Navel gazing with a purpose

Claudio Lomnitz joins a long tradition of anthropological reflection on the nature of the Mexican national idea in Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico


Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico:
An Anthropology of Nationalism

Claudio Lomnitz
2001, University of Minnesota Press
354 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

NAVEL GAZING has been a singularly distinct characteristic of intellectual production in Mexico since introspection was given official countenance as the revolutionary state began to turn inward and throw up protectionist barriers in the 1930s. Anthropologists and sundry philosophers toyed with psychological characteristics of the Mexican to develop a genre of national character studies that has never been rivalled in its determination to construct a new model of citizenry.

This collection of essays by an anthropologist whose work has been at the forefront of his field undertakes a subtle analysis of national identity in Mexico and remains loyal to possibilities such a perspective can offer, despite conceding that the potential of a national anthropology may be exhausted. It also provides an example of the increased attention that has been given to Mexican nationalism since the dismantling of the revolutionary state in the 1980s.

At the same time, the focus of Claudio Lomnitz in Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico upon the role of intellectual production in shaping the national idea provides a very distinctive brand of inquiry. He gives priority to the production of knowledge in the nationalist complex and his most insightful chapters are those that examine the national idea in discourse, a technique recently adopted to great effect in Richard Weiner’s superb Race, Nation, and Market. In effect, both works examine the relationship between the content of the national idea and the intellectual and cultural mechanisms that sustain it.

Critique of an intellectual environment

But Lomnitz’s collection can also be seen as a critique of an intellectual environment that has permitted something akin to an official history to persist, worth reading for his attack on the historian Enrique Krauze alone. Lomnitz’s collection reproduces an article that led to a vigorous exchange between the two men in which he argues that a “generation of mythmakers” exemplify the concentration of cultural power traditionally linked to Mexico’s authoritarian presidency.

For scholars of nationalism, the first section of Deep Mexico, Silent Mexico will prove most interesting, providing a framework for understanding Mexican nationalism and national identity. Lomnitz highlights the politics behind nationalist discourse and the relationship between the politicised nature of citizenship and the construction of nationality. Part II develops Lomnitz’s own theoretical approach, exploring the contexts in which national identity evolves, and Part III analyses how public knowledge about nationhood has been generated. In particular, Lomnitz identifies intellectual “mediums” who interpret popular will in the absence of a genuine public opinion. He considers the role anthropology has played in shaping Mexican nationalism and takes issue with a primordialist nationalism while advancing the notion of a “silent Mexico”, which gives this book its title.

Perhaps the main weakness of Lomnitz’s approach to the understanding of nationalism is that it does not draw upon the theoretical literature influenced by the study of ethnicity that has made such a contribution in this field. The absence within Mexico of studies of nationalism that draw upon such work can most probably be associated with the persistent official history in shaping social thought that Lomnitz is so critical of. Nonetheless, Lomnitz’s recognition of the constructed and contingent quality of national identity and his critique of exceptionalism are refreshing. He speaks to a corpus of scholarship that has sought to dissect the role of intelligentsias in the construction of nationalist discourse at a time when the tendency to reproduce that discourse uncritically is growing stronger.

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books