Is the Modern Destroying Popular Cultures?

Anita De Melo
University of Georgia
One issue of interest today is the state of “traditional” or “popular” cultures in the age of globalization. The modern has had a great impact on popular cultures in Latin America. But whether its influence has been positive or negative is a matter of debate. Jonathan Kandell, in his piece for the Los Angeles Times Magazine, claims to document an instance in which an ethnic culture has survived intact despite its participation in a global market. Beatriz Sarlo, on the other hand, claims that popular cultures are on the whole threatened by globalization and mass media. Sarlo, however, affirms that under the right circumstances globalization can actually empower popular cultures.

In her article “Popular Cultures, Old and New,” Sarlo cites “rural peasant” and “working-class” cultures as examples of popular cultures. However, because of the slippery nature of the term “popular”, she seems at times to waver when defining the essential characteristics of traditional cultures. While she insists that “there are no uncontaminated cultures, or any cultures contaminated only by elite domination” (103), in the same article she asserts that, “Rural peasant cultures have vanished, or uncontaminated rural cultures at least” (88). Overall, Sarlo seems to strike a middle ground, refusing to concede that cultures can exist in total isolation, insisting that globalization has brought about unprecedented change for local cultures.

So, what were they like in the past? How have they changed? Sarlo’s treatment of these questions is somewhat flawed. According to her, these cultures were characterized by “blind obedience to traditional forms of symbolic authority” (90), which she defines as caudillos, politicians, “old-style intellectuals,” property owners, priests, teachers, and fathers. She celebrates the breaking down of these forms of authority in the age of mass media, seeming to attribute this to new technologies of communication and other trappings of a globalizing world. While her argument is compelling, I believe she draws an unnecessarily stark contrast between yesterday and today. For surely one can speak of resistance to domination even in the heyday of traditional culture, even before the undertaking of national educational initiatives in Latin American countries. This is certainly not a new or modern phenomenon.

Sarlo persuasively argues that globalization has had some positive consequences. Mass media, for example, has benefited traditional cultures in part by moving the locus of power away from the lettered elite. At the same time, she asserts, homogenizing mass media have begun to dissolve the uniqueness of and cohesion within each culture. Sarlo concludes with a call to action. In order to allow local cultures the ability to freely express themselves in all their rich diversity, what is needed, she writes, is “a strong school system and greater possibilities of choosing from different audiovisual offerings that might pose a challenge to what is offered by the capitalist media outlets, all of which are as undifferentiated as are the commodities they produce” (106).

For Sarlo, the full potential of mass media has yet to be fulfilled. Indeed, one is left questioning whether she is confident that that will ever actually happen. Jonathan Kandell, on the other hand, has written a celebratory account of globalization and its effects on a local culture. His article examines a group of Ecuadorian Indians, the Otavalenos, and proposes that the modern has truly empowered this group. In a world made smaller by globalization, the Otavalenos travel to cities like Tokyo, Frankfurt and Chicago, selling their ethnic wares in places where demand is high. As a result, they have been “elevated to an affluence never before attained by Latin America’s indigenous peoples since the white conquest of the New World” (22). Up to two-thirds of Otavalenos, observes Kandell, are middle class by Ecuadorian standards, surpassing many whites and mestizos. Otavalenos even attend universities, graduating with medical, sociology, and film degrees.

At the same time, Kandell insists that the Otavalenos have not lost their “identity” despite having been fully integrated into the “modern” world. “We were taught,” observes one Otavaleno, “that as Ecuador’s society modernized, we Indians would disappear.” Instead, he insists, “We’ve modernized, worked with the system created by whites and mestizos, learned its rules — and it’s all helped us to maintain our indigenous ways rather than abandon them” (22).

In “Postmodernity and Transnational Capitalism in Latin America,” George Yúdice argues that “modernity does not have to be theorized in the traditional avant-gardists’ terms of tradición de ruptura. Rather than a still unfinished project, as Habermas understands it, modernity in Latin America is a series of necessarily unfinished projects.” (20). We might take the Otavalenos at their word and concede that they have been able to retain some of their traditional ethnicity. But we also cannot fail to ignore the contradiction inherent in the fact that Otavalenos “dress in the most current foreign fashions and are versed in the latest music from abroad” (29). Although Kandell does not use the word, the Indians in his article seem to have taken on a form of hybridism, moving between the “traditional” and the “modern.” Like the resident of the “little mountain town” (86) in Sarlo’s introduction, who uses a videotape of his kidnapped horse to his advantage, the Otavalenos have capitalized on industrial, transportation and communication technologies to achieve prosperity. In that sense, they have fully achieved the kind of empowerment that Sarlo claims globalization can provide. But while Sarlo seems to believe that the lettered elite has been dethroned by mass media, globalization in its current guise still threatens traditional cultures. In Kandell’s depiction, Otavalenos have usurped much of the power once held by whites in their society. Has Otavaleno culture truly been saved in the process?

Maybe there is another way to talk about this. All culture is in some sense a performance. But could one speak of degrees of self-consciousness in that performance? Jean Franco writes of new “volatile cultural identities” and the “self-fashioning of subgroups and individuals” (210) in the era of globalization, suggesting that mass culture has forced a change from organic forms of identity to more self-conscious processes. Although Franco might not agree, we wonder if the performance of Otavaleno identity is more deliberate now than it has ever been. Oriented as they are toward a global market and the local tourist industry, both with a high demand for the products of “Indian-ness” — clothing, jewelry, even their very bodies (as Kandell comments, “foreign women do seem to find Otavaleno youths more of an exotic attraction than the local mestizos and whites”) (29), the Otavaleno’s “otherness” is, ironically, now an advantage — undoubtedly a fact that has not escaped the Otavalenos themselves.

Whether we cynically view Otavaleno identity as self-conscious (and self-serving), or whether, on the other hand, we imagine a kind of reactive ethnicity in the face of external threats, one conclusion is certain: as Sarlo argues, there is no “original purity” (106) to which popular cultures — including that of the Otavalenos — can return.

Franco, Jean. “Globalization and the Crisis of the Popular.” In Critical Passions: Selected Essays. Eds. Mary Louise Pratt and Kathleen Newman. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999. 208-20.

Kandell, Jonathan. “Shuttle Capitalism. An Ecuadorean Indian Community Turns a Traditional Craft into a Tool For Cultural Survival and Takes it to the Street Corners of the World.” Los Angeles Times, November 14, 1993: 30.

Sarlo, Beatriz. Scenes from Postmodern Life. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

Yúdice, George. “Postmodernity and Transnational Capitalism in Latin America.” In On Edge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

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