Cultural Agency in the Americas / Edition 1

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"Cultural agency" refers to a range of creative activities that contribute to society, including pedagogy, research, activism, and the arts. Focusing on the connections between creativity and social change in the Americas, this collection encourages scholars to become cultural agents by reflecting on exemplary cases and thereby making them available as inspirations for more constructive theory and more innovative practice. Creativity supports democracy because artistic, administrative, and interpretive experiments need margins of freedom that defy monolithic or authoritarian regimes. The ingenious ways in which people pry open dead-ends of even apparently intractable structures suggest that cultural studies as we know it has too often gotten stuck in critique. Intellectual responsibility can get beyond denunciation by acknowledging and nurturing the resourcefulness of common and uncommon agents.

Based in North and South America, scholars from fields including anthropology, performance studies, history, literature, and communications studies explore specific variations of cultural agency across Latin America. Contributors reflect on, for example, the paradoxical programming and reception of a state-controlled Cuban radio station that connects listeners at home and abroad, the intricacies of indigenous protests in Brazil, and the formulation of cultural policies in cosmopolitan Mexico City. One contributor notes that trauma theory targets individual victims when it should address collective memory as it is worked through in performance and ritual; another examines how Mapuche leaders in Argentina perceived the pitfalls of ethnic essentialism and developed new ways to intervene in local government. Whether suggesting modes of cultural agency, tracking exemplary instances of it, or cautioning against potential missteps, the essays in this book encourage attentiveness to, and the multiplication of, the many extraordinary instantiations of cultural resourcefulness and creativity throughout Latin America and beyond.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“In titling itself as it does, Cultural Agency in the Americas makes a foundational gesture. The thing to be founded is a scholarly praxis, a blueprint for academic work committed to advancing energetic, creative, nonharmonious but nonviolent democratic relations.”—Mary Louise Pratt, from her afterword
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822334996
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 1/28/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 392
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Doris Sommer is Ira Jewell Williams Jr. Professor of Romance Languages and Director of Graduate Studies in Spanish at Harvard University. Her books include Bilingual Aesthetics: A New Sentimental Education, also published by Duke University Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Cultural Agency in the Americas

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3487-3

Chapter One


Intervening from and through Research Practice: Meditations on the Cuzco Workshop


The Ambiguous Burden of Our Own Skepticism

In spite of widespread use among its foes, globalization describes a social imaginary that functions in the process of globalization. The image derives from a monotheistic conception of society and history according to which all events gravitate around a single point and are motored by a single, uniform subject. But if anything characterizes globalization today, it is the multiplicity of processes and actors, rhythms and logics. The 2001 scare at the New York Stock Exchange and the sharp decline in the value of "new economy" stocks (e.g., Yahoo's stocks today are worth 10 percent of their value of a year ago!) speak to the presence of logics that are neither radical alternatives nor hegemonic. And if I use examples from the financial world, it is because finances seemed to be going at top speed and in a single direction. Yet not even this arena is uniform or mono-rhythmic. There are demobilizing skepticisms as well as mobilizing ones. Not believing in a single globalizing logic liberates us from the heavy burden of causality and, at the same time,burdens us with the responsibility to pry open spaces, recognize, anticipate, and promote the fissures that traverse and destabilize the global, in order to intervene toward the development of multiplicity.

Intervening through Research Practice

Here I refer to intervention that can be exercised from the practice of research itself and which begins, as Charlie Hale proposes, with the theoretical development of cultural protagonism or of "the cultural." My essay included here on the political and cultural dimensions that bring communications studies beyond instrumental rationality is a contribution in this direction. We are witnessing the emergence of cultural citizenships that signal the growing presence of strategies of exclusion and empowerment, exercised in and from the cultural arena. The strategies of empowerment not only inscribe "identity politics" within the politics of human emancipation, but also re-open the very meaning of politics, giving rise to new agents and new types of political subjects-agents and subjects that have been visible since feminism subverted the metaphysical machismo of the various Lefts with the assertion that "the personal is political." What those new citizenships prove is that the liberal-democratic institutions have been loath to incorporate the multiple forms of cultural diversity that may strain and rupture social life precisely because these do not fit into a particular institutional framework. In the face of the citizenship of "the moderns," which was conceived and exercised above the level of identities based on gender, ethnicity, race, or age, the kind of democracy that is necessary today is one in which multiple citizenships assume responsibility for identities and difference. The necessary starting point for creatively sustaining the tension between difference and equality is our ability to mediate that other tension, between our identities as individuals and as citizens.

Another line of intervention from or through is the one that locates the construction of maps with crossing lines, multiple entrances, where simultaneous narratives enter into conflict and look for alternative lines of escape at the center of our research efforts. On this subject I have written the following: Who said that cartography can only depict borders and not construct images of the relationships and the intertwining of the paths and labyrinths? A cartographic expert like M. Serres has written:

Our history, singular and collective, our discoveries as our loves, look more like the risky weather forecasts or seismic activity charts than an organized travel itinerary with an insurance policy.... For this reason, rapidly changing meteorological maps, or the slow and patient sciences of the earth, with its deep and shifting plates, fracture lines, and hot points, are of more interest to the philosopher than the old highway maps.

We encounter a cartographic logic that becomes fractal, allowing the maps of the world to recuperate the diverse singularity of the objects-mountain chains, islands, jungles, oceans-a logic that expresses itself textually in folds, reverses, intertexts, and intervals-a cartography in which the spaces of geography, of history, and of the psyche are not discrete but overlap, illuminating, without elitism or postmodern eclecticisms, new questions that "philosophically" liberate cultural studies from its concealed borders and make them able to accept the elements and the notion of diaspora as new perspectives from which to think.

The new forms of mapping the sociocultural also require a transformation of writing which places the reader before questions and narratives that account for the decentering of the researcher's voice with respect to the multiplicity of voices and experiences. What is needed here are both hard data and metaphors that can together construct more or less powerful articulations of the economic and the political which may reveal the strategic intersections between the economy and culture-focal points for the reorganization of institutions and socialities. The gains in this are enormous-the resulting nocturnal map can lead to a demand for cultural policies which, in order to be formulated, must rearticulate the meaning of the public and the political. The current reconstruction of the public sphere has, without a doubt, much to do with profound changes in mental maps, in languages and in policy design, brought about by the new forms of complexity that characterize the reconfigurations and hybridizations of the public and the private. For example, the Internet represents a new complexity: private contact between interlocutors which is at the same time mediated through the Net's public space in a process that simultaneously introduces an explosion of public discourse while mobilizing a large number of very heterogeneous communities, associations, and tribes. At the same time, these heterogeneous social groups can free political narratives from the multiple logics of specific life worlds, weakening the bureaucratic centralism of institutions by infusing creativity into citizenship and participation.

Intervening with Research Practice

What I am referring to here is not the political instrumentalization of research. We have already learned about the excessive and sometimes tragic effects of that particular perversion. What I am referring to is the utilization of research to promote both social creativity as well as the political productivity of culture by strengthening its own capacity for experimentation. I see this taking place in two strategic arenas and two different dimensions of culture:

The local sphere, which is currently undergoing, both in the rural areas and in small cities, a kind of social prostration, political co-optation, and cultural devastation that is extremely dangerous for the survival of communities. We need to encourage research projects that accompany concrete experiences of social revitalization through cultural agencies-be it through arts and craft production or mass media and tourism. An example: research projects that take on patrimony as "cultural capital." It is necessary to expropriate it from its old or antiquated owners so that municipal or neighborhood communities can reclaim their patrimony. Then the right to cultural memory is awakened, recognized, researched, protected, amplified, interpreted, put to use, and even made profitable in all senses of the word.

The regional Latin American sphere. There is no doubt that Latin American economic and cultural integration is affected by the dynamics and ambiguities of the culture industries. If this was the case in the past-in Latin American film, with its myths and stars, in bolero, tango, and the ranchera-it is as much or more so today with telenovelas and salsa, Latin rock and even the Latino version of MTV, boasting its own stars and myths. Focused on preserving patrimonies and promoting the elite art forms, the cultural policies of Latin American states have completely disregarded the decisive role that the audiovisual industries have played in everyday culture. Yet the major culture industries are successfully penetrating personal and family life, organizing free time through the offer of entertainment and the strategic management of information in the home. Anchored in a fundamentally preservationist conception of identity and in a lack of understanding of and engagement with the practices of companies and independent groups-that increasingly powerful "third sector"-public policies are responsible, to a large extent, for the unequal segmentation of consumption and for the impoverishment of national production. This occurs at a time when heterogeneity and multiculturalism can no longer be seen as problems but as the basis for the renovation of democracy. Meanwhile, as liberalism expands deregulation to the cultural sphere, it also demands the reconstruction of a public sphere from States and international agencies. Economic integration itself will be impossible without the creation of cultural space, through which public communications policy is able to promote and sustain the circulation of production and programs among all countries in the region, creating a real opening that can link media in each country to those in other countries in the region. These various linkages would intensify cooperation between different media, especially the strategic cooperation between television companies and film. They would also promote increased contact between such media professionals as programmers, scriptwriters, and directors across national boundaries and create networks of exchange and cooperation between independent producers throughout the region.

The sphere of narrative logic(s). A good part of the political frustration and demoralization of the young generation comes from the political and cultural exclusions still generated by the "lettered city," despite the multiplicity of narratives and writings through which new sensibilities are expressed. There is a strategic need to expand the range of discourses through which politics are named and performed and through which cultural creativity takes place. In a society that is suffering what is perhaps the greatest symbolic deficit in history, and which compensates for it by saturating itself with signs and noise, young sensibilities ally themselves with the new languages through which both our fears and our nightmares are expressed. It is this feeling that imbues the notion of youth with its symbolic meaning. And if youth symbolizes, it is not because of the market's crooked operations but because it condenses-in its unrest and miseries as much as in its dreams of liberty or its cognitive and expressive complicities with the language of technologies-some of the keys to the cultural mutation that is currently crisscrossing our world.

The sphere of aesthetic innovation and technical experimentation. The blurring of boundaries between technical experimentation and aesthetic innovation is producing profound dislocations in art while at the same time making the emergence of a new standard for evaluating both art and technology possible. In its new relationship with art, technology appears in a new light, that of its capacity to signify some of the deepest epochal transformations being experienced in our society. On the other hand, the dislocation of art by technology is making it possible for art to subvert the destructive fatality of a technological revolution that has for many years been directly or indirectly strengthening military power. This new relationship between art, technology, and communications points to more than the circulation of fashion and style. It signals the reaffirmation of cultural creativity as the appropriate space of that utopian minimum without which material progress loses its sense of imagination and turns into the worst kinds of alienation. In the face of the trivialized and trivializing aestheticization of everyday life-and also in the face of its other pole, that ecstasy of form that confuses art with provocative gestures and mere extravagance-there do not appear to be any clear signs of a "way out." We have, however, been learning that any such way would inevitably pass through an opening of the aesthetic to the cultural question: that which seizes the density of the heterogeneity to which different sensibilities and tastes expose us to, in alternative lifestyles and in social movements.

Between Technology and Culture: Communication and Modernity in Latin America


To abstract modernization from its original context is to see that its processes have lost their center and multiplied throughout the world, in capital accumulations, the internationalization of markets, the spread of technology and schooling, the globalization of mass media, and the dizzying circulation of fashion that comes with universalizing certain patterns of consumption.-J. Joaquin Brunner

Clues to the Debate

From the beginning, but especially since the mid-1960s, Latin American communication studies have been rent between two poles: technology-the "fact of technology" with its modernizing or developmental logic-and culture, meaning memory and identities as they struggle to survive and regroup through resistance and reappropriation. The theoretical and political vacillation of communication studies derives from this ambivalent, mestizo discourse that pulls in the opposite directions of (1) knowledge regulated by the laws of accumulation and compatibility and (2) acknowledgment of cultural differences and variable truths. At stake in the relationship between communication and modernity is the very story line of modernity and cultural discontinuities, the anachronisms and the utopias that mass media both deliver and resist.

The debate about modernity has a very particular interest for Latin America because it recasts the linear model of progress that had run past modernity's variations and temporal discontinuities, the long durée of deep collective memory "brought to the surface by sudden changes in the social fabric torn by modernity itself." The debate is about our crises, and this debate engulfs Latin America in "resistance" through traditions, the contemporaneousness of its "backwardness," and the contradictions of development. Modernism came early and modernity came late, in heterogeneous pieces. These concerns have joined social sciences with philosophic reflection. Everyday experience demands more than shifting paradigms for analysis; it needs new questions.

One key question, unavoidable for understanding the folds in the fabric of Latin American development, is the cultural question. It is crucial, since constructions of identity take on decisive dimensions when cultural communities retrench themselves against modernity and refresh ethnic and racial labels. If development means the capacity for societies to act for themselves and to modify the course of events, the undifferentiated form of global modernization today clashes with cultural identities and exacerbates fundamentalist tendencies. We need a new notion of identity, "not static or dogmatic, but one that assumes continuous transformation and historicity as part of a substantive modernity." The improvement would get beyond purely instrumental reason and would renew the pursuit of universality as the counterpoint to particularism and cultural ghettos. All this requires a new concept of development capacious enough for culturally different modes and rhythms of insertion.


Excerpted from Cultural Agency in the Americas Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. 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

Introduction : wiggle room 1
Intervening from and through research practice : meditations on the Cuzco workshop 31
Between technology and culture : communication and modernity in Latin America 37
DNA of performance 52
A city that improvises its globalization 82
The cultural agency of wounded bodies politic : ethnicity and gender as prosthetic support in postwar guatemala 93
Tradition, transnationalism, and gender in the Afro-Brazilian candomble 121
The discourses of diversity : language, ethnicity, and interculturality in Latin America 146
Conspiracy on the sidelines : how the Maya won the war 167
Radio Taino and the Cuban quest for identi ... que? 178
Olodum's transcultural spaces : community and difference in Afro-Brazilian contemporary performance 203
Political construction and cultural instrumentalities of indigenism in Brazil, with echoes from Latin America 229
Questioning state geographies of inclusion in Argentina : the cultural politics of organizations with mapuche leadership and philosophy 248
Cultural agency and political struggle in the era of the Indio Permitido 281
The crossroads of faith : heroism and melancholia in the Colombian "violentologists" (1980-2000) 305
Afterword : a fax, two moles, a consul, and a judge 326
Afterword : spread it around! 334
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  • Posted January 22, 2009

    diverse alternate social activism throughout Latin America

    The Americas is mostly Central and South America where as in Bogota, Columbia, 'no one asks what 'cultural agency' is.' 'The concept resonates with a variety of public practices that link creativity with social contributions.' As the editor and authors of the 16 articles, most of whom are university anthropologists, approach the topic, the 'link' is between scholarship and society. Scholarship takes on a social dimension, bringing benefits to the members of society. The methodology, subject matter, and intellectual character of scholarship bound with a notion of the public good is able to help overcome the traumas of the past, build bridges between antagonistic social groups, and implement performances and other activities having a part in developing a community. Chapter titles indicate the novel, imaginative, and beneficial forms 'cultural agency' can take--e. g., 'A City [Mexico City] That Improvises Its Globalization Tradition, Transnationalism, and Gender in the Afro-Brazilian Candomble [a local religion] The Cultural Agency of Wounded Bodies Politic: Ethnicity and Gender as Prosthetic Support in Postwar Guatemala. The collected pieces provide a sampling of the especially vibrant, generous, and hopeful cultural agency--which the older term social activism refers to to some extent--occurring in heterogeneous Latin American cultures seeking new social forms in the ambiance of postmodernism.

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