restricted access Popular Capitalism and Subalternity: Street Comedians in Lima
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Popular Capitalism and Subalternity:
Street Comedians in Lima

The street was one of the great economic scenes of the 1980s in Peru. Popular sectors of society responded with great vitality to the generalized economic crisis, the inequality of opportunities, the lack of employment, and the clear aspiration to be "independent" not only because of their expanding economic strength but also because of the cultural meanings interwoven by new practices. Beyond economic explanations, few studies have attempted to integrate the phenomenon of the informal market into a cultural perspective that would also give an account of the complexity of the symbolic variables it brings together and the range of social relations promoted among its actors.

In general terms, the economic interpretations of the emergence of the informal market have been numerous, produced in succession out of various and competing schools. In Peru the legalistic analysis developed by Hernando de Soto had a good deal of success throughout the 1980s.1 Nevertheless, I find more convincing the option introduced by Alejandro Portes, who, in arguing for a more conflictual integration, questions the dualistic and oppositional relationship between a formal economy and an informal economy.2 For him, informality is not a "natural" irruption of forces in the market but simply a normal condition of capitalist development, which necessarily requires the structural subordination of some parts of the economy to realize its objectives and tasks at the very low cost. In fact, what was demonstrated in Peru in the eighties was the integration of both sectors, and some of their points of contact were surprising: the big companies were not paying taxes, and the informal sectors were moving as much capital as many of the big companies.

This article analyzes informality according to the subjects that participate in it, that is, according to the self-representation within the informal market of a group of street performers known in Peru as "street comedians" (cómicos ambulantes).3 The people who work selling products in Lima's streets represent their lives in many ways, all of them with the intent to grant legitimacy to the labor they carry out. In a country in which more than 75 percent of the population is underemployed and in which 98 percent of companies are small scale, I believe that it is important to continue [End Page 47] to discuss this phenomenon, drawing on the representations produced by its own agents.4

Mostly Andean migrants, the street comedians have introduced a kind of street show (actuación) that has been widespread in popular sectors. These shows are characterized by what might be best termed an economy of humor, that is, an interest of exchanging (for cash) a range of ironic representations of social reality. Always taking place in public spaces (squares, markets, neighborhood parks, at times on television), these performances5 —in which the spoken word takes the leading role—constitute spaces of the construction and deconstruction of social stereotypes and of a popular opinion deeply related to debates around questions of social class, race, gender, culture, and orality in Peru.

In this sense, I am interested in understanding these performances as a cultural practice realized within a context of modernity that, even if its limits have already been established, still would seem to have left some open spaces. In the squares of Lima, these spaces are represented politically, and they are the cause behind a laughter that is agonizingly carnivalesque.

Regarding the difficulty of theorizing modernity, I argue that these street performances find themselves loaded with a multiplicity of contradictory discourses, of which we can only observe the dynamism and depth. If the street comedians constantly stress the acceptance of the modern project (and reproduce some of its discourses), they also transgress it in order to attempt to reinterpret it through the specific tensions of the cultural history of the country. At issue, of course, is a modernity from below, one that is neither celebratory nor oppositional but instead locates its discourse in a line of critical participation through its advances and failures. In general terms, this article aims to investigate the workings of modernity in Peru through a theoretical reading of popular and urban...