- Between Civilization and Barbarism: Women, Nation, and Literary Culture in Modern Argentina
In her Between Civilization and Barbarism, Francine Masiello examines the question of Argentine nationalism through a study of writings by and about women. Concentrating her analysis on a period that begins with the Rosas dictatorship (1829–1852) and ends just before the rise of Peronism (1940 or so), and responding to four distinct kinds of discursive constructs (romantic liberalism, positivism, capitalist exchange, and literary modernism), Masiello not only argues that women made important contributions to the various Argentine discourses of nation-building; she also contends that these discourses could only have come into being by taking women into account (either by including or excluding them). Thus her goal is less to demonstrate how certain women managed to set up an alternative project in the margins of “official” (male-dominated) Argentine history than it is to show how those margins mark and affect the official story.
Masiello’s title recalls the great Latin American debate of the nineteenth and early twentieth century: between civilization and barbarism or, to follow the metonymic chain that informs this debate, between the European and the indigenous, between law and lawlessness, city and country, culture and nature, and reason and irrationality. Needless to say, in these polemics the state invariably takes the side of “civilization,” which attempts to erase all that is “barbaric” or “foreign.” Masiello adds to this proliferation the binary “man-woman,” noting how women in nineteenth-century Argentina were associated with nature, and therefore with barbarism. Hence, according to Masiello, the project of Argentine nationalism consisted in “civilizing,” taming, controlling, and/or eliminating not only the “barbarians” but also women.
It must be noted, however, that Masiello examines this association of women with barbarism only occasionally. In fact, her study is not so much about the binary opposition between civilization and barbarism as it is about binary oppositions themselves; the key opposition for her is neither civilization and barbarism nor man and woman but the public and the private. Indeed, the women writers that Masiello studies are feminine not due to their biological make-up or sexual orientation but, above all, because they occupied or were assigned the domestic, familiar, personal, or private sphere, which for Masiello is clearly a feminine space. Is Masiello thus claiming that women belong in the home, with the family? Any response to this query must take into account the fact that in Between Civilization and Barbarism the binary “public-private” eventually yields to others: center and periphery, inside and outside, the dominant and the resistant, the state and the family, the accepted and the excepted. Masiello holds to the connection of domesticity and femininity, then, because she is able to make a link (perhaps a leap) first from the private to the non-public or the marginal (the dangerous implication here is that all non-public or marginal spaces are private or domestic ones; matters of homelessness and exile are therefore not adequately addressed), and then from the non-public to the subaltern (a term that Masiello uses frequently). In other words, within Masiello’s theoretical framework being domestic is the same as not being an accepted part of the dominant, public domain which, in turn, is the same as being Other.
Only now can we answer the question posed above: Does Masiello keep women in the home? The answer is No; in fact, her thesis is just the opposite. She claims that the importance of certain Argentine women writers lies in the fact that they were able to infuse the various public discourses of Argentine nationalism with an Otherness that not only called into question but also reformed those discourses. These writers moved out of [End Page 161] the house and into the center square or male space, but they did so as women; in other words, they intervened in the official male program (be that program liberal, positivist, capitalist, or modernist) by bringing their domesticity, that is to say, their non-publicness or alterity into...