The Art of Transition: Latin American Culture and Neoliberal Crisis

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The Art of Transition addresses the problems defined by writers and artists during the postdictatorship years in Argentina and Chile, years in which both countries aggressively adopted neoliberal market-driven economies. Delving into the conflicting efforts of intellectuals to name and speak to what is real, Francine Masiello interprets the culture of this period as an art of transition, referring to both the political transition to democracy  and the formal strategies of wrestling with this change that are found in the aesthetic realm.

Masiello views representation as both a political and artistic device, concerned with the tensions between truth and lies, experience and language, and intellectuals and the marginal subjects they study and claim to defend. These often contentious negotiations, she argues, are most provocatively displayed through the spectacle of difference, which constantly crosses the literary stage, the market, and the North/South divide. While forcefully defending the ability of literature and art to advance ethical positions and to foster a critical view of neoliberalism, Masiello especially shows how issues of gender and sexuality function as integrating threads throughout this cultural project. Through discussions of visual art as well as literary work by prominent novelists and poets, Masiello sketches a broad landscape of vivid intellectual debate in the Southern Cone of Latin America.

The Art of Transition will interest Latin Americanists,literary and political theorists, art critics and historians, and those involved with the study of postmodernism and globalization.

Author Biography: Francine Masiello is Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of several books, including Between Civilization and Barbarism: Women, Nation, and Literary Culture in Modern Argentina.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The Art of Transition will be indispensable reading for literary critics working on contemporary Latin America. Though it focuses on Argentina and Chile, the questions it poses are of concern to anyone who cares about literature and art in the neoliberal era. Masiello tacks smoothly among a diverse gallery of figures, lining them up around a rich and often brilliant array of insights.”—Mary Louise Pratt, Stanford University

“Two centuries ago, Villemain described literature as an expression of society; one century later Benedetto Croce replied that what really counts is that literature is always expression. Proving both right, Francine Masiello has written a much-needed book that brings back the aesthetic dimension to a study of current Spanish American literary production grounded on her exceptionally insightful understanding of the current turn in the history of the region.”—Tulio Halperín-Donghi, author of The Contemporary History of Latin America

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822328186
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 9/28/2001
  • Series: Latin America Otherwise Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Francine Masiello is Professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of several books, including Between Civilization and Barbarism: Women, Nation, and Literary Culture in Modern Argentina.

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Read an Excerpt

The art of transition

Latin American culture and neoliberal crisis
By Francine Masiello

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2818-6

Chapter One

In Search of a Subject: Latin American Intellectuals at Century's End

Among the more lucid figures on the international art scene, Argentine Guillermo Kuitca offers a valuable introductory lesson about conflicts between rootedness and displacement, memory and oblivion, experience and abstraction. In a well-known installation, Kuitca covered a number of small beds, all soiled to varying degrees, with enlarged paintings of highway maps representing different foreign locations. His juxtaposition of the shabby mattresses with the neat precision of the mappings hauntingly evokes an aching dilemma belonging to our time: How do we live out our local conditions under the weight of a global cartography? What is the dimension of experience and feeling set against the calculations of some distant eye? And how is the popular aspect of a scene recuperated by intellectuals and artists? Kuitca's work brings into alignment that most intimate space of our private lives-the sleeping quarter, the place where we rest body and soul, the site of eros and dream-but also the site that recalls our origins and announces our demise; he links this to the impersonal representation of a map, an abstraction of local meaning that simultaneously reminds us of the fiction of all charting and the illusion of our attachments to place.As a visual structure, the installation coordinates the eye and experience; but it also unites public and private codes, universal and particular meanings, allowing us all to navigate through the complexity of today's postmodern landscape. When map and bed are joined, space is defined anew; identity takes shape at the point where grand traditions and local differences cross. The cartography of the global plan literally covers intuitive knowledge; a figuration of elsewhere meets a diffused yet local sense of popular beginnings. At the same time, the range of experience belonging to the domestic sphere is far from transparent to the viewer. It reminds us that just as any map is a distortion, a falsification of reality that quickly turns hollow, so too the representation of what I just called "humble beginnings" awakens kindred suspicion.

Kuitca's work invites meditation on the dilemmas facing Latin American intellectuals around issues of authenticity and citation, especially as they conjugate imported and local knowledge, collective and individual choices, and determine ethical alternatives for democracy as well as a sense of the aesthetic. The confabulation of narratives emerging from these particular tensions depends in large part on the intellectual's fantasy of a popular subject who is inscribed in either a longing for home or an anxiety about modernization. In effect, the construction of this popular subject (el sujeto popular) serves as a pivotal point that allows us to approach different landscapes of critical discourse; it constructs a number of scenarios on the global and local axis; moreover, with the transition to democratic regimes, the popular subject becomes a site for debate about the course of political options available to Latin American thinkers, finding its way into cultural programs that articulate individuated or communitarian ideals; finally, the popular subject often determines the scope of an aesthetic.

This problematic figure intrudes in the scope of discussion as a token of international exchange: if, within the global context, the image of marginal figures permits Latin American intellectuals to assert a claim to original theory (that is, the originality of Latin America is marked by lo popular) in local contexts, and especially under the aegis of neoliberal regimes, the popular subject often comes to be named as an embarrassing archaism, a retrograde presence that impedes the course of modern progress. Consequently, the tie between intellectuals and the masses today appears irretrievably severed; replacing it in recent local scenarios is a discourse that defines equality in terms of a consumer-based civil sphere. In this resemanticized arena, the marginal figure is inimical to intellectual power; earlier utopian fantasies about the redemptive promise of lo popular now appears as a disembodied phantom. Lost is a plausible narrative about coalition and common rights; the material basis of communitarian ideals is dissolved. Instead, a vision of the future comes forth without a clear conception of alliance, space, or location.

Writing acerbically about the artificial constructs that govern this kind of utopian thinking, Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz observed, "[Utopias] don't seem to exclude any body at all in general, though in fact they exclude everyone in particular" (1995, 25). Ruiz's remarks serve well to establish the staging of much contemporary intellectual debate regarding popular subjects. Indeed, with the disembodiment of specific grievances and the recent excitement provoked by technologies of the virtual real, the role of popular sectors is increasingly viewed with distance and suspicion; worse still, these groups lose the intellectual's trust insofar as they disturb illusions of public tranquility linked to an image of democracy itself. Caught in the thick of this quagmire, at a loss for a constructive discourse with which to alter the terms of debate, the liberal spokespersons who formerly defended projects of alterity now regard them with nervous distrust. These points notwithstanding, the popular sectors remain essential to an artistic imperative emerging on the dawn of the millennium; they are the necessary "other" on which much cultural representation is based. Moreover, as this concern for popular subjects is redefined, it is often translated in artistic and literary texts to focus on sexuality and gender. The reflections that follow track the evolution of these shifts in representation in both the critical and aesthetic landscapes of Latin American culture.

Thinking through Others

After the years of the dirty wars sustained by Southern Cone dictatorships, intellectuals faced the task of rebuilding a public sphere: they asked how to recuperate memory, how to bridge connections to the past, how to make sense of democratization as a market-run global enterprise. The postmodern inflections of this problem readily became apparent, prompting a crisis of universal knowledge that also called into question the status of intellectual work. In particular, in Latin America, because of a long history of activism among vanguard intellectuals, the recent move to democratization demanded that they rethink their relationship to popular traditions and to emerging social movements. Quite often, they felt removed, incapable of negotiating the different regimes of knowledge in circulation. Was cultural critique the space for emancipatory struggles, or, true to market-run logic, a means to advance one's privilege and individual prestige? When Beatriz Sarlo asked in her journal Punto de Vista if the intellectual had become "archaic or marginal" (1993), she expressed the uneasiness of a generation of critics who felt orphaned from place and political function. No longer in the tradition of the founding fathers of nineteenth-century liberal thought, intellectuals of our times sustain a sharp identity crisis, provoked both within the borders of national landscapes and, far beyond, on the global horizon. A brief genealogy of the interface between intellectual and popular subject as it evolved in recent decades helps establish terms for discussion.

In its first phase, this was tied to the intellectual's perceived relationship with a popular subject who offered a redemptive narrative about Latin American creative power, a promise to restore dignity to a cultural project born in peripheral nations. This case was made with brutal cogency by Cuban critic Roberto Fernandez Retamar who, thirty years ago and in his now classic essay about the relationship between metropolitan and third-world nations, reflected on a basic question often posed by foreigners: "Does Latin American culture exist?" (1971, 3). He went on to explore the assumptions underlying the nature of this query and suggested, ironically, that by negating their cultural component, one might ask just as well if Latin Americans existed at all. But he also noted that intellectuals, eager to prove an original contribution to this panorama, often staged a performance starring the marginal subject-the peasant, the subaltern, the racially different-in order to make Latin America visible on the global map. Far from resolving Latin America's quest for prestige, the strategy made apparent the great appeal of the exotic to the detriment of more urgently needed debate and critical exchange.

From the site of the metropolis, where avid readers elevate the writings of Isabel Allende and Laura Esquivel to the top of national best-seller book lists, where Rigoberta Menchu is a cause celebre and her autobiography (although now under question for its claims to the veracity of horror) continues to be required reading in many university settings, North American academic critics also lament the poverty of intellectual reflection offered by their Latin American peers. As isolated raw materials-memoirs and magical realism-regularly spread their roots from southern soils to bear fruit in academic groves to the North, other finished products-theory and critical thought-rarely manage to travel, except to expose local failures or to corroborate a sense of the Latin penchant for the perverse or decidedly strange. From the North, then, Latin America is seen as a homogeneous block, unified by a mysterious and lush exoticism or a passion for political turbulence, or identified as a place where artists lack the capacity for abstract thought and "Western" logic. In the process, Latin American intellectuals are foreclosed from a hermeneutic circle of inquiry, while images of marginality are retained as signs of a rarified experience available routinely from southern exposures. Like the infinite flow of a Moebius strip, the tag game between universal and local cultures as it persists in the imagination of critics reinforces the inferiority of Latin America, denigrating its impulses toward an independent conceptualization of theory.

Chilean critic Jose Joaquin Brunner (1991) has signaled the course by which certain thinkers of international prestige have confirmed this case against Latin American autonomy. Taking the writings of Octavio Paz as a key example, Brunner tracks the ways in which Latin American culture is represented as a "deficit," a tradition that, lacking the foundations of enlightenment philosophy, will never gain access to the platforms of continental thought. For its glaring omissions, Latin America can never rise above its self-portrait of turgid, inarticulate failure nor can it enter modernity except when it performs a belated and feeble mimesis of European achievement. The novum of Latin American modernization, writes Chilean philosopher Pablo Oyarzun, is seen in a close reproductive relation with metropolitan models; and if imitation is the rule of modernization, translation is its humble servant (1987-1988, 293). Seen in this way, Latin America is always one step behind Europe and the United States, asynchronically lost in a carnival of masks and cannibalistic perversions, uncloaking a feared perception of a dark and primitive self.

Curiously enough, it is the metaphor of the mask, so often synonymous with postmodern pursuits, that prevails in descriptions of the Latin American mind; it results in projecting a sense of basic identity, natural voice, or "origin" that suffers wrenching distortion. Years ago, Angel Rama signaled this irony when he referred to the "democratic masks" belonging to the modernization experience (1985); Rosalba Campra described the masked identity that all Latin Americans wear (1987). From a different perspective, Roberto Schwarz observed that cultural copying seems to dominate Brazilian intellectuals; moreover, this behavior is a fundamental part of national culture, compensating for a lack of a common bridge linking elite and popular sectors (1992). Mimicry, then, expresses the uneasiness of a dominant class caught up in the temporal and ideological tensions between modernity and tradition. In a similar vein, Chilean critic Bernardo Subercaseaux noted that European conceptual paradigms have always been brought into Latin America for the purposes of sustaining the power of elites with respect to their local populations (1991, 223). Subercaseaux also insisted on the central role of the appropriative gesture as the essence of the nationalist project, a way to overcome the cultural dualism that wreaked havoc in the mind of elites. Argentine Horacio Gonzalez gives a different spin to this image when he locates this behavior as part of the trickster's mode of expression in Latin America, a strategy to bridge the gap between public common sense and private, unfulfilled needs (1992, 90). This representation of culture, which depends on translations and echoes for its principal tropes, appears purposefully improvisational (and hence, avant-garde?) by contrast to some "pure and folkloric" version of what we would imagine as local experience. As a form of critical thinking, it also places in opposition concepts of genealogy and disguise. In this way, although local markers of rootedness and remembrance continue to be identified with the archaic, no longer attainable in modern society and, quite possibly, no longer desired, they also acquire a contestatory force. By contrast, the realm of the possible copy, while it elicits a continuous yearning for the stable place of the other, situates one per force in the global postmodern. It produces a discursive movement between emphasized theatricality and a desire for an idealized "truth"; the theater even becomes a metaphor of politics today.

For all its confusions, the imitative paradigm has been ascribed, more recently, to the Latin American state itself, whose claims to considerable authority are drawn from media images and metaphors of the stage. Eduardo Rinesi, for example, emphasizes the theatricalized identities that define neoliberal regimes (1993). Here, the stage play that so dramatically indulges the frivolous side of postmodernism's pull toward a historicity and dissimulation is evoked to reflect all Latin American thinking as a game of mirror images, always leading to failure and always challenging any claim to authentic truth. In effect, the predominance of this mass-media environment has led Nestor Garcia Canclini to situate all cultural practices in Latin America as acts of performance: "More than actions, cultural practices are forms of acting. They represent, they simulate social action, but only occasionally do they operate as action.... They are performances more comprehensible to the drama-lover's gaze than to the eye of the political 'purist'" (1992, 327). Given the limited number of options in this theatrum mundi, Latin American contemporary history is often likened to melodrama, paradoxically limiting choices of movement and fixing roles for the actors. It is no wonder, then, that Latin American intellectuals are always caught in a turmoil of contradictory demands. Like Kuitca's juxtaposition of the map and the bed, these images leave the intellectual hard put to affirm an original voice, to produce an alternative to metropolitan theory that does not fall into melodramatic excess or, worse, into a nostalgia for some harmonious yet unrecognizable past.


Excerpted from The art of transition by Francine Masiello Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Part I. Masks
1. In Search of a Subject: Latin American Intellectuals at Century's End
2. The Spectacle of "Difference"
Part II. Maps
3. Gender Traffic on the North/South Horizon
4. Bodies in Transit: Travel, Translation, and Sexuality
Part III. Markets
5. The Politics of the Test: Experience, Representation, and the Return of lo popular
6. From Museum to Street: Poetry for the New Millennium

Works Cited
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