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Reviewed by:
  • Cultural Agency in the Americas
  • Ileana Rodríguez
Cultural Agency in the Americas. Edited by Doris Sommer. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. Pp. 385. Illustrations. Notes. References. Index. $89.95 cloth; $24.95 paper.

This is a magnificent collection of essays that not only discusses the meaning and reach of "cultural agency" in the Americas, but also establishes a new agenda for rethinking the field of Latin American studies in relation to the political, such as it is understood by the "New Social Movements" literature. The articles included in the volume examine different forms of cultural agency such as the practices of Candomblé memory as a performance of DNA, gender and ethnicity as prosthetic support, diversity as discourse, radio programs, conspiracy, transcultural spaces, cultural instrumentalism, inclusions and exclusions in Brazilian indigenism, state geography, the new notion of the "indio permitido" in Chile and Guatemala, and violentology as a disciplinary view of social sciences. Politics are not understood here as a totalizing, hegemonic, party-oriented endeavor but as a strategy of creating, in Dorris Sommer's phrase, "wiggle room" that opens up spaces to new forms of empowerment. Small but gradual and steady victories are ways of working towards the achievement of multicultural democracies and of forming coalitions and common front politics.

Among the discussion points highlighted are the mobilizing power of popular and mass culture, thus reversing the old Frankfurt School creed of mass culture as complacent and complicity with power and illusory forms of harmony. There is also an emphasis placed on the historical nature of pluralized cultural effects within their relationship to hegemony, along a mindful veering away from the dichotomies of reform and revolution, the role of the state and any other type of universalism. Most importantly, the texts offer the theoretical proposal of having academics and cultural activists work in tandem thus making available new field notions, new politics, and new ethics.

Several definitions of culture, and therefore of "cultural agency," are offered. One of them, by Sommer, defines it as "a strategy of containment for irritating change, material for fetish-making observer-voyeurs" (p. 13). Cultures are neither uncontaminated nor lifeless "[b]ut living traditions [that] appropriate foreign elements into multiples modernities . . . a vehicle for agency" (Ibid.). Hence culture is collective practice and artistic rupture; and cultural agency, in Arturo Arias' discussion, is "the ways that subjects, often peripheral or subaltern, empower themselves through cultural practices" (p.167). Cultural agency is an event that establishes a new relationship between artist and scholar, as well as between culture and politics.

In tandem with these definitions is the demonstration of how cultural practices destabilize modern, instrumental reason—how instrumental reason is in need of the intervention of cultural pluralities—and how market dynamics benefit from the metonymic nature and fluidity of mass media and its tempo. Furthermore, viewed [End Page 90] from the perspective of mass communications, cultural agency presumes a re-enchantment with the political. One outstanding chapter calls attention to the nature of the state and its lack of competency in dealing with the power and impetus of private enterprise in the production of culture. Involved in a multiplicity of activities and dispersed throughout the social body, the state is situated in a position of weakness with respect to the force and creativity, the power and inventiveness, of local cultural agents and agencies tapped into by private industry. The social bond is thus generated from the local and reinvented by it. This gives it the power to negotiate their participation in the social. Mass media and mass and popular culture muster organizing power and provide a solid substance to the public discussion, thus promoting a movement towards democracy. Clear examples of this power are offered in the instances of women's organizations, marches and visibility to remember, as in the case of Argentina, or the different interpretations of the role of music, as in Candomblé, as well as with the steady intervention of indigenous populations in Chile, and Guatemala who, through the creation of cultural centers, have achieved the political recognition of the government. The notion of the "indio permitido" is a fertile one.

Two other important discussions revolve around disciplinary formation and...


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