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Book Review

Subjects of Crisis:
Race and Gender as Disease in Latin America

Subjects of Crisis: Race and Gender as Disease in Latin America. By BENIGNO TRIGO. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press; Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 2000 . Photographs. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. xii, 157 pp. Cloth, $45 .00 . Paper, $19 .95 .

This book discusses the different ways in which intellectual elites in Latin America came to believe that the region and its population were in a state of constant crisis. According to Trigo, in their efforts to govern, elites had to know, control, discipline and normalize the social body. And in so doing, they not only perceived sexual and racial differences as a threat to the stability of their societies but also engaged themselves in efforts aimed at neutralizing that threat by constructing "a widespread metaphor for Latin America as subject of crisis" (p. 124 ). Using scientific, literary, and political discourses the author traces these crises back to a body that is marked in these discourses as of another race or gender and also as a natural and physical body that is constantly changing.

Subject of Crisis explores metaphors associated with diseases and physical and spiritual disorders. With a very loose chronological frame--mainly the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth--and a geographical coverage that includes Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina and Puerto Rico, five essays delve into topics such as the genealogy of discourses of Self and Other, criminology as figurative language, and fictions of time, space, and race. The discussion on the construction of anemia as an endemic disease by late-nineteenth-century Creole intellectuals in Puerto Rico is the most original contribution of the book. Based on two medical and sociological texts, Trigo traces the nationalist use of the disease and its location within the body of the "white" peasant woman: "Creole intellectuals, bent on negotiating power with a force of occupation, cannibalize the ruling scientific paradigms, manipulate nonscientific and convenient popular imagery, and finally interiorize a normative state of crisis, in their effort to appoint themselves authoritative technical administrators of an island they perceived to be diseased" (p. 15 ).

This essay on anemia deals with the meanings society could give to an illness. It is also a sample of how many cultural critics approach disease as a "network of interrelated, systematic, repeated, co-opting operations and performances of exclusion, which gives particular forms to perception and self-perception within disciplines, knowledge, and subjectivities" (p. 4 ).

Trigo's discussion is articulated around the colonial condition of Puerto Rico. He is very careful analyzing the tensions between local and metropolitan medical discourses on the illness. (No doubt, a more thorough examination of the uncertainties of the biomedical knowledge vis-à-vis the disease, without assuming that the colonial condition fully explains the way in which a discourse of the disease emerges, would have made the analysis more sophisticated.) Trigo's emphasis on [End Page 162] discourses leaves almost no room for the perceptions of the disease by the sick themselves. He recognizes the importance of that dimension, but when he deals with the empowerment of the medical discourse he ends up depicting a totally passive sick patient. This shortcoming could be a result of the paucity of the sources he used or, something more problematic, of the very idea of writing a history of disease only based on discourses produced in the medical--colonial or metropolitan--camp.

The book is very well written, with elegance and an almost jargon-free style, especially when it compares with others recently produced in the cultural studies field. Trigo's discussion on anemia is imaginative, a very good addition to a subfield that is rapidly growing, many times without the necessary dialogues among sociocultural history, the history of bio-sciences, and history of public health.


Diego Armus
Kean University



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pp. 162-163
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2004
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