Edited By Eduardo González Castillo, Jorge Pantaleón and Nuria Carton de Grammont
Post-popular Cultures in Post-populist Times: The Return of Pop Culture in Latin American Social Sciences
As we have argued in various works (Alabarces, 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2013), the study of Latin American popular cultures was marginalized during the neo-liberal decade. This was a period in which the impoverishment, social fragmentation, and exclusion that closed the twentieth-century on our continent, were further consolidated with the legitimization of allegedly democratic processes. A corollary of that movement was the expulsion of popular cultures from research agendas, dissolved instead into categories that claimed to be more appropriate and suitable for analysis during times of transformation: hybridization, “descolección” and deterritorialization, each of which gained popularity both in the publishing and academic markets. However, twenty years later, we are witnessing both a process of the re-opening of those agendas and the re-appearance of displaced categories and subjects. The new political success of the national-popular narratives, for example, in spite of the criticism which they deserve, speaks more of continuities and, again, returns, rather than dissolutions and closures.
The popular cultures which disappeared in the nineteen-nineties reappear in the new century because they never went away. Although invested with new robes and including innovative practices and unstable and mobile texts, the popular cultures continue to function as signposts, revealing the degree to which the possibility of a democratic culture is negotiated, discussed and disputed—and, by extension, the possibility a fully and radically democratic society. ← 13 | 14 →
This text aims to discuss these processes, marking key moments in the twists and turns in their perspectives of analysis and investigation. I will thus present four arguments. The first discusses what we understand as a distinctive feature of the category of popular culture in the Latin American context, one which is not shared by the Anglo-Saxon tradition, a difference which has delimited the meaning of the category in our field and influenced the construction of its traditions of investigation. The second is the presentation of what we call an “initial state” of the studies, which recovers earlier traditions but is located, centrally, in the nineteen-eighties of the last century during the processes of the democratic transitions in the sub-continent. The third argument discusses what can be called a “neo-liberal turn” in the agendas and research perspectives on popular cultures, fundamentally in the nineteen nineties of the last century. Finally, our fourth movement proposes the existence of a new turn, starting at the end of the century, but emerging clearly at the beginning of the current one, which could be called, following some recent trends in the use of neologisms and terms built around the old categories, neo-post-populist perspectives.
Given the range of uses of the category over time and the breadth of the publics and voices involved, it is impossible to deploy my arguments without exploring, first, who speaks of popular cultures, saying what and from where. The first assertion, then, should be declarative: I speak of and from the Latin American field, as an Argentinean researcher whose academic training took place within that framework—an expert and, in part, a beneficiary of its traditions and someone who speaks its languages. I understand that the texts and authors which I am going to discuss are widely known in the Anglo-Saxon field of Latin American studies, which facilitates a more fluid argumentation. But to affirm this space of declaration means reclaiming a closer knowledge and also a number of specific and, again, different, meanings—in the strong sense of difference.1
This is because, in Latin America, popular culture has always, or almost always, meant (clearly, from the nineteen eighties of the last century, until today) talking about something else: it is to talk about practices and representations that are, or may be, outside the mass media, outside the simple reference to a mass culture understood as the multiple ways in which symbolic goods are produced, circulate and are consumed through the mediation of the culture industries, especially the electronic. For example, in my Department of Communications at the University of Buenos Aires, my course is catalogued as Popular Culture and Mass Culture, explicitly naming two objects of work where the Anglo-Saxon Academy recognizes just one.2 That course was “invented” ← 14 | 15 → at the moment that the Department was founded: precisely, as we will discuss later, during the process of the democratic transition in Argentina. By contrast, in a recent text by Laura Grindstaff (2008), there can be found a—brilliant and provocative—description of the map of North American research in the field of Popular Culture studies in which it is impossible to find any reference to practices or phenomena outside the mass media, including the new technologies of circulation and consumption of images and texts. Thus, while we will return to it later in the discussion, it is worth noting that the different uses of the category define both different fields of problems and disciplinary and methodological perspectives with distinct complexities. As is well known, categorical choices involve defining fields of objects and problems and consequently strategies of approach. Whether there is something called popular culture existing outside of the different and distinct modes of naming, objectifying, and analyzing it, is yet another discussion to which we will return below.
It is a question of a difference between, on the one hand, a broad conception of the popular, and, on the other hand, a broad and at the same time restricted conception of mass culture. The reasons for this difference are wide-ranging and complex. Quickly, some of them can be found both in traditions of reading and in the particular characteristics of Latin American societies and cultures that led to different treatments and categories. Among them, we could highlight the following four:
a. Ruralisms: well into the twentieth-century, the importance of the rural population was much greater in Latin America than in the Anglo-Saxon world. If in the constitution of the category of popular culture, following the unmatched study by Peter Burke (1978), the weight of the rural was decisive, this remained the case in much of the Latin American world. It is not necessary to elaborate on the alternative proposed by Sarmiento in his Civilización y Barbarie (1847), because this would lead us through the much more intricate labyrinths of the debate, such as those involving the relationship with modernity as literate and learned, against mass culture which captures popular knowledge marked by the illiterate, but also by of the corporeal—labyrinths outlined brilliantly by Aníbal Ford (1994). It should be noted that this greater rural distribution of the popular classes until the final third of the twentieth-century implied a different relationship with the world of mass culture, long discussed by, among others, Jesus Martín Barbero (1987). The Argentinean and Uruguayan cases were, in principle, different, having constituted themselves as urban and mainly modern societies in the first third of the twentieth-century. This allowed the inventors of the Argentinean populist tradition to focus their studies on the modes in which mass culture involved a reading of the popular. In both cases, however, another phenomenon was in operation: mass internal ← 15 | 16 → migration, through which the rural reappeared again in a corner of the treatment of urban popular cultures. In both cases, moreover, the invention of a popular culture was located in the gaucho poetry of the nineteenth-century and the continuity of its traditions, for example, in the folkloric, with the result that the rural character reappeared without ever having gone away.
b. Indigenisms: the sub-continent has always demonstrated, as one of its central features, the presence of huge populations of original or indigenous peoples, a fact which demands a special examination of its cultural configurations in contrast to Anglo-Saxon traditions. Except in the countries with the highest European immigration and subjected to the harshest processes of whitening, Europeanization and de-indigenization—again, Argentina and Uruguay among them—the indigenous presence was crucial to the discussion of the question of the popular in Latin America. It is impossible to construct its thematic field if one is indifferent to the daily presence of indigenous customs, traditions, memories and even languages—several countries had in the end, to adopt a native language as an official language, alongside the Spanish of the conquest. In addition to the emergence of intellectual currents that defined a field of indigenism, it became impossible to limit the debate about the popular to the populations defined from the criterion of the consumption of mass culture. The indigenous always endured as a remainder, even in the face of various cultural appropriations to which it was subjected. These operations were primarily literary, but there were also musical and audiovisual forms, whether through the documentary or world music. As a synthesis of both formats (the rural and indigenous), the famous Culturas populares en el capitalismo by Néstor García Canclini (2002)  chose, with the aim of producing theory in this field, to focus on Mexican popular handicrafts, practices located in the classic Mexican intersection between the indigenous peoples and the peasants. As we shall see, this was a key text in the invention of the state of the art in the nineteen-eighties.
Related to these differences, the unique issues facing the African-American populations could also be noted, but their presence in the debate on American popular culture is different from the previously-mentioned formats and, at the same time, more like the Anglo-Saxon debate. Although present in earlier times—in particular in the key text of Fernando Ortiz, Contrapunteo cubano del tabaco y el azúcar, 1940, a foundational work for the cultural theory of the sub-continent—the re-emergence of the debate on the relationship between African-American cultures and popular culture is contemporary to its British and North Americana treatment. A unique area of focus might be a discussion of the presence of African Americans in the world of organized sport, mainly in the case of blacks in Brazilian football (Leite Lopes, 1998): ← 16 | 17 → however, we would find ourselves again in the field of practices appropriated early by mass culture—the debate over O negro no futebol brasileiro, as Mario Filho (1964) titled his famous book, is a political and cultural discussion but one which unfolds on the journalistic stage.3
c. Politicizations: Unlike the British and American map, the question of popular culture in the sub-continent is strongly linked to its enactment through political discussion. Initially, this took place in the processes of formation of the Latin American states, all of them constructed in a state of high tension, such as the internal violence which made possible the triumph of the local bourgeoisies—generally landowners—over the popular classes, rather than as a result of the independence struggles. From the start of the twentieth century it reappears first with the emergence of anarchism and then with various Marxisms, which are even marked diacritically as American, with the work of Juan Carlos Mariátgui being of central importance in this context. It is clear that the question of the popular is, until the late twentieth-century, inseparable from its relationship with political arguments, reaching its climax in the 1960s after the Cuban Revolution. Debating popular culture is always something more complex than the mere qualification of mass culture as a space of alienation—although it also is one. Whether as an essential substrate of the patriotic, in its neo-romantic version, or as a horizon of revolt, in its most radical versions, the popular always exceeds a list of symbolic goods and becomes—indeed, it places itself on the stage as—political argument. Every democratic political project had to declare itself to be popular; paradoxically (or not), several reactionary political projects also announced themselves in this way. As we have already said, this reaches a peak before the dictatorial cycles; as we shall see, the question of the popular will be an axis in the debate opened by the democratic transitions.
d. Populisms: As there is already, at the very least, an entire library written on Latin American populism, we will not summarize it here. I will merely limit myself to pointing out that the decisive presence of Latin American populism in the twentieth-century is, in addition, critical to the question of popular culture. The populisms4 have in mass culture their preferred textual surface: there is no successful populism without radio, cinema, mass media (nor, of course, without television). And yet, inevitably, they require an excess which is produced outside of that mass culture: in the folkloric and traditionalist recoveries; on the stage of street mobilizations; in the celebratory ritual of the state, (which belongs to the field of mass culture, but also in protest or in the carnival of revolt, which exceeds it); or in the field of the popular languages and customs which populist discourse needs to capture and display as the horizon of the possibility of its practice and “ideology.”5 ← 17 | 18 →
We have suggested a kind of initial state of the art from the beginning of the nineteen-eighties of last century. That choice is neither capricious nor the result of an external demand, but is a dimension of the field of study itself. Although the characteristics presupposed by the treatment of the issue of popular culture at that time find inspiration in previous formats (whether the gauchesque or Gramsci or Mariategui) and last until 1994, as we will argue, in that decade an explosion of discussion occurs both on the topic as well as on the texts central to that state of the question. And that decade is contemporary with the Latin American democratic transitions; and that is the perspective in which this renewed and intense concern about the issue of the popular unfolds.
This academic landscape is organized, or could be organized, through five texts:
a. The first is at the same time the last to be published: Comunicación y Culturas Populares en Latinoamérica (AA.VV., 1987), a volume published jointly by the Catalan publishing house Gustavo Gili (through its Mexican office) and FELAFACS, the Latin American Federation of Faculties of Social Communication, a body that brings together the academic departments and faculties of communication, which in that period were springing up exponentially in the whole continent. The volume gathered together the papers presented at the seminar of the same name, which CLACSO (Latin American Council of Social Sciences) had organized in Buenos Aires four years earlier, in 1983, exactly at the beginning of the process of transition. It was a seminar in which several key vectors intersect. First, the role of Jesús Martín Barbero and Néstor García Canclini (clearly presented as beacon intellectuals, as Bourdieu would say) in the organization, coordination, and editing, of the field and the topic. Second, the presence of CLACSO, which had been central to the support for and coverage of intellectuals exiled for political reasons throughout the continent, and had organized an entire area of research on the subject (although it did not do so again until our present time, which is emblematic of the displacement to which we refer and which we explore). Third, the involvement of a Catalan publishing house, via its Mexican headquarters: the center of the Latin American publishing world had been displaced to the Aztec axis. Finally, the participation of FELAFACS indicated the new role of the communications departments, which would hegemonize these debates, displacing both sociology and anthropology. At the same time, FELAFACS was funded by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (German and Social Democratic), which marked the beginning of the presence of European foundations in giving support to processes of Latin American democratic transition (as did simultaneously, to mention only the Germans, the Christian Democrat, Konrad Adenauer, and the liberal Friedrich Naumann).
b. The second was a local book with limited circulation in the subcontinent, despite its importance in terms of the populist tradition of studies of popular ← 18 | 19 → culture. This is the collection Cultura Popular y Medios de Comunicación, jointly signed by the authors of the various texts, the Argentineans, Aníbal Ford, Jorge Rivera and Eduardo Romano (who in turn had participated in the CLACSO meeting in 1983), and published in Buenos Aires in 1985, at the very moment at which the three returned to the Argentinean University after the dictatorship.
c. The climax of these perspectives is a 1987 book, co-edited again by FELAFACS and Gustavo Gili, but published in Barcelona. This is the celebrated De los medios a las mediaciones by the Spanish-Colombian Jesús Martín Barbero. This book had been prepared in various articles published as early as 1982 and once published, it concretized a material process of production that had already situated it, as previously mentioned, in a central location in this area of scholarly inquiry.
In each of these texts, the already-mentioned idea of popular culture as something else, as a plus or an excess that escapes the media network, is clear, and the very titles of the books suggest it: communication or mass media and popular culture, media and mediations. But this choice was highlighted by two other key texts of the period.
d. The first of these is Néstor García Canclini’s Culturas Populares en el Capitalismo, published by Nueva Imagen in Mexico in 1982 and recently reissued in 2002 by Grijalbo, with a foreword to the new edition. In the book, by contrast with those mentioned above, but also in line with our arguments, the media are virtually absent: the focus is on the production of handicrafts, as we have already noted, made by indigenous people and peasants in contemporary Mexico. García Canclini can perfectly enunciate popular cultures as only that excess or plus of which we are speaking. From an anthropological perspective, simultaneously informed by the work of Gramsci and the perspectives of Pierre Bourdieu, the popular is the way in which the lower classes understand, produce, and transform the world from the standpoint of their particular modes of existence.
e. The final text is outside the Spanish-speaking mainstream but introduces the—then already intense—Brazilian debate. This is Marilena Chauí’s book, Conformismo e Resistência. Aspectos da cultura popular no Brasil, published in 1985 in São Paulo by Brasiliense, which also began to publish the first works of Renato Ortiz. For Chauí, popular culture is defined as the culture made by the people in contradistinction to the culture made for the people, and consequently her interest is directed to the ways in which the Brazilean popular classes, especially the working classes, mark their practices of resistance to the hegemonic classes and their repressive strategies.
As several authors have pointed out (Grimson and Varela, 1999, especially, is indispensable), this was the dominant concern in those years: a concern for the democratic after the dictatorships. It was not possible to consider a democracy outside of a concern for the popular and its “culture,” as evidenced by the organization of a Latin American Conference in Buenos Aires in 1983, on this subject specifically. ← 19 | 20 →
In Martín Barbero’s text, in 1987, that argument is expounded on at length, and the book can be read as a perfect synthesis of past traditions and new interpretations: the populist foundation of studies on popular culture by Peronist intellectuals like Ford, Rivera and Romano; the decisive influence of Gramscian perspectives; the new findings provided by the British production in cultural studies and its environment (we are speaking of Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall, but also of Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson); the definitive discovery of Pierre Bourdieu and Mikhail Bakhtin; the novelty of the work of Carlo Ginzburg. On the basis of this new canon and part of the old, Martín Barbero constructed his famous triangle: from the popular to the mass/from the mass to the popular/the popular uses of the mass. This triangle proposes a reading in a constant relationship between mass culture—understood as external to the popular yet woven into it—and popular culture, in a constant game of appropriation, re-signification, de-politicization, and use of the one by the other.
At the same time, however, some of the dangers of the Barberian readings appear. Martín Barbero organized his arguments in two lines that facilitated a conservative reading. The first was a militant anti-Adornismo, which made the “Adorno-Horkheimer branch” of the Frankfurt School responsible for all the ills of Latin American cultural criticism. Adorno’s version of the Frankfurt School became responsible for elitist culture negations of popular culture, something which assigned it a hegemonic position in the cultural critique that was not adequately proven—rather it seemed to be a matter of a paradoxically vulgar elitist common sense, rather than intellectual and theoretical positions which no major author of that period held. Against this, Martín Barbero proposed a recovery in toto of Benjamin, presented as blatantly anti-Adorno, reading in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” a kind of proclamation of the popular experience of consuming mass culture. The second series was an anti-Marxism paradoxically organized around four major Marxists like Benjamin, Gramsci, Raymond Williams and E. P. Thompson. This led necessarily to Guillermo Sunkel’s analysis (1985) of the representation of the people in the Chilean popular press: Sunkel found that the popular press, on the basis of using a symbolic-dramatic matrix, represented the popular world in a more powerful and complete way, in contrast to a left-wing press which, organized by the rational-Enlightenment matrix, displaced from this representation everything that was not strictly and explicitly political. The conclusion did not follow of necessity, but he drew it: the left and Marxism were unable to represent, understand, or analyze the popular world.6
Another remarkable aspect of the period is the emergence and consolidation of perspectives on the reception of the media as an activity of the popular publics, announcing the shift to the topic of consumption, which would ← 20 | 21 → become dominant in the nineteen-nineties. The active reception of mass culture was first proposed by Argentinean populists, who were thus enabled to understand, at the same time, not only the relation of the popular classes to Peronist state propaganda, but also the reasons why Peronism had survived as a hegemonic nucleus of popular experience, despite eighteen years of prohibitions, proscriptions, and exclusion from the mass media (especially, Ford et al., 1985). These proposals, formulated more as intuitions and empirical conclusions were enriched by readings of the Birmingham School—especially, the groundbreaking “Encoding/Decoding” of Stuart Hall (1980)—and became increasingly dominant in the course of the eighties. At the 1983 CLACSO Conference, Beatriz Sarlo was the only participant who assumed the existence of the process of reception. In addition to the Birmingham perspectives—it was Sarlo who introduced the work of Hoggart and Williams to Argentina at the end of the seventies—she was already familiar with the work of the School of Konstanz on an aesthetic of reception founded on the act of reading in literature. For this reason, Sarlo proposed simultaneously focusing on the competencies and capabilities of the popular classes to discuss the texts of mass culture, and at the same time, questioning the formal and rhetorical characteristics of these texts. In these affirmations (Sarlo, 1987), Sarlo foreshadowed her own work of analysis on the popular soap opera that was published in 1985, El Imperio de los sentimientos (Sarlo, 1985).
In 1988, Renato Ortiz published A moderna tradição brasileira. Cultura Brasileira e Indústria Cultural (Ortiz, 1999), which presented two innovations within the panorama I am describing. The first was the use of the formula tradition-modernity, which spoke of a new concern for relationships between the traditional and the modern, at a time when an intense debate about postmodernism was unfolding. The second was the final chapter, entitled “A-popular international culture?” which pointed to the other major topic of the end of the decade, namely globalization and its relations with old and new concerns about the nation-state.
This work by Ortiz can be identified as transitional to Culturas Híbridas: Estrategias para entrar y salir de la Modernidad, published by Grijalbo in Mexico in 1990. This last book became the seminal work on the subject of the “neoliberal turn” of Latin American studies on popular culture. This was a paradoxical turn that led to the closure of the theme.
Why do I speak of closure? Because García Canclini explicitly affirmed that it was impossible to continue talking about the cultured, the traditional, ← 21 | 22 → the popular, or the masses, on the basis of the transformations produced by postmodernism and globalization. To paraphrase the difference between modernity and modernization proposed by Berman (2008), what remained was hybridity and hybridization, as much a state as a process, in which all goods previously categorized in some classification became mixed and were presented in a new guise. Of course, I’m simplifying a complex, powerful, intelligent, and often contradictory, text, which I have tried to analyze in more detail elsewhere (Alabarces, 2012). Generally speaking, however, for the purposes of my present argument, the balance was that after Culturas Híbridas nobody could speak again of popular culture in the field of Latin American studies.
García Canclini says in La globalización imaginada, 1999:
Rather than reconciling or drawing together races and nations, hybridization is a point of departure for getting rid of fundamentalist temptations and the fatalism of doctrines about civilizing wars. It serves to make it possible to recognize the productivity of exchanges and crossbreedings, qualifies for participation in various symbolic repertoires, to become multicultural gourmets, travel through different cultural heritages and savor their differences. (García Canclini, 1999: 198)
The anti-fundamentalist panic is one of the motives invoked in 2001 when he wrote a preface to the new edition of Culturas híbridas, stating that “it is possible that the debate against purism and folk traditionalism has led us to favor the wealthy and innovative cases of hybridization” (García Canclini, 2001: 19). But it is there that the first problem lies. García Canclini chose his opponents badly, and decided to fight two on two different fronts: on the one hand, a populism which was then retreating, or rather being displaced by a neo-conservatism integrated with neo-populist clothing and languages; on the other, a fundamentalism of which there remained, in the Latin American world, only vague or distant traces, or traces which had already been consigned to the museum. However, he failed to detect that the year in which Culturas híbridas appeared, on course for a destiny of stardom, was the beginning of the neoliberal decade, for which sophistries such as hybridity were the perfect isotopes. The fight against fundamentalism, a worthless fight and one already won, was carried out with neoliberal clothing.
Likewise, the condition of novelty was conceded to what had always existed: the transactions and negotiations that all cultural and social actors had undertaken since the moment at which some society had structured itself as a hierarchical class society. To dominate by means of coercion—coercion also requires negotiation—or to hegemonize through an infinitely produced consensus; and also to resist, accommodate, suffer or enjoy in the interstices. Class struggle was always more complicated than simply a struggle of classes: the classes also rest, negotiate, forget the struggle, and then return to undertake ← 22 | 23 → it again. Mass culture and modernity only added complexity and new scenarios: they did not change the basic terms of exchange. The phenomena of interculturality—also as old as the exploratory and conquering instinct of societies—which imperialism had laid bare, were not novel either, and had led at least three generations of Latin American intellectuals to think about, analyze and discuss them, by means of the categories of miscegenations, fusions, transculturations, creolizations, and syncretisms. These concepts do not lack explanatory power, although the analysis and the debate showed their limitations or specificities. The category of hybridization was proposed as “a term of translation,” yet in the same movement it was exhibited as a fetish.
And a new problem is that the book consisted of an unbridled narcissistic display of the analyst as interpreter: the multicultural gourmet was the anthropologist himself, who produced a displacement from his own practices so as to universalize them. One example, offered as a product of an empirical analysis which had never been undertaken, represents clearly the concept of decollection. In fact, the popular cultures had always been decollectionists: they could bring together tango and folklore, or modernist poetry together with slang, such as lunfardo—as the Argentine tango had done in the thirties—or subject the cultured to parody, or invert power in a carnivalesque way. The novelty was that intellectuals, seduced by a neo-liberal populism that dared not speak its name, proposed themselves as practitioners of hybridization. To this they added a speed reading of some technological transformations: the remote control and video cassette player were transformed, in their hands, into syntactic gadgets capable of producing unexpected textual operations in the hands of a housewife or a bank employee, who would produce other operations, textual or textualized: but not with the remote control or with a video cassette recorder which would hardly serve to reproduce rented videos. The mixtures which the remote control allowed the analyst were transformed into universal statements: the navel of the anthropologist, his daily experience, were made absolute as theory.
To demand a choice between populism and fundamentalism as points of view means proposing a false choice, something which implies, like any intellectual operation, a political assumption. Actually, as we know, in the world, life, and culture, there are many more than two options, at least as long as this does not involve a dialectical operation which proposes options as thesis and antithesis. There was nothing dialectical in García Canclini’s mechanism: it was, rather, a rhetorical device that consisted (and which still consists) in proposing arguments all the time, or examples, in pairs, permanently constructing options that should be rejected. The closing of Culturas híbridas is exemplary in this regard: “how to be radical without being a fundamentalist.” There was no such radical possibility (which faded into the anti-fundamentalist ← 23 | 24 → fear); there was a new fundamentalism, that of the market and civil society, the two lures of triumphant neoliberalism. As Beasley-Murray points out, all that remained was a civil society based on the market and allied to the state to protect some cultural specificity: a culturalist and consumer regression to civil society, which maintained “hope for reform by devolving to the subordinate subjects a sense of rationality and agency” (Beasley-Murray, 2010: 121), a depoliticizing and acculturative operation:
The price paid by the subaltern is that their activities are recognized only so far as they agree with the concept of reason that is imposed on them; only as long as efficiency and modernization continue to be the foundation of civil society. They are going to attribute an agency to these players, but in terms of a social theory. Everything that remains outside the frame becomes invisible, and the democratic task becomes one of replacing emotional and cultural relations, perceived as distorting managerial transparency, by a rational civil society (ibid: 122).
What remained permanently expelled, in this model, was subaltern resistance, transformed into action or ritual, “the only options left to the dominated are negotiation or obedience” (ibid: 78).
In the perspective of García Canclini, the old cliché of the “active reception” of what is produced by the mass media is finally transformed into the consumption of mass culture and other goods in the market, which should be taken, at the same time, as a creator of citizenship. Although the word neoliberalism is almost never uttered in these texts, its success throughout the continent as a new pattern of organization of societies and cultures was the overall organizer of these new readings. This tendency reaches its climax in Consumidores y ciudadanos, 1994, where, as Gareth Williams says, “the final aim (…) is simply to recognize that the novelty of postmodern hybridity is essentially that of the market and mass consumption” (Williams, 2002: 126). Against this, Williams claimed that “it is not possible to think about ideas like citizenship and (even political) democracy in the absence of reflection on poverty, and in its relationship with the regimes of truth of the geo-economic liberal state and the market” (idem: 135). All of this was missing. What took to the field as an argument, however, was the label of citizenship built on consumption, replacing any other affiliation, symbolic or experiential: classes are transformed into imagined communities of consumers.
Renato Ortiz took the same direction when he transformed his 1988 question (“An international-popular culture?”) into the assertion of 1994. In his book Mundialización y Cultura (Ortiz, 1997) , he affirmed the existence of an international-popular memory, related to a new globalization of culture, with which he marked its difference to globalization as a total process. ← 24 | 25 →
Alongside these central texts of the period, it is interesting to compare what happens to other contemporary voices. First, we shall look at those of the Argentinean populist tradition. In 1993, Eduardo Romano persisted in the old populist clichés of popular culture as an autonomous reading and reworking of the products of the mass media regarding the very conditions of existence of the popular classes and the long term memory which permitted them to carry out successful negotiations (Romano, 1993). In the same decade, Romano read the successful uses of television parody from a Bakhtinian perspective, interpreting them as places of critical and popular resistance, as fissures in which the unchanged persistence of an autonomous perspective could be detected (Romano, 1997). Meanwhile, in what can be interpreted as a sort of swan song of this perspective, in Navegaciones. Comunicación, cultura y crisis (Ford, 1994), Aníbal Ford unfolded an intensive use of metaphors and categories that spoke of instability and changes—for example, chaos, navigations, even fractals—to characterize a time of crisis and the difficulties that demanded interpretation At the same time, however, he presented popular culture in a new way: as a form of knowledge, as a series of gnoseological strategies, a way of relating to the world with special emphasis on the body and the emotions.
In the second place, from those same years is Beatriz Sarlo’s book, Escenas de la vida posmoderna (Sarlo, 1994), the only Latin American text of that decade in which García Canclini’s claims are discussed explicitly. Sarlo maintained that everything might have changed and everything might seem mixed and hybridized, but what remained was inequality in the production of and access to cultural goods. Therefore, the “postmodern” and “neoliberal” transformations could not be presented, optimistically, as homogenization, much less as democratization. It was a long way off from a common culture in the sense proposed by Raymond Williams (2001), which could not, in any way, be realized by the market.
Reopenings in Post-neo-populist Times
And today? Can we talk about new perspectives, a quarter century after Culturas híbridas? The answer is yes. And to show why, I will try to describe three major tendencies that can be trimmed to the contemporary map.
a. Subaltern studies: some of this was announced by Jean Franco in 1997, in an article published in the magazine Nueva Sociedad (then published in Venezuela), in a dossier specifically dedicated to thinking about the already fading question of the popular. In the midst of the reign of the hybrids and deterritorialization, when the popular had been displaced by citizenship or civil society, Franco proposed that the continuity of the topics of resistance ← 25 | 26 → and the limits of the hegemonic should be sought in the use of the category of subalternity in the terms proposed by Spivak (1988). This proposal had already appeared as a program of work proposed by the Latin American Subaltern Studies Group, formed in 1993 (and dissolved in 2002), although its circulation was restricted to the environment of Latin Americanism within North American academia. The inspiration, besides the work of Spivak, was in the original creation of the Indian Subaltern Studies Group, led by Ranajit Guha from the start of the nineteen-eighties, and whose circulation in Latin America was initially limited to the Andean region, through its translation and dissemination under the leadership of Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui (Rivera Cusicanqui and Barragán, 1997). In the broader Latin American context, subalternism was only recovered at the start of the twenty-first century and linked to the post-colonial and de-colonial debate. Within North American academia, however, this discussion seems to have been closed down, especially since the appearance of the aforementioned texts by Gareth Williams (2002) and Jon Beasley-Murray (2010), although some persistence of this debate may still be seen. We refer here to the recent interventions by John Beverly (2012 and 2013), one of the central proponents of this perspective, and the last book of another of the leading figures of the Group, Ileana Rodriguez (2011), which recovers the importance of the already cited 1985 book by Marilena Chauí. Although provocative proposals are deployed, especially in Beverly’s classic text (2004 ), the possibilities regarding the discussion of popular culture seem relatively weak.7
b. A second trend is closer to my own work and I think that its beginning can be dated to the publication of a book by the North American-Brazilian anthropologist Claudia Fonseca. This is Familia, fofoca e honra. Etnografia de relaçoes de gênero e violência em grupos populares (2000), published in Porto Alegre, which was itself the object of Fonseca’s ethnography of the families of the popular Gaucho classes. That inquiry permitted Fonseca to close the book by asking herself what had happened to the studies of popular culture, with the statement that: “Today, the ‘popular’ is decidedly not on the agenda. The academic interests have followed other paths. In the books, theses and research projects, the term no longer appears” (Fonseca, 2000: 108). But it seems that what was in crisis fundamentally were the words with which to speak of the popular:
Examination of the academic jargon used to describe people who do not participate in the dominant culture, reveals the stages of this evolution. From an “anonymous mass”, “amorphous” or simply “those who serve as an anti-norm” of the sixties, they became protagonists of the (working or popular) “classes” in the eighties, to return to the status of the “poor” in the nineties. The danger of this nomenclature is a return to the image of the cultural void, ← 26 | 27 → of a victim population—when not ignorant or alienated—waiting passively for the forces of modernity to elevate them to the human condition (idem).
And if criticism of these notions was justified, Fonseca wondered if this would perhaps mean the disappearance of the object that these categories described. What was assumed to be a mere argument about names, is in fact a central theoretical and political discussion. Does this mean that to the extent that these concepts do not adequately describe reality, the object disappears? Claudia Fonseca then says with acuity:
The question arises: what do we do with those who, given that the classifications are in flux, remain in the common condition of the “poor”? (…) Where are the debates able to deepen our understanding of the otherness inscribed in the social stratification game? Where are the new terms that take into account the trading of symbolic boundaries in class society? (idem: 109)
Only to conclude:
To accompany “modern times”, it would be necessary for the social sciences to look closely at precisely the phenomena that, at first, were relegated too rapidly to the margins of our concerns. What appeared to be a vestige of the past manifests itself now as a sign of the future. To avoid also losing notions such as “citizenship” and “plural society” in the chatter of political platitudes, we must step back enough to scrutinize the different symbolization systems within modern society and to recognize that among these, the class aspect is not of lesser importance. (idem: 113)
As of that text,8 a tremendous amount of new perspectives can be found on practical and popular representations from a particular anthropological perspective, investigating that “something else” outside of studies of the media and popular culture, in fields such as religion, habits, practices or politics, especially dances and popular music9. In these new studies, hybridization, economic globalization, or cultural homologation lose some of their fetishistic character which closed the field in order to transform it into scarcely a part of the contextual descriptions; on the contrary, the emphasis will be on the possibilities of the masses to produce original practices. On some occasions, this can lead to some abuse of the category of agency, which is sometimes transformed into a new fetish and needs to be re-discussed in greater depth.
c. Finally, in recent years we seem—we want—to be participating in a sort of resurgence of the category and its problems.10 The popular world is recovering academic visibility. This is, as Fonzseca points out, the product of new investigations which escape the cliché of poverty studies, an argument that displaces more than it shows, and which insists on placing the popular world in the space of passivity disposed to be rescued by some compensatory politics. ← 27 | 28 → These new investigations seek to recover the complexity of that world: of its daily life, sexuality, territories, social and political organizations, its innovative relations with work or with their absence, of its relationship with the school, its relation to violence—rigorously breaking free from the clichés and stereotypes which speak to us of a naturalized structuration of popular daily violence… and also in relation to symbolic consumption or production, with everything that we have insisted on calling popular culture. And many other topics which escape us here. Indeed, this reappearance should also be thought of in relation to the national-popular narratives: the well-known “left turn” of most Latin American societies, the so-called pink tide, could be criticized as the new hegemony of the new populisms. Progressive, but populist—populist, but progressive. In this context, the reappearance of these issues can be as much a product of democratizing and emancipatory impetuses as of simple concessions to a national-popular fashion. It is striking, as in the Argentinean case, for example, that some works which would commit themselves to the movement of recuperation of the subject limit themselves to assuming the lists of objects, but persist in an orthodox neo-Canclinismo which questions conflict and subalternization as organizers, or proposes dissolving the concept of resistance, sustantializing, however, by contrast, the “capacity of agence-ing” (Rodríguez, 2011). Thus, populism falls into its old habit: it celebrates an autonomous production of the popular sense which can not overcome its subordinate position, because the populist project neither intends nor permits it to do so. This discussion, of course, requires another article, and will not be developed here.
Nobody knows if we live in post-neoliberal times, and I would dare to say that we don’t. But we can say that they are neo-post-populist times: times in which new discourses about popular culture flourish and are scattered across the subcontinent. It is highly likely that this flagrant reappearance can be explained by these contexts, and consequently inscribed in the legitimacy of old and new perspectives on the popular as the new subject of a kind of re-democratization process—this time no longer after the dictatorships, but rather after the neoliberal processes, strictly speaking. Consequently, while we are in the very middle of these processes—although more than a decade has already passed—it is still too early to take stock of this new production. And it is clear that is still not sufficient: we need a new production of empirical research and new theoretical debates on a wide range of topics open to our explorations: dance and popular music, sexuality, spatiality, work, festivities, religion, creativity, popular conservatism and, last but not least, popular politics, including practices and representations that sometimes seem to be pre-political or non-political. All these points of a—schematic—research program should be explored with the old ← 28 | 29 → and permanent horizon which permitted the invention and foundation of these studies and this field of work: out of concern for the radical democratization of our societies, studies of popular culture are something we should, to paraphrase Stuart Hall (1984), continue to give a damn about.
1. I find it tempting to invoke here the notion of Latin American pronunciation of English, proposed by Ortiz (2008).
2. Whenever I use Anglo-Saxon as an adjective, I want to make a unified reference to both the American and the British academic worlds. The latter acquired great power in our field of discussion with the invention of Cultural Studies; the former was instituted as its replacement and contemporary continuity.
3. A decisive text in the exploration of the intersections between the rural popular (such as the gauchesque), the indigenous, and the African, is the Prologue which Josefina Ludmer wrote in 1994 for the reissue of El género gauchesco (Ludmer, 1994).
4. Here I am thinking especially of Argentinean Peronism, the most successful populism of twentieth-century Latin America.
5. Daniel James’ study of these operations and relations in the case of Peronism is outstanding (James, 1990).
6. This also led to Latin American students of communication, long-suffering from an malaise resulting from fast readings and excessive summaries, to propose formulas such as “Marxists did not understand the people, instead Thompson …”.
7. We have developed this discussion in Alabarces and Añón (2008).
8. We cannot affirm, however, that these new lines of investigation arose “because of that text,” but rather that it described a state of concerns which organized the new lines of work.
9. In the case of popular music, these new lines of investigation are exemplified well by the work of Pablo Vila, Pablo Semán, Héctor Fernández L’Oeste, amongst many others, to name only those with the widest circulation in the subcontinent.
10. We boast of our place in this process, at least within Argentinean academia, which is a place that we share with other colleagues who often adopt other angles of inquiry, such as sociology, anthropology and media studies.
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