Kate MossJust 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 MirandaCarmen 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.


The Third World is often depicted as a place of languor and lassitude, where not much ever happens, and where what does happen takes place with almost infinite torpitude, as if in some tropical slow motion. Latin America is particularly associated with this arrested temporality: here Third World torpor meets the Hispanic legacy of “mañana culture.”

This conception of Latin American life in the slow lane applies to all temporal and social scales: from a corner store’s relaxed approach to opening times to the delays of an over-bureaucratized state, from the individual slumbering under his sombrero to the patience of whole indigenous races, from the slow swing of a hammock to lands that the twentieth-century has passed by, all facets of the region’s culture and history are imagined to be bathed in this thick viscosity.

Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó celebrated a Latin habit of leisure that allowed for philosophy and contrasted with North American utilitarian industriousness. Perhaps most influentially, Gabriel García Márquez’s fictional Macondo is affectionately portrayed as a quaint tropical oasis inhabiting its own, parallel, unchanging temporality.

So Fernando Ortiz’s emphasis is perhaps brusque and surprising. His stress is on immense speed and tumultuous changes, a breathtaking rush of precipitate adaptation and re-invention:

The whole gamut of culture run by Europe in a span of more than four millenniums took place in Cuba in less than four centuries. In Europe the change was step by step; here it was by leaps and bounds. (Cuban Counterpoint 99)

He notes particularly the abruptness of the transition ushered in by Spanish colonization:

At one bound the bridge between the drowsing stone ages and the wide-awake Renaissance was spanned. In a single day various of the intervening ages were crossed in Cuba. [. . .] If the Indies of America were a New World for the Europeans, Europe was a far newer world for the people of America. They were two worlds that discovered each other and collided head-on. (99-100)

Far from a vision of Latin American culture as close to nature, bound to the slow rhythms of either the seasons or the sea gently lapping on the beach, Ortiz suggests a history of continual dislocation, deracination, uprooting, confrontation, confusion, and innovation that comprise a process he designates with the term “transculturation.”

In short, for Ortiz, Cuba, Spain’s richest colony and source of so much of Europe’s wealth, has long been a cauldron of activity stirred up to an accelerated pace. It was always revolutionary, always the site of struggle and creative disruption, long before the 1959 uprising that brought Castro to power.

But no doubt the same could be said for Latin America as a whole: rather than a region left out of the loop of world history, it was here that modernity itself was born and continues to thrive.

Mackandal's miracleAnd no wonder that Alejo Carpentier, another Cuban though writing in a somewhat different context, could say that “the presence and vitality of this marvelous real” was “the heritage of all America” (“On the Marvelous Real in America” 87).

In Carpentier’s founding manifesto for what would later be packaged (and slowed down) as “magical realism,” what is most striking is again the sense of dynamism and potential that he identifies with what he terms an “unexpected richness of reality or an amplification of the scale and categories of reality, perceived with particular intensity by virtue of an exaltation of the spirit that leads it to a kind of extreme state” (86).

But rather than merely an “extreme state,” Carpentier’s original Spanish refers here to an estado límite or “limit state.” So why not envisage Latin America not as perpetual laggard but as a region always at the limit, at the cutting edge (too often, literally the bleeding edge) of modernization and history?