The Other Side of the Popular: Neoliberalism and Subalternity in Latin America

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Drawing on deconstruction, postcolonial theory, cultural studies, and subaltern studies, The Other Side of the Popular is as much a reflection on the limitations and possibilities for thinking about the politics of Latin American culture as it is a study of the culture itself. Gareth Williams pays particular attention to the close relationship between complex cultural shifts and the development of the neoliberal nation-state. The modern Latin American nation, he argues, was built upon the idea of "the people," a citizenry with common interests transcending demographic and cultural differences. As nations have weakened in relation to the global economy, this moment—of the popular as the basis of nation-building—has passed, causing seismic shifts in the relationships between governments and cultural formations. Williams asserts that these changed relationships necessitate the rethinking of fundamental concepts such as "the popular" and "the nation." He maintains that the perspective of subalternity is vital to this theoretical project because it demands the reimagining of the connections between critical reason and its objects of analysis.

Williams develops his argument through studies of events highlighting Latin America’s uneasy, and often violent, transition to late capitalism over the past thirty years. He looks at the Chiapas rebellion in Mexico, genocide in El Salvador, the Sendero in Peru, Chile’s and Argentina’s transitions to democratic governments, and Latin Americans’ migration northward. Williams also reads film, photography, and literary works, including Ricardo Piglia’s The Absent City and the statements of a young Salvadoran woman, the daughter of ex-guerrilleros, living in South Central Los Angeles.

The Other Side of the Popular is an incisive interpretation of Latin American culture and politics over the last few decades as well as a thoughtful meditation on the state of Latin American cultural studies.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“A serious study on the cultural challenges brought about by postmodern culture in Latin America is in order and largely overdue. In that sense, The Other Side of the Popular makes an invaluable contribution to the challenge of thinking about the present configuration of culture in the region. This book fills a gap in the area of Latin American cultural studies and it does so with serious scholarship, brilliance, and intellectual commitment.”—Horacio Legras, Georgetown University

“Gareth Williams does an excellent job of explaining the historical and political changes that brought about the transformation of the popular into civil society, noting that the latter is of a piece with neoliberalism. He demonstrates how to take the subaltern (defined as that which resists assimilation into projects for governability) into account without transforming it into a minoritized subject to be managed nor into a citizenry that gains its sovereignty through consumption.”—George Yudice, New York University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822329411
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 5/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 392
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Gareth Williams is Assistant Professor of Spanish at Wesleyan University.

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Read an Excerpt

The other side of the popular

Neoliberalism and subalternity in Latin America
By Gareth Williams

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-2941-7

Chapter One

The State of Things Passed

Transculturation as National-Popular Master Language

There is no more potent tool for rupture than the reconstruction of genesis: by bringing back into view the conflicts and confrontations of the early beginnings and therefore all the discarded possibilities, it retrieves the possibility that things could have been (and still could be) otherwise.-Pierre Bourdieu, "Rethinking the State"

I suggested in the introduction, in very preliminary fashion, some of the ways in which the underlying telos of the nation appears to have shifted in recent years in Latin America. This historical transformation, which is not a single process of evolution but an accumulation of distinct and uneven processes of transition toward so-called globalization, has come about as a result of the neoliberal restructuring of the nation-state together with the emergence of the transnational marketplace as a new and dominant force throughout Latin America. As Nestor Garcia Canclini observed in recent years, Latin American contemporaneity is a consequence of the radical fragmentation of modernity's national scripts. Indeed, as Garcia Canclini puts it, the disappearance of the national script "means that the great narratives no longer exist that used to order and hierarchize the periodsof the patrimony and the flora of cultured and popular works in which societies and classes recognized each other and consecrated their virtues" (Hybrid 243-44).

Before evaluating the complexities of the contemporary political and cultural imagination in Latin America, and before considering the tensions underlying the contexts and horizons of today's cultural politics, I propose to examine in this chapter the contours of what is surely one of Latin American modernity's foundational, or great, narratives. As such I evaluate the notion of transculturation as an intellectual desire firmly rooted within modern processes of nation-state and national culture formation in Latin America.

The realities of transculturation are, of course, one of the many direct effects of colonial contact. The idea of transculturation, however, pertains very much to modern social organization. Indeed, and as I suggest in the pages that follow, transculturation is not just a name for the anthropological phenomenon of cultural miscegenation between dominant and dominated cultures. It assumes a fundamental legitimating function inside the nation-state, as well as in the relation between the state and the popular/elite cultural spheres. It establishes the fictive relation between the state and the notion of the people that constitutes collectivities as particular represented populations that are (supposedly) naturally inserted into the specific mechanisms and calculations of the nation's constituted power structures and truth regimes.

It is through the idea of transculturation-and, in particular, in the relation between this idea and the "hegemonization" of populist, integration-oriented social policies in the twentieth century-that social elites first began to imagine disparate subaltern social agents as fully integrated into national space and into the supposedly singular body of the nation. In general terms, nineteenth-century models of cultural and political modernization had been negotiated on the grounds of a persistent and often violent struggle between the importation of essentially European models of civilization (the nation, for example), and the recalcitrant backwardness of so-called American or subaltern forms of barbarism. By the turn of the century, however, such models, which generally became synonymous with the idea of modernization through elimination, extermination, and violent coercion of the "barbaric" masses by oligarchic local and national elites, entered into a period of profound crisis (Euclides da Cunha's account of the Canudos campaign in Rebellion in the Backlands is, of course, a paradigmatic document in this regard). The gradual yet almost simultaneous hegemonization of ideas such as popular integration into the nation-state (that is, the emergence of specific social policies designed to suture the people to the modernizing designs of the nation-state) and, of course, transculturation, appear to mark, in one way or another, a fundamental response to that crisis of legitimacy in nineteenth-century models of nation formation.

Needless to say, the term "transculturation" was first coined in 1940 by the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz, even though its realities both predate and transcend his signature. In Cuban Counterpoint Ortiz defined transculturation as a name for "the different phases of the process of transition from one culture to another ... [entailing] vital change ... at tempos varying from gradual to sudden" (98-99). In particular, he notes, transculturation accounts for the syncretism of the national cultural economy as well as for the most violent clashes of colonial history:

In Cuba the terms Ciboney, Taino, Spaniard, Jew, English, French, Anglo-American, Negro, Yucatec, Chinese, and Creole do not mean merely the different elements that go into the make-up of the Cuban nation, as expressed by their different indications of origin. Each of these has come to mean in addition the synthetic and historic appellation of one of the various economies and cultures that have existed in Cuba successively and even simultaneously, at times giving rise to the most terrible clashes. We have only to recall that described by Bartolome de las Casas as the "destruction of the Indies".

In more recent years, Gustavo Perez Firmat has provided us with the following important observation regarding Ortiz's use of the term: "More than a comprehensive rubric for the sum or result of culture contact, transculturation is the name for the collision of cultures, for that interval between deculturation and neoculturation that defines a vernacular culture in its formative phase. Although at one point Ortiz states that transculturation names the 'synthesis' of cultures ..., the word properly designates the fermentation and turmoil that precedes synthesis". As such, and as George Yudice has noted, transculturation is "a dynamic whereby different cultural matrices impact reciprocally-though not from equal positions-on each other, not to produce a single syncretic culture but rather a heterogenous ensemble" ("We" 209).

Transculturation is therefore an important signifier denoting, and accounting for, the presence of Latin American hybrid cultural and social forms dating from colonial times through to the present day. However, the idea of transculturation has a thornier side to it that, I believe, requires further evaluation. Perez Firmat has observed that transculturation signals a collision of cultures that produces the underlying ground for a colonized "vernacular culture in its formative phase". As he observes, it therefore "designates the fermentation and turmoil that precedes synthesis". Transculturation is thus always a question of the relation between order and instability; between constituted and constitutive powers; between the production of cultural difference and the potential subsumption of difference by, for example, colonialism's or modernity's deployments of institutional power. In this formulation, then, transculturation is the name for a profoundly ambivalent period of turmoil and of potential transition toward a social order that, through the achievement of synthesis, can put an effective end to the cultural upheaval of transculturation itself. As Ortiz had previously indicated, and as is cited above, transculturation is grounded in both the traumatic negativity of colonial or neocolonial violence and subordination, as well as in the utopic promise of cultural synthesis, resolution, and stability. As such, it is linked fundamentally to the historical meaning through time-and, in particular, through the time of peripheral capital-of the grounds and terms of social stabilization and of modernization themselves. Transculturation and the cultural heterogeneity that it produces can either establish the conditions for cultural or socioeconomic development, or it can be the greatest impediment to cultural and institutional modernization. It can either suture the people to the mechanisms and calculations of power, or it can produce cultural rationales and practices that resist appropriation by the state. It can either be the underlying telos for the fabrication of cultural and social hegemonies, or it can denote the anarchic instability of a world of signification beyond hegemony; the chaos of subaltern "worldings" that cannot be incorporated into hegemony's systems of signification. It can either produce the grounds for communication, or it can produce complete incommunication between diverse social sectors.

With this in mind, transculturation, understood as the fermentation, turmoil, and ambivalence that precedes synthesis, immediately positions the idea as part of a national evolutionary path toward potential social stability, synthesis, and order. As such, transculturation, understood as a persistently and recalcitrantly violent collision between, for example, distinct modes of production or conflicting thresholds of social, historical, and cultural consistency, is systematically set aside in favor of what Fernando Coronil has called "a trope of the liberal imagination with deep roots in Latin American fiction: a fruitful marriage, compromise and fusion, rather than conflict or transformation" (xiv). This rendering of the notion, in which transculturation as collision is subsumed by transculturation as an evolutionary stage on the way to national synthesis, therefore situates transculturation firmly within the critical horizons of liberal reformist nationalism, in which heterogeneity is considered to be the cultural essence of both the people and the nation, and therefore the foundational ground for notions such as development or modernization.

Indeed, the relation between transculturation and potential cultural synthesis has been the dominant underlying (and, we should add, somewhat tamed) ground for the idea of transculturation since its inception, as well as for the tradition of transculturation thinking as a whole since Ortiz. In Cuban Counterpoint Ortiz expresses transculturation as a permanent dialogue between mutually exclusive and often contradictory forms, values, and cultural/economic products. This dialogic form-this permanent and productive circulation of differences-is nevertheless capable of affirming a national unity that is constituted, as Coronil observes, by "making the productive relations established under colonialism the basis of Cuban culture" (xiv). As such, Ortiz actively (and quite ingeniously) displaces transculturation as a violent collision of cultures -as a negative, in other words-and replaces it with a positive dialogical form that is capable of forging the contours of Cuban and Latin American modernity after independence.

In similar fashion, Peruvian novelist and anthropologist Jose Maria Arguedas positioned transculturation firmly within the horizons of national (capitalist) modernization and its discourses of cultural integration and development. In his foundational anthropological research on processes of mestizaje in the Mantaro Valley, Arguedas was quite categorical about the value of the idea of transculturation and of its fundamental relation to wider state (and, in particular, economic) processes. Thus, in his essay Formacion de una cultura nacional indoamericana (9-27) Arguedas indicates the intimate relation between transculturation, geographic and ethnic social integration, and capitalist production. However, within this narrative the term transculturation could also go by the name of acculturation or even of subsumption, for the ground from which Indian transculturation is negotiated is at all times the Creole/ mestizo understanding of the relation between the land and the capitalist mode of production:

As soon as the Indian, as a result of particular circumstances, manages to understand this [economic] aspect of western culture, as soon as he arms himself with it, he proceeds as we do. He becomes mestizo and transforms himself into a positive factor of economic production. His whole cultural structure readjusts, thereby attaining a completely new ground, a new axis. By transforming not one of "the superficial elements of his culture" but its very foundation, the confusion that we observe in his culture begins to present itself to us as ordered, clear, and logical. That is, his conduct begins to identify itself with ours. And all of this by becoming an individual who really participates in our culture! This is a complete conversion in which, naturally, some ancient elements will still exercise influence as mere signs of a personality that, for the most part, will be moved by incentives, by ideals, similar to our own. This is the case of the former Indians of the Mantaro Valley, in Jauja, Concepcion, and Huancayo provinces, which is the first case of mass transculturation that I have examined in the initial pages of the current study. (26; translation mine)

As with Ortiz before him, in Arguedas's research in the Mantaro Valley transculturation signifies social reconciliation between previously disconnected social sectors. But it signifies more than reconciliation. Through transculturation the subordinate classes are able to inscribe themselves within the socioeconomic and cultural horizons of the dominant social system. As such, transculturation promises to provide the grounds for economic and cultural integration between the highlands and the coast. Successful transculturation therefore promises not just capitalist modernization but becomes something like a bottom-up integration of the subaltern into the socioeconomic horizons of hegemony, as a result of which the social terrain of national capitalist development can be consolidated and expanded.

Of course, Arguedas's encounter with the chaotic, unmanageable, and therefore presumably unsuccessful transcultural processes of the port of Chimbote (as narrated in El zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo) would ultimately lead to his suicide in 1969. At the same time, however, his work highlighted the delicate balance between transculturation as the grounds of modern social organization and transculturation as the grounds of cultural anarchy or the economic subsumption of labor to capital. In this sense, transculturation always appears to produce the following choice: integration and development (that is, capitalist hegemony) or hegemony's potential interruption.

In his important treatment of the relation between transculturation and the work of Jose Maria Arguedas, Angel Rama opted once again to interpret transculturation as a particular relation to national hegemonic formations. Given Arguedas's integration-based approach to transculturation in Formacion it is hardly surprising that Angel Rama should classify the Peruvian novelist's life and work in almost mythically paradigmatic terms. After all, as the Uruguayan critic noted in Transculturacion narrativa en America Latina, in Arguedas "a white man considers himself to be Indian in order to undermine the culture of domination from within, thereby incorporating indigenous culture" into national society (205; translation mine).


Excerpted from The other side of the popular by Gareth Williams 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

1. The State of Things Passed: Transculturation as National-Popular Master Language
2. Intellectual Populism and the Geopolitical Structure of Knowledge
3. Formalities of Consumption and Citizenship in the Age of Cultural Hybridity
Intermezzo . . . Hear Say Yes
4. Hear Say Yes in Piglia: La cuidad ausente, Posthegemony, and the "Fin-negans" of Historicity Perhaps
5. The Dispersal of the Nation and the Neoliberal Habitus: Tracing Insurrection from Central America to South Central Los Angeles
6. Of Pishtacos and Eye-Snatchers: Neoliberalism and Neoindigenism in Contemporary Peru
7. Operational Whitewash and the Negative Community
Works Cited
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