Monday, July 30, 2007

A Round-Up of Recent News and Articles of Interest


Asia Times has published a provocative essay by Spengler, “In Defense of Genocide, Redux.” As with Spengler’s earlier essay, “In Defense of Genocide,” this is not actually a defense of genocide, but an essay about the shocking extent to which genocide and potential genocide is denied, ignored, or rationalized away as essentially inconsequential by much of the media, and many policy makers, politicians, and political candidates (see, for example, Barack Obama’s recent comments that genocide would not be a good reason for U.S. troops to remain in Iraq – to me, that would be the one good reason for U.S. troops to remain there – if independent, credible evidence indicated that U.S. troops leaving would result in genocide and that U.S. troops remaining would prevent it).

Anti-Smoking Campaigns and Social Norms Marketing

A recent article on Medical News Today about a study of anti-smoking campaigns targeting youth, “The Secret of Successful Anti-Smoking Ads,” seems to me to give weight to “social norms marketing” strategies (or at least to something similar to them) used by some sociologists, psychologists and others involved with public health education and behavior change campaigns. Social norms marketing tends to emphasize what is “normal” behavior for a target population, the idea being that most people who identify with a particular group want to fit in with their peer group (i.e. social norms marketing is really a form of “enlightened peer pressure).

The following is from the article:

"Some anti-smoking ads are simply ineffective, while others actually make youth more likely to light up. Fortunately, some are successful, and a new University of Georgia study helps explain why.

"Hye-Jin Paek, assistant professor at the UGA Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, found that anti-smoking ads are most effective when they convince youth that their friends are listening to the ads. Otherwise, the ads appear to stimulate the rebellious and curious nature of youth, making them more interested in smoking. Paek and co-author Albert Gunther from the University of Wisconsin-Madison examined data from surveys of nearly 1,700 middle school students, and their results appear in the August issue of the journal Communication Research."

Race and Medical Care

“When it comes to medical care – skin color matters” reports on a study indicating that, at least in a carefully constructed simulated exercise, race can affect the quality of medical care received.

The following is from the article:

“Other studies too have found that whites receive better medical care than blacks and experts agree the information is not new.

“But this one differs in that it is the first to demonstrate the reason for the difference really is racial bias.

“Following their evaluation of the two simulated patients, the doctors were then given an 'implicit association test' designed to reveal a person's unconscious views of blacks and whites.

“Dr. Green says a high score on the bias against African-Americans portion of the test, showed doctors were less likely to provide clot-busting treatment for a heart attack for black patients.”

The Rise and Fall of Woolworth

“Why Woolworth Had to Die” provides a short synopsis of the rise and decline of the Woolworth’s retail chain over the 20th century, but more interestingly, the article provides a decent short overview of changes in communities and marketing over the course of the century in the U.S.

Drugs, Organized Crime, Development, and Journalism in Africa and Mexico

Two recent articles at present a troubling picture of recent developments in Sub-Saharan Africa. “Organized Crime Targets Weak States,” presents an overview of recent moves by organized crime, especially syndicates associated with drug smuggling – in particular the movement of cocaine from South America into Europe, to increasingly take up shop in weak states of Sub-Saharan Africa. The article also discusses some of the debilitating effects this can have on economic development, as if the people of Sub-Saharan African nations needed other economic obstacles.

“IFJ condemns threats against two journalists covering drug trafficking,” as its title indicates, covers recent threats made by traffickers against journalists who cover the drug trade with any depth. This presents a troubling parallel with the recent spate of drug-related violence in general, and specifically violence directed against journalists covering the drug trade, in Mexico. For example, see the article “Drug Wars Endanger Mexican Press.”

Chimpanzees and Bipedalism

There has been much in the realm of anthropology news and blogs recently about origins of bipedalism. An article, “Study Sheds Light on Bipedal Walking” at Medical News Today covering a recent study of energetics of upright walking among chimpanzees presents some interesting information.

The following three paragraphs are from the article:

"We were prepared to find that all of the chimps used more energy walking on two legs -- but that finding wouldn't have been as interesting," Sockol said. "What we found was much more telling. For three chimps, bipedalism was more expensive, but for the other two chimps, this wasn't the case. One expended about the same energy walking on two legs as on four. The other used less energy walking upright."

These two chimps had different gaits and anatomy than their knucklewalking peers. And when the researchers examined the early hominid fossil record, they found evidence of these traits -- skeletal characteristics of the hip and hind limb that allow for greater extension of the hind limb -- in some early bipeds.

Taken together, the findings provide support for the hypothesis that anatomical differences affecting gait existed among our earliest apelike ancestors, and that these differences provided the genetic variation natural selection could act on when changes in the environment gave bipeds an advantage over quadrupeds.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Great Art, Timeliness, and Timelessness, Part II: The Music of Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis is the most important person in jazz music today.

He’s institutionally powerful through his leadership role with “Jazz at Lincoln Center” and the “Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.” His programming choices shape the institutional face of jazz.

He’s had an important hand in shaping popular understandings of the history and nature of jazz, probably most prominently through his role as key interviewee throughout Ken Burns’ 10 episode Jazz documentary. There’s unlikely to be another popular document with anything like the impact of Jazz anytime soon. (Fortunately, the documentary is generally of high quality, though with controversy over the final episode – see “Vitriol and Jazz.”)

Not least, he’s important through his popular recordings, both through “Jazz at Lincoln Center” and “Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra” recordings and with small combos under his own name. (It should also be mentioned that, even if he’s emphasized classical music less over the past few years, he’s also an accomplished classical trumpet player, having championed through recordings the not so common 20th century classical trumpet repertoire, e.g. trumpet concertos by Henri Tomasi and Andre Jolivet, and a variety of 20th century trumpet works on his album “On the Twentieth Century.”)

Is Wynton Marsalis a great artist, though?

Black Codes

The album “Black Codes (from the Underground)” is one of Marsalis’ early recordings (from 1985) and one of his finest. At the least, it’s good art. It’s harder to say this is great art. As I argued in my previous post, two qualities of great art are timeliness and timelessness. It’s relatively easy to say of Shakespeare or Mozart that much of their art is timeless, given the way their art can still affect us in powerful ways across long stretches of time. It’s harder to say this with certainty for work that’s just over 20 years old, but I’ll argue that at the least, “Black Codes” is timely and has some qualities that make it potentially timeless.

The album is very much a jazz recording of the mid-1980s. This is a potentially more controversial claim than would seem to be the case for a 1985 recording. Marsalis has often been seen as (and presented himself as) a traditional jazz musician – a musician of the pre-avantgarde/free jazz, pre-fusion, hard bop school – a tradition he was steeped in through his earlier stint with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. To some, he is, and was from his early recordings, too traditional, a musical conservative attempting to slavishly imitate earlier jazz styles in a decidedly untimely way. This goes too far, I think, even for later recordings (though there is also something to such claims for some more recent work as I’ll discuss later), but it’s inaccurate for a recording like “Black Codes.”

There is much about “Black Codes” that comes out of the hard bop tradition (and it’s not as if that’s anything that needs defending). Most any good or great art develops from an established artistic tradition. In the context of the dominance of jazz/rock/funk fusion heavyweights like Weather Report and Miles Davis in the 1970s and into the 1980s, Marsalis’ recording stands out mainly through its traditional sound. There is much here that is, new, though. While the timbres of non-electric instrumentation sound traditional, rhythmically, especially, it’s difficult to imagine these songs being played the way they are here prior to the 1980s.

The rhythms are not the steady bass strums and throbs of bebop or 1950s and 1960s hard bop. Here, there’s a definite intimation of steady rhythm, but with a lot more space in the bass and drum lines. The “moment” in jazz history of which this album is an important part is as much a result of the avant-garde/free jazz and jazz/rock/fusion traditions as of bebop/hard bop. I’d argue that fusion didn’t die or fade away (and in fact there are many still playing it, even if they don’t tend to sell out large concert halls anymore), but was more subtly incorporated back into “traditional” jazz – what had been most different about fusion wasn’t electric instruments, but rhythm as “groove,” often with creative use of “space” (really silences) alongside virtuosic playing (Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius being two of the acknowledged masters at this, but see also Michael Henderson’s playing on a number of early 1970s Miles Davis recordings). This combination of steady rhythm with free and open rhythm is one of the things that makes “Black Codes” so timely and of the jazz moment.

At the same time, “Black Codes” transcends its moment. Here, the musicians are grappling with a number of seemingly incompatible musical tendencies to attempt to produce something coherent and new. Great art grapples with the world, attempting to understand it and shape it – in this case, what was happening in mid-1980s jazz was the attempt to bring together several heretofore incompatible strands of jazz to produce a new shape for jazz – and it is this grappling with reality to understand and shape it that speaks to a universal human experience and that potentially creates timeless art. Much art aspires to greatness in this way and fails (though I think such art greater than highly competent art that is comfortable, takes few or no risks and as a result produces no new understanding of the world, much less any reshaping of it). I think that “Black Codes” pulls off what it sets out to do and in it Marsalis and his fellow musicians achieve greatness. I realize that whether this is “great art” or not does depend to a certain extent on subjective judgment – I think it succeeds – others might disagree. The more important point here is that with “Black Codes” Marsalis is engaging in artistic production in a way that can potentially produce great art.

They Came to Swing

Much of what Marsalis has done more recently associated with Lincoln Center is more disappointing to me. Take, for example, the “Jazz at Lincoln Center” album “They Came to Swing” from 1994 (not a “Wynton Marsalis” album per se, but one where he was involved as a key musician and soloist throughout). This, as with the activities of “Jazz at Lincoln Center” and the “Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra” generally, is a socially important recording. Stanley Crouch, writing as an artistic consultant for Jazz at Lincoln Center, writes in the album’s liner notes, “The performances selected for this document are part of our jazz mission at Lincoln Center, which is to present first class performances, regardless of style; to create a viable jazz canon; to provide education for young musicians and listeners; and to build a jazz archive worthy of the music and the premier arts complex in America.” These are important goals, as is the role of Marsalis and others associated with Lincoln Center as ambassadors for jazz.

“They Came to Swing,” as the title suggests, presents an album of swing jazz. It’s fun, energetic music. Sir Roland Hanna provides a particularly invigorating piano introduction to “Take the A Train,” the album’s opener. But in its attempt to recreate swing jazz, it feels like a museum piece, or perhaps more to the point, like a museum replica or model – a display that gives a pretty good sense of the original, but without quite replicating it, somehow lacking the total quality of the original.

Attempts to create great art through imitation of the art of an earlier era almost inevitably fall short. There are two important reasons for this. First is the near impossibility of mimicking everything about an earlier style or idiom. There are occasional successes in mimicry, e.g. the occasional forger of paintings who fools most experts (and ironically whose success at mimicry can only be revealed by finally not fooling someone). More commonly only the most obvious attributes of a style are imitated, generating cliché, such as when a contemporary poet uses lots of archaic and flowery language, such as “twas” and “thou,” because it sounds more “poetic” to facile ears. “They Came to Swing” is not a string of swing clichés – it’s more akin to the skillful forgery, though presented openly and honestly as deserved homage – so it’s not on this ground that I find it disappointing as art (even if I also find it to be a fun entertainment for an occasional listen).

The second reason why art via mimicry generally falls short of great art: cutting edge art – art that is seriously grappling with the world, coming to terms with it, and reordering it – art with the potential to be great art (as I argued is the case with Marsalis’ “Black Codes” recording) – is dangerous. There’s a high risk in attempting to create something new in that it might not work – it might flop. This is particularly the case with jazz, given its highly improvisatory nature.

When artists take chances and succeed in the creation of something new, there is an “alive” quality to the art as a result. I realize that referring to art that is grappling with its contemporary reality to produce something new as having an elusive quality of “alive-ness” may not be satisfying. (On the other hand, such an abstract metaphor for a quality that is real but difficult to pin down is reminiscent of a long tradition of musician-talk, e.g. of whether a particular musician has “it” or not.) This quality results, I think, from a combination of human response to the combination of novelty and profundity expressed in potentially great art with the communal nature of artistic production. Art that is alive, then, is the product of the active play between artists striving towards the new and profound. The paintings of the impressionists have this quality of exuberance and life, while most painting of the accepted French styles of the time do not – nor does painting that attempts to recreate that idiom of visual expression today.

All of the musicians associated with Lincoln Center are prodigiously talented from a technical point of view. Many, like Marsalis, have produced some works that I consider great art. But when such musicians play big band swing today, they’re not taking any risks. Some fun music will be produced, but nothing particularly new. In contrast, recordings from the 1930s and 1940s of the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras sound very much “alive.” These band leaders and their musicians were continuously trying out new things, working out the idiom of swing jazz, and taking risks the entire time (the somewhat later Dizzy Gillespie song, “He beeped when he shoulda bopped,” humorously refers to the perils of jazz improvisation), with musicians collectively responding to each others’ new creations (something happening with all arts, e.g. the impressionists’ mutual influence on one another, but which happens from second to second in jazz performance).

But by the end of the 1940s, Ellington and Basie had done just about everything that could be done with a big band in the swing style. (This is not to say that everything that could be done with a big band had been done; see, e.g. Charles Mingus’ big band works, the 1950s collaborations between Miles Davis and Gil Evans, John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass, or even more radically Ascension.) There were a few later additions through the 1950s of last things to do with swing, e.g. Ellington’s Masterpieces by Ellington album – Ellington’s first opportunity to record in the LP format, providing more space in which to “stretch out” than had been the case with 78 rpm recordings – but by and large Ellington shifted to other ways to produce new art, such as his concert suites or forays into something like early world music (The Latin American Suite and The Afro-Eurasian Eclipse and The Near East Suite).

One recent recording by Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra that does excite me is their recent big band arrangement of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. If you’re going to treat Coltrane works as repertory, this is a way to do it, without any attempt to directly mimic it. Adapting the big band to something quite different from swing, and adapting this music to very different instrumentation, was a move alive with risk. The payoff is hearing a wonderful piece of music that has become part of jazz tradition reinvigorated.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Great Art, Timeliness, and Timelessness

Great art always has two qualities with relation to temporality. It is of its moment – any art cannot help but be shaped by the realities of the era, but great art also reflects and shapes its moment, and does so in a different manner than equally great art of an earlier era. It is timely. Simultaneously, great art transcends its moment, it communicates powerfully well after its creation. It is timeless.

It is possible to have the first quality without the second, that is, to be timely without being timeless. This is, in fact, common. Most art quickly appears “dated,” occasionally literally, e.g. Gold Diggers of 1935; Airport 1975; Dracula 2000. (This quality of most art to become dated might not appear so from a view of any standard history of art, but that’s because the works that tend to be included for consideration are not the numerically more common works that do appear dated from any cultural and historical context. I think one great service of cable movie channels like Turner Classic Movies or American Movie classics, in their need to find 24 hours per day of programming, is to remind us that, contrary to nostalgic sentiment, not all movies of the 1930s or 1940s lived up to the standards of Casablanca or Citizen Kane. Despite its intriguing title, Earthworm Tractors is not great art.)

This is also a good point to clarify further what I mean in this instance by great art. I am here focusing on aesthetic greatness. (Contrary to claims that this is strictly a modernist fetish, I’ve argued elsewhere (see The Purposes of Art and Troy and the Purposes of Art) that a focus on the aesthetic qualities of a work can be discerned in a wide variety of cultural and historical contexts. “Art for art’s sake alone” might be a primarily modernist aim (which doesn’t make it bad, necessarily), but a concern with aesthetic timeliness and timelessness is much broader if not universal.) Art can have other functions than the production of aesthetic pleasure and wonder. With much art that appears dated, there is simply a failure to transcend the moment, but some art trades off timelessness for greater timeliness for non-aesthetic purposes. I have in mind especially comedy (in the contemporary, not the Shakespearean or Classical sense) or political art.

Most film/video comedies aim first and foremost to be popular entertainments. They are money makers for corporate studios. Many of the yucks are topical references that quickly lose their humor. Many of the movies I remember finding hilarious in the 1980s seem dull and hollow when I spot clips of them on TV now. Part of this is that I was a teenager in the ‘80s, and I’m (hopefully) more mature now, but much of it is that the humor is simply dated and not particularly funny now that’s it’s lost its timeliness. Timeless humor is notoriously difficult to create. Shakespeare succeeded, e.g. with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (with whom Tom Stoppard later succeeded brilliantly again). So did Charlie Chaplin, but few others have. (Comedy is not the only genre that emphasizes timeliness at the cost of timelessness. The action and horror film genres tend to do the same. For example, the current and sick horror sub-genre of “torture porn” is a clear, and timely, reflection of video tortures and beheadings from news headlines.)

Like mass market entertainments, most political art quickly appears dated, though for a somewhat different reason. Political art, by its nature, is motivated largely to change social reality first and foremost. As a result, political art is so invested in communicating about the specifics of one context that there’s very little chance of the work communicating powerfully in other contexts, except as a historical document. Occasionally, political art achieves aesthetic greatness and transcendence as well, though this is the exception. (To the extent that some of Goya’s paintings, e.g. The Colossus or Execution of the Defenders of Madrid, 3rd May, 1808, can be considered “political” art, they are also great art aesthetically, though in all honesty, they’re not very good at being “political art” – they give no clear message, or sense of what is to be done, etc.)

While timely art without timelessness is a clear possibility, I’m not convinced that the second quality of great art, timelessness, is possible without the first, timeliness. Part of what allows for transcendence is the artist’s tapping into a universal human experience, that of grappling with reality, attempting to understand one’s surroundings and reality and attempting to shape that reality, and presenting this in artistic form requires a grappling with and groundedness in contemporary reality. In great art, we see a union of the concrete and timely and the universal and timeless.

In a follow-up post, I will address these issues of art, timeliness, and timelessness through an examination of some of the music of contemporary jazz musician Wynton Marsalis.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Centaur Within: Latin American Narratives of Frontier and Nation

I wish here to examine nineteenth and early twentieth century Latin American narratives of the frontier and their relation to Latin American national narratives and the building of Latin American nations. In doing so, I will explore the character and transformations of terrain and nature, from chaotic wild space to disciplined, tamed place, and the role of gender, masculinity in particular, in all of this. My discussion will focus primarily on narratives by the nineteenth century Argentines Domingo Sarmiento and José Hernández and the early twentieth century Venezuelan Romulo Gallegos, choosing narratives from these two national contexts because these are two settings in which the frontier takes on an important role in national discourse. I will also occasionally interject commentary from or about the Mexican José Vasconcelos and the Cuban José Martí, as well as Anglo North American narratives of the frontier and nation, in order to more fully analyze what about these narratives pertains to Latin American narratives of nation generally or to American (Latin or otherwise) narratives of the frontier generally. Further, in this essay I will remain primarily focused on the narratives themselves, rather than the specifics of the biographies or socio-cultural backgrounds of Sarmiento, Hernández, and Gallegos. I would like, and do plan, to discuss just those sorts of issues in another essay, but that is a different project from this where I explore the mythology of the frontier and the nation in the Americas as such.

Civilization and Barbarism

The Plainsman and the Plains across which he roams figure prominently in nineteenth and early twentieth century Latin American frontier narratives of the Argentine pampas or the Venezuelan llanos. This is seen in the imagery of the Gaucho and the Argentine Pampas in Domingo F. Sarmiento’s novelistic political polemic piece Facundo; or Civilization and Barbarism (1971) (In English, this work typically appears under the title Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants; or Civilization and Barbarism) and José Hernández’s epic poem The Gaucho Martín Fierro (1974), as well as in the depiction of Santos Luzardo and his men on the plains of Venezuela in Romulo Gallegos’ novel Doña Barbara (1948). Each of these works can be situated within a discourse of Progress, providing accounts of the struggle between “Civilization and Barbarism,” between order and disorder. While using similar tropes and images, these writings take up different perspectives, in the process producing different meanings and ideological configurations of the realities of nation-state building.

In each of these narratives there are similar accounts of the plainsman’s physical prowess and general manliness. The gaucho Martín Fierro, Hernández’s protagonist, is portrayed as a man who will go where any other goes, “Nothing makes him back away” (1974: 12). When Hernández’s narrator describes himself, he boasts (1974):

I’m a bull in my corral
And a bigger one in someone else’s;
I always thought I was pretty good,
And if others want to try me
Let ‘em come out and sing
And we’ll see who’s second best.

I don’t step to one side
Even if they come slashin’ at my throat…
And in a tight spot no one
Ever seen me flinch.

According to Sarmiento, “The gaucho esteems skill in horsemanship and physical strength, and especially courage, above all other things” (1971: 49). Esteeming strength, courage, and the skills of the Pampas, the gaucho scorns the city dweller (1971: 21):

"who may have read many books, but who cannot overthrow and slay a fierce bull, who could not provide himself with a horse from the pampas, who has never met a tiger alone, and received him with a dagger in one hand and a poncho rolled up in the other, to be thrust into the animal’s mouth, while he transfixes his heart with his dagger."

Similarly, Martín Fierro despises the “gringos” who cannot tell an ostrich from a man on horseback from a cow when on lookout, who quickly get “blisters on their butts” from the saddle, and who are “only fit to live with sissies” (Hernández 1974: 42).

Finally, Gallegos’ plainsmen associate manhood with possession of the physical skills of life on the plains of Venezuela. The manhood of Gallegos’ protagonist, Santos Luzardo, an educated, civilized man returning after many years to his ancestral home on the plains, is suspect until he proves himself, most notably through horse-breaking, “the great test of the cowboy, proof of the courage and skill these men were waiting to attribute to him” (Gallegos 1948: 97).

Aside from similar accounts of the plainsmen’s manliness, however, the interpretations of the plainsmen’s character offered by Hernández on the one hand and Sarmiento and Gallegos on the other are near polar opposites. Sarmiento describes the pampas as vast, chaotic, and largely empty, a savage land of tigers and vipers (1971: 2-3). The gauchos who inhabit this land are naturally barbarians. Moral progress is impossible, “Barbarism is the normal condition” (1971: 18), and the male gauchos spend their time in complete idleness (20).

For Sarmiento, Progress and Civilization require cities and education, but the very vastness of the pampas and the great distances between their people inhibit the growth of these things. The gauchos dwell in an environment prohibitive of civilization, and as a result, a comparison of the cities and the countryside would give the impression of two different nations co-existing, or of the nineteenth and the twelfth centuries alongside one another (1971: 14, 42). Sarmiento does recognize factors limiting the development of civilization among the gauchos on the nineteenth century pampas, a sort of environmental and technological possibilism á la twentieth century anthropologist Julian Steward’s cultural ecology (1955), whereby given non-modern technology and economy and a harsh environment, the development of civilization as envisioned by Sarmiento is an impossibility for the gauchos. The gaucho cannot help but be barbarian. Yet this does not stop Sarmiento from repeatedly demonizing the gaucho, or looked at another way, this is the implicit justification for taming the pampas and the gauchos, introducing and imposing civilization, so that people exposed to a civilized environment will become civilized people. To go back to the accusation of the gauchos’ “idleness” above, we can see that the gauchos are “idle” in a particular sort of way. Even Sarmiento does not depict them as inactive or passive, what with the gauchos overthrowing and slaying fierce bulls, taming horses, and meeting “tigers” headlong with nothing but a dagger in one hand and a poncho rolled over the other. Instead, it seems, it is their not engaging in disciplined production or in permanent transformation of the land, which is to say their non-contribution to the project of the modern nation, which makes them “idle.”

Gallegos, like Sarmiento with the Argentine pampas, sees the Venezuelan llano as savage and the plainsmen as barbarians. However, Gallegos does provide a somewhat more sympathetic view of the plainsmen, presenting at least some of them, mostly those working for Luzardo (this is not insignificant, as it is precisely these plainsmen who are exposed to the potentially civilizing influence of Luzardo), in a positive light as basically good and loyal people, though barbaric and rough. Gallegos also presents a tie between the land and barbarism at a much more essential level than Sarmiento. Luzardo, even as an educated and cilivized man, must nonetheless upon return to his ancestral plains resist “The Call of the Centaur” to barbarism. For Sarmiento, Progress will require taming the pampas, building cities and roads. For Gallegos, it will also require taming the centaur within, and ultimately, as we will see, that there be a centaur within that must be tamed (that is, civilized masculinity requires taming of the centaur, but civilized masculinity requires that there have been centaur within in need of taming). Even here, though, taming the land must be stressed because to transform the land is to transform the essential tie with the land. With this “Call of the Centaur” of Gallegos, we see foreshadowed an inherent tension (even within the texts most strenuously calling for national state building and the taming of the plains) between state building and frontier filling: the impetus to fill in and order the map on the one hand, and on the other the allure, even the need for the frontier, for space rather than ordered place, for the nomad centaur within, for what Deleuze and Guattari (1986) call the War Machine resisting the ordering, disciplining impositions of the state. But before examining this tension further, we should first lay out the primary program of these state builders.

According to Sarmiento, on the untamed pampas, “order,” political organization, and justice were the extension of the brute force of a caudillo (a sort of local or regional strong man and patron) when they existed at all (Sarmiento 1971: 51-2). Further, since only maintained by imposed brute force, even this was a barbaric and uncivilized “order” at best. Through the use of such brute force, men such as Rosas, although himself of aristocratic background (Rennie 1945: 40-1; Williamson 1992), and their gaucho supporters applied the “knife of the gaucho” (Sarmiento 1971: 55) to civilization, i.e. Buenos Aires.

It is interesting that in contrast many 19th century North American views of the frontier saw the frontier as naturally producing democracy rather than dictatorial caudillismo. This view was based in part upon the idea of “free land” with open and equal access to all, an idea to which there was a certain amount of truth, if only for some, in the early stages of the North American frontier, such as the trans-Appalachian frontier (see Slotkin 1985: 38), though much less true for later times and places (see Limerick 1987). Silvio Duncan Baretta and John Markoff (1978: esp. 600-601) point out that Latin American frontiers were typically characterized by large landholders with most people denied land ownership, a situation which could easily contribute to the caudillismo posited by Sarmiento as the only form of frontier “order,” though in Sarmiento’s view large land ownership was the result and not the cause of caudillismo. As Eric Wolf and Edward Hansen (1967) discuss, caudillismo functioned primarily through unequal reciprocal ties of patronage in a context where most were denied ready access to resources rather than through the use of brute force, as posited by Sarmiento. Early North American theorists saw the wilderness as being tamed by the actions of pioneers. Slotkin points out that the taming of the frontier actually depended upon infusions of capital from the metropole, and was not simply the result of the action of hardy independent pioneers (1985:43). Sarmiento’s view is similar, though with a judgmental slant: it is “civilization” and not the “idle” gauchos who will tame the pampas.

Following Ruth Smith’s characterization of order and disorder, and especially her discussion of Baudrillard’s categories of “good nature” and “bad nature,” the plainsmen as described by both Sarmiento and Gallegos can be identified with “bad nature” – “the nature that is uncontrollable, disorderly, impure” (Smith 1990: 214). (Of course, as mentioned above, a caudillo did occasionally “control” gauchos, yet according to Sarmiento this control is only in response to brute force, not to order, justice, or civilization as such, and lasts only so long as this brute force is exercised.) Sarmiento makes it abundantly clear that in his mind, the gaucho is disorderly, incapable of political order, and that barbarism is his natural condition. It is these characteristics which identify the plainsman as bad nature and in need of taming.

Following Wolf and Hansen’s argument, with caudillismo there is a production of social order, if order is understood as social pattern and regulation. It is a social order based upon personalist patronage, though, and not order as understood by Sarmiento, where order as understood by Sarmiento gives us an example of the disciplining and subjecting power of the modern state as analyzed and critiqued by Foucault. So, even if the reality of the pampas was not always control or pattern only through the exercise of brute force, as posited by Sarmiento, he was on to something here: certainly the socio-cultural order of the pampas was of a different sort than that of the civilization of a modern state.

It is the idleness of the plainsmen, or rather what is perceived as their idleness, which defines them as disorderly. In her analysis of the attribution of disorder to the poor, Smith writes that “The production of abundance becomes the basis for order; the poor as necessity and scarcity themselves have no place in the production of ‘good nature’ and so remain in their ‘natural’ disorder” (Smith 1990: 219), hence naturalizing their disorder as with the assertion of the gauchos’ “natural” barbarity by Sarmiento (see Coronil 1997; Patton 1997; 1999; for discussion of the naturalization of poverty in other contexts). For the poor, of course, it is the preoccupation with eking out an existence which keeps them from contributing to the production of abundance. For the plainsmen, on the other hand, it is the natural potentials of the land which allow them to live in perceived idleness. Historian Ysabel Rennie writes of a gaucho dinner as consisting of slaughtering a stray cow, eating the desired portion, and leaving the rest to go to waste (Rennie 1945: 10), presumably retaining the hide, the most important part of the cow in the pre-industrial, or more importantly pre-refrigeration, era, for the rightful owner of the cattle (see Wolf 1982).

(Lest the gauchos be perceived as wasteful, it should be asked, What else could they do in the era before refrigeration? Nor should it be forgotten that on the pampas, as in many other areas of Latin America, feral cattle were quite common, much like the bison of the 19th century North American plains, which raises a question of “waste” in relation to social scale. Shepard Krech III’s book The Ecological Indian (1999) is insightful. As Krech points out, Native North Americans occasionally (even routinely) slaughtered animals, bison, deer, beaver, etc., in numbers beyond their capacity for use, and that this didn’t adversely affect the populations in question as these animals represented in fact virtually inextinguishable resources – until animal products became commodities in a continental fur and/or meat trade, and the slaughter by Native Americans and whites, using guns and steel traps, occurred on a scale never before seen, and in fact, never before possible, in the process pushing the bison and beaver nearly to extinction.)

Whether or not Rennie’s account of the culinary habits of the gauchos is an exaggeration, both Sarmiento and Gallegos write of the natural potential of the land for development and production which will go unrealized until land and men are tamed and ordered. The perception of plainsmen as idle then has to do with what is perceived as production. The work which they perform to live from the land is perceived as nonwork, as it does not contribute to the transformation of nature, the inscription of order upon the land, or the creation of abundance.

As seen above, Hernández certainly makes no case against the masculinity or physical skill and prowess of the gaucho, and in fact deplores the perceived softness and lack of skill of civilized men. Furthermore, The Gaucho Martín Fierro also argues against notions of the natural barbarity and outlawry of the gaucho as presented by writers such as Sarmiento, inverting the scheme of civilization and barbarism.

The story of Martín Fierro starts in an idyllic past, a time when he is a good family man, waking at dawn to “git to work” before a variety of abuses are visited upon him by “civilization” (Hernández 1974:16). This trouble-free time, when the gaucho is respectable and far from barbaric, is quickly disrupted, and Martín Fierro does end up as an outlaw, as the lawless ruffian that Sarmiento would expect, but not because it is his nature nor because he inhabits a savage land where barbarism is the normal and natural condition.

Instead, Fierro becomes an outlaw because he is left with little other option, after being rounded up with other gauchos, taken away from his family, sent to a military outpost, and forced to work for two years on officers’ land with no pay and little hope of ever being officially relieved of service or of receiving any pay. If the gaucho is a criminal, it is because as Martín Fierro says, “To be a gaucho is a crime” (Hernández 1974:57).

Martín Fierro becomes an outlaw because of the law and the order of “civilization,” with further consequence that Fierro and others like him become outlaws in proportion to the growth of state power. To be a gaucho on the frontier is to be labeled a vagrant, a criminal, a barbarian, and generally, given circumstances, to begin to act the part. As Hernández writes, “he’s wrong if he puts up a fight,” thus proving his criminality, barbarity and disorderly nature by resisting order, “and if he doesn’t… he’s done for” (Hernández 1974: 57). Order is imposed upon him, which is what befell Fierro and eventually turned him to outlawry.

However, it is not as if no order operated amongst the gauchos before the imposition of civilization’s brand of order. From Martín Fierro we get a sense of social space ordered through a man’s code of honor – and it is definitely a man’s code of honor portrayed in Hernández’s work. From this perspective, “civilization” is the sower of disorder. Rather than gauchos acting as barbarians, barbarous things are done to them. Martín Fierro’s children are turned out like dogs, his woman (the possessive is in the original, and the woman in question is never named) is left to fend as best she can with some other man to replace him (and in Hernández’s account, not replacing Fierro with another man is not presented as an option for her), and Fierro himself is left with no choice but to turn “outlaw.”

Of course, the reality of the frontier situation and “barbarism” was a bit more complex than presented by Sarmiento, Gallegos, or Hernández. Frontier contexts in Latin America, especially where cattle-raising was the primary economic activity, such as in parts of Argentina or Venezuela, no doubt resulted in many victims of order and civilization, like Martín Fierro, while at the same time creating a context where opportunities for cattle rustling and outlawry were rife.

Duncan Baretta and Markoff point out that the lower classes on the frontier, denied land ownership, were left with basically two options, life in settled peonage on one of the large ranches or vagrancy. Those choosing vagrancy were a threat to the large landowners, because they could easily turn rustler or bandit, and were likely to be involved in commercial relations uncontrolled by the landowners, such as the smuggling of hides (1978:600). The landowners championed measures to repress vagrancy, forcing those untied to a specific place into government service or peonage. “On the one hand they needed labor; on the other, each vagrant was a very real menace to orderly business” (1978:601). Such repression turned out to be as much a problem as a solution, for many simply fled to avoid forced recruitment, and the brutalities of the imposed military life resulted in a high rate of desertion, so that nomadism potentially increased as a result of the repressive measures.

Romantic Demons: The Dual Nature of Marginal Characters

In her work Peasant and Nation, Florencia Mallon provides a definition of “discourse” which I find useful – “the combination of intellectual and political practices that makes sense of events, objects and relationships” (Mallon 1995:5). I take the notion of discourse as making sense of things in two ways. Discourse is the process through which meanings, interpretations, and understandings of things are generated. Further, discourse produces the actual categories of things which are perceived or sensed in the world. Looking at the discourse in which Sarmiento, Hernández, and Gallegos participate, a number of categories have been produced, such as civilization, barbarism, order, disorder, vagrancy, production. Of course, the possibilities of this discourse are not exhausted by these three writers. For example, there is Cuba's José Martí, who in one way inverts the connotations of civilization and barbarism like Hernández, but in another shifts the very categories of the debate from “civilization and barbarity” to “false erudition and Nature” (Martí 1977:87), such that the "halfbreed" becomes the natural and real man, while the civilization espoused by Sarmiento is exotic and the domain of artificial men. Alongside Martí stands Mexico’s José Vasconcelos for whom mestizaje, or race mixture, produces La Raza Cosmica which supercedes its European and Native American sources.

It should be asked here why Sarmiento, Gallegos, and Hernández, whatever their differences, all take up positions within the discourse of civilization and barbarism which are far more similar to North American narratives of the frontier and the spread of civilization than to those of Martí or Vasconcelos in which the notion of (white) civilization is turned on its head. Here we are dealing with race in relation to the frontier. As Charles Wagley (1965) discusses, there are three main types of racial classifications to be found in the Americas, one to be found in the highland areas of Latin America marked by large pre-Hispanic civilizations (i.e. Mesoamerica and the Andes), where race is classified in terms of one’s Indian, European, or mixed mestizo heritage; a second to be found in the Caribbean, Brazil, and to a more limited extent in the U.S. Southeast before the Civil War (i.e. the areas dominated by slave plantation production), where race is classified in terms of one’s black or white “blood”, but where race mixture is readily recognized and somewhat accepted; and a third found in the extreme northern and southern portions of the Americas (Colonial British America and the Southern Cone of South America), where, at least until the 20th century, populations were relatively racially homogenous – which is to say white European. The Argentina of Sarmiento and Hernández is more like North America (except perhaps the Southeast) than like the Caribbean of Martí or the Mexico of Vasconcelos, and this difference is based in part on the resolutely non-frontier nature of the Caribbean and Mexico. Mexico, except for the sparsely populated desert north which played only a small role in Mexican national narrative after the Revolution – concerned as that was with land reform, was never an empty wilderness for Europeans, and while the Caribbean may have been quickly emptied by the decimation of its native Carib and Arawak populations, this subject population was nearly as quickly replaced by an imported subject population of Africans. The race mixture or mestizaje characterizing the Mesoamerican, Andean, or Caribbean areas results from the social and sexual interaction of a small colonizing population with a large and highly exploited subject population. So, for Argentina, or for North America, progress is about taming the wilds and disciplining them in a way which was never the case for the core areas of Mesoamerica or the Caribbean, which were never “empty lands” for Europeans as were the Argentine pampas or Venezuelan llanos or North American Great Plains. In these non-frontier areas, progress was often instead about whitening of the population - a cultural, rather than biological, whitening to be seen in the discourse of the Cientificos of late nineteenth/early twentieth century Mexico, or the Neo-Lamarckian eugenics discussed for twentieth century Guatemala by Diane Nelson in A Finger in the Wound: Body Politics in Quincentennial Guatemala (1999). Both Martí and Vasconcelos question the value of European, and white, civilization, praising instead the “halfbreed” or the mestizo, but it should be remembered that both are also social revolutionaries, which for Cuba or Mexico respectively implicitly entails being racial or ethnic revolutionaries as well.

What about the Venezuela of Gallegos, though? With Venezuela, like Brazil and much of the Caribbean, on the one hand, there is the perpetual ideological claim (Wright 1990) that race doesn’t matter, while on the other hand, race clearly does matter. For example, though the specific dynamics were different, in Venezuela as in Mexico, Latin America’s nineteenth century wars of independence turned into not only a war of secession from Spain on the part of criollo elites but also a class-based civil war, which in these contexts is also to say a race or ethnicity based (or at least correlated) civil war (Harvey 2000). It would seem then, that Venezuela would not be the site of a frontier narrative similar to those of Argentina or North America given the differences in racial dynamics. The key here, though, is the ideological claim that race doesn’t matter - and the fact that Gallegos is very much an establishment figure and not a social revolutionary like Martí or Vasconcelos. In fact, both Gallegos and Sarmiento were such figures of the establishment in their respective countries that they both served as their countries’ presidents at one point or another, and unlike Vasconcelos who, while never president, was politically powerful in Mexico, they did not come to political power as part of a successful (class and race based) social revolution. So unlike Martí or Vasconcelos, Gallegos does not subvert or question the ideological construct. As a result, the frontier is able to be imagined as racially homogenous (or at least racially neutral) as in Argentina or North America.

From any given perspective, such as that of Sarmiento, Gallegos, or Hernández, however, discursively constructed reality is rarely a straightforward and unitary thing. In each of these narratives, there is a marginalized character: the plainsman in the case of Sarmiento and Gallegos, the Indian in the case of Hernández. While this marginal character is often represented in a negative light, if not outright demonized, there are occasional romanticized depictions of these same marginal figures.

This is seen most strikingly and in most detail in Sarmiento. The main theme of Sarmiento’s work is that the gauchos and barbarism in general are an obstacle standing in the path of civilization’s progress. However, Sarmiento does note that there is a poetic side to this struggle between civilization and barbarism (1971: 24). Accordingly, Sarmiento gives us a certain romanticization or poeticization of the Gaucho as a general type alongside the more negative depictions. “As the water of a river is no less pure for the mire and pollution of its sources” (1971:22), so too there is something noble and pure in the gaucho character, which is “strong, haughty, and energetic” (22), though the associated mire and pollution cannot be forgotten.

Sarmiento presents four gaucho “occupations,” characters worthy of the poetic struggle between civilization and barbarism: The Rastreador, or track-finder, the Barqueano, or path-finder, the “Gaucho Outlaw,” and the Cantor (32-45). Through his discussion of these four general characters, Sarmiento elaborates upon the physical skills and masculinity of the gaucho, sometimes attributing abilities of mythic proportion, such as Calibar the Rastreador who was able to pick up upon a thief’s trail after it had lain cold for two years (34). Even the Gaucho Outlaw is presented as having honor, even if only in the section of Sarmiento’s work devoted to presenting the poetics of the Gaucho. The Gaucho Outlaw is no petty brigand. Rather to him the theft of horses is an art (40-41).

(We see similarly ambiguous figures, romanticized while also demonized and marginalized, in a variety of Mediterranean and North American contexts. In his ethnography on Cretan masculinity, Michael Herzfeld (1985) discusses the role of the Greek bandit, stealing from under the noses of the Turks, in Greek national narratives, as well as the simultaneous stigmatization and romanticization of goat thieves on Crete today. We see in Sarmiento’s Gaucho “occupations,” especially the Gaucho Outlaw, shades of the outlaws of the North American Wild West, especially those like Jesse James or the fictitious Outlaw Josey Wales who play simultaneously into two national constructions (American and Southern/Confederate nationalisms) as both honorable, noble, yet ultimately bad men of the Old West, and as Southern figures turned to outlawry through the depredations wrought upon their families during the Civil War (never mind similar atrocities they committed as members of Confederate guerrilla outfits like Quantrill’s Raiders operating in Missouri and Kansas).)

Gallegos, who is similar to Sarmiento in his insistence on the necessity of taming the plains and barbarism, is perhaps less extreme in presenting the dual nature of the plainsmen. That is, the demonizations and negative depictions of the Venezuelan plainsmen are less extreme, and the romanticizations are less Olympian. Still, Gallegos’ plainsmen manifest a propensity to resort to violence, barbarity, and generally disorderly means to achieve their ends alongside positive qualities such as loyalty, and an inner strength deriving from the will to work (albeit not in a way channeled toward “production”) and to do what is necessary to get by on the rugged plains.

Hernández’s Martin Fíerro presents a more difficult case. While not apparently holding the progress of civilization up on a pedestal, the work is still situated within the discourse of progress. The mestizo gaucho is perhaps a marginal member of civilization, yet he is still presented as non-barbarian. Hernández might problematize “civilization” and “progress,” yet he does more than Sarmiento to show their inevitability. For Sarmiento and Gallegos, the struggle is incomplete, its results still up in the air, while Hernández’s gauchos have already fallen as its unfortunate victims. The Indian, though, resides clearly outside of civilization and is presented as barbarian. Like Sarmiento’s and Gallegos’ portrayals of plainsmen, there is a duality to Hernández’s depictions of Indians. On the one hand, the Indians are presented as the worst sort of blood-thirsty savages imaginable, while on the other, Martín Fierro (the protagonist/narrator and the work) lauds the horsemanship and other physical skills of the Indian as superior to the gauchos’, and some individual Indians at least are possessed of a noble spirit. Here we see both the complexity of the Gaucho as Nomad/Centaur and the perpetual duality between nomad and state discussed by Deleuze and Guattari. Just as the Gaucho stands opposed to the civilization of the Argentine state, the Indian stands as foil to the Gaucho in association with the state. For all that the gaucho stands in opposition to and outside of civilization, he is nonetheless not as far outside of Latin culture as the Indian is. Gaucho life is not just a frontier variant of Latin American culture or a frontier anomaly, but an integral part of Argentine culture of the time, as the frontier is necessary to the spread of civilization.

Why is there a romanticization of the barbarian or marginal character, whether plainsman or Indian? Given a gender hierarchy valorizing masculinity, why is the barbarous presented as more masculine than the civilized? One reason, which is especially evident in Sarmiento but which can also apply to Gallegos and Hernández, is that in the attempt to portray the poetics of the struggle between civilization and barbarism, a barbarian character worthy of the struggle is necessary. This goes beyond the simple point that a complex character makes for a better story, though of course this is true. For example, Richard Slotkin in discussing the mythology of the frontier in North America points out that the trope of the Indian War, or of playing “Cowboys and Indians,” applied to a variety of contexts complete with attributions of savagery and brutality to the opponents alongside notation of their worthy stature, has been used to bolster the masculinity of North America(ns) and deter possible charges of effeminacy (1985: esp. 60-61). If the Gaucho, for example, is so obviously masculine, he is that much more worthy an opponent, and makes all the more impressive the victory of disciplined, ordered civilization.

Slotkin, writing about the North American Indian, points out another important reason for the dual nature of such marginal frontier characters. These characters, whether Plainsman or Indian, are identified with land and nature. On the one hand, untamed nature or wilderness is seen as savage and barbaric, as are these marginal characters, but on the other, nature is potentially pure, noble and bounteous. These characters possess a noble spirit, even if tainted by barbarity. To invoke Smith’s conceptual schema, the untamed frontier is bad nature, disorderly, chaotic, and barbaric, but through taming it can be transformed into good nature, controlled, regulated, ordered, and productive. There is a certain lure to the frontier, perceived as a land of opportunity, and it is understandable that romanticization would be a part of the mythology of the frontier. There are at least two kinds of people who might be drawn by this lure, on the one hand those drawn by the openness and natural bounty looking for a better place, perhaps but not necessarily those displaced and marginalized within society, and on the other hand those, such as the large landowners, drawn by the potentials for production and development, who will be the ones to impose order upon the land in their attempt to make the land productive (see Duncan Baretta and Markoff 1978: esp. 600-601).

Finally, at least for Sarmiento and Gallegos, who are attempting to contribute to American forms of nation-state and national identity, the frontier plainsman or some similarly American figure is a necessary character in order to distinguish their brands of nation and nationalism from European examples. This of course is not the only manner in which a quintessentially American figure can be inserted into a national identity and consciousness. Think again of Martí’s “halfbreed” as “Natural Man,” or in the wake of the Mexican Revolution, La Raza Cosmica of José Vasconcelos, formed from the hybrid union of Native American and European. However, Sarmiento and Gallegos do not hold up this American figure as the ideal Latin American in the way that Martí does. Instead, with his masculinity and noble spirit, the gaucho or Venezuelan plainsman becomes useful and desirable as an historical figure, though preferably not a present figure. Further, while the plainsman is more overtly masculine than the civilized man, the plainsman’s masculinity is uncontrollable and barbaric, inferior to the refined, orderly and disciplined masculinity of the civilized man. The plainsman makes for fine roots if you will, but his appropriate, and necessary, place is in the past or in a museum. Rennie writes (1945:6):

"The gaucho has gone the way of the American Bad Man, or Ouida’s Algerian Tirailleurs, and the controversy is dead. Being extinct, he is, like the dodo or the buffalo, merely picturesque. Now the Argentines are proud of him, and his is a part of their Heroic Legend."

I would here add, though, that though the Gaucho in literal 19th century form is extinct and today picturesque, he is not merely picturesque. Considering the role it took on as Argentine national epic in the 20th Century, Hernández’s Martín Fierro represents both the museumification of the gaucho, sympathetic, noble, and extinct except in literary form, and at the same time the centrality of the gaucho and his attributes to the national character. What is important for Sarmiento and Gallegos in their contributions to nation-building is that the character of the plainsman be maintained, but in transformed, disciplined form. Gallegos’ protagonist Santos Luzardo is the archetype here: from the plains, he possesses the Centaur-Within, but being civilized, he has disciplined and harnessed the Centaur. To return to Sarmiento’s polluted river metaphor, the gaucho may represent an impure and polluted source, but is the source of Argentine masculinity and nationality nonetheless, one that can be purified through discipline and order.

The Imposition of Order on the Frontier

Slotkin identifies an ideology of agrarianism in western thought, characterized by “the cultivation of the land, the interaction of man with pure and inanimate nature” (Slotkin 1985: 52). A number of feminist scholars have pointed out that in western gender ideology, nature has typically been coded as feminine (See Griffin 1978; Ortner 1974; Ruether 1993; Warren 1990), and likewise, women have often been identified with the natural, typically through a naturalization of motherhood and the domestic sphere (see Ortner 1974; Rosaldo 1974; Yeatman 1984), or the attribution to women of an uncontrollable (unless ordered and regulated) sexual passion (Smith 1990: 221). In this ideology, Man and civilization is lord over inanimate feminine nature, as well as over passive, submissive naturalized women.

It should be stressed that this is the ideal of this particular gender ideology, but that this is not the only possible condition within this set of ideological constructions. Masculinity is ideally and properly orderly, rational, and disciplined. The ideal for proper femininity is to be ordered, controlled, regulated, i.e. to be “good nature.” In the absence of imposed order and control, women are a threat because of their inherent disorder. For example, “In the absence of a controlling superego and the presence of sexual passion, according to Freud, women by their very being resist morality and threaten the state” (Smith 1990: 221). Unregulated women, ambiguous in that they are neither properly masculine nor properly feminine, are threatening to this system, as for that matter are un-ordered and un-disciplined nomad men.

The plains themselves are similarly threatening and ambiguous (or threatening because ambiguous). The pampas, by Sarmiento’s account, are not a pure and inanimate land. While they have great potentials for cultivation and production, the pampas are not the passive land of the agrarian ideology. Instead, they are a savage, untamed land which resists civilization: vast, chaotic, and empty but for tigers and vipers, savages and barbarians. Such a frontier land is neither properly masculine nor properly feminine. It is “bad nature,” “uncontrollable [without strenuous efforts at imposing order], disorderly, impure” (Smith 1990: 214; parenthetical added). For civilization to proceed, order must be imposed, and the soil must be possessed and controlled (Sarmiento 1972:15).

Slotkin speaks of a “Regeneration through violence” in the mythology of the frontier. In this mythology, there is a regeneration of the land through the “Indian War,” whereby the land is forcibly tamed along with its inhabitants, and regenerated as the pure and inanimate land of agrarian ideology (see Slotkin 1985: esp. 51-3, 60-1). With Sarmiento and Gallegos, we have the struggle between civilization and barbarism rather than the Indian War, but the goal is similar, to tame the land and its inhabitants. In short, the goal is a transformation of bad nature into good nature. As Smith says (1990:224):

"They must be domesticated in some way, and so they become the nature to be known, to be controlled and managed, the epitome of bureaucratic order and regulation – a statistic, a lost number. This is the managerial image of the vegetable in Merchant’s terms: the nature that is still nature but is controllable because it is without sensation."

Smith is here talking about the regulation of women and/or the poor, but the general point applies. Savage, uncontrollable and ambiguous frontier wilderness must be ordered into passive, controllable, and properly feminine nature.

The mythology is framed as a regeneration of bad nature into good nature, but looked at closer, it seems that it is a generation, rather than a re-generation. Both Sarmiento and Gallegos speak of the great potentials of the plains as areas of production (see especially Sarmiento 1972:4-5; Gallegos 1948:288), but as long as they are without order, they are not a pure, fertile, or properly feminine land. With the imposition of order, the land will not be regenerated as fertile and feminine once more, for it was never unambiguously feminine and fertile in the first place. Instead, it will be newly generated as fertile and properly feminine.

Western gender ideology would have us believe that the true disorderly female nature must be repressed, resulting in an ordered and proper femininity, and similarly that the savage frontier must be repressed. Foucault (1990) has critiqued this ideological construction, what he calls the repressive hypothesis, along with its corresponding idea of liberation whereby we must free ourselves from this repression and liberate our true selves. Foucault instead argues that particular kinds of subjects have been produced (in opposition to the view that subjects formed a priori are repressed). I do think that repression is one way in which power can be exercised in some cultural contexts, but that as human subjectivity is intertwined with cultural production, repression never operates on a priori subjects, but always on culturally produced subjects. So, while repression and production are different exercises of power, repression can only ever work on prior production. Further, while there may be a repressive or “taming” element to the civilizing of the frontier, simply repressing disorder does not yield automatically any specific type of order. Order must be produced, whereby there is a discursively generated qualitative or categorical difference in the land.

Before the emplacement of civilization’s order, the frontier is conceived as vast, chaotic, mostly empty, and unpossessed. Land is simply unbounded space. For civilization to proceed, the land must be possessed permanently, cities and roads must be built (Sarmiento 1972: especially 8, 14-5). Fences must be built, clearly delineating the territories of people and cattle (Gallegos 1948: especially 136-8). Order and a sense of place, as opposed to space, must be generated and inscribed upon the plain. With the production of order and place, there is also the production of vagrancy as a major concern and of vagrants as a particular kind of essential subject. Without a sense of place and an understanding that everyone should be attached to some place, the concept of vagrancy makes little sense, and further, it is those people concerned with imposing order, the large landowners, who are most threatened by vagrants. It is only with the ordered delineation of the land as owned by specific individuals that vagrancy is produced, and thus only then that vagrancy as such can be repressed and even made to benefit these large landowners.

This discussion of the production of place brings to mind Benedict Anderson’s comments about maps (1991: 170-178). Once the conceptual ordering of the map is imposed on the land, the map must be filled up and the land known through the inscription of place - both on the map and on the land. The effect of the map, the fence, and other ordering devices is to produce what Anderson calls a “totalizing classificatory grid” so as “to be able to say of anything that it was this, not that; it belonged here, not there” (1991: 184). With Sarmiento, the grid is to be imposed on the ground by the inscription of the land with fences, roads, and other markers of the advance of civilization.

Order and discipline, with their need to put everything in its proper place, require the extensive production of truth - of the nation and of the subject. A number of ordering devices have been created to produce these truths and naturalize the nation and the subject. Anderson discusses the role of the census, the map, and the museum in producing the truth of the nation. Foucault discusses the role of surveillance (1979) and of psychoanalytic confessional (1990) in the production of the truth of subjects. In either case, the point is to delineate truth down to the last detail. The disorderly frontier, on the other hand, as uncharted territory is the unknown and uncontrolled. The frontier, as the margin of civilization, is an inevitable product of the expansion of civilization, but because of its disorder it is intolerable. The map must be filled up so that the frontier is pinned down and known, until there is no frontier, no margin, no disorder. Even if this last is an impossible task – after all, no matter how much we know, there is still the yet unknown constantly producing new frontiers – the impulse is strong nonetheless.

The cost of progress is the imposition of order and the taming of the land and nomadic plainsmen. The barbaric masculinity of the plainsmen is dis-ordered and dis-placed, that is made to be without place and order where previously the gaucho possessed a social constituted order and place – if one not recognized as such, not made sense of as such, but instead as space and disorder by Sarmiento, and this for the production of disciplined civilized man and a pure feminine nature. The gaucho, once moving freely across unbounded space, is now disorder incarnate, a vagrant without place. While the ideals of Progress aim to produce order, disorder is also produced as those who do not fit the “totalizing classificatory grid” are proclaimed disorderly. Finally, the dis-place-ment and the disordering of the plainsmen’s lives is naturalized and masked, as those now newly defined as inherently disorderly and having no place cannot be “disordered” nor “displaced.”

The disciplining of the plainsmen and of the plains or frontier is a key component of nation building in frontier-oriented states of the Americas, such as Argentina and Venezuela. The Plainsman, whether in the guise of the Argentine gaucho or Venezuelan Llanero, is the masculine source of national character, and the open space of the plains is the locus of potential national bounty. However, it is only once these are disciplined and transformed, once the land is produced as properly feminine and the centaur within is tamed that the nation and its bounty are realized.

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Snakes and Race

They Can Smell Snakes

While I was living in Athens, Georgia in the early to mid-1990s, a friend told me of a bizarre experience she had just had in a local bookstore. She had been browsing the books when another customer, who happened to be a black man, entered the store, looked around for a few things, and then left. As the man was exiting the store, an older white woman leaned over to my friend and whispered conspiratorially, “You know, they can smell snakes.”

Over ten years later, I’m still not quite sure how to take the comment. It’s in no way typical (at least not in the specific claim) – I grew up in the U.S. Southeast, and over the years I’ve heard white people say plenty of things about black people that I would just as soon have not heard, but never anything else quite like that. The ability to smell snakes might even be useful and worthy of envy in a region with a variety of poisonous snakes. As my partner, Reginald Shepherd, who is a black man, commented when I told him about this story, “I’m not sure if I’m offended by that or not.” I’m reminded of a particular comic strip of Aaron Magruder’s Boondocks from a few years ago, right after then Mexican president Vicente Fox’s comment that Mexican immigrants were important to the U.S. because they would take jobs that even blacks wouldn’t. The strip’s main character, Huey, responds something to the effect, “Any minute now I’m going to figure out why I’m offended by that.”

The woman’s specific claim is simply strange, and as I said above not typical. At the same time, though, it is an example of a more general phenomenon. It involves imputing a sort of “animal” or “savage” quality to black people. This, of course, is an all too common component of racist thinking whenever it occurs, the association of the “other” with less than human animal qualities or lesser human savage qualities. In the Americas, this has been particularly the case with racism directed towards people of African descent, and is intimately connected with the intertwined history of slavery, with its actually savage and bestial working conditions, and Enlightenment thinking, with clear ideas of inherent inferiority associated with carefully delineated human groups arising from the attempt to reconcile slavery and abject inequality with new ideals of freedom and equality. (There is a large body of scholarship on this topic of race, racism, slavery, and the Enlightenment. I have found particularly clear and useful, George Fredrickson’s book, Racism: A Short History. On her blog, Nicolette Bethel has written several recent engaging posts on race and the imagery of savagery.)

Field Guides

At some point in my late teens or early twenties, I was looking through a field guide to reptiles with a friend. (I have no real recollection of which friend it was, nor why we were looking at the field guide in this particular context, but that’s not really important here.) We noticed that some species of snakes had distinct coloration patterns depending on the region in which they were found. My friend remarked that it seemed strange that within the same species, one could encounter distinct color patterns.

This was, I think, a momentary lapse in thinking on his part (I could certainly think of at least one other species with distinct patterns of color), but it’s symptomatic of a type of thinking I’ve encountered from time to time over the years among white people. Specifically when they’re among only other white people, some whites seem to forget that people who aren’t white exist. (Let me also emphasis the word “some” in the previous sentence – I’m not saying all white people think this way even part of the time, just that enough do that it’s something I’ve encountered numerous times over the years.) Whiteness is not only naturalized (think about the old Crayola color, “flesh”), but taken as identical with the species – unless non-white people are present.

Two Patterns of Race Thinking

There are then at least two patterns of race/racist thinking that can be occasionally encountered on the part of white people, one pattern when non-white and white people are present together, when animal or savage qualities might be imputed to non-whites in the case of racist thinkers, another pattern when only white people are present, when whiteness might be taken not only as natural, but as so natural that others are temporarily forgotten about.

These are straightforwardly complementary pairs of ways of thinking, but it’s also important to point out that one can exist without the other. Plenty of white people are prone to the second pattern, taking whiteness for granted in the absence of anything clearly different, without necessarily being prone, at least explicitly, to the grotesque racism of the first pattern. (There is a milder variation on the first pattern, where racial difference is marked solely for the sake of distinction, but without imputing qualities of inferiority, e.g. when individuals are remarked on specifically as “black girl” or “Asian man,” even where the individual’s race/ethnicity is irrelevant to the matter at hand. In my own experience, I’ve encountered this sort of race marking very frequently among whites, even among those I wouldn’t generally label as racists.) Likewise, the first pattern, perhaps especially in its most extreme forms, might not be accompanied by the second, i.e. the most virulent racists are probably less prone to take whiteness for granted or momentarily forget the existence of non-whites.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Re-Visioning Race

An ideal society would be one where race didn’t matter. To go further, given human race’s existence as a social construction – and a social construction whose origin is tightly linked to extreme social inequality, an ideal society would be a raceless society.

One obstacle to a raceless society is perception, specifically vision, and the real physicality of signs of race, which through their physicality come to seem “natural” signs and make race seem much more natural than it really is.

I’ve often heard it expressed (given my particular job as a university instructor, I personally happen to hear it most often from students in class discussions, but it’s a common enough sentiment) that when looking at someone, one can’t not see race. What I think they mean is that one can’t not see a person’s phenotypic characteristics, including the features such as skin tone and facial characteristics that function as “natural” signs of race. Certainly the nature of vision is such that one can’t not see the physical features of someone gazed at, but taking this to mean that one inherently must see race misses three important things.

1. Confusing phenotypic characteristics with race serves to naturalize race. There is real and important phenotypic and genotypic variation within the human species. Tying perception of phenotype conceptually with race tends to cover over the fact that the phenotypic signs of race (as socially constructed category) don’t actually match up very neatly with important genetic variation in the human species. For example, in the U.S., people with ancestry from anywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, who overall do tend to share a literally superficial commonality of dark skin color (though with actually a great degree of variation in specific skin color – see my next point), are lumped together as “black,” despite the fact of incredible genetic diversity within the continent – arguably greater than among all other world populations – there’s really no congruence at all between the social category and the biological reality.

2. Seeing race when seeing certain phenotypic traits tends to blind many to other phenotypic traits. This can be especially the case for characteristics that don’t serve as signs of race, but the focus on race also tends to occlude the actual diversity with regard to those traits that most clearly mark race, e.g. the actual reality of tremendous diversity of skin color, both within and across race categories. Although not typical, some “white” people have darker skin than some “black” people, and Sub-Saharan African populations actually represent quite a range of skin colors, from light brown to almost literally black, though many simply see them all as simply “dark” or “black.”

3. The fact that phenotypic variation can signify social race doesn’t mean that it must. Historical documentation from pre-modern Europe and even early North America indicate Europeans and Euro-Americans seeing phenotypic variation, but not conceptualizing it in terms of modern race categories. Even when phenotypic variation does signify race, it doesn’t do so in any single, “natural” way. For example, many people who are “obviously” black in the U.S. would be just as “obviously” not black in Brazil.

For anyone socialized in the U.S., I’m skeptical that it’s possible to truly not see race when perceiving someone’s phenotypic traits. I’m skeptical that anyone could be truly “colorblind,” and I’m suspicious of anyone who claims to be.

There are, though, things that one can do in relation to one’s own vision and conceptions.

One can resist race thinking – one can resist seeing another as merely or primarily an embodiment of a general type. One can resist seeing others as white women, black men, Latino boys, Asian girls, and try to think of others as women, men, girls, boys who happen to be Latino, Native American, Asian, black, or white and who also have lots of other characteristics and other social factors influencing their individual identities.

One can see race less by making an active effort to see more. The human species is characterized by a wide array of phenotypic variation – something I see as part of the beauty of the human species – much of which is missed with a narrow focus on a few traits that mark race.

It is also possible to overstep in an effort to be “colorblind,” for example with well-intentioned statements such as, “I don’t see you as a black (or Latino, Native American, Asian, maybe even white) person, but just as a person.” An ideal society would be one where race didn’t matter, but we don’t live in that society. Race, as a social category, does matter, and it has shaped (though never determined) people’s lives. To act as if race doesn’t matter at all (distinct from acting as if race should not matter at all) is really to deny a very real part of people’s actual social experiences.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

A Review of Recent News on the Web

Globalization, Protectionism, and the Global Poor

In an insightful article in Prospect Magazine, “Protecting the Global Poor,” Ha-Joon Chang argues that developed countries’ push toward global free trade may increase total economic development, but without necessarily doing a lot to alleviate poverty in developing countries. Chang gives a useful overview of the past few centuries’ economic history and the role of protectionism in the economic development of almost all of the currently developed countries’ histories. For anyone who’s read much economic history or world systems theory, this will be review, but a concise and nicely written review.

Importantly, Chang is not against globalization and increased trading among all countries. He recognizes that trade is critical for economic development and that economic development is necessary, if not sufficient, for the alleviation of poverty. It’s just that Chang also recognizes that unfettered free trade tends to disproportionately benefit more developed and wealthier nations. It’s no coincidence that the British were protectionists when the Dutch were the dominant mercantile power and became free-traders after becoming the dominant economic power themselves.

Chang also usefully points out a rhetorical strategy often employed by free-trade advocates, which is to conflate opposition to free trade in some form or another with opposition to trade generally. Chang writes:

“But there is a huge difference between saying that trade is essential for economic development and saying that free trade is best. It is this sleight of hand that free-trade economists have so effectively deployed against their opponents—if you are against free trade, they imply, you must be against trade itself, and so against economic progress.”

Mexican Cuisine

I’ve recently encountered two interesting articles on Mexican food. The first, “Mexico’s long chilli (sic) love affair,” reports on recent archaeological findings of systematic use of chiles in Mexican cooking at least 1500 years ago. As the article points out, the cultivation of chiles implies a well developed tradition of seasoning and cookery. (There is some research indicating possible antiseptic qualities to chiles, but as food, chiles are grown more as seasoning than for caloric sustenance.) The finding of use of both dried and fresh chiles indicates familiarity with the distinct quality of chiles in different preparations, and to me implies even longer familiarity and use of chiles than is directly indicated by the archaeological evidence.

The second article, “A Crash Course in Mexico’s Varied Cuisine,” simply presents a savory overview of “Mexico’s varied cuisine.” For those only passingly familiar with Mexican food, much less its regional diversity, there will probably be several surprises. For those who are familiar with Mexico’s regional cuisines, there probably won’t be any surprises – but if you’re thoroughly familiar with the range of regional cuisine diversity in Mexico or anywhere else, you probably like reading about food like I do.

Burying the N-Word

A week or so ago, the NAACP held a mock funeral to bury the “N-word.” In my local newspaper, The Pensacola News Journal, columnist Reginald Dogan presented his response to this event in “NAACP campaign to ‘bury’ N-word overlooks the bigger picture.”

Dogan writes:

“I wasn't as troubled by the mock funeral to bury a word as I was by NAACP officials saying ending the use of the N-word is one of their main goals.

“I cannot believe that of the myriad problems facing black people in America, the NAACP sees the N-word as the root of all troubles.”

See also Dogan’s follow-up column, “Racism is not the cause of all ills that plague black people.”

Florida and Climate Change

Also about a week ago, Florida’s governor made surprising announcements regarding plans for the state on energy and carbon emissions. An article in Grist magazine summarizes the announcement:

“His plans include adopting California's strict vehicle-emissions law, making Florida the first Southeast state to go that route; calling for a 40 percent reduction in statewide greenhouse-gas emissions by 2025; and requiring state agencies to prioritize fuel efficiency when buying or renting vehicles and to hold events in facilities certified as green by the state Department of Environmental Protection. Crist is also asking state utilities to produce 20 percent of their power from renewables, and creating a Florida Governor's Action Team on Energy and Climate Change.”

Optimal Foraging

An article on Science Daily, “Monkeys don’t go for easy pickings,” has the following to say:

“Animals’ natural foraging decisions give an insight into their cognitive abilities, and primates do not automatically choose the easy option. Instead, they appear to decide where to feed based on the quality of the resources available and the effect on their social group, rather than simply selecting the nearest food available.”

In other words, monkeys at least do not simply always forage the closest resources, but also forage partly on the basis of nutritional quality of food resources. That alone is easily understood in terms of something like optimal foraging theory. What I find particularly interesting is that monkeys seem to take into account non-nutritional qualities of food resources, specifically potential social effects (presumably things like the different effects likely to result from foraging fruits that are large but less common versus smaller but more common and dispersed), when selecting foraging strategies. This could also be understood in terms of optimal foraging – it’s just that what’s “optimal” becomes a bit more complex to include factors in addition to use of physical space and nutritional qualities of foods.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Southern Culture, Part III

In the U.S. Southeast, it’s not particularly uncommon to encounter cars and pick-ups with various Confederate Flag bumper stickers or other adornments. One fairly common sticker has a Confederate flag and the phrase, “Heritage, Not Hate.”

When white southerners make such claims about the Confederate flag or other symbols of the Confederacy, that that flag today represents simple pride in “Southern Culture” – and where “Southern Culture” represents a subset of southern cultural traits (in terms of Sapir’s discussion of a third sense of “culture” – see my previous post), things like hospitality, pride in family and region, southern food, a laid back approach to life, etc. – and that it doesn’t represent to them the southern past of slavery and Jim Crow, some are simply being disingenuous. After all, it was largely in response to the civil rights movement that displays of the Confederate flag, including its adoption as part of some state flags, became prominent beginning in the 1960s. (Some don’t bother being disingenuous. I once encountered another bumper sticker featuring a Confederate flag that read, “If I had known, I would have picked my own cotton.” At a roadside stand selling flags, I recently saw for sale a Confederate flag with superimposed German Iron Cross. I’m pretty sure anyone who’d fly that flag fully intends to invoke racism.)

Still, many are sincere in that sentiment. It’s not that they’re unaware necessarily of the South’s sordid race history, so much as they find it easy or convenient to elide it, or they don’t see it as an essential component of “Southern Culture” which for them the Confederate flag stands for, or they don’t see the connection between the plantation past and the present, given the wholesale and real transformation of economic infrastructure and cultural ecology in much of the South.

Plantation agriculture and the attendant race system is not part of the way of life, not part of the “culture core” (see my previous post) for most southerners today (with a major exception being for many migrant laborers working in Florida citrus and plantation remnants elsewhere). For many southern whites, the plantation and all it entailed is simply a matter of the past. For many southern blacks, while the civil rights movement clearly improved the situation dramatically, the plantation past is not so easily elided – 250 years of slavery and another century of Jim Crow aren’t so easy to overlook, and while southern economic infrastructure and mode of production have been thoroughly transformed over the past half century, the economic inequalities associated with previous racism continue to have real and serious economic effects for many southern blacks – the past may be over, but the real effects of it are not yet past for quite a few southern blacks.

In my experience, there is actually quite a bit of commonality and agreement between southern whites and blacks when it comes to the positive valuation of much of the content of “Southern Culture.” Most all can agree about the worth of southern hospitality or about the delicious quality of southern food – food in particular seems a particularly “safe” and enjoyable topic for anyone to talk about (As Chris Rock put it, “Cornbread – ain’t nothing wrong with that”). It is more symbols associated with the Confederacy that generate controversy and about which there is a cleavage of interpretation that often follows racial lines. For many southern whites, the Confederate flag simply stands in for “Southern Culture” and pride in it. For that matter, for many “The Confederacy” has come to stand for nobility, virtue, manliness, and defiant self-reliance rather than the secession of states with slavery based economies. For many southern blacks, that same symbol stands not for “Southern Culture,” but for the Confederacy, which in turn is indelibly tied to lack of freedom or self-reliance and to racial tyranny.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Southern Culture, Part II

I’d like here to introduce two classic and still insightful anthropological texts, both of which I’ve discussed in earlier posts on this blog: Julian Steward’s ideas about cultural ecology and a “culture core” as developed in Theory of Culture Change and Edward Sapir’s discussion of the meanings or senses in which we use the word “culture” in his essay “Culture – Genuine and Spurious.” (By the way, see a recent blog post at Culture Matters for a good discussion of another portion of Sapir’s essay than I’ll talk about here.)

Cultural Ecology and the Culture Core

In an earlier piece, “Freedom and Restraint, Part II,” where I was discussing various factors which shape culture and human action, I included this section on Steward and his ideas:

Environmental Conditions and Julian Steward’s Culture Core Argument

Environmental conditions do not determine human action in any culture, but they shape, influence, and restrain human action in all cultures.

When examining ways in which physical conditions of the environment shape and constrain human action, I find it useful to revisit Julian Steward’s “culture core” idea. It’s now an “old” idea (first fully laid out in his Theory of Culture Change from 1955), but hardly “out of date.” It has the advantage of being elegant and straightforward. It’s compatible with (in fact was a starting point for) cultural ecological and cultural materialist perspectives on relations between human practice and culture and the environment, but doesn’t require hardcore commitment to such perspectives in order to see its basic merits.

Steward’s reasoning starts with the straightforward fact that human beings have to meet certain basic needs in order to simply continue to exist, such as the need for adequate food, in some contexts the need for adequate shelter and clothing, etc. How humans go about meeting these needs is not straightforward at all, but that they must meet them or die is. Steward further argues that there is always a “culture core” that must maintain a certain degree of functionality. The culture core consists of those elements of culture directly related to meeting basic human needs.

The culture core is where the physical environment influences and possibly constrains cultural patterns most strongly. The culture core consists of patterns of behavior that must be performed using available resources. The nature and distribution of available resources shapes the possibilities for how people can go about making a living. In areas where resources are both plentiful and widely and evenly distributed, there may be many ways to go about meeting basic needs, and so the environment has a lesser constraining influence. In places where resources are scarce and widely scattered in distribution, there may be a much tighter range of possible ways to meet basic needs.

Technology plays a crucial role here. As societies develop technology that enable them to manipulate the physical environment to a greater degree, the environment is less of a constraining influence, or it at least constrains to a lesser degree, and the range of resources that can be utilized and the extent to which land itself might be used as a resource expands. The North American Great Plains are a great place to farm – if you have domesticated animals and steel plows (or tractors) that you’ve developed somewhere else.

In general then, environmental restraints are proportionally more important for smaller societies with lower levels of technology (though the exact nature and distribution of resources and the exact level of available technology shapes the specific degree and type of restraint that the environment plays), while larger societies are less constrained by the environment.

Even for the contemporary world with its global economy, though, the culture core concept and environmental constraint still apply. Basic needs still have to be met. There’s a quite large, but finite, range of ways in which that can currently be done, and crucially it’s not at all clear that current methods of producing basic needs are sustainable at the global level, which is a good reason for anthropologists and others who think mainly about human social relations to be cognizant of issues such as global warming, as well as human-environmental relations in general.

Steward and Southern Culture

The physical and ecological features of the south alone did not determine that plantation agriculture would dominate the south for as long as it did (the Plantation as a socioeconomic system in fact never encompassed the entire South), though those physical features, in combination with given levels of technology and the global economic context did create a context in which, for example, cotton production on plantations was quite profitable both before and after the Civil War, until a combination of changes in ecological conditions (continued degradation of soil) and the global economy (cheap cotton produced elsewhere) undermined the viability of cotton in much of the region (though it’s still an important crop in parts of the South).

The organization of plantations and the economy generally was tied to and influenced by the cultural ecological context, e.g. the particular crop grown made a difference in terms of the social organization of production and local society generally. Areas associated with the growing of cotton, sugar, or tobacco were organized differently, with subtly different patterns of race interaction ensuing. Areas of the South not particularly tied to plantations at all were different still. (There are many fascinating comparative studies of this sort for some Caribbean regions. For example, sugar and tobacco plantation zones of Cuba are quite different socially.)

The components of culture probably most tied to and influenced by cultural ecology and economic structuring were the systems of race and class. The caste-like racial system, in particular, facilitated the functioning of the brutally exploitative plantation as social system, both during and after the official abolition of slavery. Likewise, while there were many factors involved in the dismantling of Jim Crow (including the perseverance of civil rights activists, the televised images of horrors like the beatings during the march from Selma to Montgomery and the shock this provoked, or the Cold War context), one critical component was the demise of the plantation system by the mid-20th century that the racial system had been so intertwined with in practice, undermining southern elites’ economic stake in racial apartheid.

Other elements of southern culture, the food (especially in the sense of specific preparations), dialects, personal dispositions, etc., certainly developed alongside the ecological and economic structuring of the 19th and early 20th century South, but were less clearly intertwined and determined by them. Many of these cultural elements derived from elsewhere, and are more easily able to persist independently of a specific economic context. Ironically, these cultural elements, so highly prized by many southerners today, were not so clearly part of the culture core, were frankly less important in their specific details in terms of sustaining life or an economic infrastructure, and precisely as a result of that have been able to survive the near total transformation of economic infrastructure and cultural ecology that the South has seen over the course of the last half century.

Sapir and Culture

In another earlier post, “Culture, Culture Change, and the Ethics of Cultural Intervention,” I briefly discussed Sapir’s essay. The following paragraph is a selection from that post:

In an important article, “Culture – Genuine and Spurious,” Edward Sapir noted that there are three important senses in which “culture” is used. He recognized that “culture” in the sense of high culture represented a restricted subset of the sense of culture as a total lifeway in that it represented the lifeway of a particular class context. He also noted, though, that there is another important way in which we used “culture.” As with “high culture,” we often use “culture” in a way more restricted than to refer to all aspects of the total patterned lifeway of a population. In this third sense, we mean the core premises of identity, values, ethos, and worldview and a restricted set of practices taken as “typical” or “essential.” It is typically these elements of the lifeway which are most durable, most valued, or that are the intended reference when people speak of their culture. So, for example, maquiladora factories and Coca-Cola are part of the total lifeway of Mexico today, and thus are part of Mexican culture in one sense of the word, but are not the sorts of things people (Mexican or otherwise) typically intend when speaking of “Mexican culture.”

This is what southerners are doing when they focus on certain cultural items as representing “southern culture.” They’re discursively evoking a subset of items, that really do derive from ways of life in the South or that fit with a certain ethos or “feel” (deep-fried twinkies, readily available at any fair in the south these days, can’t be said to derive from an already existing practice, but they certainly fit with an ethos of frying everything and so, “feel” like a southern thing to do), in order to produce “Southern Culture.”

An important point here (that I’ll end with, but also begin my follow-up post with) is that there is no unitary “Southern Culture.” I don’t just mean that cultural practices vary throughout what is really a large region, though that is, of course, the case. I also mean that in Sapir’s third sense of “culture,” when people evoke a specific subset of cultural practices to produce a sense of the essence of their culture – in this case a sense of what is authentically southern and what is quintessentially southern – there are competing views of what “Southern Culture” is.