What is popular culture in Latin America?

Posted by: | January 30, 2009 | Comments Off on What is popular culture in Latin America?

As a lot of you already said in your blogs, this text was amazingly long and dense! I am sorry to be late posting my comment but I have to say I really had a hard time this week trying to find time between my mid-terms and my medical appointments, in order to read this 100 pages article! However, although I think there was too much details in their analysis, William and Schelling really dealt with some interesting points and issues.

I would say that the authors tend to present the common perspective about popular culture as the idea that it is an entity in perpetual danger as well as in constant opposition to hegemonic forces. The danger for popular culture has to do with modernity and everything that disrupts and undermines traditions and authenticity. Once again, as it was the case in Eva Peron’s text, we have this idea of the people (synonym of popular) systematically in opposition to dominant forces. However, this is not the point of view which is displayed by William and Schelling. Their idea is a far more optimistic analysis of popular culture. According to them, because popular culture always believes itself to be threatened, they have invented each times really efficient ways of resisting, adapting and asserting their identity in new environments in front of new competitors.

Actually, the similarities between this article and what I learned in another class called “Ethnic Relations” really striked me. According to Ericksen “Ethnicity is not a property of a group, but an aspect of a relationship”. Relationships, encounters or confrontations of a group with other s is what creates cultural activity and a reinforcement of identity. Indeed, I think that this article really deals with the processes that trigger culture and ethnic vitality and identity politics. People usually hang on to traditionnal identities and to the past in order to overcome the new challenges of the present. Identities assert themselves in opposition to other identities, cultures, ethnicities, civilizations. They often know a revival of energy when they feel threaten and put in competition with others. Thus there is always a great issue of power in regards to ethnic and cultural phenomenons. Culture and identities arouse when they have to compete for controlling the production of cultural symbolism, especially when they have a subordinated position. in the society. I think that what William and Schelling tried to show is that popular culture has actually been stimulated by these processes, fighting for its continuity and adaptation. This natural action of resistance coupled with inevitable exchanges between cultures is actually what brings dynamism into cultural production. The authors seem to favour mobility and interactions rather than fixity and traditionalism regarding to popular culture.

I think we could finally try to separate these different ‘faces of popular culture’ described in the article which also corresponds to different historical phases. To start, native culture in Latin America has been confronted to European Imperialism and threatened by the assimilation that was expected from native people. While obviously being dominated, native culture would have also found ways of resisting to acculturation, ways of adapting European cultural features to indigenous culture. The authors seem to think that ‘culture offers a symbolic universe that helps to transcend subordinate position’. Concerning these societies in Latin America that succeeded in maintaining their native cultures in parallel to the dominant ones, one could extend our reflexion and speak about the current resurgence of ethnicity and ethnic politics in the region. Popular culture has always been really tied to the idea of counter-hegemony. We actually can observe the political strategies of certain Latin American leftist leaders who capitalize on the indigenous oppressed culture and identity in order to symbolize a change.

The article also deals with rural/peasant culture facing modernity, industrialisation and urbanisation. The first reaction would be to predict the disappearance and degradation of popular culture. However the authors seem to think that modernity and new technologies have also played a positive role for the continuation of popular culture. At the beginning of industrialisation, new technologies of communication would have permitted to popularize and standardize both aspects of popular culture and other cultures and created a single common national culture. This process was actually really tied to a deliberate state initiative to ‘construct’ more or less artificially a nation-state sharing memories, historical myths and culture. Here, popular culture has been appropriated by the national culture in an enterprise of folklorisation, a concept that we kind of find in every national construction. Peasant culture has been used in Mexico as a national folklore, a fact that definitely questions the authenticity of popular culture and others kind of culture in every single nation. Again I would argue that culture is more an issue of social construction than anything else. I do not really agree with the positive side of this process because I really think the new national culture was framed by the social elite of the countries without any considerations about traditions people wanted to keep. At least, in a country as France, people speaking local dialects had been forced to abandon them and this was made in a very coercive way!

Finally I would say that the third aspect of popular culture in a context of resistance would be popular culture or even national culture (seen as popular) against globalisation and transnationalism. Rather than the spread idea of a destructive homogenisation of world’s cultures around commercial culture, the authors argue for a more positive interpretation and again emphasize the resistance of popular culture. They do recognize that this new stage is particularly traumatic given that it reopens in Latin American popular memories the shock of the first invasion. Nevertheless, these memories and traditions are precisely what allow the public to resist in the sense that they still have the freedom of interpreting messages diffused by global mass Media. This is what they call the process of resignification which gives the people a margin of control and constitutes their main mean of resistance. They also explain than although industry culture has tried to eradicate popular culture, the latter have learned to use the same tools than its enemy, which means technologies and mass media. This allowed popular rural culture to remain significant and known, and to create alternative Media in order to counter the hegemonic force of mass communication. Thus from pre-capitalist period to late- twentieth century internationalism, native/rural popular culture have always found effective ways to resist. However, as we said in class, this point of view tends to hide the reality of power relationships.


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