Monday, March 30, 2009

The end of popular culture?

Definitely enjoyed the readings for this week!

Although I now understand that folktales, folk art & theories of mixture can and should be considered in discussions of popular culture, I feel like the subject matter of this weeks readings (Zapatista movement, Latina celebrity and salsa music) are what most people consider to be Latin American pop culture, myself included. This was my perception of L.A. pop culture at the beginning of this course; however, having now arrived at the end of the course, I have a much broader view of it!

At times I found it a bit humorous to be reading about J.Lo's butt in such an academic context. However, I felt that these 3 articles analyzed pop culture elements, which we may not give much thought to, in a way that gave light to the underlying social struggles that they may represent. For example, the article on salsa music argued that as salsa music crossed borders from Latin America to England, certain social constructs were perpetuated through the music. For example, racial stereotypes on rhythm and movement became an issue. Caucasian players were stereotyped as being musical, and therefore played horns in the band whereas Latin musicians were stereotyped as more rhythmic, and therefore played the drums and percussion instruments. In the article on Jennifer Lopez's North American cross-over, issues of gender stereotypes were raised. Jennifer Lopez's success and "sex symbol" status in North America challenged conventional views of "beauty" in North America as being unnaturally thin. The fact that Jennifer Lopez was considered beautiful with her large butt challenged these views.

I feel that all 3 articles stressed the fact that popular culture, and perhaps culture in general, are constructed by a people. The leader of the Zapatista movement created a character to represent himself in the public sphere and the movement was described as a "performance". Jennifer Lopez's success in Hollywood was constructed by the media. Salsa music is a construct in that anyone can learn to play salsa music, and it is not necessarily something that certain people can do better than others simply because they are born into it.

Lastly, all 3 articles provided instances of Latin American popular culture crossing borders. The Zapatista movement became known worldwide. Jennifer Lopez, a Latina actress, found success in the United States. Salsa bands can now be found all over England, as well as almost anywhere else in the world. The question is: does this mean the end of popular culture? I don't think so. I believe that it is exactly this crossing of borders, with new meanings being created, that makes popular culture interesting, exciting and dynamic. The ability to be contemporary and change with the times is essential to the definition of popular culture.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Theories of Mixture: Hybridity

While this article was a bit hard to get through, due to its wordiness, I felt like it covered some very interesting topics. However, the topic of hybridity wasn't really covered in depth until the very end of the article, and to be honest, by that point I wasn't being as diligent with my comprehension as I was in the first half of the article.

Now that I look back over the article, I see that the topic of hybridity was somewhat covered in the beginning of the article when Canclini discussed the mixing of traditional and modernity in popular cultures. He points out how mass media, as an example of modernity, gives new meaning to popular culture.

I particularly enjoyed the arguments Canclini made about folk culture and the state. Power is given to both when we analyze the tourist industry. The state uses folk culture and turns it into a tourist attraction, presenting the country's "national identity". However, at the same time, folk culture is given a certain amount of power, because without it, the state would not be able to promote tourism in the same way that they can, through use of the folk culture industry.

I also enjoyed Canclini's comparison of anthropology and sociology. Canclini states that anthropology is interested in "saving" traditional and soon-to-be-extinct cultures, whereas sociology is interested in the effects of modernization on society. Canclini points out that both disciplines result in overlooking different aspects of society.

Canclini's discussion of the role of monuments in society was very interesting. I've never thought of monuments in the way that Canclini has; however, his discussion of them brings new meaning to monuments for me. The author describes how monuments, although they may commemorate a specific time or moment in history, are resignified in modern society as they are built into the cities or towns. They are not enclosed in a glass box, such as they would be in a museum, for people to look at from afar. Rather, they are incorporated into the surroundings of a city, and people are able to interact with the monuments. Certain juxtapositions can then occur, such as the demonstration in favor of abortions occurring alongside a monumental statue of mother holding her son.

Lastly, I found Canclini's hybridization case studies on graffiti and comics a great way to solidify his discussions of the theory of hybridization. In analyzing graffiti and comics and the roles they play in modern-day society, we see the processes of hybridization in material forms. Comics mix the use of images and words/dialogue with subject matter often pertaining to current issues whether economic, political or social. Graffiti, on the other hand, is a way of reclaiming territory, a form of expression that provides a voice for marginalized segments of society who may not have access to more widely used forms of communication.

I see that hybridization involves a mixing of different elements, such as Canclini discussed in the topic of border towns like Tiajuana, however I'm still not sure of how hybridization is different from mestizaje or transculturation. Hybridization seems to me to fit somewhere in between mestizaje and transculturation, with less stress on how the cultures mix and more stress on the end product, however I could be completely wrong!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Popular Culture as Mass Culture

This week's articles displayed popular culture through mediums which I most identify as being representative of Latin American popular culture: football and telenovelas. I felt like both articles, particularly the article on Brazilian football, did an excellent job of tying together all the different concepts we have discussed in class up to date.

I really enjoyed the reading Futebol: A Brazilian Way of Life. It was entertaining to read, and tied in many of the concepts we have discussed in class, from the people, to issues of race, to concepts of cultural mixing. Since the reading was rather long and included a variety of topics, I'll focus on a few that I found particularly interesting.

The reading begins with a look into what is known as the "Maracana Tragedy". The author analyzes reasons for why this event became so important in the lives of the Brazilian people as well as key in the history of the country. The author quotes Roberto daMatta who believes that this loss of the World Cup in Brazil's own backyard was so influential to the Brazilian people because "it happened collectively and brought a united vision of the loss of a historic opportunity." These collective events and memories are often the subject of popular art and culture, which brings us back to the key element of popular culture that people must be able to identify and relate to it.

The occurence of transculturation, for lack of a better word, is also included in the discussion of Brazilian football. The author mentions the contributions that the Brazilian indigenous people have made to the game of football. The indigenous people taught the Brazilian football players their style of football, later called "headball", in which they passed a ball around using only their heads. Brazilian players later incorporated this element into their football style, and now this is recognized as a defining element of Brazilian-style football.

Football has also been widely accepted by the indigenous people. To be able to make it as a professional football player is a way for indigenous people, considered to be at the bottom of the social ladder, to climb the ladder up to the higher social classes. Some believe that the indigenous peoples' acceptance of football is a way to bring modernity to their cultures. However, at the same time, it is also a way for them to preserve their culture, as the author mentions that indigenous teams, when playing non-indigenous teams, would shout "commands to each other in their language."

Lastly, what I found most interesting in this article was the story of the Brazilian football legend, Garrincha. I felt that through the telling of his story, I was better able to understand how something comes to be recognized as part of popular culture. Garrincha reminded me in some ways of Eva Peron, in that the people of his country strongly identified with him. Alex Bellos, the author, quotes Jose Sergio in his article, who stated that Garrincha "never lost his popular roots. He was also exploited by football so he was the symbol of the majority of Brazilians, who are also exploited." This quote further strengthens the fact that a defining element of popular culture is that the people must be able to identify with it. They must see a relation between them and it. I felt that the depiction of popular culture was clearest in the comparison between Pele and Garrincha. The two players could not have been any more different. Although both were loved by the people, I believe the people saw Garrincha as one of them, and were able to see themselves in him, and identify with him. Bellos writes that "Garrincha indulged in most of the vices available to him, Pele behaved always as a model player." The average person cannot be perfect all the time. Everyone has flaws. Garrincha wasn't ashamed to show his flaws, and people recognized him as therefore being human. He was accepted by the people, similar to how Eva Peron was accepted by her people.

In Big Snakes on the Streets and Never Ending Stories, the case of Venezuelan telenovelas is explored. In particular, the author focuses on one telenovela, Por estas calles. This telenovela in particular changed and re-defined the genre in Latin America. This redefinition was mainly due to the change in subject matter of the telenovela. While most televenovelas follow a similar storyline, Por estas calles tried to break conventions and include different subject matter.

However, even prior to Por estas calles, telenovelas were widely watched by the Latin American people. Telenovelas, which we can consider to be a part of popular culture, often include elements of melodrama, which Peter Brooks defines as "a popular form not only because it is favored by the audience, but also because it insists-- or tries to insist-- on the dignity and importance of the ordinary." We can tie this quote back to the article by Raymond Williams who stated that "culture is ordinary." Melodrama can be considered a popular form because it relates to the ordinary or things we experience every day in our lives, but makes it into something more.

However, the main point of the article in its analysis of Por estas calles is that this telenovela became such a defining part of the genre and of Venezuelan popular culture in general because it was real. The topics and storylines covered in the telenovela were reflections of what was actually going on in the country at the time. Therefore, viewers were able to identify with the storylines AND the characters. The telenovela was, in essence, a reflection of their lives.

For me, the major takeaway from both articles was that a defining characteristic of popular culture is the ability for people to recognize and relate their lives to it. If the people don't feel that the subject matter is relevant to them, they will not accept it. And if it is not accepted by the people, we cannot consider it to be popular culture in its truest form.

Monday, March 9, 2009


I thoroughly enjoyed the readings for this week. Similar to our readings on "mestizaje", it was interesting to read work by the original author of studies on "transculturation" and then be able to read work by an author who tests the arguments presented by the originator. I found the Ortiz article and Millington article fairly straight-forward to read. However, the Cornejo-Polar reading was slightly harder for me to follow and relate to the topic of transculturation.

The idea of transculturation seems to be quite an ambiguous and debatable topic, similar to mestizaje. However, as discussed in class, it is this exact ambiguity and lack of a concrete definition for these terms that makes it vital to figure out exactly what they mean. Ortiz describes this term transculturation, which seems to be a much more positive concept than mestizaje. It combines the notion of "disadjustment and readjustment, of deculturation and acculturation" (p.98). The case of transculturation is an interesting one. I particularly liked how Ortiz stressed that "one of the strange social features of Cuba [is that] all its classes, races and cultures, coming in by will or by force, have all been exogenous and have all been torn from their places of origin" (p. 100). I think this is an important point that is often overlooked in these discussions of cultural mixing. The people of Cuba (to use it as an example), assembled in a particular social hierarchy according to their cultural background, did not arrive to Cuba necessarily as part of that social standing. The Europeans came from a variety of countries, backgrounds, and classes, but upon arrival they were the "masters". The Africans also came from a variety of countries and classes, but they became the "slaves". I feel this point is often forgotten or ignored in discussions of cultural mixing in Latin America.

The Cornejo-Polar text on indigenismo was a bit harder for me to grasp. However, what I understood from the article was that a problem occurs in literature whereby there exists "an unequal relationship between its system of production and consumption on one hand, and the referent on the other, granting notable supremacy to the former and obscuring the latter under the force of the interpretation that is superimposed upon it." (p. 107). Conflict occurs when text written in one context is read and interpreted in a different context to the one the author meant it to be interpreted in. The reader has power over the writer to impose their own views and ideas onto the text, potentially taking away meanings the author had never intended. I'm not entirely sure how the concepts and ideas described in this article exactly relate to the topic of transculturation, so I'm hoping these ties will be made clearer in class dicussion.

I felt like Millington did bring up some convincing weaknesses in Ortiz's arguments. I especially liked Millington's argument that the simile of the embrace in Ortiz's definition of transculturation is "rather bland and unconvincing at this stage, and it would be interesting to hear more about how the Africans in Cuba 'embraced' the cultures of Europe and how the Spaniards on the island 'embraced' African cultures" (p.263). I feel that this idea of "embrace" is rather unconvincing. While, in transculturation, we do see exchanges between 2 cultures, these exchanges are not necessarily voluntary and "embraced" in a positive way, as Ortiz defines it. Sometimes these exchanges arise simply because two cultures are forced to co-exist, and inevitably they begin to influence one another, whether voluntarily or not.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Folk Culture & Modernity

Both articles this week were full of ideas that really resonated with me. However, I found myself skimming over parts of both articles in search of what was really essential to the arguments being made.

In Mexican Murals in Times of Crisis, by Bruce Campbell, Murals provide a perfect example of what popular culture is in Latin America and shows how all the issues we've discussed to date regarding popular culture work together, culminating in the creation of a work of art. Murals in Mexico have gone through many shifts throughout time, responding to the shifts occurring in Mexican politics. This idea reinforces the rejection of the likening of popular culture to a coral reef in that it proves popular culture is forever changing and adapting to current events occurring in the economic, political or social realms of society. The ability for popular cultural forms to adapt to changing environments keeps it relevant.

Murals in Mexico also blend together notions of "high" culture and low or popular culture. Campbell mentions that the mural combines elements of "European high modernism (futurism, experssionism, cubism) with the ideological and cultural components of a Mexico in the process of institutional consolidation after a protracted and devastating revolutionary war." (p. 14) The use of European high modernism would presumably be categorized as high culture. However, considering the context in which these murals were painted, the political, economic and social turmoil that Mexico was experiencing during this times would most likely appear as topics for these murals. This is a characteristic of popular culture.

There is another way in which murals blend together the ideas of high culture and popular culture. The mural form itself is associated with a certain amount of prestige, as it is considered an art form, thereby categorizing it as high culture. However, the topics and issues depicted in murals usually speak for the people marginalized and oppressed in society, thereby placing murals as a popular culture art form. As well, murals are normally painted in public spheres, accesisble by almost all, again categorizing murals as popular culture. A clash occurs between these two opposing representations of mural art.

Campbell mentions that "mural art continues to be accorded great national prestige as a public cultural form" (p. 29). However, at the same time mural art "is destroyed...[it] falls victim to censorious government officials uncomfortable with the content of images." I find similarities between mural art and Native art in Canada. Mural art is used as a symbol of national identity in Mexico, as Native art is used as a symbol of Canadian National identity, particularly on the West Cost. However, mural art is not regarded well by government officials, while in Canada, Native art and the Native people are not regarded well by not only government officials, but society in general.

I found The Spirit Queen's Court, by Michael Taussig, a difficult, but extremely interesting article to read. I had a bit of difficulty figuring out how the article ties into the topic for this week, folk culture and modernity.

I believe that the interaction between folk culture and modernity is seen with the spiritual encounters and portals used to house these spiritual encounters. The portals all tend to have 4 important figures: the spirit queen, el negro primero, el indio, and the Liberator. I believe these characters portray the interaction between folk culture and modernity. These figures have been given certain meanings by the people. Presumably, the spirit queen and perhaps the negro primero could symbolize folk culture while the Liberator symbolizes modernity. El indio is a bit more confusing. Indigenous-ness is often associated with folk culture, and therefore we might assume el indio to represent it. However, the article mentions that this country has practically no indigenous people, and the depiction of el indio is actually of a US Plains indian. Therefore, el indio is not really a representation of folk culture as it does not originate from the country.

In any case, these figures have been given certain meanings, important in bringing about these spiritual encounters. These rituals, seances, and spiritual awakenings have continued to be performed, despite colonial rule and the imposition of Christianity in Latin America.

Monday, February 23, 2009

So far, so good...

So far, I've thoroughly enjoyed this course. It's definitely lived up to my expectations. I've found the readings for this class interesting, and rather diverse. However, I enjoyed reading the more literary readings, such as the folk tales or the Borges reading, and wish there was a bit more balance between the academic and literary readings. But, maybe I'm speaking too soon! It is, after all, only half way through the semester.

I also like the way the course has been organized. Although we did spend quite a bit of time defining culture and "the people" in general terms before jumping into Latin American-specific popular culture, I felt this was necessary in order to understand the rest of the course.

I have found the readings & discussions we've had on mestizaje and racial mixture particularly interesting. Looking forward in the course, I see we have a few more lectures on this topic, and I am definitely looking forward to learning more about it. I feel like it's a very complex topic, with many different arguments for and against it. I also enjoyed reading the article by Vasconcelos. It was different from your conventional, university-assigned reading in that we were encouraged to challenge the author's arguments and ideas, and not just agree with them.

While the readings have been great, I also enjoyed the use of video and youtube clips that were used at the very beginning of the semester. I find I learn better when a variety of different media is used (such as writing, music, video). Hopefully there will be more of this later on in the course!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Theories of Mixture: Mestizaje

I've covered the topic of "mestizaje" in my previous Latin American Studies course, and what I got out of previous discussions was that this idea of mestizaje is a complex topic. My perceived complexities of mestizaje were furthered confirmed after reading the articles for this week. I felt like the articles were good compliments for each other, and provided varying views on the topic of mestizaje.

Within the first few pages of "The Cosmic Race" by Vasconcelos, I was already astonished by some of the arguments and views taken by the author. For example, to end off the Prologue, Vasconcelos mentions that "A religion such as Christianity made the American Indians advance, in a few centuries, from cannibalism to a relative degree of civlization." There are so many aspects of this quote that I have a problem with. First of all, the author doesn't take a neutral stance in regards to Christianity and religion, basically saying that without Christianity, these people would be lost. The author also perpetuates the dichotomy of uncivilized vs. civilized. What, exactly, does it mean to be civilized? And how did this "relative degree of civilization" manifest itself within the American Indian community? Cannabalism has long been associated with certain indigenous peoples, and it seems the author is saying that cannabalism is an uncivilized practice, as it is not practiced by people of the Western world. However, who are we to judge those people with customs different to our own? Just because we may not practice certain customs, does not make those customs uncivilized or inferior to ours.

Vasconcelos also argues that "Even the pure Indians are Hispanized, they are Latinized, just as the environment itself is Latinized." However, to reflect back on the article written by Rowe and Schelling, they presented a different argument on the topic of mixing. Rowe and Schelling argued that while Indians may be Hispanized, Hispanics are also, and equally so, Indianized. A reciprocated exchange exists between cultures. However, Vasconcelos seems to believe that one culture is more dominant than the other (Hispanic culture dominates Indigenous culture).

I believe that many of the argmuents brought up by Vasconcelos were rather idealized and fantastical. He describes a world where "the aesthetics of cloudiness and grays will be seen as the sickly art of the past." He seems to believe that the mixing of races will bring about not only a so-called "cosmic race" but also a utopian land as well. Vasconcelos argues that with the creation of this cosmic race, racism and prejudism and other such "isms" will be erased, as there will be no racial divides anymore. The thought of this is quite appealing, however, Vasconcelos seems to contradict himself when describing various races. While he believes in a future without racial divides, he describes certain races as an "inferior race," presumably the black and indigenous. In his description of the various races, he perpetuates racist discourse. In conclusion, I found the overall article quite contradictory as Vasconcelos is describing how mestizaje will bring about a cosmic race, eliminating racism and racial divides, but in his descriptions of the various races that will mix to create this cosmic race, he continues to use racist and prejudist discourse.

I found Wade's article easier to read, and also more optimistic in its discussion of mestizaje. I liked how he stressed the fact that mestizaje is not just an ideology for creating a national identity, but is rather a way of living for the people. I think this is an important point to keep in mind. In overlooking the fact that living people are actually involved in the process of mestizaje, we ignore the implications and effects that processes of mestizaje have on the people. I feel like this is an aspect that was missing from Vasconcelo's article. He didn't touch on the profound effects and power struggles that occur under the processes of mestizaje. Wade, on the other hand, takes the discussion of mestizaje to a more grassroots level. I enjoyed the specific examples he gave of music and dance in the Colombian coast as well as mestizaje within families in Brazil and Colombia. Through examples, I had a clearer view of how racial mixing affects the people who are actually mixing. It is not as simple as mixing two different races together. There are issues with mixing cultures as well. "Mestizaje is a space of struggle and contest." This is a key point in the discussion of mestizaje. In mixing races and cultures, there are certain perceptions of which is the more ideal race and which is the more inferior. Wade's article brought to light the many difficulties that arise through mestizaje; difficulties which Vasconcelo's article seemed to gloss over.