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.

neo

William Rowe and Vivian Schelling’s Memory and Modernity is a hugely ambitious undertaking. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anyone else who has tried to replicate it: they aim to provide a guide to Latin American popular culture that covers both the gamut of theoretical positions (from within Latin American Studies and outside) as well as detailing, often in quite some detail and historical or sociological depth, an extraordinary range of popular cultural practices. Just in chapter two, “The Faces of Popular Culture,” they move almost seamlessly from Peru to Mexico to Brazil to Argentina, and from Andean oral narratives of Inkarrí to Mexican artesanía to Candomblé to telenovelas to football. It’s astonishingly erudite and impressive, while also remarkably readable; their accounts of critics from Adorno to Taussig to Martín Barbero to Arguedas are deft and decisive. They give a real sense of the texture and complexity both of Latin American popular culture and of the debates that it has provoked.

This book should have the status of a classic of Latin American cultural studies, and it’s a crying shame that Verso seem to have allowed it, along with the other surveys in its Latin American series such as Gerry Martin’s Journeys through the Labyrinth, to go out of print.

Of course, Rowe and Schelling’s approach also has its pitfalls. Especially when it comes to their accounts of critics and theorists, there can be no space for detailed textual analysis, and so their brief judgments are also potential hostages to fortune. Is it really true, for instance, that Michael Taussig’s project can be reduced to “finding in pre-capitalist cultures a source of resistance to capitalism” (73)? Likewise, their analyses of specific cultural histories, though they often extend over several pages, are also dependent on ex cathedra pronouncements rather than sustained argumentation. Their tone tends towards encyclopedic synthesis that threatens to overwhelm their own critical and conceptual narrative.

This narrative is driven by a conception of the popular as counter-culture: “The term popular culture, according to common usage in Latin America, evokes the possibilities of alternaties to currently dominant cultural practices. [. . .] To be of use, the term ‘popular’ must be distinguished from the products of the culture industry and the mass media” (97). And yet in practice they are forced to recognize that difficulties of trying to cordon of the popular as a space for political resistance and creativity. At the same time as they argue for a definition of the popular “in terms of the possibility of a counter-hegemony,” they also have to recognize the intimate coexistence of popular practices with the mass media: “popular cannot mean purity nor the culture industry its loss” (113). Yet it seems to be precisely in the name of at least a vestigial version of such purity that at times they put the popular in scare quotes, so as to indicate practices that are popular but not really they way they would have them be so. For instance, in their discussion of the samba, which “becomes a ‘popular’ and profitable form of entertainment transmitted together with commercial advertisements by radio” and which “was transformed into a ‘popular’ massified genre and an exportable symbol of national identity” (135).

So Rowe and Schelling want both to champion and to distance themselves from the popular, to separate out their own neo-populism from historical and state-supported populisms of Vargas, Perón, or the PRI. In short, they want to differentiate their counter-hegemony from hegemony per se. But it is precisely this gesture that they share with historical populism, which always wants to portray itself as embattled and oppositional, even from a position of state power.