Thursday, January 29, 2009


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.

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