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Reviewed by:
  • Cultural Agency In the Americas
  • Ramón H. Rivera-Servera
Cultural Agency In the Americas. Edited by Doris Sommer . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006; pp. 392. $89.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.

Latin American scholars have for a long time exhibited caution with the US academic engagement of the region's leftist movements. Latin American [End Page 158] revolutions—from Fidel Castro's Cuba to Hugo Chavez's Venezuela, and from the Chilean socialist movement to the zapatista uprisings in Mexico—feature within US academic imaginaries on the Left as beacons of possibility. These movements are often presented within utopian narratives of absolute remediation to conditions of oppression, only to later find laborious intellectual projects frustrated by the material realities of articulating and theorizing resistance on the ground.

In Cultural Agency in the Americas, editor Doris Sommer proposes an alternative to this dead end in politico-cultural criticism. Critiquing a tendency in cultural studies to either describe or denounce material conditions of asymmetry without a gesture towards intervention, Sommer seeks to encourage a scholarly engagement that takes a next step towards provoking, encouraging, or participating in social change. Change, for the editor of this collection, is purposely distanced from a notion of absolute transformation; instead, the collection focuses on the agency of culture as a practice that takes advantage of gaps in systemic operations. Sommer playfully engages with this jogo de cintura—"wiggle room"—advocating for a turn to Gramscian "passive revolutions," especially in situations where the more forceful heroics of revolution are likely to backfire or prove ineffective. The shift in this anthology is from a positioning of Latin America as producer of grand examples of dissidence and resistance, to an engagement with smaller, more quotidian gestures or adjustments to and around power dynamics in the region.

As in Gramscian analysis, in this anthology, culture emerges as a strategy in situations of differential material arrangements. Yet culture, notes Sommer, is often left out of the conversation or simply missed by academic lenses accustomed to reading agency elsewhere in more explicitly confrontational exchanges of revolutionary force (i.e., armed uprisings). But this lack of account for the contribution of culture may also be the result of disciplinary blind spots. As Sommer explains in her introduction, "culture can fall out of focus both for social scientists, who do not deal in art, and for students of art, who imagine they have little effect on the world" (3).

While this assertion may at first sight ring as somewhat less relevant to the readership of this journal, exposed as we have been to conversations in theatre and performance scholarship that are focused precisely on thinking through the possibilities of political/material impact from within the performance space, Sommer's statement seems to point in a different direction. At the heart of her formulation, there seems to be a critique of the totalizing narratives of Latin American political action and an exhortation to focus on more modest outcomes. This reassessment of the political-efficacy thesis in relation to cultural practice invites a second look at Latin American cultures beyond the resistance paradigm to account for more dynamic dramaturgies of survival in the everyday.

Cultural Agency in the Americas includes a critical introduction, fourteen critical essays, and two afterwords. The essays address cultural tactics enacted by activists, cultural brokers, and academics as well as by average citizens in advocating for more just material arrangements to daily living. Only two authors in the collection—Diana Taylor and Denise Corte—address theatre or performance explicitly, but some of the larger debates engaged in the anthology result in stimulating and applicable approaches to a broader spectrum of cultural practice. The critical essays are divided into three sections: "Media," "Maneuvers," and "Cautions," each approaching different aspects of cultural interventions from the vehicles to the forms of intervention, and culminating with a look at cultural strategies that backfire and warnings of academic approaches that might miss or distort the possibilities for efficacy.

In the Media section, authors showcase a variety of sites and approaches to cultural agency. Communications scholar Jesús Martín Barbero opens the essay sections with two contributions: one focused on the repositioning of...


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