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Journal of World History 14.4 (2003) 561-563

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Goods, Power, History: Latin America's Material Culture. By Arnold J. Bauer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 245 pp. + maps, figures, index. $19.00 (paper).

Arnold Bauer offers us a beautifully composed and sweeping overview of the past thousand years of Latin American history, the present included, from the vantage of its "material culture." Perhaps some specialists on the region will find little absolutely "new" here in terms of research or facts or even in the book's conceptual grasp of Latin America. [End Page 561] But this is an artful synthesis, one that sows a field never before plowed in quite this way. For world historians, especially the materially inclined, Goods, Power, History will serve as a valuable and intellectually engaging introduction to Latin America.

Bauer's book is mainly about the trinity of food, clothing, and shelter, though along the way it touches upon virtually every other realm of economic and cultural life (such as music, architecture, and fashion). The book is more about consumption cultures than the story of market commodities or exports, though production, technology, and commerce are always there peeking though the curtain. Bauer blazes a complex social and cultural trail through the world of goods, as discussed in the introduction. Above all he builds here upon sociologist Norbert Elias's notion of "civilizing goods"—that the social function of goods is to provide a sense of belonging to elites and masses, a civic "identity," and natural obedience to dominant mores and power structures. The other key concept is the "hybridity" of Latin American's material culture, a sensible middle ground given the region's unique half millennium of immersion in theWest. Stronger by the decade, Europeanizing and now Americanizing commodities and styles inevitably inspire how Latin Americans eat, dress, and live.

Bauer constructs a bold six-part goods periodization of Latin American history. After first surveying the pre-Columbian "material landscape," the remarkable tuber and maize food regimes of the major American empires, Andean and Mexican, the book turns to "contact goods." This was the frenetic exchange of material cultures that occurred during the early decades of the Iberian conquest, spearheaded by the Church and the founding of Mediterranean-style towns. The second era, the next three centuries of colonial rule, was defined by "civilizing goods"—changes in eating and dress and housing that reflected the hierarchic colonial and Catholic ethos of Spain, and to some degree newly syncretic, mestizo ways. The third era, the nineteenth-century era of independence and liberalism, was marked by "modernizing goods." Latin Americans were inundated by new goods as they gleefully opened to the industrializing Atlantic world, which brought on an exaggerated upper-crust fascination with European fashion, design, cuisine, arts—urban links to a greater "world bourgeois" culture. "Developing goods," a large chunk of the twentieth century, was the period of flourishing Latin American nationalism and industrialism, which Bauer views as mestizo or "criollo" processes that finally reached into the most remote and rustic of peasant villages. The book ends briefly on a sixth age, that of "global goods," the vulgar Latin American present flooded by Coca-Cola, McDonalds, and Wal-Mart. [End Page 562] In contrast to the nineteenth century, neoliberalism has wrought considerable changes in popular consumption and identities, gross inequalities notwithstanding.

I'm still perplexed by these periodizations. Is it something in the goods themselves that harbors say "modernizing" qualities, or do broad historical-cultural-political processes (such as Spanish colonialism) lend meaning to any basket of goods? Could an American hamburger become, perhaps, a civilizing good under differing circumstances? I was also left wondering about the common existence of a Latin American consumption culture, from Mexico to Argentina, given the insularity of regional patria chicas until the twentieth century. Was it the industrial and global age, with its mass media and production, that finally brought Latin Americans together around a big table, or is there a deeper unity in Iberian-American ways? The big questions are left mainly to the reader's discretion...


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