Transforming Modernity

[ Latin American Studies ]

Transforming Modernity

Popular Culture in Mexico

By Néstor García Canclini

Translated by Lidia Lozano

An examination of popular culture -- merely a process of creating, marketing, and consuming a final product, or an expression of the artist's surroundings and an attempt to alter them?



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6 x 9 | 144 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-72759-5

Is popular culture merely a process of creating, marketing, and consuming a final product, or is it an expression of the artist's surroundings and an attempt to alter them? Noted Argentine/Mexican anthropologist Néstor García Canclini addresses these questions and more in Transforming Modernity, a translation of Las culturas populares en el capitalismo. Based on fieldwork among the Purépecha of Michoacán, Mexico, some of the most talented artisans of the New World, the book is not so much a work of ethnography as of philosophy—a cultural critique of modernism. García Canclini delineates three interpretations of popular culture: spontaneous creation, which posits that artistic expression is the realization of beauty and knowledge; "memory for sale," which holds that original products are created for sale in the imposed capitalist system; and the tourist outlook, whereby collectibles are created to justify development and to provide insight into what capitalism has achieved.

Transforming Modernity argues strongly for popular culture as an instrument of understanding, reproducing, and transforming the social system in order to elaborate and construct class hegemony and to reflect the unequal appropriation and distribution of cultural capital. With its wide scope, this book should appeal to readers within and well beyond anthropology—those interested in cultural theory, social thought, and Mesoamerican culture.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  1. From the Primitive to the Popular: Theories about Inequality between Cultures
  2. Introduction to the Study of Popular Cultures
  3. Artisanal Production as a Capitalist Necessity
  4. The Fractured Society
  5. From the Market to the Boutique: When Crafts Migrate
  6. Fiesta and History: To Celebrate, to Remember, to Sell
  • Conclusion: Toward a Popular Culture in Small Letters
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Photo section, pages 48-54

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What is popular culture: spontaneous creation by the people, their collective memory tumed into a commodity, or the exotic representation of a state of backwardness that industry reduces to the condition of a curiosity for the sake of tourists?

The romantic solution is: to isolate creativity and manual production, the beauty and wisdom of the people, to picture sentimentally natural communities untouched by capitalist development, as if popular cultures were not also the product of the assimilation of dominant ideologies and the contradictions of oppressed classes.

The market strategy is: to recognize popular creations but not the people who make them, to rate them only in terms of profitability, and to regard crafts, fiestas, and "traditional" beliefs as remnants of precapitalist forms of production. The popular is another name for the primitive: an obstacle to be removed or a new category of commodities to help increase sales to consumers unhappy with mass production.

What tourists see are: ornaments for sale to decorate their apartments; "savage" ceremonies, testimonies to the superiority of their own society; and symbols of assorted and remote travels, and therefore of their own purchasing power. Culture is like nature: a show. Sunny beaches and Indian dances are regarded alike. The past blends with the present, people or stones—it is all the same: a Day of the Dead ceremony and a Mayan pyramid are sets in which to be photographed.

This book seeks to understand the various manifestations of popular culture in their totality: why it spreads to what people make, what is sold in markets and boutiques, and the shows into which the mass media tum our daily lives. Instead of holding onto an illusory authenticity, as is the case with romantic escapism, I will attempt to explain why Indians make their crafts and fiestas increasingly for others, to be bought and looked at. In order to avoid limiting my argument to the—central—issue of the commercialization of culture, I will explore the economic and symbolic aspects of popular goods, what is sold and what is sought after. I will also seek to establish how the meaning of what people make in a workshop complements what another sector of the population uses in its urban household or watches on television: since all settings of popular culture are part of the capitalist system, we must find a way to understand them in their totality.

To redefine what constitutes popular culture today, we need a research strategy that enables us to include the realms of production, circulation, and consumption. To understand, for example, why handmade articles have not just survived but in fact increased in industrial societies, we must ask ourselves why the social system boosts their production. We have to give up, then, both a notion that reduces crafts to a collection of objects and popular culture to a set of traditions, as well as the folkloric idealism that believes it is possible to explain popular creations as the autonomous "expression" of a people's genius. The most fruitful approach is one that regards culture as a tool helpful for understanding, reproducing, and transforming the social system, and for making and constructing the hegemony of individual classes. From this viewpoint, we will consider the cultures of popular classes as the product of unequal appropriation of cultural capital, their own reflections about their living conditions, and conflict-ridden interaction with hegemonic sectors.

This theoretical and methodological approach, which will be developed in the first two chapters, centers around the following hypotheses:

  1. Capitalist modernization, particularly in the case of a dependent capitalism with strong Indian roots, does not always destroy traditional cultures as it moves forward; it can also appropriate them, restructure them, reorganize the meaning and function of their objects, beliefs, and practices. Its favorite devices, as we shall see in chapter 3, are restructuring rural and urban production and consumption and promoting tourism and state policies for ideological refunctionalization.
  2. In order to integrate the popular classes into the process of capitalist development, the dominant classes destructure ethnic, class, and national cultures through a series of different processes—all of them, though, subject to a common logic—and reorganize them into a unified system of symbolic production. To achieve this, they separate the economic basis from cultural representations and break the unity between production, circulation, and consumption and between individuals and the community. At a second stage, or simultaneously, they put the pieces back together again and subordinate them to a globalization of culture that corresponds to the nationalization of capital. We will examine this process through one of its principal mechanisms: the reduction of the ethnic to the typical (chapter 4).

However, since we will also be looking at the response to domination by traditional communities and mestizo villages, their ways of adapting to it, resisting, or finding a space to survive, the final objective of this book will be to put forward an interpretation of intercultural conflicts under capitalist modernization.

This interpretation began to take shape in a study of changes in popular crafts and fiestas carried out between 1977 and 1980 in central Mexico, among villages in the Tarascan area of the state of Michoacán. I explored two regions with similar ethnic origin, but different economic and cultural development: (1) the area surrounding Lake Pátzcuaro, which is closely integrated into the process of capitalist economic development, tourism, communications, and action of official organizations; and (2) Patamban and Ocumicho, small pottery and farming villages in the sierra, based on the domestic unit of production and accessible only by dirt road. They still speak partly Tarascan and hold fiestas and fairs that only recently have begun to see tourists and manufactured goods.

To carry out a comparative study of the influence of external agents and the evolution of these two types of villages, I have considered changes I observed through the years during visits, as well as the earlier structure, crafts, and fiestas of each village, as related in reports by Mexican or American anthropologists since the forties. This study differs from previous ones in that I was interested not only in looking at life within the villages but also in following artisans and their goods to fiestas and markets—in Patzcuaro, Morelia, and the Federal District— to learn about their interaction with people and institutions outside their place of origin and to establish how urban consumption lends a new meaning to the material and symbolic production of traditional cultures.

Earlier lengthy accounts of the Tarascan region provided a background to my own fieldwork and saved me from having to include detailed ethnographic descriptions in some chapters. Since both general and detailed accounts are available, I have concentrated on providing empirical data on recent intercultural processes as yet unexplored and on developingthe analytical framework necessary to understand them: this has guided the selection of descriptions and data, though I have also included some historical and other basic information to help readers unfamiliar with Michoacán acquaint themselves with the region. Anyone wishing to obtain a more detailed overview of the area will find it in the works cited in note l above, particularly in the books by Carrasco, Dinerman, Novelo, and Van Zantwijk.

While the clash beween the old culture and the contemporary redefinition of functions structures the entire book, the issue is given particular attention in chapters 5 and 6. In chapter 5, we follow the process of decontextualization and redefinition of functions undergone by crafts in different social spaces and classes: Indian households, peasant markets and fairs, shops and boutiques, museums, and urban households. In chapter 6, we focus on the role of nondurable crafts in Indian fiestas, on what tums such celebrations into shows, collective participation into planned consumption, and the farming-religious ritual order into the commercial organization of tourists' leisure.

The approach used here to these subjects and methodology place this book somewhere between the realms of anthropology and sociology. However, the reader will also find political and philosophical reflections on culture. As we explore the changing identity of popular cultures, we critically examine the reasons behind, and the dilemmas faced by, those institutions that promote them, as well as the direction that cultural policies—both rural and urban—should follow during a process of social change.

At the same time, research on ephemeral and changeable elements in cultural processes leads us to reflect on the fragile and unstable aspects of culture, not just traditional ones under the impact of capitalist modernization, but all representations with which individuals attempt to account for their lives. Given that the symbolic cannot be reduced to observable patterns of behavior and their immediate practical objectives, I believe that the study of social conditions of production must include the utopian or searching aspects of culture. The anthropological interpretation of the fiesta of the dead, for example, offers an opportunity to understand what individuals try to do, through the fiesta, that they cannot do with death. The study of these ceremonies and offerings will help us to see culture not only as a manifestation of how people live under capitalism, but also of how they die and how they remember; it will enable us to see how the art of the poor reworks the material and concrete conditions of society, as well as what it imagines beyond them.

In considering these uncertainties concerning the fate of popular cultures in class conflict that tends to erode them, one must question the future and value of all culture, representations, systems of thought, and beliefs through which we seek to explain and justify ourselves. The analysis of conditionings that act upon culture and of culture as an instrument for the reproduction of objective social relations prevails throughout the book. However, we do not go so far as to tell which are the elements, present in all symbolic production, that involve the invention of new realities, games about reality, and openings, or windows, to what is not or to what we cannot become. How can we understand those refutations of reality that we keep on constructing in the palaces of the world of dreams, in utopian and literary archetypes, in the profitless expenditure of a fiesta, in every strategy of the imaginary realm and the rhetorical tricks of desire? Why do these fictitious creations survive and expand in a world that repeatedly seeks to be subjected to the rationality of efficiency? While our capacity to transcend material needs and project ourselves toward a future that does not automatically derive from economic development cannot be regarded as the fundamental and distinctive feature of humankind, as idealism might argue, it does nonetheless merit a place in an interpretation of culture. We also want to discuss these topics from a sociohistorical approach, because we recognize the social—and even political—significance of reconceptualizing those elements that idealism, by isolating them under the name of genius, left unexplained, and mechanistic materialism, by reducing them to their conditionings, left without any specificity of their own.

Néstor García Canclini, who studied in Paris under Paul Ricoeur, is a professor at the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana de México. Lidia Lozano has translated works by Enrique Semo, Lorenzo Meyer, and Isidro Morales, among others.