Nepantla: Views from South 4.1 (2003) 201-207
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Gilbert M. Joseph, Anne Rubenstein, and Eric Zolov, eds.
Fragments of a Golden Age: The Politics of Culture in Mexico since 1940. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 2000. 507 pp.
The vocation of cultural studies has been to enable
people to understand what is going on, and especially to
provide ways of thinking, strategies for survival,
and resources for resistance to all those who are now—
in economic, political, and cultural terms—excluded
from anything that could be called access to the national
culture of the national community: in this sense
cultural studies still has as profound a historical vocation
as it ever had in the 1960s and '70s.
—Stuart Hall, “The Emergence of Cultural Studies
and the Crisis of the Humanities” (1990)
The editors of Fragments of a Golden Age: The Politics of Culture in Mexico since 1940 present this collection of essays as the first step in a new field of historical inquiry, new in its methodology as much as in the period under examination. These claims of novelty place Fragments squarely at the center of a debate over the New Cultural History (NCH) that has grown heated during the past decade, and recently has focused on the NCH of Mexico. As we will see, these essays help to define this field of study by suggesting what the NCH has to do with what Stuart Hall defines as “the vocation of cultural studies,” and its relationship to Latin American cultural studies.
The key terms of the debate are neatly summarized by Alan Knight in a recent issue of the Latin American Research Review (2002) and by a 1999 special issue of the Hispanic American Historical Review titled Mexico's New Cultural History: ¿Una Lucha Libre?. Knight (2002, 139) convincingly argues that the real terrain for discussion is the word cultural in New Cultural History, since the new refers to a relationship to previous modes of study, and history (like historiography) is a term that those on both sides of the debate appear to recognize. He proposes to define cultural by examining the “common features” shared by the practitioners of the NCH. [End Page 201] While Knight admits the logical difficulties presented by this listing of observations, he does not return to define cultural after examining the shared characteristics of the field. The editors of Fragments of a Golden Age therefore offer a crucial contribution to defining the NCH when they address the state of “Mexican cultural studies in the United States” (15). They describe a shared approach that “conceptualize[s] culture within a broad Gramscian, even Foucauldian, tradition, one that examines the links between culture and power” (16); its practitioners reject the limitations of “high” culture, even though they agree to disagree on what the content of “high” culture is. In fact, neither the contributors to the special issue of HAHR nor Knight, in his survey of the literature, explore in depth the debt of the cultural in New Cultural History to the cultural of cultural studies. Showing the productive link between these two cultures and demonstrating how the study of Mexican history in particular helps create this field are the collection's most significant contributions.
One of the primary concerns in the debate over the meaning of culture in the NCH is the status of politics. By this I mean not only the relationship between culture and politics, but also the expression of a political stance by the historian. The editors of Fragments of a Golden Age define the method of study reflected in the collection as an insistence on the relevance of “the politics of culture” to understanding post-1940 Mexico, even suggesting that it is “sometimes the only window” onto this period (15). The impact of cultural studies on the disciplines of literary studies, ethnography, and anthropology came not via the introduction of the study of “culture” but rather through a redefinition of the bounds and content of the culture(s) to be studied, and through an insistence...