Written by C.L.R. James. Edited and introduced by Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart. Afterward by Keith Hart. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993.
RETHINKING C.L.R. JAMES
Edited and introduced by Grant Farred. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996.
Since his death in 1989 there has been a steady stream of C.L.R. James' writing being republished or collected. In a few cases material is appearing for the first time. It will probably still be a while before the full body of work is sorted out. James was prolific, to say the least, and his interests ranged widely.
American Civilization is one of the works that have never been previously published. It was written in 1950, after James had lived in the United States for more than a decade. He circulated a few copies among his friends but more pressing events would intervene before he could weigh their comments and make any revisions. By mid-century James found himself beginning a protracted battle to avoid deportation. His case would drag on for another three years and culminate in an incarceration on Ellis Island before he was finally barred from the US.
In the gathering complexity of his legal worries James set the manuscript aside. He did not return to it until the very last years of his life. The posthumous publication of the book demonstrates how seminal his thinking about popular culture has proved to be.
James was born in Trinidad in 1901. In his early thirties he moved to England to study. After six years in Britain he arrived in the United States in 1938. When he set out to write American Civilization, James intended to bring together the full scope of his thoughts on the black diaspora, Marxism and European imperialism in a comprehensive analysis.
He had already published works on Caribbean slave revolts, dialectical reasoning and world capitalism. Having spent more than a decade immersing himself in American literature and history, he planned a work modeled after de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. His book would be aimed at the general reader, short enough to read in a couple of sittings and comprise a preliminary view of a more ambitious study he hoped to write in the future.
Approximately one-fifth of the final version is devoted to an analysis of the popular arts in the United States. This look at movies, detective novels, popular magazines, comic strips, radio soap operas and jazz is a fascinating read. Here is an unusual record of a Caribbean intellectual examining American media and culture. Given his Marxist bent, James was well-equipped to grasp the arrival of a mass audience. He was fortunate in another respect: having seen the mass media utilized for the propaganda purposes of a nation at war, he could begin to envision the revolutionary functions of a peace-time media.
Convinced of a unique American experience evolving independently of the weight of European traditions, James optimistically predicted genuinely enlightened uses of the media. In his estimation popular culture was an extension of the possible; not so much a counterweight to reality as a power of the imagination, employed by the masses, to explore and create the world. His enthusiastic embrace of the American popular arts gave surprisingly little concession to the normative potential of the mass media.
A growing appreciation of James' importance to the field of cultural studies is partly responsible for a spate of interpretive works about this author. Rethinking C.L.R. James is one of the most recent of these critical reassessments. It's also one of the most representative. This volume has gathered together essays touching on multiple strands of James' interests--most of which are present in American Civilization.
The essays illuminate the breadth of James' intellectual pursuits, suggest their interrelationships and, in some instances, cautiously consider their indivisibility. Within the academic disciplines most interested in popular culture there is considerable debate about the nature of James' analytical tactics. Clearly the publication of American Civilization has prompted much of this discussion.
Neil Larsen's contribution focuses upon James' use of a dialectical methodology to "read" culture through a Marxist political lens. He wonders aloud whether culture might not rise through its own "maze of negativities," rather than as an adjunct to ideological practices. In a particularly lucid overview Andrew Ross acknowledges James' willingness to privilege an investigation of popular culture instead of employing the classic economic approach of Marxism to understand society. But he is stunned to find in James' study virtually no admission of US imperialism, nor any mention of the internal colonization of Mexican-American or indigenous peoples. Santiago Colas is less critical than either Ross or Larsen. He seizes on James' reservations about the Cuban revolution as a guiding strategy for future change in Latin America. This blueprint for social justice and political freedom would give a greater role to popular culture and rely less upon a vanguard of elite intellectuals as the means to build mass movements.
At the beginning of this anthology there is an excerpt from a long interview with James conducted by Stuart Hall. The collection concludes with a delightful personal rumination written by Jim Murray. These intimate glimpses round out a representative sample of the continuing influence of this independent social philosopher.
(Reviewed by Eric Metcalf, 11/10/97)
AMERICA/AMERICAS: MYTH IN THE MAKING OF U.S. POLICY TOWARDS LATIN AMERICA
Written by Eldon Kenworthy. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
Readers of Eldon Kenworthy's study of US foreign policy toward Latin America under the Reagan administration will find it slow going, but the rewards are worth the trudge through contemporary political theory and the criminal conspiracies of the Iran-Contra scandal.
Kenworthy argues that undergirding US relations with Latin America lies a myth which he labels "America/Americas." In this mythic narrative, traceable at least to the early nineteenth century, there are four cardinal tenets:
1)The Western hemisphere is a blank slate,
2)where freedom and progress have been joined to material wealth in a demonstration of God's will.
3)In the advance of civilization the United States has a special role at the vanguard of the new world.
4)The manifest achievements of the hemisphere will provoke the envy of the old world, thus underscoring the need for its defense.
Kenworthy's intent is to show how various elements of this myth have guided US politicians.
One of several potent insights derived from his analysis hones in on the persistent reference to the territories south of the US borders as a "backyard." The term shows up with regularity as a landmark on the cognitive map of US policy makers. Like all dead metaphors or cliches, this notion of Central or Latin America packs a terrific wallop largely because it is nearly invisible and assimilated without conscious thought. As a consequence none of the implications of the term are likely to come under discussion. But the connotations are profound.
Think, for example, of the difference between the front yard and the backyard. And front or back, isn't the understanding clear that this is private property? Or that a "yard" is a vacant, undeveloped ground to be used by the homeowner for recreation or storage? Are fenced boundaries far off? In short order a universe has taken shape and Kenworthy is quick to point out that this terminological world of the "backyard" has approximately the same function as calling a black man "boy." A graphic illustration of this point is presented in a series of political cartoons which have appeared in US newspapers. The cartoonists depict Latin Americans as children.
What distinguishes this book is the author's look at how these elements of the myth were harnessed to advertising techniques and used to sell the Reagan administration goals in Central America. Focusing on the 1986 campaign to win Congressional funding for the Nicaraguan Contras, Kenworthy's case study patiently uncovers the broad array of public relations activities that promoted the administration agenda. The illegality of much of this project has been the subject of other accounts, but Kenworthy's main contribution is in revealing the full extent of the campaign to target the votes of individual congressional members by mounting television advertising in their districts, organizing public speaking tours for the Contra leaders, influencing US media coverage at local and national levels and framing the content of Reagan's speeches.
This is the most detailed description of the coordinated efforts of the media consultants, polling firms, ad agencies and public relations experts directed by Oliver North and Carl Channell that has yet to appear. Kenworthy has combed through an impressive array of primary materials with which he has effectively bolstered his account. Among the most arresting documents he consulted are the original plans for this campaign, reproduced herein as an eye-opening overview of the scheme to lobby Congress.
A plan of this breadth required a great deal of money to accomplish and Kenworthy outlines how demanding the fund-raising efforts became. Readers dismayed by the current fund-raising scandals in Washington may be surprised to find earlier examples of rampant salesmanship in the Oval Office. North's solicitations offered face-to-face meetings with President Reagan in exchange for a hefty $300,000 donation to the cause. These monies were then shuffled back and forth through a shadowy world of non-profit organizations not unlike that created by former Republican National Committee Chairman, Haley Barbour, in the last presidential election.
The least convincing aspect of Kenworthy's study is a strained attempt to credit the techniques of commercial advertising with the decisive role in the success of the campaign to win Congressional support for the Contras. In his estimation, these techniques permeated Reagan's speeches as well as the full range of activities marshaled to continue the war against the Sandinistas. Advertisers, however, did not invent persuasive discourse nor the "America/Americas" myth used to justify US intervention in Latin America. This campaign drew as much inspiration (and know-how) from political communication as it did from advertising.
(Reviewed by Eric Metcalf, 10/20/97)
JOURNALISTS UNDER FIRE: MEDIA UNDER SIEGE
Latin American Media Forum, September 12-13, 1996, Buenos Aires, Argentina
THE WRITING OF ELENA PONIATOWSKA
By Beth E. Jörgensen. University of Texas Press: Austin, TX. 1994. ISBN 0-292-74033-6.
BROKEN BARS: NEW PERSPECTIVES FROM MEXICAN WOMEN WRITERS
By Kay Garcia. University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque. 1994. ISBN: 0-8263-1512-7.
Okay, we will state right now that we will not be rolling out the usual platitudes and exegeses for this distinguished writer. If you like, you can read these two books or any number of other books; or better yet, you can read her works (such as Paseo de la Reforma). What we would like to do here is to list two or three things that we love about her.
Elena Poniatowska began her career as a journalist in Mexico City, first with the newspaper Excélsior, then with another newspaper, Novedades. During those years, she spoke with many different people and produced interview-articles that carry a unique personal signature and self-deprecating sense of humor. How so? Here is how she described her interview with the famed artist Diego Rivera:
I remember that the first questions that I asked stemmed from my complete innocence and ignorance. I asked Diego Rivera, "Why are you so fat? Why do you have such little teeth?" And then out of a naïve question came an entire interview and a whole new journalistic style in Mexico. Because in Mexico everyone was very solemn and formal. So for someone to come along and say, "Oh, how fat you are!" was in a certain sense an impertinence but also a new way of doing business.
An interview between a journalist and a famous authoritative subject is an asymmetrical relationship as the latter holds the power. This is particularly the case when the journalist is a young female without an established professional reputation. Consider the case of her interview with François Mauriac, the French author who won the Nobel Prize.
FM: Have you read any of my works?
EP: No, Mister Mauriac. ...
FM: It is useless for me to speak to you, Miss. You do not understand my thoughts. There can be no possible conversation.
Yet out of this refusal came an interview-article, which is just as interesting in terms of the revelations about the power structure and relationships. If we regard an interview strictly as a question-and-answer session, then this one was perhaps not much of an interview. But if we regard the assignment as one of providing interesting reading material, then this article is every bit as interesting.
And here is what Elena Poniatowska has to tell Latin American women writers:
A Latin American woman writer is in an extremely privileged situation, because in Europe everything has already been said: in France, in Holland, in England everything has been said, everything is written, that's why they write about emotional states, about decisions of the soul. In contrast, Latin America has the enormous privilege of being able to choose; anything that you pick up, there are several hundreds of topics swarming underneath.
Yes! And that is precisely why we find Latin American media to be such a dynamic, exciting and fascinating subject right now! Everywhere we look, there is always something interesting --- cable television guides, outdoor billboards, newspaper classified ads, magazine subscription forms, beauty pageants, wrestling, news announcers, etc --- from which we can tell such wondrous stories!
(posted on 10/9/97)
The last paragraph requires some elaboration. Some people have wondered what is so interesting about these items. Well, if you live in a country all your life and you are used to seeing these things, you take them for granted. When you are now involved in multi-country comparisons, then you will begin to observe some meaningful differences. Let us take the television guides as an example. If you go through the newspapers from Mexico City, you have to notice that Televisa, TV Azteca, Multivisión and Cablevisión must be among the largest advertisers since they are present with full page or 3/4-page ads in every newspaper every day. But if you pick up a newspaper from the Dominican Republic, you will not find any television program listing --- in fact, you cannot even tell which television stations are present! This points to how people can have different usages and preferences for sources about television programs across countries.
(added on 10/13/97)
NEWS OF A KIDNAPPING
Written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Translated by Edith Grossman. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Conveying the scale of violence in contemporary Colombia is no easy matter for journalists. A witches' brew of conflict, joined by leftist guerrillas, the drug cartel, vigilante groups, the military and the police, has engulfed ordinary citizens and sent the annual murder rate soaring. But how can the bald fact that the rate is now believed to have reached 90 murders for every 100,000 Colombians adequately describe what is happening? Because this figure reads like such a cold, statistical abstraction reporters tend to set it in a context that will be familiar to their readers by indicating, for example, the Colombian rate is about 9 times that of the United States. Or, with the display of a table, the rate is rank ordered. In this way it is certain that no other nation in the hemisphere can compete with the Colombian violence. In runner-up Brazil 20 of its citizens are murdered out of every 100,000.
More complicated comparisons attempt to set the terror of Colombia against other known horrors. In 1996 it was estimated that 1,500 prostitutes, street urchins, and thieves were murdered by right-wing death squads in Colombian cities. This systematic extermination has been labeled as "social cleansing." The muffled allusions to the former Yugoslavia have been made explicit in US news reports that describe Colombia as "the Bosnia of the hemisphere." This analogy in the Washington Post made waves in the Colombian press.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez has sought out even more ominously transcendent terms to define the current circumstances in his country. In the brief preface to his most recent work, News of a Kidnapping, he writes that this story is "only one episode in the biblical holocaust that has been consuming Colombia for more than twenty years."
Garcia Marquez has chosen to write about a slice of the violence that took place between 1990-1991, shortly after then President Cesar Gaviria had taken office. In a series of kidnappings ten individuals were taken hostage by a group whose subsequent demands were signed by "The Extraditables." At the urging of one of these hostages, Maruja Pachon, a friend of the author, Garcia Marquez has written this account.
The first third of this straightforward piece of journalism is a detailed recreation of the various abductions, the removal of the hostages to safe houses in and around Medellin and Bogata, and the deadening regimen of their confinements. Separated into groups of two or three, they gradually realized, as did the nation, that the kidnappings had been coordinated for a purpose. With access to media coverage, it became clear that the principal targets were all journalists with intimate ties to political power.
By precipitously plunging the reader into the narrative of events Garcia Marquez has duplicated the disorientation that the captives themselves experienced. One moment they were engaged in their own lives, in the next they were swept up in a struggle in which they were powerless. The first killing of a hostage alters the tenor of the remainder of the book. At that point Garcia Marquez begins to sketch the context in which the kidnappings have taken place. Anxious to reverse the government's extradition agreements with the United States, cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar hoped to force his hand. Much of the text that follows is taken up with the complex negotiations spearheaded by Pachon's husband, Alberto Villamizar. By and large "The Extraditables" got what Escobar wanted. In exchange for the hostages he set the terms of his surrender, including a guarantee of a reduced sentence to be served in a Colombian prison built expressly for him.
While explicating the frustrations of the intermediaries of the peace treaty Garcia Marquez does not lose sight of the victims. Most of the hostages were permitted to track their story in the media. Their experience was often surreal. Many of them knew the journalists who were reporting on their fate. The faces of their spouses appeared on television news broadcasts. They heard the familiar voices of their children on the radio. They regularly watched a television program devoted to their release that was inaugurated by anguished friends and relatives. Isolated and terrorized, the hostages conjured secret meanings from these broadcasts, believing they were being sent coded messages. In some instances they were. This phantasmal reality born of desperation was the inevitable consequence of constant threats, anxiety and the claustrophobic conditions in which they were held. A state not unlike that hovering over all of Colombia.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has confirmed the murders of at least 42 Colombian journalists in the past decade. Garcia Marquez began his career as a journalist for El Espectador in Bogata. For the present his commitment to journalism and Colombia has apparently taken precedence over fiction. In 1996 a foundation headed by Garcia Marquez offered workshops to young Colombian journalists. When News of a Kidnapping was published in an English translation this past summer the author sent a copy to US President Clinton. Colombian media outlets have reported that Garcia Marquez has met twice with Clinton in September. Early in 1998 the US will consider decertifying Colombian anti-drug efforts for the third year in a row. A third strike against Colombia will trigger economic sanctions. How this book and those conversations may affect the decision is still an open question.
(reviewed by Eric Metcalf, 9/24/97)
A MAN WITHOUT WORDS
Susan Schaller, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
In July of 1997, when New York City authorities discovered dozens of deaf Mexicans living under conditions likened to enslavement, media in Mexico and the United States reacted with sensational coverage. Apparently forced to sell trinkets on the street, the Mexicans were crammed together in tiny apartments and threatened with beatings if they did not meet a daily quota of sales. Subsequent reports revealed several similar operations in other U.S. cities. But an even greater shock may have come when some of the victims expressed a desire to remain rather than return to Mexico.
Susan Schaller's A Man Without Words is an extremely rare glimpse into the world of deaf Latin American immigrants. It is also a potent reminder that spoken language is a complex communication technology decisive in charting human potential.
Schaller became interested in sign languages during the late 1970's. For a short period of time she worked in a California training program teaching job skills to deaf adults. Many, if not most, of the trainees were illegal aliens from Mexico or Central America.
The protagonist of Schaller's book is her student, Ildefonso. Almost immediately she came to the stunning realization Ildefonso was, for the lack of a better term, "languageless." This is to say that, like Helen Keller, he apparently did not possess the idea of language. For all practical purposes everything we take for granted as meaningful, as systematic, as reasoned, was incomprehensible to him. He could see people addressing each other but did not grasp that they were communicating by use of language or symbols. His "gestures" were equally baffling to Schaller. First attempts to teach him produced little more than mimicked or mimed responses that seemed to convey no understanding of a symbolic code underlying human interaction.
By describing in detail the means through which Ildefonso came to language--initially sign language--Schaller unmasks the central focus of this compelling book: the phenomenon of symbolic communication. The bulk of the narrative is a meticulous recitation of the techniques she used to explicate such complicated abstract concepts as "time" or "history." With each laborious step in the construction of a named universe she has an opportunity to reflect on some of the most fundamental philosophical concerns in this century. Her struggles demonstrate how much of our sense of reality is dependent upon language. But which one? Written language? Spoken language? English? Spanish? American sign language? Mexican sign language? (Yes, there is a distinctly different Mexican sign language, separate from the one taught in the United States or an "artificial" international sign language.) Schaller's challenge went deeper than the perspectives that spring out of any of these individual systems. Ildefonso inhabited the absence of language.
Everything Schaller had previously read contended that teaching language to alingual adults was impossible. The few precedents were limited to late adolescents like Keller. Nor was the epic story of Ishi, the California Indian whose whole community had been killed, a useful parallel. Although he lived for three years without anyone to communicate with, Ishi had once possessed a language. Ildefonso had not.
One of the most fascinating portions of Schaller's book comes in Ildefonso's climactic breakthrough. Helen Keller's famous experience, described in her autobiography, The Story of My Life (1905), left her overwhelmed with guilt. She was ashamed that she had angrily broken a doll earlier the same day Anne Sullivan had plunged her hand into the water streaming from a pump. Keller's realization that she shared her life with other human beings opened a moral universe. Ildefonso was in his late twenties when that leap toward self-consciousness occurred. What was his response? We learn he wept in the face of the enormity of his loss.
This dramatic scene is only one of many genuinely moving moments in the book. But it is the key to grasping a series of observations about the bodily effects of language and, for that matter, languagelessness. We are quite comfortable talking about the "drama" of language, as if words or signs were a script to be acted, a story to be performed. However, this notion of "drama" is more than mere metaphor. A real drama arises in the "figure" of speech, its bodily shape, its mark of transition from sheer physical presence to the realm of consciousness or spirit. In the space of months Ildefonso was transformed from a shy, frightened, desperate man at the margins of the classroom, to one whose facial features were alert and confident. His movements--even his posture--were dramatically altered.
The New York Times has reported that 80% of the deaf who are born in Mexico migrate to the United States. The abject conditions under which they suffer in their own country makes the U.S. an irresistible lure. "America" may be a land of opportunity for Latin American immigrants but for the deaf the United States is the only opportunity. Ildefonso's journey over the border left him with some indelible associations. When Schaller exposed him to the linguistic category of qualities contained in adjectives he erupted in fear at the word "green." Later she would discover this is the color of the uniforms worn by immigration officials.
Bewildered by questions about how Ildefonso accumulated meanings prior to language, Schaller sought out her former student seven years after they first met. By then his signing skills were far advanced. Through Ildefonso she is introduced to a "tribe" of languageless deaf who had previously lived in the villages of Oaxaca. She witnesses their language of "gestures," many of which are made up on the spur of the moment. The scene is as strange as anything in fiction. In this encounter there are echoes of Columbus' arrival in the New World, embodied here in the mysterious contours of the act of storytelling.
Originally published in 1991, A Man Without Words has been reissued in paperback.
(reviewed by Eric Metcalf, 9/8/97)
THE LETTERED CITY
Written by Angel Rama. Translated and edited by John Charles Chasteen. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.
The "lettered city" of Angel Rama's breathtaking study appears as a chess board pattern of urban design imposed throughout colonial Latin America. From Mexico to Argentina, a network of artificial urban centers created by the Spanish monarchy made possible the subjugation of native people and the rapid development of the New World. More importantly, these strategic coordinates of royal power imprinted a hierarchical order of rationality upon the blank page of the nascent empire. In the rigid geometric plans for their cities were expressed the ideological goals of imperial organization. A visible representation of an ordered relationship between the empire and the central power, this web of urban signs reinforced and replicated the aims of Spanish conquest, primarily through the written word.
Inextricably woven into the urban system was a culture of writing that would administer the city and extend its influence over the rural areas beyond its walls. The interpretation and implementation of a steady flow of imperial and ecclessiastic directives required a vast lettered elite Rama described as the "letrados." This class of educated men documented legal decisions, drafted governmental edicts, maintained church records and authored the literature of Latin America for three hundred years. The letrados were tightly condensed within the confines of the city. A diverse bureaucratic corps, they mingled exclusively among their peers and served their urban institutions in an increasingly successful effort to duplicate the hierarchical divisions of power in the uncivilized territories. Irrespective of their particular offices, these minor functionaries were linked by a common skill: literacy.
From their ranks would arise the intellectuals, the poets and the writers of Latin America, as well as a characteristic Baroque style drawn from their Spanish superiors. Trained and practiced in the art of writing, the letrados employed a formal speech divorced from the rural vulgarities of the subservient illiterate.
Rama's compact survey of the lettered city and the men who administered it locates the historical origins of the letrados in the demands of the Iberian monarchy. He traces their uneasy alliance with the leaders of the independence movements and follows them into the modernist period at the opening of the twentieth century. With each successive evolution of political and economic power the letrados were uniquely situated to maintain a hold on their social status. Through their activities they had codified the modes and styles of speech--the vocabularies and grammars--that would define power. However, it was only in the explosive rise of newspapers at the close of the nineteenth century that the letrados gained a precarious measure of economic independence from the state.
Inevitably the force of Rama's thesis erodes when confronting the complex period of modern industrialism. The transformation of the lettered city, the migration of the letrados into the specialized niches of education, jurisprudence or the media is sketched, but his analysis halts before the arrival of modern mass communication technologies in Latin America.
Whether this privileged cadre will shape the contours of a democratic future remains to be seen. The ominous internal consolidation of Latin American television ownership suggests not. Nor does the headlong entry into the region of European and North American communication interests. However, the tenacious traditions of the Latin American print media and an increasing level of literacy that has created the audience for a burgeoning number of newspapers, magazines and books, may represent a countervailing, local influence. Nor should the widespread flight of the letrados during the recent decades of authoritarian terror be overlooked in the search for the democratizing elements of the future. As Rama had noted elsewhere, the experience of prolonged exile had the paradoxical effect of strengthening their communication skills (especially their handling of the electronic media) and broadened what had often been isolated national communities.
The Lettered City can be favorably compared to the landmark work Empire and Communications by the Canadian Harold Innis. In both books an awesome intellectual breadth was brought to bear on the early histories of the hemisphere and uncovered the central role of communication systems in the groundwork of empire. Where Rama's study necessarily differs is in his emphasis upon the the part played by the professional communicators.
Rama's remarkable book is a sad testament to the magnitude of the loss when his life ended so abruptly in 1983. The Lettered City was published posthumously. It is now available in English translation for the first time.
(reviewed by Eric Metcalf, 9/3/97)
A CULTURE OF COLLUSION: AN INSIDE LOOK AT THE MEXICAN PRESS
Edited by William A. Orme. North-South Center Press, University of Miami, Florida. ISBN 1-57454-012-2.
This book is the outgrowth of a research project on the news media in Mexico by the non-profit New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Here are the titles of the essays collected in this volume:
As you can tell from these titles, this is an extensive catalogue of the various ways in which the news media are co-opted and coerced to serve economic and political interests. Overall, we found this book to be very informative, especially those chapters that are written by insiders with detailed first-hand knowledge. Nevertheless, we are bothered by a couple of things to be described below. We emphasize that our reaction is not endemic to this book, but reflects our experience with the general situation.
First of all, it seems much easier for us to find out about what is wrong about Latin American media than to find out about what is right. An asymmetry exists in the existing information. Certainly, we do not believe that everything is wrong and nothing is right about Latin American media. If that were the case, we would not have seen the political and economic advances that have been occurring in the last few years.
This state of affairs may have come about because it is easier to find support from book publishers and research foundations for studies of a more critical (and perhaps sensationalist) nature. In the case of this book, it grew out of a two-year research project funded by the MacArthur Foundation. We are not saying that there is anything inherently wrong with a critical stance. Quite the opposite! To quote Gramsci, "The old is dying, and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms." But somewhere along the way, the negative dialectic must engender the positive. What we would really like to see more of are the adventures of the positive dialectic in Latin American media. The successes and failures of recent attempts to break the corrupted practices of the past are extremely important as historical and pedagogical materials.
Secondly, we know that a pitfall in studying foreign countries is the injection of the cultural biases of the researchers. Here is a statement from this book: "While prime time in the United States is from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., Televisa calls prime time 6 p.m. to midnight and charges advertisers the higher rates for all six hours." The tone of this sentence implies that the U.S. standard is logical and immutable, whereas the Mexican practice (which happens to be adopted not just by Televisa but by the rest of the advertising/media community) is deviant and devious. In truth, the designation of the prime time period in the United States is very much the result of a odd combination of economic and political interests.
In the United States, prime time begins at 8pm by governmental decree. In 1970, the Federal Communications Commission imposed a 'prime access' period, during which local network affiliate stations cannot show network programming but are supposed to provide locally produced programs for their communities. But the perverse logic of economics did not lead to many public-spirited, community-minded programs; instead, the time period is filled with games shows (Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy, etc.) and magazine shows (Entertainment Tonight, Hard Copy, etc) because they gather higher ratings and more advertising revenue. If anything, this stands as a monument to the failure of an ill-conceived interventionist public policy.
In the United States, prime time ends at 11pm to make way for local news programs. As much as the networks would like to have their programs play on, the local stations would never stand for it as the local news programs (both the early news between 5pm and 7pm and the late news between 11pm and 1130pm) are their highest sources of revenue since they get to keep every dollar without sharing it with the networks. This situation arose as the consequence of the regulated relationship between the networks and their local affiliate stations. This arrangement is peculiar to the United States, and the conditions may be very different elsewhere.
The designation of the prime time period in each country should also reflect the behavioral patterns of the people. By definition, prime time is the period during which television viewing is at a peak. The U.S. prime time reflects the television viewing custom on the east coast, specifically New York (in the Eastern Time Zone) and everywhere else follows. So if you live in Chicago (in the Central Time Zone), your prime time is between 7pm and 10pm, as if they expect you to be in bed by 1030pm! This is just a hegemonic imposition done out of convenience and callousness. There is no reason to require that Mexicans ought to have the same time patterns of activities (sleep, work, eating, leisure, etc) as New Yorkers. Indeed, the data provided by the television ratings services would suggest that Latin American prime time is longer as well as later.
(posted on 9/1/97)
GRINGA LATINA: A WOMAN OF TWO WORLDS Gabriella de Ferrari. Houghton-Mifflin, ISBN: 0-395-70934-2.
Review of a tale of growing up and self-definition in Tacna, Peru.
ASSAULT ON PARADISE: SOCIAL CHANGE IN A BRAZILIAN VILLAGE
Conrad Phillip Kottak. McGraw-Hill Inc, 1992, New York, NY. ISBN 0-07-035766-8.
This is a book written by an anthropologist who had been conducting field studies over a thirty year period in the coastal town of Arembepe in Bahia state, Brazil. Chapter 12 of this book deals with how television linked this previously isolated town with the nation and the rest of the world.
In the developed countries, television was introduced in an already media-saturated environment. The new medium was therefore often studied in terms of its impact upon existing media such as newspapers, magazines and radio. Much of the criticism of television was directed towards how it discouraged reading, caused illiteracy and led to an alienated, isolated citizenry.
In the case of Arembepe, the print media did not have significant penetration then or now, so that television became the primary, if not exclusive, medium for national and international information. The exposure to this wealth of information did not isolate citizens, but actually led to better social knowledge and understanding.
Most of this book deals with other anthropological and cultural aspects of life. More details about television is reported in the author's other book titled Prime-Time Society: An Anthropological Analysis of Television and Culture.
(posted on July 14th, 1997)
NICARAGUA WITHOUT ILLUSIONS: REGIME TRANSITION AND STRUCTURAL ADJUSTEMENTS IN THE 1900s
Thomas W. Walker (ed). Scholarly Resources Inc., 1997,
This book is a comprehensive account of Nicaragua in the 1990s, covering political, military, economic, social, religious and cultural aspects. Chapter 17, "The Mass Media", is contributed by Kent W. Norsworthy and is the best source on Nicaraguan media that we have come across.
The recent development of media in Nicaragua is obviously affected by the three different governmental regimes over a relatively brief period of time: the leftist Sandinista government (1979-1990), the centrist-rightist Chamorro government (1990-1996) and the rightist Alemán government (1996-).
Above all, the newspaper industry was the most affected by the political and economic currents. The best known Nicaraguan newspaper is La Prensa, which had traditionally assumed the role of the voice of the opposition. The assassination of La Prensa editor Pedro Joaquín Chamorro effectively caused the Somoza government to lose the support of the upper and middle classes, and contributed eventually to the ouster of Somoza. During the Sandinista regime, La Prensa again assumed the role of the opposition. However, when its owner and publisher Violeta Barrios de Chamorro was elected as the President of Nicaragua in 1990, the oppositional role was no longer viable, and it was left with the awkward choice between a pro-government stance and its traditional critical role. Another major newspaper is Barriada, which began as an official Sandinista organ, metamorphosed into a serious, independent publication and ultimately reverted to being an official Sandinsta organ. With these turbulent changes, the entire newspaper industry was embroiled in crises after crises, losing audience and advertising revenues to other media..
In contrast, the television industry blossomed in the 1990's. From the two state-controlled television stations in 1990, six more television station licenses were issued. Clearly, these new stations require programming which cannot be completely met by local production. Consequently, the airwaves are filled with imports. Above all, there are the telenovelas imported from Argentina, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela, some of which can be purchased for just a few hundred dollars per episode. Also popular are cartoons and movies. Some stations also carry pan-regional ad-supported signals such as CBS Telenoticias and MTV. The few local programs are usually news, talk, magazine and religious programs.
Radio also underwent rapid development during this period. From the four FM stations in 1990, sixty more FM licenses were issued,of which forty-six are in Managua. With so many choices available, many different types of radio programs and viewpoints are now available. Unlike television, radio is strongly local in nature since a station can be operated with minimal staff and funds. Whilst import music still predominates, there are many locally produced news, talk, call-in and traditional music programs available at any time.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about media in Nicaragua is the rapidity in which developments have taken place, as a direct consequence of the politico-economic changes in the country.
(posted on June 23rd, 1997)
POWER AND TELEVISION IN LATIN AMERICA: THE DOMINICAN CASE
Antonio V. Menéndez Alarcón, 1992, Praeger Press, Westport CT, ISBN 0-275-94275-9.
In this book, a socio-cultural researcher examined the television industry from a structural-phenomenological perspective within the concrete historical reality of the Dominican Republic.
Why the television industry? The author described a field trip to an obviously destitute shanty while researching schooling in the Dominican Republic. Upon entering, the first thing he saw was a sixteen-inch color television set on a pedestal. This household was by no means unusual, as the author met many other people in similar situations --- no matter how poor they were, television was like a vital necessity. This experience motivated the author to study the role of television.
While the research in this book is based specifically on the Dominican Republic, the key themes are very much universal. We provide a brief summary of the important questions here:
Growth of Television and Power Elite Control: How does the growth of television industry interact with other political and economic processes? As television broadcast frequencies are limited resources ostensibly owned by the public, the granting of operating licenses by the government is influenced by many political and economic considerations. Was there bribery? Was it nepotism? Was it determined by political ideology? Was the economic power of the bidder a factor?
Television as a Medium of Production: The television industry is a commercial industry driven by profit considerations. Since the major source of revenue is advertising, the goal of the television stations is to provide programs that will maximize advertising dollars, which usually come from those programs with the largest audiences. This has in turn led to a homogenization of program offerings, which can be easily catalogued by a content analysis of television program schedules. Is this desirable? Is this situation unavoidable?
The Cultural Space: Television acts as the creator and conveyor of cultural values as it is the most important and pervasive mass medium. Since the principal financial support for the industry comes from advertisers, television propagates those cultural values that promote consumerist behavior. Are such cultural values appropriate for all segments of the society? Is there any space left for alternate visions?
Television in the Marketplace of Ideas --- The News: Television is also the principal source of news and information for the population. The selective coverage and interpretation of newsworthy subjects therefore have a tremendous impact on how people view the world. How has this affected the development of a democratic, pluralist society? Does television act in collusion with the dominant economic and political élites to perpetuate the status quo? Does television serve the role of media watchdog instead?
Election Ritual and Television: In democratic societies today, politicians rely heavily on television to conduct their election campaigns. How has the presence of television affected campaign styles and substance? Has the existence of television political advertising shifted the political landscape in favor of moneyed campaigners? Do the major television broadcasters have significant impact on electoral outcomes through selective and biased coverage of the candidates? If television coverage is biased, then whose interests do they serve? How do citizens feel?
(posted on May 24th, 1997)
CROSS-CULTURAL CONSUMPTION: GLOBAL MARKETS, LOCAL REALITIES
David Howes (ed.), 1996, Routledge: London. ISBN 0-415-13889-2.
This book is a collection of essays about the impact of global consumerism in a number of specific contexts. The Latin American contribution comes from Constance Classen, in an article titled "Sugar Cane, Coca-Cola and Hypermarkets: Consumption and surrealism in the Argentine Northwest."
Nationalists have complained that global consumerism represents a form of cultural imperialism imposed by the developed countries that will overwhelm and annihilate the traditional local culture. But the situation is not a simple unidirectional invasion, since experience has shown that the foreign products are often co-opted and re-invented within the local contexts, sometimes in surprising and unintended fashions.
Constance Classen offers a number of such examples, some of which bothers on the surrealistic. The most amusing example is about American breakfast cereals, which were introduced to the supermarkets of Northwest Argentina at a price of seven dollars a box. "Uncertain as to how to consumer the exotic breakfast cereals, Northwesterners at first ate them straight out of the box as a snack food. Later they were discovered to mix well with yogurt, and yogurt now comes packaged with its own topping of cornflakes or puffed rice." This is hardly what Kellogg's had in mind!!!
(posted on April 25th, 1997)
TELEVISION, POLITICS AND THE TRANSITION TO DEMOCRACY IN LATIN AMERICA
Edited by Thomas E. Skidmore. Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, MD, 1993. ISBN 0-943875-44-7.
The development of the television industry in Latin America has been inextricably affected by the political developments, from the military dictatorships to the democratic movements. On one hand, some television broadcasters have been accused of being the propaganda machines for the military dictators, or otherwise carrying out political agendas; on the other hand, some television broadcasters have served critical roles in engendering democratic processes.
A number of articles are collected in this book, with special focus on the developments in the four most important Latin American countries: the 1989 presidential election in Argentina; the 1988 plebiscite in Chile; the 1989 presidential election in Brazil; and the 1988 presidential election in Mexico. The case of Chile is particularly interesting, since the role of qualitative and quantitative research techniques from the social sciences in the campaign has been much publicized.
These articles points out how important it is to consider the political dimensions when we look at media in Latin America. We should remember that television is not just about entertainment, but also about information. When the information source is concentrated in just a few hands, the potential for abuse is present.
(posted on 4/6/97)
MACHOS, MISTRESSES, MADONNAS: CONTESTING THE POWER OF LATIN AMERICAN GENDER IMAGERY (Critical Studies in Latin American and Iberian Cultures)
Edited by Marit Melhuus and Kristi Anne Stolen. Verso Books,1996. ISBN: 1859848052
The book is a collection of essays on gender relations in Latin America and
brings a new understanding to the gender roles which exist in the region. These essays
challenge the stereotypical view of gender roles in the region where the male dominates a
subservient female by demonstrating the various complex situations which exist in a
variety of Latin societies. There are ten essays in the book written by a variety of
authors and these essay topic range from "Argentine Football" to
"Beekeepers of Ayuquila".
The insight into the gender roles provided by the book explains the true realities of the culture and is essential for a clear understanding of how social roles are interpreted locally. For any person attempting to grasp the Latin culture, the book brings to light the complex roles of men and women in the society. Such gender images are seen in work coming from the region: television programs, novels, theater and film. Much of the artistic work coming from Latin America can better be understood through the perspectives that are offered in this book.
(posted on 3/31/97)
The In Focus series from the Latin America Bureau (Research and Action) Ltd, 1 Amwell Street, London, UK EC1R 1UL
The Latin America Bureau is an independent research and publishing organization, and it works to broaden public understanding of issues of human rights and social and economic justice in Latin America and the Caribbean. Towards that end, the Latin America Bureau a series of country reports; so far, the reports on Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Jamaica, Mexico and Venezuela have appeared.
We enjoy reading this series because they are clearly unconventional and not laden with clichés and stereotypes. This is definitely not Fodor's, The Lonely Planet or even the Rough Guide. Since the books are small (less than 100 pages) and many aspects of the countries have to be covered, the coverage is always terse and direct. The selections and interpretations are glib, sweeping and self-assured. Since Zona Latina is a media-related site, we will only quote some media-related gems:
So in a condensed country report, we learn that Oscar d'Léon used to drive a taxi, which is a fact that we are unlikely to ever discover elsewhere. This is the reason why we look eagerly forward to future installments from this series.
(posted on 3/1/97)
Clarice Lispector. Translated by Giovanni Pontiero. New Directions, New York. ISBN 0-8112-1340-4. (paperback).
Newspapers are typically divided into different sections, such as editorials, sports, comics, horoscope, classified ads and so on. In Brazil, there is a unique genre known as the crônica, which is a free-form forum in which the writer can address the readers on any topic in any style. This book is a collection of crônicas written by the writer Clarice Lispector for the Jornal do Brasil between 1967 and 1975.
As a writer, Clarice is a singular personality in the manner of James Joyce and Marcel Proust. Her reputation has grown in recent years, with thanks to the French feminist writers such as Hélène Cixous. (Since Hélène Cixous always refers to her by first name ("Clarice"), it is actually more natural to do that. Oddly enough, it is more conventional to refer to Hélène Cixous by her full name).
These crônicas cover an astonishing array of experiences and contemplations, much of which is highly unconventional but always thought-provoking. A couple of these crônicas have been published in the special report on Brazilian feminine writers in the October 1996 issue of Brazzil.
(posted on 2/1/97)
TO BE CONTINUED ... SOAP OPERAS AROUND THE WORLD
Robert C. Allen (ed). Routledge, London, UK, 1995. ISBN 0-415-11006-8 (hard cover), ISBN 0-415-11007-6 (paperback).
The subject of the book is the television serial drama. In the USA, television serial drama was originally sponsored by laundry soap producers and were shown on daytime television to target housewives; hence, the name 'soap opera' was given to the program genre. As the genre spread across the world, adaptations were made to accommodate local tastes.
This book is a collection of articles about the various forms of soap operas in different parts of the world (India, Wales, England, Mexico, Brazil, Russia, USA, Germany ...). Three of the articles are about Latin America, where television serial drama is known as telenovela.
(posted on 1/13/97)
For past book reviews in 1996, please click here
(Return to Zona Latina's Home Page)