Just as Latin America has long supplied raw material to feed the global economy, so the region has also been exploited for its affective potential. Gold, silver, copper, guano, rubber, chocolate, sugar, tobacco, coffee, coca: these have all sustained peripheral monocultures whose product has been refined and consumed in the metropolis.
And parallel to and intertwined with this consumer goods economy is a no less material affective economy, also often structured by a distinction between the raw and the refined. After all, several of these commodities are mood enhancers, and are confected into forms (rum, cigarettes, cocaine) that further distill their mood-enhancing potential. Others have inspired their own deliria: gold fever, rubber booms.
But there has always been a more direct appropriation and accumulation of affective energy, from the circulation of fearful travelers’ tales of cannibals and savages, to the dissemination of “magic realism” or salsa, or the packaging of sexuality for Hollywood or package tourism. Latin America marks the Western imagination with a particular intensity.
And the figures who come to stand in for the region are therefore distinguished by their affective intensity.
Carmen Miranda, for instance, who not only bore the signs of economic exchange (her headdresses loaded with bananas and other fruit provided by tropical bounty), but also served as a fetishized conduit for the exuberance and sexiness that Hollywood captured and distilled as “Latin spirit.”
At the same time, and despite the elaborate orchestration that typified a Carmen Miranda number, some disturbing excess remained, not least in the ways in which Miranda’s patter upset linguistic convention.
She blurred English and Portuguese and dissolved both, (re)converting language into sounds that were no longer meaningful, only affectively resonant. In Ana López’s words, “Miranda’s excessive manipulation of accents [. . .] inflates the fetish, cracking its surface while simultaneously aggrandizing it” (“Are All Latins from Manhattan?” 77).
So there has long been a complex relation between Latin affect and Western reason: both reinforcement and subversion. Fernando Ortiz suggests that at stake is a colonial pact with the devil. Of the appearance of tobacco and chocolate from the Americas, as well as Arabian coffee and tea from the Far East, “these four exotic products [. . .] all of them stimulants of the senses as well as of the spirit,” he writes that “it is as though they had been sent to Europe from the four corners of the earth by the devil to revive Europe ‘when the time came,’ when that continent was ready to save the spirituality of reason from burning itself out and give the senses their due once more” (Cuban Counterpoint 206).
An economy of the senses saves reason, gives it a shot in the arm, but also demonstrates reason’s addicted dependence upon sensual as well as spiritual stimulation.