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Critical Passions: Selected Essays (review)

From: The Americas
Volume 57, Number 3, January 2001
pp. 422-424 | 10.1353/tam.2001.0008

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The Americas 57.3 (2001) 422-424

Critical Passions: Selected Essays. By Jean Franco. Edited and with an introduction by Mary Louise Pratt and Kathleen Newman. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000. Pp. vi, 536. Notes. Index. $69.95 cloth; $22.95 paper.

In March 2000, the Latin American Studies Association honored Jean Franco with the Kalman Silvert Award in recognition of her thirty-plus years as a ground-breaking scholar in Latin American literary and cultural studies. The concerns that the professor emerita of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University raised in her first book, The Modern Culture of Latin America: Society and the Artist (1967), also flavor this collection of 32 essays, originally published between 1971 and 1997. The editors have grouped the articles into four categories: feminism and the critique of authoritarianism; mass and popular culture; Latin American literature: the boom and beyond; and Mexico. The boundaries are somewhat arbitrary, for Franco's interests in the relationship between society, artists, and art, both high and popular, necessarily overlap.

Can an artist simultaneously challenge the literary canon and advocate social justice? For all their freshness and innovation, Franco judges that most of the writers of the boom (Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and Mario Vargas Llosa, to name a few) have failed to solve this conundrum. Franco argues that their emphasis on individual freedom over social action, their archaic stereotypes of the bourgeois society they criticized, and their discomfort with mass culture have limited their authority as moral critics. Unwittingly, and reluctantly, they themselves became transnational media stars, and their novels often became commodities in the mass culture they disliked. Ultimately, they neither replaced the Enlightenment novel nor dealt a telling blow to the capitalistic system it reflected.

Unlike the novelists, Franco finds much to value in popular, mass culture with its potential to defy the hierarchy of social and cultural values. The transmitters and the receivers of mass culture genres like telenovelas engage in constant negotiation. Items of mass culture are commodities that are packaged and marketed, but the receiver will choose the most meaningful among many options or may reconstruct and even invert the intended message. As an example, Franco cites the Mexican government's crass marketing of the image of Frieda Kahlo as an "advocate and intercessor of a new Mexico" (p. 43). A Chicano artist might receive that image but attach a different and more defiant symbolic value to it. The negotiation exists even in authoritarian societies, although its range naturally becomes more restricted, Franco argues.

The fight for control of public space is crucial in the struggle to replace the Enlightenment narrative of progress and technology. Franco observes that Latin American public space has long been filled by male, patriarchal voices. Gays, lesbians, transvestite performance artists, and women have weakened the gender order when they have dared to venture out of their private havens. For example, the 1970s authoritarian governments in Argentina invaded homes, spurring the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo to denounce torture in the public space of Buenos Aires. Since most dictators and torturers have been masculine, then their feminine opposite becomes inherently destabilizing.

Franco does not argue for the moral superiority of women nor suggest that women writers automatically challenge the patriarchal system. Although the works of writers like Isabel Allende or Laura Esquivel can help to displace a male-centered allegory, these "art romances" (p. 98) usually are not written from the feminist perspective that their authors may claim for them. Like their male cohorts, the middle-class women writers usually privilege individual values over social ones and remain somewhat aloof from issues of social justice for the masses.

Franco's leftist and feminist views guide her scholarship without turning it into dogma. She has remained a discerning, honest, and highly humanistic critic who believes that writers can contribute to the creation of a more dynamic and democratic amalgam of high and popular culture in society and in art. Her essays offer nuanced analysis for the specialist, while stimulating the casual reader of Latin American literature with their accessible prose and thoughts on the relationship of literature to society and history.

Judith Ewell...

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