agency

In class yesterday, Salvador and Sophie came up with a couple of very good points in our discussion of William Rowe and Vivian Schelling’s Memory and Modernity. Indeed, their criticisms apply to a greater or lesser extent to much discussion of Latin American popular culture, or even popular culture in general.

Salvador’s argument, if I have understood it right (and you both should feel free to correct me) was that Rowe and Schelling downplay the effect of sheer domination. The indigenous peoples of the Americas didn’t just one day decide that they would take on certain elements of Catholicism, for instance: they were forced to do so. If they didn’t then they would (in Salvador’s words) get “their asses kicked.”

Meanwhile Sophie’s point was that in stressing the positive, creative, and resistant characteristics of popular culture, Rowe and Schelling downplay the continued injustices and inequalities that still plague so much of Latin America. Moreover, the implication is that there is little or nothing that can or should be done about the situation of the poor or downtrodden; there is no reason for anyone else to bother about it, let alone intervene in some way.

Again, I think that these are important arguments. But let me argue Rowe and Schelling’s case for a moment…

First, I suggested that they were saying something like “Yes, but…” Yes, the indigenous peoples of Latin America (and by extension all other subaltern and subordinated groups) have historically been the victims of great violence and exploitation, but even so they have managed, against the odds, to continue to resist in often surprising and unexpected ways.

Rowe and Schelling do, after all, acknowledge from the start that “The Conquest had catastrophic consequences for the Andean and Mesoamerican civilizations.” And yet, they continue, “despite this, neither the colonial nor the republican regime has been able to expunge the memory of an Andean, Aztec and Mayan civilization” (49). Indeed, the very notion of resistance implies that there is something to resist. If we see the indigenous (again, or other subalterns) as simply victims, then in some ways we also are ignoring their agency, we also are downplaying their inventive and creative capacities. Precisely the interest of popular culture, for Rowe and Schelling, is that it is here that we can see the evidence of this resistance and creativity; here we can appreciate what those in power have always either ignored or feared, which is that despite it all the subaltern continues to make its presence felt.

Second, I think that Rowe and Schelling would respond in similar ways to Sophie’s argument. If we are only ever thinking about what “we” in the privileged and powerful First World should or can be doing for those in the Third World, then we too are denying those people’s agency. This is not an argument that nothing can or should be done. But in order best to understand the situation, and so the pitfalls as well as the virtues of any action, we also need to be aware of the kinds of struggles that such people are already engaging in, without or without “us.” I think that’s part of what Rowe and Schelling term “subaltern classes ma[king] themselves visible, demanding social recognition” (132). That’s not to say that everything’s AOK, not by a long shot, but to take account of existing expressions of agency and subjectivity. Again, the argument is that such expressions are perhaps best seen in popular culture, which is why Rowe and Schelling want to distinguish popular culture from what they call the “culture industry” or from official, state-sanctioned instances of culture.

Finally, I think that these issues are also relevant to discussion of this letter written by a UBC student on the university’s Terry blog. The letter writer clearly has her heart in the right place. (And incidentally, I don’t agree with the tone of the disparaging comments that she’s received.) But she, too, is worried that she is being self-indulgent. I would go further: we learn from an investigation of Latin American popular culture that the relationship between First World and Third World, or between North and South, is more complicated than a simple dichotomy of victimizer (however unthinking) and victim. There are more complex negotiations and exchanges at work. If we don’t recognize this, then we inevitably end up being patronizing.

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