Locating Neoliberalism in Time, Space, and “Culture”
This article examines culture and neoliberalism across the Americas and discusses strategies to develop comparative analyses that engage with matters of race and power.
How do we engage in productive comparative analyses that do not subsume categories of identification, and how should we theorize neoliberalism when it “looks” and “feels” so different across the Americas? These have been two key questions guiding my work on Latino/as cultural production, and two concerns immediately galvanized by the editors’ important quest to disrupt the US-centered perspectives that have historically framed Latino/a American realities within American studies, rather than Americas studies. They perceptively want us to rethink American studies by anchoring perspectives of and from “Las Américas” and by placing comparative perspectives at the center of any inquiry around immigration, social movements, cultural production, race, and so forth. This task requires broadening analysis beyond the safer spaces represented by studies focusing on a specific location, cultural product, text, social movement, or dynamic as bounded and produced within a particular site. And by now, we have many great examples of interdisciplinary works that anchor themselves in comparative perspectives, circulations, and exchanges in between and across the Americas. Yet when grappling with contemporary political economic processes that grow more complicated by the minute, pressing questions remain.
I would like to suggest that unpacking “culture” from the political economy of neoliberalism might provide a simple and useful tool for our analyses. Critiquing the uselessness of the concept of culture and how easily it has historically functioned as “the negation” of race, class, history, and power relations, the anthropologist Michel Trouillot’s last scholarly intervention urged us to do away with the concept of culture and “to use the power of ethnographic language to spell out the components of what we used to call culture.”1 He felt that abandoning the word culture would enhance dialogue among people working in different subdisciplines and would provide for linkages across disciplinary boundaries as we all set out to tease apart all the different processes, interlinkages, dynamics, and inequalities that are usually subsumed by this term. Trouillot’s call was specifically addressed to anthropologists, hence his [End Page 549] favoring of the ethnographic episteme as the answer. However, his call can easily extend to all the interdisciplinary spaces that increasingly theorize culture in a globalized world. It is in this same spirit that I suggest that hemispheric analysis and comparisons are best approached with great skepticism of culture-based categories of identification that erase power and inequality in favor for analysis that center on political economy and circulation; in fact, these two stances are directly involved and necessary to truly locate neoliberalism in time and space and within the operations of culture.
Centering our analysis on “power” rather than “culture” may be help us avoid subsuming categories of identification, ideologies, experiences, social dynamics, and processes as they play out in historically and spatially specific moments and locations. For erasures and ambiguities are easily cannibalized by capital, as often happens whenever we subsume “Latino” in Latin America and rob Latinidad from any specificity or particular locale. Think here about how quickly “Latina” representations have too often become a front for importing the cheaper to produce Latin American programming in the media; or consider the ease with which Latin American art interests can dominate Latino/a arts community organizations on account of exhibition programs favoring “circulations and exchanges”; or how eager universities are to do away with Latino/a and ethnic studies, favoring consolidated spaces that are supposedly “edgier” and more “global” but somehow always more starved for resources.
In instances like these, “Latino/a representations” are quickly reduced to the cheapest and most expedient representation for capital, with little consideration of the existing inequalities or race, class, nationality, and more that are exacerbated or sustained. “Latinidad,” then, is treated as an empty signifier within our ravenous global economy that shuns specificity, especially whenever profitable. As I began to write this, a vivid example unfolded at El Museo del Barrio, an alternative community institution founded initially by Puerto Rican artists and educators in 1969, which has since expanded to represent all Latino and Latin American artists and cultures. This is a noble move indeed, if this expansion had not in fact been a de facto narrowing of the institution’s mission and scope along class lines and its distancing from El Barrio/East Harlem’s primarily poor and raced working-class community.2
Then, the community of East Harlem was up in arms over El Museo del Barrio’s board decision to hire the “star” Spanish curator Chus Martinez, who had no previous knowledge of Puerto Rican and Latino art, on account that she would bring “star” power (and hence more “star” funders) to the institution, as if the institution and its history, community, and holdings needed validation from a European curator with no knowledge of its history. In particular, the [End Page 550] famed yet oblivious imported curator set off alarms when she made public statements referring to El Barrio residents as “esa gente”—a derogatory term that exposed her class blinders and stance of superiority vis-à-vis the institution, its location and community history.3 Critics wondered if she could even tell Chicanos and Puerto Ricans apart, or if she understood how the institution’s mission was rooted in a living and still-demanding community. This instance is but a warning tale of the type of class and cultural inequalities that ensue when we expand Latinidad, not only beyond “America” to the “Americas” and also more globally, with little critical scrutiny or attention to the erasures that can be actively produced or else that are invisibly likely to follow. Another instance involves the Univision/ABC new station Fusion, supposedly targeting Latino English-speaking millennials, but providing “mas de lo mismo”: more white Latinos and zero representation of racial diversity in front of the cameras, and according to informants close to the station, an all-white male team of corporate executives in top positions.4 Another example is Latino Huffpost’s penchant for presenting Latin American figures as “Latin@ influential” in their list of the “most famous and renown Latinos,” which always feature Uruguayan president José Mujica, the current Argentinian pope, the Mexican multimillionaire Carlos Slim, and any number of Latin American beauty queens. In these contexts, it behooves us to keep in mind Trouillot’s call for authenticity in historical representation, which arguably applies to all types of representation. For this call goes beyond debates around accuracy or “authenticity” in its narrow formulations that would have questioning the suitability of a Spanish curator with no Latin@ art background or white Latinos or Latin American nationals as accurate representation of all US Latinos, to account instead for the more dynamic concerns of how these instances of “Latinidad” speak to and help reproduce practices of power and domination as they are actively reproduced in the institutional spaces of the art world and corporate media onto the present.
Extricating these concerns demands that we thread into questions of specificity and location. American studies’ engagement with neoliberalism is an especially productive space from which to think about these questions. More often than not neoliberalism dominates American studies scholarship as the overriding context that we cannot escape accounting for in our scholarship. This trend has been a generally welcome development that has helped reinvigorate political economic concerns within our studies and provides an important instantiation of the type of productive lessons that comparative transnational analyses can yield. After all, it was Latin Americans who got us talking about neoliberalization processes, in a similar way that ethnic studies scholars had [End Page 551] previously introduced intersectionality, cultural citizenship, hybridity, and border culture, among other concepts, as key theorizing trends in American studies. Specifically, the 1990s Washington Consensus placed privatization and deregulation at the forefront of most Latin American economies and brought renewed attention to how similar processes had been operating in our own North American backyards, and without much scrutiny.5 At the same time, it could be argued that all this attention to neoliberalism has also led us astray. Discussions of neoliberalism oftentimes hide more than they elucidate, especially when its mere mention is taken to have explanatory powers—not unlike the case historically with the concept of culture. And then, there is the trend of summoning “neoliberalism” for processes that may be more contradictory and uneven, and of appealing to neoliberalism as a “thing” rather than as a process, without any specificity about whether we may be referring to a particular ideology, or a technique of government, or a policy, or a financialization regime, or perhaps to all these dynamics at once. Questions also abound about whether we are referring to neoliberalization processes apace a larger political formation that may or may not be fully “capitalist,” as is the case with many Latin American pink socialist governments, or whether we are referring to a larger, overarching, and global dynamic that supersedes any particular governmental formation.6 These are all important questions because they all hinge on whether there is any space to think about challenges and possibilities when we summon “neoliberalism” as a key and overarching framework for our studies.
The need to probe and specify what in fact may be “neoliberal” about any particular formation is compounded in comparative analyses, as I recently learned when examining how neoliberalization processes affect the use and instrumentalization of culture in three different locations: New York, Buenos Aires, and Puerto Rico.7 The comparison between these locations was very generative, especially for revealing uncanny similarities in how culture was instrumentalized and treated in ways that suggested some potentially more global ramifications for these processes. Indeed, each site evidenced how the use of culture for economic development, whether for tourism or urban planning, involved the upscaling of space and a narrowing of what counts as worthy of investments and promotion in the cultural domain alongside who should be legitimately considered to belong to the category of creative and cultural workers. Favored were artists with more entrepreneurial and cultural capital who were producing more aestheticized works that would not clash with the new and remodeled spaces for consuming cultural work that were dominating the cities’ landscapes, whether they be shopping malls as in the case of Puerto Rico or luxury tango dinner shows in Buenos Aires. Each time, I was examining [End Page 552] neoliberalization processes that were materialized in policies, proposals, and projects that could be analyzed and probed—including tax incentives to shopping malls, government funding for the arts favoring larger and more tourist friendly institutions rather than community cultural organizations, or market conditions that were incentivizing local and foreign investments in private real estate and infrastructure.
Yet to fully understand the implications of the similar dynamics observed, I needed to delve into the different ways that people’s subjectivities have been engaged in relation to the very diverse political imaginaries at play, as well as in regard to the different racial and national politics involved in each location. In fact, these similar developments were experienced very differently in each city I studied, and this offered revealing lessons about the operations of neoliberalization processes as they played out in the cultural realm. Racial and ethnic dynamics were central to how all artists navigated neoliberalizing processes; however, as minoritized artists, Latina/o artists faced additional challenges proving and defending that they have a “culture” worthy of exhibition and promotion, as well as carving a space for cultural production. In contrast, artists in Buenos Aires and in Puerto Rico also faced the eliticization of the cultural realm and the ensuing ethnic and racial hierarchies involved, but their space for cultural work was safeguarded by tourist and national cultural policies that were fueling attention to cultural productions that could be marketed as “Puerto Rican” or “Argentinean” for tourist ends. I also had to understand the different workings of neoliberalizing processes in Puerto Rico, a colony that was then positioning itself as the darling of conservative North American politicians by becoming a “model” for privatization schemes that led to major disinvestments and layoffs; and Argentina, a nation-state that was also positioning itself as a model, but of “socialist” reforms across the Americas. In Argentina, I needed to consider the simultaneity of socialist reforms focusing mainly on social distribution to the poor, alongside the continued foreign investments in mining, natural resources, and real estate speculation that were initiated during the previous neoliberal administrations and had continued apace. But foremost, I had to understand the boosterism that the coming of expats and tourists was unleashing among many of my middle-class informants in Buenos Aires, who saw in these foreign mobile bodies proof of their country’s “coming of age” rather than a leading agent behind the city’s gentrification. It was evident that another entry point to explore neoliberalism was the very imaginaries of upward mobility that were being unleashed among very different types of creative workers who were traveling to and meeting in Buenos Aires. [End Page 553]
I was especially intrigued by the many “first world” expats who had been displaced from creative sectors and jobs by neoliberalizing processes in their own countries and were turning to the global South—which they found to be a more affordable space in which to pursue their upwardly mobile dreams and aspirations. For these expats, Buenos Aires represented a “halfway house” between Europe and the third world, as one of them put it, in other words, a place where they could make their severance checks last longer and where their European nationalities represented additional currency. In this way, I came to appreciate the global connections fueling global neoliberalizing processes in creative industries and how these were facilitated by dynamics and conditions across different states that went beyond any state-sanctioned, political-economic rhetoric espoused or in place. At the same time, when analyzed in particularized locations, neoliberalization processes also exposed contradictions and forms of resistances that were generated in relation to the specific conditions of each location and would have been lost if analyzed otherwise. One example is the movement by Puerto Rican and Latino artists in New York City to be recognized by the city’s arts and cultural funding structures and policies as cultural workers and for their work to be rewarded for its economic contributions. While this move pointed to the ascendancy of neoliberal logics in the arts, the centrality of issues of race and equity within their claims also represented a challenge to the ascendency of “color-blind” neoliberal policies that devalued barrio artistic and creative work on account of narrow and race-loaded definitions of value.
I could continue to expose some of the differences and the interconnections that I needed to account for before appreciating similarities in the processes of neoliberalization in relation to the instrumentalization of culture—and I am certain other researchers could point to more points of friction and revelation than those documented in my study. What I propose, and in closing, is that we might find productive answers about how best to engage in broader and more productive comparative analyses by looking at issues of political economy and circulation as they become manifested in space and in particular locations. This demands that we appreciate and tease out how the cultural forms and flows we study are always linked to diverse political economies and traversed by specific ideologies of race and class that always have local, national, and global repercussions, some of which may create openings but, just as surely, closings too. And foremost, that our studies would be much enriched by adopting a critically rigorous take on “culture” that takes account of the many fault lines involved in its ongoing and packaging and circulation. To be sure, we may not be able to appreciate all the issues and complexities at play when we set out [End Page 554] to unpack “culture” from the political economy of neoliberalism; but we are likely to stand on surer ground than if we limit ourselves to invoking a facile and unspecified hemispheric framework for our work.
Arlene Dávila is professor of anthropology and American studies at New York University who works on Latino/Latin American culture and politics. She is the author of Latinos Inc.: Marketing and the Making of a People (University of California Press, 2001), and Culture Works: Space, Value, and Mobility across the Neoliberal Americas (New York University Press, 2012), among other works.
1. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Global World (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 115.
2. Readers may find more background on El Museo del Barrio and on the whitewashing of Latino/a categories in the media and in ethnic studies in Arlene Dávila, Latino Spin: Public Image and the Whitewashing of Race (New York: New York University Press, 2008).
3. For background on this debate, see Felicia Lee, “Amid Turmoil at El Museo del Barrio, Its Director Steps Down,” New York Times, February 13, 2012, www.nytimes.com/2013/02/16/arts/design/margaritaaguilar-leaves-el-museo-del-barrio.html. For the interview with Chus where statements about El Barrio were made, see E. J. Chus Martínez Rodriguez, “Los artistas no son un lujo, son una necesidad,” Jot Down: Contemporary Culture Magazine, 2012, www.jotdown.es/2012/11/chus-martinez-los-artistas-no-son-un-lujo-son-una-necesidad/. Ultimately, the curator quit El Museo less than a year after the appointment; her tenure was characterized by long absences and international travel.
4. Maynard Institute, “New Fusion Features Light Skinned Latinos,” October 16, 2013, http://mije.org/richardprince/new-fusion-features-light-skinned-latinos#Fusion; and Aura Bogado, “Fusion and Latino Media’s Race Problem,” Nation, October 25, 2013, www.thenation.com/blog/176840/fusion-and-latino-medias-race-problem.
5. William Robinson, Latin America and Global Capitalism: A Critical Globalization Perspective (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2010).
6. See, for instance, Sujatha Fernandes, Who Can Stop the Drums: Urban Social Movements in Chavez Venezuela (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); and Aihwa Ong, Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutation in Citizenship and Sovereignty (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).
7. Arlene Dávila, Culture Works: Space, Value and Mobility across the Neoliberal Americas (New York: New York University Press, 2012). [End Page 555]