarín, September 20, 1992, p. 41). Although there are signs posted in Spanish about the dangers of drinking river water, the women still carry household water from the river (Fernández Guinti 1992, p. 40). The majority of the indigenous population, however, cannot even speak Spanish, let alone read it.
Again, 302 pages of this sort of material is enough to make anyone angry about the human toll, which could have been prevented. But there is a difference, in that the villains are now readily identifiable. Here, the typical situation consists of positing a set of circumstances, describing the official response and following up on the broken promises. The only regret is that we do not hear the official excuses. For example, we would have liked to hear the official explanation for the missing 1,600 missing health centers. But this is perhaps a major shortcoming of journalistic reporting today --- too much emphasis on covering the latest news and statements, and too little backtracking to hold people accountable for their previous statements.
(posted by Roland Soong on 8/29/99)
PAPER TANGO. By Julie Taylor. Duke University Press: Durham, NC, 1998.
TANGO AND THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF PASSION. By Marta E. Savigliano. Westview Press: Boulder, CO, 1995.
THE MYSTERY OF SAMBA: POPULAR MUSIC AND NATIONAL IDENTITY IN BRAZIL. By Hermano Vianna. Edited and translated by John Charles Chasteen. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, 1999.
MERENGUE: DOMINICAN MUSIC AND DOMINICAN IDENTITY. By Paul Austerlitz. Foreword by Robert Farris Thompson. Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1997.
What is a nation? We can use the technical definition to define a nation to be a member of the United Nations, but that is highly unsatisfactory and uninformative because it begs the question as to how it ever became a member (or ex-member). From the history of Latin America, we know that a nation does not arise automatically from a set of natural geographical boundaries. Many of the international boundaries in Latin America seem to have arisen out of historical circumstances, were imagined otherwise (such as Simon Bolívar's dream of a single South American nation), were altered by circumstances (an interesting book is Latin American History: A Teaching Atlas, by Cathryn L. Lombardi, John V. Lombardi with K. Lynn Stoner, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI, 1983, which contains historical maps of various Latin American boundaries), could have been easily otherwise and are still subject to dispute (for example, the border between Ecuador and Peru).
We also know that the a nation is not defined in terms of commonality of languages. On one hand, there are at present eighteen different Spanish-speaking countries in South, Central and North America (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominincan Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela). On the other hand, there are still many indigenous tongues within some countries (e.g. Guatemala has over twenty major Mayan dialects still being spoken broadly).
As painful as this may be to some people, the nation is a symbolic social construct. Ernest Gellner wrote: "Nations as a natural, God-given way of classifying men, as an inherent though long-delayed political destiny, are a myth; nationalism, which sometimes takes pre-existing cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates pre-existing cultures: That is a reality." Eric Hobsbawm wrote: "For the purposes of analysis, nationalism comes before nations. Nations do not make states and nationalisms, but the other way around." Benedict Anderson wrote: "All communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even those) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined."
These acts of imagination can take a variety of forms and themes (history, heritage, language, religion, commerce, military, culture, food, etc). The five books here shows how a popular cultural music/dance form (tango in Argentina, samba in Brazil and merengue in the Dominican Republic) becomes an integral part of the national self-definition.
It would be impossible for us to deal in any detail with these books. We will therefore just quote a few snippets:
Postscript: In thinking about these books, they seem to indulge in far too much metaphysical speculation while neglecting the music itself. Jorge Luis Borges carries this idea even further: "Musically, the tango is probably not important; its only importance is what we give it. This reflection is correct, but perhaps applies to everything. To our own death, for example, or to the woman who rejects us ... The tango can be debated, and we have debates over it, but it still guards, as does all that is truthful, a secret. Dictionaries of music record its short, adequate definition, approved by all; this elementary definition promises no difficulties, but the French or Spanish composer who then follows it and correctly crafts a "tango" is shocked to discover he has constructed something that our ears do not recognize, that our memory does not harbor, and that our bodies reject. We might say that without the evenings and nights of Buenos Aires a tango cannot be made, and that in heaven there awaits us Argentines the Platonic idea of the tango, its universal form (barely spelled out by "La tablada" and "El choclo") a valiant species which, however humble, has its place in the universe."
(posted by Roland Soong on 8/1/99)
IMAGINATION BEYOND NATION: LATIN AMERICAN POPULAR CULTURE
Edited by Eva P. Bueno and Terry Caesar. University of Pittsburgh: Pittsburgh, PA, 1998.
This book is a collection of essays that explore the relationship between popular culture and the idea of the nation (that is, how a nation views itself on the global stage and how other nations view it) in Latin America. The chapters in the book are:
The contents of the chapters are sufficiently disparate that we cannot hope for a single, coherent discussion. Here, we will focus on the discussion of Mafalda (for more information, see the Mafalda links) in Chapter 4. The comic strip Mafalda was created by the Argentine cartoonist Quino (the pseudonym of Joaquin Salvador Lavador) in 1964 and ran on various newspapers and weeklies before Quino discontinued the series in 1973. However, that did not mean the end of Mafalda. More than twenty-five years later, Mafalda is still immensely popular throughout Latin America through a multi-volume collection, which has gone through numerous reprints.
The brilliance of Mafalda lies foremost in the quirkiness of the little girl in the title. She hates (that is an understatement) soup, cares deeply about humanity, loves the Beatles and has a bunch of equally quirky friends (Felipe, Manolito, Susanita, Libertad, Miguilito). This comic strip manages to be subversive by allowing the children to pose questions that challenge the underlying logic of the political, social and economic conditions. The author of this particular essay takes the following point of view:
Pablo José Hernández concludes that Mafalda is not a progressive comic strip; on the contrary, the critiques of the central character are made within the boundaries tolerated by the system, not only questioning it, but helping to maintain "'freedom of the press' with her timid comments." Anyone who mistakes Mafalda for a sworn enemy or a deceitful accomplice of the system is wrong. Her strategy --- or rather, Quino's --- is faint resistance.
And again elsewhere ...
Quino's strategy is thus marked by an air of pretense and duplicity, although the outcome basically reinforces prevailing hegemonic forces, treated as inescapable and irremediable.
This criticism seems to be somewhat unfair. First of all, consider the context --- Mafalda is a comic strip that appears in newspapers and weeklies. Within that limited space, there is clearly no room to do a dissertation in the manner of Das Kapital. More importantly, in the postmodernist era, it is no longer possible to propose a unified alternate vision of society imposed by a dictatorship of the proletariat in the manner of Lenin, as the devastating consequences of various experiments have shown to be.
Rather, we should not consider any society to be a system in steady state equilibrium frozen in time. All contemporary societies are in perpetual disequilibrium. The effect of a single comic strip may be small and incremental, but the cumulative effect of many small disturbances would be to move the system far away from its previous state, perhaps irrecoverably so. The purpose is not to come up with a prescriptive formula for the new society, but to be more cognizant of the various aspects of the process.
Let us look at a specific case study:
The tiny child (Libertad) declares: "The idea that the northern hemisphere is at the top is a psychological trick invented by those who believe themselves at the top, so that we who believe ourselves at the bottom keep on believing we are at the bottom. And the worst thing is that, if we keep on thinking we are at the bottom, we are going to stay at the bottom. " Her argument pretends to question the logic of how maps represent geographic location without questioning the logic behind the representation itself, which is not only marginal in global terms but petit-bourgeois in social terms.
Whilst we agree that the conventional geographical representation might be "Eurocentric", it was not clear to us what the appropriate remedies, if any, might be. Should people in Latin America build their own version of globes and maps, and use them exclusively? That may provide some degree of chauvinistic pride, but may do nothing towards rectifying the perceptual biases among the denizens of the First World, except to reinforce their worst opinions. It is perhaps more important to come away with the recognition that people's perceptions of geography are often distorted by conditioning, and this is true whether they are Europeans, North Americans, Latin Americans or Asians.
(posted by Roland Soong on 7/22/99)
ROUTES: TRAVEL AND TRANSLATION IN THE LATE TWENTIETH CENTURY
By James Clifford. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1997.
This is a collage of essays, meditations, poems and travel reports from all over the world (Highland New Guinea, northern California, Vancouver, London, etc.) Chapter 8 of this book is titled Palenque Log, written from the viewpoint of a meta-"independent traveler" within the tourist circuit.
The log is almost entirely observational in nature, without any attempt to interpret or engage in polemics. Example:
7:30-8:00: The parking lot is most empty. A group of men, women and children are playing no-net volleyball at the far end. Behind them, above some small trees, is the Temple of the Inscriptions. My camera, which I dropped on the bathroom floor this morning, jams. After some futile attempts at repair, I give up on it.
This seems to be rather light-weighted material for the illustrious author (James Clifford is Professor in the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz) and publisher (Harvard University Press) to be involved in. Yet these seemingly simple observations, which are ordinarily just glossed over, lead to a series of contemplations.
Clifford describes the trajectory of a ruin in four stages:
Each stage is a social process, involving many individuals assuming different roles (e.g. archaeologists, laborers, government functionaries, hoteliers, attendants, guides, museum curators, restauranteurs, tour organizers, local tourists, international tourists, artisans, souvenir vendors, bus drivers, taxi drivers, etc). Depending on one's structural position at that moment in the process, one may have some unusual perspectives.
I ask the ... boy, about sixteen years old, about his life in Palenque, the ruin, and so on. "For us," he says, "the ruin is no big deal. We respsect it, sure, but it's nothing special. Palenque ... people say it's exciting, but for us ... We do this artesanía for the money, that's all." It's said without apparent bitterness. A fact.
... I answer with the cliché that our homes always become too familiar. Travel makes things fresh. I don't really appreciate the beauty of my home in California, and so forth.
... The boy doesn't respond. My words seem to fall flat. The difference in our situations, the privilege assumed by my cliché, is too apparent. I can travel. He can't ... at least not for novelty and pleasure.
(posted on 7/19/99)
SEARCHING FOR RECOGNITION: THE PROMOTION OF LATIN AMERICAN LITERATURE IN THE UNITED STATES.
Written by Irene Rostagno. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1997.
Literature may not leap to mind as one of the most successful Latin American exports of the past thirty years, but the sales records prove that books by Latin American authors can compete with best sellers by U.S. authors. How Latin American writers have gained such widespread acceptance with North American readers is the focus of Irene Rostagno's elegant study. This slim volume, a model of concision and clarity, selects four key publishing events to tell this story.
Rostagno's first subject is the messianic literary figure, Waldo Frank (1889-1967). Frank fashioned himself as a New World prophet, urging writers throughout the hemisphere to look to their land and their common heritage for inspiration. Anxious to cast off European influences and shaped by the radicalism of the 1920's, Frank first published his survey of Latin American culture, America Hispana: South of Us, in 1930. As a champion of South American literature he became involved in several commercial publishing projects. The most ambitious was the launch of the Farrar "Latin American Series." Although the series was scaled back when the first titles sold poorly, Frank's influence in South America was decisive. He is credited as a major inspiration for the founding of Victoria Ocampo's literary journal, Sur, and the prime conduit whereby Whitman, Melville, William Carlos Williams, and Faulkner were introduced to Latin American writers.
The second act in this fascinating history of politics and publishing features Blanche and Alfred Knopf, both of whom made personal commitments to publishing Latin American literature. Under the auspices of President Roosevelt's "Good Neighbor" policies, Blanche toured South America in 1942. Her trip would inaugurate the single most important U.S. publishing relationship with the Latin American authors for the next twenty years. Although this connection would favor Brazilian authors, like Jorge Amado and Clarice Lispector, perhaps the most significant element of the Knopf patronage would prove to be the employment of a group of translators, headed by Harriet de Onis. Many of these translators, including William Grossman and Gregory Rabassa, drew additional attention to Latin American works by reviewing titles published by other houses.
The most obscure chapter in Rostagno's book recounts the history of The Plumed Horn, a small poetry journal published in Mexico City in the 1960's. This avant garde publication was edited by husband and wife, Sergio Mondragon and Margaret Randall. The journal had a tiny distribution of little more than 3,000 copies per issue, however the Latin American literary crowd that read it were first introduced to the Beat poets Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, and the Black Mountain Poets, Robert Bly and Robert Creely, via this outlet. In turn, U.S. readers first read the poetry of Ernesto Cardenal, Nicanor Parra and Enrique Lihn in these pages.
The final examination is reserved for the hugely influential work of the Center for Inter-American Relations, funded by David Rockefeller. This organization, now known as the Americas Society, responded to aggressive Cuban efforts to export the cultural revolution by establishing a literature program that would rival Castro's Casa de las Americas. Review: Latin American Literature and the Arts, now more than thirty years old, has published work by virtually every major Latin American author in the second half of the 20th century. More importantly, the Center's translation program, which helped to train translators and subsidized translations undertaken by American publishers, was responsible for over 70 titles, effectively jump starting the Boom in Latin American literature.
This terrific study by Irene Rostagno has all the virtues of modesty and restraint, combined with careful scholarship. It's a highly readable portrait of the literary gatekeepers who made the Boom possible and the political motivations that lurked behind many of their efforts.
(posted by Eric Metcalf, 2/16/99)
SCHOOL CHOICE IN CHILE
By Varun Gauri. University of Pittsburgh Press: Pittsburgh, PA. ISBN 0-8229-5678-0.
In the early 1980's, the Pinochet regime in Chile adopted free-market liberalization in elementary and secondary education. On one hand, the regime transferred the administration of all public schools, which had hitherto been managed by the Ministry of Education, to local municipalities. On the other hand, the regime funded municipal and private subsidized schools on equal funding on the basis of the monthly attendance-based subsidy called the "subvention." Under this system, parents can enroll their children in any school that will accept them.
This book examines this educational reform process over the two decades of the implementation. This is a major contribution to several different areas --- school choice and educational reform; privatization/liberalization process; and political economy.
Perhaps one of the major failures of the free-market model is the assumption is that information is transparent --- that is to say, consumers have the information on hand to make the right choices. One of the findings of this book is that many parents in fact do not have the knowledge about which are the better schools. Here is a piece of survey result from the book:
|Family reads an "elite" newspaper||4.7%||11.3%||19.2%||77.9%|
So if we take reading an "elite" newspaper as a measure of information access, then the ultimate school choice is a steep function of this.
(posted by Roland Soong 1/27/99)
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