review on Morgan James Luker “Tango Renovacion: On the Uses of Music History in Post Crisis Argentina” -C.

November 17, 2008

Morgan James Luker, in his article “Tango Renovacion: On the Uses of Music History in Post Crisis Argentina” tracks the syncronicity of the emergence and renovation of Tango, and the crests and troughs in the economic and political life of Argentina.  He aims to explore how music and history are used as means to deal with political-economic transformations. After the crisis in 2001, Argentineans raised fundamental questions about self and society, and looked for ways of understanding contemporary Argentinean national identity. Taking from older sensibilities, Tango reemergences and gains renewed popularity. Through the renovation of Tango, “the past is sonically brought to bear on the present, which, in turn, is heard as a commentary on the past.”
The paper looks at three case studies, each of which is focused on a particular strategy of renovation: orquestas tipicas, new sung tango ensembles and ‘new form’ tango ensembles. Renovation is the category of analysis that frames and links these three case studies in Luker’s work. Luker juxtaposes past and present and compares  stylistic details, instrumentation, musical repertoires, social conventions as part of the performance between the tango played in the golden age (1950s) and the way tango is interpreted and understood after the economic crisis. Thorough this method, Luker looks at social meanings of music,  how music is understood as a social form of interaction and how music is interpreted and understood by multiple subjects.
The first study case, orquestas tipicas, Luker analyzes how the musical interpretation of the contemporary orquestas resembles, we could even say imitates, those of the orquestas tipicas of the golden age. Music (repertoire, arrangements, instrumentation, melodic phrasing) is reproduced faithfully. Only recorded sound  marks the difference between past and present. This way, musicians explore contemporary national identities through past musical identities. However, Luker explains, the visual representation of the performance opposes the traditional version. The elegance and sophistication of the original orquestas is countered by a new image: tuxedos are replaced by leather jackets, torn jeans, sunglasses, etc.  Tango is then “reinvented as contemporary youth music complicating what might seem like a conservative music strategy.” (76). I thought that this incongruence was poorly explored. Luker presents us with one example of these orquestas tipicas, Fernandez Fiero’s orquesta.  These conflicting attitudes need more elaboration I thought. It is not clear why, in one hand, they are preserving, rescuing the past through music, and in the other, they are undermining it by disregarding to the tradition, or by representing Fernandez Fiero orquesta’s work through forms of violence (their CD’s name is Massive Destruction, destroying a piano in a public space). Is it just “the day-to-day mischief of youthful rebellion, or this generation way of dealing with a long series of economic ruptures, as Luker proposes? I am not convinced.  What are they trying to represent? What are they socially rejecting/opposing. Perhaps presenting interviews with some of the musicians would have strengthen this incongruence. Also, Luker gives us very few examples of these orquestas tipicas. He only gives us the evidence of Fernandez Fiero’s orquesta. Something else that escaped from this paper is the role of the audience. The paper focuses mostly on the performers. Who is the audience listening to tango, attending to tango concerts.


week on music, comments by R.

November 17, 2008

The readings of this week put music in the center and try to intersect historical, cultural and musical studies at once. The diverse focuses of these studies bring interesting insights on the centrality of music (as a dance, performance, history, folklore practice, habitus) in our Latin American societies. As many authors have shown with alcohol beverages, that it seems present in all societies and cultures, the same one can argue that music is organized and experienced as constitutive of everyday experience and subjectivity.
Gonzalez’s work on the socio-historic and cultural production of music in Chile shows the local and trans-local continuous interplay of music and dance, gender relations, and mass cultural production that create the unique and distinctive Chilean music. There were specific “social circumstances of production and consumption of that repertoire; and how people have created a musical repertoire to be something that is meaningful to them.” And this endless change and stability as well as modernization and conservation in Chile (and Latin America too) is in part resulted by this hybrid forms of modernization/tradition in constant tension as Garcia Canclini has shown.
In the case of Morgan Luker, the social and historical process that revitalized Tango with new contents and forms can arguably be situated in the Argentina post-2001 crisis or in the 1990s; but I think it goes beyond that. I agree with Luker that Tango in Argentina (still do not know if it is accurate to say Argentina or Buenos Aires or big urban cities of the center of the country) in the last decades has being a “way to (re)exploring and (re)articulating a sense of Argentine identity that was radically undermined by the 2001 crisis and the political climate that contributed to it.” But this renovation and re-experimentation has long historical roots. The process that put Tango in the center of the Argentina social imaginary was a complex mix of cultural industries such as publishing, sounds recording, films, radio broadcasting and newspapers which all created a sense of modern Argentina. Even social elites at certain point (after rejecting it) embraced the both sophisticated, cosmopolitan and physically and sensually charged music/dance practice. It is weird for me to read about the different groups cited by Luker (I have seen and listening to some of them, and know all of them) and how they are reenacting and rejecting some of the past legacies, recreating new forms and contents of this “modern” Tango. What is difficult for me is to separate the text/case from the context, because I could argue that in each of the several phases that Tango has experiment from the 1920s, to the 1950s, to the 1990s, and the 2000s people were adjusting, changing, and resisting change at the same time. The big orchestras in Argentina were influenced by the big bands of Jazz in US, Piazzolla was then influencing the big Jazz musicians, and although it is true that many musicians (old and young) do not like Piazzolla the majority would talk about him with a great respect, as a major figure not only in Tango but in the modern western music. I agree with Luker that there was a big gap for 20 or 30 years in which Tango was only associated with old people, something that was stuck in the past. Now there are literally an explosion of all kind of bands, subgenres within Tango, and experimentations with both lyrics and music. But still do not know how much these changes are connected with the 2001 crisis. It is clear that after the crisis Argentina, specially Buenos Aires, became a major tourist attraction (before with the currency tied to the American dollar Buenos Aires was one of the 10 most expensive cities of the world) and so Tango was transformed as cultural commodity in forms of souvenirs, Tango shows, milongas for foreigners that came to learn how to dance, Tango’s festival and so on. But if the question for Luker is not “what is tango?” but “what is done with it?” and “how is it used?” I can see only a long historical process that goes beyond 2001 and even the 1990s. Though I agree that it can be seen as the particular form in which Argentina, with its injustices, political and cultural diversity, and ways of inhabit our own notions of modernity and tradition, is constantly rethinking itself as a massive, cultural and popular experience.
Peter Wade’s study on Colombia shows music as a multi-layer practice that engage listening, dancing, writing, talking, performing as both a subject and identity formation. He also highlights how different forms of music could be linked with (a)moral, racial, and social qualities depending the different regional and social positions people occupy in the Colombian social grid. In Colombia there is a great division between the coast and the Andes, between the South and the Caribbean, therefore regional differences are very important. He mentions that some of the Afro-American people would even say that certain habitus would be performed or felt in different locations. For instance if they were to go to a non-black house they would not feel comfortable, but in one of their black house they would feel very free, like “without any clothes”, a sense of relief and openness. However, the author reminds us that these images of “naturally” dancers, open, musical and relax can also convey ideas of primitiveness; ideas that are somehow portrayed by both black and non-black people in very different ways. But Colombia, in the same way that Argentina or Chile was also open to transnational musical influences. From Salsa to other types of music Colombia has experienced all sort of influences coming from the Tango and the adoration to Gardel in Medellin to many West-African and Caribbean music. So at the end the study of music could be a really rich venue to look at how people situate themselves and struggle for their own sense of comfort and identity.

Music and Sound in Latin America – Comments by O.

November 16, 2008

The five readings for this week explore a wide range of themes and methodologies linking music, culture, society, and history (González 2005; Hilmes 2005; Luker 2007; Trotman 2007; Wade 2002). The article written by Juan Pablo González (2005) reports on a performance and research project undertaken at the Catholic University of Chile that examines Chilean popular music produced between 1880 and 1950. González’s main contribution consists in helping to forge a well-deserved place for the study of popular music within academic settings. This project is important because, as González points out, popular music continues to be considered marginal to many academic endeavours, and classical music continues to be regarded as the only field deserving close examinations. Recounting the staging of two shows, From the Salon to the Cabaret in 2002, and Radio Days in Chile in 2003, the author explains the path he embarked in to legitimize the performance and serious research of popular music, while at the same time illuminating the performance, production, and consumption, or to put it simply, the social history of popular music in Chile at the turn of the century. Morgan James Luker (2007), in turn, looks at tango renovation few years before and after the Argentine economic crisis of December 2001. Luker examines three different forms of tango renovation: the first tango renovation form Luker explores is the “New Orquestas Típicas,” inspired in Carlos Gardel and seeking to preserve the stylistic practices and sound of historical orchestras intact. The second tango renovation form is that of the “New Sung Tango Ensembles,” which add a male singer to what used to be mainly instrumental music, and use the lunfardo slang extensively in their lyrics. Finally, Luker examines a more eclectic form of tango that mixes rock nacional with more some stylistic practices from Golden Age tango, to give life to the widely heard “New Form Tango Ensembles.” The author advances the idea that “musical style and history are used as a means of negotiating political-economic ruptures in a specifically music way” (2007: 71). David V. Trotman (2007) examines calypso in Trinidad and Tobago as a medium in which Creole nationalist narratives were expressed after independence. Instead of focusing on the content of those post-independence nationalist narratives themselves, Trotman looks at the ways in which the local calypso tradition served a perfect medium to popularize such historical narratives effectively. Peter Wade (2002), in turn, analyzes the role of music in both the formation of black identity and the perception of black populations among black and non-black peoples in Unguía and Medellín, Colombia. The author found that whereas vallenato and salsa were mainly listened and danced to in local dance halls frequented by working-class black peoples from the Coast, Argentine tangos and Mexican rancheras were mainly listened to in bars dominated by lighter-skinned mestizos from the highland interior of this country. Wade argues that music opens an important space for black identity consciousness to emerge, while at the same time he cautions that the mainstreaming and appropriation of this music by non-black peoples poses the risk of reproducing stereotypes of black people, confining blackness to “an enjoyable spectacle” (2002: 27). Finally, Michele Hilmes (2005) reviews two books recently published in the field of sound culture studies, and in doing so challenges the readers and interested scholars to move pass the study of sound in film, and to delve into the critical examination of the context in which sound is culturally manufactured, controlled, and perceived.


Of the five readings, Peter Wade’s examination of the role of music on black identity formation in two Colombian cities was the one I found most compelling. I think I found this article interesting for it illuminates some of the racial and “sexual” dimensions of music, and the ways in which social markers of hierarchy get produced and reproduced depending on what kind of music one listens, and more importantly it seems, one dances to. Delving into the study of the production of music and sound, as Hilmes (2005), Luker (2007), and González (2005) do is a topic fascinating in itself. However, I did find that looking at the meaning and associations attached to particular kinds of music performance and consumption opened a wider array of fascinating questions for an anthropologist like myself.


Works Cited:

González, Juan Pablo

2005 The Making of a Social History of Popular Music in Chile: Problems, Methods, and Results. Latin American Music Review 26(2): 248-272.


Hilmes, Michele

2005  Is There a Field Called Sound Culture Studies? And Does It Matter? American Quarterly 57(1): 249-259.


Luker, Morgan James

2007  Tango Renovación: On the Uses of Music History in Post-Crisis Argentina. Latin American Music Review 28(1): 68-93.


Trotman, David V.

2007  Performing the History: Contesting Historical Narratives in Trinidad and Tobago. Canadian Journal of Latin American & Caribbean Studies 32(63): 73-109.


Wade, Peter

2002  Music and the Formation of Black Identity in Colombia. NACLA Report on the Americas 35(6): 21-27.

week on music, comments by T.

November 15, 2008


The role of music in social and political identity-formation in modern Latin America is the common theme in the articles by Luker, Trotman, and Wade, and the varied approaches that these authors bring to their investigations seems to attest to the wide-ranging possibilities that this area of study affords. Luker discusses the revival of the musical form of the tango in the context of Argentina’s end-of-the-century economic crisis from the perspective of the musicians and their expressive intentions and strategies; by treating the musical form and its performance as a historical variable he is able to gain intriguing insights into the relationship between past and present in national imaginings. Trotman’s investigation follows a similar path, but discovers a more direct, political use of the calypso of Trinidad and Tobago, which became a textual medium for challenging hegemonic creole narratives of national history. Peter Wade’s study of the role of, especially, salsa and the vallenato in the creation of black identity in Colombia is closer to Luker than to Trotman in that it deals mostly with social, not necessarily politicized identities, but differs from both authors in its focus on the consumption of music by listening and dancing. Thus, while all three studies are about music within historical contexts that give these activities social and political inflections, Wade is alone in having studied the actual social and political impact of music, independent of the musicians’ intentions.
While the range of Luker, Trotman, and Wade’s approaches demonstrates the vitality and promise of the historical study of music, this is not matched by any awareness or self-reflexivity on its limitations on the part of the authors. Music, after all, is but one aspect of culture, which is but one aspect of people’s sense of belonging. More complete investigations into music’s role in social and political identity formation would have to take into account the way that it is embedded in other cultural, social, and political trends and practices.

“Backwards Attitudes”, Violence, and the Valuation of Life – comments by K.

November 3, 2008


            The selections we read this week by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, James Charlton, and Rita Segato all speak to the extreme idealism and relative novelty of discourses on human rights and the ‘sanctity of life.’ This idealism is laid bare against a backdrop of different forms of everyday, normalized violence, which raises important questions about the relationship between morality and culture.

            Scheper-Hughes broaches a difficult subject in Death Without Weeping, and confronts head-on the reality that the high rates of infant mortality in Bom Jesus da Mata have been normalized to the extent that mothers do not mourn the deaths of their very young infants.  Scheper-Hughes makes an explicitly materialist argument for this phenomenon, contending that “mother love” is not “universal or innate” but depends instead on the “basic material conditions that define women’s reproductive lives” (401).  In this sense, given the material conditions that give rise to high infant mortality, it is only rational to bear many children and delay attachment to those children until one is certain they will survive early childhood.  While I generally resist strictly material explanations of anything, preferring to look for relationship between the material and the ideological, Scheper-Hughes’s argument is compelling.  Perhaps there are some material conditions that are so profound in their impact that they do indeed play a truly definitive role.  This is what Scheper-Hughes refers to in her discussion of extraordinary situations that create a “suspension of the ethical” (22).

            Charlton’s chapter on the deprivations and discriminations that people with disabilities suffer in everyday life, particularly in ‘developing’ countries, links to Scheper-Hughes’s argument in an important way. He quotes one disability rights activist as saying that children with disabilities are “luxuries” that most poor families can ill afford.  While Charlton attributes the difficulties that people with disabilities experience to, in part, “backwards attitudes,” Scheper-Hughes’s analysis suggests, along with the activist mentioned above, that there is perhaps more at work here.  Leaving aside for the moment the teleology implied in the notion of certain attitudes as “backwards,” it seems to me that the very real conditions of material scarcity must contribute to the neglect and abandonment to which people with disabilities are sometimes subject.  Similar conditions lead women in Bom Jesus da Mata to neglect ‘sickly’ children, because an unwell and thus especially needy child is also a ‘luxury’ that they cannot afford.  The point is that in the face of the everyday violence of scarcity and hunger, these kinds of utilitarian calculations over the value of particular lives seem more logical, if no less tragic.

            Segato, in a more oblique way, also decries the existence of backward attitudes that contribute to violence against women, what she calls “traditional” structures of gender relations (3-4) which are in opposition to “modern” law and the promotion of human rights.  While there are many problems with this article, not least of which is the essentialization of “negros” and “indigenas” whose social movements are somehow always in conflict with human rights (10-11), there is one point I would like to emphasize here.  Segato points out that gender-based violence is so normalized that many women who experience it do not recognize their physical abuse as domestic violence.  To my mind, this relates to the idealism of human rights discourses, and raises an important question to which I have no answer.  How do we right about violence that has been so normalized?  Is condemning that violence merely another facet of cultural bias, or is there some other plane of analysis, an ethical or moral one, that can become the final arbiter of this violence?  And again, how is that possible if a particular ethical/moral framework is inevitably culturally conditioned?  Ultimately, these questions revolve around the issue of moral and cultural relativism, and if there is a point at which the relativism stops. 

LA History directed readings, health and disability – by T.

November 3, 2008

Koesbiono Sarmanhadi thinks that the marginalization of the disabled in Indonesia is “attributable to a lack of education, which in turn is connected to Indonesia’s level of poverty, our poor development.” Fernando Rodriguez blames the same phenomenon in Mexico on “backward attitudes and the lack of economic development.” And the author of the chapter talks of “enlightened attitudes… in zones of advanced economic development” that offer opportunities to the disabled that would be unthinkable in places that haven’t been touched by modernization. The connection between the modern and emancipatory opportunities for historically oppressed groups of people, simply assumed by James Charlton, is discussed explicitly by Rita Laura Segato in connection with violence against women. Segato takes it as a universal fact that ethnic groups achieve cohesion to a large extent through asserting control over the bodies of their – ‘their’ – women: “La libertad de la mujer en el sistema moral tradicional basado en el status emascula al hombre y fragiliza al grupo.” It would seem, then, that an insistence on women’s rights runs directly counter to attempts of colonized or marginalized groups to oppose the hegemony of the Western oppressors.


How to deal with this dilemma, morally and historically, if Segato’s assumptions are indeed true? It seems to me that it is necessary to question the link not between modernity and emancipatory discourses of individual rights, but between modernity and an oppressive, colonizing, Europe-cradled West. The point would be that what we loosely call modernity – let us say, an enormous expansion and densification of the webs of relationships in which people are involved in all spheres of their lives (cultural, social, political, economic) – may well have originated in Europe and its colonial offshoots, but people’s responses to this novel situation spring from local and, indeed, individual encounters and struggles that may replicate themselves (the repertoire of human actions and feelings being finite), but are always more than mere replications. Thus, one of the most notable aspect of the 1994 Zapatista rebellion in Southern Mexico was, and continues to be, its simultaneous identification with collective and women’s rights.


The point is, then, that there is not one but multiple modernities. Old news, I know, but this is all I got for this week.

Review of “Medicalizing the Mexican” by Natalia Molina – C.

November 3, 2008

Two underlying purposes for writing the articles “Medicalizing the Mexican” by Natalia Molina, “Las Estructuras Elementales de la Violencia” by Rita L. Segato and “Observations on Everyday Life” by James Charlton might be, one, to disclose patterns of oppression hidden in daily life practices that have become “normality” around the categories of gender, race and disability. Two, bring awareness regarding patterns of  discrimination and exclusion. For this review I will just concentrate on Molina’s  “Medicalizing the Mexican”.

In “Medicalizing the Mexican” Molina argues that discourses of disability and race shaped U.S. immigration policies and regulations in the early decades of the twentieth century. Molina focuses on Mexican migrants. By presenting the changes in the policies of the U.S. Immigration Act since 1917 to the late 1920s, Molina shows the growing patterns of discrimination and exclusion towards Mexican laborers. The links between Mexicans and diseases such as TB began to impact border-crossing policies after the 1920s, stigmatizing Mexicans as disease carriers. “Anti-immigrationist began promoting an image of the racially inferior and diseased Mexican <…> Health officials made unprecedented contributions to the new view of Mexicans as an undesirable immigrant group.” She explains how the word Mexican became a category of race and not of nationality. Race was linked to health, and healthy bodies, physically capable for labor determined what constituted a desirable or non-desirable immigrant. Molina’s methodology of “blurring the boundaries between categories of race and disability” can prove useful and illuminating when trying to understand processes of exclusion and discrimination. Certainly, the case of Mexican laborers in the U.S. is just one example of many. We could look through the lenses of the categories of disability and race to study the racialized immigration regulations of Canada before the 1960s. Immigrants from England and the northern European nations were favored over others. Perhaps this was because immigrants from the northern European nations  matched the normative physical attributes and met the required characteristic of the constructed modal subject: white, able-bodied, strong, healthy, better suited for the Northern weather.
Indeed, studying the connections between race, migration and disability can disclose patterns of discrimination and exclusion present in our society today. When today, immigrants from underdeveloped nations have to go through extensive medical examinations to enter first world countries, undocumented Mexicans immigrants working in the U.S. are denied public services such as education and medical care, studies such as this one become extremely valuable.

Health, Disability, Rights, and Violence – Comments by O.

November 3, 2008

The quandary of whether universal human rights should be focused on granting civil individual rights and/or social collective rights to people around the world has torn scholars, activists, and feminist alike almost since year 1948. This year marks the signature of Universal Declaration of Human Rights by almost all (if not all) official nation-states existing at that time. The horrors of the WW II struck everyone so profoundly that the emergence of what we now know as “human rights” seemed like an inevitable moral responsibility of every nation-state involved in the effort to reconstruct the world after a tremendous war. At no other time in the history of international politics there has been a unanimous signature and ratification of an international legal document. And this is of course highly commendable and impressive.


However, what seemed as a striking achievement in international politics would also be the source of hotly polemics, debates, interpretation, and contestation worldwide almost immediately. Many people seemed preoccupied that the definition of “human rights” as the 1948 Declaration stated, was in fact limiting, and thus, the very concepts of what “human rights” are (and should be) has been in constant redefinition since then. Cross-cultural interpretations, appropriations, and contestations of human rights have been one of the key sources of disagreement among the parties. The (re)interpretations of Rights and the cross-cultural challenges posed have been multiple, and these have become more apparent since the decade of 1990s. By the 1995 Beijing Conference, for instance, women’s activists had questioned male-biased ideas ingrained in the Declaration, and called for a careful reading of the declaration, taking into account the setbacks male-biased interpretations and practices of human rights had had on women on the ground. Thus, first generation human rights, with a focus on civil rights, paved the way for the emergence of second and, more recently, third generation human rights, with a preoccupation for political and collective social rights respectively.


I think all four readings for this week touched upon these contradictions and tensions regarding human rights, and each of the authors gave his/her own approach to them. Segato (2003) focuses on the dilemmas posed by granting human rights to women as individuals, this is emphasizing the idea of bodily integrity, or as members of a collective group or a  community. Scheper-Hughes (1992) focuses on the multiple and complex constraints of people living under extreme conditions of poverty, and looks at the decisions these people have to make to cope with high infant mortality rates under structural poverty and relentless violence. The notion of “lifeboat ethics” speaks to some of the challenges of cross-cultural communication that Segato-s article rightly points out in regards to VAW. Molina (2006) in turn deals with the interrelation between race, disease, disability, immigration, and public health policies, particularly when these connections are heightened in light of touch conditions that expose anxieties about immigrants’ bodies. Lastly, Charlton (1998) expands on the notion of disability and the services available (or lack thereof) for people with disabilities worldwide. What all these authors point to is to our need of taking into account the challenges of cross-cultural communication (and miscommunication) on these issues, and to the revisions that have been made in our understanding of “human rights” since the Universal Declaration first appeared. I would expect that people working on all of these areas—health, disabilities, VAW, and so on—would continue to make a great contribution in expanding our notions of human rights.  I think that the struggles around the right to a live free from violence, and free from violence against women, the right to have access to health services, the right to challenge a normative able-bodied construction of the world, and the right to question from anti-racist standpoint all of these ideas, will continue to be key in the shifting notions of HR.


Works Cited:

Charlton, James

1998    Observations on Everyday Life. In: Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment. Pp. 83-111. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Molina, Natalia

2006    Medicalizing the Mexican: Immigration, Race, and Disability in the Early-Twentieth-Century United States. Radical History Review 94: 22-37.


Scheper-Hughes, Nancy

1992    Introduction: Tropical Sadness; Everyday Violence: Bodies, Death, and Silence; Our Lady of Sorrows: A Political Economy of the Emotions. In: Death Without Weeping: the Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Pp. 1-50, 216-267, 400-445. Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: University of California Press.


Segato, Rita Laura

2003    Las estructuras elementales de la violencia: contrato y status en la etiología de la violencia. Brasilia: Serie Antropologica

medicalization, everyday forms of violence, and disability comments by R.

November 3, 2008

Health, Violence, Disability in LA
Pre-preliminary note: I was with temperature and headache all day long so I could not finish my comments on Molina, Segato and Charlton… I go back to bed.
Preliminary note: I chose these readings having in mind that they are very different in their focus and content. In a strict sense none of them are related with health, all of them are dealing with everyday forms of violence, some of them touch issues of disability, and some of them only focus on Latin America (I put Charlton to have a wider view of disability in the Third World beyond Latin America). I think that Molina’s text is the one that somehow connect all the 4 readings in her attempt to grasp the medicalization, violence, genderization and racialization of Mexican workers in Southwest of US. She analyzes not only health policies and the extent of the medicalization process but also the historical forces that racialized Mexican population, and the central role that disability and able-bodyness play in the characterization of these workers’ bodies as fit or unfit for the types of labor they were expected to perform when brought from Mexico.
Natalia Molina. Medicalizing the Mexican.
One important concern that Molina addresses in this text is her necessity to move beyond the conceptualization of race vis-à-vis (im)migration in the case of Mexican worker moving to USA. This is only one part of the picture; the other is to link it with the emergence of critical disability studies. Therefore, immigration, social construction of race, and the political production of dis-abled bodies was central to the public and hidden scripts of Southwest USA at the end of 19th century and beginning of 20th century. The “targeting” of Mexican rural workers according to their physical characteristics as desired (able bodies) at specific times and undesired (disabled bodies) in another period of time is clearly analyzed by Molina. But the clashes Mexican had were at multiple levels. Sometimes the capitalists wanted them to work but the Labor Unions opposed them with the alleged reason that Mexicans were taking jobs away from the white workers. At the same period of time, other immigrants, more famously Chinese, were isolated in Angel Island and put under extreme surveillance due to the risk of passing on diseases or being unfit to work. But Mexicans until 1924 were crossing the border almost without any type of medical or police control.
[I could not finish it]
Nancy Scheper-Hughes. Death Without Weeping.
Violence, politics of affect and limits to the anthropological discourse/practice
A crucial task within social sciences has been the exploration of the beginning and end of life. Bioethical concerns are always present when we think on speeding up or delaying the “normal” life processes on both extremes. Bringing into life a healthy human being, seeing it grow and developing personhood is something most middle-class westerners’ assume to be natural. However, these ideas of personhood (and humanness as well), and especially when a person begins, could be seen very differently even inside the western world, but in different socio-economic and cultural conditions. Whether for economic, cultural, and other complex conditions, adults seem to transfer to the newborn the “agency” to determine for his/herself the right to live or die, from birth to age one. A state of “pre-personhood” or “pre-sociality” characterizes this period.
Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ Death Without Weeping (1992) is an extremely challenging piece of anthropological work that specifically tries to focus on this social “window.” One wonders, whether the babies of the “Alto de Cruzeiro” are pre-social persons, with “agency” to influence their will to live or die, or is the infant mortality better understood as “choices” by the highly fertile vulnerable mothers selectively choosing their scarce emotional and material resources and investing them in the babies that seem to have a better chance to survive? This book is probably less about infant mortality and more about how we can think as outsiders/middleclass professional/westerners about the major frame of social inequalities that causes not only infant mortality, but also a wide range of social problems inseparable linked with the specific deaths of these babies/infants. In doing so, I mean in connecting infant mortality with poverty, social abandonment and emotional stress, Scheper-Hughes is putting her emphasis in what she calls the “moral relativism and the primacy of the ethical” in relation to the “everyday violence, political and domestic horror, and madness” (1992: 21). She is stating clearly that is difficult to understand the highly rate of infant deaths without considering the other social factors of this violent equation. She is arguing that we need the guidance of the ethics to have a realistic “moral relativism.” So the ethics in this context is the socio-political context that produces these infants’ deaths.

I think Scheper-Hughes main premise can be found at the beginning of Chapter 9, “Our Lady of Sorrows: A Political Economy of the Emotions.” There, she discusses the “old” and “new” reproductive strategies, and the derivation of modern notions of “mother love.” The latter strategy is relatively new even in the modern western world, and for Scheper-Hughes it does not represent the “maternal thinking and practice” of the majority of women living under very poor conditions in many parts of the third world. Scheper-Hughes defines it as, “to give birth to few infants and to ‘invest’ heavily (emotionally as well as materially) in each one from birth onward” (402). In contrast, she identifies the “old” reproductive strategy as, “to give birth to many children and, on the expectation that only a few will survive infancy, to invest selectively in those considered ‘best bets’ for survival in terms of preferred sex, birth order, appearance, health, or perceived viability” (402). This strategy, for Scheper-Hughes, implies a very different type of maternal thinking and practice and a “multiplicity of truths conforming to radically different experiences of reproduction and motherhood” (402).

Poverty, in extreme forms, the effects of “sugar-cane-capitalism” and its impact in health and wellness (hungriness and stress, violence and alienation) are some of the socio-economical conditions of the people who live in this shantytown, pseudo-named by Scheper-Hughes as “Alto do Cruzeiro,” in the Northeastern Brazilian province of Recife. Here, scarcity and unmet needs are part of the daily lives of all, but perhaps they become worst in one of the basic relationships in society: mother-infant. Indeed, Scheper-Hughes chooses this particular relation to see “the consequences of hunger, death, abandonment, and loss on ways of thinking, feeling, acting, and being in the world” (1992: 26). This place in the world, the Nordeste of Brazil, “contributes” to one of four childhood deaths in all Latin America (Aguiar 1987). This is the land of sugar plantation monoculture, and its specific socio-economic and political formation with ultra-conservative patron-client relationships. The northeastern of Brazil, in 1992, is also the land of “hierarchy, privilege and distinction” (226), and the aftermath of the bloody military-dictatorship of 1970-80s, and the neo-liberal policies supported by the IMF and the World Bank in the late 1980s-early 1990s.

It seems that from a middle-class’ perspective death and early childhood are diametrically opposed, the extremely high rate of infant mortality in the third world are far away from the mental, emotional and social experiences of wider parts of the first world. Scheper-Hughes’ attempt to portray this “other world” seeks to understand the social causes and conditions of this more “closer death.” The emotional and physical burden, on a region where every life is directly or indirectly affected by “end of life at the beginning of life,” is Scheper-Hughes’ major focus. She examines the reality of a social marginal place where mothers have few material resources for protecting their children from disease, hunger, abandonment, and poor living conditions. But she also pays special attention to the emotional and symbolical resources of these vulnerable women, this “(m)other love” as she called it, resources that they apply for finding meaning to their actions, thinking and feelings. In one way or another, Scheper-Hughes’ fieldwork questions are grounded in her aim to understand the phenomenon of child/infant mortality, trying to divorce the moral concerns attached to “motherhood,” “maternal instincts” and “infanticide,” but also de-individualizing and collectivizing these social conditions.

The book examines a key question: In our super-technologized and medicalized life, death can only be understood as a failure (technological in the first world, of care in the third world) but never as a vital cycle that sometimes cannot be completed, as in the case of these children (failure of “maternal love”) that die when this “should not” happen? These are social deaths, and these mothers and their families collectively respond and act upon their experiences of suffering and their ways to find meaning through these experiences.
The “thinking and practice” of these women, their reactions to their infants’ reactions, their strategies of investing less material/emotional resources (in a context of extreme scarcity), their choice to neither baptized nor give them names until their first anniversary, all these phenomenon are part of the politics of affect. Scheper-Hughes illustrates how terror, pain, sorrow, joy, loss, and so on, frame a “political economy of the emotions expressed in the somatization of scarcity and deprivation” (1992: 326).
Due to high rate of infant death, thoughts/feelings are not at first objectified in their babies/infants. The first year of life in Alto do Cruzeiro is primarily seen as pre-personhood:
The women of the Alto are slow to “personalize” infants by attributing specific meanings to their whimpers, cries, facial expressions, flailing of arms and leg, kicks and screams. (…) Alto women do not scan the infant’s face to note resemblances to other family members. Naming practices follow a similar logic: many Alto infants can remain unnamed and unbaptized until they reach their first birthday (413).

It seems that Alto women deliberately choose not to weep for the death of these children, there is no particular emotion attached in the care and rise of these unnamed and unbaptized children. However, the fact that these women do not show particular emotions does not imply any affect. Until the Alto infant “request” his/her personal right to full human status, “the affection shown the infant and young baby is general and nonspecific. ‘Who doesn’t enjoy a baby?’ people ask” (415). Consequently, from a generalized (impersonal) affect gradually emerges the personalization of these infants by means of the social rituals of naming and baptism. In the interim, before the “collective” infants are individualized, in the Alto “small children circulate among relatives and are often reared by more than one mother; on moving into a new household, the child may be given a different name or nickname” (414). Each Alto child incarnates multiple potential identities. Only later, and “gradually and slowly,” does the infant come “to earn his personal claim to full human status and with it his claim to a personal name and his right to the affections and passionate attachment of his mother” (415). This attachment and personalization of both mother and infant fixes the multiple potential identities, the “collective” pre-person creature, in one single personal identity. Mazie (one of Scheper-Hughes’s informants) maintains that before this stage “the infant is without history. The infant’s story is not yet made up; it has no shape to it. And so the loss is not a big one; it is not heavy.” (437).

I started to read this book with one vague memory of it, I remember reading it some years before and thinking that the real voices of these women were somehow covered by Scheper-Hughes authoritative voice. However, after reading it more in depth I have found an honest and critical attempt to grasp the “ungraspable:” which is the limit of the anthropological knowledge/action in situations of “life and death”? She was “there” like all anthropologists, but she was “among them” and their precarious lives in a context of violence, death, and suffering. Only now, writing this conclusion, I realize that the strategies of these women shown by Scheper-Hughes are a collective response to a collective problem. Instead of our usual individualization and personalization since the very conception, these mothers can only slowly and gradually subjectified them and their infants, only when they show their “will to live.” Before that the infants are taken care by many women, have no names or many nicknames, have no “official” entrance to society through baptism, in other words, these infants are treated as collective entity without individualization.
As I said, I was going to criticize Scheper-Hughes for taking away these women’s voices, thoughts and feelings; but now I am wondering in which other forms could these issues being treated? Perhaps, Scheper-Hughes’s choice to be there, talking with these women, and understanding what they feel and think, her option of really be there opened her eyes to see their experiences as part of the old reproductive strategy still present in many societies of our world. And this, in turn, denaturalized her/our own ways of thinking and feeling in relation to motherhood, childhood and life and death.

week on religion, comments by T

October 27, 2008

Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels; Pessar, From Fanatics to Folk


In her study of the Pedro Batista-millenarian movement, Patricia Pessar sets her own theoretical approach apart from that of Marxist historians for whom the millenarianists’ religion “was a vehicle for prepolitical mobilization or a mask for authentic class struggle” (6). The case of the Santa Brígida community shows, she argues, that millenarian movements were attempts to adapt folk Catholicism to changing and trying times, and thus to construct alternative modernities.
I have to wonder to what extent Pessar’s study really improves on Marxist analyses of millenarianism. In one of the studies that Pessar criticizes, Eric Hobsbawm argues that millenarianism shared with modern revolutionary movements a “profound and total rejection of the present, evil world, and a passionate longing for another and better one” (57), as well as the actual experience of such a better world in the social relations within the movement itself, which appeared to demonstrate to its adherents the realism of their utopian hopes (61-3). This analysis seems to fit the Pedro Batista movement well enough up to the time of Batista’s death or shortly before, when it was politically compliant while radically rejecting prevalent models of social and economic relations between its members. It is only with the beginning of internal politicking and stratification that the movement ceased to fit into a Marxist mould and seemed to be held together no longer by any lived reality of utopian hope but by religious discourse. Here, Marxist theory, for which “religious discourse serves no other purpose than to mask class struggle” (Pessar, 228), does indeed prove inadequate as an analytical tool. Marxist historians might very well answer, however, that the movement ceases to be a matter for historians precisely at the moment that it no longer masks – ‘expresses’ is a better word – class struggle, broadly understood as the rejection of present productive relations. becoming instead a matter for theologians, cultural theorists, or, indeed, ethnographers.
On a personal note, the book certainly held my interest much better in chapters one to four than through its chronicle of communal decline and folklorization in subsequent chapters, where it concerned itself no longer with Santa Brígida’s position within a broader historical trajectory but mainly with its internal tensions and petty squabbles. Here, Pessar’s discussion should have brought out (continued to bring out) the relation of the community to larger structures of power more explicitly, to have broken out of the insularity of the ethnographic mode. To me, a focus on religious practice is interesting only as long as this practice also expresses or constitutes a political position; the intriguing question about Santa Brígida, which Pessar fails to address, is how and why it ceased doing so and became, instead, one of many purely social and spiritual practices.