Avant-gardes under the knife

The Avant-Garde and Geopolitics in Latin America by Fernando Rosenberg takes a cultural studies scalpel to movements of modernity


The Avant-Garde and Geopolitics in Latin America
Fernando J. Rosenberg
2006, The University of Pittsburgh Press
211 pages

Reviewed by Francisco Ferreira

THE AUTHOR argues that the study of Latin American avant-gardes of the early twenty-century has traditionally focused on their comparison with the European. Following a cultural studies approach, he argues that the former could not simply follow or reproduce the European because of the subaltern position of Latin America within the western world. Instead, they would undertake a critique of European concepts of modernity and its narratives, developing their own narratives, which would articulate the Latin American situation in the world during this period of change.

Rosenberg uses the concept of “geopolitics” to characterise this situation, defined as “a conceptual key to understand the global distribution of symbolic power and the possible ways to locate folds or niches of resistance in it and to it”.

Without denying the importance and influence of the particular national contexts in which these movements were developed, the author states that they were also a response to the particular consequences, at a Latin American level, of global events such as the first world war, the 1929 crisis, or the demographic changes of the period. Avant-gardes “took issue with the philosophical foundations of modernity and the place assigned to Latin Americans within the narrative of progress”, becoming also expressions of geopolitical changes.

Roberto Arlt and Mario de Andrade

After a couple of introductory and theoretical chapters, the author chooses several classic literary examples of these avant-gardes to prove and illustrate his points. Roberto Arlt’s Los siete locos/ Los lanzallamas would approach topics such as urban life, mass media, or revolutionary change, from a marginalised position, being “geopolitically charged”. Mario de Andrade’s Macunaima would refer to a postcolonial society that aspires to develop beyond national boundaries.

Another chapter is devoted to the travel writings of these two authors which, according to Rosenberg, would confront and examine “regimes of representation”. Finally, another chapter analyses the post-1920s reaction of many of the protagonists of these movements against their earlier ideas and positions as foreign and too cosmopolitan, shifting towards more nationalistic, or local, positions.

The book offers a postmodernist revision of Latin American avant-gardes that is both interesting and challenging. However, this revisionist approach is one among many possible ones, and its central thesis can be considered quite obvious. Avant-gardes in general were the direct consequence of the geopolitics of the period, so it is normal that Latin American avant-gardes responded in some degree to the particular characteristics of the region.

Moreover, as the author himself affirms, despite the fact that his theories pretend to characterise these movements as a whole, the examples used to illustrate his thesis are chosen arbitrarily and do not pretend to be representative of these movements. The examples focus basically on the 1920s production of two writers. It is difficult not to wonder if focusing on other authors, periods or forms of production (such as plastic arts), other interpretations could be possible, which may, or may not, contradict or complement this one.

It could also be also argued that the interest of the book is limited to those uninitiated in the increasingly arcane and hermetic discipline of cultural studies.

Francisco Ferreira is a postgraduate student