The Darkening Nation

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The Darkening Nation: Race, Neoliberalism and Crisis in Argentina, published by University of Wales Press in May 2018, is a monograph by CLACS member Ignacio Aguiló. In this post, he briefly tells us about the contents of the book and its relevance within and outside Latin American Studies.

At the turn of the twentieth century, and after a decade of drastic neoliberal reforms, Argentina experienced the worst economic crisis in its history. At the time, half of the population was living in poverty, the unemployment rate was 25% and job precarity was widespread. In December 2001, the freezing of bank savings was met with social unrest which led to the fall of the government. Subsequently, the country declared a default on its public debt – the largest in history at the time. While there has been a large body of scholarship examining the economic and political implications of this crisis, few have analysed its cultural dimension. The Darkening Nation aims to fill this lacuna by reading the crisis across cultural productions such as novels, films, artworks and songs produced during this period of national emergency and showing how the country’s economic collapse was experienced by sectors of the population as a crisis of national and racial identity.

During the 20th century, dominant templates constructed the nation of Argentina as a sort of regional exception: a white Europeanised country in Latin America. This exceptional whiteness was, allegedly, the result of both massive European immigration and the extinction of pre-existing indigenous, black and mixed-race people at the turn of the twenty century. Although in reality non-white groups did not wither away but were instead invisibilised through a complex series of cultural and social strategies, the idea of a ‘white Argentina’ became a powerful articulator of nationness, both internally and abroad. Mexican poet Octavio Paz summarised this by stating that, ‘[t]he Mexicans come from the Aztecs, the Peruvians from the Incas, and the Argentinians from the boats’. Through the analysis of cultural expressions, The Darkening Nation demonstrates that the 2001/2 financial meltdown was experienced by those sectors of society that had embraced and sustained the notion of ‘white Argentina’ as a traumatic process of national ‘Latin Americanisation’ and ‘darkening’. In so doing, it exposes and problematises the often overlooked link between economic crisis, national identity and race, in Argentina.

The feeling of national blackening also led to a rise of racism, which was particularly targeted at immigrants: Peruvians, Bolivians and Paraguayans were blamed for the economic decline of Argentina and portrayed as ‘contaminating’ the country’s historical whiteness. In this sense, The Darkening Nation shows how many processes currently affecting the Western world in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial meltdown had already taken place in Argentina at the beginning of this century. In both contexts, reactions against impoverishment and precarisation were expressed through the embracement of anti-immigrant and nativist sentiments, and a call to return to an idealised national past of cultural and racial homogeneity. The election of Trump and the Brexit vote are seen as paradigmatic examples in Anglo-Europe of conservative responses to the failures of neoliberalism.

Lastly, The Darkening Nation charts the ways in which, during the Argentinian crisis, certain cultural producers challenged dominant narratives of whiteness and their exclusionary nature. They exposed that, rather than extinct, indigenous, black and mixed-race populations had been systematically expelled symbolically from the nation throughout the twenty century. By looking at how culture became a platform for the critique of restrictive ideas of national belonging and racism during the country’s economic collapse, this book contributes to the study of the usually sidelined yet enormously influential cultural dimensions of the crisis. Yet the book’s impact goes beyond Argentina and Latin America; it explicates how the current pressing issues in the United States and Europe were navigated years ago by Argentinian society. As such, The Darkening Nation can also cast light on strategies to respond to the growth of racism manifested as a reaction against the negative socioeconomic impact of neoliberalism.

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Gustavo Carvajal: ‘Indigenous People in Recent Chilean Cinema: Patricio Guzmán’s El Botón de Nácar’

As part of the seminar series organised by the Centre for Latin American & Caribbean Studies at the University of Manchester, on 7 February 2018, Dr Gustavo Carvajal Lazcano (Universidad Finis Terrae, Chile) gave a talk on indigenous people in recent Chilean cinema, focusing on Patricio Guzmán’s El botón de nácar (The Pearl Button, 2015). Dr Carvajal’s paper challenged widespread readings of the film as an appreciation of Patagonian Amerindians, arguing instead that it reproduces established representations of indigeneity as racial Others. Here you can listen to the full audio of the talk and the discussion that followed.

PG Symposium in Latin American and Caribbean Studies

The Centre for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Manchester would like to invite PhD students working in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the Universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Lancaster to participate in a PG symposium funded by the North West Doctoral Training Centre and the North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership.

The event will take place on Tuesday 16 May at the University of Manchester and will provide PhD students with the opportunity to present papers on their research in a friendly and constructive environment, and to get feedback from peers and staff. Dr Paulo Drinot (UCL) will be giving a keynote talk as part of the day.

If you are interested in participating, please submit a 200-word abstract to Prof Peter Wade (peter.wade@manchester.ac.uk) and myself (ignacio.aguilo@manchester.ac.uk) by the end of Friday 5 May.

There are funds available for train travel, and lunch will be provided. The event is free but registration is required. You can register here: https://tinyurl.com/lud6e2p

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Saúl Sosnowski: ‘And when they got back….: Literature and the Return from Exile in Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay’

Tessa Morrison, MPhil/PhD candidate at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Studies, University of London, writes on Prof. Saúl Sosnowski‘s (University of Maryland) talk for CLACS earlier this year.

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On 16th February 2016, CLACS welcomed Saúl Sosnowski, a leading scholar on Latin American Literature, to speak about elements of his current team-based research project entitled “Exile, Transnational Migration and the Transformation of Public Culture.” Professor Sosnowski, who has published extensively on exile literature, turned his sights on this occasion to los retornados – those citizens of Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay who returned from exile after the military dictatorships in each country.

At the beginning of the talk, the seemingly simple question was posed: what happened when they got back? Sosnowski and his team had interviewed over one hundred returnees to try and assess how well they had integrated back into their home country’s society, how the re-integration process had been affected by each country’s policies towards returnees (or lack thereof) and how returnees, in turn, had affected public policy, focussing particularly on scientific and technological research. In each case, there were variables that affected the outcome: the duration of the dictatorships; the intensity of their policies; and public attitude toward exiles. National reactions between the four countries thus varied from a rejection of those became to be seen as foreigners to full acceptance of the returnees. Of the four countries, Paraguay, Sosnowski stated, “is always the most dramatic” – at a time when the country afforded little priority or funding to research, lacked academic diversity and had a lower literacy rate (62%), not only were the returnees not welcomed back but there also lingered an oft openly-voiced longing for Stroessner and his rule. By comparison, Uruguay, the country that had imprisoned the most and killed the least, designed the best policies for returnees and paved the smoothest path to reintegration. Where progress was made, it was found to be more efficient where exiles and insilios (the term coined for those who stayed) cooperated. However, many interviewees spoke of a communal and communicative breakdown between those who left and those who stayed. Several times during the talk, Sosnowski echoed the sentiment that had been voiced: “we didn’t ask them and they didn’t ask us”. The return was not easy and often did not produce the immediate relief the returnees had envisaged but despite having lived for many years overseas, many still considered the country they had left home and retained an allegiance to their nation-state.

Despite commending the actions Uruguay took to welcome the returnees back, even before the end of the dictatorship, Sosnowski conceded that most interviewees recognised their familial situation and home life as their main motivation to return, rather than government initiatives. He explained that the returns were not massive but rather occurred in “faltering waves” as exiles returned after having experienced another life. One such case was Argentine writer Mario Goloboff, who had lived in exile for over 30 years. Goloboff was asked by a journalist why he wanted to go home. He answered “well, one wants to die in his own land”. His contemporary, Tununa Mercado by comparison was quoted by Sosnowski as saying: “I have to return to Argentina because it is my own country. It is what defines me, what I am. I don’t know why anyone would want to die upon returning to their homeland. It is a sort of shortening of the time phenomenon; it’s something that places you at the zero point.” As Sosnowski explained, Mercardo was voicing the disorientation felt by many returnees and asking “where do I go from here?”. As someone whose own research interests lies in exile literature, upon hearing this question, I instinctively reframed that question to ask “where does the writer go from here?”.

Nostalgia is a theme that many writers have to negotiate whilst in exile and manifests itself in their work. Of those returning, Sosnowski explained that they returned expecting to fit back into the life they left when they were twenty years old – nostalgia then, appears to be not only suffered whilst still in exile but it is carried across the ocean and back onto home turf. One thing became certain amongst the interviewees: upon return, neither the person they were nor the country they had left behind would be the same. Sosnowski talked about those who tried to return more than once, found all was not as they had remembered (or imagined) and ended up caught in a constant back and forth. His description of them being “happiest on the aeroplane” led me to recall Perri Rossi’s depiction of the airport and the safe haven offered by this in-between space. And yet, did this misguided nostalgia prove a limitation for the returning writers? From the testimony Sosnowski offered, it would appear not. He took the example of the Uruguayan writer Fernando Butazzoni, who said he never again felt quite at home. As pointed out though, Butazzoni had lived in many countries, the idea of home had become portable to him and yet he still chose to go home. Despite his claim that he didn’t feel at home, he went on to immerse himself in Uruguay society as a prominent cultural figure and engage himself in the reestablishment of the country. Luisa Valenzuela, one of Argentina’s most prominent women writers, asserted that “one carries roots within ourselves”, they are not something firmly planted in one place but something to be carried. She suggested that for writers in particular, their roots are carried to their true home: the edge, the margins. This was a fitting idea for Sosnowski to conclude his talk with as, as he pointed out, it is the lines, borders, edges and margins that underscore the estranged from the one who is at home.

Thank you to Professor Saul Sosnowski for an enriching talk, to those who attended for the lively discussion that followed and to CLACS for hosting the event. I look forward to reading the full study upon publication.

 

Tessa Morrison
Email: tessa.morrison [at] postgrad.sas.ac.uk
T: @tessamorri