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Reviewed by:
  • Cruel Modernity by Jean Franco
  • Marguerite Feitlowitz
Cruel Modernity. By Jean Franco. Durham: Duke University Press, 2013. Pp. vii, 336. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $89.95 cloth; $24.95 paper.

Jean Franco asks a deceptively simple question: “What does ‘cruel’ mean?” questions also whether we have a rigorous concept of cruelty (pp. 3–4): in other words, have we navigated by the unreliable light of binary divisions—good and evil, sacred and profane, licit and illicit, barbarism and civilization? Do we equate modernity with the expansion of rights, the privileging of social justice?

In nine tightly focused chapters, Franco entertains and complicates these questions as she analyzes sustained patterns of extreme violence, enacted primarily in the twentieth century, upon original peoples in Guatemala and Peru; dissidents in Argentina and Chile; unaffiliated peasants in Colombia, Peru, and Central America; and women in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Franco argues that modernity depends on the mass subjugation of populations not considered to be human by the powers that be. How else can one explain such intricate, prolonged, degrading, and “expressive” methods of torture, rape, dismemberment, and murder?

Her documentation is extensive. Among the sources are detailed forensics, eyewitness accounts, medical reports, and the very occasional survivor testimony (survivors being few and far between). The numbers alone are “expressive,” as in the 20,000 Haitians massacred by the forces of Trujillo in the first week of October 1937, dubbed by the official histories of the region, if they mention it at all, as an “insignificant incident.” The chasm between the gigantic scope of the violence in a small timeframe and the indifferent shrug of official response is one of Franco’s major themes.

For her, this 1937 massacre rooted in racial hatred, fought by subalterns with atavistic brutality and launched to protect “civilization” and its attendant reward of “prosperity,” is paradigmatic. The Dominican foot soldiers who committed the acts were never intended to share in the official spoils; they fought on behalf of the ruling classes. The region’s economy (sugar, coffee, fruit, rubber, cotton) has depended on the “necropolis” (she uses Achile Mbembe’s term) of the slave plantations, where the crops had more value than indentured human beings. That sense of the “necropolis” has filtered down, Franco argues, through decades of dirty wars (Argentina, Chile), guerrilla wars, drug wars and narco-cultura, and in the absolute lack of protection afforded young women in the maquiladoras of northern Mexico, where their mutilated corpses are commonplace.

The Argentine dictatorship (1976–1983) employed a rhetoric that stressed both free-market “modernity” (in opposition to what it termed the “demonic hordes” of the political left), and a messianic mission to protect freedom and creativity for a select few. Historically, in such circumstances the indigenous have been considered alien to modernity. Franco elucidates how this belief resonates even today in Peru’s educated [End Page 742] urban classes, notably with intellectuals such as Mario Vargas Llosa who in his own campaign for modernizing Peru argues for a melting pot. Vargas Llosa describes the scene of cholos with thriving market stalls and pushcarts in the streets of Lima as one of progress: he sees striving and eventual integration. To Franco, it represents the erasure of indigenous languages and culture, about which most white Peruvians are ignorant.

Her pages on the cannibalism practiced on Indian victims by seventeenth-century Spanish soldiers, by twentieth-century Guatemalan soldiers on the Maya, and by members of the Shining Path on Peruvian peasants make the point that these varied campaigns for so-called civilization were in great part atavistic. In the chapter on Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, aptly called “Apocalypse Now,” Franco culminates her argument on “extreme masculinity,” in which manhood is massively conceived as hatred of—and absolute power over—women. Sexualized torture, dismemberment, and cannibalizing of females is not instinctive; it is inculcated by military and guerilla groups, abetted by castrating conditions of poverty and disenfranchisement. Franco reflects that routine big-gang rapes are coercive and binding, that the mutilated female is the means to a warped band-of-brothers solidarity. Yet even here, “cruelty” can have the accoutrements of protective urbanity: mayors, police and detectives, courts and political parties...


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