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  • Errant Modernism: The Ethos of Photography in Mexico and Brazil
  • Hermann Herlinghaus
Esther Gabara . Errant Modernism: The Ethos of Photography in Mexico and Brazil. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2008. 357 pp.

There are two instances of immediate interest, if one concedes that a (sub) title should convey a crucible for intellectual curiosity. The notion of an "ethos of photography" is not self-explanatory, at least not from the viewpoint of the latent tension between "representation" and "presence" which accompanies the aesthetic, cultural, and historical phenomenon of photography. But at the same time, what is it that marks the comparative momentum that brings the cases of Mexico and Brazil together or sets them apart? In both regards, Esther Gabara presents an exploratory and, in part, surprising picture of aesthetic and political projects of what I would call an "intermedial" modernism.

Gabara's study is indebted to Jesús Martín-Barbero's De los medios a las mediaciones (1987; Communication, Culture and Hegemony: From the Media to Mediations, 1993), especially regarding that author's seminal, de-essentializing approach to the concept of "popular culture" in close relationship to a heterogeneous, Latin American modernity. At stake in Martín-Barbero's perspective, which ranges close to Benjamin's programmatic anti-historicism, is not what "modernity" or "modernism" in the periphery looks like in terms of an achieved 'quality' or (poetic) uniqueness, but which concepts allow us to access aesthetic and cultural historicality as paradoxical movement. Gabara views the concept of the "popular" as historically dynamic and conceptually most productive, owing to her assumption that in the contrasts between an "ethnographic popular" ("cultura popular") and a "mass-mediated popular" ("cultura de masas," 123) cultural and symbolic spaces are formed which allow us to perceive modernism's ambivalent postures. [End Page 418]

When Gabara speaks of an "ethos of modernism," she is critical of certain academic presumptions in the U.S. academy, according to some of which non-Western cultures and arts still reveal a "natural" ethical stance as an "ethnographic other," while the global North maintains both its teleological centrality and the power to administer critical thinking outward (see 27-28). The author's quest for an "ethos" takes into account—referring to Idelber Avelar's position (21)—the singular tensions between ethos and episteme that mark, in a framework of uneven global division of intellectual labor, the struggles in which the hermeneutic apparatus of modern and postmodern "discourse" has been constructed, as well as contested. In other words, "ethos of modernism" functions as a lens, not for establishing Brazilian and Mexican "photographic" modernism's identity, but for learning about the "errancy" and the chameleonic character of the concept of modernism itself. Photography's "errant modernism," in the case of Brazil and Mexico, is shaped in local and transnational frameworks of imagination and artistic figuration which crystallize experiences of fascination and, at the same time, critical awareness (a "critical nationalism," 124) vis-à-vis those radical changes that belong to the 1920s and 1930s in both countries. From that perspective, we find a comparative angle that tries to approximate heterogeneities, not analogies, for example Mário de Andrade's Tapuio portraits (see 88-90), on the one hand and, on the other, in the Mexican illustrated press of the same period, a genuine variety of types of the unruly woman (the marimacha girl, the "flapper," the vamp, the eccentric, the garçonne, among others; 157 ff.). Mexico and Brazil are chosen as "receding points" for the idea of Latin America, "dominating any definition of the region yet productively, errantly never quite fitting into it" (19). Brazil and Mexico are also two of the most compelling cases in the world, where the rise of an audio/visual mass culture in close relationship with the "self-fashioning" of the modern nation state has drawn on popular-cultural dispositives in singular ways. It is this phenomenon, constituting a radical challenge for literary modernists and providing, at the same time, a unique integrative matrix for their work whose perspectivation gives Gabara's study its central focus of originality. Last but not least, the reader, when learning about "modernist" photography in these countries, might also become...


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